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COMMENTARY: Workers comp claim data is a good economic indicator


Presidential candidates and their detractors have argued over what recent job numbers say about the U.S. economy's health.

With the economy's condition holding implications for the November elections, the debate over jobs intensified this month after the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8% in September. That was down from 8.1% in August, as total employment rose by 875,000.

The Labor Department report set off arguments over the validity of the government's employment numbers. Most notable was former General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch's assertion that the government manipulated the numbers to help President Barack Obama's re-election bid.

The Labor Department report and the ensuing argument about its legitimacy made me wonder how the volume of workers comp claims is trending. I've always heard claims typically spike when workers find their way to new jobs, although there is typically a lag.

What I found by asking insurers and third-party administrators is that the claims have recently trended down or flattened.

Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc., for example, had seen workers comp claims increasing month over month this year.

But then preliminary September numbers fell. Because of the unexpected decrease in September claims activity, it now looks like claims volume is flat to down one point for the year, according to Scott Rogers, executive vice president of casualty operations in Boston for Sedgwick.

This would be good information if you were Gov. Mitt Romney and you cared to use workers comp data to make your point that that the economy is a mess because of President Obama's policies.

If you were President Obama, however, you might care to spin things a bit differently.

You would want to look past claims trends and talk about the workers comp exposure base. Insurers have reported seeing a rise in payrolls, a measure of workers comp exposure.

That should lead to an eventual increase in claims.

Of course, only in my fantasy world would presidential candidates use workers comp data to boost their standings.

But that is how it goes with me. I look at most economic news and wonder about the implications for the workers comp sector.

Doing that, I have seen some positive trends.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported a 1.1% increase in retail sales volume for September, which beat growth forecasts, while housing starts surged 15% in September, reaching the highest level in four years.

That also bodes well for future claims activity.

It always seems odd to hope that claims trend upward, as claims derive from injuries. But strictly as measure of economic activity, I do hope to see more claims.