The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly last week, suggesting that a strong economy was helping the U.S. labour market weather ongoing trade tensions between the United States and a host of other countries.
Other data on Thursday showed a solid increase in underlying producer prices in July. Labour-market strength and rising inflation appear likely to keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates in September for the third time this year.
“Trade war tensions in the clouds out there on the horizon may still move closer to shore later this year,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 213,000 for the week ended Aug. 4, the Labour Department said. Data for the prior week were revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.
The claims numbers are being closely watched for signs of layoffs as a result of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy, which has left the United States embroiled in tit-for-tat tariffs with major trade partners including China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Washington imposed duties on steel and aluminum imports, provoking retaliation by major trade partners. The United States has also slapped tariffs on Chinese goods, with Beijing responding in kind. Manufacturers are increasingly complaining about more expensive steel and aluminum raising production costs, as well as causing disruptions to the supply chain.
There have been reports of some companies either laying off workers or planning job cuts because of the import tariffs.
But claims dropped to 208,000 during the week ended July 14, which was the lowest reading since December, 1969. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 220,000 in the latest week.
“We are yet to see any effect of anti-trade policies on employment,” said Pooja Sriram, an economist at Barclays in New York. “Forward-looking business surveys have flagged concerns over protectionism in recent months, but show that firms’ hiring intentions remain in place.”
The U.S. dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies and prices for U.S. Treasuries rose while stocks on Wall Street were mixed.
The economy created 157,000 jobs in July, a step-down from the 248,000 positions added in June. The slowdown in hiring likely reflected a shortage of qualified workers. A report on Tuesday showed there were 6.7 million unfilled jobs in June.
The economy grew at a 4.1-per-cent annualized rate in the second quarter, the fastest in nearly four years.
In another report on Thursday, the Labour Department said its producer price index (PPI) excluding the volatile food, energy and trade services components rose 0.3 per cent last month. The core PPI rose by the same margin in June.
In the 12 months through July, the core PPI increased 2.8 per cent after rising 2.7 per cent in June. The strong labour market and robust economy are pushing up inflation. Import duties are also seen boosting price pressures.
The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy, increased 1.9 per cent in June. The core PCE price index hit the U.S. central bank’s 2-per-cent inflation target in March for the first time since December, 2011.
The Fed raised interest rates in June and has forecast two more hikes by December. A report to be released on Friday is expected to show a steady broad increase in consumer prices in July.
While producer prices were unchanged over all in July for the first time in seven months, inflation pressures at the factory gate are gradually building up. Intermediate prices for steel mill products rose 1.6 per cent in July, lifting the annual increase to 12.4 per cent.
“For now, manufacturers are absorbing some of that cost increase,” said Andrew Hunter, a U.S. economist at Capital Economics. “But with more tariffs in the pipeline and capacity utilization high, we suspect that it’s only a matter of time before final demand inflation begins to rise more markedly.”
Increases in prices for hotel accommodation, pharmaceutical preparations, hospital inpatient care, apparel, motor vehicles and transporting goods by road last month were offset by declines in the costs of energy products, food, airline fares and hospital outpatient care.
July’s unchanged reading in the PPI for final demand followed a 0.3-per-cent increase in June. In the 12 months through July, the PPI advanced 3.3 per cent, slowing after June’s 3.4-per-cent increase. Economists had forecast the PPI gaining 0.2 per cent in July and rising 3.4 per cent year-on-year.
A third report from the Commerce Department showed wholesale inventories edged up 0.1 per cent instead of being unchanged as reported last month. That followed a 0.3-per-cent rise in May and kept the inventory-to-sales ratio at a very low 1.25.
“Stockpiles are being depleted fairly quickly, urging producers to pick up the pace,” said Maria Cosma, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa.