At 8:30 a.m. ET today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will come out with its unemployment figures for February. The report should help us get a clearer sense of this most important economic data point.
In January, unemployment fell 0.2%, to 8.3%, or 12.8 million people. The recovery has been painfully slow going, but it's a major improvement; the figure has been inching down since peaking at 10% in late 2009:
Since this past August, unemployment has fallen a whopping 0.8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI ) has surged some 14%. And despite geopolitical risks raising energy costs for construction, and manufacturing nailing Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) , Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) , and General Electric, we've seen some other positive signs lately.
Consumer confidence, consumer income, and consumer spending are all up. Since poor sales are currently the biggest impediment to businesses hiring, that's obviously good to see. What's more, strong auto sales presage another 0.3% decline.
Still, economists don't expect to see the figure to have changed much in February. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently tempered expectations of big employment gains over 2012, noting that employment gains have outpaced GDP growth. We'll have to wait and see.
The big winners from improving unemployment rates are banks like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , whose balance sheet performance is closely tied to the ability of customers to borrow money and repay old loans, and whose trading and investment banking results depend on economic health as well. Caterpillar and Alcoa investors, whose cyclical businesses are closely anchored to the economy, will also want to pay close attention to the pace of recovery.
For just about all the rest of the market too, unemployment can't come down soon enough. And today we'll get to see another piece of how our tentative recovery is progressing.
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