Updated November 25 at 12:28am

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Jobless claims in U.S. unexpectedly increased last week


WASHINGTON - More Americans than forecast filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, a sign improvement in the labor market remains uneven.

Jobless claims increased by 4,000 to 371,000 in the week ended Jan. 5, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 48 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a drop to 365,000. The prior week’s figures were revised to 367,000 from an initially reported 372,000.

A consistent decline in firings, along with a rise in payrolls, is needed to spur consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy. While an agreement reached by Congress this month averted sweeping tax increases and delayed budget cuts that threatened the expansion, the impending battle over the debt limit may weigh on the outlook for jobs.

“Claims are in a pretty steady range, but the story isn’t in firings so much as it is in hiring,” said Michael Hanson, a senior U.S. economist at Bank of America Corp. in New York, who projected 375,000 claims for the week. “Hiring has been okay. The process is sluggishly moving forward. We need to see better payrolls data to get faster economic growth.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey of economists ranged from 340,000 to 380,000. No state data were estimated, according to a Labor Department official, who said there was “nothing unusual” in the figures.

Stock-index futures maintained gains after the figures, with the contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in March rising 0.4 percent to 1,461.9 at 8:43 a.m. in New York.

The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figures, climbed to 365,750 last week from 359,000.

December employment

Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth -- measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report -- accelerates.

Payrolls rose by 155,000 last month following a revised 161,000 advance in November that was more than initially estimated, Labor Department figures showed on Jan. 4. The unemployment rate held at 7.8 percent after the November figure was revised up from a previously reported 7.7 percent.

Today’s report showed the number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits dropped 127,000, the most since January 2011, in the week ended Dec. 29 to 3.11 million. The figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

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