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WRAPUP 4-U.S. job growth cools in December, but labor market tight

Lucia Mutikani

(Adds details, updates market reaction)

* Nonfarm payrolls increase 145,000 in December

* Economy created 2.1 million jobs in 2019

* Unemployment rate unchanged at 3.5%

* Average hourly earnings gain 0.1%

WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - U.S. job growth slowed more than expected in December, but the pace of hiring likely remains sufficient to keep the longest economic expansion in history on track despite a deepening downturn in a manufacturing sector stung by trade disputes.

The Labor Department's closely watched monthly employment report on Friday also showed the jobless rate holding near a 50-year low of 3.5%. A broader measure of unemployment dropped to a record low last month, but wage gains ebbed. The mixed report will probably not change the Federal Reserve's assessment that both the economy and monetary policy are in a "good place."

"There is nothing here that changes the picture of an economy that is continuing to expand at a pace that exceeds its potential growth rate," said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York. "The Fed should be very comfortable with this report."

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 145,000 jobs last month, with manufacturing shedding jobs after being boosted in November by the return to work of about 46,000 production workers at General Motors after a strike, the government's survey of establishments showed. That was the smallest gain since May.

But milder-than-normal temperatures in December boosted hiring at construction sites, and employment at retailers surged last month. Some of the slowdown in overall job growth in December is likely due to seasonal volatility associated with a later-than-normal Thanksgiving Day. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 164,000 jobs in December.

Roughly 100,000 jobs per month are needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population. Data for October and November was revised to show 14,000 fewer jobs added than previously reported. The economy created 2.1 million jobs in 2019, down from 2.7 million in 2018.

Reports on housing, trade and consumer spending have suggested that the economic expansion, now in its 11th year, is not in immediate danger of being derailed by a recession. Worries that a downturn might be triggered by the Trump administration's trade war with China spurred the Fed to cut interest rates three times in 2019.

Indeed economic growth did slow last year, throttling back to 2.1% in the third quarter from 2018's brisk pace of nearly 3%. Now, though, with a Phase 1 deal with China set to be signed next week, policymakers are more confident in the outlook and last month signaled borrowing costs could remain unchanged at least through this year. Economists are pegging growth at the end of last year around a 2.3% rate.

The dollar firmed slightly against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose. Stocks on Wall Street were trading marginally higher.

TIGHT LABOR MARKET

The labor market has continued to churn out jobs at a healthy clip, despite anecdotal evidence of worker shortages, which economists had feared would significantly restrain hiring.

There are, however, concerns the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which compiles the employment data, may not be fully capturing the impact on payrolls of President Donald Trump's 18-month-long trade war with China, which has pushed manufacturing into recession and led to company closures.

The government last August estimated that the economy created 501,000 fewer jobs in the 12 months through March 2019 than previously reported, the biggest downward revision in the level of employment in a decade. That suggests job growth over that period averaged around 170,000 per month instead of 210,000. The revised payrolls data will be published next month.

The projected massive revision has attracted the attention of some Fed officials. Minutes of the U.S. central bank's Dec. 10-11 policy meeting published last week showed a "couple" of officials viewed the anticipated downgrade as an indication "that payroll employment gains would likely show less momentum coming into this year."

Economists say downward revisions of that magnitude suggest that the model the government uses to calculate the net number of jobs from new business and closings is faulty. Some expect payrolls growth beyond last March could also be revised down.

For now, the labor market is on solid footing, with the unemployment rate declining by five-tenths of a percentage point in 2019. There was little impact on the jobless rate from annual revisions to the seasonally adjusted household survey data going back five years, which were incorporated in December's employment report.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell to 6.7% in December, the lowest since the series started in 1994, from 6.9% the prior month. The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, was steady at 63.2% last month.

The tight labor market, however, has struggled to generate strong wage inflation. Average hourly earnings rose three cents, or 0.1% last month, after increasing 0.3% in November. That lowered the annual increase in wages to 2.9% in December from 3.1% in November.

Manufacturing employment dropped by 12,000 jobs in December after jumping 58,000 in November as the GM strike ended. The Institute for Supply Management's measure of national factory activity dropped in December to its lowest level since June 2009. Manufacturing added only 46,000 job in 2019 compared to 264,000 in 2018.

Hiring at construction sites increased by 20,000 jobs in December. There were increases in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, financial activities, education and healthcare, retail and wholesale trade employment last month. But the transportation and warehousing industry lost 10,400 jobs, and mining and logging shed 9,000 positions.

Government employment rose by 6,000 jobs. It is expected to accelerate in the coming months amid increased hiring for the 2020 Census.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)