March 13 (Bloomberg) -- The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week to the lowest level since the end of November, a sign of further improvement in the labor market.
Jobless claims dropped by 9,000 to 315,000 in the week ended March 8, a Labor Department report showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 53 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a rise to 330,000. Continuing claims decreased for a third straight week.
Employers cutting back on dismissals may be encouraged to take on more workers once demand picks up. Faster gains in hiring will help to boost consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy, after harsh winter weather weighed on everything from retail sales to home purchases earlier this year.
“The labor market continues to improve,” said Brian Jones, senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York who accurately forecast the number of claims. “We’re likely to get eye-popping numbers for March payrolls. The economy is not in a soft patch.”
A separate report from the Commerce Department showed retail sales rose in February for the first time in three months. Purchases climbed 0.3 percent after a revised 0.6 percent decrease a month earlier that was bigger than initially estimated.
Higher fuel costs boosted prices paid for imported goods last month, another Labor Department report showed. Import prices climbed 0.9 percent in February, the most in a year. Excluding fuel, costs declined 0.2 percent.
Stock-index futures held earlier gains after the reports. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing this month climbed 0.2 percent to 1,871.5 at 8:46 a.m. in New York.
Economists’ estimates in the Bloomberg survey for unemployment claims ranged from of 315,000 to 347,000. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure to 324,000 from an initially reported 323,000.
No states had to estimate claims last week and there were no special factors behind the decrease, a Labor Department spokesman said as the figures were released.
The jobless claims report showed the four-week moving average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figures, fell to 330,500 last week from 336,750.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits decreased by 48,000 to 2.86 million in the week ended March 1, the lowest level since December.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 2.2 percent in the week ended March 1. Thirty-four states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 19 reported a decrease. Both pieces of data are reported with a one-week lag.
Employment may get a boost as Americans return to stores once temperatures turn more seasonable. Businesses expanding headcount include Lowe’s Cos., which said on Feb. 19 that it will add about 25,000 seasonal employees this year for the industry’s busiest season. Home Depot Inc. announced it will add 80,000 positions for the spring and summer, matching 2013.
“Stronger job and income growth should create a more favorable environment for consumer spending,” Robert Niblock, Lowe’s chief executive officer, said on a Feb. 26 earnings call.
Companies paring back include Walt Disney Co., which this month said it is cutting 700 jobs, a quarter of the employees at its interactive unit, in a realignment of its video-game and Internet advertising businesses.
Economy-wide payrolls expanded by 175,000 workers in February after a 129,000 gain in the prior month, the Labor Department reported on March 7. The jobless rate rose to 6.7 percent from 6.6 percent as the number of people entering the job market swamped the quantity of positions available.
Federal Reserve policy makers, scheduled to meet March 18- 19, may continue reducing stimulus as the economy and labor market improve. The central bank has indicated it plans to trim monthly bond purchases by $10 billion at each meeting absent a weakening in the economy.