Ahead of the Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans likely sought unemployment benefits last week, though applications may still be elevated because of lingering disruptions caused by Superstorm Sandy.

Economists forecast that weekly applications fell 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 394,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST Thursday.

Weekly applications plummeted 41,000 two weeks ago to 410,000. That followed a sharp spike caused by Sandy that pushed applications to 451,000 in the week ended Nov. 10.

People can claim unemployment benefits if their workplaces are forced to close and they aren't paid. Labor Department officials have previously said that the storm could distort unemployment benefit applications through the end of last week.

Superstorm Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, closing businesses in the Northeast and cutting off power to more than 8 million homes in 10 states. The government reported last week that the storm caused benefit applications to jump by 75,000 in just New York and New Jersey in the week ended Nov. 10. Applications also rose in Connecticut in Pennsylvania because of Sandy.

Before the storm, weekly applications had fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. Meanwhile, employers have added an average of nearly 157,000 jobs a month. That's barely enough to lower the unemployment rate, which was 7.9 percent in October.

There are some signs that the job market is improving. Employers added 171,000 jobs in October, a step up from September's gain of 148,000. Hiring in August and September was also stronger than first estimated.

The economy gained an average of 174,000 jobs a month in the July-September quarter. That's up from 67,000 a month in April through June.

The unemployment rate rose slightly in October because more Americans began looking for work. That suggests some felt their chances of finding a job had improved. Not all of them were hired, which pushed up the unemployment rate. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching for work.

Superstorm Sandy may also slow growth in the current October-December quarter. Economists forecast that growth may drop to an annual rate below 2 percent in the final three months of the year. On Thursday, the government is expected to raise its estimate of third quarter growth to 2.8 percent, from an original estimate of 2 percent.

Concerns about the "fiscal cliff," the package of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect early next year, may also drag on growth in the current quarter. But if Congress and the White House reach a deal to replace the fiscal cliff, growth could accelerate next year.