U.S. Republicans to unveil coronavirus aid proposal as time runs out on jobless benefits

By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Monday are expected to unveil a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, a starting point for negotiations with Democrats as unemployment benefits that have kept millions of Americans afloat are set to expire.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Sunday that the plan just needed a few clarifications before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could unveil it on Monday afternoon.

Meadows and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said their agreement in principle with Senate Republicans would include an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits that aims to replace 70% of laid off workers’ lost wages.

On Friday, an extra $600 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits is due to expire, severing a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

But the extra funds – in some cases exceeding a workers’ former wages – was a sticking point for many Republicans, helping to delay agreement during a week of wrangling over the party’s negotiating position.

Some Republicans had complained about the high price tag; the federal government has already spent $3.7 trillion to cushion the economic blow from pandemic-forced shutdowns.

Mnuchin and Meadows earlier on Sunday floated the idea of a piecemeal approach to coronavirus aid, first addressing unemployment and demands by businesses and schools to be shielded from coronavirus-related lawsuits, while tackling other issues later.

“We are going to be prepared, on Monday, to provide unemployment insurance extension that would be 70% of wages,” Meadows said on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.

DEMOCRATS’ DEMANDS

Democrats decried the Republican delay as U.S. coronavirus cases passed the 4 million mark, a milestone for a pandemic that has killed more than 146,000 people in the United States and thrown tens of millions out of work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that if necessary, the House would stay in session until a deal is passed and added that Democrats would not accept a measure urged by Republicans to include liability protections for employers.

“What we will not support is what they’re saying to essential workers: ‘You have to go to work because you’re essential, we place no responsibility on your employer to make that workplace safe and if you get sick you have no recourse because we’ve given your employer protection,'” she said.

Pelosi has said that House Democrats would pursue the $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill that they passed in May, which would extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits through the end of 2020.

The Republican plan will include another round of direct payments of $1,200 for individuals, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNN. He said it also would extend a federal moratorium on housing evictions contained in previous relief legislation.

Senate aides said the Republican plan also have more help for small businesses, $105 billion for schools, $16 billion for coronavirus testing, and legal protections for business that are reopening.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney and Gerry Doyle)

Americans on COVID-19 jobless benefits spent more than when working, study shows

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Americans who received enhanced unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic spent more than when they were working, a study released on Thursday said, adding to concerns about a steep fall in spending when the emergency benefits expire.

The $600 weekly supplement added to jobless benefits as part of the CARES Act helped unemployed households spend 10% more after receiving benefits than they did before the pandemic, according to research by the JP Morgan Chase Institute.

Researchers analyzed transactions for 61,000 households that received unemployment benefits between March and May. Spending dropped for all households as the virus spread and led to business shutdowns, but then rose when households began receiving jobless benefits, the study found.

That contrasts with a typical recession, when households receiving unemployment benefits usually cut spending by 7% because regular jobless benefits amount to only a fraction of a person’s prior earnings, the research found.

The analysis highlighted how the additional unemployment benefits are helping to prop up the U.S. economy and consumer spending after the pandemic led to a surge in joblessness across the country.

More than 30 million Americans are estimated to be receiving unemployment benefits – and they could be pushed off an income cliff when the supplemental benefits, which are due to expire at the end of July, are withdrawn.

“Our estimates suggest that expiration will result in large spending cuts, with potentially negative effects on both households and macroeconomic activity,” the researchers wrote.

The data also reflected the financial pain faced by households that encountered big delays in collecting benefits after states across the country were overwhelmed by applications.

Households that had to wait several weeks for their first unemployment check to arrive cut spending by about 20%, the study found. Spending recovered after the checks arrived.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; editing by Richard Pullin)

U.S. labor market recovery stalling; second wave of layoffs underway

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell last week, but the pace of decline appears to have stalled amid a second wave of layoffs as companies battle weak demand and fractured supply chains, supporting views that the economy faces a long and difficult recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

The Labor Department’s weekly jobless claims report on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, sketched a picture of a distressed labor market even though employers hired a record 2.5 million workers in May as businesses reopened after shuttering in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. At least 29 million people are collecting unemployment checks.

Stubbornly high joblessness could stifle the nascent signs of economic recovery that had been flagged by a record jump in retail sales in May and a sharp rebound in permits for future home construction. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week that “significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery.”

The economy fell into recession in February.

“The recent sightings of green shoots for economic growth are going to fade in a hurry if workers can’t return to the jobs they lost during the pandemic recession,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “Over 20 million out of work without a paycheck is a lot of spending missing from the economy.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 58,000 to a seasonally adjusted 1.508 million for the week ended June 13, the government said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 24,000 more applications received than previously reported, bringing the tally for that period to 1.566 million.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims dropping to 1.3 million in the latest week. The 11th straight weekly decrease pushed claims further away from a record 6.867 million in late March. Still, claims are more than double their peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

“The fear of a second wave of layoffs, as industries not directly affected by COVID-caused shutdowns have started to shed workers, appears to have begun,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

A separate report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed labor market conditions remained depressed in June at factories in the mid-Atlantic region even as manufacturing activity in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware rebounded sharply.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower on the claims report and rising COVID-19 infections in parts of the country. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

MILLIONS ON UNEMPLOYMENT ROLLS

From manufacturing, retail, information technology and oil and gas production, companies have announced job cuts. State and local governments, whose budgets have been shattered by the COVID-19 fight, are also cutting jobs.

Economists expect an acceleration in layoffs when the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, part of a historic fiscal package worth nearly $3 trillion, giving businesses loans that can be partially forgiven if used for wages, runs out.

They attributed to the PPP a drop in the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid from a record 24.912 million in early May. But these so-called continued claims, which are reported with a one-week lag, also appear to have since stalled. The claims report showed continuing claims dropped 62,000 to 20.544 million the week ending June 6.

Initial claims covered the week during which the government surveyed establishments for the nonfarm payrolls component of June’s employment report. But economists cautioned that claims were no longer a good predictor of job growth.

The government has expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to include the self-employed and independent contractors who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including through lost employment, reduced hours and wages. These workers do not qualify for the regular state unemployment insurance.

They must file under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and are not included in the initial claims count. Applications for PUA increased 66,063 to 760,526 last week.

A total of 29.2 million people were receiving unemployment benefits under all programs during the week ending May 30, the latest available data, down from 29.5 million in the prior period.

“Employment may rise on a net basis in June as the economy reopens and workers are recalled, but the initial claims data suggest that there is still a steady stream of new layoffs as corporations adjust to the new coronavirus reality,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist of Wrightson ICAP in Jersey City, New Jersey.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Americans are spending coronavirus checks on rent and groceries

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – When Jessica Rosner saw the $1,200 coronavirus relief payment from the U.S. government was deposited into her bank account Wednesday morning, the furloughed behavioral therapist knew immediately how she would spend the cash.

The unemployment benefits she applied for two weeks ago have yet to come through. And Rosner, 23, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, still owed nearly $1,500 for April’s rent and about $200 for car insurance.

The “Economic Impact Payments” being issued under the $2.3 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month started landing in consumers’ bank accounts this week. The relief payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child are meant to soften some of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Americans’ lives have been upended by the crisis, with most schools and businesses closed, vacations canceled, and families mourning the more than 31,000 people killed by the virus.

The relief money is arriving in bank accounts as states across the country struggle to process unemployment claims filed by more than 22 million Americans over the past month, and helping some people cover the essentials.

“It’s going to get used quickly because there are so many people who need money right now,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist and now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Preliminary results from a survey Sahm is conducting with Google and the University of Michigan suggest U.S. families plan to spend the money on essentials or pay off debt, Sahm said. That is the way stimulus checks were used during the financial crisis of 2008 and to counter an economic slowdown during the summer of 2001, she said.

Some people said they were planning to save the cash temporarily, an indication the payments may not lead to the immediate economic stimulation hoped for by the government.

Hyniah Herrin, 26, wanted to enroll in college this fall but put those plans on hold after she lost her two part-time jobs as a school bus driver and restaurant host in Philadelphia. The stimulus money landed in her bank account on Monday, and she’s holding on to it. “We don’t know when we’re going to be able to resume life,” Herrin said.

Steve Davison, 61, says the workload in his part-time job handling social media advertising for a forklift distributor hasn’t decreased because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Davison, who has not received a payment yet, said he is still living paycheck to paycheck and is worried about the future.

After he pays an old tax bill, he plans to hold on to the rest of the cash. “I’m just going to stash it because you never know what’s going to come up,” said Davison, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Treasury Department Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier this week that more than 80 million Americans would have the money deposited directly into their bank accounts by Wednesday morning.

Those who haven’t received the money can check their status and provide bank account information through a new “Get My Payment” app. Paper checks bearing President Donald Trump’s name on them will be sent out starting early next week to people who don’t use direct deposit.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons and Paul Simao)

Upbeat data suggest U.S. economy still on moderate growth path

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits increased less than expected last week, pointing to strong labor market conditions that should continue to support an economy growing at a moderate pace.

The steady economic growth pace was also underscored by other data on Thursday showing home resales rising in August to a 17-month high. While factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed in September, orders remained solid, leading manufacturers in the region to increase employment and boost hours for workers.

The reports suggested that housing and manufacturing, the two weak spots in the economy, were stabilizing. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates by another 25 basis points on Wednesday, citing risks to the longest economic expansion in history from a year-long U.S.-China trade war and slowing economic growth overseas.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said he expected the economy, now in its 11th year of expansion, to continue to “expand at a moderate rate,” but noted trade tensions were “weighing on U.S. investment and exports.”

The U.S. central bank cut rates in July for the first time since 2008. The Fed offered mixed signals on further monetary policy easing. Data, including retail sales, so far in the third quarter suggest the economy is growing close to the April-June quarter’s 2.0% annualized rate.

Financial markets have been flagging a recession. The Atlanta Fed is estimating gross domestic product rising at a 1.9% pace this quarter.

“Fed officials are done cutting interest rates for the rest of this year and one of the reasons for this is that the economic data continue to surprise us on the upside,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 208,000 for the week ended Sept. 14, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims increasing to 213,000 in the latest week.

Layoffs remain low despite the trade tensions, which have weighed on business investment and manufacturing. But there are concerns that slowing job growth could take some shine off robust consumer spending, which is largely driving the economy.

Last week’s claims data covered the survey period for the nonfarm payrolls component of September’s employment report. Claims were little changed between the August and September survey periods suggesting a steady pace of job growth this month.

The economy created 130,000 jobs in August. Economists say it is unclear whether the loss of momentum in hiring is due to ebbing demand for labor or a shortage of qualified workers.

Job gains have averaged 158,000 per month this year, still above the roughly 100,000 per month needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population and sustain a healthy pace of consumer spending.

“If there was a problem in the labor market it would be visible in initial claims and they are not raising any red flags,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Though business confidence has dropped noticeably this year, it hasn’t led businesses to lay off workers yet.”

The dollar fell against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher, with Microsoft’s planned share buy-back helping to push the benchmark S&P 500 within striking distance of its record high.

SOLID HOME SALES

In a second report on Thursday, the National Association of Realtors said existing-home sales increased 1.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million units last month.

That was the second straight monthly gain in sales and confounded economists expectations for a 0.4% drop to 5.37 million units.

The increase in home resales, which make up about 90 percent of U.S. home sales, came on the heels of data on Wednesday showing housing starts and building permits surged to a more than 12-year high in August. The housing market, which hit a soft patch last year, is being lifted by lower mortgage rates.

But the sector is not yet out of the woods as builders continue to grapple with land and labor shortages, which have constrained their ability to construct more of the sought-after lower-priced homes.

“It appears that the housing market is gaining some momentum as autumn approaches,” said Matthew Speakman, an economist at online real estate database company Zillow. “Even stronger sales volumes may be around the corner given that mortgage rates plummeted in August.”

In a third report, the Philadelphia Fed said it’s business conditions index fell to a reading of 12.0 in September from 16.8 in August. The survey’s measure of new orders dipped to 24.8 this month from 25.8.

Its measure of factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware jumped to a reading of 15.8 in September from 3.6 in the prior month. A gauge of the factory workweek increased to a reading of 13.0 from 6.8 in August.

Manufacturing, which makes up about 11% of the economy, has shouldered the brunt of the U.S.-China trade war. A measure of national manufacturing activity contracted in August for the first time in three years.

While factory surveys have remained weak, so-called hard data have suggested the manufacturing downturn could soon run its course. Manufacturing production rebounded 0.5% in August after falling 0.4% in July, the Fed reported on Tuesday.

“It is hard to explain the month-to-month changes in the different business surveys and the differences across the various measures, but with manufacturing output rising in recent months, some of the other surveys that have been weak may start to firm up and look more like the Philadelphia Fed survey,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikan, Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chris Reese and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. consumer spending strong; manufacturing struggling

FILE PHOTO: People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales surged in July as consumers bought a range of goods even as they cut back on motor vehicle purchases, which could help to assuage financial market fears that the economy was heading into recession.

The upbeat report from the Commerce Department on Thursday, however, will likely not change expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates again next month as news from the manufacturing sector remains dour, underscoring the darkening outlook for the economy against the backdrop of trade tensions and slowing growth overseas.

A key part of the U.S. Treasury yield curve inverted on Wednesday for the first time since June 2007, triggering a stock market sell-off. An inverted Treasury yield curve is historically a reliable predictor of looming recessions.

Financial markets have fully priced in a 25-basis-point rate cut at the U.S. central bank’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting. The Fed lowered its short-term interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point last month, citing the acrimonious U.S.-China trade war and slowing global economies.

But the data could push markets to dial back expectations of a 50-basis-point rate cut next month.

“So yes, consumers are lifting economic growth and easing pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut more aggressively, but the trade war itself, and the rhetoric that accompanies it will push for more rate cuts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Retail sales increased 0.7% last month after gaining 0.3% in June, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would rise 0.3% in July. Compared to July last year, retail sales increased 3.4%.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales jumped 1.0% last month after advancing by an unrevised 0.7% in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

U.S. stock index futures extended gains after the release of the data. U.S. Treasury yields rose while the dollar <.DXY> was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

July’s gain in core retail sales suggested strong consumer spending early in the third quarter, though the pace will likely slow from the April-June quarter’s robust 4.3% annualized rate. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, is being underpinned by the lowest unemployment rate in nearly half a century.

While a separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend in claims continued to point to a strong labor market.

Solid consumer spending is blunting some of the hit on the economy from the downturn in manufacturing, which is underscored by weak business investment. There are, however, red flags for the labor market coming from manufacturing.

The sector’s struggles were highlighted by a third report from the Fed on Thursday showing factory production dropped 0.4% in July. Output at factories has declined more than 1.5% since December 2018. Manufacturing, which makes up about 12% of the economy, is also being weighed down by an inventory overhang, especially in the automotive sector.

Manufacturing productivity tumbled at its fastest pace in nearly two years in the second quarter, with factories cutting hours for workers, another report from the Labor Department showed.

Manufacturing’s troubles appear to have persisted into the third quarter. Though a report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed less than expected in August amid an increase in new orders, manufacturers reported hiring fewer workers.

A measure of factory employment dropped to its lowest level since November 2016. The weakness in factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware was mirrored by another survey from the New York Fed. Activity in New York state was little changed this month, with employment measures deteriorating further.

“The health of factories is still an important driver of growth and the soft patch for production remains a factor that is keeping economic growth in the slow lane,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The economy grew at a 2.1% rate in the second quarter, decelerating from the first quarter’s 3.1% pace. Growth estimates for the third quarter are below a 2.0% rate.

In July, auto sales fell 0.6% after rising 0.3% in June. Receipts at service stations rebounded 1.8%, reflecting higher gasoline prices. Sales at building material stores gained 0.2%.

Receipts at clothing stores increased 0.8%. Online and mail-order retail sales jumped 2.8%, the most in six months, after rising 1.9% in June. They were likely boosted by Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Prime Day.

Receipts at furniture stores rose 0.3%. Sales at restaurants and bars accelerated 1.1%. But spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores dropped 1.1% last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. weekly jobless claims underscore labor market strength

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to enter the Nassau County Mega Job Fair at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York October 7, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, pointing to sustained labor market strength even as the economy slows.

The economy, which received a temporary boost from volatile exports and inventory accumulation in the first quarter, is losing momentum as last year’s massive stimulus from the Trump administration’s tax cuts and spending increases fades.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 211,000 for the week ended May 18, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Data for the prior week was unrevised. Claims have now declined for three straight weeks.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would rise to 215,000 in the latest week. The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week.

U.S. stock index futures held losses and the dollar dipped against a basket of currencies after the release of the data. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were trading higher. Claims are settling down after some volatility in late April caused by difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations around moving holidays like Easter, Passover and school spring breaks.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, dropped 4,750 to 220,250 last week.

Continuing strength in labor market conditions, marked by a the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years, is likely to underpin the economy as it shifts into lower gear.

Retail sales and production at factories fell in April, while the housing market has mostly remained soft.

Gross domestic product estimates for the second quarter are below a 2.0 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 3.2 percent pace in the first quarter.

Last week’s claims data covered the survey period for the nonfarm payrolls component of May’s employment report.

The four-week average of claims increased 18,750 between the April and May survey periods, suggesting some moderation in employment gains after payrolls surged by 263,000 jobs last month. The unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent.

Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 12,000 to 1.68 million for the week ended May 11.

The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims increased 5,500 to 1.67 million.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. retail sales, jobless claims data brighten economic picture

FILE PHOTO: People walk with shopping bags at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, New York, U.S., December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 1-1/2 years in March as households boosted purchases of motor vehicles and a range of other goods, the latest indication that economic growth picked up in the first quarter after a false start.

The economy’s enduring strength was underscored by other data on Thursday showing the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest in nearly 50 years last week.

Fears of an abrupt slowdown in activity escalated at the turn of the year after a batch of weak economic reports. But those concerns have dissipated in recent weeks amid fairly upbeat data on trade, inventories and construction spending that have suggested growth last quarter could actually be better than the moderate pace logged in the final three months of 2018.

A report from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday described economic activity as expanding at a “slight-to-moderate” pace in March and early April. The Fed’s “Beige Book” report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed a “few” of the U.S. central bank’s districts reported “some strengthening.”

“Supported by strong labor market conditions and improving wage growth, household spending appears well positioned to increase in the coming months,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Fears about the softening in the economy were overblown.”

The Commerce Department said retail sales surged 1.6 percent last month. That was the biggest increase since September 2017 and followed an unrevised 0.2 percent drop in February.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would accelerate 0.9 percent in March. Retail sales in March advanced 3.6 percent from a year ago.

With March’s rebound, retail sales have now erased December’s plunge, which had put consumer spending and the overall economy on a sharply lower growth trajectory. Retail sales last month were probably lifted by tax refunds, even though they have been smaller than in previous years, following the revamping of the U.S. tax code in January 2018.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rebounded 1.0 percent in March after a downwardly revised 0.3 percent decline in February. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

They were previously reported to have decreased 0.2 percent in February. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity and is being buoyed by a tightening labor market that is driving up wage growth.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

A separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 192,000 for the week ended April 13, the lowest level since September 1969. Claims have now declined for five straight weeks. Economists had forecast claims would rise to 205,000 in the latest week.

Though the trend in hiring has slowed, job gains remain above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent, near the 3.7 percent Fed officials project it will be by the end of the year.

The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies while stocks on Wall Street were mixed. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were up.

March’s strong core retail sales could result in the further upgrading of first-quarter GDP estimates. Growth forecasts for the first quarter were boosted to around a 2.5 percent annualized rate on Wednesday after data showed the U.S. trade deficit narrowed for a second straight month in February.

First-quarter growth forecasts have been raised from as low as a 0.5 percent rate following relatively strong reports on trade, inventories and construction spending. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Another report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed business inventories rose in February and stock accumulation in the prior month was a bit stronger than initially estimated, a potential boost to growth.

Stronger growth in the first quarter will probably not change the view that the economy will slow this year as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package diminishes and the impact of interest rate hikes over the last few years lingers.

It also is unlikely to have any impact on monetary policy after the Fed recently suspended its three-year campaign to tighten monetary policy. The central bank dropped projections for any rate hikes this year after increasing borrowing costs four times in 2018.

In March, sales at auto dealerships jumped 3.1 percent, the most since September 2017. Receipts at service stations increased 3.5 percent, likely reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Receipts at clothing stores shot up 2.0 percent, the largest increase since last May. There were also increases in sales at furniture outlets, electronics and appliances shops, and food and beverage stores. Sales at building materials and garden equipment and supplies also rose last month.

Online and mail-order retail sales increased 1.2 percent in March. Sales at restaurants and bars climbed 0.8 percent, the most since last July. But receipts at hobby, musical instrument and book stores fell 0.3 percent last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits fall to lowest level since 1969

FILE PHOTO - People attend the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits fell to a more than 49-year low last week, pointing to sustained labor market strength despite slowing economic growth.

Other data on Thursday showed U.S.-based companies announced fewer layoffs in March, but job cuts for the first quarter were the highest since 2015. The economy is losing momentum as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 202,000 for the week ended March 30, the lowest level since early December 1969, the Labor Department said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 216,000 in the latest week. The Labor Department said only claims for California were estimated.

The claims data has shown no significant pickup in layoffs and there have been reports of companies reluctant to let go of workers amid a growing shortage of skilled labor. The scarcity of workers contributed to a recent slowdown in hiring.

Job growth has slowed from last year’s roughly 225,000 monthly average pace. The pace of increase, however, remains more than sufficient to keep up with growth in the working age population, holding down the unemployment rate.

U.S. Treasuries prices pared gains after the data, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 4,000 to 213,500 last week, the lowest level since early October 2018.

The claims data has no bearing on March’s employment report, which is scheduled for release on Friday. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 180,000 jobs last month after a meager 20,000 in February, which was seen as pay-back after robust gains in the prior two months.

The unemployment rate is forecast unchanged at 3.8 percent.

A separate report on Thursday from global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray &amp; Christmas showed planned job cuts by U.S.-based employers dropped 21 percent to 60,587 in March.

However, layoffs in the first quarter jumped 10.3 percent to 190,410 from the last three months of 2018. That was the highest since the third quarter of 2015 and was partly blamed on “economic uncertainty and fears of an upcoming downturn.”

Retailers continued to lead job cuts, purging 46,061 positions in the first quarter. The automotive sector eliminated 8,838 jobs in March, leading to 15,887 layoffs by auto manufacturers and suppliers in the first quarter. Redundancies were also high in the energy and financial sectors.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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

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

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits surged to near a 1-1/2-year high last week, but economists dismissed the jump as a fluke and said temporary factors, including a partial government shutdown, were to blame.

A strike by teachers in California, cold weather and difficulties adjusting the data around moving holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day also likely were factors in the spurt in claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday.

“We are skeptical the rise could reflect a true weakening in the labor market given that there are few other signs of weaker labor markets in January,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economic in New York. “Nonetheless, if we maintain this higher level of jobless claims in the coming weeks, that would indicate a pickup in layoff activity.”

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 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 Jr. holiday, which occurred later this year than in the past. Economists believe non-federal government workers who were temporarily unemployed during the longest government shutdown in the country’s history likely helped to boost claims last week.

The surge in claims came amid a recent deterioration in business and consumer confidence, which was partly blamed on a five-week government shutdown 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.”

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 35-day 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 the shutdown are expected to temporarily push up the unemployment rate in January.

The dollar fell against most major currencies, dropping to a two-week low versus the yen, pressured by the Fed’s cautious economic outlook. U.S. Treasury yields fell, while stocks on Wall Street were trading mostly higher.

STEADY WAGE GAINS

Underscoring the labor market’s strength, another report on Thursday from the Labor Department showed its Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, increased 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter after rising 0.8 percent in the July-September period.

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 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.

“It supports our view that the tightness in the labor market is generating upward pressure on compensation,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

While the labor market is on solid footing, manufacturing appears to be slowing. A third report on Thursday showed the MNI Chicago business barometer dropped 7.1 points to a reading of 56.7 in January as new orders tumbled to a two-year low. The survey’s measure of production dropped to a 10-month low.

There was some good news on the housing market. The Commerce Department reported new home sales vaulted 16.9 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000 units. The surge erased October’s 8.3 percent plunge in single-family home sales.

The November home sales report was delayed by the government shutdown, which affected the Commerce Department.

The housing market struggled in 2018, weighed down by acute shortages of homes for sales, which boosted prices, as well as higher mortgage rates. But there are glimmers of hope as house price inflation has slowed significantly and mortgage rates have eased after shooting up last year.

Supply, however, still remains tight.

“We expect a further rise in new home sales during 2019 as homebuyers look to new builds, with inventory conditions for existing homes still extremely tight,” said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio.

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