Applications for US unemployment benefits likely rose slightly last week

Economic IndicatorsAssociated 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.

STABLE LOWS: Economists forecast that weekly applications rose slightly to a seasonally adjusted 285,000, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet. For the prior three weeks, applications have been roughly at the same, historically low levels. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, has dipped roughly 7 percent over the past year.

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Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. When more companies refrain from layoffs, it suggests that they expect the economy to keep growing and may need to hire additional workers. When applications slip below 300,000, it's generally a sign of net monthly job gains in excess of 200,000.

STRONG HIRING: Layoffs have stayed close to historic lows, despite a pronounced economic slowdown in recent months.

Snowstorms have kept consumers away from stores and open houses. The stronger dollar has hurt U.S. factories exporting overseas, since their products have basically surged in price around the world. Similarly, falling oil prices have cut into the production of pipelines, primary metals and machinery. That has also sliced into the bottom line of manufacturers, even though the savings from cheaper oil should eventually spur more spending by consumers.

Yet employers continue to hire at a brisk pace.

The government's employment report being released Friday is expected to show that employers added 248,000 jobs in March, according to FactSet.

That would mark a decrease from 295,000 new jobs in February, yet it would still keep the economy on a solid pace to have roughly 3 million new jobs this year.

The job growth has pared the unemployment rate to 5.5 percent from 6.7 percent a year ago.

Still, wages have yet to rise significantly, limiting the benefits to the overall economy from the additional jobs. Average hourly wages have climbed just 2 percent over the past 12 months.