WASHINGTON -- After initial claims for unemployment surprisingly plunged to a 4 1/2-year low, they jumped sharply back up again last week to a two-month high, highlighting the volatility of the data and continued sluggish job growth.
There were 388,000 first-time jobless claims for the week ending Saturday, an increase of 46,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 342,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.
That earlier number was down significantly from the week before, and, coming after an unexpected drop in the August unemployment rate to 7.8%, fueled speculation among some conservatives that the Obama administration was manipulating the data to improve the president’s reelection prospects.
Speculation that California was responsible for the big drop because it hadn’t processed all its claims was denied by state officials.
The Labor Department said the big moves in the numbers were not because of any state, although new data showed a drop of 4,979 in first-time claims in California for the week ending Oct. 6 because of fewer layoffs in service and retail industries.
The first two weeks of a new quarter are particularly volatile because there are advantages for some people to wait until a new quarter to file for jobless benefits, the Labor Department said. For example, at the start of the second quarter in July, jobless claims dropped 24,000 the first week and then increased 36,000 the next.
Government officials try to compensate for the quarterly filings and other factors through seasonal adjustments.
Regardless of the time of year, jobless claims can be volatile from week to week, which is why the Labor Department and economists focus more on the four-week average. That figure was 365,500 last week, up 750 from the previous week.
A figure of about 350,000 is consistent with strong job growth.
Analysts said the drop in jobless claims for the week ending Oct. 6 was a statistical anomaly driven by those quarterly fluctuations and that the numbers would quickly increase again.
The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg was for 365,000 new claims for last week.
The Labor Department said last week’s numbers probably were artificially higher than normal and that the previous week’s numbers were artificially lower than normal because the expected quarterly jump in claims was delayed.
There also is additional volatility at the start of the first quarter of the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. A Labor Department spokesman said the initial jobless claims data should be “fairly flat and smooth” in the coming weeks.