The Department of Labor reports 837,000 Americans filed for benefits last week. The headline number, however, is problematic. From the release:
In the week ending September 26, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 837,000, a decrease of 36,000 from the previous week’s revised level. The previous week’s level was revised up by 3,000 from 870,000 to 873,000. The 4-week moving average was 867,250, a decrease of 11,750 from the previous week’s revised average. The previous week’s average was revised up by 750 from 878,250 to 879,000.
The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 8.1 percent for the week ending September 19, a decrease of 0.6 percentage point from the previous week’s revised rate. The previous week’s rate was revised up by 0.1 from 8.6 to 8.7 percent.
The problem? It’s California. (As it so often is.) The technical note:
In response to recommendations resulting from an internal review of state operations, the state of California has announced a two week pause in its processing of initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits. The state will use this time to reduce its claims processing backlog and implement fraud prevention technology. Recognizing that the pause will likely result in significant week to week swings in initial claims for California and the nation unrelated to any changes in economic conditions, California’s initial claims published in the UI Claims News Release will reflect the level reported during the last week prior to the pause. Upon completion of the pause and the post-pause processing, the state will submit revised reports to reflect claims in the week during which they were filed.
The Associated Press story points out the significance of the California data and the reporting challenges.
The Labor Department’s report, released Thursday, suggests that companies are still cutting a historically high number of jobs, though the weekly numbers have become less reliable as states have increased their efforts to root out fraudulent claims and process earlier applications that have piled up.
California, for example, which accounts for more than one-quarter of the nation’s aid applications, this week simply provided the same figure it did the previous week. That’s because the state has stopped accepting new jobless claims for two weeks so it can implement anti-fraud technology and address a backlog of 600,000 applications that are more than three weeks old.
There are also implications for consumer spending.
Overall jobless aid has shrunk in recent weeks even as roughly 25 million people rely upon it. The loss of that income is likely to weaken spending and the economy in the coming months.
While it’s always been hard to plot the trajectory of the pandemic’s impact on the economy, the AP story points out sources of concern.
“Unless employment growth picks up, or additional (government) aid is extended, consumer spending is at risk of slowing dramatically during the second phase of the recovery,” said Gregory Daco, an economist at Oxford Economics.
Other measures of the U.S. economy have been sending mixed signals. Consumer confidence jumped in September, fueled by optimism among higher-income households, though it remains below pre-pandemic levels. And a measure of pending home sales rose in August to a record high, lifted by ultra-low mortgage rates.
Yet some real-time measures indicate that growth has lost momentum with the viral pandemic still squeezing many employers, especially small retailers, hotels, restaurants and airlines, nearly seven months after it paralyzed the economy. An economic index compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York grew in September at a weaker pace than during the summer months.
A long way to go before we can speak confidently of recovery.