The trend in weekly unemployment claims is down, but that downtrend is both slow and choppy. According to a Bloomberg survey, economists expected unemployment claims to drop, instead claims rose by 18,000.

Economists forecast claims would fall to 435,000 from a previously reported 439,000 the prior week, according to the median of 47 projections in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates ranged from 420,000 to 450,000.

Easter is a difficult period to adjust for seasonal factors because it’s a floating holiday that doesn’t come at the same time each year, the government analyst said. Additionally, a state holiday in California on March 31 also complicated the tabulation of the data, he said.

If Easter is such a complication, why wouldn’t economists factor that in to their estimates? Did they not know when Easter was?

Regardless of the reason, all 47 economists surveyed by Bloomberg were too optimistic. The most pessimistic forecast was 450,000 claims, the reported number was 460,000.

Weekly Claims Report

Please consider the Unemployment Weekly Claims Report for April 8, 2010.

In the week ending April 3, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 460,000, an increase of 18,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 442,000. The 4-week moving average was 450,250, an increase of 2,250 from the previous week’s revised average of 448,000.

Unemployment Claims

The weekly claims numbers are volatile so it’s best to focus on the trend in the 4-week moving average.

4-Week Moving Average of Initial Claims

The 4-week moving average is still near the peak results of the last two recessions. It’s important to note those are raw numbers, not population adjusted. Nonetheless, the numbers do indicate broad weakness.

4-Week Moving Average of Initial Claims Since 2007

To be consistent with an economy adding jobs coming out of a recession, the number of claims needs to fall to the 400,000 level.

At some point employers will be as lean as they can get (and still stay in business). Yet, that does not mean businesses are about to go on a big hiring boom. Indeed, unless consumer spending picks up, they won’t.

Questions on the Weekly Claims vs. the Unemployment Rate

A question keeps popping up in emails: “How can we lose 400,000+ jobs a week and yet have the unemployment rate stay flat and the monthly jobs report show gains?”

The answer is the economy is very dynamic. People change jobs all the time. Note that from 1975 forward, the number of claims was generally above 300,000 a week, yet some months the economy added well over 250,000 jobs.

Also note that the monthly published unemployment rate is from a household survey, not a survey of payroll data from businesses. That is why the monthly “establishment survey” (a sampling of actual payroll data) is not always in alignment with changes in the unemployment rate. At economic turns the discrepancy can be wide.

Barring short term census effects, it may be quite some time before we weekly claims drop to 300,000 or net hiring exceeds +250,000.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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