The final months of 2011 and the first months of 2012 were marked by such positive economic news that economists, browbeaten by past false starts, started growing optimistic that a self-sustaining recovery was finally upon us. Then in recent weeks, the indicators went wobbly again, and optimism has given way to a renewed sense of dread that the earlier bursts of growth were misleading outliers.
Whatever’s really going on in the actual labor market, the implications couldn’t be more significant — both for millions of unemployed Americans, and for all that’s staked on the outcome of the 2012 election.
On Friday, the Department of Labor will release its initial job-growth estimate for the month of April. What the administration hopes, along with everybody who wants the economy to heal, is that the economy added more than 200,000 jobs last month. Ideally significantly more.
That’s about the level required to outpace the growth of the labor market and bring down the unemployment rate. But ever since last month’s disappointing figure of 120,000 new jobs triggered the new trend of pessimism, most indicators suggest the April figures will fall short.
Starting at the end of March, weekly unemployment claims climbed sharply, from a healthy revised figure of 353,000 in the middle of that month, to 388,000 the first week of April and up to 392,000 two weeks ago.
Initial, unrevised claims released Thursday suggest that number’s fallen again — down to 365,000. But economists say it’s too late to see that improvement reflected in the monthly jobs figures. A common rule of thumb is that when unemployment claims are under 400,000, it means the economy’s adding jobs — but that we’ve hovered so close to that figure all month suggests we’re not adding very many. The four-week moving average right now is 383,500 new claims. This time last month it was 361,750.
Other indicators also prefigure a disappointing official total. On Wednesday, the payroll company ADP (which often deviates from Labor Department statistics) concluded that the economy only added 119,00 jobs in April. Gallup estimates that the unemployment rate has ticked up in the past several weeks.
In earlier months, when all indicators were pointing north, the White House scheduled public appearances for President Obama to tout what they rightly expected would be positive figures. If Obama has no plans tomorrow, it’s because their expectations have changed.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.