- Associated Press - Thursday, January 6, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — More people applied last week for unemployment benefits, one week after applications fell to the lowest level in more than two years.

Applications rose by 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 409,000 in the week ending Jan. 1, the Labor Department said Thursday. They fell to 391,000 in the previous week, the lowest point since July 2008.

Fewer than 425,000 people seeking unemployment benefits signals modest job growth. But economists say applications need to fall consistently to 375,000 or below to substantially bring down the unemployment rate. Applications for unemployment benefits peaked during the recession at 651,000 in March 2009.

Last week’s increase isn’t enough to reverse the downward trend. The four-week average, a less-volatile measure, fell to 410,750, its lowest level since late July 2008.

The weekly unemployment benefits figures provide a real-time snapshot of the job market. Applications reflect the level of layoffs but also can indicate whether companies are willing to hire.

The average has fallen by more than 76,000, or 16 percent, in the past four months. That drop has led many economists to forecast that December’s jobs report, to be released Friday, will show a big increase in hiring. Employers may have added 145,000 net new jobs, analysts project, while the unemployment rate is expected to dip to 9.7 percent.

Other recent data has signaled that economic growth is accelerating and that hiring may follow suit. The Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing managers, said Wednesday that its index of service sector activity expanded at its fastest pace in more than five years. On Monday, the group reported that its manufacturing index rose to its highest level in seven months.

And payroll services provider ADP said Wednesday that private employers added a net total of 297,000 new jobs last month. That’s the most in the 10 years that ADP has tracked the data.

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