U.S. Factory, Jobs Data Suggest Economy is Slowing

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By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week and factory activity in the nation's Mid-Atlantic region cooled in April, further signs of a moderation in economic growth.

The softening growth outlook was also underscored by another report on Thursday showing a gauge of future economic activity fell in March for the first time in seven months. They were the latest data to indicate a step-back in the economy after a brisk start to the year as tighter fiscal policy began to weigh.

"The evidence is mounting that the economy lost momentum in March and that has carried to April," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa. "Growth is slowing down as the tax increases and sequester take effect."

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 352,000 the Labor Department said. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 2,750 to 361,250.

Despite the rise, which was broadly in line with economists' expectations, claims held near a level economists normally associate with average monthly job gains of more than 150,000.

That helped ease concerns of a deterioration in labor market conditions after nonfarm payrolls posted their smallest increase in nine months in March.

"Labor market conditions still appear to be grinding forward, but pushing against the weight of a slowing economy and subdued confidence," said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Downbeat Outlook

In separate report, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said its business activity index fell to 1.3 in April from a reading of 2.0 in March. A reading above zero indicates expansion in the region's manufacturing.

Details of the survey which covers factories in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, were weak. Measures of factory employment and new orders contracted. A third report supported views the economy was again headed for a soft patch this spring, in a replay of the last two years.

The Conference Board said its Leading Economic Index dropped 0.1 percent to 94.7 last month, the first drop since August.

U.S. stocks fell on the data, while Treasury debt prices were little changed. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. Last week's claims data covered the survey period for April nonfarm payrolls. Claims increased 11,000 between the March and April survey periods.
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Given recent volatility because of the early Easter and spring breaks this year, claims probably aren't useful in trying to gauge April payrolls. Employers added 88,000 workers to their payrolls last month after a solid 268,000 increase in February.

While there is no doubt job growth has slowed in line with the overall economy, economists said March's meager gains overstated the labor market's weakness.

"We see nothing in the jobless claims data to either suggest that job growth has deteriorated further since March or even to support the view that March's payroll gain represents a new trend," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

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U.S. Factory, Jobs Data Suggest Economy is Slowing

Nationally, the average gas price hit a recent high of $3.74 per gallon, nearly $0.50 higher than it was on Jan. 1. According to website GasBuddy.com, that's about a 14 percent increase since the start of the year.

The start of the new year also marked the end of the temporary 2 percentage point tax break on Social Security contributions. Once that part of President Obama's stimulus package expired, your paychecks went back to being 2 percent smaller. For the average family, that adds up to about $1,000 a year.

That same "average family," by the way, already earns only about $50,000 a year today. And according to CNN, that's about $4,000 less than you were earning in 2000.

A disconcerting report from Sallie Mae last week showed that about one-third of Americans working toward retirement are having to raid their retirement savings to pay for their kids' college educations.

According to a poll commissioned by Bankrate.com (RATE) in February, only 55 percent of Americans have enough money tucked away in their savings accounts and "emergency funds" to cover the amounts owed on their credit cards.

That Bankrate poll also revealed that among women in particular, 51 percent actually owe more on their credit cards than they have cash in the bank. Digging deeper into the data, Bankrate reported that while high earners are doing well, and generally flush, most people (59 percent) who earn less than $30,000 annually owe more on their cards than they have in savings. And these are the people least able to afford the high cost of credit card interest.

Speaking of earnings -- and jobs -- the same unemployment report that set Wall Street to cheering Friday can be looked at from a glass half empty perspective as well. The new, lower unemployment level of 7.7 percent is the best number we've seen since the Great Recession ended. However, The Wall Street Journal points out that 7.7 percent is very close to the worst unemployment ever got (7.8 percent) in the 1991 recession. Our best number in years is within a whisker of the worst they faced back then.

The overall workforce participation rate -- the percentage of Americans currently earning wages at all -- currently stands at just 63.5 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's much worse than what we saw in the 1991 recession. It's the lowest we've seen since the recession that hit during the Carter administration.

Little wonder, then, that according to the Bankrate survey, people are increasingly concerned about "job security." Friday's unemployment report may suggest that the jobs market is on the mend, but most people (59 percent) say they feel no more or less  confident in their employment situation today than they did a year ago. Among those polled whose opinions have changed, 23 percent said they feel "less secure today" than they did a year ago, versus 19 percent who feel more secure.

That doesn't exactly jibe with the story that things are getting better.

It's great news for folks who own stocks, no doubt, and according to the Journal , more than 90 percent of people earning $100,000 or more do. But what about the rest of us? Fewer than 46 percent of Americans earning less than $50,000 are invested in the stock market -- and remember, "$50,000" is the average income in America today.

So yes, It turns out for the average American, things may not be getting better at all.

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