AP News

Ahead of the Bell: US unemployment benefits


WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans have sought weekly unemployment benefits in the past month, a sign hiring may be improving a bit. Economists expect the trend to have continued last week, though just barely.

Analysts forecast that weekly applications declined 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 365,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

Applications have declined about 6 percent in the past two months. The department said last week that the four-week average of applications, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, fell to 363,750. That was its lowest level since March.

The decline suggests that companies are laying off fewer workers and hiring may pick up. When applications fall consistently below 375,000, it generally signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

The economy and job growth are improving a bit after falling into a midyear slump, though neither is particularly strong.

One area of improvement has been the housing market, which is slowly but steadily recovering. Sales of previously occupied homes rose 2.3 percent in July from June, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. Sales jumped more than 10 percent in the past year.

Other recent reports have contributed to the picture of a healing industry. Home prices are rising nationwide. And builders are growing increasingly confident because they're seeing more traffic from potential buyers. An index of builder confidence rose to its highest level in five years in August.

Builders responded by applying for the largest number of building permits in nearly four years last month. They broke ground on slightly fewer new homes in July than in June. But that was after the number of housing starts had reached a 3 1/2-year high in June.

In another positive sign, Americans boosted their retail spending in July by the most in five months, the Commerce Department said last week. That suggests yet more confidence in the economy.

And factory output rose in July for the second straight month, according to a report Wednesday from the Federal Reserve. That raised hopes that manufacturers were recovering from a slowdown in the early summer. A jump in auto production was a key reason for the increase.

Better growth also boosted hiring last month. Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the most since February. Job gains averaged only 73,000 jobs a month from April through June, not enough to keep up with a rising population. The unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in June.

Most economists say stronger growth is needed to create enough jobs to lower unemployment. The economy grew at an annual rate of 1.5 percent from April through June, down from 2 percent in the first quarter and 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.


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