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Jobless Claims Fall To 2 Year Low But Economy Still 'Treading Water'

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It's a classic good news-bad news situation.

Last week, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims fell to a two-year low. But while headlines point to this news as a hopeful sign of recovery, some economists are skeptical that the new data reflects anything other than an economy "treading water."

Initial jobless claims fell to a seasonally adjusted 383,000 in the week ending February 5th -- an improvement from the 419,000 jobless claims filed the previous week, according to the Labor Department's report.

The last time so few Americans applied for new unemployment benefits was June 2008.

This winter's inclement weather may have had an outsized effect on the data. "I think the key thing to understand about yesterday's report is that it may have reflected weather factors," said economist Dean Baker, adding that the majority of claims are still filed in person and severe weather can keep the newly jobless -- and state workers -- from reaching the unemployment offices.

"We know there was an issue about weather and the question is how big," Baker said. "My guess is: pretty big. But that's a pretty good guess because there was a big storm."

In early January, last time the number of initial jobless claims also dipped below 400,000 -- hitting that July 2008 low. But weather was also a factor, and the following week, jobless claims shot up again.

As far as when the decline in jobless claims might translate into job creation, Baker was not optimistic.

"We've been having very little job growth and nothing really convinces me that we've departed from that," Baker said, pointing to last week's report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report, which economists found "confounding" showed the unemployment rate falling from 9.4 percent to 9 percent in January, with a scant 36,000 jobs added to the payrolls.

"There's still so much up in the air about the economy. We're seeing very modest growth -- GDP is growing at 3.2% -- that would be okay if we were at 4.5 percent unemployment. What we really want to see is three or 400,000 new jobs a month," Baker said. "As it is now we're not even getting 200, 250 [thousand]. We're doing a little better than treading water."

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told a congressional panel on Thursday, "until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established."

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