U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in nearly 12 years as inflation pressures build

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April as booming demand amid a reopening economy pushed against supply constraints, which could fuel financial market fears of a lengthy period of higher inflation.

The report from the Labor Department on Wednesday also showed a strong building up of underlying price pressures. Demand is being driven by nearly $6 trillion in government relief since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States in March 2020 and the vaccination of more than a third of the population.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists largely view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient. But there are concerns that inflation could linger amid reports that companies are raising wages as they compete for scarce workers.

Though job openings are at a record 8.1 million and nearly 10 million people are officially unemployed, companies are scrambling for labor. Generous unemployment benefits, fears of contracting COVID-19, parents still at home caring for children and pandemic-related retirements have been blamed for the disconnect. Average hourly earnings jumped in April.

The consumer price index jumped 0.8% last month, the largest gain since June 2009. The CPI rose 0.6% in March. Food prices increased 0.4%. The cost of food consumed at home also gained 0.4%. The cost of food consumed away from home rose 0.3%. Gasoline prices fell 1.4% after accelerating 9.1% in March.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI climbing 0.2% in April.

In the 12 months through April, the CPI shot up 4.2%. That was the largest gain since September 2008 and followed a 2.6% increase in March. The jump mostly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation.

Those so-called base effects are expected to push annual inflation even higher in the months ahead.

U.S. stock index futures extended losses on the data, which investors feared could force the Fed to raise interest rates sooner than expected. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. The U.S. central bank has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation after years of lower inflation.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI soared 0.9%, the largest gain since April 1982. The so-called core CPI rose 0.3% in March. There were increases in prices for used cars and trucks, shelter, airline fares, recreation, motor vehicle insurance as well as household furnishings.

In the 12 months through April, the core CPI jumped 3.0% after increasing 1.6% in March.

The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2% inflation target, a flexible average. The core PCE price index is at 1.8%.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job growth far below expectations in April amid labor shortages

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employers hired far fewer workers than expected in April, likely frustrated by labor shortages, leaving them scrambling to meet booming demand as the economy reopens amid rapidly improving public health and massive financial help from the government.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 jobs last month after rising by 770,000 in March, the Labor Department said in its closely watched employment report on Friday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls advancing by 978,000 jobs.

The jobs report, the first since the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package was approved in March, will probably do little to change expectations that the economy entered the second quarter with strong momentum and was on track for its best performance this year in almost four decades.

Twelve months ago, the economy purged a record 20.679 million jobs as it reeled from mandatory closures of nonessential businesses to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections. New claims for unemployment benefits have dropped below 500,000 for the first-time since the pandemic started.

Americans over the age of 16 are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, leading states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to lift most of their coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses.

But the resulting burst in demand, which contributed to the economy’s 6.4% annualized growth pace in the first quarter, the second-fastest since the third quarter of 2003, has triggered shortages of labor and raw materials.

From manufacturing to restaurants, employers are scrambling for workers. A range of factors, including parents still at home caring for children, coronavirus-related retirements and generous unemployment checks, are blamed for the labor shortages. The moderate pace of hiring could last at least until September when the enhanced unemployment benefits run out.

The labor market remains supported by very accommodative fiscal and monetary policy. President Joe Biden plans to spend another $4 trillion on education and childcare, middle- and low-income families, infrastructure and jobs. The Federal Reserve has signaled it intends to leave its benchmark interest rate near zero and continue to pump money into the economy through bond purchases for a while.

The unemployment rate rose to 6.1% in April from 6.0% in March. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Millions of Americans remain out of work and many have permanently lost jobs because of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in 8-1/2 years as economy reopens

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices rose by the most in more than 8-1/2 years in March as increased vaccinations and massive fiscal stimulus unleashed pent-up demand, kicking off what most economists expect will be a brief period of higher inflation.

The report from the Labor Department on Tuesday also showed a firming in underlying prices last month as the broader reopening of the economy bumps against bottlenecks in the supply chain, capacity constraints and higher commodity prices.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient. The supply constraints mostly reflect a shift in demand towards goods and away from services during the pandemic, now in its second year.

“Inflation is a process and not a one-time event,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “These bottlenecks are one offs. The Fed will not consider action until it views price levels changes as permanent rather than temporary, something it does not consider possible until the economy is at full employment.”

The consumer price index jumped 0.6% last month, the largest gain since August 2012, after rising 0.4% in February. A 9.1% surge in gasoline prices accounted for nearly half of the increase in the CPI. Gasoline prices rose 6.4% in February.

Food prices edged up 0.1%. The cost of food consumed at and away from home also rose 0.1%.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI advancing 0.5%. In the 12 months through March, the CPI surged 2.6%. That was the largest gain since August 2018 and followed a 1.7% increase in February.

The jump mostly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation. Those so-called base effects are expected to push up annual inflation even higher in the coming months before subsiding later this year.

Stocks on Wall Street were mostly higher. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose slightly.

UNDERLYING INFLATION FIRMING

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI increased 0.3% after nudging up 0.1% in February. The largest gain in seven months in the so-called core CPI was driven by a rise in rents as well as hotel and motel accommodation prices, which rebounded 4.4% after falling 2.7% in February.

The cost of hospital services increased 0.6%. But prescription medication prices were unchanged leading to overall healthcare costs edging up 0.1%. Used cars and trucks prices increased a solid 0.5%, but the cost new cars was unchanged for a second straight month. Motor vehicle production has been hampered by a global shortage of semiconductors.

Consumers also paid more for motor vehicle insurance as well as recreation and household furnishings. But apparel prices fell as did costs related to education.

The core CPI increased 1.6% on a year-on-year basis after rising 1.3% in February. The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2% inflation target, a flexible average. The core PCE price index is at 1.5%.

The cost of services advanced 0.4% after rising 0.3% in February. The government reported last week that producer prices surged in March. With the CPI and PPI data in hand, economists at JPMorgan forecast the core PCE price index gained 0.4% in March after nudging up 0.1% in February. That would lift the year-on-year increase to 1.9% from 1.4% in February.

March’s strong inflation readings are in sync with several business surveys showing an acceleration in cost pressures.

Manufacturers are grappling with acute shortages of basic materials, rising commodities prices and difficulties in transporting finished goods.

Some economists argue the fractured supply chains, together with nearly $6 trillion in government relief since the COVID-19 pandemic barreled through the United States in March 2020 could fan inflation for a sustained period. The Fed has also slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases.

These economists also point to the business surveys, which have indicated that customer inventories are at record lows and order books are full. A survey from the NFIB on Tuesday showed just over a third of small businesses planned raising prices in March, noting that “low inventories and solid sales will create more opportunities to raise prices.”

“This suggests companies have strong pricing power that could allow them to expand profit margins after several years of margin compression, which could keep inflation higher for longer,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING in New York.

But labor market slack could make it harder for inflation to continue spiraling higher. Employment remains 8.4 million below its peak in February 2020. The extremely accommodative fiscal and monetary policy are also unlikely to keep inflation uncomfortably high, if history is a good predictor.

“Neither rapid money growth and record federal budget deficits have had any correlation with inflation over the past 40 years,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. “Additionally, the factors that have acted to keep inflation in check in recent decades – stable inflation expectations, increased use of technology, production movements to low-cost areas – all remain in place.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. weekly jobless claims unexpectedly rise, but labor market improving

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, but the increase likely understated the rapidly improving labor market conditions as more parts of the economy reopen and fiscal stimulus kicks in.

The second straight weekly increase in claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday was at odds with reports this month showing the economy created 916,000 jobs in March, the most in seven months, and job openings increased to a two-year high in February.

“Our belief is that continued moves to reopen the economy will result in a solid further advance in payrolls in the April jobs report and that the claims data are likely not capturing the pace of improvement in the labor market,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 744,000 for the week ended April 3 compared to 728,000 in the prior week. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 680,000 applications for the latest week. Though claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April of 2020, they remain more than double their pre-pandemic level. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a range of 200,000 to 250,000.

Part of the elevation in claims is because of fraud, multiple filings and backlogs following the enhancement of the unemployment benefit programs.

The government is paying a weekly $300 unemployment supplement, as well as funding benefits for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment insurance programs.

The weekly subsidy and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program will run through Sept. 6.

Including the PUA program, 892,539 people filed claims last week, remaining below one million for a third straight week.

The increase in applications was led by California and New York. There were big drops in Alabama and Texas, as well as Ohio, which has been beset by fraudulent applications.

“The total number of filings for all unemployment insurance programs has remained stubbornly steady over the last few months despite net re-hiring in monthly employment reports,” said Veronica Clark, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

“This could partly be a reflection of more workers wanting to stay on unemployment benefits even if some return to work part-time given the greater size of payments.”

U.S. stocks opened largely higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices gained.

COMPANIES HIRING

The labor market has regained its footing after stumbling in December, thanks to the White House’s massive $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package and an acceleration in the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, which are allowing more services businesses to resume operations.

In the minutes of the Federal Reserve’s March 16-17 policy meeting released on Wednesday, U.S. central bank officials acknowledged the improvement in labor market conditions and “expected strong job gains to continue over coming months and into the medium term.”

Several Fed officials suggested the latest relief package “could hasten the recovery, which could help limit longer-term damage in labor markets caused by the pandemic.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests companies are recalling workers laid off during the pandemic and hiring new employees. An Institute for Supply Management survey on Monday showed services businesses reporting they “have recalled everyone put on waivers and made new hires” and had “additional employees added to service the needs of new customers at new locations.”

Still, the labor market recovery has a long way to go. Employment is 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid decreased 16,000 to 3.734 million in the week ended March 27. That was the lowest reading since March 2020 when mandatory closures of non-essential businesses were being enforced across many states to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

The 12th straight weekly decline in the so-called continuing claims in likely due to people finding work and exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states. About 5.634 million people were on extended benefits during the week ended March 20, up 117,108 from the prior week.

Another 786,962 were on a state program for those who have exhausted their initial six months of aid, down 230,780 from the week before. There were 18.2 million receiving benefits under all programs during the week ended March 20.

(Reporting by Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Rise in U.S. weekly jobless claims belies improving labor market conditions

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, though the labor market recovery is gaining traction as economic activity picks up, driven by increased vaccinations and massive fiscal stimulus.

That was confirmed by other data on Thursday showing a measure of manufacturing activity soared to its strongest level in more than 37 years in March, with employment at factories the highest since February 2018. Layoffs announced by U.S. companies in March were also the fewest in more than 2-1/2 years.

Initial claims have been distorted by backlogs, multiple filings and fraud, making it difficult to get a clear signal on the labor market’s health from the weekly data.

“Higher jobless claims in the most recent week don’t detract from the strong downward trend, which will continue given the reopening of local and state economies, and the acceleration of vaccinations,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits jumped 61,000 to a seasonally adjusted 719,000 for the week ended March 27, the Labor Department said.

Data for the prior week was revised to show 26,000 fewer applications received than previously reported, pushing total filings down to 658,000 and below their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

The government revised the claims data from 2016, which showed applications hitting a record 6.149 million in April 2020, instead of 6.867 million in March 2020.

A staggering 79 million claims were filed under the regular state (UI) programs since mid-March 2020 when mandatory closures of non-essential businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms were being enforced across many states to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

About 28 more million applications were submitted under the government-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PAU) program, which covers the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the UI programs.

“Together, that equates to 70% of payrolls, or 67% of household employment, pre-pandemic and reflects duplicate filings and fraud,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“But also the tremendous churn in the labor market since COVID, with some workers losing jobs more than once as restrictions and activity fluctuated this past year.”

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 680,000 applications in the latest week. Virginia accounted for the bulk of the rise. There were also notable increases in California, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York.

Including the PUA program, 951,458 people filed claims last week, remaining below one million for a second straight week.

U.S. stocks were higher. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MANUFACTURING SHINES

Both the economy and the labor market appear to have turned the corner after hitting a ditch in December, thanks to the acceleration in inoculations, which is allowing more businesses to reopen. The White House’s massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package is sending additional $1,400 checks to qualified households and extending the government safety net for the unemployed through Sept. 6.

In a separate report on Thursday, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its index of national factory activity jumped to a reading of 64.7 last month from 60.8 in February. That was the highest level since December 1983.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy. Economists had forecast the index rising to 61.3 in March. The survey’s manufacturing employment gauge shot up to its the highest reading since February 2018.

According to the ISM, “significantly more companies are hiring or attempting to hire than those reducing labor forces.”

Indeed, a third report from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed planned layoffs by U.S.-based companies dropped 11% to 30,603 in March, the fewest since July 2018. Through the first quarter planned layoffs plunged 35%, compared the October-December period. At 144,686, job cuts last quarter were the fewest since the fourth quarter of 2019.

The labor market’s improving fortunes were underscored by a survey from The Conference Board this week showing its measure of household employment rebounding in March after three straight monthly decreases. That aligns with expectations that the government’s closely watched employment report on Friday will show a surge in job growth in March.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 647,000 jobs last month after rising by 379,000 in February. That would leave employment about 8.8 million below its peak in February 2020, highlighting that a full labor market recovery is years away.

At least 18.2 million people were collecting unemployment checks in mid-March, a sign that long-term joblessness was becoming entrenched.

“But even at that rapid (hiring) clip, it would take the economy until January 2024 to get back to pre-pandemic trends,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

“This cold, hard math underscores the hurdles facing the millions of workers still on state or federal jobless aid as they seek to return to productive work.”

(Reporting By Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Stocks climb for second day as data eases inflation jitters

By Chuck Mikolajczak

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A gauge of global stocks climbed for a second straight day on Wednesday to hit its highest level in a week, after a report on U.S. consumer prices indicated calmed recent concerns about inflation, while the dollar retreated further from a 3-1/2 month high.

Economic data from the Labor Department said its consumer price index rose 0.4% in February, in-line with expectations, after a 0.3% increase in January. Core CPI, which excludes the volatile food and energy components, edged up 0.1%, just shy of the 0.2% estimate, after being unchanged the prior two months.

“We will see what happens in terms of when inflation begins to pick up over the next couple of years, but the market seemed to like it OK today,” said Ellen Hazen, portfolio manager at F. L. Putnam Investment Management in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

While analysts largely expect a pickup in inflation as vaccine rollouts have led to a reopening of the economy, worries persist that additional stimulus in the form of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package set to be signed by U.S. President Joe Biden could lead to an overheating of the economy and uncontrolled inflation.

“There are a lot of reasons why inflation could pick up over the next two to three years and the market is correct to be concerned about that, it might have gotten a little bit overly focused on it in the last couple of weeks,” said Hazen.

“But in general, the market is correct to be on alert for signs of rising inflation, particularly because of the stimulus and the size of the Fed balance sheet.”

The House of Representatives moved toward final approval of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Wednesday, which forecasters predict will turbocharge the U.S. economy.

The data was enough to puncture recent concerns about rapidly rising inflation and provide support for stocks on Wall Street, which built on Tuesday’s strong rally.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 332.58 points, or 1.04%, to 32,165.32, the S&P 500 gained 23.83 points, or 0.61%, to 3,899.27 and the Nasdaq Composite added 58.07 points, or 0.44%, to 13,131.89.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year note retreated in the wake of the data, before edging higher on the session and taking some of the early steam out of equity gains.

Investors will now eye auctions of 10-year and 30-year debt on Wednesday and Thursday, with investors seeking to cover massive shorts on both maturities. A weak 7-year auction in late February helped fuel inflation concerns and sent yields higher.

Benchmark 10-year notes last yielded 1.5438%, from 1.544% late on Tuesday.

The dollar also moved lower for a second day following the data before reversing course.

The dollar index rose 0.022%, with the euro down 0.04% to $1.1893.

Oil prices resumed their climb after two days of declines, extending gains after the Energy Information Administration reported a bigger-than-expected storage build. [nL1N2L81NJ]

U.S. crude recently rose 0.45% to $64.30 per barrel and Brent was at $67.82, up 0.44% on the day.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

U.S. labor market struggling, but light at the end of tunnel

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week as the labor market continued to tread water, but a drop in new COVID-19 cases has raised cautious optimism that momentum could pick up by the spring.

The weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also highlighted labor market scarring, with over 20 million people collecting unemployment checks in late January.

“Claims remain stuck at painfully high levels,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “But we are seeing hopeful signs that claims will begin meaningful declines in the next month or two.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 793,000 for the week ended Feb. 6. Data for the prior week was revised to show 33,000 more claims received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 757,000 applications for the latest week.

Unadjusted claims decreased 36,534 to 813,145 last week. There were notable jumps in filings in California and Ohio. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state programs, 1.148 million people filed claims last week.

Claims are stuck in the upper end of their 711,000-842,000 band between October and November. They remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, though they are below the record 6.867 million reported last March when the pandemic hit the United States.

The labor market recovery has stalled in recent months as the country battled a resurgence in coronavirus infections, which ravaged restaurants and other consumer-facing businesses. The government reported last Friday that the economy created only 49,000 jobs in January after losing 227,000 in December.

Labor market woes strengthen the case for President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion recovery package, which is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. The government provided nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief in late December. Republican lawmakers are opposing the planned massive fiscal stimulus due to concerns about the swelling national debt.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.

LONG BOUTS OF UNEMPLOYMENT

But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Reported new coronavirus cases in the United States dropped 25% last week, the biggest fall since the pandemic hit the nation. Infections have now fallen for four consecutive weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Should the trend continue and the distribution of vaccines broaden out, that, together with additional stimulus, could allow more businesses to reopen. There are signs that businesses are testing the waters. Temporary help jobs, a segment normally considered a harbinger of future hiring, jumped in January.

“Temporary and contract jobs are running slightly ahead of where they were the same time a year ago,” said Richard Wahlquist, chief executive officer at the American Staffing Association.

For now, the slack in the labor market remains immense. The claims report showed that people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 145,000 to 4.545 million in the week ended Jan. 30. But the decline in the so-called continuing claims was mostly due to people exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states.

At least 4.778 million people were on extended benefits during the week ended Jan. 23, up 1.2 million from the prior period. These benefits, which are funded by the government, will expire in mid-March if Congress does not pass the Biden administration’s relief package.

Another 1.653 million were on a state program for those who have exhausted their initial six months of aid. That meant 6.4 million people have been unemployed for more than six months.

“This is by the far the highest we have seen at any point during this crisis,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “Long-term joblessness is happening right now and is a very real challenge for the recovery.”

About 20.435 million people were receiving benefits under all programs during that period, an increase of 2.6 million from mid-January. The surge partly reflected the extension of government-funded benefits in late December, and underscored the widespread nature of unemployment.

“The unemployed are having a difficult time reentering the labor force, and this highlights the need for additional federal aid,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco.

The economy has recovered 12.3 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost during the pandemic. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated employment would not return to its pre-pandemic level before 2024.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Subsiding layoffs raise cautious optimism for U.S. labor market

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits decreased further last week, suggesting the labor market was stabilizing as authorities started to loosen pandemic-related restrictions on businesses.

Despite the signs that layoffs are abating, the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed at least 17.8 million Americans were on benefits in mid-January, indicating that long-term unemployment was likely becoming entrenched. That could boost President Joe Biden’s push for the U.S. Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion recovery plan.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told ABC’s Good Morning America that the massive stimulus plan was needed to overcome the economic pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s too early to predict that this begins a strong reversal of excruciatingly high layoffs,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “Another round of stimulus is important.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 33,000 to a seasonally adjusted 779,000 for the week ended Jan. 30. That was the third straight weekly decline. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 830,000 applications for the latest week.

Unadjusted claims decreased 23,525 to 816,247 last week. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.165 million people filed claims last week, down from 1.243 million in the prior period.

Claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, but well below the record 6.867 million last March when the pandemic hit the United States.

Part of the elevation in claims reflects people re-applying for benefits after the government in late December renewed a $300 unemployment supplement until March 14 as part of a pandemic relief package worth nearly $900 billion.

“The decline in new claims in recent weeks adds to the evidence that the worst months for the labor market could very well be behind us,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.

LAYOFFS SUBSIDING

Though January was the worst month since the onset of the pandemic, the decline in economic activity leveled off in the second half of the month amid signs of a peak in the recent coronavirus wave.

Data from Homebase, a payroll scheduling and tracking company, showed its measure of employees at work flattened out over the last two weeks of January, pausing the decline observed from December into January.

Other data on Thursday from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed planned job cuts announced by U.S.-based employers rose only 3.3% to 79,552 in January.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 193,000 to 4.592 million during the week ended Jan. 23. About 17.836 million people were on unemployment benefits on all programs in mid-January, down from 18.322 million in the first week of 2021.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on Friday’s closely watched employment report for January, as it falls outside the survey period, which was in the middle of the month. Still, the signs of stability in other labor market measures support expectations that hiring rebounded in January after the economy shed jobs in December for the first time in eight months.

Hopes that the economy created jobs last month were boosted by reports on Wednesday showing rebounds in private payrolls and services industry employment in January. A survey this week also showed manufacturers hired more workers in January.

According to a Reuters poll of economists payrolls likely increased by 50,000 jobs in January after declining by 140,000 in December. In the wake of the fairly upbeat reports, Goldman Sachs lifted its payrolls forecast by 75,000 to 200,000.

But some economists are bracing for a second straight month of job losses in January. The Conference Board’s survey last week showed consumers’ perceptions of labor market conditions deteriorated further last month.

The economy has recouped 12.5 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April. The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Monday that employment would not return to its pre-pandemic level before 2024.

Economists were unperturbed by a separate report on Thursday from the Labor Department showing worker productivity dropped at a 4.8% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. That was the deepest pace of decline since the second quarter of 1981 and followed a 5.1% pace of expansion in the third quarter. The pandemic has caused wild swings in productivity.

“This decline came after very strong productivity growth in the middle quarters of the year, and we think that the pandemic has led to a shift in economic activity away from some low-productivity sectors that has led to firming in productivity growth through some of the noise in the quarterly readings,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

U.S. job openings fall in November; layoffs rise

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings fell in November, while layoffs mounted at restaurants and hotels amid rampant COVID-19 infections, supporting views that the labor market recovery from the pandemic was stalling.

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, dropped 105,000 to 6.527 million on the last day of November, the Labor Department said on Tuesday in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS. Vacancies have dropped from as high as 7.012 million in January.

The job openings rate slipped to 4.4% from 4.5% in October. Layoffs increased 295,000 to nearly 2.0 million. That lifted the layoffs rate to 1.4% from 1.2% in October. Layoffs were led by the accommodation and food services industry, which shed 263,000 workers. A resurgence in coronavirus cases has led to widespread curbs on businesses, with restaurants and bars hardest hit.

There were 42,000 job losses in the healthcare and social assistance sector. State and local governments, which are experiencing tight budgets because of the pandemic, laid off 21,000 workers.

Hiring was little changed at 5.979 million. The hiring rate was steady at 4.2%.

The JOLTS report followed on the heels of news last Friday that the economy shed 140,000 jobs in December, the first decline in nonfarm payrolls since April, after adding 336,000 positions in November. The economy has recovered 12.4 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. third-quarter productivity pared; unit labor costs revised up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. worker productivity increased strongly in the third quarter, though the pace of growth was likely overstated as the sharp rebound in output from the COVID-19 pandemic recession has far outpaced employment gains.

The Labor Department said on Tuesday nonfarm productivity, which measures hourly output per worker, increased at a 4.6% annualized rate last quarter. The slight downward revision from the 4.9% pace estimated last month followed a 10.6% rate of growth in the second quarter, which was the fastest since the first quarter of 1971.

The economy expanded at a historic 33.1% annualized rate in the July-September quarter, thanks to more than $3 trillion in government pandemic relief for businesses and workers. That followed a record 31.4% pace of contraction in the second quarter. Strong productivity explains the divergence between GDP growth and the labor market.

The economy has recouped two-thirds of output lost during the coronavirus crisis, while only about 56% of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April. A wide gap between output and employment is not unusual during recessions, with a similar trend observed during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast productivity growth would be unrevised at a 4.9% rate in the third quarter. The COVID-19 downturn has decimated lower-wage industries, like leisure and hospitality, which economists say tend to be less productive.

According to Moodys’ Analytics chief economist, Mark Zandi, there has been a shift in economic activity to big companies from small and medium-sized retailers. Zandi also noted that big businesses across industries are taking advantage of the pandemic to aggressively implement labor-saving technology.

“The underlying rate of productivity has not shifted from what it was before,” said Zandi. “There is no fundamental shift in productivity growth going forward, but it means it’s going to take a while to recover all the jobs lost unless we have good policy in place.”

U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data.

Compared to the third quarter of 2019, productivity increased at a 4.0% rate instead of the 4.1% pace reported last month.

Hours worked rebounded at a 37.1% rate, rather than the 36.8% rate estimated in November. That followed a record 42.9% pace of decline in the second quarter.

Unit labor costs – the price of labor per single unit of output – plunged at a 6.6% rate instead of an 8.9% rate as previously reported. Unit labor costs rose at a 12.3% pace in the second quarter. They increased at a 4.0% rate from a year ago.

“The big swings in the unit labor costs data in recent quarters make it hard to detect an underlying trend, but overall we think that the shock to the economy coming from COVID-19 should weigh on employee compensation,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Hourly compensation fell at a 2.3% rate last quarter, instead of a 4.4% pace as previously reported. That followed a 24.3% rate of acceleration in the second quarter. Compensation increased at a 8.2% rate compared to the third quarter of 2019.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Andrea Ricci)