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Wednesday May 6th, 2015 11:42PM

Applications for jobless benefits rise; retail sales down

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 8,000 last week to 339,000, evidence that layoffs ticked up. Still, the increase wasn't enough to suggest the job market is worsening.

Meanwhile, retail sales were down in January 0.4 percent.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the four week average of applications, a less volatile measure, increased 3,500 to a seasonally adjusted 336,750.

The average is roughly in line with pre-recession levels and suggests that, despite last week's rise, companies are cutting few jobs. Applications are a proxy for layoffs.

Last week's figure may also have been pushed up by cold weather, which can cause construction firms and other companies to stop work.

A total of 3.52 million Americans received benefits as of Jan. 25 - the latest data available - up from 3.47 million the previous week.

The data suggests the job market remains stable, despite weak hiring in the past two months. Tepid job gains in January and December have raised concerns that the economy has lost momentum this year.

But a sharp slowdown in growth and hiring is less likely as long as applications for unemployment benefits remain relatively low. Steady applications suggest businesses are confident enough in the economy to hold onto their workers.

Employers added just 113,000 jobs in January, a second straight weak showing after just 75,000 new jobs in December. Economists have partly blamed December's figures on extremely cold weather.

There were some good signs in January's report. The unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 6.6 percent, from 6.7 percent. The decline occurred because more of those out of work found jobs. That was an improvement from December, when the rate fell because many of the unemployed stopped searching for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking.

Other recent economic data has been mixed. A survey of manufacturing firms found that factory expansion slowed in January, as a measure of new orders plummeted. A separate gauge of forthcoming home sales also fell.

But a survey of service companies, which covered retailers, construction contractors, and financial services firms, among others, found that growth accelerated last month.

RETAIL SALES DOWN

Cold weather across much of the United States contributed to a drop in retail sales in January. Americans spent less on autos and clothing and at restaurants during an unusually frigid month.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that retail sales fell 0.4 percent last month. That marked the second straight decline after a 0.1 percent drop in December.

The decline suggests that the momentum from consumer spending at the end of 2013 has tailed off this winter. Heavy winter storms across the country cut into store traffic and weighed on post-holiday sales. Major store chains have reduced their profit outlooks, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest retailer.

"Horrible all round," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Sales could continue to fall in February because of snowstorms blanketing much of the nation.

The retail sales report is the first look at last month's consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity. Many economists had predicted that stronger consumer spending this year would cause growth to accelerate.

But along with falling retail sales, several economic reports indicate that growth may have slowed.

Factories received fewer orders last month. The number of Americans who have signed contracts to buy homes has plummeted to its lowest level in more than two years.

And the past two monthly job reports were sluggish. Only 113,000 workers were added in January. That's slightly better than the 75,000 jobs for December. But combined, it's about half the pace of average monthly job gains over the past two years.

Auto sales fell 2.1 percent in January. Excluding volatile spending on autos, gas and building supplies, retail sales were flat compared with December.

Americans spent more at gas stations because of rising prices. Their purchases of building materials also increased, possibly a sign of preparation for snowstorms.

But purchases of clothing and furniture tumbled. Department store sales continued to decline after a weak holiday shopping season.

As a result, the pace of retail sales growth over the past 12 months has slowed. Purchases have risen 2.6 percent compared to January 2013.

For all of last year, retail sales increased 4.2 percent, the weakest gains in four years.



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