Jobless claims increased last week, dashing hopes that we'd see a new five-year low in the weekly number in today's report. New filings for unemployment benefits in the U.S. rose 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 357,000—the highest since mid-February. Is this a sign that the labor market is poised for a slowdown? Yes, if new claims continue to trend higher. For now, it's best to reserve judgment and assume that the recent improvement in this leading indicator--i.e., falling levels--is intact. We're still a long way from an ominous signal on this front and history suggests that it's short-sighted to think otherwise until the data tell us there's trouble ahead in a clear and unambiguous way.
Meantime, it's still not obvious that the recent downtrend has ended. As the falling four-week average (red line) reminds, new claims have recently dropped to the levels at or near five-year lows. Although the four-week average ticked up last week, moving ever so slightly above the five-year low set in the previous report, it's hard to conclude anything definitive from one week's change.
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Reviewing claims data in unadjusted terms on a year-over-year basis shows that the falling trend has slowed but remains in a range that's been typical in recent history.
Even if claims turn higher in the weeks ahead, most of the March numbers are in at this point and it's likely that the month's full read will compare favorably with February. Yes, April may be rocky, but jobless claims for this month have fallen, which implies that next week's March update on payrolls from ADP and the Labor Department will report more of the same: modest growth.