The Importance of Ignoring the Unemployment Number

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Don't worry, folks — unemployment's a lagging indicator. Sure, unemployment rose again in April, hitting 6.0 percent for the first time in nearly eight years even as the economic recovery was supposedly getting under way. But unemployment always keeps rising into a turnaround — often for as long as a year, as was the case in the last two post-recession periods. That's because businesses want to be in a recovery, not merely expecting one, before they start piling on all those labor costs again.

That's cold economic comfort, however, for those labor costs — er, people — who are looking to get back to work. The Labor Department did actually see some signs of rebirth in the still shell-shocked business world, which added 43,000 jobs to payrolls in April after shedding 21,000 in March. But as unemployment benefits and severance packages start to run out, the formerly downsized are on the market again — and overwhelming the few openings actually being created.

Which means that recovery or no recovery, it's still tough out there. Not Argentina tough, or even Europe tough, but as tough as it's been in America since the aftermath of the last recession. Which, as we know, is a rather long time.

Certainly the news was all Wall Street needed to start wailing again. The markets took another beating to close a mostly bruising week as investors ignored the glass-half-full interpretation (at least the Fed won't raise rates next week) in favor of the glummer view: The longer businesses wait before hiring again, the greater the chance consumers will run out of money, or the confidence to spend it, before they do. The business' recovery, meanwhile, can't sustain itself without consumer demand.

So, all you shoppers out there, remember — it's a lagging indicator. If you've got a job, pretend you'll have it for as long as you like. If you're looking, pretend all those hiring freezes are just about to end. Because if consumer spending pulls back now, well, the recovery could be just around the corner for quite a while.