Jobless claims fall in a seasonal swing

Washington - Claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly dropped last week to a five-year low, highlighting the challenges in adjusting the data for swings at the start of a year.

Applications for unemployment insurance payments decreased by 5,000 to 330,000 in the week ended Jan. 19, the fewest since the same week in 2008, the Labor Department reported Thursday in Washington. Economists forecast 355,000 claims, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey.

"The swings are attributable to the calendar," said Brian Jones, senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who projected a drop to 328,000. He said the numbers probably will rise at the end of the month as the calendar returns to normal. "We're going to pay for this," he said.

A pickup in consumer spending last month may be helping employers look beyond the rancor in Washington over attempts to cut federal spending and trim the national debt. Nonetheless, an increase in the payroll tax at the start of the year has shaken household confidence, raising the risk that sales may cool.

"Away from the calendar swings, the numbers are getting better," Jones said. "There's an improvement in the labor market that is in fact going on.

Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 310,000 to 380,000 in the Bloomberg survey of 49 economists. The prior week's figures were unrevised at 335,000.

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