Ahead of the Bell: Jobless Claims

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of new claims for unemployment benefits likely rose last week, after dropping sharply for two straight weeks, a sign that jobs are still hard to come by even as layoffs slow.

A Labor Department report Thursday is expected to show new unemployment insurance claims rose by 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 447,000, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

Economists closely monitor initial claims, which are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies’ willingness to hire new workers.

Claims have dropped steadily since last fall, as companies shed fewer workers, raising hopes that employers may increase hiring soon. Claims have dropped by 100,000, or 19 percent, since late October.

Last week’s report said 432,000 people filed first-time claims, the lowest total since July 2008, before the financial crisis intensified that fall. Thursday’s report is due at 8:30 a.m. EST.

The Labor Department will issue a more comprehensive snapshot of the job market on Friday, when it releases the monthly jobs report for December. Economists forecast the unemployment rate will rise to 10.1 percent from 10 percent and employers will shed 8,000 jobs.

Still, the sharp drop in unemployment claims, as well as other signs of improvement, have caused economists at Barclays Capital, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and others to predict small job gains in December. If so, that would be the first net increase in jobs in two years.

The number of people continuing to claim benefits, meanwhile, is expected to remain level, at nearly 5 million, for the week ending Dec. 26. Those figures lag initial claims by a week.

But the so-called continuing claims do not include millions of people who have used up the regular 26 weeks of benefits typically provided by states, and are receiving extended benefits for up to 73 additional weeks, paid for by the federal government.

About 4.8 million people were receiving extended benefits in the week ended Dec. 12, the latest data available, a jump of about 200,000 from the previous week.

Altogether, about 10.2 million people collected jobless benefits that week, a record. The increasing number of people continuing to claim unemployment insurance indicates that even as layoffs are declining, hiring hasn’t picked up. That leaves people out of work for longer and longer periods of time.

Some employers are continuing to cut jobs: Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. said Wednesday that it is laying off 1,200 workers, or less than 1 percent of its work force, as it combines two electronics systems businesses to save costs. Alcoa Inc. said it will cut 145 jobs at a plant in Indiana.