* U.S. new unemployment claims drop to four-year low
* Brazil inflation falls below expectations in March
* Brazil Bovespa gains 0.66 pct, Chile IPSA up 0.18 pct
By Asher Levine
SAO PAULO, April 5 (Reuters) - Latin American stocks gained on Thursday as encouraging unemployment data in the United States and lower-than-expected inflation figures in Brazil boosted demand for shares of commodities producers and homebuilders.
The MSCI Latin American stock index gained 0.32 percent to 4058.19. The index is on track to end the week with a 1.1 percent weekly decline.
A religious holiday kept Mexico’s bourse closed. Markets in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela will not operate on Friday due to the Good Friday holiday.
Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index rose for the first session in three, climbing 0.66 percent to 63,945.03. The index is on track for a weekly loss of 0.6 percent, its third in a row.
Oil producer OGX, controlled by Brazil’s richest man Eike Batista, gained 3.39 percent, leading the index higher, while state-controlled rival Petrobras added 1.65 percent.
Shares rose after data showed new claims for unemployment benefits in the United States fell to a new four-year low, suggesting the labor market in the world’s largest economy was continuing to heal.
“The external scenario is still nebulous but the U.S. is providing us with some better expectations,” said Silvio Campos Neto, an economist with Tendencias Consultoria in Sao Paulo. “Employment data from the U.S. can sustain a slightly better outlook for the rest of the day and perhaps for next week as well.”
Construction firms and retailers received an additional boost after data showed inflation in Brazil slowed more sharply than expected in March.
“With inflation falling unexpectedly to this low level, it helps create expectations for more interest rate cuts, which helps the Bovespa,” Campos Neto said.
Stocks linked to domestic consumption rose, with homebuilder MRV Engenharia gaining 3.57 percent. Rivals PDG Realty and Gafisa rose 2.42 percent and 0.47 percent, respectively.
Bank shares offset gains in the index after state-controlled Banco do Brasil said on Wednesday it would lower lending rates and expand its loan book. The move came on the heels of a call by President Dilma Rousseff for banks to reduce spreads in order to boost the impact of a string of central bank interest rate cuts.
Shares of Banco do Brasil gained 0.50 percent after posting their biggest intraday loss in nearly two and a half years on Wednesday. Shares of rivals Itau Unibanco and Banco Santander Brasil fell 1.1 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively.
Chile’s IPSA index rose for the first session in three, gaining 0.18 percent to 4,643.06. The index is on track for a 0.7 percent weekly fall, its first losing week in four.
Retailer Falabella rose 0.76 percent, driving gains in the index, while Banco Santander Chile rose 1.4 percent.