Jobless Claims Rise, Trade Gap Narrows

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WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment aid unexpectedly edged higher last week, stoking fears of a stalled economic recovery even as a separate report showed record exports in April.

Initial claims for state jobless benefits increased 1,000 to 427,000, the Labor Department said. However, economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims dropping to 415,000 from a previously reported count of 422,000.

The rise kept first-time claims perched above the 400,000 mark for the ninth week in a row. Analysts normally associate a level below that with steady job growth.

"It's the same dismal trend continuing. It's not getting worse, but it's not getting better either," said Keith Hembre, chief economist at Nuveen Asset Management in Minneapolis.

Fueling concerns about job creation, the U.S. government said on Friday that the U.S. unemployment rate ticked up to 9.1 percent in May while non-farm employers added a paltry 54,000 workers to their payrolls.

Hembre said the unemployment rate could rise to 9.2 percent in the June report. That would add to President Barack Obama's political woes heading into the 2012 race for the White House.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday acknowledged that the economy had slowed but offered no hint the central bank was considering more stimulus to boost growth.

A Commerce Department report showed the U.S. trade deficit narrowed unexpectedly in April, as U.S. exports rose to a new record and imports from Japan tumbled more than 25 percent after its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

The monthly trade gap totaled $43.7 billion, down 6.7 percent from a revised estimate of $46.8 billion in March which was originally reported as $48.2 billion.

The $3 billion drop in imports from Japan from March to April was the largest on record. U.S. auto and auto parts imports from Japan and other suppliers fell $2.8 billion, partly reflecting supply chain disruptions in the aftermath of the triple disaster.

Once those problems are worked through, many analysts expect the trade gap to widen again.

"Right now (the trade report) looks like it's going to be positive for Q2 GDP, but by the end of June the bounce-back will be obvious I think," said Thomas Simons, money market economist for Jefferies & Co in New York.

"I don't think we can draw any long-term inferences from this data, other than it's apparent that the Japanese supply chain disruptions are real," he added.

U.S. stock index futures added to gains after the data, while Treasury bond prices pared gains and the dollar rose against the euro.

The trade gap narrowed despite the biggest month-to-month jump in prices for imported oil in nearly three years. The average price rose to $103.18 per barrel, the highest since September 2008.

However, the volume of crude oil imports fell, pushing the overall U.S. oil import bill lower in April. That, combined with the lower imports from Japan, helped trim total U.S. imports 0.4 percent to $219.2 billion, even as imports of foods, feeds and beverages set a record, the report showed.

U.S. exports, buoyed by a weakening of the U.S. dollar, rose 1.3 percent to a record $175.6 billion, led by record shipments of industrial supplies and materials, and capital goods, and smaller gains for food, feeds and beverages, consumer goods, and autos and auto parts.

The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China jumped nearly 20 percent in April to $21.6 billion. It continues at a pace to exceed last year's record of about $273 billion.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, and Richard Leong and Karen Brettel in New York; editing by Andrea Ricci.)


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