WASHINGTON — First-time claims for jobless benefits fell last week to a one-month low, helping allay concern that the labor market may suffer an extended setback.
Jobless claims dropped by 1,000 to 367,000 in the period ended May 5, in line with the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey and the lowest since the end of March, the Labor Department said Thursday in Washington. The number of people on unemployment benefit rolls was the smallest since July 2008.
The data indicate the surge in claims in the first three weeks of April was probably tied to the timing of the Easter holiday rather than a deterioration in employment. Further declines in dismissals would point to ongoing improvement in the job market, helping sustain household purchases after payrolls cooled last month.
The figures are “consistent with decent job growth but certainly not blockbuster,” said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities in Stamford, Conn. “We’re seeing nice, steady job growth but not what we’d like to see given the number of jobs we lost during the recession.”
The latest week’s figure compares with an average of 373,000 claims since the end of February.
The median forecast of 47 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 368,000 applications last week. Estimates ranged from 345,000 to 380,000. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure from 365,000.
Also Thursday, Commerce Department figures showed the trade deficit widened more than forecast in March as American demand for crude oil, computers, automobiles and televisions propelled imports to a record.
The gap grew 14 percent to $51.8 billion. The median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for an increase to $50 billion. A 5.2 percent jump in imports, the biggest in more than a year, swamped the 2.9 percent gain in exports, which also reached a record.
The Labor Department said the four-week moving average of claims, a less-volatile measure than the weekly figures, decreased to 379,000 last week from 384,250 the previous period.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits dropped to 3.23 million in the week ended April 28 from 3.29 million. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are collecting emergency and extended payments declined by about 40,500 to 3.04 million.
Thirty-five states and territories reported a decrease in claims, while 18 reported an increase. State data are reported with a one-week lag.
American employers added fewer workers than forecast in April and the jobless rate unexpectedly fell as people left the labor force, the Labor Department said on May 4. Payrolls climbed 115,000, the smallest gain in six months.
At the same time, in markets where the labor market has improved, business is picking up.
“Although national job growth numbers have been uneven and a bit disappointing over the past few months, we are seeing much improved employment trends in many of our markets,” Allan Merrill, president and chief executive officer of Beazer Homes USA Inc. in Atlanta, said in a May 2 earnings call.
“We are seeing many currently employed consumers who appeared to be gaining confidence and are voluntary changing jobs to improve their employment circumstances,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily picked up in the job growth statistics, but we believe it is a positive turn.”
Federal Reserve policy makers said last month that there was still an “elevated” rate of joblessness.
“Labor market conditions have improved in recent months; the unemployment rate has declined but remains elevated,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in an April 25 statement. “The committee expects economic growth to remain moderate over coming quarters and then to pick up gradually. Consequently, the committee anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline gradually toward levels that it judges to be consistent with its dual mandate.”
With assistance from Alex Kowalski and Ainhoa Goyeneche in Washington.