Weak U.S. employment report casts pall over economy

FILE PHOTO: Brochures are displayed for job seekers at the Construction Careers Now! hiring event in Denver, Colorado U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed sharply in May and wages rose less than expected, raising fears that a loss of momentum in economic activity could be spreading to the labor market, which could put pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

The broad cool-off in hiring reported by the Labor Department on Friday was even before a recent escalation in trade tensions between the United States and two of its major trading partners, China and Mexico. Analysts have warned the trade fights could undermine the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion next month, the longest on record.

Adding a sting to the closely watched employment report, the economy created far fewer jobs in March and April than previously reported.

The economy thus far has been largely resilient to the trade war with China. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, which prompted retaliation by Beijing.

Last week, Trump said he would impose a tariff on all goods from Mexico in a bid to force authorities in that country to stop immigrants from Central America from crossing the border into the United States. Talks are ongoing to prevent the duties from kicking in at 5% on June 10.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday the central bank was closely monitoring the implications of the trade tensions on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

“Today’s report makes a cut more likely, and supports our view that the trade tensions will ultimately slow growth enough for the Fed to respond in September and December with cuts,” said Joseph Song, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 75,000 jobs last month, the government said in its closely watched employment report, falling below the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 185,000 jobs last month. Job growth in March and April was revised down by 75,000.

In the wake of the weak report financial markets priced in a rate cut as early as July and two more later this year. U.S. Treasury prices rallied, while the dollar dropped against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher.

May’s disappointing job growth was flagged by a report on Wednesday from payrolls processing firm ADP showing the smallest gain in private payrolls in nine years last month. Another report this week showed a drop in online ads by businesses looking for help.

Last month’s slowdown in job gains, however, probably understates the health of the labor market as measures such as weekly applications for unemployment benefits and the Institute for Supply Management’s services employment gauge have suggested underlying strength.

WORKER SHORTAGES

Some of the weakness in hiring last month could be the result of worker shortages, especially in the construction, transportation and manufacturing sectors.

Monthly wage growth remained moderate in May, with average hourly earnings increasing six cents, or 0.2% following a similar gain in April. That lowered the annual increase in wages to 3.1% from 3.2% in April. The average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours last month.

The moderation in wage gains, if sustained, could cast doubts on the Fed’s optimism that inflation would return to the U.S. central bank’s 2% target.

The tepid employment report added to soft data on consumer spending, business investment, manufacturing and homes sales in suggesting the economy was losing momentum in the second quarter following a temporary boost from exports, inventory accumulation and defense spending. Growth is cooling as the massive stimulus from last year’s tax cuts and spending increases fades.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product rising at a 1.5% annualized rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

The unemployment rate remained near a 50-year low of 3.6% in May. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.1% last month, the lowest since December 2000.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, was unchanged at 62.8% last month.

Hiring slowed across all sectors in May. Manufacturing payrolls increased by 3,000 last month, after gaining 5,000 positions in April. The sector is struggling with an inventory overhang that has resulted in businesses placing fewer orders at factories.

Manufacturing payrolls will be watched closely for signs of any fallout from the trade tensions. Factory output has weakened and sentiment dropped to a 31-month low in May, with manufacturers worried mostly about trade.

Employers in the construction sector hired 4,000 workers in May after adding 30,000 jobs to payrolls in April. Leisure and hospitality sector payrolls increased by 26,000 jobs last month.

Professional and business services employment rose by 33,000. Transportation and warehousing payrolls fell as did retail employment. Government shed 15,000 jobs, the most since January 2018.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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. job openings surge, point to tightening labor market

FILE PHOTO: Job seekers line up at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings rebounded sharply in March, while the pace of hiring was little changed, pointing to a growing worker shortage that could slow employment growth this year.

Despite the tightening labor market conditions, the report from the Labor Department on Tuesday also showed workers still reluctant to voluntarily quit their jobs in droves to seek opportunities elsewhere. The scarcity of workers poses a risk to the economy’s growth prospects. The economy will mark 10 years of expansion in July, the longest in history.

“The risks right now for the economic outlook going forward is there is actually a danger that companies will run out of the help they need to produce goods or sell their services,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

“The U.S. economy has never faced a time when labor shortages might endanger or cut short a long economic expansion, but now it does.”

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, surged by 346,000 to a seasonally adjusted 7.5 million, the Labor Department’s monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, showed. The job openings rate rose to 4.7 percent from 4.5 percent in February.

Vacancies in the construction industry increased by 73,000 in March. There were 87,000 job openings in the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector, while real estate, rental and leasing companies had 57,000 unfilled position. Job openings in the federal government, however, decreased by 15,000 in March.

HIRING LAGGING

Hiring was little changed at 5.7 million in March. The hiring rate was steady at 3.8 percent. The lag in hiring suggests employers are experiencing difficulties finding qualified workers, a trend that implies a slowdown in job growth later this year.

There is growing anecdotal evidence of worker shortages, especially in the transportation, manufacturing and construction industries. The economy created 263,000 jobs in April, with the unemployment rate dropping two-tenths of a percentage point to 3.6 percent, the government reported last Friday.

Economists expect job growth to slow to about 150,000 per month this year, still well above the roughly 100,000 needed to keep pace with growth in the working age population.

In March, there were 0.83 job seekers for every job opening. Job openings exceeded the number of unemployed by 1.3 million. Vacancies have outpaced the unemployed for 13 straight months.

The number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs was little changed at 3.4 million in March, keeping the quits rate at 2.3 percent for a 10th straight month.

The quits rate is viewed by policymakers and economists as a measure of job market confidence. The Federal Reserve last week kept interest rates unchanged and signaled little desire to adjust monetary policy anytime soon.

“You have to hand it to the business community. Despite being on the wrong side of the tight labor market, firms are managing to keep from a major bidding war for workers and are still not losing workers to competitors,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

Layoffs slipped in March, lowering the layoffs rate to 1.1 percent from 1.2 percent in the prior month. Layoffs fell in the government sector, but rose slightly in manufacturing and construction. The increase in manufacturing layoffs likely reflected redundancies in the automobile sector, which is experiencing slowing sales and an inventory overhang.

“Layoffs and discharges are extremely low, by historical standards, which reflects that employers need their workers and are prepared to make an effort to retain them,” said Julia Pollak, labor economist at employment marketplace ZipRecruiter.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job growth surges; unemployment rate drops to 3.6 percent

FILE PHOTO: Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida -/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth surged in April and the unemployment rate dropped to a more than 49-year low of 3.6 percent, pointing to sustained strength in economic activity even as last year’s massive fiscal stimulus fades.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday, however, showed steady wage gains last month, consistent with moderate inflation. The decline in the unemployment rate to the lowest level since December 1969 was because people left the labor force, suggesting some slack in the jobs market remains.

The report was broadly supportive of the Federal Reserve’s decision on Wednesday to keep interest rates unchanged and signal little desire to adjust monetary policy anytime soon. Fed Chair Jerome Powell described the economy and job growth as “a bit stronger than we anticipated” and inflation “somewhat weaker.”

“Employment gains are strong enough to dispel any immediate concerns over the health of the economy, while wage gains are not strong enough to force the Federal Reserve’s hand to tighten the policy stance,” said Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist at UniCredit Research in New York.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 263,000 jobs last month, amid gains in hiring nearly across all sectors. The economy created 16,000 more jobs in February and March than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls rising by 185,000 jobs last month.

The strong economy, especially the labor market, could boost President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes next year. Trump has touted the economy as being one of the big wins of his first term in office. The economy will celebrate 10 years of expansion in July, the longest on record.

Job growth is well above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

The second month of strong job growth was further evidence that February’s paltry 56,000 increase in jobs was an aberration.

It also effectively put to rest concerns about a recession and diminished expectations of an interest rate cut this year that had been fanned by a brief inversion of the U.S. Treasury yield curve in March.

Hiring remains strong, despite anecdotal evidence of worker shortages in the transportation, manufacturing and construction industries, suggesting there is still some spare capacity in the labor market.

Steadily rising wages have on balance been keeping workers in the labor force and drawing back those who had dropped out. Average hourly earnings rose six cents, or 0.2 percent in April after rising by the same margin in March. That kept the annual increase in wages at 3.2 percent. Workers put in fewer hours in April. The average workweek fell to 34.4 hours from 34.5 hours.

Though wage growth is not strong enough to drive up inflation, it is seen as sufficient to underpin economic growth as the stimulus from last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut wanes.

The economy grew at a 3.2 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, driven by a surge in exports and inventories, quickening from the October-December period’s 2.2 percent pace.

The dollar dipped versus a basket of currencies after the employment report, while U.S. Treasury yields were marginally lower.

PEOPLE LEFT LABOR FORCE

The two-tenths of a percentage point drop in the unemployment rate from 3.8 percent in March was because 490,000 people left the labor force in April. The jobless rate is now below the 3.7 percent that Fed officials project it will be by the end of the year.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, was unchanged at 7.3 percent in April.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 62.8 percent in April from 63.0 percent in March. The participation rate hit a more than five-year high of 63.2 percent in January.

Some economists expect job growth to slow this year as fewer workers become available, which will push up wages and lift inflation back to the Fed’s 2 percent target. An inflation measure tracked by the U.S. central bank increased 1.6 percent in the year to March, the smallest gain in 14 months, from 1.7 percent in February.

Employment at construction sites increased by 33,000 jobs in April, rising for a second straight month. Manufacturing sector payrolls rebounded by 4,000 jobs after being unchanged in March.

The industry is being pressured by layoffs in the automobile sector as assembly plants try to cope with declining sales and an inventory overhang.

Leisure and hospitality sector payrolls increased by 34,000 jobs last month. Professional and business services employment added 76,000 jobs last month. There were increases in healthcare, transportation and warehousing employment, as well as financial activities.

But retail payrolls fell by 12,000 jobs in April, declining for a third straight month. Temporary help, a harbinger for future hiring, rebounded last month after dropping in March.

Government payrolls increased by 27,000 in April, likely driven by early hiring for the 2020 Census.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. weekly unemployment claims lowest since 1969

FILE PHOTO: A "Help Wanted" sign sits in the window of a shop in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped to a 49-1/2-year low last week, pointing to sustained labor market strength that could temper expectations of a sharp slowdown in economic growth.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 196,000 for the week ended April 6, the lowest level since early October 1969. Claims have now declined for four straight weeks. Data for the prior week was revised to show 2,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would rise to 211,000 in the latest week. The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week.

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 7,000 to 207,000 last week, the lowest level since early December 1969.

The labor market is the main pillar of support for the economy, which appears to have lost momentum in the first quarter as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades and a trade war between China and the United States and softening global demand hurt exports.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 196,000 jobs in March, well 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, close to the 3.7 percent Federal Reserve officials project it will be by the end of the year.

Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid decreased 13,000 to 1.71 million for the week ended March 30. The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims dropped 11,000 to 1.73 million.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Paul Simao) ((Lucia.Mutikani@thomsonreuters.com; 1 202 898 8315; Reuters Messaging: lucia.mutikani.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

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 & 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. productivity rises more than expected in fourth quarter

FILE PHOTO: A worker cuts a steel coil at the Novolipetsk Steel PAO steel mill in Farrell, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

WASHINGTON, March 7 – U.S. worker productivity rose more than expected in the fourth quarter, leading to the biggest annual increase in eight years.

The Labor Department said on Thursday non farm productivity, which measures hourly output per worker, increased at a 1.9 percent annualized rate in the last quarter.

Data for the third quarter was revised down to show productivity rising at a pace of 1.8 percent instead of the previously reported 2.2 percent rate.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast fourth-quarter productivity advancing at a 1.6 percent rate following a moderation in gross domestic product growth for that period. The economy grew at a 2.6 percent rate in the October-December period after a robust 3.4 percent growth pace in the third quarter.

The release of the full fourth-quarter productivity report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government that ended on Jan. 25. The lapse in funding affected the collection and processing of economic data by the Commerce Department.

Compared to the fourth quarter of 2017, productivity increased at a rate of 1.8 percent. Productivity grew 1.3 percent in 2018, the strongest since 2010, after rising 1.1 percent in 2017.

Sluggish productivity is one of the constraints to keeping the economy on a path of strong growth on a sustained basis.

Unit labor costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, rose at a 2.0 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Unit labor costs in the July-September period grew at a 1.6 percent rate. Labor costs increased at a 1.0 percent rate compared to the fourth quarter of 2017.

They increased 1.4 percent in 2018, the smallest gain since 2016, after rising 2.2 percent in 2017.

Despite moderate gains in labor costs, compensation is rising. Hourly compensation increased at a 3.9 percent rate in the fourth quarter after advancing at a 3.5 percent pace in the July-September period. Hourly compensation increased at a 2.8 percent rate compared to the fourth quarter of 2017. It increased 2.7 percent in 2018.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. job openings hit record high; workers more scarce

Corporate recruiters (R) gesture and shake hands as they talk with job seekers at a Hire Our Heroes job fair targeting unemployed military veterans and sponsored by the Cable Show, a cable television industry trade show in Washington, June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings surged to a record high in December, led by vacancies in the construction and accommodation and food services sectors, strengthening analysts’ views that the economy was running out of workers.

While the release of the Labor Department’s monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, on Tuesday underscored labor market strength, there are worries the shortage of workers could hurt an economic expansion that has lasted 9-1/2 years and is the second longest on record.

“The labor market continues to heat up,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “But growth cannot continue for much longer if there is no one out there to work in the factories and shops and malls across America.”

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, increased by 169,000 to a seasonally adjusted 7.3 million in December, the highest reading since the series started in 2000. That lifted the job openings rate to 4.7 percent from 4.6 percent in November.

Construction vacancies increased by 88,000 jobs in December. There were an additional 84,000 jobs in the accommodation and food services sector. Job openings in the healthcare and social assistance sector rose by 79,000 in December.

Federal government vacancies, however, fell by 32,000 jobs and job openings in real estate, rental and leasing dropped 31,000 in December.

Hiring continued to lag job openings in December, rising to 5.9 million from 5.8 million in November. That further widened the gap between vacancies and hiring, which emerged in 2015, reflecting tightening labor market conditions. There were 1.2 job openings for every unemployed person in December.

ROBUST LABOR MARKET

Anecdotal evidence has been growing of companies experiencing difficulties finding workers. A survey of small businesses published on Tuesday found that almost a quarter of owners reported that difficulties finding qualified workers as their “single most important business problem” in January.

According to the survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, 35 percent of small business owners reported job openings they could not fill in January.

The labor market has enjoyed a record 100 straight months of job gains, with nonfarm payrolls increasing by 304,000 jobs in January, the most since February 2018. But as workers become more scarce, job growth is expected to slow to around 150,000 per month this year.

Economists believe the dearth of workers will drive up wage growth, even though the number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs has remained steady.

“The diminishing availability of workers is expected to lead to more upward pressure on wages, bring more workers into the labor force and induce more companies to find ways to produce and service their customers with automated processes,” said Sophia Koropeckyj, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The JOLTS report showed the number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs was little changed at 3.5 million in December, keeping the quits rate at 2.3 percent for a third straight month. The quits rate is viewed by policymakers and economists as a measure of job market confidence.

There were increases in the number of workers quitting their jobs in professional and business services and in the health care and social assistance sectors. But these were offset by declines in several industries and the government.

“With a labor market this tight, you may expect the quits rate to be going up or at a higher level already,” said Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “The big question is whether this a temporary lull, or if the quits rate has hit its high point.”

Layoffs fell in December, pushing the layoffs rate down to 1.1 percent from 1.2 percent in November.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. weekly jobless claims retreat from one-and-a-half-year high

Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped from near a 1-1/2-year high last week, but the decline was less than expected, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth.

Still, the Labor Department’s report on Thursday continued to point to strong job market conditions, which should underpin the economy amid rising headwinds, including a fading fiscal stimulus boost and a trade war between Washington and Beijing, as well as slowing growth in China and Europe.

The Federal Reserve last week 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.”

“Labor market conditions remain quite positive, good news for workers, for the consumer sector and the economy more broadly,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 234,000 for the week ended Feb. 2, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The drop partially unwound the prior week’s jump, which lifted claims to 253,000, the highest reading since September 2017.

Claims that week were boosted by layoffs in the service industry in California, most likely striking teachers in Los Angeles.

A 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government as well as difficulties adjusting the data around moving holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. day, which occurred later this year than in recent years, also probably contributed to the spike in filings.

The longest shutdown in history likely forced workers employed by government contractors to file claims for unemployment benefits.

The shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after President Donald Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding, without money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 221,000 in the latest week.

U.S. stocks were trading lower on renewed fears of a global slowdown after the European Union cut its economic growth forecasts and White House adviser Larry Kudlow warned there was still a sizable distance to go on U.S.-China trade talks. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MOMENTUM SLOWING

The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week. 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 4,500 to 224,750 last week. Claims by federal government workers, which are filed separately and with a one-week lag fell 8,070 to 6,669 in the week ended Jan. 26.

“Claims remain important to watch in the weeks ahead,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York. “The data are suggesting at least some slowing in employment growth.”

The government reported last Friday that non-farm payrolls increased by 304,000 jobs in January, the largest gain since February 2018. Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 42,000 to 1.74 million for the week ended Jan. 26.

These so-called continuing claims had raced to a nine-month high in the prior week. The four-week moving average of continuing claims rose 4,250 to 1.74 million.

(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)