By Alex Kowalski
WASHINGTON – Fewer Americans than forecast filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance last week, a signal the U.S. labor market is maintaining its recent progress.
Applications for jobless benefits increased by 2,000 to 336,000 in the week ended March 16, Labor Department figures showed Thursday. Economists projected 340,000 claims, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey. The monthly average, which smooths the week-to-week volatility, dropped to the lowest level since February 2008.
Dismissals have waned since the end of 2012 as employers maintain headcounts to meet a pickup in demand from business customers and consumers. Today’s figures corroborate the view of Federal Reserve policy makers that the labor market is beginning to show signs of improvement.
“We’ve been surprised over the last few weeks as claims have continued to fall,” Sean Incremona, senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York, said before the report. Incremona projected 335,000 initial claims. “There is definitely progress in the labor market, though mostly through a reduction in layoffs.”
Stock-index futures remained little changed after the figures, with the contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in June rising less than 0.1 percent to 1,549.2 at 8:32 a.m. in New York.
Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 325,000 to 352,000 in the Bloomberg survey of 47 economists. The prior week’s applications were revised to a seven-week low of 334,000 after an initially reported 332,000.
A Labor Department official said as today’s data were released that there was nothing unusual that affected today’s figures. No states or U.S. territories estimated claims in the latest week.
The four-week moving average of claims, a less-volatile measure, dropped to a five-year low of 339,750 from 347,250.
The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits rose by 5,000 to 3.05 million in the week ended March 9. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.