Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance payments rose for the first time in five weeks, a sign further improvement in the labor market depends on faster economic growth.
Applications for jobless benefits increased by 17,000 to 361,000 in the week ended Dec. 15, Labor Department figures showed today. Economists forecast 360,000 claims, according to the Bloomberg survey median.
The figures signal the expansion probably needs to proceed more quickly to encourage companies to hold the line on headcounts and step up hiring while Congress debates the nation’s budget and tax rates. The Federal Reserve said last week it intends to keep policy accommodative to invigorate the economy and help sustain a decline in joblessness.
“This number gets us back into the range we’ve been in really since the spring,” said Omair Sharif, a U.S. economist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, who forecast claims would rise to 360,000. “We’re not waiting to see much more improvement on the layoff side. We’re just waiting for the hiring side to get going.”
Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 324,000 to 379,000 in the Bloomberg survey of 52 economists. The prior week’s applications were initially reported as 343,000.
A Labor Department official today said there was “nothing unusual” that affected today’s figures.
Another report from the Commerce Department showed the economy expanded at a revised 3.1 percent annual rate in the third quarter after a previously reported 2.7 percent. The revision reflected more consumer spending and a smaller trade deficit.
Stock-index futures maintained losses after the figures, with the contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in March falling 0.1 percent to 1,432.4 at 8:48 a.m. in New York.
The four-week moving average of claims, a less-volatile measure, declined to 367,750, the lowest since the end of October, from 381,500.
The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits rose by 12,000 to 3.23 million in the week ended Dec. 8. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments decreased by about 94,000 to 2.14 million in the week ended Dec. 1.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 2.5 percent in the week ended Dec. 8. Forty-two states and territories reported a decrease in claims, while 10 reported an increase.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth -- measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report -- accelerates.
Employers took on 146,000 workers in November, above a median forecast that called for 85,000, according to Labor Department figures released Dec. 7. The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008.
A faster rate of hiring will likely depend on how lawmakers in Washington resolve the so-called fiscal cliff of more than $600 billion in tax increases and budget cuts set to start in January. Tightening in fiscal policy is a “major risk factor” already harming investment and hiring decisions by causing “uncertainty” or “pessimism,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said at a Dec. 12 news conference. The central bank “doesn’t have the tools” to offset that event, he said.
Fed policy makers announced they would for the first time link the bank’s main interest rate to unemployment and inflation and would expand an asset purchasing program in January to spur the economy.
Modest economic growth is leading some U.S. companies to seek cost-saving opportunities that involve trimming staff. Chesapeake Energy Corp., the U.S. natural gas producer that doubled its workforce in the past five years to expand drilling, said Dec 14 that it’s cutting 275 jobs to reduce expenses. Pfizer Inc. is firing almost 20 percent of its roughly 3,000-person sales force for primary-care drugs beginning this month to lower costs, Bloomberg reported on Dec. 18.
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