Initial claims number leaves jobs picture murky

12/10/2009 9:14 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

I’m glad we cleared that up.


Going into this morning’s 8:30 ET release of the numbers for initial claims for unemployment for the week ended on December 4, the big question was whether or not the data would support the big drop in November job losses—to just 11,000—announced last week. That unexpectedly low number had set off speculation that U.S. unemployment would peak in early 2010 ahead of projections for a mid-year to end-of-year peak.


Well, now we have the answer and it’s a rousing Maybe!


Depending on how you read the data, the economy is as strong as last week’s surprising drop in job losses argues or it’s not.


Here’s why the data is so frustratingly inconclusive.


The number of people filing first-time claims for unemployment rose in the week ended on December 4 to 474,000. That was 17,000 more claims filed than in the previous week and 19,000 above the consensus among economists surveyed by Briefing.com.


The week to week initial claims number, however, is so volatile that economists prefer to use a four-week moving average to discover trends in the economy. That number actually fell with the most recent data to a one-year low of 473,750 from the four-week moving average last week of 481,500.


So by one interpretation initial claims were disappointingly high and by another they’re gratifyingly low.


What should you conclude from this?


First, that the trend does continue to move in the right direction. The number of people filing new claims for unemployment is falling—on this I’d go with the four-week moving average. We’re still a ways from the point where the number of people newly unemployed is low enough so that the economy is creating net jobs, but we are moving toward that point. And that’s good news. Although not shout-from-the-roof-tops good news.


Second, from this data, we can’t tell if we’re moving toward a peak in the unemployment rate and to the point where the economy begins to create jobs faster than expected. Last week’s drop in jobs lost remains an outlier so far unconfirmed by other data. What we’ve got is a trend that’s clearly moving in the right direction, but just as clearly we don’t have a reliable indicator that the move toward a peak in unemployment has accelerated.


In other words, today’s data says that we are going to see a peak in the unemployment rate in 2010—and the economy will begin to create net job next year—but we don’t know whether that turning point will come near the end of the first quarter as implied by last week’s job loss numbers or in mid-to-late 2010 as the consensus of economists projected as recently as a week ago.

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