Fewer workers filed claims for jobless benefits in U.S.

Claims for U.S. unemployment insurance payments fell last week, returning to levels seen in the second half of 2012.

Applications for jobless benefits dropped 5,000 to 366,000 in the week ended Feb. 2, Labor Department figures showed today. Economists forecast 360,000 claims, according to the median of 53 estimates in a Bloomberg survey.

Claims, after see-sawing in prior weeks as the government had trouble adjusting the data for seasonal swings, are settling at a level that signals there is little change in the pace of firings from last year. The data come after a report last week indicated employers are boosting payrolls at a faster pace as demand holds up.

“Firms are really not discharging people at a very great rate,” said Robert Brusca, president of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York, who forecast 362,000 claims. “Still, the claims data seem to show there hasn’t been much of anything different going on in the jobs market. It’s not yet clear whether there’s something more positive developing.”

Stock-index futures remained little changed after the figures. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in March rose 0.1% to 1,508.4 at 8:57 a.m. in New York.

Economists’ claims estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 343,000 to 370,000. The Labor Department revised the prior week’s reading to 371,000 from the initially reported 368,000.

A Labor Department official today said there was nothing unusual that affected today’s figures, and no states were estimated.

Less Productivity

The productivity of U.S. workers fell in the fourth quarter by the most in almost two years, pushing labor expenses up more than forecast, a sign businesses are near the limit of how much efficiency they can wring from employees, another report from the Labor Department showed today.

The measure of employee output per hour decreased at a 2% rate, after a 3.2% gain in the prior three months. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 63 economists called for a 1.4% drop. Expenses per worker climbed at a 4.5% rate after falling 2.3% in the third quarter.

The four-week moving average of jobless claims, a less-volatile measure, fell to 350,500, the lowest since March 2008, from 352,750. The average reflects a plunge to 330,000 in initial claims two weeks ago that reflected difficulty in adjusting the data from the holidays and the start of a quarter.

The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits rose by 8,000 to 3.22 million in the week ended Jan. 26. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

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