Fewer people apply for unemployment benefits

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, an encouraging sign that layoffs are easing.

Weekly applications dropped 37,000 to a seasonally adjusted 391,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the lowest level since April 2 and the first time applications have fallen below 400,000 since Aug. 6.

Some of the improvement was due to technical factors related to the seasonal adjustment of the data, a Labor Department spokesman said. The spokesman also said some states reported higher applications in previous weeks because of Hurricane Irene.

As a result, the drop “may not be as encouraging as it looks,” said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics. “Further falls will be needed before we can conclude a downward trend is under way.”

Applications typically need to fall below 375,000 to signal substantial job growth. They haven’t been that low since February. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 417,000, the first drop in six weeks.

Job seekers stand in line during Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's Getting Southwest Washington Back to Work Job Fair on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Vancouver, Wash. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Job seekers stand in line during Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s Getting Southwest ... more >

Most recent evidence shows the job market is sluggish and the economy is weak.

The economy expanded only 1.3 percent in the April-June quarter, the Commerce Department said in a separate report Thursday. That’s a mild improvement from last month’s estimate of 1 percent growth.

Most economists expect growth will pick up a bit in the second half of this year, but not enough to lower the unemployment rate. A forecasting panel for the National Association for Business Economics predicts total growth for 2011 will be just 1.7 percent.

Consumers are reluctant to spend, with unemployment high, wages stagnant and gas prices at about $3.50 a gallon.

Consumer confidence plunged in August to recessionary levels after lawmakers battled over raising the government’s borrowing limit and Standard & Poor’s cut its rating on long-term U.S. debt. Those moves sent the stock market sharply lower and hurt consumers’ ability to spend.

Retail sales were flat in August, a sign the turmoil caused consumers to pull back.

Anemic growth has prompted many businesses to pull back on hiring. Employers added no net jobs in August, the worst showing in almost a year. The unemployment rate was stuck at 9.1 percent for the second straight month.

Investors also worried last week that Europe won’t be able to prevent Greece from defaulting and worsening the region’s debt crisis. That situation sent the U.S. stock market down 6.4 percent, its biggest weekly loss since October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis.

A Greek default could destabilize other indebted countries, such as Portugal, Ireland and Italy. It also could harm many of Europe’s banks, which own Greek debt.

If European banks hoard cash to make up for their losses and stop lending to their U.S. counterparts, credit could be restricted in the United States and the economy could slow. And a financial crisis in Europe would reduce U.S. companies’ exports and sales to the region.

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