Friday, February 26, 2010

Jobless claims reflect weak recovery

WASHINGTON — Layoffs are no longer dropping as they were in the final months of last year, reinforcing fears that the jobs crisis will weigh down consumer spending and the economic rebound.
Severe weather contributed to a rise in jobless claims last week, but other economic data add to evidence that the recovery remains weak and uneven.

An example is orders for big-ticket manufactured goods, excluding airplanes and other transportation equipment. Those orders dropped 0.6 percent in January, the government said Thursday.

Earlier in the week, new-home sales fell in January to their lowest pace on record, and consumer confidence plunged in February.

Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo, said the weak reports point to an economy struggling to wean itself from government stimulus programs such as homebuyer tax credits and other supports.

"Going forward, growth is going to be much more dependent on the private sector," Vitner said. "And consumer demand hasn't picked up that much yet."

The economy's growth rate likely will slow from above 3 percent in the current quarter, Wells Fargo estimates, to less than 2 percent by the middle of the year.

In its report Thursday on jobless claims, the Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 496,000. Wall Street analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected a drop to 455,000.

The rise occurred mostly because state agencies last week processed a backlog of claims caused by snowstorms the previous week. The storms also increased temporary layoffs in the weather-sensitive construction and transportation industries.

Still, the four-week average of jobless claims, which smooths out volatility, rose 6,000 to 473,750. The average had fallen sharply over the summer and fall from its peak last spring of about 650,000.

'Recovery on thin ice'

This year, the improvement has stalled. The four-week average has risen about 30,000 in the past month. It's now well above the 425,000 level that many economists say would signal net hiring.

Economists closely watch initial claims as a gauge of the pace of layoffs and a sign of companies' willingness to hire. More layoffs means consumers will have less money to spend, hindering the economic recovery.

"The fact that these snowstorms — as bad as they were — could have such an impact is more testimony to the fragility of the recovery," Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, wrote in a note to clients.

"The recovery is still on thin ice and lost momentum in the first quarter."

AP writers Martin Crutsinger and Jeannine Aversa contributed.

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