Jobless claims reach a four-year low

The general trend on initial unemployment claims over the last two months has been largely encouraging, though there have been setbacks. Last week, for example, was a step in the wrong direction.

This week’s report, however, was a very pleasant surprise. Initial claims not only dropped sharply, they fell to a level unseen in nearly four years.

The number of Americans who filed requests for jobless benefits sank by 52,000 last week to 352,000, the lowest level since April 2008, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. Claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 402,000 from 399,000. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had projected claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 375,000 in the week ended Jan. 14. The average of new claims over the past four weeks, meanwhile, dropped by a much smaller 3,500 to 379,000.

In terms of metrics, keep in mind, when these jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape. When the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are actually being created rather quickly.

And with that, here’s the new homemade chart, showing weekly, initial unemployment claims going back to the beginning of 2007. (Remember, unlike the monthly jobs chart, a lower number is good news.) For context, I’ve added an arrow to show the point at which President Obama’s Recovery Act began spending money.