Weak job market may slow consumer spending

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits has set another record, a development likely to weigh on consumer spending and slow the economy's recovery.

While retail sales rose in May, the increase resulted largely from a spike in gasoline prices and higher auto sales, according to a report from the Commerce Department. Overall, the retail report Thursday showed consumers remain reluctant to spend, economists said.

"The jobs picture continues to be one of the most significant challenges to the economy," said Dean Curnutt, president of Macro Risk Advisors, a financial strategy firm. "It's very difficult to be bullish on consumer spending when you're looking at unemployment rates that are so high."

The number of people continuing to claim benefits exceeded 6.8 million in the week ending May 30, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was the 19th straight weekly record, after a drop last week was revised to an increase.

And that doesn't include about 2.4 million people receiving benefits through federal and state extended programs, which can add up to 53 weeks to the 26 weeks provided by most states. That means about 8.5 million people received unemployment insurance in the week ending May 23, the latest data available, triple the total of a year ago.

The unemployment rate jumped to 9.4 percent in May, a 25-year high, as employers cut 345,000 jobs. Some economists project the rate could near 11 percent by the middle of next year.

More encouraging was a drop in initial jobless claims to a seasonally-adjusted 601,000 last week, which was below analysts' expectations and the lowest level since January.

New jobless claims are a measure of the pace of layoffs and are seen as a timely, if volatile, indicator of the economy's health. The huge increase in the unemployment benefit rolls is a sign that even as layoffs slow, companies remain reluctant to hire.

The weak job market, along with dwindling home values and falling stock portfolios, likely will restrain consumer spending for months, economists said.