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Weekly US jobless claims hit 9-month high of 379K

Updated: Friday, December 20, 2013 |
Weekly US jobless claims hit 9-month high of 379K story image
WASHINGTON (AP) - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 379,000, the highest since March. The increase may reflect volatility around the Thanksgiving holidays.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average jumped 13,250 to 343,250, the second straight increase.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Last month, they fell to nearly the lowest level in six years, as companies cut fewer jobs. But two weeks ago, they surged 64,000 to 369,000.

Economists dismissed that spike, saying it likely reflected a Thanksgiving holiday that fell later in the month. That can distort the government's seasonal adjustments. But if the trend continues it would be a troubling sign of rising layoffs.

The number of people receiving benefits rose sharply. More than 4.4 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ended Nov. 30, the latest data available. That was 600,000 more than the previous week. Those figures aren't adjusted for seasonal patterns.

Still, most other recent job market data has been positive and economists generally expect unemployment benefits applications will soon fall back.

"We are inclined to ignore the recent claims data," said Joseph LaVorgna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. "We see little evidence to suggest that the labor market trend of the past few months has meaningfully changed."

Hiring has been healthy for the past four months. The economy added an average of 204,000 jobs a month from August through November, a solid improvement from earlier in the year. The unemployment rate fell in November to a five-year low of 7 percent.

The unemployment rate remains above the historic averages of 5 percent to 6 percent that are associated with strong job markets.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday that he expects the robust job gains to continue. Americans are spending more and the economy is less restrained by higher taxes and government spending cuts, he said.

Those trends have "increased our confidence that the job market gains will continue," Bernanke said at a press conference.

The Fed said Wednesday that it would scale back its monthly bond purchases to $75 billion from $85 billion. The purchases are intended to lower long-term interest rates and encourage more spending. The cut suggests that Fed policymakers think the job market and economy will continue to improve even with less help from the Fed.
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ECONOMY-THE DAY AHEAD

WASHINGTON (AP) -- There are two major economic reports on today's schedule, as the Federal Reserve policymakers begin a two-day meeting to set interest rates.

The Conference Board releases the Consumer Confidence Index for April this morning. March saw a rebound in confidence thanks in large part to an improving job market.

Also this morning, Standard & Poor's releases its S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices for February.

The Fed's latest policy meeting comes after a harsh winter slowed activity in a number of sectors and the rising value of the dollar curtailed exports. Most economists expect the subpar growth and low inflation will keep interest rates at record lows at least until September. But analysts caution against expecting any specific guidance on the Fed's timetable for a rate hike after it wraps up its meeting tomorrow. For 6 1/2 years, the Federal Reserve has held its key interest rate near zero.

On the earnings front, Aetna, Ford, Merck, Pfizer and UPS all report quarterly financial results before the market opens this morning. Twitter reports after the market closes.

ARCTIC OFFSHORE DRILLING-SEC CHALLENGE

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- An ocean advocacy group and a university law clinic are petitioning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an investigation of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and what the group calls misstatements in regulatory filings regarding Arctic offshore drilling.

The petition was filed Monday by Oceana and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The petition says Shell has not adequately disclosed risks of a catastrophic oil spill.

The petition also says the company claims litigation by drilling opponents threatens its Arctic drilling prospects but that the threat has not been fully disclosed to investors.

Shell hopes to drill this summer in the Chukchi (chuk-CHEE') Sea off Alaska's northwest coast with two drilling units.

Conservation organizations say Shell can't drill safely in the harsh, remote Arctic.

GMO LABELING

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- A Vermont law that could make the state the first in the country to require labeling of genetically modified food has been allowed to stand for now despite opposition by food industry groups.

U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss in Burlington on Monday ruled against the Grocery Manufacturers' Association and other industry groups in their request for a preliminary order to block the law from going into effect as scheduled on July 1, 2016.

The ruling comes nearly a year after Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the law, under which Vermont is expected to become the first state to require genetically modified organism, or GMO, food labeling. Connecticut and Maine passed laws earlier but required that neighboring states follow suit before they would take effect.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association was joined by the Snack Foods Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, seeking to have Vermont's law declared unconstitutional.

GREECE-BAILOUT

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Greece's prime minister is ruling out early elections if ongoing bailout talks with the country's international creditors fail.

In an interview with private Star TV, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said early Tuesday that he has no reason to hold a snap vote.

Tsipras was elected just three months ago on a pledge to alleviate economic suffering in the financially struggling country.

But Tsipras did not exclude seeking a referendum on the issue, adding that he is confident the marathon talks will result in an agreement.

CONGRESS-BUDGET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- House and Senate GOP negotiators are sealing agreement on a budget blueprint that would enable Republicans to more easily target the Affordable Care Act while delivering an almost $40 billion budget boost to the Pentagon.

The emerging plan drops a controversial House proposal to radically overhaul the Medicare program. And, it eliminates the option of using a fast-track budget bill to target food stamps and Pell Grants. But the plan relies on deep cuts to domestic agency budgets and safety net programs for the poor to promise a balanced budget by 2024.

The measure is not yet finalized, but congressional aides familiar with its outlines say it'll likely be made official Monday or Tuesday and be ratified by House and Senate votes this week. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record while talks are ongoing.

APPLE'S ENGINE

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The iPhone is still the engine behind Apple's phenomenal success, even as its new smartwatch has gotten much of the attention in recent weeks.

While skeptics question whether the company's future is tied too much to one product, the iPhone's popularity was the reason Apple turned in another blow-out financial report Monday. Apple sold more than 61 million iPhones in the quarter, accounting for more than two-thirds of its $58 billion in revenue for the three-month period and the lion's share of its $13.6 billion in profit.

As expected, the numbers were down from the previous quarter, when holiday shoppers snapped up a record 74 million of Apple's new iPhone 6, 6 Plus and older models. But it was a 40 percent increase over the number of iPhones sold in the first three months of 2014.

Since it began offering models with bigger screens last fall, Apple has vied with South Korea's Samsung for the No. 1 position in the global smartphone market. By some estimates, Apple outsold Samsung in the quarter that ended in December, and analysts will be watching closely when Samsung reports its latest results this week.

VERIZON-ESPN

NEW YORK (AP) -- ESPN is suing Verizon in an escalating clash over how the popular sports channel is being sold in a discounted pay-TV package.

The complaint filed Monday in New York's state Supreme Court alleges Verizon is breaching its contract with ESPN, owned by Walt Disney Co., by unbundling the sports channel from the main programming line-up of Verizon's FIOS TV.

Verizon is allowing customers to subscribe to a bare-bones package of 35 channels for $55 per month, with the option of adding other two other tiers of programming such as a sports package that includes ESPN.

ESPN argues that the pay-TV contracts require its channel to be included in the main programming packages sold by cable and satellite carriers.

Verizon says it is honoring its obligations while giving customers more choice.

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