Those dedicated statisticians at the U.S. Department of Labor, who gather data on employment from the sleepy corners of Kansas to the outer reaches of Oregon, and back to the city that never sleeps, would love to announce that initial jobless claims had hit an all-time low.

But, alas, they cannot -- not when the data indicate otherwise. And last week was yet another 'otherwise': initial jobless claims totaled 627,000 for the week ending February 14, the Labor Department announced Thursday, a level identical to last week's revised total.

However, even more troubling, continuing claims rose another 170,000 to 4.99 million Americans -- that metric's highest level since record-keeping for the statistic began in 1967, the Labor Department said.

Continuing claims symbolize weak economy

Economists note that a high level of continuing claims reflects labor market stress and the long time it takes for those downsized to find new employment. Few companies are filling vacancies, many major corporations have announced large lay-offs, and even temporary work assignments are declining, another negative sign for the labor market and the economy.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg News had expected this week's initial jobless claims to total 620,000. The four-week moving average rose 10,500 to 619,000.

Analysis: No change in the weekly jobless claims stat, but it's still above the painfully high 600,000-level. However, the really troubling stat is continuing claims, which reflects very soft labor market conditions.

For investors, given the high level of continuing claims and the current pace of job losses, the best case scenario for the U.S. economy would be a recovery in revenue and earnings in Q3 or Q4 2009; a rising continuing claims level would push that revenue and earnings recovery into Q1 2010.

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