US employment woes come under the microscope Friday as the government estimates how many Americans are unemployed, with hopes of an economic recovery hinging on the outcome.
The Labor Department will publish February unemployment figures, a day after offering the slightest glimmers of hope that the ranks of America's unemployed are shrinking.
Against the backdrop of a US unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, the department on Thursday reported that 134,000 fewer Americans claimed jobless benefits in the week to February 20 than the week before.
It was some succor for a nation in the throes of the worst recession in decades and in which 4.5 million unemployed still ask the government for help to make ends meet.Related article:House passes 15-billion-dollar jobs bill
The claims rate, still high by pre-recession standards, was slightly better than Wall Street expected and enough to nudge the US stock market upward early on Thursday.
|A job seeker (L) talks with a career counselor at a job center in San Francisco, California in January 2010.|
But some analysts saw the uptick as small consolation.
"(The) report has provided some support," said Patrick O'Hare of Briefing.com, "not so much because the report was good but because it was less bad than expected."
"While the pace of layoffs may be slowing, the key takeaway here is that the pace of hiring isn't accelerating to any meaningful degree.
"The continuing claims improvement is misleading as a sign of a strong pickup in hiring activity."
Andrew Gledhill of Moody's Economy.com was also pessimistic: "There has been little or no improvement in trends over the last several months."
Experts say the US recovery has spluttered amid a vicious circle of firms hiring less, banks lending less and reduced consumer spending.
"Consumers are tied down by debt and declining housing prices, businesses won't invest because they lack customers," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.
"In recent weeks, new jobless claims have climbed, fueling pessimism among economists."
Investors, anxious to know how joblessness will shape the US recovery, are now looking to Friday's government estimate of how many people were unemployed in February, for a better idea of the path ahead.
Many expect a rise in unemployment from the 9.7 percent rate seen in January.
"A sharp uptick in employment would indicate the recession is ending, while more job losses would indicate a double-dip recession is more imminent," said Morici.
Analysts are predicting jobs losses of around 63,000 in February, pushing unemployment up to 9.8 percent.
But they may have to continue waiting for definitive news about the direction of the economy.
Commentators are warning that the real number of unemployed may be obscured by heavy snowfalls witnessed around the country in February, which could have delayed hiring.
"An employment gain for February would be very good news but a moderate decline will not necessarily indicate a great deal about future trends," said Morici.