Ahead of the Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) a¿¿ The Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week. The report will be released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

SMALL REBOUND LIKELY: Economists forecast the number of people seeking benefits will rise 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 330,000, according to a survey by FactSet. That modest increase would follow a sharp drop in applications two weeks ago to 323,000, from 349,000.

JOB MARKET ON THE MEND: Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They are currently close to pre-recession levels, a sign that companies are cutting few workers. That suggests they are confident the economy will continue to grow in the coming months.

Hiring picked up in February after two sluggish months, the government said last week. Employers added 175,000 jobs, up from 129,000 in January and close to the monthly average of the past two years.

The unemployment rate ticked up to 6.7 percent, but the increase occurred partly for a good reason: more people started looking for jobs. Most weren't immediately hired, boosting the unemployment rate. But the fact that they started job hunting suggests they were optimistic about their prospects.

Last week's jobs report suggested the economy was recovering after harsh winter weather caused auto sales to dip, sales of existing homes to plummet, and Americans to spend less at stores and restaurants.

Employers advertised more jobs in January, a separate government report said earlier this week, suggesting that hiring will likely remain steady in the coming months.

The weather did force about 6 million people with full-time jobs to work part-time in February. Many of their paychecks will shrink, likely weighing on spending.

That's one reason economists forecast growth will slow to an annual rate of 2 percent or less in the first three months of this year, down from 2.4 percent in the final three months of last year. But as the weather improves, most analysts expect growth to rebound to an annual rate near 3 percent.

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