WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week while the trade deficit in June was the smallest in one-and-a-half years, hopeful signs for the struggling economy in the United States.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday, suggesting a modest improvement in the jobs market.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 370,000 last week. The four-week moving average of new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 2,250 to 368,250.
A second report from the Commerce Department showed the shortfall on the trade balance narrowed 10.7 per cent to US$42.9 billion, the smallest since December 2010, as low oil prices curbed imports.
That was way below economists' expectations for a US$47.5 billion deficit. The petroleum import bill fell as the average price per barrel of crude oil dropped by the most since January 2009.
Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics in Toronto, said the jobless claims data suggested labour market conditions were "fairly stable."
"The pick-up in jobs growth in July may therefore be sustained in August," he said.
Non-farm payrolls increased 163,000 in July, the most in five months, after three months of gains below 100,000. But the unemployment rate rose by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.3 per cent.
Last week's report was the first in several weeks not affected by auto plant shutdowns, which caused wide swings in claims in July, making it difficult to get a clean read of the jobs market.
Good news on the trade front
Worries of deep government spending cuts and higher taxes scheduled to kick in at the turn of the year and Europe's on-going debt crisis were making companies cautious about hiring new workers, economists say.
Stocks on Wall Street were little moved by the economic data as markets focused on Europe's travails. Benchmark Treasury debt yields hovered near two-month highs, while the U.S. dollar rose against the euro.
"The good news is the narrowing of the trade deficit due to oil, which is indicating the economy has stabilized at a low level. Sluggish growth ahead, but no signs of recession," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York.
Exports increased 0.9 per cent to a record US$185 billion, while overall imports of goods and services declined 1.5 per cent to US$227.9 billion.
Trade subtracted almost one-third of a percentage point from gross domestic product in the second quarter, according to the government's estimate published last month. The economy grew at a 1.5 per cent annual rate, slowing from the first quarter's two per cent pace.
Immediately after the better-than-forecast trade report economists said they would expect the second-quarter GDP growth estimate to be revised to as high as 2.2 per cent, but tempered those forecasts after a later report showed a decline in wholesale inventories in June.
Inventories are a key component of GDP.
Wholesale stocks slipped 0.2 per cent, the largest fall since September, after being flat in May, as the value of petroleum stocks tumbled 8.7 per cent, the largest drop since October 2008.
While exports showed strength in June, anecdotal evidence suggests a slowdown because of weak global demand. The Institute for Supply Management's export index declined in July for a third straight month.
There also are concerns the worst drought since 1956, which has ravaged half of the country, could hit agricultural exports.
U.S. exports to the 27-nation European Union, in the grip of a continuing debt crisis that has slowed growth on the continent, increased 1.7 per cent in June to US$23.3 billion.
The EU collectively was the United States' second largest export market last year, and exports in the first half of 2012 were 2.9 per cent above the same period in 2011.
U.S. exports to China, which is also growing more slowly than in recent years, fell 4.3 per cent in June.
China has been one of the fastest growing markets for U.S. goods, and exports to that country were up 6.7 per cent for the first six months of 2012.
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