WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of U.S. workers newly applying for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week and regional manufacturing slipped in January, hinting at some slowing in the pace of economic recovery.
The Labor Department said on Thursday initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 36,000 to 482,000 last week as a backlog of applications from the holidays was processed. It was the third straight week that claims rose.
Analysts had expected new claims to slip to 440,000.
Separate data showed factory activity in the Mid-Atlantic region slowed in January to a three-month low, while a gauge of economic prospects scaled a record high last month.
“The recovery of the U.S. economy continues, but it’s at a slower pace than we have seen at the end of 2009. The biggest problem is companies remain reluctant to expand their capacities, which is weighing on the labor market,” said Harm Bandholz, an economist at Unicredit Research in New York.
Analysts believe the U.S. economy grew at an annual pace of between 4 and 5 percent in the fourth quarter, accelerating from the 2.2 percent rate seen in the July-September period.
The jobless data and plans by U.S. President Barack Obama to curb risk-taking by banks pressured U.S. stocks .N and enhanced the safe-haven allure of Treasury debt <US/>. There are fears the measures will limit bank profits.
The Labor Department said the jump in initial claims for jobless aid last week was administrative and not economic.
Analysts, however, argued the rise suggested the figures for prior weeks had been understated, though that did not alter the labor market’s course toward stability and job growth at least by March.
“That implies claims in previous weeks were understated so the reduction in new jobless claims between December and January is not as extreme as had been thought,” said Pierre Ellis, senior economist at Decision Economics in New York.
“But with lay-offs diminishing, the labor market is still gradually healing.”
The claims data covered the survey week for the Labor Department’s closely watched payrolls report for January, due on February 5. Employers unexpectedly cut 85,000 jobs last month.
Labor market weakness remains a major obstacle to the recovery, which started in the third quarter of 2009 following the longest and deepest downturn since the 1930s.
Analysts were not too troubled by the drop in the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s business activity index to 15.2 this month as orders fell.
The index, which measures factory activity in the Mid-Atlantic region, hit a 4-1/2-year high of 22.5 in December. Markets had expected the index to come in at 18.0. A reading above zero indicates growth in the region’s manufacturing.
The survey’s employment index hit its highest since February 2008.
“The data still point to growth in activity this month, and we don’t see any need to significantly alter our view that the factory sector is shifting from being on the mend to steady expansion,” said Omair Sharif, an economist at RBS in Stamford, Connecticut.
Bolstering views the recovery remains intact, the Conference Board, a business research group, said its index of leading economic indicators rose 1.1 percent to an all-time high of 106.4 last month.
Although the Labor Department report also showed the four-week moving average of new jobless claims, a measure of underlying trends, snapped a 19-week trend of declines last week, it remains below the 450,000 level that analysts say indicates stability in the labor market.
“Conditions are still improving. It might be only a few months before the economy generates sustained gains in employment,” said Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
The number of workers still collecting benefits after an initial week of aid fell to its lowest since January 2009.
The drop probably reflected people exhausting unemployment benefits rather than a pick-up in hiring. There were 5.9 million people receiving extended benefits under special programs at the beginning of January.
Additional reporting by Richard Leong and Ellen Freilich in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish