A key economic indicator measuring the volume of job ads in major U.S. newspapers dipped one point in January, erasing hope that labor markets will improve anytime soon, The Conference Board reported today.

The Conference Board’s Help-Wanted Advertising Index fell to 21 last month from 22 in December, as just 41 percent of labor markets surveyed in January reported rising want-ad volume, down from 59 percent in December.

“The best thing about 2008 is that it will end next winter,” Ken Goldstein, labor economist at The Conference Board, said in a statement. “Many economists debate whether we’re in a recession or on the verge of one. What’s more important is that people are behaving as if a recession is already here. Consumer confidence fell sharply this month. Consumers fear that costs for food, energy and housing will continue to rise faster than incomes, squeezing household budgets, which will cause a pullback in spending. The weakness in the labor market reinforces these sentiments.

“The latest data on job advertising in print suggests there’s virtually no chance that labor market activity will improve over the next few months,” Goldstein said. “To the contrary, there is a chance the labor market could grind to a halt.”

In the last three months, help-wanted advertising shrank in five of the nine U.S. regions, with the steepest declines occurring in the East South Central (-16.3 percent), Pacific (-12.2 percent) and South Atlantic (-5.3 percent) regions.

Based on monthly help-wanted, print-advertising volume in 51 U.S. newspapers, and because ad volume has proven to be sensitive to labor market conditions, the Help-Wanted Advertising Index provides a gauge of change in the local, regional and national supply of jobs.

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