Subscribe to Breaking News emails

You have successfully subscribed to the Breaking News email.

Subscribe today to be the first to to know about breaking news and special reports.

Wicked winter chills economy, stocks

by Patti Domm /  / Updated 
Severe winter weather has stalled some pockets of the economy like vehicles stuck in a snowstorm.
Severe winter weather has stalled some pockets of the economy like vehicles stuck in a snowstorm.Jessica A. Stewart / AP

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

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.

Severe winter weather has stalled some pockets of the economy like vehicles stuck in a snowstorm.
Severe winter weather has stalled some pockets of the economy like vehicles stuck in a snowstorm.Jessica A. Stewart / AP

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."

The January jobs report is expected to show that 185,000 nonfarm payrolls were added last month, up from an anemic 74,000 in December. Economists say the number may have escaped some weather impact because the survey for the report was conducted during a week of milder January weather.

The impact could also show up in ADP's private sector payroll report and in the ISM services sector survey, released Wednesday at 8:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. ET, respectively. Traders expect selling in stocks if those numbers miss expectations, regardless of whether weather can be blamed.

Fourth-quarter growth was a strong 3.2 percent, but most economists expect to see a slower first quarter.

Data have "been weighed down by the weather," said David Woo, head of global rates and currency research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "What worries me is [that the first-quarter] GDP growth is correlated more to the weather than the fourth quarter."

For instance, he found that based on a study of 10 years of activity, retail sales are correlated more to cold weather in February than in December — possibly a negative indicator for first-quarter consumer spending.

Woo expects the weather to continue to be reflected in economic reports, and therefore markets, but said there should be a strong rebound in economic activity this spring.

—By CNBC's Patti Domm; follow her on Twitter @pattidomm

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
MORE FROM news