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Commentary: U.S. economy’s shaky gains depend on job market

Maybe it has been drowned out by all the holiday sales and Christmas cheer, but the U.S. job market seems to be improving. In each of the past four weeks, fewer out-of-work Americans filed for unemployment benefits. December can be a tough month to draw any conclusions about the job market thanks to seasonal hiring and other factors, but there are signs of optimism.

Shopping malls have been busy, and websites have been jammed with shoppers. The economy may still feel like it’s limping along, but consumers have been striking a more confident tone with their dollars. Job prospects play a big role in that confidence. If we think a new job is around the corner, or that our current job is not in jeopardy, we tend to open up our wallets a little more.

Working Americans have been feeling more positive about job possibilities. Also two million people quit their jobs in October. These are people who voluntarily resigned. They weren’t fired or downsized. Odds are they found a better job.

We have seen previous economic “green shoots” wither and die. Last year’s holiday season also witnessed a small dip in new unemployment claims, but the pace picked up again after the New Year. But pay attention Thursday, when the government releases its weekly count of new unemployment filers. Another dip would mean the fewest number of newly unemployed Americans since the beginning months of the Great Recession.

Tom Hudson, anchor and managing editor of “Nightly Business Report,” can be followed on Twitter HudsonNBR.