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Weekly Jobless Claims Drift Down; Retail Sales Edged Up in September

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Can it be that unemployment is looking up? According to the Department of Labor on Thursday, “the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 445,000, a decrease of 11,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 456,000. The 4-week moving average was 455,750, a decrease of 3,000 from the previous week's revised average of 458,750.”

Jobless claims were 10,000 lower than expected, said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at High Frequency Economics. That made this week’s the lowest weekly claims number since July 10.

However, according to Shepherdson, “that is not enough to call a downshift in the underlying trend . . . we'd need to see a run of sub-440K numbers to convince us there has been a real change. . . . If you want to be bullish, though, you could argue that the drop in claims reflects an easing of the pressure on small firms, now that credit has more or less stopped contracting.”

If unemployment may be edging lower, retail sales are edging higher, according to figures from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), which said that U.S. chain stores sales were up 2.6% in year-over-year comparable-store sales for September. Luxury sales, said ICSC, were strongest, up 6.6%.

Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for ICSC, said in a statement: “The performance was somewhat uneven and was negatively impacted by abnormally warm weather, which curbed fall merchandise demand, and lower drug prices, which dragged down the reported drug store performance. The fact that luxury continued to post a strong performance is not surprising given the recent improvement in high-income household consumer confidence.”

Same-store sales were reported up by 2.8% by Thomson Reuters on Thursday. CNN Money quoted the research as saying that sales had been up for the 13th month in a row, with nearly three quarters of the responding retailers reporting sales that “beat analysts’ expectations.”

Steve Blitz, chief economist at Majestic Research, said of the positive-but-not-thriving numbers, “It’s not a real expansion; it’s momentum growth. The sun comes up, the lights go on, and the economy grows two percent.” It won’t engender inflation, he added, but it’s also not going to take care of the unemployment problem.

“If you go [along at] two percent long enough, it will accelerate,” Blitz said, but there are political implications for waiting that long and the economy has to get going sooner than that. “The economy doesn’t suffer from a too-high cost of capital,” he added; “it suffers from not enough demand, and we’re looking to the export sector to generate that . . . we need to have a more realistically priced dollar, and Treasury is attempting to do that.”

Majestic’s report on the figures adds: “The sum of the employment patterns leads us to wonder just what the credit side of the bond market is pricing and, more to the point, where the Fed is leading it in the attempt, successful so far, to suppress market pricing. Treasuries are mathematically representing what the Fed is telling everyone—the Federal funds rate isn’t going up for a long time. U.S. policymakers are designing for the needed dollar depreciation to occur painlessly, namely, without real interest rates rising. While we wait for exports to surge and imports to be replaced with domestic product, the economy is slow and slowing. The option-adjusted spread (OAS) for the Merrill Lynch High Yield Master Index is, at the same time, comfortably trading about where it was in 2008, pre-Lehman.”


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