The number of newly-laid off Americans is holding steady at a rate far below the peak numbers recorded a year ago, adding to hopes that double-digit U.S. unemployment is on a downward trajectory.
The number of American workers filing for unemployment benefits stood at 434,000 last week, just 1,000 more than the previous week, and far below the 700,000 weekly layoffs that were reported at the depths of the recession in late 2008 and early 2009.
The four-week average of first-time jobless claims fell for the 18th consecutive week to its lowest level since September, 2008.
PNC Financial Services Group chief economist Stuart Hoffman:
"It clearly shows, as well as other data, that the payoffs that were so prevalent in the economy in the first half of last year have really tapered off now," Hoffman said.
Friday, the federal government will issue its monthly jobs report for December. U.S. unemployment stands at an even 10-percent, and most economists expect that figure to hold steady before gradually declining in coming months.
Expectations of an economic rebound and an improved jobs market may have contributed to a slight pickup in U.S. retail sales during the critical, just-completed holiday shopping season.
A private group says U.S. retail sales in December were 2.8 percent higher than the same month a year earlier.
Ken Perkins heads the research firm Retail Metrics.
"Consumers are feeling a little more comfortable that the jobs market is not going to implode. They are feeling like they can spend a little bit more, and I think that is reflected in these small gains we are seeing off the lows last year," Perkins said.
Perkins adds, however, that the 2008 holiday shopping season was the worst for American retailers in a generation. So modest improvements in 2009 do not signal U.S. consumers are rushing to open their wallets.
Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, and a recovery of spending is seen as a key to strengthening and sustaining a fragile economic recovery.