Jobless Claims Inched Higher Last Week

If you’re inclined to optimism, you can argue that today’s update on initial jobless claims isn’t signaling a new recession after all. True, new filings for jobless benefits rose slightly last week by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 427,000. That’s still too high to encourage forecasts of robust growth in either the labor market or the economy overall. But for the moment, the number du jour doesn’t provide much support for arguing that the recent stumble in the economy is getting worse. The trend isn’t necessarily getting better either, unfortunately, which leaves us betwixt and between and waiting for the next update.

As the chart below reminds, recent history for this seasonally adjusted series appears to headed for another round of treading water. Oh, dear—been there, done that, and the result was a long hot summer last year and plenty of anxiety about how to resolve the macro stumble. For roughly the first half of 2010, initial claims went nowhere, offering an early clue of the new headwinds that would eventually force the Federal Reserve to launch a new batch of quantitative easing (QE2). With that monetary stimulus program set to expire this month, it’s only natural that chatter has shifted to the prospects for QE3. The odds don’t look particularly high these days for a third installment, but that may change, depending on where the data goes.

Meantime, it’s useful to watch initial claims on a rolling 12-month basis in unadjusted terms to monitor the raw trend. This cuts out quite a bit of the short-term noise, which is quite high for this series. On that score, direct your eyes to the second graph below and note the discouraging upward bias. Yes, the annual pace of jobless claims was destined to rise somewhat as the recovery matured. But at some point, this statistical frog may jump out of the pot. It’s debatable when this trend, should it continue to rise, will signal a new recession. The good news is that there’s still a comfortable margin for moving higher and keeping an open mind.

But as the latest spike from several weeks ago reminds, conditions can change quickly. Meanwhile, the economic trend generally has become fragile over the past month or so, as initial claims predicted as early as this past April. But now what? The data so far is inconclusive, in jobless claims and elsewhere, even through some alarm bells are ringing. The next several weeks of data will be crucial—more so than usual. We may (or may not) find ourselves on the cusp of a new phase for the economy. In any case, it’s still not clear what exactly awaits over the next hill, but it’s getting easier to guess.