The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits edged up last week, but the four-week moving average dropped to its lowest level since February 2008, a hopeful sign the job market is still on the mend.
In the week ended March 16, applications for unemployment insurance payments increased by 2,000 to 336,000 but remained near a five-year low, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by Reuters expected claims to rise to 342,000. Initial claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 334,000 from an original reading of 332,000.
The four-week moving average, which normally provides a better indication of the underlying trend in labor markets than the weekly number of jobless claims, fell by 7,500 to 339,750.
The number of people filing for benefits after an initial week of aid rose by 5,000 to 3.05 million in the week ended March 9. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
The Fed on Wednesday decided to stick with its $85 billion a month of asset purchases.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a press conference following the two-day meeting of Fed policymakers that the labor market is healing but the central bank will keep its aggressive easing stance until it is shown that the gains are durable.
“We are seeing improvements. I think one thing we would need is to make sure that this is not a temporary improvement,” Bernanke said, adding that the Fed was focused on the outlook for the labor market.
Job gains are of great importance, because they lead to income growth, and that supports consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the U.S. economy.
February’s big jump in job gains surprised even optimistic economists, pushing the unemployment rate down to the lowest level in four years. Non-farm payroll employment increased by 236,000 last month, up from a 119,000 increase the month before. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a gain of 160,000 jobs. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent. The last time the jobless rate was that low was in December 2008.