NEW YORK (Reuters) - The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits rose last week to 516,000, the highest level since the weeks following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Labor Department reported on Thursday.
U.S. imports fell by a record 5.6 percent in September and exports suffered their steepest drop since September 2001, narrowing the monthly trade deficit slightly more than expected, a U.S. Commerce Department report showed on Thursday.
JOBLESS CLAIMS: * The figure outstripped forecasts, with analysts polled by Reuters expecting initial claims to be only 484,000. * The claims were last at this high a level in the week ended September 29, 2001, when they were 517,000. * A four-week moving average of claims, which smoothes out weekly variations, was 491,000, the largest since March 1991. * Continuing claims reached 3.897 million for the week ended November 1, up from 3.832 million the prior week and the most people filing for ongoing unemployment assistance in a quarter of a century.
TRADE BALANCE: * A record drop in imported oil prices and the lowest auto and auto parts imports since February 2004 helped trim the monthly trade gap to $56.5 billion. * The reading was slightly below the consensus estimate of $57 billion made by Wall Street analysts. * The monthly goods and services trade gap was the lowest since October 2007.
JOEL NAROFF, PRESIDENT, NAROFF ECONOMIC ADVISORS, HOLLAND, PENNSYLVANIA:
JOBLESS CLAIMS: “They are telling us that the unemployment rate will continue to grow. Eight percent or maybe nine percent is likely to happen depending how the auto sector is going to do. That is a severe recession to say the least. But no one really knows what’s going to happen to the auto sector.
“Rising unemployment rate affects the economy in a real way and depresses consumer confidence...It argues for real distress year-end shopping season for retailers.”
TRADE GAP: “The drop in oil price is a factor no doubt about it. People are just not driving that much more. They are not driving Hummers. It’s not enough to say it’s just oil. We are seeing a decline in everything — imports and exports. That’s not good. You don’t want it to happen this way. It tells me everybody is hurting.”
“The initial claims data came in came in much worse than expected at 516,000. We no longer have hurricanes or other special factors to blame for elevated numbers as we did say in September.
“So the higher level we are seeing is probably reflecting a fundamental weakening in the labor market. It suggests that the unemployment rate in the U.S., last reported at 6.5 percent for October, will continue to rise, probably hitting 7.5 percent or more sometime in 2009.
“Also, the continuing claims figure...is on the rise and that indicates that those individuals who have lost a job are finding it increasingly more difficult to find new employment. So it tells the same story.”
“The fact that the trade deficit narrowed to $56.5 billion could suggest that we may see an upward revision to third quarter GDP when it is next reported. There is a lot more September data we need to learn before we can make a final determination about the direction of the revision.”
“In one sense that is good news. In another sense, to the extent a narrowing trade deficit reflects decreased demand at home, it could also reflect a weakening economy. That’s the flip side.”
SCOTT BROWN, CHIEF ECONOMIST, RAYMOND JAMES & ASSOCIATES, ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA:
“That is an upside surprise on the claims figures, consistent with more substantial job losses and consistent with payroll losses of about 300,000 per month.”
“This is obviously very, very serious deterioration in the labor market, more than a lot of people had expected even a couple of months ago. We are looking at the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and the biggest economic crisis we have had in the United States since the early 1980s.
“The retail sales numbers tomorrow are expected to be terrible. It is just really startling how much consumers have adjusted their spending habits.”
DAVID WYSS, CHIEF ECONOMIST, STANDARD & POOR’S RATINGS SERVICES, NEW YORK:
JOBLESS CLAIMS: “This is unremitting bad news. It will continue to be a major issue. The two biggest increases could be blamed on the auto layoffs in Michigan and Ohio.
“This suggests another real bad number for November payrolls after what we saw in October. We could see a similar number this month. I’m looking at the jobless rate to hit 8 percent by late next year.
“The overall trend has been toward high unemployment and fewer jobs and less business for retailers.”
TRADE GAP: “We have a couple of offsetting things on the trade side coming in to this report, especially with the Boeing strike and the drop in oil prices. It’s a continued trend of a narrowing of the trade deficit and it will gather more steam due to lower oil.
“A lot of improvement came from the price side, not really any pickup in real exports so it’s not really going to help GDP.”
SACHA TIHANYI, ASSOCIATE CURRENCY STRATEGIST, SCOTIA CAPITAL, TORONTO:
“Trade balance came in much in line with expectations and marginally better than the previous month. The U.S. dollar is strengthening against the euro and sterling marginally immediately after the release. However, given the undercurrents driving the currency market at the moment, the impact is likely to be fleeting. Jobless claims are definitely elevated, the highest data print of this economic downturn and definitely a negative. That brings us very close to the peak initial jobless claims data from the previous 2000 to 2001 downturn.”
MARKET REACTION: STOCKS: U.S. equity index futures add to losses after jump in jobless claims. BONDS: Treasury debt prices firm slightly. DOLLAR: U.S. dollar trims losses versus euro. RATE FUTURES: U.S. rate futures trim losses, indicate chance of 50 basis points cut at December FOMC meeting.