The preliminary numbers for the US macro profile in February look wobbly, based on this week’s updates of purchasing managers’ indexes (PMIs) for the services and manufacturing sectors. But before we go down that rabbit hole consider this: there’s no sign of trouble in today’s weekly report on initial jobless claims. This leading indicator for the labor market and the economy generally is still signaling a positive trend for the US. The darker message in the PMI data suggests otherwise, which means that one side or the other will soon give way and confirm the opposing outlook. Meantime, let’s review today’s claims data.
New filings for unemployment benefits increased 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 272,000 for the week through Feb. 20. That still leaves claims close to last summer’s multi-decade low of 255,000. The strongest declines for this leading indicator may be drawing to a close, which implies that claims may be facing an extended period of treading water. But for the moment this indicator’s telling us that the economy will continue to expand for the foreseeable future.
Weekly numbers for this series suffer from a high degree of noise and so a more reliable measure is looking at the trend in year-over-year terms. For additional clarity let’s ignore the seasonal adjustment and focus on the unadjusted numbers. By that standard, the trend continues to dispense a bullish signal from this vantage as well. Indeed, unadjusted claims fell more than 11% last week vs. the year-earlier level.
When year-over-year changes for claims are rising, week after week, we’ll have a clear message from this indicator that the US economy is stumbling. For the moment, however, the near-term prospects appear to be low for such a dark shift.
The initial PMI signals for this month suggest otherwise. Which set of numbers should we embrace? I’m inclined to give jobless claims the benefit of the doubt. But there may be an attitude adjustment approaching, for good or ill, for evaluating the US macro trend. The good news is that we won’t have to wait long to find out where the misleading signals reside, courtesy of a busy schedule of economic updates in the days ahead.