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US jobless claims at 4-month high, labor recovery in doubt

WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits hit a four-month high last week, suggesting the labor market recovery lost some steam in March.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 385,000, the highest level since November, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

It was the third straight week of gains in claims and confounded economists' expectations for a drop to 350,000.

Coming on the heels of data on Wednesday showing private employers added the fewest jobs in five months in March, the report implied some weakening in job growth after hiring accelerated in February.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 11,250 to 354,250.

“It does look like recently we've seen some stalling in job creation, or at least a stalling in the lowering of claims,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York.

Last week's claims data was probably distorted by the Easter, Passover and spring breaks for schools, which this year were early. That could make it difficult to smooth out the data for seasonal fluctuations.

A Labor Department analyst said claims for California and the Virgin Islands had been estimated.

While the claims report has no bearing on Friday's nonfarm payrolls data for March as it falls outside the survey period, it hinted at some weakness in hiring.

Employers are expected to have added 200,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, according to a Reuters survey, slowing from February's brisk 236,000. The jobless rate is seen unchanged at 7.7 percent.

New filings for jobless benefits rose 45,000 in March, which could indicate that layoffs related to US$85 billion in government budget cuts known as the sequester were starting to filter through.

“You might be getting some effects from the sequester and the tax hikes earlier this year,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Data this week suggested the across-the-board spending cuts took some edge off the economy as the first quarter ended.

Factory activity grew at its slowest pace in three months in March. Growth in the vast services sector was the weakest in seven months.

The labor market is key to the Federal Reserve's monetary policy. This month the central bank said it would maintain its monthly US$85 billion purchases of mortgage and Treasury bonds to keep rates low and foster faster job growth.

Still, the pace of layoffs remains contained. Planned layoffs at U.S. firms fell 11 percent in March, consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas said in a separate report.

The claims report also showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 8,000 to 3.06 million in the week ended March 23.

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