FORTUNE -- This winter has brought subfreezing temperatures and several feet of snow to much of the country, and the weather has done more than mess with your morning commute.
Cold weather also has a tendency to put a temporary damper on economic activity, as businesses often shut down during heavy snowstorms and consumers postpone big purchases until things warm up a bit.
That's one explanation, anyway, for the past two months of very disappointing job growth and an array of other worrisome economic data like Wednesday's ISM survey of non-manufacturing businesses, which showed employment contraction within the non-manufacturing sector for the first time in more than two years. Other data, like a sharp decline in housing starts in January, should also call into question the notion that a construction-industry recovery could help drive job growth in 2014.
To top it off, payroll service firm ADP estimated that the private sector added just 139,000 jobs in January, while revising down its estimates for January and December by a total of 84,000 jobs. Put simply, there's not a lot of reason to believe the Labor Department will be bringing us good news Friday morning.
There is some hope, though. Economists have been eager to blame recent weakness in the economic data on the weather because two critical measures are still pointing toward an accelerating recovery: GDP growth and unemployment claims. Despite the fact that the Commerce Department revised down its estimate of fourth-quarter GDP, the economy grew at a healthy 3.25% clip in real terms in the second half of last year, the kind of growth that supports far more than the 94,000 new jobs we've averaged over the past two months.
The trend in jobless claims offers another case for optimism. Each week, the Labor Department releases estimates of the number of new workers who have applied for unemployment insurance. Thursday morning, the government announced that this figure had fallen sharply to 323,000, well below economists' expectations of 336,000. Jim O'Sullivan of High Frequency Economics wrote in a note to clients Thursday morning that this puts the four-week average for unemployment claims at 337,000, which "is down slightly from the 343K averaged in 2013, when payrolls gains averaged 194K per month."
Lower unemployment claims is a good indication that the job market is at least as healthy as it was in 2013. The chart below puts into context how much progress the job market has made by this measure:
As long as the U.S. economy keeps making progress on the initial jobless claims front, there's reason to believe that the jobs recovery isn't slowing, even with a few months of discouraging data. With this data and the fact that jobs reports have wide margins of error, even a disappointing report Friday will not sway the Federal Reserve to change course on its plans to taper its stimulative bond-buying program.
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What's most significant about the Federal Reserve's latest statement is what it did not address: tapering bond-buying and future policy guidance.
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The Fed wants to keep long-term yields depressed, but its policies are riddling the market with risk.
FORTUNE -- Last Wednesday, at a conference in Cambridge, Mass., Ben Bernanke sought to clarify the statements that shocked the markets just three weeks earlier. This time, the Federal Reserve Chairman reassured his vast, anxious audience that his pledge to start shrinking the Fed's $85 billion in monthly purchases of long-term bonds, the latest MOREShawn Tully, senior editor-at-large - Jul 16, 2013 8:00 AM ET
The Federal Reserve may not be the big bad wolf of the bond market, despite what some say.
FORTUNE -- The last of the economy's Band-Aids are coming off. The question is how much it will hurt.
So far the answer from the bond market has been quite a lot. The yield on 10-year Treasuries spiked to 2.3% Wednesday after the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke indicated that, yes, the bond stimulus MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Jun 19, 2013 1:28 PM ET
Volatility is on the rise, liquidity is getting tougher in certain places, and anxiety is on the rise.
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FORTUNE -- Those trading in many market segments would have noticed a subtle change last week: Volatility is on the rise, liquidity is getting tougher in certain places, correlations are morphing, and anxiety has increased. Moreover, rather than impact all market segments simultaneously, such dislocations seem to be cascading MOREJun 3, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Bernanke boost, though, could be short-lived.
Fortune -- Will Bernanke save bonuses? Not likely.
A number of analysts have recently upped their third quarter earnings estimates for the banks based on QE3. In mid-September, Ben Bernanke announced that the Federal Reserve will buy $40 billion worth of mortgage bonds a month until the economy recovers. Mortgage spreads, the amount banks make on home loans, have widened 0.16% since QE3 was announced, and MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Oct 2, 2012 2:03 PM ET
Are super-low interest rates really the answer to our economic woes, particularly at a time brimming with uncertainty and tighter lending standards?
FORTUNE – Yet again, the Fed-gasm continues.
To give the U.S. economy an extra boost, Fed policymakers on Thursday launched another round of bond purchases -- an additional $40 billion worth a month. The move would have been an unusual step for the central bank years ago, but since the MORENin-Hai Tseng, Writer - Sep 13, 2012 2:37 PM ET
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