COVID-19, renewed benefits boost U.S. weekly jobless claims

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing first-time applications for unemployment benefits surged last week, confirming a weakening in labor market conditions as a worsening COVID-19 pandemic disrupts operations at restaurants and other businesses.

The larger-than-expected increase in weekly unemployment claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday was seen by some economists as driven by the recent renewal of supplemental jobless benefits, but nonetheless raised the risk of further job losses in January after nonfarm payrolls slumped in December for the first time in eight months.

“The economy clearly needs additional support from Washington because right now rising jobless claims tells us the labor market recovery has stalled and the direction is full-tilt down,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 181,000 to a seasonally adjusted 965,000 for the week ended Jan. 9, the highest since late August. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 795,000 applications in the latest week.

Unadjusted claims shot up 231,335 to 1.151 million last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted number because of earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations due to the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs 1.4 million people filed claims last week.

U.S. stocks opened higher as investors awaited details of Biden’s rescue plan. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

STRICTER MEASURES

The surge in claims last week also likely reflected reapplications for benefits following the government’s renewal of a $300 unemployment supplement until March 14 as part of the latest stimulus package. Government-funded programs for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the state unemployment programs as well as those who have exhausted their benefits were also extended.

“Not all individuals eligible for unemployment assistance actually claim benefits, and the supplementary payments add an incentive to file for benefits,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

Authorities in many states have banned indoor dining to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The economy shed jobs in December for the first time in eight months.

The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide in early January showed on Wednesday that “contacts in the leisure and hospitality sectors reported renewed employment cuts due to stricter containment measures.”

The central bank also noted that the resurgence in the coronavirus was causing staff shortages in the manufacturing, construction and transportations sectors. The virus has infected more than 22.5 million people in the United States and killed over 376,188, the most of any country.

Though jobless claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March, they remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. Economists say it could take several years for the labor market to recover from the pandemic.

The claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid increased 199,000 to 5.271 million during the week ending Jan. 2. At least 18.4 million were on unemployment benefits on all programs in late December.

Labor market stress could curb inflation amid signs of rising price pressures. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said import prices jumped 0.9% in December after rising 0.2% in November. Import prices were boosted by higher prices for energy products and recent dollar weakness.

Economists had forecast import prices, which exclude tariffs, accelerating 0.7% in December. In the 12 months through December, import prices slipped 0.3% after dropping 1.0% in November.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Lebanon tightens lockdown, imposes 24-hour curfew, as hospitals buckle

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon announced a tightening of its lockdown on Monday, introducing a 24-hour curfew from Thursday as COVID-19 infections overwhelm its medical system.

The new all-day curfew starts at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday and ends at 5 a.m. on Jan. 25, a statement by the Supreme Defense Council said.

Lebanon last week ordered a three-week lockdown until Feb. 2 that included a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.  But tighter measures were now necessary as hospitals run out of capacity to treat critically ill patients, President Michel Aoun said in the statement. “We have seen dreadful scenes of citizens waiting in front of hospitals for a chair or a bed,” he said.

The new measures also include stricter procedures at the airport for passengers arriving from Cairo, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Istanbul and Adana. Travelers arriving from these destinations will have to quarantine for seven days at a hotel while all others will quarantine up to 72 hours. Overall air traffic at the airport will also be cut to 20% from normal operating levels and supermarkets will be limited to delivery services.

Anticipation of stricter measures on Monday had driven many Lebanese to wait in long queues in front of supermarkets and empty shelves.

Lebanon registered 3,743 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 219,296 cases and 1,606 deaths since Feb. 21.

Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has been lax prompting government fears of a significant rise in cases after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Daily infections reached an all time high of 5,440 on Friday.

“Sadly we are being faced with a frightening health situation,” Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. “The corona pandemic is out of control because of the stubbornness of people and their rebellion against measures we take to protect them from its dangers.”

The lockdown faces resistance amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Lebanon is still dealing with a devastating financial crisis that has crashed the currency, paralyzed banks, and frozen savers out of their deposits.

Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars have grown scarce.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam; Editing by Toby Chopra)

McConnell: Signs of economic recovery point to smaller COVID-19 stimulus

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that economic statistics, including a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, showed that Congress should enact a smaller coronavirus stimulus package that is highly targeted at the pandemic’s effects.

The Republican senator told a news conference in Kentucky that the fall to a 6.9% jobless rate, combined with recent evidence of overall economic growth, showed the U.S. economy is experiencing a dramatic recovery.

“I think it reinforces the argument that I’ve been making for the last few months, that something smaller – rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue – is more appropriate,” McConnell told reporters.

But his call for a narrow package was quickly rejected by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who has been working to broker a COVID-19 stimulus deal near the $2 trillion mark with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“It doesn’t appeal to me at all, because they still have not agreed to crush the virus. If you don’t crush the virus, we’re still going to have to be dealing with the consequences of the virus,” Pelosi told a news conference on Capitol Hill.

“That isn’t anything that we should even be looking at. It wasn’t the right thing before,” she added.

Senate Republicans, who oppose a larger package, have twice failed to move forward with smaller legislation worth $500 billion due to Democratic opposition.

Pelosi insisted that any agreement must include effective support for testing, tracing and vaccine development, as well as aid to state and local governments. Trump and his Republican allies have balked at Democratic demands for state and local aid, calling it a bailout for Democratic-run states and cities.

(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump or Biden’s big economic challenge: millions of struggling Americans

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – The winner of the race for the White House will face a generation of low-to-middle income Americans struggling to get back to work because of a health crisis not seen in more than 100 years.

Whether it’s President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, the reality is grim: about half of the 22 million who lost their jobs during the pandemic are still out of work.

New hiring is slowing, dimming prospects for the low-wage workers hit hardest by job losses. Infections of the virus that killed more than 225,000 Americans are rising to new records. Hotels, transportation companies and food providers warn that more layoffs are coming, and the government aid that helped many pay the bills is long gone.

Securing a future for a vast, growing underclass “is the most important challenge America faces over the next few years, 10 years, 20 years,” said Gene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency under President Bill Clinton and author of “The Vanishing American Dream,” a book about the economic challenges facing lower and middle income Americans.

“We cannot sustain a democratic society that has these kinds of numbers of low and middle income people that aren’t able to have a hope for the American dream and live decently.”

Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration have been trying to negotiate a $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, but many Senate Republicans object to the cost and question whether more stimulus is needed. A deal may not be reached until early 2021.

SAVINGS DRY UP

That’s going to be too late for some.

Direct cash payments and enhanced unemployment benefits established by the CARES Act, which added $600 a week to state unemployment benefits, lifted more Americans out of poverty in April even as unemployment soared, according to research by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University.

People receiving the enhanced benefits were able to spend more, build savings and pay off debt, according to an analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

But after the benefits expired at the end of July, poverty is once again on the rise – with the monthly poverty rate reaching 16.7% in September from 15% in February, according to the Columbia study. After a decade of decline, hunger is rising nationwide.

Lisandra Bonilla, 46, saved roughly a third of the enhanced unemployment benefits she received after she was furloughed in late March from her job at an employment agency in Kissimmee, Florida. “I had saved a lot because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.

It was smart planning: in August her benefits were cut to $275 a week before taxes, the maximum in Florida, down from more than $800.

Bonilla returned to work part-time in late September, but now she is struggling to pay the bills on half her previous pay, and fears her savings will be gone by December.

If she isn’t hired full time soon, she needs to find another job.

“We’re trying to shovel ourselves out of the hole, but at the same time the hole is getting bigger,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Two factors are particularly worrying, she said. More than 420,000 small businesses shuttered between March and mid-summer, which is more than three times the typical pace, she estimates. And permanent layoffs are also on the rise, hitting 3.8 million in September from 1.3 million in February – similar to levels seen before the 2008 election.

THE LONGTERM UNEMPLOYMENT TRAP

Bishop Donald Harper has been on more than 50 job interviews since he was furloughed in March.

Harper, 55, a veteran chef, most recently oversaw five restaurants at an Orlando resort. But with occupancy still low, it’s not clear when he’ll get back to work.

Applications for jobs at super markets or in health care have also been fruitless.

“I can do anything and everything,” said Harper, who also serves as a bishop for a nondenominational church. He is struggling to pay for food and utilities on $275-a-week unemployment, and three months behind on his $1,900 a month rent.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” said Harper, who lives with two children ages 10 and 13. He has reached out to more than 20 groups seeking rental assistance, with no luck.

The United States has 2.4 million and growing “long-term” unemployed, officially defined as those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Getting everyone back to work is crucial, but economists say these job seekers are at greater risk of dropping out of the labor market or taking lower paying jobs.

This week, the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to report that Gross Domestic Product surged in the third quarter, thanks in part to fiscal stimulus that kept U.S. workers afloat, but has mostly expired.

Now, people who are out of work or in low-wage jobs need rental support, direct cash payments and food assistance, as well as federal jobs projects and retraining programs, labor economists say.

If elected, Biden has pledged to raise the federal minimum wage, and roll out trillions of dollars in infrastructure and green energy programs. But he’ll need the votes in Congress to do it.

Trump has signaled support for more federal stimulus, but has offered fewer specifics on jobs.

Until help arrives, workers are struggling.

Rachel Alvarez, 44, a single mother of three in Naples, Florida, starts a new job this week as a server at a restaurant – her first time working since she lost her job in March.

Restaurant workers who depend on tips aren’t making much money, because business remains slow due to the coronavirus, she said. She hasn’t paid rent since June, and is still waiting to hear from the county government about a grant.

“I’m going to keep my head up, because if shit like this ever happens to my children I want them to keep their head up too,” said Alvarez.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte. Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Edward Tobin)

Persistently high U.S. weekly jobless claims point to labor market scarring

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose to a two-month high last week, stoking fears the COVID-19 pandemic was inflicting lasting damage to the labor market.

The weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed at least 25 million were on jobless benefits at the end of September. It reinforced views the economy’s recovery from the recession, which started in February, was slowing and in urgent need of another government rescue package.

The economic hardship wrought by the coronavirus crisis is a major hurdle to President Donald Trump’s chances of getting a second term in the White House when Americans go to the polls on Nov. 3. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s candidate, has blamed the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic for the worst economic turmoil in at least 73 years.

“The increase in initial claims is disturbing,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN in New York. “It is difficult to see it and not think the recovery is vulnerable.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 53,000 to a seasonally adjusted 898,000 for the week ended Oct. 10. Data for the prior week was revised to show 5,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 825,000 applications in the latest week. The surprise increase came even as California processed no claims. California, the most populous state in the nation, suspended the processing of new applications for two weeks in late September to combat fraud. It resumed accepting claims last Monday.

Unadjusted claims rose 76,670 to 885,885 last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.3 million people filed claims last week.

Seven months into the pandemic in the United States, first-time claims remain well above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession, though below a record 6.867 million in March. With new COVID-19 cases surging across the country and the White House and Congress struggling to agree on another rescue package for businesses and the unemployed, claims are likely to remain elevated.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday he would keep trying to reach a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, before next month’s election.

Stocks on Wall Street were lower. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MILLIONS EXHAUST BENEFITS

About 3.8 million people had permanently lost their jobs in September, with another 2.4 million unemployed for more than six months. Economists fear those numbers could swell.

Though the claims report showed a decline in the number of people on unemployment rolls in early October, economists said that was because many people had exhausted their eligibility for benefits, which are limited to six months in most states.

The number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 1.165 million to 10.018 million in the week ending Oct. 3.

About 2.8 million workers filed for extended unemployment benefits in the week ending Sept. 26, up 818,054 from the prior week. That was the largest weekly gain since the program’s launch last spring. These benefits are set to expire on Dec. 31.

Tens of thousands of airline workers have been furloughed. State and local government budgets have been crushed by the pandemic, leading to layoffs that are expected to escalate without help from the federal government.

“Risks to the labor market outlook are weighted heavily to the downside,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “The increased spread of the virus across much of the country could result in an even larger pullback in business activity than expected.”

Though economic activity rebounded in the third quarter because of fiscal stimulus, the stubbornly high jobless claims suggest momentum ebbed heading into the fourth quarter.

Other reports on Thursday showed mixed fortunes for regional manufacturing in October. A survey from the New York Federal Reserve showed its business conditions index fell seven points to a reading of 10.5 this month. Companies reported continued gains in new orders and shipments, though unfilled orders maintained their decline. Factory employment rose modestly, but the average workweek increased significantly.

Separately, the Philadelphia Fed said its business conditions index jumped to a reading of 32.3 from 15.0 in September. Measures of new orders and shipments at factories in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware rose. A gauge of factory employment fell, but manufacturers increased hours for workers.

Third-quarter GDP growth estimates are topping a 32% annualized rate. The economy contracted at a 31.4% pace in the second quarter, the deepest decline since the government started keeping records in 1947. Growth estimates for the fourth quarter have been cut to as low as a 2.5% rate from above a 10% pace.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. new home sales vault to near 14-year high in August

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sales of new U.S. single-family homes increased to their highest level in nearly 14 years in August, suggesting the housing market continued to gain momentum even as the economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession appears to be slowing.

The Commerce Department said on Thursday new home sales rose 4.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.011 million units last month, the highest level since September 2006. New home sales are counted at the signing of a contract, making them a leading housing market indicator.

July’s sales pace was revised upward to 965,000 units from the previously reported 901,000 units. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new home sales, which account for about 14% of housing market sales, slipping 1% to a rate of 895,000-units.

The report followed on the heels of data this week showing sales of previously owned homes near a 14-year high in August.

The housing market is being powered by record-low mortgage rates and a pandemic-fueled migration to suburbs and low-density areas in search of more spacious accommodation as many people work from home. Unemployment has disproportionately affected low-wage workers in the services sector, who are typically young and renters.

In August, new home sales rose 5.0% in the Northeast. They jumped 13.4% in the South, which accounts for the bulk of transactions. But sales fell 1.7% in the West and decreased 21.4% in the Midwest. The median new house price fell 4.3% to $312,800 in August from a year ago. New home sales last month were concentrated in the $200,000 to $499,000 price range.

There were 282,000 new homes on the market last month, down from 291,000 in July. At August’s sales pace it would take 3.3 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, down from 3.6 months in July. About 71% of the homes sold last month were either under construction or yet to be built.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Senate to vote on Republican coronavirus aid bill opposed by Democrats

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate was set to vote on Thursday on a Republican bill providing around $300 billion in new coronavirus aid, far below the $3 trillion Democrats insist is needed to stimulate an ailing economy and help people struggling through the pandemic.

In what could be the final vote on coronavirus relief in Congress before the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be deadlocked over the next steps in responding to a virus that has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States and nearly 900,000 globally.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fails, as expected, to get the 60 votes needed in the 100-member chamber to advance his latest bill, lawmakers will likely focus on wrapping up other work within the next couple weeks so they can return to their home states to campaign for re-election in November.

Earlier this year, Congress quickly passed four major bills providing about $3 trillion to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would provide another $3 trillion in aid. But gridlock has since prevailed.

Some Republican senators expressed doubts on Wednesday that a compromise coronavirus bill would emerge quickly if McConnell’s latest “skinny” bill is rejected on Thursday in the Republican-controlled chamber.

“There’s always some possibility,” said Senator Richard Shelby, adding: “Unless something really broke through, it’s not going to happen.”

The Republican bill would renew a federal unemployment benefit, but at a lower level than Democrats sought. It also would set new protections for businesses against liability lawsuits during the pandemic, which Democrats have labeled a “poison pill.”

An array of other initiatives, including aid to state and local governments, a second round of direct federal payments to households and bailouts for U.S. airlines during the economic downturn were not addressed in the Republican bill and could be considered in a possible post-election session of Congress.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

U.S. weekly jobless claims below one million; but labor market recovery ebbing

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell below 1 million last week for the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States, but that does not signal a strong recovery in the labor market.

The drop in initial claims to a five-month low reported by the Labor Department on Thursday largely reflected a change in the methodology it used to address seasonal fluctuations in the data, which economists complained had become less reliable because of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus crisis.

There are growing signs the labor market recovery from the depths of the pandemic in mid-March through April is faltering, with financial support from the government virtually depleted.

“There are new seasonal adjustment factors this week which brings down the joblessness slightly,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “The labor market looks just as bad as it was and it will be a miracle if economic growth can continue at such a fast clip during this recovery if it has to drag along millions and millions of workers without paychecks.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 130,000 to a seasonally adjusted 881,000 for the week ended Aug. 29. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 950,000 applications in the latest week. A staggering 29.2 million people were on unemployment benefits in mid-August.

The Labor Department has switched to using additive factors to more accurately track seasonal fluctuations in the series. The government dropped the multiplicative seasonal adjustment factors it had been using because they could cause systematic over-or under-adjustment of the data in the presence of a large shift in the claims series.

Unadjusted claims rose 7,591 to 833,352 last week. The increase in the raw numbers, which many economists prefer to focus on, added to a raft of data suggesting the labor market recovery was ebbing.

A report on Wednesday from the Federal Reserve based on information collected from the U.S. central bank’s contacts on or before Aug. 24 showed an increase in employment. The Fed, however, noted that “some districts also reported slowing job growth and increased hiring volatility, particularly in service industries, with rising instances of furloughed workers being laid off permanently as demand remained soft.”

Private employers hired fewer workers than expected in August. In addition, data from Kronos, a workforce management software company, and Homebase, a payroll scheduling and tracking company, showed employment growth stagnated last month.

Another report on Thursday showed job cuts elevated in August amid layoffs by airlines. United Airlines said on Wednesday it was preparing to furlough 16,370 workers on Oct. 1.

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

SEVERE DISTRESS

The weak labor market reports raise the risk of a sharper slowdown in job growth in August than is currently anticipated by financial markets. The government is scheduled to publish August’s employment report on Friday.

According to a Reuters survey of economists non-farm payrolls likely rose by 1.4 million jobs last month after increasing by 1.763 million in July. That would leave non-farm payrolls about 11.5 million below their pre-pandemic level.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 1.238 million to 13.254 million in the week ending Aug. 22. Part of the decrease in so-called continuing claims was likely because of people exhausting eligibility for benefits.

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits under all programs jumped 2.2 million to 29.2 million in the week ended Aug. 15.

“While Wall Street hits record highs, much of Main Street remains in severe distress,” said Ron Temple, head of U.S. Equity at Lazard Asset Management in New York. “The pandemic and the federal failure to sustain necessary assistance to households as well as state and local governments are weakening long-term economic growth and social stability.”

Fiscal stimulus boosted economic activity after it nearly ground to a halt following the shuttering of nonessential businesses in mid-March to control the spread of COVID-19. That set up the economy, which plunged into recession in February, for a sharp rebound in the third quarter.

A $600 weekly unemployment supplement expired in July and funding programs for businesses have also lapsed, leaving the outlook for growth uncertain. Also clouding the growth prospects, the trade deficit jumped 18.9% to a 12-year high of $63.6 billion in July, driven by a record surge in imports.

While the rise in imports could be blunted by an increase in inventories, export growth was moderate in July. That could threaten a recent acceleration in manufacturing activity.

A fourth report on Thursday showed growth in the services industry slowed in August. The services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, has been hardest hit by the pandemic.

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

Amazon bucks UK labor market gloom with 7,000 new jobs

LONDON (Reuters) – Amazon brought a little cheer to Britain’s troubled labor market on Thursday, saying it will create a further 7,000 permanent jobs in 2020, taking total new hires this year to 10,000.

Last month the number of people in work in Britain suffered the biggest drop since 2009 and the coronavirus is expected to take a much heavier toll on unemployment when the government winds down its huge job-protection scheme.

The one bright spot however has come from online retail and logistics as orders surged during lockdown. Amazon’s latest recruitment will take its total UK workforce to over 40,000 by the end of the year.

The U.S. internet giant said the 7,000 new roles will be for warehouse workers, as well as engineers, HR and IT professionals and health and safety and finance specialists.

The jobs will be in over 50 sites, including two new distribution centers in the north east and central England and at corporate offices.

It said it needed more staff to meet growing customer demand for its services and to enable small and medium sized enterprises selling on Amazon to scale their businesses.

Amazon has also started recruiting for more than 20,000 seasonal positions across the UK for the festive period.

Last month the Confederation of British Industry said British retailers had cut the most jobs since the depths of the financial crisis and expected the pace of losses to accelerate.

Well-known British retailers Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Dixons Carphone have all announced job cuts in recent weeks, reflecting the rapid shift in demand to online sales.

Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket, said it would create 16,000 permanent roles to meet the surge in home deliveries.

(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Kate Holton)

Can U.S. retail sector’s ‘V-shaped’ rebound jump the fiscal cliff?

By Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – Even with nearly a fifth of the labor force collecting unemployment benefits in July, Americans continued spending with relative gusto, driving retail sales back to pre-coronavirus levels as they shifted shopping online, brought their food home, and stocked up on new appliances.

The downside: It was government money they spent, and that is now drying up even as a recent spate of unexpectedly upbeat economic data – including a larger-than-expected rise in payrolls last month and the first drop below 1 million in weekly new jobless claims since March – takes the pressure off Congress to renew the unemployment benefit supplement and business loan programs that ended last month.

The dilemma is a stark one as the United States ends its first half-year of pandemic confusion. Is the economy on its way back as consumers and businesses learn to live with new health risks, or nearing a more serious nosedive?

Consumer spending drives about two-thirds of the U.S. economy, and the July numbers “are encouraging because they suggest the recovery has continued to grind on even in the fact of the resurgence in virus cases,” wrote Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics. Though the loss of unemployment income, if it persists, “poses a downside risk to spending in the near term … consumption growth will recover gradually from here.”

Oxford Economics senior U.S. economist Lydia Boussour, by contrast, called the July number “sobering” because it was below expectations, and signaled consumers were already growing cautious through July as the growth in coronavirus cases rebounded and some states imposed new restrictions, unemployment remained high, and the expiration of government benefits approached.

The 1.2% jump in retail sales was “only half the expected gain,” she wrote, and “underscores that wary consumers have turned more cautious … The recovery in consumption … will be restrained by income cliffs and renewed virus fear.”

Those two views – of a recovery grinding ahead as people adapt and health risks are gradually controlled, or of massive family and business failures in the near future – are at the root of a stalemate in the U.S. Congress that saw lawmakers head home until September with no sign of progress on a new stimulus package.

That makes August a test of whether daily growth in coronavirus cases will continue a recent decline even as some schools and colleges reopen, whether the economy will continue to grow despite the health risks, and whether unemployed Americans have managed to put enough in the bank to get them through until their jobs return.

The extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits paid from roughly April through July, along with loans to businesses, led to a record increase in personal savings and allowed some households to pay down debts. Some Federal Reserve officials have noted that puts “firepower” in the hands of businesses and households that could tide them over for a while.

Recent data through July, for example, showed overall bankruptcies down 25% over the same seven-month period in 2019.

But the vice may tighten fast. A moratorium on evictions has expired: that means grim choices ahead for families that had used rent money for food or other purchases in recent months.

And the details of the spending report show similarly tough decisions for others, particularly those among the millions who have been laid off from restaurant and hospitality jobs.

High-frequency data has shown that growth in traffic to those sorts of businesses has plateaued, and the July sales statistic backed that up. Americans got their calories and their beer and wine – but from online orders or directly from grocery and liquor stores, not in restaurants, where spending remained 20% off last July’s level.

That means a different labor market emerging that may need fewer workers than before, no guarantee of an easy transition for those caught in it, and a need for more government help to ease the crunch.

The failure to renew benefits will “reverberate across the economy,” analysts from the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics said, with a potential $500 billion drop in personal income following the expiration of government programs causing a jump of as much as 5% in the unemployment rate – back towards the record level hit in April.

The unemployment rate dipped to 10.2% in July after hitting 14.7% in April, with the U.S. economy still about 14 million jobs below where it was before the coronavirus lockdowns began.

Economic policymakers are wary of the evolving dilemma.

“Consumers are still spending,” Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan said on Friday, noting how the trillions of dollars pumped into the economy by the massive stimulus package passed by Congress in March and programs from the U.S. central bank and others “helped make our economic statistics somewhat better.”

Kaplan said he was worried the risks from a loss of benefits are real given the large number of unemployed workers.

“I am still concerned how quickly they will be able to get back to work,” he said. “If they have to shift industries how long that will take … Not only will you not have a job, will you be able to make ends meet?”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)