Jobless Claims in U.S. Unexpectedly Increased Last Week

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.

Extended Benefits

Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments decreased by about 75,500 to 1.99 million in the week ended Dec. 22.

Congress, as part of its budget agreement on Jan. 1, authorized another year of federal benefits for long-term unemployed workers. About $30 billion will be paid this year, down from about $45.5 billion in 2012, according to government estimates.

The deal passed by lawmakers also averted tax increases on about 99 percent of households while failing to reach a bargain on spending and on raising the debt limit.

The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits, which tends to track the jobless rate, dropped to 2.4 percent in the week ended Dec. 29, the lowest since July 2008, from 2.5 percent in the prior period, today’s report showed.

Thirty states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 23 reported a decrease. These data are reported with a one-week lag.

Amazon Facility Inc. on Jan. 8 announced it’ll open a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey, that will help create full-time positions in addition to temporary, seasonal and construction jobs. The world’s largest online retailer plans to take occupancy of the facility in early 2014.

The unemployment rate has declined to 7.8 percent in December from 10 percent in October 2009, according to Labor Department figures. At the same time, a healthier job market is needed help spur consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.

Some companies announcing staff reductions this week included Meritor Inc., a maker of axles and brakes for trucks and buses, which said it is cutting 200 salaried employees as it restructures. LCA-Vision Inc., an operator of laser-eye-surgery centers, reported it has eliminated 31 positions.

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