What Do Weekly Unemployment Claims Tell us About Recession Risk?

by Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives/dshort.com

Note from dshort: I’ve updated this commentary to include the latest labor force data in May’s release of the April employment report.

Every Thursday I post an update on weekly unemployment claims shortly after the BLS report is made available. My focus is the four-week moving average of this rather volatile indicator. The financial press takes a fairly simplistic view of the latest weekly number, and the market often reacts, for a few minutes or a few hours, to the initial estimate, which is always revised the following week.

One of my featured charts in the update shows the four-week moving average from the inception of this series in January 1967.

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The chart, above, however, gives a rather distorted view of Initial Claims. Why? Because it’s based on a raw, albeit seasonally adjusted, number that doesn’t take into account the 103% growth in the Civilian Labor Force since January 1967.

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The Civilian Labor Force in the chart above has more than doubled from 76.64 Million in January 1967 to 155.24 Million today. The curve of the line, which the regression helps us visually quantify, largely reflects the employment demographics of the baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. In 1967 they were starting to turn 21. The oldest are now eligible for full retirement benefits. Another factor is the curve is the rising participation of women in the labor force (see this illustration).

For a better understanding of the weekly Initial Claims data, let’s view the numbers as a percent ratio of the Civilian Labor Force.

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The latest percent ratio of 0.23% means that out of 10,000 workers, twenty three made an initial application for unemployment insurance payments in the last week’s data. In fact, the latest data point is close to the low end of the 0.19% to 0.60% range over the last 46 plus years. Initial Claims are substantially below the levels during the business cycles of the stagflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s.

What about Continued Claims? Here is their percent ratio to the Civilian Labor Force.

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Likewise with this indicator, we’re at the low end of the historic range (1.24% to 4.85%). At present, approximately two persons per 100 are receiving unemployment insurance benefits.

The Unemployment Claims Recession Indicator

What is particularly interesting about this Unemployment Claims ratio series is its effectiveness as a leading indicator for recession starts and a virtually dead-on coincident indicator for recession ends. In both of the percent ratio charts above, I’ve highlighted the value at the month a recession starts. In every instance the trough in claims preceded the recession start by a few to many months, but the claims peaks were nearly identical with recession ends. Here is a table showing the actual numbers.

The least lead time from a claims trough to a recession start was three months. That was for the second half of the double-dip that began in July 1981. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this was basically a Fed engineered recession to break the back of inflation. The Effective Fed Funds Rate hit its historic monthly average high of 19.1% in June of 1981 and its all-time daily high of 22.4% on July 22, the month the NBER subsequently identified as the recession start.

Current Recession Risk

What does the percent ratio of unemployment claims tell us about our current recession risk? At present, the ratios for both Initial Claims and Continued Claims are trending down. We see in both ratio charts above a tiny Hurricane Sandy spike in late 2012, but otherwise the trend has been steadily downward. Excluding the 1981 recession, the Initial Claims trough lead time for a recession has ranged from 7 to 22 months with an average of 12 months if we include the 1981 recession and 14 months if we exclude it. Admittedly, the last recession is an extreme example, but the Initial Claims trough preceded its December 2007 onset by a whopping 22 months.

If history is even a remotely reliable guide, the current percent ratios of weekly claims to the labor force contradict the minority view that the US is currently in recession (e.g., ECRI and a few bearish bloggers). Instead, the ratios suggests that even a near-term recession is months into the future.
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3 replies on “What Do Weekly Unemployment Claims Tell us About Recession Risk?”

  1. Its important to look at labor force participation rates and analyze the changes in order to get a clearer picture of unemployment.  Looking at charts, its clear that older workers are working longer and their participation is growing, so retirement is not the reason for the drop, while the participation rate for prime working age is shrinking.  This likely represents long term unemployed that do not show up on your charts.  This time its different.

  2. spooz – – –
    The Seeking Alpha link you provided is another article by the same author.  He has many more articles on the same subject at his own website:  http://advisorperspectives.com/dshort/

  3. Ha, you’re right JohnL.  I guess the author thinks the participation rate is “eerie” but not indicative of any recessionary pressures.  I disagree.

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