The number of Americans filing applications for jobless benefits fell more than expected last week, pointing to sustained labour market strength that could further ease concerns about the economy's health. Photo: Reuters

WASHINGTON – The number of Americans filing applications for jobless benefits fell more than expected last week, pointing to sustained labour market strength that could further ease concerns about the economy's health.

The report from the Labor Department on Thursday followed data last week showing employers hired the most workers in 10 months in December and increased wages for their workers.

Surveys showing steep declines in consumer and manufacturing activity in December had stoked fears that the economy was rapidly losing momentum.

"There are increasing risks and caution over the economic outlook in 2019, but jobless claims say the seas are calm and it looks to be smooth sailing for the economy for now," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Unemployment benefits

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 17 000 to a seasonally adjusted 216 000 for the week ended January 5. Data for the prior week was revised up to show 2 000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims declining to 225 000 in the latest week. The Labour Department said only claims for Puerto Rico were estimated last week.

US financial markets were little moved by the claims report.

Claims were boosted in the week ending December 29 as workers furloughed because of a partial shutdown of the US government applied for benefits. 

The federal government partially closed on December 22 as President Donald Trump demanded that the US Congress give him $5.7 billion (R78.9bn) this year to help build a wall on the US border with Mexico.

The shutdown, which has affected a quarter of the government, including the Commerce Department, has left 800 000 employees furloughed or working without pay. Private contractors working for many government agencies are also without pay.

Federal worker claims rise

Claims by federal workers are reported separately and with a one-week lag. The number of federal employees filing for jobless benefits increased by 3 831 to 4 760 in the week ending December 29. 

Furloughed federal government workers can submit claims for unemployment benefits, but payment would depend on whether Congress decides to pay their salaries retroactively.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labour market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2 500 to 221 750 last week.
The economy created 312 000 jobs in December. The unemployment rate rose two-tenths of a percentage point to 3.9 percent as some unemployed Americans piled into the labour market, confident of their job prospects.

While labour market strength has helped to calm fears that the economy, tighter financial market conditions and slowing global growth could make the Federal Reserve cautious about raising interest rates this year.

Reuters