By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON -- The pace of hiring by U.S. employers eased slightly in December, pointing to a lackluster pace of economic growth that was unable to make further inroads in the country's still high unemployment rate.
Payrolls outside the farming sector grew 155,000 last month, the Labor Department said on Friday. That was in line with analysts' expectations and slightly below the level for November.
Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to health care.
That should reinforce expectations that the economy will grow about 2 percent this year, unlikely to quickly bring down the unemployment rate or make the U.S. Federal Reserve rethink its easy-money policies, which have been propping up the recovery.
"It's not a booming economy, but it is growing," Jim O'Sullivan, an economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., said before the data was released.
The jobless rate held steady at 7.8 percent in December, down nearly a percentage point from a year earlier but still well above the average rate over the last 60 years of about 6 percent.
The Labor Department raised its estimate for the unemployment rate in November by a tenth of a point to 7.8 percent, citing a slight change in the labor market's seasonal swings.
Most economists expect that the U.S. economy will be held back by tax hikes this year as well as by weak spending by households and businesses, which are still trying to reduce their debt burdens.
Friday's data nonetheless gave signals of growing momentum in the labor market's recovery from the 2007-09 recession. Many economists had expected December's payroll gains to be padded by one-time factors like the recovery from a mammoth storm that hit the East Coast in late October.
The government had said last month the storm had no substantial impact on the November data, and many economists expected the government to recant by revising downward in Friday's report its estimate for payroll gains in November. Instead, the government revised its estimate for November payrolls upward by 15,000.
"There is some evidence that underlying jobs growth has improved," Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics in London, said before the report was released.
Despite the signs of some momentum in hiring, a wave of government spending cuts due to begin around March loom over the economy.
Many economic forecasts assume the cuts -- which would hit the military, education and other areas -- will ultimately be pushed into next year as part of a deal sought by lawmakers to reduce gradually the government's debt burden.
Initially, the cuts were planned to have begun this month as part of a $600 billion austerity package that also included tax hikes. Hiring in December may have been slowed by uncertainty over the timing of the austerity, economists say.
Congress this week passed legislation to avoid most of the tax hikes and postpone the spending cuts.
Even with the last-minute deal to avoid much of the "fiscal cliff," most workers will see their take-home pay reduced this month as a two-year cut in payroll taxes expires.
That leaves the Fed's efforts to lower borrowing costs as the main program for stimulating the economy.
The Fed has kept interest rates near zero since 2008, and in September promised open-ended bond purchases to support lending further. On Thursday, however, minutes from the Fed's December policy review pointed to rising concerns over how the asset purchases will affect financial markets.
Analysts ahead of the report expected some of the strength in job creation in December would be due to the Fed's policies.
"Despite the end-of-year angst over the 'fiscal cliff,' financial conditions remained supportive of job growth in December," economists at Nomura said in a note to clients earlier in the week.
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