Initial Claims Drop 16,000 To Lowest Weekly Level Since 2007, Economists Miss Again

by Lee Adler, Wall Street Examiner

Forget the headline numbers. As usual they are misleading. First time unemployment claims actually declined by 16,000 last week and are currently declining at a 5.7% annual rate, staying close to the average year to year drop of the past two years.  This is the actual number counted by the states, not the seasonally adjusted headline fiction reported by the mainstream financial media.

The decline in claims continues to surprise economists, who apparently pay no attention to the strength in Federal withholding  tax data, a real time indicator.

The Labor Department reported that the seasonally adjusted (SA) representation of first time claims for unemployment rose by 2,000 to 336,000 from a revised 334,000 (was 332,000) in the advance report for the week ended March 16, 2013. Because the advance report does not include all interstate claims, it is usually revised up by from 1,000 to 4,000 in the following week. The current revision of +2,000 was within that range.

The number beat  the consensus median economists’ estimate of 345,000 reported by major business media. This continues the impressive streak of  the Wall Street economic forecasting crowd in persistently underestimating the degree of improvement in the trend. This is hard to understand given that the trend has been so persistent, and in view of the fact that real time data on tax withholding has shown very strong gains, above and beyond those caused by increased tax rates.

However, to be fair, the business of seasonal adjustment remains a haphazard and arbitrary process. Economists are fishing in the dark for a fictitious number that is all but impossible to guess. But when they are persistently wrong in one direction, it shows that their models simply don’t work, or that they have a bias.

The headline seasonally adjusted data is the only data the media reports but the Department of Labor (DOL) also reports the actual data, not seasonally adjusted (NSA). The DOL said in today’s press release, “The advance number of actual initial claims under state programs, unadjusted, totaled 299,143 in the week ending March 16, a decrease of 18,383 from the previous week. There were 319,498 initial claims in the comparable week in 2012.”  [Added emphasis mine]

For purposes of this analysis, I adjusted this week’s reported number up by 2,000, based on last week’s DOL revision. The adjusted number that I used in the data calculations and charts  is 301,000, rounded.

This year’s filings represented a decrease of  5.7% versus the referenced week last year. That’s completely consistent with the trend.

Note: To avoid the confusion inherent in the  fictitious SA data, I analyze the actual numbers of claims (NSA). It is a simple matter to extract the trend from the actual data  and compare the latest week’s actual performance to the trend, to last year, and to the average performance for the week over the prior 10 years.  It’s easy to see  graphically whether the trend is accelerating, decelerating, or about the same.

The current week to week change was an decrease of 16,000 in the NSA number.  That compares with an average decrease of 24,000 over the prior 10 years. The comparable week showed increases in all of those 10 years.  In 2012 the increase was 20,600 while in 2011 there was an decrease of 16,700. If there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s that the current week’s performance was less of a drop than 9 of the last 10 years.

It seems clear that the fiscal cliff tax increases had no negative impact on the trend. The sequester is so far having  little noticeable impact. If there’s going to be an impact, it should start to show up in the data toward the end of March. Don’t hold your breath.

Since mid 2010 the annual rate of change in initial claims has ranged from -3% to -20% in virtually every week, with a couple of temporary minor exceptions, including the Superstorm Sandy surge. Since mid 2011 the annual rate of change was within a couple of percent of -10% in most weeks. The trend has been remarkably consistent.

I would expect some moderation in the rate of improvement in the weeks and months ahead. Further reductions in the number of new claims should be much more difficult to achieve going forward as the year to year comparisons become tougher. This pattern may be starting.

Click to enlarge

While there are wide intermediate term swings in stock prices, the correlation of the  broad trends of claims with the trend of stock prices over the longer term is strong. This can be seen clearly when the claims trend is plotted on an inverse scale with stock prices on  a normal scale, as shown below.

Click to enlarge

Stock prices have broken out of the top of their range channel, while initial claims have not. As a monetary/technical analyst, the only conclusion I would draw is that the Fed’s QE3-4 money printing campaign is having far more success in creating a stock market bubble, which was one of Bernanke’s stated goals, than in driving economic growth. Stocks appear to be accelerating on a beeline for 1600 plus, while initial claims continue to improve at the same modest rate of the past two years. As long as the trend of new claims doesn’t turn negative and the Fed keeps jamming cash into the accounts of Primary Dealers via its asset purchase programs (QE3-4) , the broad uptrend in stock prices should remain intact.

[I cover the technical side of the market in the Professional Edition Daily Market Updates.]

This report is excerpted from the Permanent Employment Charts page – More charts and analysis

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