Unexpected drop in demand for jobless aid

As the US economy struggles to crawl out of recession, data released on Thursday showed an unexpected drop in fresh claims for unemployment benefits earlier this month.


REUTERS - The number of Americans claiming jobless aid hit a record early in April and groundbreaking for new homes slumped in March, according to data on Thursday that showed an economy still struggling to crawl out of recession.

However, new claims for jobless aid dropped unexpectedly last week in a potentially brighter sign for employment -- although the timing of the Easter and Passover holidays might have skewed the data -- while a steep decline in new housing starts may help to work off a heavy overhang in unsold homes.

In addition, the contraction in factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed in April, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Its business index came in at minus 24.4 last month from minus 35 in March, which was somewhat better than a Reuters forecast for minus 32. A reading below zero signifies contraction.

There have also been other promising signs the severe U.S. recession may be fading. Nokia said on Thursday that mobile telephone destocking, as shops run down inventories before re-upping orders, had bottomed in some markets.

But the tone of the key data was still pretty bleak, emphasized by news that General Growth Properties Inc, the county's second-largest shopping mall owner, had filed for bankruptcy in the largest real estate failure in U.S. history.

"Taken together, both (housing and jobs) releases will put a damp on the nascent optimism we've seen in the markets in the past couple of weeks," said Matthew Strauss, senior currency strategist at RBC Capital Markets in Toronto.

"While the situation in housing and in the labor markets is not necessarily deteriorating, it's clear that there is no real sign of recovery whatsoever," he said.

U.S. stocks edged lower after the barrage of news, long-dated U.S. government bonds were down in price and the dollar fell against the yen as optimism over the economic outlook was dented by the data.

The Commerce Department said housing starts fell 10.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 510,000 units, the second lowest on records dating back to 1959, from February's 572,000 units. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected an annual rate of 540,000 units for March.

"The trend seems to be leveling after a calamitous plunge after the Lehman blowup. Single-family permits have been a bit more volatile than starts but tell essentially the same story; we think they too have hit bottom," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said the number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly fell 53,000 last week to 610,000. But so-called continued claims rose to a fresh record of 6.02 million in the week ended April 4.

The most severe U.S. recession in a generation has already cost 5 million jobs, driving unemployment to 8.5 percent in March and many economists see it heading higher.

The four-week average of new jobless claims, a better gauge of underlying labor trends because it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell to 651,000 from 659,500 the week before.

"The four-week moving average for initial claims usually peaks about two months before the trough of a business cycle, which means the recession could end as early as June," Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners, LLC wrote in a note.

"That would still give us a 19-month downturn, the longest in post-World War Two history," he said.

The Federal Reserve, in a regular survey of business conditions, said on Wednesday the labor market remained soft with lay-offs and hiring freezes widespread. But five of its 12 regional banks saw the pace of decline in the economy slowing.

The Fed also said there were signs the housing market was stabilizing, with an increase in the number of prospective buyers improving confidence.

House hunters are being lured by very low mortgage rates following hefty efforts by the U.S. central bank to drive down home loan costs. The U.S. central bank has cut key interest rates to almost zero and pumped over $1 trillion into credit markets, including massive purchases of mortgage-backed securities, to encourage spending and investment.

However, a report earlier on Thursday from Realtytrac showed U.S. foreclosure activity up 46 percent in March from a year earlier, hitting a record high as programs stunting the torrid pace of failing mortgages expired.

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