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Report on jobs today stirs wave of anxiety

– Fears of an economic slowdown are heightening anticipation of what today’s U.S. jobs report for January might reveal.

Stock markets have sunk after signs of weaker growth in the United States, Europe and China. Turmoil in developing countries has further spooked investors. The upheaval has renewed doubts about the Federal Reserve’s next steps.

Evidence of healthy U.S. job growth would help soothe those jitters. It would suggest that the world’s biggest economy is still expanding solidly enough to support global growth.

“The best antidote right now for all these problems is a robust U.S. economy,” said Carl Riccadonna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. “The whole world is watching, even more so than usual.”

Yet anyone looking to today’s report for a clear picture of the U.S. economy’s health might be disappointed. Unseasonably cold winter weather could distort January’s hiring figures. Revised estimates of job growth last year and the size of the U.S. population might further skew the data.

Another complication: A cutoff of extended unemployment benefits in December might have caused an artificial drop in January’s unemployment rate and perhaps a bleak snapshot of the job market’s health.

“Just when we need it most, the employment report may fall short,” Riccadonna said.

All the anxiety marks a reversal from a few weeks ago, when most analysts were feeling hopeful about the global economy. U.S. growth came in at a sturdy 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of last year. The Dow Jones industrial average finished 2013 at a record high. Europe’s economy was slowly emerging from a long recession. Japan was finally perking up after two decades of stagnation.

Yet in just the past few weeks has come a barrage of dispiriting economic news. U.S. hiring slowed sharply in December. Employers added just 74,000 jobs, barely a third of the average gain in the previous four months.

On Monday, an industry survey found that manufacturing grew much more slowly in January than in December. Also Monday, automakers said sales slipped 3 percent in January. And last week, the government said orders to U.S. factories fell in December.

Another unknown is the effect of the lapse of emergency unemployment benefits on Dec. 28. Benefits for 1.4 million unemployed were cut off. Many of those people might have given up on their job searches in January. They had been required to look for work to receive benefits.

People out of work aren’t counted as unemployed unless they’re actively seeking work. If many people stopped looking for a job last month after their benefits ran out, the number of unemployed would fall. And so would the unemployment rate.

There’s no way to know how all these different trends will affect today’s report.

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