AP News

Ahead of the Bell: US unemployment benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking weekly unemployment benefits likely held steady last week at a level that suggests slight improvement in the job market.

Analysts expect applications for unemployment benefits fell by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 370,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.

Applications inched up in the two previous weeks but remain below where they were six weeks ago. The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure, rose to 368,000 last week after hitting a five-month low in the previous week.

Applications measure the pace of layoffs. When they drop consistently below 375,000, it generally suggests hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Employers added 163,000 jobs in July. The hiring gains were an improvement from the previous three months, when the economy created an average of only 73,000 a month. But they weren't enough to lower the unemployment rate, which rose to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in June.

The government will release its August report on hiring and unemployment on Sept. 7. Economists expect the economy added 118,000 jobs in August and the unemployment rate held at 8.3 percent, according to FactSet.

Economists say stronger growth is needed to create more jobs and lower unemployment.

The economy grew at a tepid 1.7 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter, the government said Wednesday. That's much slower growth than the 2 percent rate in the January-March quarter and 4.1 percent rate in the final three months of 2011.

Economists expect the economy will keep growing modestly in the second half of the year but at a subpar rate of roughly 2 percent. Growth at or below 2 percent is not enough to lower the unemployment rate. Most economists expect the unemployment rate to stay above 8 percent for the rest of this year.

A weak economy and high unemployment could hurt President Barack Obama re-election chances and bolster Mitt Romney's campaign. Republicans in Tampa, Fla., this week to nominate Romney have pointed to the dismal growth in making the case to elect their candidate.

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