The US economy got a couple of pieces of good news — as long as one doesn’t look too closely at the details. First, the weekly jobless claims level dropped to 353,000, the second time in three weeks the series has seen a significant decline:
In the week ending July 21, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 353,000, a decrease of 35,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 388,000. The 4-week moving average was 367,250, a decrease of 8,750 from the previous week’s revised average of 376,000.
The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 2.6 percent for the week ending July 14, unchanged from the prior week’s unrevised rate.
The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending July 14 was 3,287,000, a decrease of 30,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 3,317,000. The 4-week moving average was 3,309,000, a decrease of 3,750 from the preceding week’s revised average of 3,312,750.
That would be good news, but the recent volatility in the series leads one towards a little skepticism, especially since each week provides a new upward revision to the last report. Two weeks ago, the obvious issue was the Independence Day holiday, which always plays hob with this measure. There were no holidays last week, so presumably this is more solid. We’ll see soon enough.
According to Steve Eggleston, CNBC’s anchors were skeptical of the number, too:
CNBC experts saying to not trust the 353K.
— Steve Eggleston (@steveegg) July 26, 2012
Second, we have the durable goods report, which shows a 1.6% increase in June, which will definitely add some pop to Q2’s GDP rating, due out tomorrow. However, there is a huge caveat in the report:
New orders for manufactured durable goods in June increased $3.4 billion or 1.6 percent to $221.6 billion, the U.S. Census Bureau announced today. This increase, up two consecutive months, followed a 1.6 percent May increase. Excluding transportation, new orders decreased 1.1 percent. Excluding defense, new orders decreased 0.7 percent. Transportation equipment, up four of the last five months, had the largest increase, $5.1 billion or 8.0 percent to $68.8 billion.
Without transportation, the measure actually dropped 1.1%, and without defense — federal spending — it dropped 0.7%. Defense aircraft and parts orders rose 23.9%, which looks suspiciously like an intervention in what otherwise would have been a very bad month. On the other hand, non-defense aircraft and parts rose 14.3%, too.
That dodge didn’t fool Reuters:
The Commerce Department said on Thursday durable good orders excluding transportation dropped 1.1 percent, the biggest decline since January, after rising 0.8 percent in May. Economists had forecast this category being flat last month.
Overall orders increased 1.6 percent as demand for aircraft surged, after an upwardly revised 1.6 percent increase the prior month. …
Details of the report were generally weak, with declines in new orders for computers, fabricated metal products, electrical equipment and appliances and machinery.
Despite the big burst in transportation spending, auto orders dropped by the largest percentage since September, a decline of 0.6%.
The AP cautions against too much confidence in the jobless claims figures:
Applications surged two weeks ago, reversing a big drop the previous week. But economists caution that the government struggles every July to account for temporary summer shutdowns in the auto industry. The adjustments have been unusually difficult this year because some automakers skipped their shutdowns in the face of stronger sales, resulting in fewer temporary layoffs.
And retail sales fell again in June:
Retail sales fell in June for the third straight month, bad news for a country that gets two-thirds of its economic output from consumer spending. Manufacturing activity shrank in June for the first time in three years, according to a closely watched survey from the Institute of Supply Management.
The perhaps-specious drop in the jobless claims number might put the Fed off from initiating a new round of quantitative easing, though. CNBC warned earlier in the morning that a bad report might leave the Fed no choice:
As traders try to game the Federal Reserve, Thursday’s weekly jobless claims will be a key piece of data ahead of next week’s FOMC meeting.
“Europe will drive the bus, but if we get a nasty surprise in initial claims that could have a big effect. Then you’ll really hear everybody saying … this is bad enough. The Fed will have to act,” said Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS.
Claims data will be released at 8:30 a.m. ET and are expected to show 380,000 claims, down from 386,000 last week. There is also a durable goods report at 8:30 am and one for pending home sales at 10 a.m. The Treasury auctions $29 billion 7-year notes at 1 p.m.
The rest of the news might be bad enough to push the Fed into action, but that jobless claims report may force them to stay on the sidelines to avoid being accused of acting politically rather than responsibly.