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Huge Jump in Initial Unemployment Claims Is Not About A Computer Glitch

First time unemployment claims rose sharply as of October 5, as the effects of the chaos in Washington began to ripple through the economy. However, as I pointed out last week, the recent strength reflected in the claims data “should change radically in the weeks ahead. In the short run the data will weaken, but more important will be what happens after the government reaches a deal on the budget and the debt ceiling.”

Meanwhile, the media had some lame excuse about California’s reporting software being effed up as part of the reason for the big jump. That doesn’t wash. Two weeks ago the reports were that the glitches in the new software had been ironed out. If earlier claims hadn’t been reported, why were there no significant upward revisions applied to past weeks either in the current or prior reports. No, this jump in claims is real, and it is fallout from the gummit shutdown. I would expect most of this weakness, to be reversed once this mess is settled. The big question is how much.

The Labor Department reported that in the week ending October 5, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 374,000, an increase of 66,000 from the previous week’s unrevised figure of 308,000. The 4-week moving average was 325,000, an increase of 20,000 from the previous week’s unrevised average of 305,000.

The consensus estimate of economists of 318,000 for the SA headline number was too low for a change (see footnote 1) as economists had no clue what the impact of the government shutdown was  and apparently are not aware of the real-time hard data on Federal Withholding taxes, which I track weekly in the Treasury Update. They showed a sharp drop in withholding tax collections over the past week. The jump in claims is not about a computer glitch in California. The tax data confirms that it’s real.

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 the current press release, “The advance number of actual initial claims under state programs, unadjusted, totaled 336,849 in the week ending October 5, an increase of 84,616 from the previous week. There were 329,919 initial claims in the comparable week in 2012.”  [Added emphasis mine] See footnote 2.

This was the first year to year increase since early January. Actual filings last week represented an increase of  2.1% versus the corresponding week last year. This breaks a string of the strongest year to year declines in a year.

Initial Unemployment Claims - Click to enlarge

Initial Unemployment Claims – Click to enlarge


There’s usually significant volatility in this number with a usual range of zero to -20%. Prior to this week it had been consistently strong.  Last week it was -16.3%. Excluding the mid September reported “glitch” weeks, over the previous 2 months the rate of decline was -10% to -13%.  The average weekly year to year improvement of the past 2 years is -8.1%.  Claims as a percentage of the total employed were lately at levels last seen at the end of the housing bubble, just before the market and economy collapsed.

Initial Unemployment Claims Percentage of Total Employed - Click to enlarge

Initial Unemployment Claims Percentage of Total Employed – Click to enlarge

That all changed this week. The question is, once a political deal is struck on the budget and debt ceiling and federal workers go back to work,  whether claims will return to their recent past pattern, or this shock to the system has a lasting impact. We probably won’t know the complete answer for several months after the deal is done.

The current weekly change in the NSA initial claims number is an increase of 85,000 (rounded) from the previous week. That compares with an increase of  29,000 for the comparable week last year. The first week of October is virtually always an up week. The average change  for the comparable week over the prior 10 years was an increase of 34,000.  The numbers for this week were worse than any week of the past 10 years. This is clearly an outlier. And we know why.

Federal withholding tax data has slumped sharply since the end of September. It was still on trend until late September when there was a sharp downtick. I speculated last week that the government shutdown should begin to show up in this week’s data, both in withholding taxes and initial claims, and here we are.

To signal a weakening economy, current weekly claims would need to be greater than the comparable week last year. That happened this week, but I’ll give it a mulligan. The trend had been one of accelerating improvement in spite of the fact that the comparisons are now much tougher than in the early years of the 2009-13 rebound.  I want to see what happens after the government shutdown ends. Will this data return to trend or not? The answer to that question will tell us whether the shutdown, and possible debt ceiling debacle, which looks like it will be avoided, have any long term effects on the economy.

The government shutdown will pollute this data for its duration. Let’s take it with a grain of salt while everyone else is crying, rending their clothes, and gnashing their teeth, or blaming a glitch. It wasn’t a glitch.

Relative to the trends indicated by unemployment claims, stocks have been extended and vulnerable since May.  QE has pushed stock prices higher but has done nothing to stimulate jobs growth.

Initial Unemployment Claims and Stock Prices - Click to enlarge

Initial Unemployment Claims and Stock Prices- Click to enlarge

I plot the claims trend on an inverse scale on this chart with stock prices on  a normal scale. The acceleration of stock prices in the first half of 2013 suggested that bubble dynamics were at work in the equities market, thanks to the Fed’s money printing. Those dynamics appeared to have ended in July but the zombie has kept coming back to life. Has the government shutdown and the potential for default finally put a stake in its heart?  I address the specific potential outcomes in my proprietary technical work.


More charts below.

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Footnote 1: Economists adjust their forecasts based on the previous week’s number, leading to them frequently getting whipsawed.  Reporters frame it as the economy missing or beating the estimates, but it’s really the economic forecasters who are missing. The economy is what it is. 

The market’s focus on whether the forecasters have made a good guess or not is nuts. Aside from the fact that economic forecasting is a combination of idolatrous religion and prostitution, the seasonally adjusted number, being made-up,  is virtually impossible to consistently guess (see endnote). Even the actual numbers can’t be guessed to the degree of accuracy that the headline writers would have you believe is possible.

Footnote 2: There is no way to know whether the SA number is misleading or a reasonably accurate representation of the trend unless we are also looking at charts of the actual data. And if we look at the actual data using the tools of technical analysis to view the trend, then there’s no reason to be looking at a bunch of made up crap, which is what the seasonally adjusted data is. Seasonal adjustment just confuses the issue.

Seasonally adjusted numbers are fictional and are not finalized until 5 years after the fact. There are annual revisions that attempt to accurately reflect what actually happened this week. The weekly numbers are essentially worthless for comparative analytical purposes because they are so noisy. Seasonally adjusted noise is still noise. It’s just smoother. So 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 have a bias. Since the third quarter of 2012, with a few exceptions it has appeared that a pessimism bias was built in to their estimates.

To avoid the confusion inherent in the  fictitious SA data, I work with only the actual, not seasonally adjusted (NSA) data. 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 advance number for the most recent week is normally a little short of the final number the week after the advance report, because the advance number does not include all interstate claims. The revisions are minor and consistent however, so it is easy to adjust for them. Unlike the SA data, after the second week, they are never subsequently revised.

Cliff-Note: Neither stopping nor starting rounds of QE seems to have had an impact on claims. Nor did the fecal cliff secastration. The US economy is so big that it develops a momentum of its own that policy tweaks do not impact. Policy makers and traders like to think that policy matters to the economy. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Monetary policy measures may have little impact on the economy, but they do matter to financial market performance. In some respects they’re all that matters. We must separate economic performance from market performance.  The economy does not drive markets. Liquidity drives markets, and central banks control the flow of liquidity most of the time. The issue is what drives central bankers.

Some economic series correlate with stock prices well. Others don’t.  I give little weight to economic indicators when analyzing the trend of stock prices, but economic indicators can tell us something about market context, in particular, likely central banker behavior. The economic data helps us to guess whether the Fed will continue printing or not. The printing is what drives the madness.  The economic data helps to predict the central banker Pavlovian Response which is, when the bell rings —> PRINT! Weaker economic data is the bell.

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Initial Claims Seasonal Adjustment Off Track

Initial Claims Seasonal Adjustment Off Track – Click to enlarge


Initial Unemployment Claims Long View - Click to enlarge

Initial Unemployment Claims Long View – Click to enlarge


The Labor Department, using the usual statistical hocus pocus, applies a seasonal adjustment factor to the actual data to derive the seasonally adjusted estimate. That factor varies widely for this week from year to year. The factor applied this week was at the high end of the historical range.

Initial Unemployment Claims Seasonal Adjustment Factors - Click to enlarge

Initial Unemployment Claims Seasonal Adjustment Factors – Click to enlarge

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Skating on Thin Ice, Keep Life Preservers Handy

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Lee Adler

I’ve been publishing The Wall Street Examiner and its predecessor since October 2000. I also publish, and was lead analyst for Sure Money Investor, of blessed memory. I developed David Stockman's Contra Corner for Mr. Stockman. I’ve had a wide variety of finance related jobs since 1972, including a stint on Wall Street in both sales, analytical, and trading capacities. Prior to starting the Wall Street Examiner I was a commercial real estate appraiser in Florida for 15 years. I was considered an expert in the analysis of failed properties that ended up in the hands of bank REO divisions, the FDIC, and the RTC. Remember those guys? I also worked in the residential mortgage and real estate businesses in parts of the 1970s and 80s. I have been charting stocks and markets and doing analytical work since I was a teenager. I'm not some Ivory Tower academic, Wall Street guy. My perspective comes from having my boots on the ground and in the trenches, as a real estate broker, mortgage broker, trader, account rep, and analyst. I've watched most of the games these Wall Street wiseguys play from right up close. I know the drill from my 55 years of paying attention. And I'm happy to share that experience with you, right here. 

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