U.S. weekly jobless claims jump to near one-and-a-half year high

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits surged to near a 1-1/2-year high last week, which could raise concerns that the labor market is slowing.

FILE PHOTO – A man holds a leaflet at a military veterans’ job fair in Carson, California October 3, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The jump in claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday comes amid a recent deterioration in business and consumer confidence, which was partly blamed on a five-week shutdown of the federal government that has since ended.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday kept interest rates steady but said it would be patient in lifting borrowing costs further this year in a nod to growing uncertainty over the economy’s outlook. The U.S. central bank removed language from its December policy statement that risks to the outlook were “roughly balanced.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits jumped 53,000 to a seasonally adjusted 253,000 for the week ended Jan. 26, the highest level since September 2017, the Labor Department said. The rise was also the largest since September 2017.

Claims dropped to 200,000 in the prior week, which was the lowest level since October in 1969. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to only 215,000 in the latest week.

The claims data covered the Martin Luther King holiday. While claims tend to be volatile around holidays, last week’s big jump could be flagging a moderation in job growth.

The surge could also reflect filings by non-federal government workers who were temporarily unemployed during the longest government shutdown in the country’s history. The Labor Department said none of the data for individual states were estimated last week.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 5,000 to 220,250 last week.

The claims data has no bearing on January’s employment report, which is scheduled for release on Friday, as it falls outside the survey period. According to a Reuters survey of economists, non-farm payrolls likely increased by 165,000 jobs in January after jumping by 312,000 in December.

The government shutdown is not expected to have an impact on January’s job growth, as workers who were furloughed will be paid retroactively together with colleagues who worked without pay. However, those workers who stayed at home during 35-day shutdown are expected to temporarily push up the unemployment rate in January.

U.S. Treasury yields held at lower levels and the dollar modestly extended losses against the euro after the data. U.S. stock index futures were trading mixed.

STEADY WAGE GAINS

In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said its Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, increased 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter as employers boosted benefits for workers. Labor costs advanced 0.8 percent in the July-September quarter.

The fourth quarter rise lifted the year-on-year rate of increase in labor costs to 2.9 percent, the biggest gain since June 2008, from 2.8 percent in the 12 months through September.

Wages and salaries, which account for 70 percent of employment costs, rose 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter after advancing 0.9 percent in the prior period. They were held back by moderations in professional and business services, as well as education and health services.

Wages and salaries were up 3.1 percent in the 12 months through December. That was the biggest increase since June 2008 and followed a 2.9 percent gain in the year through September.

A tightening labor market is gradually pushing up wage growth, with employers raising compensation to retain and attract workers.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack. It is also considered a better predictor of core inflation.

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Private sector wages and salaries rose 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter after increasing 0.8 percent in the prior period. They were up 3.1 percent in the 12 months through December after rising by the same margin in the year through September.

State and local government wages increased 0.6 percent after advancing 0.9 percent in the third quarter.

Benefits for all workers jumped 0.7 percent in the October-December quarter after rising 0.4 percent in the third quarter. They were up 2.8 percent in the 12 months through December after rising 2.6 percent in the year through September.

Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao and Chizu Nomiyama

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