New jobless claims plunge, retail sales improve
By MARTIN CRUTSINGER
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - New applications for jobless benefits plunged to the lowest level in 14 weeks, a possible sign that the massive wave of layoffs has peaked. Still, the number of unemployed workers getting benefits climbed to a new record.
Retail results also improved as discounter Walmart Stores Inc. and other stores reported April sales figures that beat expectations. Analysts acknowledged the positive economic signals but cautioned that any recovery will be subdued as long as unemployment stays high.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number newly laid off workers applying for benefits dropped to 601,000 last week. That was far better than the rise to 635,000 claims that economists expected.
But the total number of people receiving jobless benefits climbed to 6.35 million, a 14th straight record.
The four-week moving average of initial jobless claims, which smooths out volatility, totaled 623,500 last week, a decrease of more than 30,000 from the high in early April. Goldman Sachs economists have said a decline of 30,000 to 40,000 in the four-week average is needed to signal a peak.
Meanwhile, retailers' business last month was helped by warmer weather, tax refunds, and a shift in the Easter holiday, helping Walmart and many mall clothing chains post better-than-expected results.
In a separate report, the government said that productivity, the key ingredient to rising living standards, grew at a 0.8 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter, slightly better than the 0.6 percent increase that economists had expected. Wage pressures, as measured by unit labor costs, increased at a 3.3 percent rate, down from a 5.7 percent spike in the fourth quarter.
While wage pressures outpacing productivity normally would raise alarm bells about inflation, the threat of any price spikes is seen as remote. Regulators and economists are not worried about inflation since many workers are more concerned about keeping their jobs in the recession than demanding higher wages.