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FEARS OF SLOWDOWN SHARPEN FOCUS ON US JOBS REPORT

Thursday, 06 February 2014 07:26 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fears of an economic slowdown are heightening anticipation of what Friday's U.S. jobs report for January might reveal.

Stock markets have sunk after signs of weaker growth in the United States, Europe and China. Turmoil in developing countries has further spooked investors. The upheaval has renewed doubts about the Federal Reserve's next steps.

Evidence of healthy U.S. job growth would help soothe those jitters. It would suggest that the world's biggest economy is still expanding solidly enough to support global growth.

"The best antidote right now for all these problems is a robust U.S. economy," said Carl Riccadonna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. "The whole world is watching, even more so than usual."

Yet anyone looking to Friday's report for a clear picture of the U.S. economy's health might be disappointed. Unseasonably cold winter weather could distort January's hiring figures. Revised estimates of job growth last year and the size of the U.S. population might further skew the data.

Another complication: A cutoff of extended unemployment benefits in December might have caused an artificial drop in January's unemployment rate and perhaps a misleading snapshot of the job market's health.

"Just when we need it most, the employment report may fall short," Riccadonna said.

All the anxiety marks a reversal from a few weeks ago, when most analysts were feeling hopeful about the global economy. U.S. growth came in at a sturdy 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of last year. The Dow Jones industrial average finished 2013 at a record high. Europe's economy was slowly emerging from a long recession. Japan was finally perking up after two decades of stagnation.

Yet in just the past few weeks has come a barrage of dispiriting economic news. U.S. hiring slowed sharply in December. Employers added just 74,000 jobs, barely a third of the average gain in the previous four months.

On Monday, an industry survey found that manufacturing grew much more slowly in January than in December. A measure of new orders in the report plummeted to the lowest level in a year. That report contributed to a dizzying 326-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Also Monday, automakers said sales slipped 3 percent in January. And last week, the government said orders to U.S. factories fell in December. So did signed contracts to buy homes, according to the National Association of Realtors.

A gauge of China's manufacturing fell to a six-month low in January. And a report Wednesday said retail sales in the 18 European countries that use the euro fell in December by the most in 2½ years.

For all that, most economists remain relatively optimistic about U.S. growth. They attribute the recent weakness in the United States in part to unseasonably cold weather, which disrupted trucking and shipping. The weather might have lowered hiring in December by up to 50,000 jobs, according to several economists' estimates. Few Americans want to test-drive cars or search for a new home in poor weather.

"I think the US economy is still doing just fine," said Bob Baur, chief global economist at Principal Global Investors. "Maybe people are overreacting a bit."

Baur still thinks U.S. growth will come in at nearly a 3 percent pace this year. That would be the best showing since 2005.

Growth at that level would also be enough for the Fed to continue winding down its monthly bond purchase program, Baur said. The Fed is buying $65 billion in bonds this month to try to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing and spending. It has pared those purchases from $85 billion in December. Fed officials have said they will likely end the purchases by year's end if the economy improves further.

Some positive signs have emerged. A survey of service sector companies, including retailers, banks and restaurants, found that they grew faster in January than in December. The service companies, which represent about 90 percent of all private firms, also stepped up hiring, the survey found.

And payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that businesses added 175,000 jobs in January. That's roughly in line with the average monthly gains of the past two years. It suggests that hiring could have rebounded a bit from December's disappointing result. Still, ADP's figure was also lower than the 227,000 jobs it said were added in December.

Yet ADP's figures cover only businesses and frequently diverge from the government's more comprehensive count.

Another unknown is the effect of the expiration of emergency unemployment benefits on Dec. 28. Benefits for about 1.4 million unemployed were cut off. Many of those people might have given up on their job searches in January. They had been required to look for work to receive benefits.

People out of work aren't counted as unemployed unless they're actively seeking work. If many people stopped looking for a job last month after their benefits ran out, the number of unemployed would fall. And so would the unemployment rate.

There's no way to know how all these different trends will affect Friday's report.

"We view this month's (jobs) results as pretty much of a crapshoot," said Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Inc., a forecasting firm.

____

SOCIAL MEDIA ERUPT OVER 'BIGGEST LOSER' WINNER

Thursday, 06 February 2014 07:19 Published in Health & Fitness

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A day after Rachel Fredrickson won the latest season of "The Biggest Loser," after shedding nearly 60 percent of her body weight, attention wasn't focused on her $250,000 win - but rather the criticism surrounding her loss.

Experts cautioned that regardless of her current weight, the criticism being levied on social media about her losing too much isn't helpful. A more constructive message is needed, they say, centering on body image and healthy living.

The 5-foot-4, 24-year-old Frederickson dropped from 260 pounds to 105 under the show's rigorous exercise and diet regimen - but also time spent on her own before the finale. She was a three-time state champion swimmer at Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota, and said she turned to sweets for solace after a failed romance and gained the weight over several years.

Frederickson's newly thin frame lit up Twitter on Wednesday, with many viewers pointing to the surprised expressions on the faces of trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper during the show's Tuesday night finale. Many tweeted that Fredrickson looked anorexic and unhealthy, while others congratulated her for dropping 155 pounds.

Frederickson's body mass index, a measure of height and weight, is below the normal range, said Jillian Lampert, senior director of the Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment program based in St. Paul, Minn. But she said the criticism directed against Frederickson isn't helpful.

"As a society we often criticize people for being at higher weights - that's part of why we have the TV show `The Biggest Loser' - and then we feel free to criticize lower weight," Lampert said.

A more constructive message to send young people would center on well-rounded health and the importance of eating well, moving well and sleeping well, she said.

"We certainly see a lot of people who struggle with eating disorders who use the same behaviors on that show to an extreme," she said. "That can't be helpful."

Joanne Ikeda, a dietitian and retired faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Nutritional Sciences, added that focus needs to be on embracing body-size diversity.

"We are just obsessed with body size, women particularly. There's just tremendous body dissatisfaction," Ikeda said. "I'm sure even if she was the exact right size, someone wouldn't like the look of her fingers or the length of her hair."

"We should be happy we don't all look like Barbie and Ken," she said.

A listed phone number for Frederickson couldn't be found by The Associated Press late Wednesday. During an appearance on "Access Hollywood," Frederickson didn't directly respond to the criticism but said she intends to live a healthy lifestyle going forward.

"My journey was about finding that confident girl again. Little by little, challenge by challenge, that athlete came out. And it sparked inside me this feeling that I can do anything I can conceive. And I found that girl, and I'm just going to embrace her fully," she said.

In a statement released late Wednesday, NBC said it was committed to helping all of the show's past contestants live healthier lives.

Among the social media commentators was 36-year-old Shannon Hurd, who tweeted that Frederickson looked weak and unhealthy. In an interview Wednesday with AP, Hurd said she became anorexic at age 16 and has been recovering since she was 19.

"Looking at her `after' photo, I guess I saw ... a piece of myself way back when, and it really just struck something deep down," Hurd said from her home in suburban Denver. "I don't know if she's anorexic, but I do think her weight loss is so extreme there is no way her loss can be maintained through normal habits, and unfortunately that leads to distorted thinking."

---

Follow Jeff Baenen on Twitter at -HTTPS://TWITTER.COM/JEFFBAENEN

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

Arch grounds project will be delayed again

Wednesday, 05 February 2014 10:33 Published in Local News
ST. LOUIS (AP) - It will take longer than expected to complete a $380 million renovation project on the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports a construction schedule released Tuesday says the project is not expected to be completed until the end of December 2016.
Project supporters had hoped to finish the renovation by the Arch's 50th anniversary in October of 2015. A six-month delay was announced last fall.
The National Park Service's new timetable includes a one month delay for the park over Interstate 70, five months for the Arch grounds' north park and seven more months for the south park.
A renovation of the bathrooms in the museum under the Arch will be the last component finished.
 

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