WASHINGTON — On Friday morning, when the Labor Department reports November employment numbers, they're likely to show strong hiring for the second straight month.
Economists hope this is a return to something approaching normalcy after a brutal three-year stretch for the U.S. economy.
One big reason for optimism is Wednesday's ADP National Employment Report, which showed that the private sector added 93,000 jobs in November. More than half of those jobs_ 54,000_ were in small firms with 49 employees or fewer, a good sign that the recovery is strengthening.
"It certainly is something that jumped out at not only me when I was working the report, but other people that read the report," said Joel Prakken, chairman of forecaster Macroeconomic Advisers, which prepares the monthly report with data collected by Automatic Data Processing Inc. "The growth of employment on small payrolls has been disappointing. ... I was really heartened by those (new) numbers. It's only one month, and it doesn't make a trend, but it's heartening for sure."
Last month the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported stronger than expected 151,000 jobs gained in October, and analysts expect a similar report on Friday. Consensus forecasts expect 150,000 to 170,000 additional jobs for November.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the BLS is above consensus for that number. I'm hopeful that we're going to see another 150,000 or 200,000 from the BLS," said Prakken.
Still, he cautioned that job growth even in that range isn't enough to knock down the unemployment rate much; it's been stuck at 9.6 percent for months and above 9 percent since May 2009. That's the longest stretch with the jobless rate that high since records began being kept after World War II.
Another reason for optimism: The number of Americans filing initial jobless claims for the four-week period ending Thursday was the lowest in two years. Over that four-week period, the average of first-time claims was under 431,000 after coming in about 450,000 for most of 2010.
Macroeconomic Advisers, one of the nation's most respected forecasters, expects strong growth by the middle of next year. First, however, a semblance of normalcy must return.
"You get a continued slow but gradual healing/recovery in housing, finance and construction. ... Purchases of big-ticket consumer items, particularly vehicles, have gradually moved up, but we have some ways to go," said Prakken. "It's all sort of gathering momentum as these headwinds gradually dissipate. It's really not until the second half of the next year that we have robust enough growth to drive down the unemployment rate."
Still, the latest trend is positive. The economy's growth rate between July and September was revised upward recently to an annualized 2.5 percent from 2 percent. On Thursday, the International Council of Shopping Centers same-store sales figure for November — which covers most large retailers except Walmart — increased 5.8 percent over the same month in 2009.
"This report indicates that consumer confidence and spending have increased due to gains in the stock market, good news on the employment front," and price discounting, Chris G. Christopher, a senior economist with forecaster IHS Global Insight, said in a research note.
Also Thursday, the RBC Consumer Outlook Index increased sharply in its December reading, showing consumer confidence at its highest level since September 2008, the month the U.S. financial crisis ignited.
"Consumers are entering the holiday season with greater hope and optimism than at any point since September 2008 ... closing out 2010 on a high note," Marc Harris, co-head of global research at RBC Capital Markets, said in a note.
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