By Shobhana Chandra
WASHINGTON - Fewer Americans than projected filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, indicating an improving outlook for the labor market.
Jobless claims decreased by 27,000, the most in a month, to 341,000 in the week ended Feb. 9, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The level of filings was lower than any projection in a Bloomberg survey in which the median forecast was 360,000.
A slower pace of dismissals indicates demand is strong enough for companies to maintain headcounts, a necessary first step toward bigger job and income gains needed to accelerate consumer spending. Further strides in employment would augment advances in the stock market and housing, helping ease the burden of higher payroll taxes on household budgets.
The drop in claims “signals better times ahead for the job market,” Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said before the report. Sweet is the best forecaster of jobless claims over the past two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “We just need much stronger job growth to propel the economy on to the next stage.”
Jobless claims for Connecticut and Illinois were estimated by the Labor Department, a spokesman said as the figures were being released.
Estimates of the 49 economists in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 350,000 to 375,000 claims. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure to 368,000 from a previously reported 366,000.
The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figures, rose to 352,500 last week from 351,000.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits declined 130,000 to 3.11 million in the week ended Feb. 2, the lowest level since July 2008.
The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments increased by about 255,000 to 2.08 million in the week ended Jan. 26.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits, which tends to track the jobless rate, fell to 2.4 percent in the week ended Feb. 2, from 2.5 percent in the prior week, today’s report showed.
Thirty-five states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 18 reported a decrease. These data are reported with a one-week lag.