New weekly claims for jobless benefits fell to their lowest level in nearly two years while industrial production eked out a small gain in June, but producer prices fell for a third month providing more evidence that economic growth is sluggish.
Investors have been monitoring the economy for signs that the recovery lost steam heading into the second half of the year. The Fed trimmed its 2010 growth forecast at its last policy-setting meeting in June, and many private economists have cut estimates for both the second quarter and the full year.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 429,000 last week as seasonal layoffs at factories eased, the U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected claims to fall to 450,000 from the previously reported 454,000, which was revised up to 458,000 in Thursday's report.
Industrial production edged up 0.1 percent in June, but manufacturing activity dropped amid fears that the economic recovery is stalling, the Federal Reserve said.
The New York Federal Reserve Bank's "Empire State" general business conditions index fell almost 15 points to 5.08 in July, the lowest since December 2009.
Meanwhile, factory activity growth in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region fell unexpectedly this month, a survey by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said.
U.S. stock index futures were lower after the data, while the U.S. dollar fell sharply against the euro.
"Overall, U.S. fundamentals are making the U.S. less attractive to investors and reinforcing the idea that investors want to move on from the fiscal problems in Europe," said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at GFT Forex in New York.
The weak labor market, characterized by a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, is holding back the economy's recovery from the most painful recession since the 1930s.
Lack of income has caused consumer spending to turn sluggish in the past months, prompting economists to trim their growth forecasts for the second quarter.
New claims for jobless benefits normally rise this time of the year as manufacturers, including automakers, implement annual shut downs.
However, General Motors is keeping the majority of its plants open during the annual summer retooling shutdown to meet demand for some models.
A Labor Department official said layoffs that are normally scheduled for this time of the year did not appear to have materialized.
"This not just a General Motors thing, we are seeing this across a swathe of states, we did not see an increase in claims as we would normally," the official said.
Last week, the four-week moving average of new jobless claims, considered a better measure of underlying labor market trends, fell 11,750 to 455,250.
U.S. industrial production eked out a small gain in June, beating expectations for a slim decline, as hot weather drove up demand on utilities, a Federal Reserve report showed on Thursday.
Industrial output rose 0.1 percent, stronger than the 0.1 percent decline that economists polled by Reuters had forecast but still down sharply from May's 1.3 percent advance, another unusually hot month that boosted air conditioning usage.
In the Philadelphia Fed report, economists had expected a reading of 10.0, based on the results of a Reuters poll, which ranged from 4.1 to 18.0. Any reading above zero indicates expansion in the region's manufacturing. The survey covers factories in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. It is seen as one of the first monthly indicators of the health of U.S. manufacturing leading up to the national report by the Institute for Supply Management, which is due Aug. 2.
For the second quarter as a whole, industrial production increased at an annual rate of 6.6 percent, down from the 7.0 percent pace recorded in the first quarter, the Fed said.
Manufacturing fell 0.4 percent, breaking a three-month streak of gains, adding to evidence that the second quarter may have ended on a soft note.
Utilities output rose 2.7 percent after a 5.6 percent jump in May.
Capacity usage, a measure of slack in the economy, held steady at 74.1 percent, up sharply from a year earlier but still 6.5 percentage points below its average from 1972 to 2009.
U.S. producer prices fell for a third straight month in June on weak food and energy costs, which should help the Federal Reserve maintain its low interest rate policy well into 2011 to nurse the sputtering recovery.
Federal Reserve officials also fear that the U.S. economy will take at least five or six years to fully recover from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Fed officials at their June meeting cut their forecasts for economic growth this year while taking a slightly dimmer view of the economy than they did in April.
Federal Reserve policymakers, according to minutes of their June 22-23 meeting released on Wednesday, felt they should be ready to consider additional steps to boost the economy if the already weak outlook worsened.
Last month, energy prices fell 0.5 percent after declining 1.5 percent in May. Gasoline prices dropped 1.6 percent, while food costs tumbled 2.2 percent — the largest decline since April 2002.
Stripping out volatile food and energy costs, core producer prices edged up 0.1 percent last month, matching expectations, after increasing 0.2 percent in May.
A combination of weak energy prices and low rates of resource utilization are keeping inflation subdued.
With domestic demand retreating and unemployment still stubbornly high, many economists do not expect the Fed to lift overnight interest rates, currently near zero, until at least the second half of next year.
Last month, core PPI was lifted by a 2.5 percent surge in the cost of heavy motor trucks, which was the largest increase since April 2007, the Labor Department said.
In the 12 months to June, the core producer price index rose 1.1 percent, in line with market expectations, following a 1.3 percent increase in May.
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