The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits fell just 4,000 last week, remaining close to storm-bloated levels last seen in February, government data showed on Thursday.
In a separate report, the New York-based Conference Board said the U.S. Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.1% in March, as expected, after declining 0.6% in February and 0.3% in January.
The index, a key forecasting gauge for the U.S. economy, suggested slow economic growth is likely to continue in the near term, the private research group said.
Initial filings for state unemployment insurance fell to 339,000 in the week ended April 14 from a slightly upwardly revised 343,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said.
Economists had expected a far larger decline.
"Claims should be watched with more attention because of business investment slowdown right now," said Jon Basile, an economist for Credit Suisse in New York.
"If we see claims rise more consistently, that could get the Fed more concerned on the growth front. Maximum employment is part of their mandate," Basile said.
U.S. Treasury prices shed early gains fueled by the higher-than-expected claims number, which analysts said raised doubts in the markets about the health of the labor market.
U.S. stocks fell on concerns that China may have to raise interest rates to cool its economy, though better-than-expected corporate earnings helped fend off a sharp loss.
Wondering About Seasonal Impact
A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors behind the drop in new claims in the latest week.
Wall Street analysts had expected claims, which provide a rough guide to the pace of layoffs, to fall to 323,000 from the 342,000 initially reported for the April 7 week.
A four-week moving average of claims, which smooths weekly volatility to provide a better sense of underlying job-market trends, rose to 328,750 from 323,500 in the prior week.
The total number of unemployed still on the benefit rolls after drawing an initial week of aid rose for the second straight week, climbing 6,000 to 2.53 million in the week ended April 7, the latest period for which figures are available.
Some analysts wondered to what extent seasonal factors affected the jobs data after some unusual winter weather earlier in the year.
During February, new claims rose following winter storms that struck various regions of the United States. Jobless claims slipped in March before edging up again in the first half of April.
"At face value the numbers are beneficial to Treasuries, suggesting perhaps some softening in labor market conditions. But two weeks do not a trend make," said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Leading Indicators Reverse Declines
Meanwhile, the latest reading of the leading indicators reverses two consecutive months of declines.
Despite the latest increase, the index is still below its most recent high of 138 in January 2006.
The reading tracks 10 economic indicators. Six of those readings were positive in March: initial unemployment claims, weekly manufacturing hours, real money supply, vendor performance, building permits, and manufacturers' new orders.
The negative contributors were stock prices, consumer expectations, interest rate spread and manufacturers' new orders.
"It's kind of an encouraging report in the sense that the positive contributors were from the business sector," said Gary Bigg, an economist with Bank of America.
Negative contributors, such consumer expectations, should rebound next month in response to recent gains in the stock market, he said. Still, Bigg said the reading indicated fairly sluggish growth for the remainder of the year.