Applications for US unemployment benefits likely slipped a bit last week

MarketsAssociated Press

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

LITTLE CHANGE: Economists forecast that weekly applications slipped 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 293,000, according to a survey by data provider FactSet.

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Applications have come in under 300,000 for 12 of the past 13 weeks, a historically low level indicating that employers are confident the economy will continue to grow. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, has dropped 7.3 percent in the past 12 months.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When fewer people seek unemployment benefits, it indicates that employers are keeping their staffs and may increase hiring.

ROBUST HIRING: As applications for unemployment benefits have trended downward, hiring has accelerated.

Employers added 321,000 jobs in November, the most in nearly three years. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.8 percent, down from 7 percent at the start of the year.

In the first 11 months of this year, employers have added 2.65 million jobs. That already makes 2014 the best year for hiring since 1999.

The average hourly wage rose 9 cents to $24.66, the biggest gain in 17 months. Still, over the past 12 months, hourly pay has risen just 2.1 percent, slightly higher than the 1.7 percent inflation rate.

Other recent data also points to an improving economy. Shoppers spent more in November at retail stores and restaurants, as tumbling gas prices have left them with more money to spend on other goods and services.

And factory output rose at a healthy clip last month, fueled by more auto production. Manufacturing output has now surpassed its pre-recession peak.