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Jobless claims are up, but unemployment is still low. What does that mean?

Samantha Fields May 11, 2023
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The four-week moving average of unemployment insurance claims is the highest it’s been since late 2021. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jobless claims are up, but unemployment is still low. What does that mean?

Samantha Fields May 11, 2023
Heard on:
The four-week moving average of unemployment insurance claims is the highest it’s been since late 2021. Scott Olson/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

First-time unemployment claims rose by 22,000 last week, which was more than expected. And total first-time claims were 264,000, the highest they’ve been since late 2021. These weekly numbers are volatile, so they can only tell us so much.

But the four-week moving average — which is a little more reliable — also happens to be at the highest level since late 2021, with about 245,000 claims. Could that be more evidence that the economy and labor market are slowly cooling?

When asked what the latest unemployment numbers tell us, economists Erica Groshen, Gary Hoover and Heidi Shierholz all said some version of the same thing: “Soft landing.”

Now, none of them is saying the Federal Reserve has achieved that elusive soft landing in its effort to balance interest rate increases with economic growth. But Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute said so far, that does seem to be where we’re headed.

“We see inflation coming down and unemployment not yet going up,” she said.

Even though first time-unemployment claims are inching up, they’re not up that much, and the unemployment rate remains low at just 3.4%. 

“I do always have the concern in the back of my mind: Will we start to see layoffs increasing substantially?” Shierholz said. “I definitely do not take today’s [unemployment insurance] numbers as any kind of obvious confirmation of that at all.”

Granted, that could still change. But Gary Hoover, a professor of economics at Tulane University, agrees that right now, it’s looking like the Fed may be getting things right. “And that’s actually rather surprising to me,” he said. “I thought we were going to crash down.”

So when — and how — will we actually be able to say with any confidence that the Fed has achieved that soft landing?

“Well, we’ve never really had a soft landing before,” Cornell’s Erica Groshen said with a chuckle. If it happens this time, we may only know it in hindsight. 

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