Applications for US unemployment applications likely were flat last week

EnergyAssociated Press

The U.S. Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

TINY DECLINE: Economists forecast that weekly applications slipped just 1,000 to 280,000 last week, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.

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That would leave applications far below 300,000, a historically low level that is usually consistent with solid job gains.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. When fewer companies cut workers, it suggests they are confident in the economy and may hire more staff.

SOLID JOB SECURITY: The economy is stumbling through a period of slower growth, but employers haven't been spooked enough to cut jobs. That is a sign that the growth slowdown may be temporary.

Unemployment benefit applications are at rock bottom. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell to 282,250 two weeks ago, the lowest level in nearly 15 years. For those with jobs, the chances of getting laid off are very low.

Still, hiring slowed last month. Employers added just 126,000 jobs in March, the fewest in 15 months and snapping a year-long streak of monthly gains above 200,000. The unemployment rate remained 5.5 percent.

The slowdown in hiring followed a spate of indicators that point to a slowing economy. A stronger dollar has made U.S. exports more expensive overseas, cutting into sales and weighing on factory production. Lower oil prices have also caused oil and gas drillers to order less steel pipe and other drilling equipment.

Factory output ticked up 0.1 percent in March, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday, its first increase since November. But the gain was driven entirely by higher auto production. And it follows a drop of 0.2 percent in February and a steep 0.6 fall in January.

Consumers are also spending cautiously. Many Americans appear to be saving the windfall from lower prices at the pump or using it to pay down debt.

Retail sales rose in March, the Commerce Department said Tuesday, but the increase was driven largely by auto sales and came after three months of declines.

Many economists now forecast that the economy will grow at a 1 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, or less. That's down from 2.2 percent in the final three months of last year.