New filings for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, reaching the highest level since last May. Is this an early warning sign of trouble for the labor market and, by extension, the economy? No, not yet. It could be nothing more than weather-related turbulence courtesy of a harsh winter. But if this leading indicator continues to rise in the weeks ahead, we’ll have a signal that’s not so easily dismissed. For now, the recent changes are still within the band of “normal” fluctuations that are linked with a healthy degree of forward macro momentum. The margin of comfort, however, is wearing thin and so the next several reports could prove to be decisive, for good or ill.
Meanwhile, let’s put the latest numbers in context. Although claims jumped 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 320,000 last week—a 10-month high—the four-week average is still slightly below the highest level we’ve seen so far this year—307,000 in early January. More importantly, claims are still falling on a year-over-year basis, maintaining a consistently bullish record that’s been intact in each weekly report since last September.
But as the chart above reminds, the annual decline has become quite thin—a mere 1.5% drop from a year ago (grey bar at right). Clearly, the pace of layoffs has slowed. That’s not especially worrisome, at least not yet. Over the last several years this leading indicator has stalled for brief periods, but it’s turned out to be a pause that refreshes.
How will we know if sluggish behavior this time reflects something more troubling for the business cycle? History offers a guide. As you can see in the chart above, in the rare instances when claims have increased on an annual basis, the advance lasted for no more than two consecutive weeks. If at some point we see three straight weeks of year-over-year increases, the mini-trend will mark something new in the context of recent history, at which point we’ll have a stronger reason to worry.
For now, it’s still reasonable to assume that the latest jump in claims is noise. This, after all, is a notoriously volatile indicator. It’s also an unusually valuable indicator for evaluating the economic trend. But it can be a slippery beast at times. As I said, the next several weeks may turn out to be decisive.