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Initial jobless claims drop as California’s IT issues resolve

Initial jobless claims decrease to 350,000 for the week ended October 18

Initial jobless claims are one of the few labor market indicators released every week. Unemployment is a profound driver of economic growth, and persistent unemployment has been the Achilles’ heel of this recovery. While it seems like the big layoffs are largely finished, firms are still reluctant to add staff aggressively. Aside from the Hurricane Sandy–influenced spike in late October, initial jobless claims have been holding steady in the 340,000-to-380,000 range.

Initial Jobless ClaimsEnlarge Graph

Historically, real estate prices have tracked very closely with incomes. In fact, up until the real estate bubble burst, the ratio of median home price to median income remained in a relatively tight range of 3.2x to 3.6x. So if unemployment is rising, there’s little upward pressure on wages, which tends to be negative for home prices. Plus, the unemployed are unable to qualify for a mortgage, so the pool of buyers shrinks.

Initial jobless claims are back to pre-bust normalcy

We recently had a sub-300,000 print on initial jobless claims, which was the lowest since May 2007, but this was due to a technical issue—two states were having computer issues and under-reported claims. It appears that the California distortion has finally cleared.

Before the housing bust, initial jobless claims averaged around 356,000 from 1990 to 2007. This doesn’t indicate a healthy economy, where claims are below 300,000. Given that some of the economic indicators are starting to turn downward, initial jobless claims may rise again.

Impact on mortgage REITs

Non-agency mortgage REITs, such as Chimera (CIM), PennyMac (PMT), or Two Harbors (TWO), which invest in non–government-guaranteed mortgage-backed securities, are sensitive to the economy, as delinquencies and defaults can influence returns. The unemployment rate is by far the biggest driver of defaults. Agency REITs—such as Annaly (NLY) or American General (AGNC)—that invest in Ginnie Mae (government-guaranteed) or conforming (Fannie Mae, government-sponsored) mortgage-backed securities consider defaults to be just a different type of prepayment. Typically, the higher coupon loans have default issues, and once the loans become 90-days delinquent, the lender purchases them out of the pool and repays them at par. This lowers returns for the portfolio going forward.

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