Jobless claims rise unexpectedly

Although weekly jobless claims are up, longer-term data suggests the unemployment situation is slowly improving.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Sonja Jackson held an employment guide while attending a job fair in Livonia, Mich., last month. The number of laid off workers filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week.

The number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits jumped last week for the second week in a row. That's the first two-week rise since October and comes at a time when most analysts had been expecting a decline.

So, is unemployment going to continue creeping to higher and higher levels?

Not likely. The closely watched four-week moving average, which smooths out the inherently volatile week-to-week numbers, continued its downward slide. Instead, the data appears to be pointing to agonizingly slow improvement.

For the week ending Dec. 12, the number of first-time unemployment claims rose to a seasonally adjusted 480,000, up 7,000 from the previous week, the US Department of Labor reported Thursday. The four-week moving average fell again to 472,750, its lowest level since Sept. 20, 2008.

This claims data seems to suggest that when the Commerce Department reports job losses in December, they should come in at about 250,000, writes Joshua Shapiro, an economist with MFR Inc., in an analysis. "We expect the improvement to slow on a trend basis from here on."

In fact, the Commerce data looks far rosier than that. In November, the US lost only 11,000 jobs. If that pattern holds for the next few months, then unemployment could begin to fall more quickly than expected.

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First-time claims for jobless benefits offer the most up-to-date view of the US unemployment picture. You can always find our updates on Twitter.

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