Unemployment Filings Near 44-Year Low But Spending Slows

Legal firm Hogan Lovells representative Nina LeClair, second from right, talks to U.S. military veteran applicants at a hiring fair for veteran job seekers and military spouses at the Verizon Center in Washington April 9, 2014. Reuters

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell to near a 44-year-low last week, pointing to further tightening of the labor market even as economic growth appears to have remained moderate in the first quarter.

The stronger labor market combined with rising inflation could push the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates this month.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 223,000 for the week ended Feb. 25, the lowest level since March 1973, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Data for the prior week was revised to show 2,000 fewer applications received than previously reported.

It was the 104th straight week that claims remained below 300,000, a threshold associated with a healthy labor market. That is the longest stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller. It is now at or close to full employment, with an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new claims for unemployment benefits dipping to 243,000 in the latest week. Financial markets are already pricing in a rate hike at the Fed's March 14-15 policy meeting.

U.S. stock index futures rose after the data on Thursday. The U.S. dollar also firmed against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. government debt fell.

A survey from the U.S. central bank on Wednesday showed the labor market remained tight in early 2017, with some of the Fed's districts reporting "widening" labor shortages.

The government reported on Wednesday that the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index jumped 1.9 percent in the 12 months through January, the biggest gain since October 2012. The PCE price index increased 1.6 percent in December.

The core PCE, the Fed's preferred inflation measure, increased 1.7 percent, still below its 2 percent target.

Slow Spending Growth

A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing last week's claims data. Only claims for Oklahoma were estimated.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 6,250 to 234,250 last week, the lowest reading since April 1973.

Data this week showed tepid growth in consumer spending in January, weak equipment and construction spending, and a wider goods trade deficit, suggesting the economy struggled to gain momentum early in the first quarter after slowing in the final three months of 2016.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting first-quarter gross domestic product rising at a 1.8 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 1.9 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Thursday's claims report also showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid increased 3,000 to 2.07 million in the week ended Feb. 18. The four-week average of the so-called continuing claims edged up 750 to 2.07 million.

The continuing claims data covered the survey week for February's unemployment rate. The four-week moving average of claims fell 21,500 between the January and February survey periods, suggesting an improvement in the jobless rate.