* New jobless claims fall 15,000
* Four-week average of claims near 4-year low
* Data points to building labor market momentum
* Wholesale inventories jump in December
By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, Feb 9 The number of Americans
signing up for unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly last
week, the latest sign of recovery in the U.S. labor market.
Initial claims for state jobless benefits dropped 15,000 to
358,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. A four-week
average of new filings, which provides a better view of the
trend, hit its lowest level since April 2008.
The decline in first-time claims, which defied economists'
forecasts for a rise to 370,000, pointed to building strength in
the labor market and raised the odds of another solid increase
in employment this month.
"We are getting better employment growth and are seeing some
signs that we are getting some self-sustaining aspects of
economic activity," said Michael Strauss, chief economist at
Commonfund in Wilton, Connecticut.
U.S. employers added 243,000 workers to their payrolls in
January and the unemployment rate dropped to a three-year low of
8.3 percent, leading many Wall Street economists to push their
growth forecasts higher.
Last week's decline in new applications for jobless aid
brought them closer to the 350,000-mark that economists say
would signal sustained labor market strength. Initial claims
spent much of 2004-08 below that level before shooting sharply
higher as the economy's troubles deepened.
Despite the fairly upbeat claims data, U.S. stocks ended
marginally higher, with investors adopting a wait-and-see
attitude to news that Greece had reached a deal to secure a
Prices for longer-dated Treasury debt tumbled, while the
U.S. dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies.
The economy grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the final
three months of last year, according to a preliminary estimate
last month. That marked a sharp step up from the third quarter's
1.8 percent pace, and economists believe much of that momentum
will be maintained.
Other data on Thursday showed a jump in wholesale
inventories in December, suggesting the government's
fourth-quarter growth estimate could be revised higher.
But much will depend on the December trade data on Friday
and a broader report on overall business inventories next week.
The recent string of upbeat data has raised doubts about
whether the Federal Reserve will launch a third round of bond
buying to spur the recovery.
"It does reduce the risk of additional monetary
accommodation, but I don't think it changes in any way the dial
at the Fed for keeping rates accommodative - at least at these
levels - for the foreseeable future," said Millan Mulraine,
senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.
Fed officials have said they expect to keep U.S. interest
rates extraordinarily low at least through late 2014.
"As much as they have been encouraged by the past two
months, that is just a modest down payment on what needs to be
done to make improvements in labor market conditions," Mulraine
Despite the brighter economic signs, about 23.8 million
Americans are either out of work or underemployed and there are
no job openings for nearly three out of every four unemployed.
The number of people still receiving jobless benefits under
regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose in the
week ended Jan. 28. A total of 7.66 million people were claiming
unemployment benefits in the week ended Jan. 21.