By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits edged down last week, showing no signs yet that the recent financial market turbulence following the failure of two regional banks was having an impact on the economy.
The unexpected dip in claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday suggested March could be another month of solid job growth. The weekly unemployment claims report is the most timely data on the economy’s health.
Persistently tight labor market conditions have left some economists expecting the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates two more times this year, despite the U.S. central bank signaling on Wednesday that it was on the verge of pausing its monetary policy tightening campaign.
“A week after the banking panic began, the labor market is steady as a rock with no new layoffs nationwide,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York. “Credit conditions may tighten as banks grow more cautious, but it could be weeks or months before that translates into a material slowdown in real economic activity.”
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 191,000 for the week ended March 18.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 197,000 claims for the latest week. Claims have bounced around in a tight range this year, remaining very low by historical standards, despite a rush of layoffs by major technology companies.
Economists will be watching to see if this trend persists when the government updates the seasonal adjustment factors, the model it uses to strip out seasonal fluctuations from the data, at the beginning of April.
Unadjusted claims dropped 4,659 to 213,425 last week. A jump in filings in Indiana and an increase in Massachusetts were offset by decreases in California, Illinois and New York.
With 1.9 job openings for every unemployed person in January, employers are generally reluctant to let go of workers.
Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar fell versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury yields were mixed.
Graphic-Jobless claims https://www.reuters.com/graphics/USA-STOCKS/klpygqmwxpg/joblessclaims.png
TIGHTENING CREDIT CONDITIONS
Labor market conditions could loosen, especially in the wake of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in California and Signature Bank in New York. Financial conditions have tightened, which could cause banks to become more strict in extending credit, potentially impacting households and small businesses, who have been the main drivers of job growth.
That was acknowledged by the Federal Reserve, which on Wednesday raised its benchmark overnight lending rate by a quarter of a percentage point. The U.S. central bank has hiked its policy rate by 475 basis points since last March from near-zero to the current 4.75%-5.00% range.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters that “the events of the last two weeks are likely to result in some tightening of credit conditions for households and businesses, and thereby weigh on demand on the labor market and inflation.”
The claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed business establishments for the nonfarm payrolls portion of March’s employment report.
Claims were little changed between the February and March survey weeks, potentially hinting at another month of strong payrolls gains. The economy created 311,000 jobs in February after adding 504,000 in January.
Data next week on the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid, a proxy for hiring, will shed more light on the health of the labor market in March.
The so-called continuing claims increased 14,000 to 1.694 million during the week ending March 11, the claims report showed. Continuing claims have averaged 1.674 million this year, below their pre-pandemic average, indicating some laid off workers could be readily finding new work.
“Tight labor market conditions are a key reason we expect the Fed to raise rates by 25 basis points at both the May and June meetings,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “But the Fed will proceed more cautiously given the recent stress in the banking system and its uncertain impact on the economy.”
The housing market, which has borne the brunt of the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes, is showing signs of stabilizing at very low levels. New single-family home sales rose 1.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 640,000 units in February, the highest level since August, the Commerce Department said in a separate report.
Graphic-New home sales https://www.reuters.com/graphics/USA-STOCKS/lgvdkjxyypo/nhs.png
New home sales are, however, very volatile on a month-on-month basis. They have now increased for three straight months.
Economists had forecast new home sales, which account for a small share of U.S. home sales, falling to a rate of 650,000 units. The surprise gain was despite mortgage rates rising from early February through early March after mostly falling since November, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. Monthly sales rose in the South and West. They fell in the Midwest and plunged 40.0% in the Northeast.
Sales were down 19.0% on a year-on-year basis in February. The median new house price in February was $438,200, a 2.5% rise from a year ago.
Data this week showed sales of previously owned homes rebounding for the first time in a year in February. Homebuilder sentiment improved for a third straight month in March, while single-family housing starts and building permits rose in February. Nevertheless, the housing market is not out of the woods yet. Tighter lending standards could make it harder for prospective homebuyers to borrow.
“At a minimum the decline in housing activity has slowed significantly and the inventory situation looks manageable,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)