U.S. Jobless Claims Fell Last Week

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The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell last week, a sign that layoffs continue to hover at a historically low level consistent with a healthy U.S. labor market.

Initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs across the U.S., declined by 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 234,000 in the week ended Feb. 4, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was the lowest reading in 12 weeks.

“The improvement in initial claims data mirrors the broad-based improvement in labor market conditions in recent months” across a number of measures, Barclays economist Michael Gapen said in a note to clients.

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected 248,000 new claims last week. Claims for the week ended Jan. 28 were left unrevised at 246,000.

The economy is enjoying an unusually long stretch of scarce layoffs. Jobless claims have remained below 300,000 for 101 consecutive weeks, the longest such streak since 1970—when the U.S. workforce and population were far smaller than they are today.

Data on unemployment applications tend to be volatile from week to week. A more stable measure, the four-week moving average for initial claims, fell by 3,750 last week to 244,250, its lowest level since November 1973.

The latest decline “does not prove that the trend in claims is falling again, but it is consistent with the idea that business confidence has risen since the election,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a note to clients.

The agency Thursday also said continuing unemployment claims, reflecting benefits drawn by workers for longer than a week, rose by 15,000 to 2.078 million in the week ended Jan. 28. Data on continuing claims are released with a one-week lag.

The U.S. labor market started 2017 on solid footing, with joblessness remaining below 5% alongside continued job gains.

Nonfarm payrolls rose by a stronger-than-expected 227,000 in January from the prior month, the Labor Department reported last week, and the unemployment rate last month was 4.8%. The labor-force participation rate has stabilized since late 2015, another positive sign following years of decline.

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