By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The pace of hiring by U.S. employers eased slightly in December, pointing to a lackluster pace of economic growth that was unable to make further inroads in the country's still high unemployment rate.
Payrolls outside the farming sector grew 155,000 last month, the Labor Department said on Friday. That was in line with analysts' expectations and slightly below the revised gain of 161,000 reported for November.
The report reinforces expectations of 2 percent economic growth this year, unlikely to quickly bring down the unemployment rate or make the U.S. Federal Reserve rethink its easy-money policies anytime soon despite growing unease by some policymakers over a bond-buying program.
"The U.S. economy is just muddling through," said Tom di Galoma, managing director at Navigate Advisors in Stamford, Connecticut.
The jobless rate held steady at 7.8 percent in December, down nearly a percentage point from a year earlier but still well above the average rate over the last 60 years of about 6 percent.
The Labor Department raised its estimate for the unemployment rate in November by a tenth of a point to 7.8 percent, citing a slight change in the labor market's seasonal swings.
Most economists expect the U.S. economy will be held back by tax hikes this year as well as by weak spending by households and businesses, which are still trying to reduce their debt burdens.
Friday's data nonetheless gave signals of some momentum in the labor market's recovery from the 2007-09 recession.
Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to health care.
Also, many economists had expected December's payroll gains to be padded by one-time factors like the recovery from a mammoth storm that hit the East Coast in late October.
The government had said last month the storm had no substantial impact on the November data, and many economists expected the government on Friday to recant by revising downward its estimate for payroll gains in November. Instead, the government revised November payrolls upward by 15,000.
Average hourly earnings rose 0.3 percent last month, slightly more than analysts had expected, while the length of the average workweek was up slightly.
"This shows the economy is chugging along, with payroll gains at about the average it has been over the past year," Tom Porcelli, an economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York.
Analysts appeared divided over whether the number points to the Fed scaling back its plans to buy bonds, perhaps as soon as the second half of this year.
Porcelli said December's unspectacular payroll gains should reinforce expectations the Fed will continue with the program. However, Craig Dismuke, a strategist at Vining Sparks in Memphis, Tennessee, said the current pace of job creation will raise pressure on the Fed to stop bond purchases after the middle of the year.
The Fed has kept interest rates near zero since 2008, and in September promised open-ended bond purchases to support lending further. On Thursday, however, minutes from the Fed's December policy review pointed to rising concerns over how the asset purchases will affect financial markets.
U.S. S&P stock index futures added to gains after the data, while U.S. Treasuries prices erased most of their losses.
Despite the signs of some momentum in hiring, a wave of government spending cuts due to begin around March loom over the economy.
Many economic forecasts assume the cuts - which would hit the military, education and other areas - will ultimately be pushed into next year as part of a deal sought by lawmakers to reduce gradually the government's debt burden.
Initially, the cuts were planned to have begun this month as part of a $600 billion austerity package that also included tax hikes.
Hiring in December may have been slowed by uncertainty over the timing of the austerity.
"Companies were very worried about the fiscal cliff, so it's a good number that they were still hiring," said Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York.
Congress this week passed legislation to avoid most of the tax hikes and postpone the spending cuts.
Even with the last-minute deal to avoid much of the "fiscal cliff," most workers will see their take-home pay reduced this month as a two-year cut in payroll taxes expires.
Austerity already held back the U.S. economy in 2012. In December, government payrolls shrank by 13,000.
That leaves the Fed's efforts to lower borrowing costs as the main program for stimulating the economy.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Chris Reese, Julie Haviv, Richard Leong and Gabriel Debenedetti in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)