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Jobs report may help show if recovery is just a mirage

Friday's employment report comes at a pivotal moment for the U.S. economy. A strong showing could help ease concerns that the economy is stumbling in the third year of a modest recovery. A weak number will raise fears that what appeared to be a strong pickup in hiring this winter was only a temporary blip.

“The data are choppy right now,” said RBC Capital Markets chief U.S. economist Tom Porcelli. “There's no way getting around that.”

The latest data aren't encouraging. A monthly report Wednesday by payroll processor ADP said that private employers added only 119,000 jobs in April. That was the smallest gain since September 2011, and less than forecasters had been expecting.

The report followed signs of a slowdown in last week’s report on gross domestic product, which showed a sharp pullback in spending by businesses and government. The economy grew at an estimated pace of 2.2 percent in the first three months of the year, the government said, down from the fourth quarter's 3 percent rate.

The GDP report, although an initial estimate, seemed to confirm weakness seen in last month’s jobs report, which showed the pace of hiring slowed sharply in March after a strong winter.

Forecasters are expecting Friday's report to show gains of about 170,000 jobs in April, better than the disappointing 120,000 added in March.

Forecasters have been stymied by the effects of unusually warm weather, which may have skewed the employment data. The data is adjusted to account for expected seasonal variations.

Though weaker than expected this far into a recovery, the economy continues to chug along, with modest growth fueled largely by consumer spending.

Consumers also saw their paychecks rise in March, as household income rose by the most in three months. The Commerce Department said this week that consumer income rose 0.4 percent last month, while spending by rose 0.3 percent. Much of the spending increase was the result of higher gasoline prices. Adjusted for inflation, spending was up only 0.1 percent.

"The spending number is an indication that the higher gas prices we saw last month are taking their toll," said Todd Schoenberger, managing principal at the Black Bay Group in New York.

They’re also taking a bite out of gasoline demand, which fell last week even as prices began easing, according to a survey by MasterCard.  Gasoline consumption was 5.6 percent lower than in the same week in 2011 and down 0.4 percent from a week ago. Pump prices fell 6 cents to $3.84 a gallon, some 1.3 percent lower than a year earlier.

The recent surge in gas prices has also fueled demand for new cars, especially high-efficiency models.

On Tuesday, U.S. car makers reported a dip in sales but remained upbeat about the outlook for the rest of the year. General Motors  reported an 8 percent decline in sales, in part because there were three fewer selling days in April compared with 2011, as the automakers measure it.

GM warned investors that sales could be choppy for the next few months. But the carmaker raised its sales target for the year to between 14 million to 14.5 million vehicles, the highest level since the 2007-09 recession.

“I think the major force right now behind consumers is the pent-up demand and a slow but steadily growing level of confidence,” said Don Johnson, GM sales vice president.

That confidence has also spurred buying of other durable goods, which has helped U.S. factories expand production at the fastest pace in 10 months.  Manufacturing makes up about 12 percent of the U.S. economy and has been an important source of growth in the current recovery, especially as the housing industry, which typically helps boost growth, remains mired in recession.

The Institute for Supply Management said Tuesday its index of national factory activity rose to 54.8 from 53.4 in March. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector. The trade group’s employment gauge also rose to its highest level since June, to a reading of 57.3 from 56.1. That could bode well for Friday’s jobs report.

Some economists, though, are cautioning against reading too much into a piece of data that is known for making surprise moves in either direction.

“With this payroll report, whether you're at 100 or 160 or 200 (thousand), guess what? All of those numbers are basically within the margin of error,” said Porcelli. ”This is an ultra-volatile report. Anything in and around 150 shouldn't be a surprise to everyone.”