The number of people seeking unemployment benefits likely fell last week for the third time in four weeks, a downward trend that suggests hiring will pick up this year.
Economists expect applications fell to a seasonally adjusted 403,000, from 409,000 the previous week. That would push the four-week average of claims, a less-volatile figure, down for the third consecutive week. The average is currently at its lowest level since late July 2008.
Early January is a particularly difficult time to adjust the application figures for seasonal factors. Many retail workers are let go after the holiday season, and those layoff figures can vary sharply from year to year.
Fewer than 425,000 people applying for benefits signals modest job growth. And applications are far below their peak of 651,000 during the recession, reached in March 2009. Still, economists say applications need to fall consistently to 375,000 or below to substantially bring down the unemployment rate.
Unemployment applications reflect the level of layoffs, but can also indicate whether companies are willing to hire.
Applications have fallen by about 16 percent in the past four months, a sign that employers have cut back on layoffs.
Still, net job gains were modest in December. Employers added only 103,000 jobs, less than half the total needed to drive down the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent, but about half that drop was because many unemployed workers gave up on their job searches. The government doesn't count people as unemployed when they stop looking for work.
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