WASHINGTON — It came as a shock: U.S. employers added just 74,000 jobs in December, far fewer than anyone expected. This from an economy that was adding nearly three times as many for four consecutive months — a key reason the Federal Reserve decided last month to slow its economic stimulus.
So what happened in December? Economists struggled for explanations: Unusually cold weather. A statistical quirk. A temporary halt in steady job growth.
Blurring the picture, a wave of Americans stopped looking for work, meaning they were no longer counted as unemployed. Their exodus cut the unemployment rate from 7 percent to 6.7 percent — its lowest point in more than five years.
Friday’s weak report from the Labor Department was particularly surprising because it followed a flurry of data that pointed to a robust economy: U.S. companies are selling record levels of goods overseas. Americans are spending more on big purchases such as cars and appliances. Layoffs dwindled. Consumer confidence is up and debt levels are down. Builders broke ground in November on the most new homes in five years.
“The disappointing jobs report flies in the face of most recent economic data, which are pointing to a pretty strong fourth quarter,” said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.
It’s unclear whether the sharp hiring slowdown might lead the Federal Reserve to rethink its plan to slow its stimulus efforts.
Janet Yellen, who will take over as Fed chairman next month, “is probably scratching her head looking at the report,” said Sun Wong Sohn, an economics professor at the University of California’s Smith Business School.
Certainly many economists were. Some predicted the job gain would be revised up in the coming months. The government adjusts each month’s jobs figure in the following two months as more companies respond to its survey.
Few analysts saw the sharp slowdown as the beginning of a much weaker trend.
“There is a good possibility this is just a one-shot deal that could either get revised away or made up for in next month’s release,” Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West, said in a note to clients.
Perhaps as surprising as last month’s weak job growth was the flood of people — 347,000 — who stopped looking for jobs. The proportion of people either working or looking for work fell to 62.8 percent, matching a nearly 36-year low.
Last month’s expiration of extended benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed could accelerate that trend if many of them stop looking for work. The likely increase could cause the unemployment rate to fall by up to a quarter-percentage point early this year, economists said.