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New jobless claims up more than expected

New claims for jobless benefits increased more than expected last week, a trend many economists say is likely continue for much of this year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

New claims for jobless benefits increased more than expected last week, a trend many economists say is likely continue for much of this year.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that first-time requests for unemployment insurance jumped to a seasonally adjusted 524,000 in the week ending Jan. 10, from an upwardly revised figure of 470,000 the previous week. Analysts had expected 500,000 new claims.

The increase is partly due to a flood of requests from newly-laid off people who delayed filing claims over the holidays, a Labor Department analyst said.

The layoffs continued Thursday. MeadWestvaco, which makes paper and plastic products, said it will cut some 2,000 employees, or about 10 percent of its work force, as it accelerates cost savings, and software company Autodesk Inc. said it is cutting 750 jobs, or about 10 percent of its employees, as it prepares to report a loss in the fourth quarter.

On Wednesday, Internet search company Google Inc. said it was closing three engineering offices and cutting 100 recruiters as the recession dampens hiring, and computer equipment maker Seagate Technology said it will eliminate 2,950 jobs, or 6 percent of its work force.

The rise in initial claims came after two weeks of declines that economists said largely reflected those holiday-related distortions in the data. Analysts have said that retailers did not hire as many temporary seasonal workers this year, due to the recession, and so there weren’t as many subsequent layoffs.

But the jump in last week’s numbers, combined with a slew of layoffs already announced this week, could signal the resumption of an upward trend in claims that was evident last year.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for consulting firm High Frequency Economics, said in a research note that claims could reach 750,000 later this year.

“The experience of previous deep recessions suggests claims are nowhere near their peak, and we doubt that peak will be reached before the fall of this year,” he said.

Job losses have soared in recent months as consumers, bit by falling home prices and plummeting stock portfolios, have cut back sharply on spending. The decline in home prices and the credit crunch pushed the economy into recession in December 2007.

The stock market, meanwhile, dropped sharply on reports that Bank of America Corp. needs more aid from the U.S. government fueled fears the banking crisis of last fall has returned. The Dow Jones industrial average lost about 130 points in morning trading.

Separately, the Labor Department said wholesale prices fell by 1.9 percent in December, closing out a year in which prices dropped by the largest amount in seven years. The decline was led by a huge plunge in energy prices.

For the year, the government says wholesale prices fell by 0.9 percent, the first annual decline since prices had fallen by 1.6 percent in 2001. That also was a year in which the country was in a recession.

Initial jobless claims reached their highest level in 26 years three weeks ago when the department said 589,000 people filed new claims. That was the highest level since November 1982, when the economy was emerging from a steep recession, though the labor force has grown by about half since then.

The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, fell by 8,000 to 518,500 last week.

In one spot of good news, the number of people continuing to request benefits declined to 4.5 million from an upwardly revised 4.6 million the previous week. The continuing claims lag the initial claims data by one week.

Still, the number of people remaining on the rolls is near a 26-year high and is up sharply from a year ago, when it stood at 2.7 million.

The high level of continuing claims is an indication that many laid off workers are having difficulty finding new jobs.

Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the job market and broader economy. A year ago, initial claims stood at 315,000.

The Labor Department last week said the unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in December, a 16-year high. Employers cut a net total of 524,000 jobs last month, bringing last year’s total to a staggering 2.6 million.

Other companies that have announced layoffs recently include: pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., mobile phone maker Motorola Inc., and industrial conglomerates Textron Inc. and Cummins Inc.