The number of workers filing for unemployment claims could again top 5 million for the week ended April 11, but the filings may also be peaking.
Economists expect a fourth week of claims in the multi-millions, the result of the abrupt shutdown of the economy that started in the second half of March to stop the spread of coronavirus. In the prior three weeks, the number of claims totaled 16.8 million.
According to Dow Jones, economists' consensus forecast is 5 million for the week ended last Saturday, down from 6.6 million the week earlier.
The stay-at-home orders and unprecedented shutdown of business activity hit the leisure and entertainment industry and retail workers hard, as restaurants, stores and other venues where crowds gather were closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said he expects another 6 million claims when the weekly report is released at 8:30 a.m. ET on Thursday.
"That would give us 23 million. We've got a little more go. We're probably three-quarters of the way there," said Zandi.
He said the government program to aid small businesses, which is now beginning to release funds, could start to help bring down the number seeking claims, as small companies return some workers to their payrolls in the next several weeks.
The virus appears to be peaking in hot spots, and governors have been discussing how they will reopen their economies, once they believe it is safe.
"I do think we're going to see exemptions for shelter in place, as we move to the end of the month, and then some openings in May," said Zandi, adding that claims should start to decline after this week. "I think we're going to get close to the apex. This week may be the apex."
Economists expect job losses of as much as 20 million or more when the April employment report is released in early May. In March, there was a decline of 701,000 nonfarm payrolls. They also expect unemployment could reach the high teens, from 4.4% in March and 3.5% in February.
The current week, which includes the 12th of the month, is the week that the government takes its survey for the monthly jobs report. Claims data for this week, which ends Saturday, will be released a week from Thursday. The week of March 12 fell just before the state shutdowns took effect.
Stocks reacted negatively to a whole raft of negative economic reports Wednesday, including the worst retail sales since the government began tracking the data, and the sharpest drop off in industrial production since 1946.
Barry Knapp, head of research at Ironside Macroeconomics, said he believes the market was responding more to weak oil prices than the data, and there could be a positive surprise in a drop in the number of claims Thursday.
"We've had a series of bad jobless claims," he said. 'I think on the labor market stuff, let's say the consensus is somewhere near correct and it comes in at 4 million. That's still a deceleration."
If the data is worse than expected, "it's hard to get surprised ... April is going to be very bad," Zandi said.