The U.S. labor market continued its herky-jerky course last week with more Americans than expected filing for jobless benefits, according to a weekly report from Washington.
The Labor Department showed that initial jobless claims, a proxy of weekly layoffs, rose by 14,000 to 348,000 in the week ended February 22, from a revised 334,000 a week earlier (down from an original estimate of 336,000). Last week’s figure equals a six-week high for new claims. Economists were predicting claims to total 335,000 last week.
The four-week moving average was flat at 338,250. Economists typically put more value in the one-month average because it irons out weekly fluctuations. Claims below 350,000 are generally viewed as indicative in moderate growth in the jobs market.
A Labor Department spokesman said that there was nothing unusual in the data and the no states were estimated.
Continuing claims, or the count of people already receiving jobless benefits at a state level, increased to 2.964 million from 2.956 million in the week ended February 15. Continuing claims arrive at a one-week lag to initial claims.
Total claims, which include recipients of benefits across all state and federal programs, decreased to 3.486 million in the week ended February 8 from 3.512 million the week earlier. Total claims come at a two-week lag to initial claims. At the same time in 2013, there were 5.765 million people collecting benefits.
The largest increases in the week ended February 15 were in California (+5,832), Michigan (+2,129) and Oregon (+1,574). The largest decreases were in Georgia (-7,759), Pennsylvania (-3,677) and Wisconsin (-3,227). 48 states and territories showed a decrease and five reported an increase.
Wall Street doesn’t seem to know what to make of the sluggish growth. By-large, unseasonably cold and snowy weather plastering parts of the country has been blamed for a recent lull in the economy, especially the housing market, so the figures have been taken with a grain of salt to a certain extent. On the other side of the coin, some economists see the soft data as an indication of a deeper underlying concern about growth. Apparently, no one will really know until the weather breaks, but it seems likely that there should be some demand starting to get pent-up with the long winter.
Why there is some confusion is not difficult to understand. Just look at a few pieces of key data since the start of 2014. In January, the U.S. added only 113,000 new jobs, following a paltry 75,000 job additions in December. At the same time, the nation’s unemployment rate declined to 6.6 percent, marking the lowest point since October 2008. Existing home sales sunk to an 18-month low in January and housing starts dropped by 16 percent from December to January, yet hiring improved in the construction (and manufacturing) industries.
The mixed data has kept economists guessing and echoes the sentiment conveyed by new Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen, who told a Senate Banking Committee earlier this month that the recovery in employment is “far from complete.” All things being equal, there shouldn’t be too much debate over that comment anyway.
Futures are pointing to the markets opening flat to slightly lower following the report.
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