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US jobs report likely to show more steady hiring in February

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers are thought to have extended their streak of hiring in February even as the overall economy is showing signs of slowing. On Friday, the government is expected to report that the economy added 182,000 jobs last month, down from a blockbuster gain of 304,000 in January, according to data provider FactSet. Even such a smaller job gain, though, would be enough to lower the unemployment rate over time. The consensus forecast is that the jobless rate dipped to 3.9 percent last month from 4 percent in January.

Slowing global growth, a trade war with China and signs of increased caution among consumers have led many economists to forecast weaker growth in the first three months of this year. Still, most analysts expect businesses to keep hiring and growth to rebound in the April-June quarter. It will be harder than usual, though, to get a precise read on the economy because many data reports are still delayed by the partial shutdown of the government, which ended Jan. 25.

In the meantime, there are cautionary signs. Consumer confidence fell sharply in January, held back by the shutdown and by a steep fall in stock prices in December. And Americans spent less over the winter holidays, with consumer spending falling in December by the most in five years.

Home sales fell last year and price gains are slowing after the average rate on a 30-year mortgage reached nearly 5 percent last year. Sales of new homes also cratered late last year before picking up in December. And U.S. businesses have cut their orders for equipment and machinery for the past two months, a sign that they are uncertain about their customer demand.

The economy is forecast to be slowing to an annual growth rate of just 1 percent in the first three months of this year, down from 2.6 percent in the October-December quarter. Growth reached nearly 3 percent for all of last year, the strongest pace since 2015.

Still, economists expect a rebound in the April-June quarter, and there are already signs of one: Consumer confidence rose in February along with the stock market. And more Americans signed contracts to buy homes in January, propelled by lower mortgage rates. Analysts have forecast that annual growth will top 2 percent next quarter.

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