Meltdown slows? Weekly jobless claims under 2M for first time since March

Meltdown slows? Weekly jobless claims under 2M for first time since March

ADP giveth, the Department of Labor taketh away. Yesterday, the private-sector payroll giant reported job losses of only a third of what economist projected for May, suggesting that the restart of the US economy might have gone faster than anyone hoped. Today’s data on jobless claims cast some cold water on those assumptions, however, especially on continuing claims.

Let’s look at the topline numbers first, which at least continue to show improvement. For the first time since the COVID-19 crisis began, initial weekly jobless claims are under two million:

In the week ending May 30, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 1,877,000, a decrease of 249,000 from the previous week’s revised level. The previous week’s level was revised up by 3,000 from 2,123,000 to 2,126,000. The 4-week moving average was 2,284,000, a decrease of 324,750 from the previous week’s revised average. The previous week’s average was revised up by 750 from 2,608,000 to 2,608,750.

The trend is pretty good news, even if the raw numbers aren’t. Even this level of weekly initial jobless claims is well over twice what was seen in the worst of the 2008 Great Recession and financial-sector meltdown, and we’ve been above that level for ten straight weeks. The news in the next paragraph looks decidedly gloomier, emphasis mine:

The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 14.8 percent for the week ending May 23, an increase of 0.5 percentage point from the previous week’s revised rate. The previous week’s rate was revised down by 0.2 from 14.5 to 14.3 percent. The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending May 23 was 21,487,000, an increase of 649,000 from the previous week’s revised level. The previous week’s level was revised down by 214,000 from 21,052,000 to 20,838,000. The 4-week moving average was 22,446,250, a decrease of 222,500 from the previous week’s revised average. The previous week’s average was revised down by 53,500 from 22,722,250 to 22,668,750.

That continuing unemployment figure suggests that the return to work hasn’t exactly become a thundering stampede, despite ADP’s conclusions yesterday. Not only did the topline miss estimates, CNBC reports, that continuing benefit claims number should worry investors:

Continuing claims, which provide a clearer picture of how many Americans remain unemployed, totaled 21.5 million, a gain of 649,000 over the past week, also worse than Wall Street expected.

The insured unemployment rate, which is a simple measure of those collecting benefits compared to the total labor force, rose 0.5 percentage points to 14.8%. …

As states begin to reopen after being almost completely shut down for the better part of three months, so have signs grown for an economic crisis likely to drive the unemployment rate to about 20% for May. More than 42.6 million Americans have filed jobless claims since the shutdown began in mid-March.

The markets fell back a bit on the news, but this doesn’t just change the economic incentives. It also will have an impact on political incentives — and that might already have started. With unemployment apparently remaining stuck at high levels, Republicans on Capitol Hill have begun to hit reverse on their opposition to extending crisis-level unemployment benefits, in some form, anyway:

Now with the national unemployment rate projected to hit or exceed 20 percent, the highest number since the Great Depression, a growing number of GOP senators say the federal government should continue to augment weekly unemployment benefits in some form — though most want it lower than the $600 figure.

GOP senators fear that wave of protests, riots and other forms of social unrest that has rocked major cities around the country is linked to the bleak economic picture and that their majority is on the line.

There’s broad agreement within the Senate GOP conference that the $600-a-week federal enhancement of state unemployment benefits — a core element of the $2.2. trillion CARES Act — is too generous and provides a disincentive for returning to work.

But many Republican senators, including members of the leadership, now say the federal government should continue to enhance state unemployment benefits or provide a generous back-to-work bonus of $450 per week for laid-off workers who return to their jobs.

And it looks like some have rediscovered the First Rule of Entitlements:

One Republican senator familiar with the negotiations said GOP lawmakers have changed their mind on ending the $600-a-week federal benefit entirely because they are starting to realize “once the money is out there in the economy its hard to take it back” and that that the nation may be saddled with “long-term unemployment.”

Handing out free stuff is popular. Ending the handout is not. Democrats who backed that provision understood that well enough at the time. The unrest sweeping the nation right now is an additional daunting circumstance, although providing more incentives for taking jobs might have a salutary impact on that as well.

Tomorrow’s jobs report will be very interesting, in any case. If 8 million jobs lost in May is the over/under, I’ll take the over.

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