NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Maybe it's like the problem of the watched pot that never boils: We're watching the economy SOO closely for signs of a post-war pickup that we are keeping it from happening (yes, I also pick up lucky pennies on the street and am careful not to say things that "jinx" me).
Whatever it is, the latest jobless claims numbers show that the layoffs keep coming, and that the economy may still be stuck in low gear.
True, watching every wiggle in the weekly jobless claims numbers can be misleading, since they are volatile and affected by government statisticians' "seasonal adjustment" procedures.
Having said that, though, the weekly total of jobless claims has been well above 400,000, and this week was at its highest level since March 2002. (See more.)
Good news is not so good
Gains in March for durable goods orders, released Thursday, is encouraging. (See more.)
If companies are buying the big-ticket stuff like cars, computers and capital equipment, then they must be seeing demand for their products and sooner or later they will have to hire more bodies to keep the assembly lines running.
However, March's 2 percent gain only does a little more than erase February's 1.5 percent drop.
And the regional manufacturing surveys for early April were all weak, including the New York Fed's Empire State Index and the manufacturing indexes from the Richmond and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks. So it doesn't look as if March's momentum spilled into April.
Good news, but no jobs
At a speech in New York on Thursday, Fed governor Ben Bernanke was relatively upbeat on the prospects for business investment. He expects a the economy to grow 3.5 percent this year -- with a 4.0 percent rate in the second half of the year. And Chicago Fed President Mike Moskow said he sees signs the economy is improving and singled out gains in some measures of consumer confidence.
In addition, the latest weekly chain store sales numbers have been improving, and even though mortgage demand for both home purchases and refinancings has pulled back from overheated peaks, it's still very healthy.
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But jobs need to start growing. Economists can say all they want about jobless recovery and how this compares to 1990-91 -- but that doesn't matter much if you're one of the people who has lost a job and can't find another one.
That's why the Bush team is pushing so hard for their tax cuts. No jobs could mean no votes for Dubya next year.
The labor market message from the Conference Board's Help-Wanted Index has been gloomy for some time. It's a tally of column inches of help-wanted ads in newspapers across the country and it tracks employment pretty well.
Even though the Help-Wanted Index is not closely watched on Wall Street, in part because it lags almost all of the other labor market reports, it must be resonating with the team in the White House. It fell in March to its lowest level since 1964.
And of course the worry on Pennsylvania Avenue must be that if something doesn't kick the economy into a higher gear by next year -- tax cuts, more interest rate cuts from the Fed, or simply a pick up in consumer and business's animal spirits -- President #43 could find that he's scanning those help-wanted ads, too.
Kathleen Hays anchors The FlipSide, airing Monday to Friday on CNNfn, and appears throughout the day reporting on the economy and how it affects financial markets. As part of CNN's Business News team, she is also a regular contributor to Lou Dobbs Moneyline.