U.S. jobless claims set a more than 50-year low last week as the red-hot labor market shows few signs of cooling in the near-term.
The Labor Department released its latest weekly jobless claims report Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. Here were the main metrics from the print, compared to consensus estimates compiled by Bloomberg:
- Initial jobless claims, week ended March 19: 187,000 vs. 210,000 expected and a revised 215,000 during prior week
- Continuing claims, week ended March 12: 1.350 million vs. 1.400 million expected and a revised 1.417 million during prior week
At 187,000, new jobless claims improved for a back-to-back week and reached the lowest level since September 1969. Continuing claims also fell further to reach 1.35 million — the least since January 1970.
The labor market has remained a point of strength in the U.S. economy, with job openings still elevated but coming down from record levels as more workers rejoin the labor force from the sidelines.
Going forward, however, some economists warned that new cases of the fast-spreading sub-variant of Omicron, known as BA.2, could at least temporarily disrupt mobility and economic activity across the country. As of this week, about one-third of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have been attributed to the sub-variant, though overall new infections have still been trending down from January’s record high. The impact on the labor market — and on demand in the service sector especially — remains to be seen.
“Right now, U.S. cases are in the sweet spot between the bottom of the initial Omicron wave and the impending explosion in BA.2 cases, but this probably won’t last long,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note this week. “Our bet … is that the coming BA.2 wave will trigger a modest but visible pull-back in the discretionary services sector, thereby dampening consumption in the first month of the second quarter.”
Still, many economists and policymakers have pointed out that the labor market withstood prior disruptions due to the Omicron wave earlier this year. Non-farm payrolls grew more than expected in each of January and February despite the outbreak.
And Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reiterated his assessment of the labor market’s strength earlier this week, just days after calling the current job market “tight to an unhealthy level” in his post-Fed meeting press conference last week.
“The labor market has substantial momentum. Employment growth powered through the difficult Omicron wave, adding 1.75 million jobs over the past three months,” Powell said in a speech Monday. “By many measures, the labor market is extremely tight, significantly tighter than the very strong job market just before the pandemic.”
The tightness of the labor market has also strongly informed the Fed’s decisions in pressing ahead with tightening monetary policy, with the economy showing clear signs of strength and the ability to handle less accommodative financial conditions. Last week, the Fed raised interest rates by 25 basis points in its first rate hike since 2018. And St. Louis Fed President Jim Bullard, the lone dissenter of that decision who had called for a more aggressive 50 basis point rate hike last week, justified his vote in part given the strength of the U.S. labor market even in the face of decades-high rates of inflation.
“U.S. labor markets are today already stronger than they have been in a generation,” Bullard said in a statement.