The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, but seasonal volatility makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the labor market's health.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's figure was revised to show 5,000 fewer applications than previously reported.
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The weekly decline was the largest since January 2011.
Claims tend to be very volatile around this time of the year because of the holidays and seasonal layoffs.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, increased 6,750 to 365,750, still at a level consistent with steady job gains.
The labor market has been gradually improving, with job gains last year averaging 153,000 per month, little changed from 2011. That has not been enough to significantly cut the unemployment rate which ended the year at 7.8 percent.
CARY LEAHEY, ECONOMIC CONSULTANT, DECISION ECONOMICS, NEW YORK:
"The figures are right on expectations and really a continuation of the 'same old same old.' Despite all the worries that factors such as the uncertainty from the fiscal cliff and some ongoing inventory adjustment, job creation has been quite steady for the last few months at about 150,000 per month. Today's report suggests that the January payroll growth will be well within that range.
"Ironically, while you would have thought the economy would have lost some gas in the fourth quarter because of an inventory correction, it appears that if anything, the labor market built up a bit of momentum in November and December."
PETER CARDILLO, CHIEF MARKET ECONOMIST, ROCKWELL GLOBAL CAPITAL, NEW YORK:
"The data seems to be consistent and if you look at the fact that the there are less people now that are putting in for claims, it is good.
"It's basically a number that is not going to derail the prospects of improvements in the jobs market going forward. As far as today is concerned, it won't have much impact on the market."
DAVID SLOAN, ECONOMIST, 4CAST LTD, NEW YORK:
"They are a little higher than expected, but nothing too exciting. Last week's figure was revised lower, which was pretty unusual, so the net increase was quite small. We had a surprisingly large decline in continuing claims.
"Overall the data isn't particularly conclusive. The initial claims data may be mildly disappointing but given the revision and the large fall in continuing claims I don't think we can really get too worried about the state of the labor market given these numbers."
JOSEPH TREVISANI, CHIEF MARKET STRATEGIST, WORLDWIDEMARKETS, WOODCLIFF LAKE, NEW JERSEY:
"The most striking aspect of initial claims is the lack of improvement last year compared to the prior two years.
"In 2010 the four week moving average dropped 8.3 percent, in 2011 10.6 percent but in 2012 claims improved only 3.2 percent. Like non-farm payrolls initial claims depicts a stagnant labor market and economy."
YELENA SHULYATYEVA, ECONOMIST, BNP PARIBAS, NEW YORK:
"Claims have been running relatively stable at an elevated level. I don't see any potential pickup in hirings in the near future. We had just been through the fiscal negotiation debacle.
"We are on track for a debt ceiling fight. That will keep companies from hirings."
(Americas Economics and Markets Desk; +1-646 223-6300)