Ahead Of The Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Weekly US unemployment benefit applications likely fell last week after two weeks of big increases. A drop would suggest that the job market could pick up after a report last week showed that hiring slowed sharply in March.

Economists forecast that applications fell 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 363,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.

Last week the department said that weekly applications jumped to 385,000, a four-month high. The jump likely reflected volatility around the Easter holiday, the department said. The holiday's timing varies from year to year, which makes it difficult to adjust for school closings and other seasonal factors that can alter the data.

On Friday the government said that employers added only 88,000 jobs in March. That's a sharp slowdown from the previous four months, when hiring averaged 220,000 per month.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent. But the drop occurred because more people out of work stopped looking for jobs. The government doesn't count people as unemployed unless they are actively looking for work.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Any decline in applications would signal that companies are laying off fewer workers.

Still, layoffs are only half of the equation. Businesses also need to be confident enough in the economic outlook to add more jobs.

The economy is expected to grow at a much quicker pace in the January-March quarter than in the final three months of last year. Most economists forecast growth could top an annual rate of 3 percent in the first quarter, up from just 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter.

Across-the-board government spending cuts kicked in March 1, which economists say could shave a half-percent from growth. That also may have made businesses nervous about hiring last month.

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