Economic Report: Jobless claims fall again, staying below 200,000 for seventh week in a row

The numbers: The number of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits at the end of February fell slightly, holding below 200,000 for the seventh week in a row in a sign of the labor market’s remarkable strength.

New applications dropped to 190,000 from a revised 192,000 in the prior week, the government said Thursday.

The number of people applying for jobless benefits is one of the best barometers of whether the economy is getting better or worse. New unemployment applications remain near historically low levels.

Economists polled by the Wall Street Journal had forecast that new claims would total 197,000 in the seven days ending Feb. 25. The figures are seasonally adjusted.

Key details: Thirty-four of the 53 U.S. states and territories that report jobless claims showed a decrease last week. Nineteen posted an increase.

New claims have ranged from a high of 241,000 to a low of 183,000 since Thanksgiving. By most measures, the labor market is still quite robust.

The number of people already collecting unemployment benefits, meanwhile, fell by 5,000 to 1.66 million in the week ending Feb. 18. That number is reported with a one-week lag.

These continuing claims are still low, but a gradual increase since last spring suggests it’s taking a bit longer for people who lose their jobs to find new ones.

Big picture: Jobless claims are one of the first indicators to set off alarm bells when the U.S. is headed toward recession. So far, they are signaling that the coast is still clear.

Economists expect layoffs to increase later in the year, however, as higher interest rates slow the economy further and reduce demand for workers.

The ongoing strength of the labor market, in fact, might spur the Fed to keep rates higher for longer. The central bank is worried that the tight labor market will keep driving up wages and make it harder to tame high inflation.

Looking ahead: Low jobless claims provide “evidence that, despite some well-publicized layoffs in tech and other sectors, and now some reports of reduced numbers of online job postings, most companies are either still hiring or are holding onto their employees and seeking other ways to cut costs,” said chief economist Joshua Shapiro of MFR Inc.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.36% and S&P 500 SPX, -0.23% were set to open mixed in Thursday trades.