WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, hitting its lowest level in more than 48-1/2 years, as the labour market continues to strengthen.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 207,000 for the week ended July 14, the lowest reading since early December 1969, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims data for the prior week was revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 220,000 in the latest week.
The second straight weekly decline in claims, however, likely reflects difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations around this time of the year when motor vehicle manufacturers shut assembly lines for annual retooling.
With manufacturers undertaking the retooling exercise at different times in July, this can throw off the model that the government uses to the smooth the claims data for seasonal variations.
The Labor Department said only claims for Maine were estimated last week.
The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labour market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 2,750 to 220,500 last week.
The claims data covered the survey week for the nonfarm payrolls component of July's employment report. The four-week average of claims dipped 500 between the June and July survey periods, suggesting solid job growth this month.
The economy created 213,000 jobs in June, with the unemployment rate rising two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.0 percent as more Americans entered the labour force, in a sign of confidence in their job prospects.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week that with appropriate monetary policy, the job market will remain strong "over the next several years."
Employment gains averaged 215,000 jobs per month in the first half of this year. The labour market is viewed as being near or at full employment. There were 6.6 million unfilled jobs in May, an indication that companies cannot find qualified workers.
That was reinforced by the Fed's Beige Book report on Wednesday showing worker shortages persisting in early July.
The U.S. central bank said the scarcity of workers was across a wide range of occupations, including highly skilled engineers, specialized construction and manufacturing workers, information technology professionals and truck drivers.
The Labor Department's claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid increased 8,000 to 1.75 million in the week ended July 7.
The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims rose 6,250 to 1.74 million. (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci) ((Lucia.Mutikani@thomsonreuters.com; 1 202 898 8315; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))