ADP's private sector payroll report for January showed 246,000 jobs, about 80,000 more than expected. Since that report, traders have been looking for a slightly better number.
January is a number where seasonal adjustments have made past reports volatile. "The weather wasn't that bad, so the things that would be most likely to make this month weak should not be factors," McCarthy said. "Since December's number was kind of mediocre, that should limit the downside." There were 156,000 jobs created in December.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said one reason may be there was less retail hiring, and that in fact should help the January report because there will be less reduction in seasonal hiring for holiday sales. He expects 210,000 nonfarm payrolls, and broad based hiring.
"If we get over 200,000, it's pretty much across the board. Construction, because of the weather. Manufacturing was pretty good. Retail and temp help because they didn't hire in the Christmas buying season so they're not laying off," Zandi said. "The most positive news is the job losses in the energy sector are over."
Zandi also said he expects to see a pickup in government hiring of 10,000 to 15,000, as agencies may have added ahead of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, which brought in job freezes in the federal work force.
Economists have varied views on how much wages rose in January, after a 0.4 percent increase in December. With the consensus at 0.3 percent, Zandi expects it picked up more — at 0.4 percent, but McCarthy sees it up 0.3 percent with a tough comparison of last year's 0.6 percent gain.
But JPMorgan economists see average hourly wages rising 0.5 percent with about half of that from gains in minimum wages. They also expect 200,000 nonfarm payrolls.
"We had 19 states raise their minimum wage in January, including some big states like California," said Diane Swonk, CEO of DS Economics. Swonk expects just 160,000 jobs, and she said she will be watching leisure categories to see if hiring in those areas was weaker because of higher wages.
Stocks were mixed Thursday, with the S&P 500 up 1 at 2,280, but the Dow down 6 at 19,884. The Nasdaq was off 6 at 5,636. Amazon could be a factor in morning trading, since its stock fell sharply after reporting a revenue miss.
"The [jobs] whisper number is probably above 170,000. That seems to be above consensus call because of ADP, but I think there's a realization that the economic data is taking a back seat to what's going on in Washington. This is usually the honeymoon period, but it's been more like a divorce. What puzzles me is [Trump's] doing everything in reverse order than I thought he would," said McCarthy. "I thought the warm and fuzzy stuff would come first, get the tax cuts and let everyone submit their list on what infrastructure is wanted."
Stocks ran higher and bond yields rose after the election on hopes that President Donald Trump's infrastructure and tax cut plans would dominate over protectionist trade talk and immigration policies. McCarthy said the Trump trade worked for a month, but now investors are pessimistic about it. "Now they're back in the show me mode," he said.
Besides the 8:30 a.m.ET jobs report, there is services PMI at 9:45 a.m., ISM nonfmanufacturing at 10 a.m. and factory orders, also at 10.
President Trump meets his council of business leaders at 10 a.m. at the White House.
A few companies report earnings including Honda Motor, AutoNation, Clorox, LyondellBasell Industries, Hershey, Philips 66, Weyerhaeuser and Apollo Management Group.