THE number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week but remained elevated due to superstorm Sandy, a sign the storm is proving to be a substantial disruption to the labour market.
Other data on Wednesday showed stronger growth in U.S. manufacturing in November.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 41,000 to a seasonally adjusted 410,000, the Labour Department said. That was smack in line with the median forecast in a Reuters poll.
The storm has distorted a range of economic indicators, making it harder to gauge the underlying health of the U.S. economy. Economists thought Wednesday's readings nevertheless point to a struggling jobs market.
"There appears to be a noticeable deceleration of growth in the fourth quarter," said Peter Hooper, an economist at Deutsche Bank in New York. "It would not be surprising if some of the new jobless claims are due to underlying weakness in the labor market," he said.
U.S. financial markets showed little reaction to the jobless data as investors focused on developments in Europe and trading slowed ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday. U.S. stock futures were up slightly, while Treasury debt prices were flat.
An analyst from the Labor Department said several states were still reporting an increase in claims due to Sandy, a mammoth storm that slammed into the East Coast on Oct. 29.
The storm left millions of homes and businesses without electricity, shut down public transportation and led many factories in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to curtail production. Retail sales fell as Sandy slammed the brakes on automobile purchases last month.
The data covers the same week when the department collects data for its estimate on hiring during the month, and gives some reason to expect softness in that report due on Dec. 7, although not all analysts expect a significant impact. Nonfarm payrolls grew 171,000 in October.
"We are expecting things to be in the neighborhood of what we have seen, maybe with a pullback in light of the hurricane," said Bricklin Dwyer, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York.
The drop in new claims only partially unwinds the 90,000-claim increase registered the prior week. The Labor Department revised upward its estimate for new claims in the week ending Nov 10 to 451,000. Millan Mulraine, an economist with TD Securities in New York, said the storm would continue to distort claims for another few weeks.
However, most analysts think the economic impact of the storm is likely to be temporary.
Growth in the U.S. economy has looked uneven in recent months, with business investment sagging due to fears that Congress will slash the budget deficit next year, while consumer spending and the housing market have looked more robust.
A separate report showed U.S. manufacturing grew in November at its quickest pace in five months, bolstered by a rise in domestic demand.
Financial information firm Markit said its U.S. "flash," or preliminary, manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index rose to 52.4 from a three-year low of 51.0 in October. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.
Output in the sector and domestic new orders also grew at their fastest pace since June, while the pace of hiring in the factory sector was the swiftest in four months.
Some respondents said efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy may have accounted for some of the increased demand.
Another report showed applications for U.S. home mortgages eased last week as interest rates edged up, though demand for new loans improved.
The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity, which includes both refinancing and home purchase demand, fell 2.2pc in the week ended Nov 16.
The MBA's seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications fell 3.2pc. But the gauge of loan requests for home purchases, a leading indicator of home sales, rose for the second week in a row, gaining 2.7pc.