Weekly jobless claims drop to 365K

Looks like the White House finally got a little good news today on the jobs front.  After several weeks of escalating initial jobless claims, the level dropped to 365,000 in the report for last week:

In the week ending April 28, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 365,000, a decrease of 27,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 392,000. The 4-week moving average was 383,500, an increase of 750 from the previous week’s revised average of 382,750.

The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 2.6 percent for the week ending April 21, unchanged from the prior week.

The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending April 21 was 3,276,000, a decrease of 53,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 3,329,000. The 4-week moving average was 3,297,000, a decrease of 18,250 from the preceding week’s revised average of 3,315,250.

Last week’s 388K level got adjusted upward to 392K.  We’ll have to see what next week’s revisions to this week do to the level.  Assuming it stays in the 365K ballpark, this returns the initial claims levels to that seen throughout most of the first quarter.  Whether than indicates a spike in hiring, or perhaps just a lull in the amplitude of job churn, will not be known until we see a few more weeks of data.

Reuters didn’t get too excited, though, as the four-week rolling average climbed to its highest level in five months.  Productivity also dropped:

New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, according to a government report on Thursday that could ease fears the labor market recovery was stalling. …

The prior week’s figure was revised up to 392,000 from the previously reported 388,000. The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, edged up 750 to 383,500 – the highest level since December. …

U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the first quarter as companies hired more workers to maintain output, but a moderate rise in wages suggested little pressure on company profits and inflation.

Productivity slipped at a 0.5 percent annual rate, the Labor Department said on Thursday, after rising at an upwardly revised 1.2 percent rate in the last three months of 2011.

The drop in productivity could signal that hiring has saturated production at current demand levels, after a small hiring spree in the December-February time frame.  That’s not a good sign for the economy going forward in the spring and summer.

In my column today for The Fiscal Times, I address the issue of what a poor jobs report for April and perhaps subsequent months will mean for the presidential election.  Despite Obama’s claims of jobs growth, the truth is that we haven’t grown jobs significantly at all in nearly three years of the Obama recovery.  In their book Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth, and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future, John Lott and Grover Norquist analyze the pattern of jobs growth for the 29-month period of the Reagan and Obama recoveries, based on percentage increase in American jobs from the point of recovery:

The reason this hasn’t been as apparent as it otherwise would be is a decline in the civilian population participation rate, as I point out:

The actual jobless rate will rely on a quirk in the BLS measurement, as CNN pointed out in its coverage of the ADP report: “The unemployment rate is not expected to fall beyond its current 8.2 percent, unless more workers leave the labor force.”  When people leave the work force, it improves the topline unemployment rate, a statistical point that hadn’t been an issue until the aftermath of the past recession. In order to understand that well-publicized rate, one has to keep in mind that it describes an increasingly smaller work force [in relation to the overall population], as this BLS chart of civilian participation in the workforce over the last ten years demonstrates:

This hides the effects of poor job creation.  Had the participation rate remained constant from pre-recession levels, the jobless rate would be around 12 percent at the moment.  The BLS uses the same measures as it always has, but this particular calculation only works for comparative purposes in a stable working population. Even from the point of the recovery’s beginning in June 2009, we clearly have continued erosion. …

What happens when job creation fails to maintain any momentum?  The closer the election comes, the worse it is for President Obama.  His campaign has lately occupied itself with just about every topic except the economy and job creation, including a silly attack on Mitt Romney as insufficiently ruthless to kill Osama bin Laden after months of painting him as a ruthless killer of jobs as a Bain executive.  Whether it’s contraception or Swiss bank accounts, the Obama campaign seizes on any momentary distraction it can find to avert attention from jobs and the economy.

A poor report tomorrow will make that impossible, at least for a few days.  The mild momentum of the winter would have given way to another stagnant spring, the third in a row, as David Gregory pointed out to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Meet the Press in April.  Even a mildly positive report – say, growth in the 165,000 range, as Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch consensus expects, will raise questions about whether the current economic and regulatory climate will ever allow for the kind of recovery we saw in the 1980s, or for that matter, under George W. Bush after the 2003 recession.

Not under current management, it won’t. A poor report tomorrow will begin to make that clear.

Update: I should have said the “2003 recovery,” not “recession” in my column.