It was a fluke. That was the conclusion investors reached about the US government's latest jobs report, which showed a sharp decline in hiring last month.
Stock indexes ended mostly higher after wavering for much of Saturday. The gains were minuscule, however, and there were a number of signs that investors were being cautious.
Prices rose for bonds and gold, traditional go-to assets for nervous investors. Utilities and other kinds of low-risk, high-dividend stocks also rose as investors sought safe places to park money.
"We need to see more evidence before concluding that all the other [economic] indicators are wrong and the jobs data is correct," said Kate Warne, a market strategist with Edward Jones.
The Dow Jones Industrial average fell 7.71 points, or less than 0.1 per cent, to 16,437.05. If not for a slump in Chevron, which reported a decline in oil and gas production on Friday, the index would have risen slightly.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.24 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 1,842.37 and the Nasdaq composite rose 18.47 points, or 0.4 per cent, to 4,174.66.
The Labour Department said only 74,000 jobs were added to payrolls in December, the fewest in three years and far less than economists were expecting. The unemployment rate fell, but mostly because many Americans stopped looking for work, the government said.
The December jobs data stands in contrast to a week of reports consistent with a steadily strengthening economy. US companies are selling record levels of goods overseas, Americans are buying more big items such as cars and appliances, and layoffs have dwindled.
As recently as Thursday, the payroll processor ADP said private business created 238,000 jobs in December.
If the recent US economic picture were a jigsaw puzzle, the jobs report is the piece that didn't fit.
"The investor base was completely shocked with how especially weak the numbers were," said Tom di Galoma, who heads up bond trading at ED&F Man Capital.
Market strategists blamed the bad jobs data on everything from the unseasonably cold weather in December to the fact that Thanksgiving in late November came later than usual. Few believed the economic recovery is slowing down. Cautious investors took the data as a reason to retreat into safer investments.
Bond prices rose, sending yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.87 per cent from 2.97 per cent the day before.
Utility stocks were among the biggest gainers as investors looked to pull back on risk. The Dow Jones utility average, a basket of 15 utility companies, rose 1.3 per cent. Consolidated Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Edison International were all up roughly 1 per cent or more.
Even gold prices went up, after having a difficult 2013. Gold rose US$17.50, or 1.4 per cent, to US$1246.90 an ounce on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
With Wall Street treating the December jobs data as an aberration, the place investors will look next for guidance will be corporate earnings. Investors spent the second half of 2013 bidding up stock price to historic highs in hopes that the US economic recovery would translate into higher profits.
"What really needs to come through this year is earnings growth," said Steve Rees, head of US equity strategy for JPMorgan Private Bank.
On average, Wall Street is looking for corporate earnings to be around 6 per cent higher than they were last year.
It's early in the earnings season, but so far the results have not been promising.