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Why the unemployment rate has stalled

February 1, 2013: 11:39 AM ET

The labor market had a groundhog day.

130201033646-unemployment-rate-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- Different report, same numbers.

Squint at January's job numbers and you might think you are looking at the stories from a month ago. Employers added 157,000. The initial report from December was 155,000. (It has since been revised up.) Unemployment rate: 7.9%. In December: 7.8%.

At the start 0f 2012, the unemployment rate was falling pretty rapidly. In the four month period from October 2011 to last January, the unemployment rate fell from 8.9% to 8.3%. But now the unemployment rate has stalled.

Why? First of all, there are more people entering the workforce than there were a year ago. About 1.6 million people in 2012. That's a good thing. More people are optimistic they will find work. But with more people looking, it's harder for the unemployment rate to fall further unless people actually get hired.

MORE: Job report: Hiring was steady

At some point you begin to ask if we are ever going to have a real recovery. The consensus estimate for U.S. economic growth this year is 2.3%. That number roughly translates to a job gain of about 125,000 jobs a month. That's basically just enough to provide jobs for the number of people entering the workforce each month. Not much extra for the unemployed.

What's more, at least some of the boost we got in 2012 came from a housing rebound. But that could be coming to an end. Refinancing activity, which had put more money in peoples' pockets to spend, appears to be slowing. Mortgage rates have climbed a bit recently. Economist and housing expert Robert Shiller says the big jumps we have recently seen in prices in Las Vegas and Phoenix and other areas hard hit from the foreclosure crisis, are likely to be short lived.

Even if they aren't, most housing sales are likely to be in existing homes, as underwater borrowers and banks finally unload unwanted properties. Real jobs gains in housing always come from construction, which is still employing 2 million fewer workers than before the recession.

MORE: The refinance boom as peaked

The same can be said for the stock market. Last year, stocks rose 14%. And that makes everyone feel wealthier and better about the economy. But with earnings growth slowing it's hard to see how the market continues to climb higher.

Then of course, there is Washington, which still appears to be more focused on reducing the deficit than getting people back to work. Add in Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke's cheap money policies, which at some point have to be reversed, and it's no wonder that economists surveyed by CNNMoney think the unemployment rate will end the year at 7.5% -- just a little bit lower than where we are now.

We're stuck.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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