Big jump in jobless claims signals weak market

Applications for jobless benefits took a big jump last week showing that the labor market is weak and remains under heavy pressure. The claims rose from 6,000 to 402,000, which is well above the drop of 3,000 claims that was expected.

By staff and wire
December 1, 2012

Applications for jobless benefits leapt in the latest week in a sign that the labor market remains under heavy pressure.

The Labor Department said Thursday that new claims rose a seasonally-adjusted 6,000 to 402,000, well above the drop of 3,000 claims expected according to a survey for Reuters by FactSet. It was the second straight week that claims had risen after several weeks of declines.

The 4-week moving average, considered a more accurate gauge of labor market trends, was 395,750, an increase of 500 from the previous week's revised average of 395,250, the Labor Department said.

Still, the four-week moving average remains below 400,000, a level that economists consider a significant signpost for the health of the job market.

"The overall trend in claims is still friendly," said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets in a note to clients. "Don't be too overly concerned with the ups and downs of each week as this is a volatile report."

The report covered the Thanksgiving holiday week, when applications usually fall sharply. That can make seasonal adjustment of the figures difficult.

Applications would need to stay below 375,000 consistently to push down the unemployment rate significantly. They haven't been at that level since February.

The figures come one day before the government reports on job growth in November. Economists project that employers added a net 125,000 jobs, while the unemployment rate stayed at 9 percent for the second straight month.

While the job growth would be an improvement from October, when the economy added just 80,000 jobs, it's still barely enough to keep pace with population growth,

Some economists are more optimistic after payroll provider ADP said Wednesday that companies added 206,000 workers last month, the most this year. That survey doesn't include government agencies, which have been cutting jobs.

Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said on Wednesday he expects the government to say employers added 140,000 net jobs last month.

Recent data suggest the economy is picking up. Retailers reported a strong start to holiday sales over the Thanksgiving weekend, consumer confidence surged in November to the highest level since July and Americans' pay rose in October by the most in seven months.

Many economists say that is driving stronger growth in the final three months of the year. They forecast a 3 percent annual rate for the October-December quarter. That would be an improvement from the 2 percent rate in the July-September quarter.

But the outlook is darker in Europe, which is struggling to contain its two-year old debt crisis and is on the verge of another recession.

Europe's problems led the Federal Reserve and other major central banks on Wednesday to take steps to ease the strain on global financial markets. They made it easier for banks in Europe and elsewhere to obtain dollars to fund more loans. That could support economic growth by making it easier for banks to lend to each other and to businesses.

Most economists expect Europe to slip into recession soon. That would cool demand for U.S. exports and slow growth next year.

The number of people receiving benefits rose by 35,000 to 3.74 million, the department said. That doesn't include several million more laid-off workers who are receiving extended benefits under an emergency program put in place during the recession.

All told, 7 million people received benefits in the week ending Nov. 12, the most recent data available.

The extended benefits program, which provides up to 99 weeks of aid in states with the highest unemployment rates, is set to expire at the end of this year. Some Democratic lawmakers are pushing to renew the program. The Labor Department estimates about 2 million people will lose benefits by mid-February if the program isn't extended.

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