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Jobless Claims Decline Last Week

There’s good news and modestly bad news in today’s weekly update on initial jobless claims.

 

By James Picerno

Let’s start with the positive. New filings fell 16,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 278,000. That’s an encouraging sign for two reasons: the latest slide pulls claims back from the six-month high in the previous update and pushes filings closer to the multi-decade low of 255,000 from last summer. Unfortunately, the latest decline isn’t enough to keep the year-over-year comparison from rising—the first annual increase, in fact, since last August.


The sight of claims rising on a year-over-year basis isn’t a smoking gun for recession risk, courtesy of the low absolute level of filings. We’ve seen annual increases pop up from time to time in recent years but it turned out to be noise in the context of looking or an early recession signal. Ongoing year-over-year increases in the weeks ahead would change the calculus, but for the moment there’s nothing especially ominous here.

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Next week’s payrolls data for January will provide a crucial clue for adding context to today’s report. Meantime, the big-picture trend still points to economic growth, as per last week’s macro profile of recession risk.

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Nonetheless, it appears that the long-running downtrend in claims has made its lows for this cycle at the 255,000 level. History suggests that this leading indicator will remain flat and perhaps trend higher in the near-term future—unless there’s a substantial acceleration in growth overall around the next corner.

Anything’s possible, of course, but the incoming numbers generally imply that growth is slowing. That’s not obvious if you look at the latest weekly change in jobless claims, but the more reliable year-over-year comparison is hinting at a cycle that’s past its prime.

“The holiday and bad weather may have complicated things,” David Sloan, a senior economist at 4Cast, tells Bloomberg. “There’s no sign anything has changed dramatically. I don’t think companies are rushing to lay off workers.”

The main question is whether companies are rushing to hire workers? That was the message in the last payrolls report for December, when US firms increased payrolls by a strong 275,000. If the next update looks anything like the last one, the chatter about recession risk will again recede into the background.

But there’s enough weakness around to keep the guessing game alive until next week’s update on the labor market. Today’s report on durable goods orders, for instance, is disappointing. Orders slumped 5.5% overall—the most since August 2014. The slide offers another clue for thinking that tomorrow’s fourth-quarter GDP report will reflect sharply slower growth vs. Q3.

The bottom line: there was already a lot riding on next week’s payrolls report for January, and now the stakes are even higher. It’s clear that the US economy ended 2015 with a thud, which will likely be confirmed in tomorrow’s GDP data. The focus now turns to how the numbers in January compare. The limited figures to date paint a mixed picture. Will next week’s payrolls report tell us otherwise?