Exaggerated claims

December 29, 2011

7,231,514. That was the real number of Americans receiving jobless benefits on last count – not the 381,000 new weekly applications that made the headlines.

It’s always heartening to get good news on the job market. Still, it’s easy for fully employed Wall Street analysts to get carried away with optimism after relatively minor improvements in the data.

Jobless claims figures are a case in point. True, new weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell to a 3-1/2-year low earlier this month, even if the latest report showed a larger-than-expected rise to 381,000. The trend, coupled with a moderately positive run in payroll employment growth, is encouraging. Yet it is important to remember that fewer layoffs do not necessarily imply more jobs are being created, as Eric Green at TD Securities notes:

Lower firings do not mean more hirings, but with job growth calculated on a net basis, it does mean better reported job growth. We have already seen this on the household survey which has averaged over 300k the past four months. Next week we expect private payrolls to rise 190k pushing job growth back to the strength seen earlier this year.

Green’s forecast is on the rosy side, and it excludes a government employment sector that is likely to remain a drag on the labor market in coming months. Economists polled by Reuters on median expect the economy to have added 148,000 new jobs in December, with private payrolls climbing by 160,000. The jobless rate is seen rising back again to 8.7 percent after a rather steep decline in recent months – one traceable in part to a rather ominous rise in discouraged workers. That pattern is part of a chronic problem of long-term joblessness that some economists worry could plague the country for years to come.

It is a problem Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has flagged repeatedly, most recently in an August speech at the central bank’s annual Jackson Hole symposium:

Our economy is suffering today from an extraordinarily high level of long-term unemployment, with nearly half of the unemployed having been out of work for more than six months. Under these unusual circumstances, policies that promote a stronger recovery in the near term may serve longer-term objectives as well. In the short term, putting people back to work reduces the hardships inflicted by difficult economic times and helps ensure that our economy is producing at its full potential rather than leaving productive resources fallow. In the longer term, minimizing the duration of unemployment supports a healthy economy by avoiding some of the erosion of skills and loss of attachment to the labor force that is often associated with long-term unemployment.

That backdrop puts the ebb and flow of initial jobless claims in perspective. Jim Baird at Plante Moran Financial Advisors:

The jobs market is the backbone for consumers, and recent signs of improvement are providing a boost to consumer confidence. While the recent improvement in jobless claims and the drop in the unemployment rate in November were welcome developments, continued progress in the months ahead will be key to sustained improvement in the collective mood of consumers.

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