U.S. Weekly Jobless Claims Head Down Again, and Productivity Jumps

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After two surprising weeks of rising initial jobless claims, the U.S. got some encouraging news: The downtrend resumed in the week ending Feb. 27, with claims falling , U.S. Labor Department announced Thursday. That's slightly better than the Bloomberg News economists survey, which had expected claims to total 475,000.

The less-volatile four-week moving average decreased 3,500 to 470,750, while continuing claims plunged 134,000 to 4.5 million. A year ago, initial jobless claims totaled 643,000, the four-week moving average was 636,750 and continuing claims totaled 5.1 million.

Also, U.S. worker productivity continues to increase at an impressive rate, rising at a 6.9% annualized rate in fourth-quarter 2009, after a 7.8% annualized rate in the previous quarter. For all of 2009, productivity increased 3.8%, the Labor Department said. Further, unit labor costs fell 5.9% in the fourth quarter 2009, after a 7.6% drop in the previous quarter. Unit labor costs fell 1.7% for all of 2009. Both measures clearly exceeded the Bloomberg News survey, which showed economists expecting fourth-quarter productivity to increase 6.3% and unit labor costs to fall 4.5%.

Separately, the Monster Employment Index increased 10 point to 124 in February from 114 in January, Monster.com (MWW) announced Thursday. This index is a monthly measure of U.S. online job demand, and was 122 a year ago.

Doing More With Less

The impressive gain in productivity and the resumption of a downward trend in jobless claims are key takeaways from this week's data. Productivity increases are double-edged sword, however. As companies continue to find ways to do more with the same resources, it boosts their bottom line -- with little upward wage pressure -- but it means companies are still finding ways to get by without hiring new workers.

Also, jobless claims may be continue their recent volatility over the next few weeks, due to blizzards that battered the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, but the four-week moving average is the key. And so far, it remains pointed in the correct direction -- down.
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