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Jobless claims in U.S. over past month lowest in 15 years

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(Bloomberg) — Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits over the past four weeks than at any time in almost 15 years, signaling underlying strength in the labor market even as hiring cooled last month.

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From mid-March through the seven days ended April 4, jobless claims averaged 282,250 a week, the lowest since June 2000, a Labor Department report showed Thursday in Washington. Applications over the latest week climbed by 14,000 to 281,000. The median forecast of 45 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 283,000.

The level of dismissals is consistent with an improving labor market and indicates companies are optimistic demand will strengthen after a weaker first quarter. Figures earlier this week showing job openings at a 14-year high point to a pickup in the pace of hiring after a March slowdown.

Applications stabilizing at this level are “evidence of a healthy labor market,” said Russell Price, a senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc. in Detroit, whose projection for 280,000 claims for the latest week was among the closest in the Bloomberg survey. “I don’t really see us going much lower than where we are now.”

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Stock-index futures were little changed as Alcoa Inc. unofficially kicked off the earnings season with quarterly sales that missed projections. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in June fell 0.1 percent to 2,072.9 at 8:44 a.m. in New York.

Survey results

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey for jobless claims over the past week ranged from 275,000 to 325,000. The Labor Department revised the prior week’s reading to 267,000, matching the lowest since April 2000, from an initially reported 268,000.

The four-week average for claims is a less-volatile measure than the weekly figures and therefore is a better representation of the underlying trend.

No states were estimated last week and there was nothing unusual in the data, a Labor Department spokesman said as the report was released to the press.

The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits declined by 23,000 to 2.3 million in the week ended March 28, the fewest since December 2000. The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 1.7 percent. These data are reported with a one-week lag.

Low level

Claims since the beginning of March have held below the 300,000 level that economists say is consistent with an improving labor market.

While companies are maintaining headcounts, job listings also have climbed. Openings rose to 5.1 million in February, the most since January 2001, according to Labor Department data on April 7.

Progress on filling those positions was interrupted last month as employers added 126,000 workers, the smallest gain since December 2013. The smaller-than-projected increase ended a 12-month streak of increases of 200,000 or more.

Inclement weather probably was at least partly to blame for the slowdown, indicating the job market is set to rebound as temperatures warm. The economy has been held back by slower growth abroad, a plunge in energy prices and the lingering effects of supply chain disruptions from West Coast port workers’ strikes earlier this year.

Economic outlook

Ford Motor Co. is among companies that are upbeat about the economy’s prospects.

“The first quarter saw a string of mixed economic data,” Emily Kolinski Morris, chief economist at the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker, said on an Apr. 1 sales and revenue call. “We expect a firming labor market and still low fuel prices and interest rates to support renewed momentum in economic activity as spring takes hold.”

Automobile sales already are signaling a pickup in consumer purchases that weakened at the start of 2015. Cars and light trucks sold at a 17.1 million annualized rate in March, matching the strongest pace since August, figures from Ward’s Automotive Group show.

—With assistance from Jordan Yadoo in Washington.

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