Jobless Claims Unexpectedly Rise To 6-Month High

Another day, another (modestly) disappointing economic report. This time it’s the labor market. Initial jobless claims unexpectedly increased 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 293,000, the Labor Department reports. That’s still low by historical standards, but economists were looking for a modest decline. Instead, new filings for unemployment benefits rose for the week through Jan. 16 to the highest level since last July. The good news: claims are still falling on a year-over-year basis. Unfortunately, the annual decline continues to wither; the latest decrease–down 2.7% vs. the year-ago figure–is the smallest since early December.

Let’s be clear: jobless claims are still nowhere near the point of signaling trouble for the US economy. Unfortunately, there are cautionary signs in other corners of the economy–see today’s monthly business-cycle profile. But for the moment, the claims trend—a crucial leading indicator—is still signaling growth. If and when we see claims consistently rising on a year-over-year basis we’ll have a genuinely dark reading for this data.


Meantime, claims appear to be telling us that the big improvements in the labor market have passed. Surprising? Not really. Payrolls have been rising since early 2010. The six-year upswing isn’t particularly old by historical standards. But there are clouds gathering on the business-cycle horizon, albeit clouds that collectively still fall short of a clear sign that the economy has slipped off the edge.

Market sentiment, on the other hand, has deteriorated sharply so far this month. If stocks were a flawless leading indicator, the economy’s goose would be cooked. But Mr. Market suffers pessimism for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are directly linked with economic risk and recessions. And sometimes Mr. Market’s hissy fits are all about, well, nothing. Market volatility can be related to higher risk in the real economy, but not always–the stock market crash in 1987 being the most conspicuous example.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the shifting tide in macro signals lately. And the longer the stock market trends lower, the higher the potential for the negative wealth effect to take a bite out of macro.

In fact, there’s already weakness in the real economy. Yesterday’s update (Jan. 20) of the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model sees US economic growth of only 0.7% for last year’s fourth quarter, roughly a third of Q3’s pace. That’s more or less stall speed. We’ve been here before, of course, and with encouraging results. For instance,, the economy reaccelerated in  2015’s Q2 after Q1’s sharp slowdown.

Will history repeat? Will the current slow patch give way to firmer growth at some point in 2016? It’s too early to rule out that possibility. Indeed, there’s still no high-confidence evidence that the economy has slipped into an NBER-defined recession–based on the data in hand at the moment. The problem is that the data has been moving in the wrong direction lately, albeit modestly. Today’s update on claims is merely the latest instance.

The $64,000 question now: How will the January payrolls report compare? The answer arrives early next month (Feb. 4). Meantime, there’s a bit more wobble in the economic data—and a lot more volatility in the financial and commodity markets.

In short, the jury’s still out, but there’s less confidence at the moment about the outcome of the verdict.

As for today’s numbers, Greg Daco, head of US macro at Oxford Economics, isn’t worried. “Overall, I wouldn’t be too concerned,” he tells Bloomberg. “As long as the trend continues to be gradual, it’s not excessively worrying. We are going to see more moderate job growth as the labor market continues to tighten.”

A reasonable forecast? The closest thing to an answer in the near term arrives on Feb. 4 via the Labor Department.

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