Applications for US unemployment aid rise to still-low level

WASHINGTON – The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose last week, but to a low level that indicates employers are still cutting relatively few jobs.

THE NUMBERS: Weekly applications rose 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 277,000, the highest in four weeks. The less volatile four-week average declined slightly to 269,250.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs and have remained below 300,000 for 67 straight weeks, the longest such streak since 1973.

Just 2.15 million Americans are receiving benefits, 4 per cent lower than a year earlier.

THE TAKEAWAY: The figures are a reassuring sign that the job market may be healthier than other recent data suggests. Businesses cut back sharply on hiring in April and May. Employers have added an average of only 116,000 jobs in the past three months, half last year’s average of 230,000.

Yet the low level of applications for jobless aid is a sign that companies aren’t laying off workers.

And fewer applications are also consistent with steady hiring over time, according to research by Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase. Applications tend to decline when workers who lose their jobs can more quickly find a new one.

KEY DRIVERS: The economy slowed to a crawl in the first three months of this year, which likely prodded many employers to slow hiring. Growth was just 0.8 per cent at an annual rate in the first quarter.

But most data since then suggests growth picked up in the April-June quarter. Americans have stepped up their spending at retail stores and restaurants in the past two months. Home sales and construction have also improved. Economists now forecast growth will pick up to a 2.5 per cent pace in the second quarter.

Still, the economy wasn’t strong enough to prompt the Federal Reserve to lift the short-term rate it controls during its two-day meeting this week.

Fed chair Janet Yellen noted the slowdown in hiring during a press conference Wednesday. But she also pointed to the low level of unemployment benefit claims as evidence that job gains could rebound.