WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of people seeking unemployment aid likely fell last week in the latest sign the job market is getting a little better. Economists forecast that applications dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 360,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST Thursday. The department said last week that applications dropped 5,000 to 366,000, a small decline after a sharp increase the previous week. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile figure, declined to its lowest level in five years. One reason the average was low was because of seasonal factors, which sharply reduced applications last month. Still, the overall trend has been downward in recent months. The average has fallen nearly six percent in the past three months. Applications are a proxy for layoffs. As they fall, net hiring typically rises. Job gains have picked up in the past three months. Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs a month from November through January. The economy added 157,000 jobs in January, the government said earlier this month. And revisions showed employers added 181,000 jobs per month last year, up from an earlier estimate of 153,000. Still, the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent in January from 7.8 percent in December. Economists expect the rate will decline if hiring continues at last year's monthly pace of 180,000. The rate fell 0.7 percentage points in 2012. The economy contracted at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter, hurt by a sharp cut in defense spending, fewer exports and sluggish growth in company stockpiles. That's much slower than the 3.1 percent growth recorded in the July-September period. Still, economists expect that figure will be revised in the coming months to show a small increase, after more data about last quarter has been reported. Economists at Barclays Capital estimate the economy expanded 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter.
Growth will likely pick up a bit in the January-March quarter to an annual rate of 1.5 percent, analysts forecast. That's better than the fourth quarter but below last year's expansion of 2.2 percent.