Economy Watch: Jobless Claims Down, Trade Deficit Up

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of initial unemployment claims for the week ending May 5 was 367,000, a decrease of 1,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 368,000.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday that the number of initial unemployment claims for the week ending May 5 was 367,000, a decrease of 1,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 368,000. The four-week moving average, which is less jittery, was 379,000, a decrease of 5,250 from the previous week’s revised average of 384,250, which counts as good macroeconomic news.

Less good news came from the Census Bureau, also on Thursday, in that the international trade deficit for the United States increased to $51.8 billion in March from $45.4 billion in February, as imports increased more than exports, though both were increasing. Goods accounted for the entirety of the deficit, coming in at $67.6 billion for March. Services, on the other hand, ran a surplus of $15.8 billion in March.

China remained the main seller of stuff to America in March: $21.7 billion more than it bought from us. Other major nations that sell more goods to the United States than they buy are Japan ($7.1 billion) and Canada ($3.1 billion).

Homebuilders for seniors gain confidence

Builder confidence in the 55+ housing market for single-family homes saw a sharp increase in the first quarter of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago, according to the latest National Association of Home Builders’ 55+ Housing Market Index (HMI), released on Thursday. The index increased 10 points to 27, and while 27 is relatively low for an index of 0 to 100, it’s the highest reading since the inception of the index in 2008 (admittedly not a great year to start such a thing).

The 55+ single-family HMI measures builder sentiment based on a survey that asks if current sales, prospective buyer traffic and anticipated six-month sales for that market are good, fair or poor (high, average or low for traffic). All of the index components remain well below 50, but increased considerably from a year ago, each reaching an all-time high: Present sales rose 12 points to 27; expected sales for the next six months increased eight points to 32; and traffic of prospective buyers rose nine points to 26.

“Like the overall single-family housing market, the 55+ housing segment is facing a slow but steady recovery,” NAHB chief economist David Crowe noted in a press statement. “Consumers are starting to see the resale market show some improvement, which allows them to start thinking about moving into 55+ housing.”

JP Morgan gambles, loses

JP Morgan Chase astonished Wall Street on Thursday by reporting loses due to apparent recklessness on the part of one of its divisions, which did the high finance equivalent of taking a paycheck to the track and losing it on the ponies. That is, the bank bet on complex derivatives (a “hedging strategy,” gone sour, according to CEO Jamie Dimon) and lost about $2 billion.

Of course, with assets of about $2.3 trillion, such a loss is more reputational than anything else for JP Morgan. Investors punished the bank during after-hours trading—since the news broke late in the day—by driving the bank’s share prices down about 5 percent. Other financial shares dropped as well, just to demonstrate Wall Street’s essential irrationality.

Before the JP Morgan news, the Street had a mixed day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average eked out a gain of 19.98 points, or 0.16 percent, and the S&P 500 was up 0.25 percent. The Nasdaq lost a minuscule 0.04 percent.

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