Disruption to air travel alone has been massive. According to FlightAware, 39,000 flights were canceled last month, the most since 21,000 in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast. Just Wednesday, there were already 3,300 flights cancelled by mid-morning, with many of them in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Boston.
Those businesses most likely to blame weather for poor results don't get much sympathy on Wall Street, but they now won't be alone. The weather is expected to have been severe enough to affect activity across the broader economy.
Kraft Foods Wednesday temporarily closed the second biggest wheat flour mill in the U.S., when travel on the roads near its Toledo, Ohio facility was restricted due to heavy snow.
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Weather has been cited as a factor behind a series of squishy economic reports, including December's surprisingly weak jobs number and the ISM manufacturing survey this week. Weather was also mentioned as a factor in the ISM service survey report, but that showed improvement and was actually better than expected.
"It adds insult to injury for retailers and restaurants," Swonk said. "We also had schools closed, so people were out of work there. It's a question mark how much will show up in the payroll numbers. January is already a bad month ... but the weather is going to affect hours worked and it should also affect the number of people that could get to work."
The January jobs report is expected to show 185,000 nonfarm payrolls added last month, up from an anemic 74,000 in December. Economists say the number may have escaped some weather impact because the survey for the report was conducted during a week of milder weather in January.
The ISM services survey also showed improvement in the employment component. The 56.4 jobs index was the highest since November 2010. ADP's private sector jobs survey showed 175,000 jobs created in January, but manufacturing lost 12,000 jobs—consistent with the ISM survey.
Some activity, such as business travel, will not be recovered, but Swonk predicted that some of the losses in leisure activity will be compensated for by travel to warm destinations.
"My guess is that spring break will be people taking lots of sunny vacations," she said.
The extreme weather "is really shifting economic activity around," Swonk added. "We tend to recoup, but not in the same places."
Stocks initially jumped, but then shrugged off the better ISM services report Wednesday. The market was hypersensitive to weakness in the manufacturing survey Monday, when the Dow lost more than 300 points.
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"The price action is telling you that these markets can deal with tapering as long as U.S. growth is picking up, but if the Fed is tapering at the same time U.S. growth is slowing down, that becomes a problem for markets," said David Woo, head of global rates and currency research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Fourth-quarter growth was a strong 3.2 percent, but most economists expect to see a slower first quarter.
Data have "been weighed down by the weather," Woo said. "What worries me is [that the first-quarter] GDP growth is correlated more to the weather than the fourth quarter."
For instance, he found that based on a study of 10 years of activity, retail sales are correlated more to cold weather in February than in December—possibly a negative indicator for first-quarter consumer spending.
Woo also found that cold weather in December is more correlated than other winter months to weaker jobs growth, which may bode better for the January employment report. This year's winter weather is the worst since 1988.
He expects the weather to continue to be reflected in economic reports, and therefore markets, but said there should be a strong rebound in economic activity in the spring.