Applications for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in four years, reinforcing signs the U.S. labor market is picking up.
Jobless claims decreased by 5,000 to 348,000 in the week ended March 17, the fewest since February 2008, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 46 economists in a Bloomberg News survey projected 350,000. The number of people on unemployment benefit rolls and those getting extended payments also fell.
Dismissals have been waning and reports show companies are becoming more willing to expand workforces amid evidence sales are improving. Employment growth will help spur consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.
“This is consistent with gradual improvement in labor market conditions,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who correctly projected the level of claims. “It’s good for consumer spending.”
Stock-index futures held earlier losses on concern the global economy was cooling as manufacturing in China and Europe slowed. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in June fell 0.5 percent to 1,390.6 at 8:42 a.m. in New York.
Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 345,000 to 370,000. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure up to 353,000 from an initially reported 351,000.
There was nothing unusual in last week’s data, a Labor Department spokesman said.
Last week included the 12th of the month, which coincides with the period the Labor Department surveys employers to calculate monthly payroll growth. The March employment report will be released on April 6.
The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figures, declined to 355,000 last week from 356,250. The average during last month’s survey week was 359,500, indicating the job market may have continued to improve.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits fell by 9,000 in the week ended March 10 to 3.35 million.
The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans 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 16,000 to 3.31 million in the week ended March 3.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits, which tends to track the jobless rate, dropped to 2.6 percent, the lowest level since September 2008, from 2.7 percent in the prior week, today’s report showed.
Thirty-eight states and territories reported a decline in claims, while 15 reported an increase. These data are reported with a one-week lag.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth -- measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report -- accelerates.
Companies expanding their workforce include General Electric Co. The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company this week said it will add 600 jobs at a new Louisville, Kentucky, appliance plant producing refrigerators with freezers built into the bottom.
Federal Reserve policy makers are weighing whether the stimulus that helped fuel the best six-month streak of job growth since 2006 is sufficient for meeting the central bank’s goal of full employment. Joblessness has fallen to 8.3 percent, the lowest in three years.
Central bankers, meeting last week, reiterated that conditions would probably warrant “exceptionally low” interest rates at least through late 2014.
“Labor market conditions have improved further, the unemployment rate has declined notably in recent months but remains elevated,” the central bank said in a statement.