The Labor Department has just released weekly data on first-time unemployment claims: The figure has fallen to 339,000, a four-year low and drop of 30,000 from last week.
I usually don't write up the weekly claims numbers, but this time around, they're significant. There's some signal inside the noise.
What you want to see is a first-time claims number that's below 400,000. Last week, we were well below that, and closing in on 300,000. That's a sign that employers have slowed the pace of layoffs. They may not be ready to hire again, but at least they aren't sending new ranks of unemployment to join the 12 million Americans who are currently out of work.
The regular weekly first-time claims number isn't as accurate as the four-week moving average, which this week shows first-time claims at 364,000. Even so, that's a number that we haven't seen since earlier this year.
The most recent government jobs report, for September, saw the national unemployment rate fall to 7.8 percent, setting off a flurry of conspiracy tinged speculation that the Obama administration had somehow cooked the numbers, after the President fared poorly in his first debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
The claims number, coming on the same day as the Vice-Pesidential debate, will probably get the same treatment.
But what the September report showed — and more importantly, what upward revisions for July and August demonstrated — was that the U.S. job market was stronger in late summer and early fall than we thought. The falling unemployment-claims totals are backing that up.