"That's not an environment where you're likely to be taking risks," such as adding jobs, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.
Reports Thursday indicated the job market is improving slightly.
The most encouraging sign came from payroll provider ADP. Its monthly employment survey showed businesses added 215,000 jobs last month, the most in 10 months and much higher than November's total of 148,000.
Economists tend to approach the ADP survey with some skepticism because it has diverged sharply at times from the government's job figures.
But some economists were also hopeful after seeing businesses were less inclined to cut jobs last month.
Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said that the number of announced job cuts fell 43 percent in December from November, and overall planned layoffs in 2012 fell to the lowest level since 1997.
The decline in layoffs coincided with a drop last month in the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits. The four-week average was little changed at 360,000 last week. That's only slightly above the previous week's 359,750, which was the lowest since March 2008.
Still, the unemployment rate remains high. It fell to 7.7 percent in November from 7.9 percent in October. But that was mostly because many of the unemployed stopped looking for jobs. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for work.
There are signs the economy is improving. The once-battered housing market is recovering, which should lead to more construction jobs this year. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign they are investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
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