Do These Jobless Numbers Indicate an Improving Market?

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits increased for the first time in three weeks. However, despite this greater-than-anticipated jump, unemployment stayed at a level consistent with an improving labor market.

Initial jobless claims increased by 20,000 to 362,000 for the week ended February 16, reported the Labor Department on Thursday. Economists polled by Bloomberg had expected claims to go up, but they had only predicted an increase to 355,000.

At the state level, ten states reported a decrease in claims of 1,000 or higher and one state, Kansas, reported an increase of more than 1,000.

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Continuing uncertainty, stemming from ongoing debates in Congress over the federal government’s fiscal policy, has left employers in a precarious position. Given last week’s unemployment figures, it does appear that companies are keeping their staffing levels constant even though rising gasoline prices and the January hike in the payroll tax is expected to hurt consumer spending. But companies could limit hiring in the coming months if Congress is unable to come to an agreement to avoid the looming automated government spending cuts scheduled for March 1…