* Weekly jobless claims increase 20,000
* Four-week average of claims rises 2,250
* Planned job cuts fall 19 percent in February
* Import prices increase 0.2 percent in February
By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, March 9 The number of Americans
filing for unemployment benefits last week rebounded from a near
44-year low, but the labor market continues to tighten amid a
sharp drop in job cuts in February.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 20,000
to a seasonally adjusted 243,000 for the week ended March 4, the
Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week
were unrevised at 223,000, the lowest level since March 1973.
It was the 105th straight week that claims remained below
300,000, a threshold associated with a healthy labor market.
That is the longest stretch since 1970, when the labor market
was much smaller.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new claims for
unemployment benefits rising to 235,000 in the latest week. The
four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure
of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility,
rose 2,250 to 236,500 last week.
In a separate report, global outplacement firm Challenger,
Gray & Christmas said U.S.-based employers announced 36,957 job
cuts in February, down 19 percent from January. The retail
sector continued to dominate layoffs last month as it shifts
toward online and scales back on brick-and-mortar operations.
JC Penney topped the list, announcing 5,500 job cuts
as a result of 140 store closures.
U.S. Treasuries were little changed on the data. The dollar
fell to a session low against a basket of currencies as the
European Central Bank pledged to keep its aggressive stimulus
policy at least until the end of the year.
NEAR FULL EMPLOYMENT
The labor market is at or close to full employment, with
employers increasingly reporting difficulties finding qualified
workers for open job positions. Labor market tightness together
with firming inflation could allow the Federal Reserve to raise
interest rates as early as next week.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen signaled last week that the U.S.
central bank would likely raise rates at its March 14-15 policy
meeting. The Fed raised its benchmark overnight rate in December
and has forecast three rate increases for 2017.
The labor market strength comes despite the economy showing
signs of fatigue early in the first quarter. Data on trade,
consumer, business and construction spending were soft in
January, leaving the Atlanta Fed forecasting GDP increasing at a
1.2 percent rate in the first quarter.
The economy grew at a 1.9 percent annualized rate in the
fourth quarter, slowing from the third quarter's brisk 3.5
The claims report has no bearing on February's employment
report, which is scheduled for release on Friday, as it falls
outside the survey period. First-time applications for jobless
benefits declined in February, suggesting another month of
strong employment growth.
According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm
payrolls probably increased by 190,000 jobs last month after
surging 227,000 in January. The unemployment rate is forecast
falling one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.7 percent.
But payrolls could surprise on the upside after a report on
Wednesday showed private sector employers hired 298,000 workers
in February, the largest amount in a year.
In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said
import prices rose 0.2 percent last month after advancing 0.6
percent in January. It was the third straight monthly increase.
In the 12 months through February, import prices accelerated
4.6 percent, the largest gain since February 2012, after rising
3.8 percent in January.
Import prices excluding fuels rose 0.3 percent, the first
increase since July, after slipping 0.1 percent in January.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)