updated 7/9/2009 2:04:19 PM ET 2009-07-09T18:04:19

The number of newly laid-off workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits last week fell to lowest level since early January, largely due to changes in the timing of auto industry layoffs.

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Continuing claims, meanwhile, unexpectedly jumped to a record-high. While layoffs are slowing, jobs remain scarce and the unemployment rate is rising, which some economists worry could weaken or delay a recovery. The unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent last month and is expected to top 10 percent by the end of this year.

Separately, many retail chains reported disappointing June sales, as consumers are saving more and spending less.

New claims for unemployment insurance plummeted by 52,000 to a seasonally-adjusted 565,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's significantly below analysts' expectations of 605,000 for the week ending July 4, according to Thomson Reuters. The last time new claims were below 600,000 was week of Jan. 24.

"This is not as positive as it looks," Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients. "There are a number of special factors at play here, including the fact that the holiday-shortened week skewed the data."

The drop resulted partly from technical factors, a Labor Department analyst said. Auto layoffs that normally take place in early July, as factories are retooled to build the next year's models, occurred in the spring instead as General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC implemented sweeping restructuring plans.

The department's seasonal adjustment process expected a large increase in claims from auto workers and other manufacturing workers, the analyst said. Since that didn't occur, seasonally-adjusted claims fell.

The non-seasonally adjusted figure increased by about 17,000 to 577,506 initial claims.

The retail weakness cut across all sectors but hit mall-based clothing stores particularly hard. Companies also are cutting wages and jobs, limiting Americans' buying power.

Still, continuing claims jumped 159,000 to 6.88 million, the highest on records dating from 1967. Analysts had expected 6.71 million continuing claims.

Continuing claims had fallen in two of the previous three weeks. The data lag initial claims by a week.

Economists are closely watching the level of first-time claims for signs the economy will recover in the second half of this year, as many predict.

But the change in the timing of auto layoffs will likely muddy the picture for several weeks, the Labor Department analyst said.

The four-week average of initial claims, which smooths out fluctuations, fell to 606,000, down more than 50,000 from its peak in early April.

Still, claims remain elevated: they were at 367,000 a year ago.

Elsewhere, the Commerce Department said Thursday that wholesale inventories dipped 0.8 percent in May, slightly smaller than the 1 percent decline economists expected. Sales at the wholesale level rose 0.2 percent, better than the expected flat reading. The hope is that sales will soon stabilize and help convince businesses that they need to restock, a shift that will boost the ailing manufacturing sector.

Consumers and businesses have cut back on spending in response to the bursting of the housing bubble and the financial crisis, sending the economy into the longest recession since World War II.

The Labor Department said last week that employers cut 467,000 jobs in June and the unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent, the highest in 25 years.

The payroll cuts last month were greater than analysts expected, renewing concern that jobs will remain scarce even if the economy does eke out growth later this year.

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