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Posted: Thursday, January 31st 2013 at 8:58am

Weekly jobless aid applications rise; consumer spending up

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose sharply last week but remained at a level consistent with moderate hiring. Meanwhile, consumer spending is up slightly.

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits leapt 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase comes after applications plummeted in the previous two weeks to five-year lows.

The volatility reflects the government's difficulty adjusting the data to account for layoffs after the holiday shopping season. Job cuts typically spike in the second week in January as retailers dismiss temporary employees hired for the winter holidays. Layoffs then fall in the second half of the month.

The department attempts to adjust for such fluctuations but the January figures can still be volatile. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up to 352,000, just above a four-year low.

On Friday, the government is scheduled to issue its January jobs report. Analysts forecast that it will show employers added 155,000 jobs, the same as in December. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 7.8 percent for the third straight month.

That's consistent with the number of people seeking unemployment aid. Applications fluctuated between 360,000 and 390,000 for most of last year. At the same time, employers added an average of 153,000 jobs a month.

That's just been enough to slowly push down the unemployment rate, which fell 0.7 percentage points last year to 7.8 percent.

Steady hiring is needed to resume economic growth. The government said Wednesday that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter, hurt by a sharp cut in defense spending, fewer exports and sluggish growth in company stockpiles.

The contraction points to what is likely to be the biggest headwind for the economy this year: sharp government spending cuts and ongoing budget fights.

The economy will likely expand in the current quarter and is forecast to grow around 2 percent this year as strength in areas like housing and auto sales could partly offset government cutbacks. But looming, across-the-board spending cuts, set to take effect March 1, would weaken a still-precarious recovery.

Two key drivers of growth improved last quarter. Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, increased at a faster pace and businesses invested more in equipment and software.

Homebuilders, meanwhile, are stepping up construction to meet rising demand. That could create more construction jobs.

Home prices are rising steadily. That tends to make Americans feel wealthier and more likely to spend. Housing could add as much as 1 percentage point to economic growth this year, some economists estimate.

And auto sales reached their highest level in five years in 2012. That's boosting production and hiring at U.S. automakers and their suppliers.

CONSUMER SPENDING

U.S. consumers increased their spending in December at a slower pace, while their income grew by the largest amount in eight years. Income surged because companies rushed to pay dividends before income taxes increased on high-earners.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that consumer spending rose 0.2 percent last month. That's slightly slower than the 0.4 percent increase in November.

Income jumped 2.6 percent in December from November. Companies accelerated dividend payments to beat the January rise in income tax rates. It was the biggest gain since December 2004.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, is expected to slow this year. That's because consumers are receiving less take-home pay starting this month.

Congress and the White House reached a deal on Jan. 1 to prevent income taxes from rising on all but the wealthiest Americans. But they allowed a temporary reduction in Social Security taxes to expire this year. That means a person earning $50,000 a year will have about $1,000 less to spend in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers will have up to $4,500 less.

The diminished pay could slow consumer spending and economic growth at a precarious moment.

The economy unexpectedly shrank in the October-December period at an annual rate of 0.1 percent, Commerce said Wednesday. The dip was a reminder of the economy's vulnerability as automatic cuts in government spending loom.

Some analysts have estimated that the roughly $120 billion in higher Social Security taxes could subtract up to 0.7 percentage point from growth this year.

And other policy decisions in Washington could slow growth further.

The agreement on the fiscal cliff averted income tax cuts on most consumers. But it only delayed across-the-board government spending cuts for two months. The cuts are set to take effect on March 1 if no agreement is reached to avert them.

The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that it was keeping all its aggressive stimulus programs in place. These include $85 billion a month in bond purchases. The purchases are intended to keep long-term interest rates down to encourage spending, boost growth and reduce still-high unemployment.

The Fed also left its target for short-term rates at a record low and said it would stay there at least until unemployment, now at 7.8 percent, stays above 6.5 percent. Many economists think unemployment remained at 7.8 percent in January. The January jobs report will be released Friday.
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