U.S. labor market recovery stalling; trade deficit widens sharply

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly dipped last week while staying extremely high, with the labor market recovery appearing to stall as a raging COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm the country.

FILE PHOTO: People line up outside Kentucky Career Center prior to its opening to find assistance with their unemployment claims in Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S. June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Other data on Thursday showed layoffs announced by U.S. companies surged 18.9% in December. Still, the economy is unlikely to slide back into recession after the government approved additional pandemic relief in late December.

More fiscal stimulus is likely. Democrats on Wednesday completed a sweep of the two Senate seats up for grabs in runoff elections in Georgia, giving the party control of the chamber and boosting the prospects for President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. Congress on Thursday formally certified Biden’s election victory hours after hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

“Given that coronavirus caseloads remain extremely high and are set to increase in the near term due to holiday travel and parties, the labor market will remain soft over the next few months,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dipped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 787,000 for the week ended Jan. 2, compared to 790,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 800,000 applications in the latest week.

Claims were likely held down by difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations around this time of the year. Unadjusted claims jumped 77,400 to 922,072 last week. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.08 million people filed claims last week.

Elevated claims are in line with other data that have suggested the economy was taking a beating from business restrictions and retrenchment in consumer spending because of the pandemic. Minutes of the Federal Reserve’s Dec. 15-16 meeting published on Wednesday showed policymakers expected soaring coronavirus cases “would be particularly challenging for the labor market in coming months.”

COVID-19 cases in the United States have jumped to more than 21 million, with the death toll exceeding 356,000 since the virus first emerged in China in late 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a separate report on Thursday, global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said U.S. companied announced 77,030 job cuts in December, up from 64,797 in November. That brought total layoffs in 2020 to a record 2.305 million, a 289% surge compared to 2019. Nearly half of the job cuts were due to the pandemic.

A report on Wednesday showed private companies shed workers in December for the first time in eight months. Data from Homebase, a payroll scheduling and tracking company, showed a steep decline in the number of employees working in December compared to November. The reports raised the risk that the economy lost jobs in December, though a survey this week showed factory employment rebounding last month.

U.S. stocks opened higher as investors bets on more pandemic aid under a Democrat-controlled Congress. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.


The government is scheduled to publish its closely followed employment report for December on Friday. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 71,000 jobs after rising by 245,000 in November.

That would be the smallest gain since the jobs recovery started in May and mean the economy recouped about 12.5 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April.

Jobless claims are above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession, though they have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March. The government in late December approved nearly $900 billion in additional fiscal stimulus, including the renewal of a $300 unemployment supplement until March 14.

Economists expect the unemployment subsidy will push up first-time jobless claims after uncertainty whether it would be renewed contributed to a drop in applications in recent weeks.

Government-funded programs for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the state unemployment programs as well as those who have exhausted their benefits were also extended in the latest pandemic relief package.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 126,000 to 5.072 million in the week ending Dec. 26. But many have exhausted their eligibility, which is limited to six months in most states. About 4.517 million workers filed for extended unemployment benefits in the week ending Dec. 19.

Roughly 19.177 million people were receiving benefits under all programs in mid-December.

The economy plunged into recession in February. Though it is expected to have expanded at around a 5% annualized rate in the fourth quarter, the bulk of the rise in gross domestic product will likely come from the rebuilding of inventories after they were depleted early in the pandemic.

A third report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed the trade deficit widened 8.0% to $68.1 billion in November, the highest since highest since August 2006. The deficit was boosted by a jump in imports as businesses replenished inventories.

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