Jobless claims spike to nine-month high

First-time applications for unemployment benefits hit their highest level in nine months, probably the result of volatility normally experienced around the holidays.

Jobless claims, which reflect the level of layoffs, rose by 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 379,000 in the week ended Dec. 14, their highest level since March, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The four-week moving average, which better shows where the labor market is headed, jumped 13,250 to 343,250 — a level that reflects an improving labor market.

Jobless claims have risen 74,000 in the past couple of weeks after dropping near six-year lows ahead of the holidays. 

But while holiday data can be difficult to adjust, concerns about the strengthening labor market aren't likely to set in unless the numbers don't shake out by mid-January.

Economists are usually cautious about reading too much into the data as it fluctuates at the end of the year.

Amid the rise in layoffs, the labor market has shown enough strength in the past couple of months — churning out more than 200,000 jobs a month on average — to prompt the Federal Reserve to begin tapering its massive monthly stimulus efforts.

The unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 7 percent in November.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday that the labor market should continue improving.

The central bank is paring back its $85 billion in monthly stimulus to $75 billion, a first step in reducing the stimulus designed to boost economic growth during the recovery. 

Also, the report on Thursday showed that more than 1.3 million people received extended federal benefits, a program that is set to expire Dec. 28.

Congress will leave Washington for the holidays without renewing the program.

The Senate intends to take up a measure first thing next year that would provide three more months of the benefits while a potentially longer-running solution is discussed.