The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell to a four-year low last week, suggesting employers kept hiring in March at a healthy pace.
Weekly applications dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 357,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the fewest since April 2008.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 361,750, also the lowest in four years.
Applications have been steadily declining since last fall. The four-week average fell 4 percent in the January-March quarter, after dropping 8 percent in the final three months of last year.
When unemployment benefit applications drop consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
The downward trend in applications is a promising sign ahead of Friday's report on March job growth. Employers added an average of 245,000 jobs per month from December through February. And the unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.3 percent in February, the lowest in three years.
Economists forecast that employers added 210,000 jobs last month, although they expect the unemployment rate was unchanged for the second straight month.
Consumers are growing more confident in the economy and are stepping up spending. Many large retail chains on Thursday reported healthy sales in March.
Gap Inc., Target Corp. and Macy's were among the retailers reporting solid gains. Overall, revenue in stores open at least one year — an indicator of a retailer's health — rose 4.1 percent, according to a preliminary tally of 22 retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Analysts said a better job market and rising stock prices are encouraging more Americans to shop. Last week the government said consumer spending jumped in February by the most in seven months.
Other data show consumers and businesses are more optimistic about the economy.
Read more at the Houston Chronicle...