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  Jobless claims up sharply last week


WASHINGTON The number of new people signing up for jobless benefits last week rose sharply, suggesting that the labor market is still trying to gain traction after being knocked by a trio of Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Separate reports showed Americans were feeling more upbeat this month now gasoline prices have eased, but that they are clearly not putting their money where their mouths are. A survey of consumer sentiment showed improvement, but mortgage applications fell as the housing market continues to cool along with rising interest rates.

The Labor Department reported Wednesday that new applications for unemployment insurance jumped by a seasonally adjusted 30,000 to 335,000 for the week ending Nov. 19. In the prior week, new filings for jobless benefits registered a large decline.

Last week's increase left claims at their highest point since the middle of October. Economists were expecting claims to total around 312,000.

Hurricane-related job losses edged up last week to 21,000 but are well below their peak posted in September. Last week's increase brought the total number of layoffs related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma over the last 12 weeks to 582,400.

Wednesday's report also showed that the more stable four-week moving average of overall jobless claims, which smooths out weekly fluctuations, rose to 323,250 last week, an increase of 1,250 from the previous week.

And, the number of people continuing to collect unemployment benefits increased by a seasonally adjusted 59,000 to 2.82 million for the week ending Nov. 12, the most recent period for which that information is available.

The Federal Reserve, more worried about inflation than a serious economic slowdown in the aftermath of the hurricanes, boosted interest rates on Nov. 1 and signaled higher borrowing costs in the months ahead. Analysts predict another rate increase at the Fed's next meeting, Dec. 13, the last scheduled session for 2005.

Fed policymakers at their November meeting said the hurricanes only "temporarily depressed" employment and production.

In September, employment declined for the first time in two years; in October payrolls grew by just 56,000. Economists, however, are hopeful that a more robust rebound in job growth will be seen for November. The government releases the November employment report early next month.

The University of Michigan's final reading of consumer sentiment for November rose to 81.6 from 74.2 in late October, beating analyst forecasts for a rise to 80.5, according to sources who saw the subscription-only report.

"It looks like the economy is stabilizing after the hurricane-related stresses and we're heading into the holidays with an upturn in confidence that is encouraging and bodes well for the good consumer spending over the next month or so," said Gary Thayer, chief economist at AG Edwards & Sons in St. Louis.

U.S. mortgage applications fell last week, as home refinancings hit a 16-month low as interest rates neared their highest for a year.

Other employment data on Wednesday suggested the labor market may well not have entirely shaken off the effects of the storms in late August and early September.

The number of help-wanted ads in U.S. newspapers was unchanged in October from September, suggesting softness in the U.S. labor market, a private research group said.

The Conference Board said its gauge measuring help-wanted ad volume in the United States was 38, compared with a downwardly revised 38 in September. The September reading was originally reported at 39.

The index stood at 37 in October 2004.

"With slower hiring, and indications that hiring might remain soft in the months ahead, the economy could struggle, setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy," Ken Goldstein, a Conference Board economist, said in a statement

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