US Gains 157K Jobs, Jobless Rate Rises to 7.9 Pct.

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The hit to consumers is coming at a precarious moment for the economy. It contracted in the fourth quarter for the first time in 3½ years. The decline was driven largely by a steep cut in defense spending and a drop in exports. Analysts generally think those factors will prove temporary and that the economy will resume growing.

Still, the contraction last quarter points to what are likely to be key challenges for the economy this year: the prospect of sharp government spending cuts and uncertainty over whether Congress will agree to raise the federal borrowing cap.

Most analysts predict that the economy will grow again in the January-March quarter, though likely at a lackluster annual rate of around 1 percent. They expect the economy to expand about 2 percent for the full year.

Two key drivers of growth improved last quarter: Consumer spending increased at a faster pace. And businesses invested more in equipment and software.

In addition, homebuilders are stepping up construction to meet rising demand. That could generate even more construction jobs.

And home prices are rising steadily. That tends to make Americans feel wealthier and more likely to spend. Housing could add as much as 1 percentage point to economic growth this year, some economists estimate.

Auto sales reached their highest level in five years in 2012 and are expected to keep growing this year. That’s boosting production and hiring at U.S. automakers and their suppliers.

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