WASHINGTON – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits held last week near the lowest level in almost four months, a sign the labor market continues to strengthen.
Jobless claims increased by 5,000 to 320,000 in the week ended March 15, a Labor Department report showed Thursday in Washington. The median forecast of 51 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for an increase to 322,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to the lowest level since late November.
A slowdown in dismissals may pave the way for employers to take on more workers once demand accelerates. Federal Reserve policymakers said on Wednesday in a statement there is “sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing improvement in labor-market conditions,” even as economic activity slowed during the winter months.
“Claims remain extremely encouraging,” Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., said in an interview. “They’re signaling that the net slowing in payrolls gains in the last few months is weather-related and temporary, and we’re due for some catch-up in payrolls over the next couple months.”
Stock-index futures held earlier losses after the report. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in June declined 0.2 percent to 1,848.1 at 8:49 a.m. in New York.
No states estimated applications last week and there was nothing unusual in the data, a Labor Department spokesman said as the figures were released to the press.
Economists’ estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 310,000 to 335,000. The prior week’s claims were unrevised at 315,000.
The four-week average declined to 327,000 from 330,500 the week before.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits increased by 41,000 to 2.89 million in the week ended March 8 after reaching a three-month low the prior period.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 2.2 percent in the week ended March 8, Thursday’s report showed.
Thirty states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 22 reported a decline. These data are reported with a one-week lag.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and typically wane before job growth can accelerate. RadioShack Corp., the electronics retailer trying to shake its reputation as a relic, earlier this month announced plans to shut as many as 1,100 underperforming stores.
The plan is likely to affect 5,000 to 10,000 employees, according to Scott Tilghman, a Boston-based senior analyst at B. Riley & Co.
Fed officials are monitoring progress in the labor market as they pursue plans to gradually dial back their bond-buying program, known as quantitative easing. The central bank reduced its monthly pace of bond purchases by $10 billion, to $55 billion, according to Wednesday’s statement.
The Fed also stopped linking the benchmark interest rate with a specific level of unemployment, saying its assessment of progress toward goals of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation will take into account a wide range of information, including labor market conditions.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a news conference after the meeting that she looks at broader measures of unemployment, as well as data on labor force participation and turnover to supplement her view on the jobs market.
“If you ask about my dashboard, the dial on virtually all of those things is moving in a direction of improvement,” Yellen said.