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Don’t get spooked by false alarms on U.S. jobs

A job seeker picks up a copy of the Washington Job Guide at a job fair in a Washington hotel in this file photo.

JASON REED/REUTERS

One of the lasting marks of the financial crisis is how it has shattered nerves.

A week ago, many financial market participants talked as if the sky were falling.

Initial weekly jobless claims - a notoriously volatile measure - had spiked higher.

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Even though the Labor Department said the Easter holiday likely was disrupting the accuracy of the measure, economists largely spun a narrative of gloom, if not exactly doom.

A weaker-than-expected jobs report a day later confirmed the need to panic, even though the government's montly hiring survey also is prone to dips and the jobless claims data and the payrolls survey were compiled in different weeks in March.

So here we are a week later with another jobless claims report. And guess what? Maybe things aren't so bad.

Initial weekly claims for unemployment benefits dropped by 42,000 last week to 346,000. Year to date, weekly claims now are averaging 355,000 compared with an average of 374,000 during the second half of 2012, according to Royal Bank of Scotland. The U.S. labour market is getting stronger, not weaker.

But how much stronger?

It's possible the pace of hiring slowed a bit this spring. The four-week moving average of weekly jobless claims increased to 358,000 from 355,000.

There could be a sequestration effect, as April was when the budget cuts were set to take hold. Government contractors might suddenly have found themselves short of work. The persistent inability of the U.S. government to find an elegant solution to its budget issues also likely is causing business to proceed cautiously.

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This shouldn't surprise anyone. Most every economic forecast out there assumes the U.S. economy will slow from the annual pace of about 3 per cent it likely set in the first quarter. The most optimistic forecasters think that's the best the U.S. can hope for over all of 2013. The majority expects growth closer to 2 per cent this year.

Jobless claims are key data. They provide an almost real-time look at what's happening in the labour market, which the Federal Reserve has isolated as the sole determinant in deciding how it will set policy. But they must be assessed with perspective. If we get spooked by every false alarm, we may miss the week when they start telling us something we didn't already know.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More

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