The number of newly-laid off Americans rose unexpectedly last month. The government's overall unemployment figure is due out Friday, and economists do not expect any improvement in the number.
The latest snapshot of the U.S. labor market shows employers squeezing more production out of existing workers rather than hiring additional help. The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits totaled 480,000 last week - 8,000 more than the previous week.
After months of steady declines from last year's record-highs of about 700,000 weekly jobless claims, recent weeks have seen upticks in the ranks of those seeking unemployment benefits. The trend worries Societe Generale's chief U.S. economist, Stephen Gallager.
"It is a little bit of a concern. Now we are getting a few weeks to the upside from the 430 [thousand weekly] claims that we had [a month ago]," Gallager said. So it is suggesting slower movement toward outright job growth. I still that is coming, but maybe not as quickly and we cannot have as much confidence that it will be sustainable."
Gallager was speaking on Bloomberg Television.
Friday, the U.S. Labor Department releases the official unemployment rate for January. Economists expect the rate will be little changed from December's reading of 10 percent. Gallager says recent jobless benefits claims data do not point to an immediate turnaround in the U.S. labor market that would bring significant reductions to America's stubbornly-high unemployment rate.
"We want to see 400,000 [weekly claimants] or below to suggest sustainable job growth. And we are not there yet," Gallager said.
But if America's gainfully-employed workforce remains stunted, how is it that the U.S. economy expanded at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the last quarter of 2009? Quite simply, companies have found ways to get more output from their existing payrolls. Productivity - the rate of economic output per worker - increased just over 6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.
Higher productivity levels are seen as a mixed blessing as the United States struggles to emerge from recession. On the one hand, increased worker output may allow companies to raise salaries which, in turn, can trigger boosts in consumer spending. But improved productivity can also lead companies to delay hiring new workers, which can keep unemployment levels elevated long after a recession ends.
In other economic news, the Commerce Department reports a 1 percent jump in orders to U.S. factories that beat analysts' expectations.
And U.S. retail sales rose slightly last month, according to a private survey.