02-19-2017  8:42 am      •     

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week. But the rise comes after applications hit their lowest level in nearly three years, and economists expect further declines as the economy improves.

Applications increased by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 397,000 during the week ended March 5, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The latest report covers the week after the Presidents' Day holiday, when many government offices were closed. Applications usually rise in weeks following holiday-shortened weeks.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 392,250. The average fell to its lowest level since July 2008 two weeks ago.

Applications below 425,000 signal modest job growth. But they need to fall consistently below 375,000 to signal a sustained decline in the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefit applications peaked during the recession at 651,000.

Economists were encouraged that claims remained below 400,000 for the third straight week.

"We still interpret the data as consistent with strengthening job creation," said John Ryding, an economist at RDQ Economics.

A separate report Thursday showed that a sharp rise in oil prices helped push imports up at the fastest pace in 18 years in January. That caused the U.S. trade deficit to widen to its largest level in six months.

The January trade deficit increased 15.1 percent to $46.3 billion, the Commerce Department said. Exports rose 2.7 percent to an all-time high of $167.7 billion. But imports rose a faster 5.2 percent to $214.1 billion due to a big jump in America's foreign oil bill. That underscores concerns that surging oil prices could derail the economic recovery.

Companies are hiring more, after months of sluggish job creation. Employers added 192,000 jobs last month, the most in nearly a year. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.9 percent, the lowest level since April 2009.

More jobs should boost incomes, which would fuel more consumer spending and in turn spur more economic growth and hiring. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke referred to this cycle last week when he said there is "increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold."

At the same time, Bernanke said, "until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established."

Economists worry that several factors could slow or even reverse the recovery, including rising oil prices and state and local government cutbacks.

Plenty of hiring is taking place. Kohl's Department Stores Inc. said Wednesday that it is opening nine stores in seven states, including Illinois, New York, Virginia and South Dakota. The move will create 1,200 jobs, the retailer said.

Thursday's report also showed the number of people receiving unemployment benefits dropped by 20,000 to 3.77 million. That's the lowest level since mid-October 2008. And fewer people are receiving benefits under emergency unemployment aid programs funded by the federal government.

An additional 4.3 million unemployed workers received benefits under the extended programs during the week ending Feb. 19, a drop of about 200,000 from the previous week. Some of those recipients may have found jobs, while many likely exhausted their benefits. Altogether, 8.8 million people were on the benefit rolls that week.

--

AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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