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Deep Freeze

Wicked Winter Chills Economy, Stocks

Unusually severe winter weather is expected to dent economic growth and perhaps cause more rough sledding for stocks.

The number and intensity of winter storms have stalled pockets of economic activity across the country, with another system moving toward the East Coast on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ice paralyzed Atlanta late last month, bitter cold shut Chicago schools and snowstorms in the East halted travel. Add drought conditions in the West, and economists are attempting to determine how much they should deduct from first-quarter growth simply because of the weather.

"We already saw it in auto sales," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. "It literally freezes the economic activity, and you don't get the activity to resume until we get a thaw."

The disruption to air travel alone has been massive. According to FlightAware, 39,991 flights were canceled last month, the most since 21,551 in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast.

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.

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.

"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."