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Originally published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:13 AM

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Ahead of the Bell: Unemployment benefits

The number of people seeking unemployment aid has fallen to near a four-year low, an encouraging sign for the job market. A little bump in applications last week is unlikely to change that view.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON —

The number of people seeking unemployment aid has fallen to near a four-year low, an encouraging sign for the job market. A little bump in applications last week is unlikely to change that view.

Economists forecast that weekly applications rose 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 355,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST Thursday.

Applications began to fall steadily about four months ago, and the decline has accelerated recently. Since mid-January, they have fallen more than 8 percent. And the four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, fell last week to its lowest point since April 2008.

When applications drop consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Economists said the drop suggests that the economy will see another strong month of hiring in February, similar to the average net gain of about 200,000 in the previous three months.

Hiring has picked up in recent months. The economy added 243,000 net jobs in January, the most in nine months. The unemployment rate dropped for the fifth straight month, to 8.3 percent - the lowest in nearly three years.

Healthier economic growth is spurring greater job growth. The economy expanded at an annual rate of 2.8 percent in the final three months of last year - a full percentage point higher than the previous quarter.

Most economists expect growth will slow in the current quarter, because companies won't need to rebuild their stockpiles of goods as much as they did last winter. That means less production of goods.

But there are signs that the economy is still expanding at a healthy pace. Factory output got off to a robust start this year, and it ended last year with the fastest growth in five years, the Federal Reserve said last week.

Factories are adding jobs to keep up with the extra demand. Manufacturers added a net gain of 50,000 jobs last month, the most in a year.

Still, the job market has a long way to go before it fully recovers from the damage of the Great Recession. Nearly 13 million people remain unemployed, and 8.3 percent unemployment is painfully high.

One reason the unemployment rate has fallen is that many people have given up looking for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching for a job.

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