WASHINGTON - Fewer Americans than forecast filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance payments last week, pointing to an improving labor market.
Applications for jobless benefits decreased by 16,000 to 339,000 in the week ended April 20, the lowest since March 9, according to Labor Department data released today in Washington. Economists projected 350,000 claims, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. A Labor Department spokesman said the claims data typically bounce around this time of year.
The figures indicate companies have enough confidence to maintain current staffing levels and are in a position to add to headcount should sales strengthen. At the same time, recent data showing the economy began to cool at the end of the first quarter give businesses reason to pause, prolonging the time it takes joblessness to retreat to pre-recession levels.
“The layoff side of the equation is improving quite a bit,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a U.S. strategist at TD Securities Inc. in New York, who projected filings would drop to 340,000. “The big question is on the hiring side and whether that can actually pick up and bring down the unemployment rate.”
Stock-index futures maintained gains after the figures and as companies from Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. to 3M Co. reported earnings that topped estimates. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in June advanced 0.5 percent to 1,581.6 at 8:44 a.m. in New York.
Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 340,000 to 370,000 in the Bloomberg survey of 49 economists. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure up to 355,000, from an initially reported 352,000.
While a Labor Department spokesman said there was nothing unusual that affected today’s figures, he said big swings in claims are common this month because of layoffs related to school vacations and holidays such as Easter that don’t always occur during the same week each year. He also said the period of swings in unadjusted data should be coming to an end.
The four-week moving average of claims, a less-volatile measure, fell to 357,500 from 362,000.
The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits fell by 93,000 to 3 million in the week ended April 13, the lowest since May 2008. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments rose by about 7,600 to 1.79 million in the week ended April 6.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits fell to 2.3 percent in the week ended April 13. Twenty-seven states and territories reported a decrease in claims, while 26 reported an increase.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth -- measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report -- accelerates.
Contributing to the pool of the recently unemployed, Jones Group Inc., the owner of the Jones New York, Nine West and Anne Klein fashion brands, said yesterday it will close 170 stores and trim 8 percent of its workforce after its first-quarter profit trailed analysts’ estimates. About 850 jobs are being cut, according to a Jones Group spokeswoman.