Are Effects of 'True' Unemployment About to Kick In?

by: Reggie Middleton

A recent Zero Hedge article rightly questioned the reliability of the reported unemployment figures by comparing the reported increase in the unemployment benefits paid with the reported increase in the number of insured unemployed. According to the figures reported by Department of Labor (DOL), the total number of insured unemployed in the US has risen by nearly 400% since September 2007 and has reached nearly 10.5 million as of Dec 19, 2009. However, if we look at the monthly withdrawals on the unemployment insurance account (according to the Daily Treasury Statement prepared by the Financial Management Service), the expenditure has risen by nearly 550%. The difference has been widening since April 2009 (coincidentally, right about the time the S&P 500 rocketed skywards, and the housing market made several month to month gains - see If Anybody Bothered to Take a Close Look at the Latest Housing Numbers...") and has increased substantially in Dec 2009.

With no reason to believe that the average payouts increased dramatically (that could have otherwise explained this variation), the article rightly points out the huge discrepancy that is creeping in the reported figures. According to Zero Hedge, the insured unemployed are understated by 32% and estimate the insured unemployed at nearly 14 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the total number of unemployed at 15.6 million and the unemployment rate at 10% in Dec 2010. With serious doubts being raised about the reported figures of the insured unemployed that forms a substantial portion of total unemployed (nearly 69% in Dec 2010, based on reported figures), the total unemployment figures reported by the government is most likely severely understated.


The grave unemployment situation not only undermines the economic health and recovery hopes, but is also acting as a major source of financial strain on the Fed's books. The Fed has been spending huge amounts of money in the form of UI (unemployment insurance) benefits. In 2009, the government paid about $139 billion in UI benefits. Based on the figures for total unemployed by Bureau of Labor statistics and total insured unemployed by DOL, the total insured unemployed which are being supported by the government under the various state and federal programs have risen to 69.0% of the total unemployed as of Dec 2009 from just 29.0% in Sep 2007. Further, it is observed that the Fed has been taking in huge deficits on its books because of UI programs. The total UI withdrawals on Fed books in 2009 were $139 billion against deposits of just $31 billion received from states for unemployment. While the withdrawals in 2009 have increased by 320% when compared with withdrawals in 2007, the deposits have declined by 6.6%. The deficit has increased to nearly $107 billion from nearly no deficit, two years ago.

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The increased pressure on the Fed books can be largely explained when we look into UI programs that are currently being administered by the government. There are two major UI programs - Regular state programs and Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC). While the former has to be funded through tax collection by the state (with any deficit financed by the Fed through loans), the latter is 100% funded by the Fed. EUC is a Federal, temporary extension of unemployment compensation for unemployed individuals who have already collected all regular state benefits for which they were eligible. The program was started in June 2008 and was due to expire in December, 2009. The claims under the program have risen at a phenomenal rate and now accounts for nearly 50% of the total insured unemployed claims.

Thus, the Fed has been financing the extension of UI benefits of those which are no longer covered under the regular state programs. As per the last reported figures as of Dec 19, 2009, while the claims under the regular state programs have come down due to the expiration of claims, the same was more than offset by the massive jump in insured unemployed under the federal EUC program. The claims under the regular state programs were down 4.3% (y-o-y) while the claims under EUC were up nearly 200% which led to a nearly 51% increase in total insured unemployed. Insured unemployed are not able to get jobs and with claims expiring under the regular state programs, they are increasingly applying to the Federal's EUC program for extended benefits.

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Looking at the initial job claims under the regular state programs, while the markets rejoiced the decline in seasonally adjusted figure, the non-seasonally adjusted figures (which are the actual claims) continue to inch up. For the week ended Jan 02, 2010, the initial jobless claims (NSA) increased 88,000 (w-o-w) to reach 645,571. Looking at the two year trend of the seasonal adjustment does call into question the validity and accuracy of the adjustments, no?

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With the total number of insured unemployed (under the state and federal programs combined) continuing to increase as well as no respite coming from the initial jobless claims (looking at the real figures which are not seasonally adjusted), the unemployment situation is far from improving. Further, with serious questions being raised about the validity of the reported number of insured unemployed, the gravity of the situation is definitely underrated. The Fed is pumping in enormous sums of money to underpin the problem - an amount that may rival the TARP. However, with claims expiring under the regular UI state programs and the temporary aid provided by EUC expected to taper in the coming months, unemployment is going to increasingly weigh on aggregate demand and further delay the economic recovery.

I have seen no evidence of the federal emergency benefits being extended into 2010. What, pray tell, happens when those on this program run out of rope? Although it may not show up in the initial claims and average numbers, it will damn well show up in the bottom line of most companies. Contrary to popular belief, companies really do need people to spend money in order to make money.

Update: The EUC program was set to expire in December 2009 which means that it was the last date for establishing the claims under this program. Individuals establishing benefit entitlement as of this date can collect the remainder of this entitlement through May 31, 2010. However, with a subsequent Act passed on Dec 19, 2009, the date for establishing the claims has been extended to Feb 28, 2010 and the last date for collections to July 31, 2010. The Act also provides for increasing the weekly UI benefits by $25 in the form of Federal additional compensation.

And the latest info released directly from the Department of Labor:



In the week ending Jan. 9, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 444,000, an increase of 11,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 433,000. The 4-week moving average was 440,750, a decrease of 9,000 from the previous week's revised average of 449,750.

The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 3.5 percent for the week ending Jan. 2, a decrease of 0.1 percentage point from the prior week's unrevised rate of 3.6 percent.

The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending Jan. 2 was 4,596,000, a decrease of 211,000 from the preceding week's revised level of 4,807,000. The 4-week moving average was 4,855,000, a decrease of 151,500 from the preceding week's revised average of 5,006,500.

The fiscal year-to-date average for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment for all programs is 5.448 million.


The advance number of actual initial claims under state programs, unadjusted, totaled 801,086 in the week ending Jan. 9, an increase of 156,165 from the previous week. There were 956,791 initial claims in the comparable week in 2009.

The advance unadjusted insured unemployment rate was 4.6 percent during the week ending Jan. 2, an increase of 0.4 percentage point from the prior week. The advance unadjusted number for persons claiming UI benefits in state programs totaled 5,988,940, an increase of 503,924 from the preceding week. A year earlier, the rate was 4.4 percent and the volume was 5,855,855.

Extended benefits were available in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin during the week ending Dec. 26.

Initial claims for UI benefits by former Federal civilian employees totaled 1,466 in the week ending Jan. 2, a decrease of 187 from the prior week. There were 1,454 initial claims by newly discharged veterans, an increase of 73 from the preceding week.

There were 25,959 former Federal civilian employees claiming UI benefits for the week ending Dec. 26, an increase of 193 from the previous week. Newly discharged veterans claiming benefits totaled 36,116, an increase of 1,742 from the prior week.

States reported 5,002,180 persons claiming EUC (Emergency Unemployment Compensation) benefits for the week ending Dec. 26, a decrease of 141,279 from the prior week. There were 1,666,412 claimants in the comparable week in 2008. EUC weekly claims include first, second, third, and fourth tier activity.

The highest insured unemployment rates in the week ending Dec. 26 were in Alaska (7.4 percent), Oregon (6.6), Idaho (6.2), Wisconsin (6.2), Michigan (5.9), Montana (5.7), Nevada (5.7), North Carolina (5.6), Pennsylvania (5.5), and Washington (5.4).

The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending Jan. 2 were in New York (+22,810), North Carolina (+20,942), Georgia (+11,172), Wisconsin (+9,938), and Alabama (+5,748), while the largest decreases were in Illinois (-6,928), Florida (-6,523), Kansas (-3,701), Maryland (-2,309), and California (-2,284).


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Disclosure: no positions