Jobless Claims Slightly Lower Than Expected

Labor market data was mixed on Thursday ahead of the closely watched U.S. jobs report for February, due on Friday morning.

Workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits fell 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 328,000 last week, slightly lower than Wall Street expectations, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

But the four-week moving average for claims, a better look at the underlying trend, climbed to 339,000, its highest since an equal level in October 2005.

Winter storms had boosted claims in early February. No special factors, including weather, had any impact on data in this report, a Labor Department official said. Weekly levels have fallen since then.

"We continue to judge the labor market as healthy. There are downside risks from construction, auto and even subprime lenders if more of them go bankrupt and lay off people," said Michelle Meyer, an economist at Lehman Brothers in New York.

The number of workers filing for continuing claims fell 98,000 in the week ended Feb. 24 to 2.55 million, mostly offsetting a 118,000 jump the prior week. The insured unemployment rate was 1.9% in the week ended Feb. 24, down from 2% the prior week.

Treasury bond prices slightly extended their losses after the claims data was released, while stock index futures pointed to a higher opening on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, a gauge of U.S. online labor demand jumped in February to a record high, with the steepest gains in the utilities sector and transportation and warehousing, a report showed on Thursday.

Monster Worldwide, a global online careers and recruiting firm, said its Employment Index rose to 177 in February from 168 in January -- a jump of 5.4%. It was 157 a year earlier.

"The significant jump in February marks the Monster Employment Index's largest monthly increase on record, and indicates a sharp rebound in online job availability following January's weaker-than-usual results," said Steve Pogorzelski, group president of Monster Worldwide.

The February figure shows a surge in intended hiring that should be felt in March payrolls, Pogorzelski said.

All this data comes a day ahead of the jobs report, which is closely watched by stock and bond traders because it is one of the best early reads on the health and direction of the U.S. economy.

Derivatives traders were betting on Thursday that U.S. employers added 82,500 jobs in February, according to the preliminary implied median market forecast of a derivatives auction.

The result was below the 93,100 job gain implied in a similar auction on Wednesday and the median forecast of a 100,000 increase among economists polled by Reuters.

The U.S. Labor Department will issue the latest nonfarm payroll report on Friday at 8:30 a.m.

The jobless rate is expected to remain at 4.6% and the average workweek also staying flat at 33.8 hours.