By Lorraine Woellert
WASHINGTON - The number of Americans who filed for unemployment benefits declined to a six-week low, showing further improvement in the labor market.
First-time jobless claims unexpectedly fell by 7,000 to 340,000 in the week ended March 2, the lowest since the period ended Jan. 19, according to data today from the Labor Department in Washington. The median forecast of 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for an increase to 355,000. The four-week average dropped to a five-year low.
Companies are easing up on dismissals as purchases of equipment climb and households maintain spending in the face of higher payroll taxes. Further declines in firings are a first step toward bigger employment and wage gains, and a report tomorrow may show payrolls picked up in February.
“Every indication we have is that the labor market is beginning to pick up steam,” said Drew Matus, deputy U.S. chief economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, who correctly projected the drop in claims. “It’s all consistent with 2013 being an okay year despite all the fears about what sequestration might mean or Europe might do.”
Stock-index futures held gains after the figures, with the contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring this month rising 0.3 percent to 1,543.7 at 8:46 a.m. in New York.
Another report showed the U.S. trade deficit widened more than forecast in January as demand for imported crude oil rebounded. The gap grew by 16.5 percent to $44.4 billion from $38.1 billion in December that was the smallest in three years, Commerce Department figures showed in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for the deficit to increase to $42.6 billion.
Economists’ estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 332,000 to 362,000 claims after an initially reported 344,000 in the prior period.
No states estimated the number of claims last week and there was nothing unusual in the weekly data, a Labor Department official said as the figures were released.
The less-volatile four-week moving average fell by 7,000 to 348,750, the lowest since March 8, 2008.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits rose by 3,000 to 3.09 million in the week ended Feb. 23. The continuing claims figure doesn’t include Americans receiving extended unemployment benefits under federal programs.