The job market is looking a little brighter at the start of the new year.
The Associated Press reported that weekly unemployment benefit applications have fallen to levels last seen more than three years ago. Holiday sales were solid. Service companies grew a little faster in December. And many small businesses say they plan to add jobs over the next three months.
The mix of private and government data released Thursday sketched a picture of an economy that is slowly strengthening, stoking optimism one day ahead of the government’s important read on December job growth.
“Businesses have increased hiring to meet the underlying pick-up in (consumer) demand,” said Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The mostly positive reports had little impact on financial markets. Traders seemed more focused on the debt crisis in Europe, which could slow U.S. growth later this year. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 37 points in midday trading. Broader indexes were mixed.
Weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped to a seasonally adjusted 372,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s 11% lower than the same time last year.
The four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, fell to 373,250 — the lowest level since June 2008.
When applications drop below 375,000 — consistently — they generally signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.
The unemployment rate rose and the economy added far fewer jobs than anticipated in June, confirming fears that an economic slump has taken hold and further dashing hopes that a powerful recovery will be soon forthcoming.
The Huffington Post reported that only 18,000 jobs were added to the American economy in June — a blow to Wall Street expectations, which had estimated between 90,000 and 140,000 added jobs — and the unemployment rate rose to 9.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly employment report.
“Clearly it’s a disappointing number,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at The Economic Outlook Group. “We thought that too many people were far too optimistic. There are just too many factors that are really creating downward pressure on new job growth, among which is the simple fact that the U.S. economy has slowed markedly from late last year.”
“Companies are focused — laser focused — on keeping their costs down,” Baumohl added. “And that means that they are not in a mood to hire unless there is a genuine reason to do so.”
May’s employment numbers were also revised downward on Friday, suggesting that this is more than just one month’s bad numbers. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1% in May and only 25,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy, cutting the 54,000 added jobs the Bureau’s June report had estimated in half. Labor experts say a bare minimum of 125,000 jobs must be added each month simply to keep up with population growth.
Average hourly earnings for all private sector employees decreased in June by 1 cent to $22.99 and the average workweek decreased by .1 hour to 34.3. Meanwhile, more Americans gave up looking for work altogether, as the labor force participation rate fell to a 27 ear low of 64.1%.
As Capital Economics chief US Economist Paul Ashworth put it: “June’s U.S. employment report doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. It’s awful from start to finish.”