U.S. weekly jobless claims blow past 6 million mark

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits shot to a record high of more than 6 million last week as more jurisdictions enforced stay-at-home measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, which economists say has pushed the economy into recession.

Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department, the most timely data on the economy’s health, reinforced economists’ views that the longest employment boom in U.S. history probably ended in March.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits surged 3.341 million to a seasonally adjusted 6.648 million for the week ended March 28, the government said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 24,000 more applications received than previously reported, lifting the number to 3.307 million.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would jump to 3.50 million in the latest week, though estimates were as high as 5.25 million.

“Similar to last week’s unemployment claims numbers, today’s report reflects the sacrifices American workers are making for their families, neighbors, and country in order to slow the spread,” U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement.

The United States has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with more than 214,000 people infected. Nearly 5,000 people in the country have died from the illness, according to a Reuters tally.

The dollar <.DXY> was little changed against a basket of currencies. U.S Treasury prices were trading higher while U.S. stock index futures pared gains.

GENEROUS PROVISIONS

Applications for unemployment benefits peaked at 665,000 during the 2007-2009 recession, when 8.7 million jobs were lost. Economists say the country should brace for jobless claims to continue escalating, partly citing generous provisions of a historic $2.3 trillion fiscal package signed by President Donald Trump last Friday and the federal government’s easing of requirements for workers to seek benefits.

As a result, self-employed and gig workers who previously were unable to claim unemployment benefits are now eligible. In addition, the unemployed will get up to $600 per week for up to four months, which is equivalent to $15 per hour for a 40-hour workweek. By comparison, the government-mandated minimum wage is about $7.25 per hour and the average jobless benefits payment was roughly $385 per person per month at the start of this year.

“Why work when one is better off not working financially and healthwise?” said Sung Won Sohn, a business economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on the closely watched employment report for March, which is scheduled for release on Friday. For the latter, the government surveyed businesses and households in the middle of the month, when just a handful of states were enforcing “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders.

It is, however, a preview of the carnage that awaits. Retailers, including Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp and Gap Inc , said on Monday they would furlough tens of thousands of employees, as they prepare to keep stores shut for longer.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, the government report on Friday is likely to show nonfarm payrolls dropped by 100,000 jobs last month after a robust increase of 273,000 in February. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise three-tenths of a percentage point to 3.8% in March.

“A rough look at the most affected industries suggests a potential payroll job loss of over 16 million jobs,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management in New York. “The loss would be enough to boost the unemployment rate from roughly 3.5% to 12.5%, which would be its highest rate since the Great Depression.”

Thursday’s claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid jumped 1.245 million to 3.029 million for the week ended March 21, the highest since July 6, 2013.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns, Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Oil falls after U.S. crude stockpiles jump and gasoline demand slumps

By Laura Sanicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices fell on Wednesday after data showed U.S. crude inventories rose last week by the most since 2016 while gasoline demand suffered its biggest weekly drop ever due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Crude inventories <USOILC=ECI> rose by 13.8 million barrels last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. That was the biggest one-week rise since 2016, and analysts expect similar reports in coming weeks, as refineries curb output further and gasoline demand continues to decline.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude <CLc1> fell 29 cents, or 1.5%, to $20.19 a barrel by 1:30 p.m. ET (1730 GMT), after hitting a low at $19.90.

June Brent crude <LCOc1> fell $1.45, or 5.5%, to $24.90 a barrel. The global benchmark fell to $21.65 on Monday, its lowest since 2002, when the now-expired May contract was the front month.

The market has slumped on pledges of higher output from Saudi Arabia and Russia after a supply pact collapsed and the sharp fall in demand because of the coronavirus pandemic. Brent crude fell 66% in the first three months of 2020 – its biggest ever quarterly loss.

“Global inventories will be chock full by mid-May. I think the market can continue to decline further,” said Gene McGillian, a broker and oil analyst at Tradition Energy.

“There’s no signs of reproachment with producers and with further demand destruction we could get another $5 taken from the market.”

U.S. state governments have issued orders trying to halt the spread of the virus, and many residents are staying out of their cars. Gasoline demand fell by the most ever in one week, with products supplied, a proxy for demand, dropping by 2.2 million barrels per day to 6.7 million bpd. That augurs for more refining cutbacks down the road.

“Demand is a disaster,” said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho in New York. “That’s the whole problem here. It’s horrible.”

The bearish mood has been fueled by a rift within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members have been unable to agree to a technical meeting in April to discuss sliding prices.

An OPEC-led supply deal fell apart on March 6 when Russia refused to cut output further. Saudi Arabia has already begun to boost output, a Reuters OPEC survey showed on Tuesday, and is expected to pump more in April. [OPEC/O]

“It is very unlikely that OPEC, with or without Russia or the United States, will agree a sufficient volumetric solution to offset oil demand losses,” BNP Paribas analyst Harry Tchilinguirian said in a report on Tuesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he would join Saudi Arabia and Russia, if need be, for talks about the fall in oil prices.

(Additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi and Alex Lawler; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Goodman)

U.S. task force to tackle coronavirus market manipulation, hoarding

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is launching a task force to address market manipulation, hoarding and price gouging related to the coronavirus pandemic, following an order by President Donald Trump to crack down on such crimes.

At the same time, federal law enforcement agencies across the country are prioritizing investigations into an array of coronavirus-related crimes following reports they have surged.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said among the reported crimes were the targeting of federally-insured Medicare patients with fake tests or unnecessary antiretroviral prescriptions.

“You should be on the lookout for these sorts of schemes,” Rosen wrote in the memo, which was directed to the heads of all the Justice Department’s law enforcement components and all U.S. Attorneys offices.

Other reported crimes included threats of violence to local mayors and robberies of patients and doctors leaving hospitals.

In a separate memo, Attorney General William Barr said the new task force on hoarding and price gouging will be led by Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

“We must do the best we can to protect Americans’ rights and safety in this novel and troubling time,” Barr wrote.

Barr earlier this month directed federal prosecutors to prioritize crimes related to the coronavirus outbreak. That initiative required each U.S. Attorney’s office to appoint a designated prosecutor to oversee coronavirus fraud cases.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 660 people in the United States and infected more than 50,000, with some officials warning the crisis could last for months.

Law enforcement officials who specialize in healthcare and drug-related crimes who spoke with Reuters this week said they anticipated rising crime as fraudsters seek to capitalize on people’s fears about the outbreak.

Marking its first coronavirus case, the Justice Department revealed on Sunday it had closed down a website selling non-existent vaccines.

Barr has already launched investigations into the hoarding and price gouging of critical medical supplies, part of actions tied to an executive order by President Donald Trump that authorizes the criminal prosecution of anyone whose purchases exceed reasonable limits.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jane Wardell)