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CNBC Panel Warns Drop to 9.4 Percent Unemployment is 'Anomaly'

A sharp drop in the unemployment rate from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent "surprised" analysts on Jan. 7, but Mesirow Financial's chief economist Diane Swonk warned CNBC viewers that it was an 'anomaly.'


The drop in unemployment rate confused some because in the same report the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported only 103,000 overall nonfarm payroll gains in December 2010.


CNBC's "Squawk Box" panel reacted to the falling unemployment rate by calling it "sort of a fluke," an "anomaly" and predicting it would rise again. CNBC's Rick Santelli suggested the rate dropped "because people are disenchanted' and dropping out of the labor force."


Mark Zandi of Moody Analytics also discounted the rate, which comes from the household survey, saying, "I would read nothing into the household survey. It is December, it's an odd month, seasonals are a big problem. I don't think the number of unemployed fell by half a million or 600K, so I would read nothing into that."


Diane Swonk, agreed with Zandi's overall assessment that the payroll numbers were as expected, but called the unemployment rate an "anomaly."


"I agree with Mark, I mean this is just not, the numbers are, with the revisions taken into account, are pretty close to the expectations of the level of employment. And the 9.4 is just an anomaly," Swonk said. Anchor Becky Quick asked her if that meant the rate would go up again.


"Yes, easily, we'll see the unemployment rate jump again," Swonk concluded.


Some media outlets quickly praised the lower unemployment rate including The Washington Post and CNN's "American Morning."


The Post headlined and led its story with the sharp drop and called it "new confirmation that the economy is clawing its way out of the deep downturn." The article did not question the significance of the rate as CNBC had. It also buried the large (260,000) drop in the labor force in the eight paragraph of the story.


But Barron's, another financial publication agreed with CNBC and said that the stock market was ignoring "the anomalous drop in the jobless rate." The reason? The payroll numbers come from a survey of businesses, but the unemployment rate 'is derived from a separate, often volatile, survey of households.' Barron's claimed the drop in labor force was responsible for the rate drop.