WASHINGTON – New claims for jobless benefits rose more than expected last week, exceeding even gloomy expectations for an economy stuck in a recession that seems to be deepening.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial applications for jobless benefits in the week ending Dec. 6 rose to a seasonally adjusted 573,000 from an upwardly revised figure of 515,000 in the previous week. That was far more than the 525,000 claims Wall Street economists expected.
Elsewhere, the U.S. trade deficit rose unexpectedly in October as a spreading global recession dampened the once-strong sales of American exports and the volume of oil imports surged by a record amount, the Commerce Department said.
More layoffs were announced Thursday. New Britain, Conn.-based tool maker Stanley Works said it plans to cut 2,000 jobs and close three manufacturing facilities, while Sara Lee Corp., known for food brands such as Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm, said it will cut 700 jobs as the Downers Grove, Ill.-based company outsources parts of its business.
New jobless claims last week reached their highest level since November 1982, though the labor force has grown by about half since then.
The trade deficit rose to $57.2 billion in October, from an imbalance of $56.6 billion in September. Analysts had been looking for the deficit to decline to $53.5 billion on lower oil prices. Oil prices did drop by a record amount, but that was offset by a record surge in the volume of oil imports.
The reports, along with investor concerns that an auto bailout bill may not pass the Senate, sent stock markets slightly lower. The Dow Jones industrial average fell about 15 points in morning trading.
The jump in initial jobless claims is partly due to a rebound in claims from the previous week, which included the Thanksgiving holiday, a Labor Department analyst said. Government offices were open for fewer days that week.
Still, the four-week average, which smooths out fluctuations, was a seasonally-adjusted 540,500, the highest since December 1982, when the economy was emerging from a steep recession.
"Stepping back from the short-term noise ... it is very clear that the underlying trend in claims is still rocketing, as companies throw in the towel and prepare for a long, deep recession," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.
The number of people continuing to claim jobless benefits also jumped much more than expected, increasing by 338,000 to 4.4 million, the Labor Department said. Economists expected a small increase to 4.1 million. The figure for continuing claims lags initial claims by one week.
As a proportion of the work force, the number of people continuing to receive benefits is the highest since August 1992, when the U.S. was recovering from a relatively mild recession. The increase in continuing claims was the largest jump since November 1974, the department said.
Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. Last year, initial claims were 337,000.
The figures come a day after the Treasury Department reported a record budget deficit for November, driven by lower tax revenues and higher spending on programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps.
In just the first two months of the budget year that started Oct. 1, the budget deficit totaled $401.6 billion, nearly matching the record gap of $455 billion posted for all of last year, the department said Wednesday.
Economists expect the deficit will top $1 trillion in the current budget year, which would be a post-World War II high when measured as a percentage of the economy.
The economy has been hit hard by the ongoing housing slump and financial crisis, which have sharply reduced household wealth as stock prices and home values have declined. Consumers and businesses have dramatically cut back their spending. The National Bureau of Economic Research said this month that the economy fell into a recession in December 2007.
The Labor Department said last week that employers cut a net total of 533,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate reached 6.7 percent, a 15-year high. The rate would have been higher, except that more than 400,000 Americans gave up looking for a new job and weren't counted in the labor force.
The latest jobless claims figures indicate that the December unemployment report could be at least as bad as November's, Abiel Reinhart, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase Bank, wrote in a client note.
Companies have eliminated a net total of 1.9 million jobs this year, and some economists project the total cuts could reach 3 million by the spring of 2010.