Weak Economy Pushes Jobless Claims to 7-year High

WASHINGTON - Tight credit is taking a toll on manufacturing and jobs.

More people than expected lined up at the unemployment lines last week and orders to U.S. factories plunged by the largest amount in two years, according to government data released Thursday.

New applications for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week to a seven-year high due to a weakening economy and the impact of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The department reported that initial claims for jobless benefits increased by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 497,000, the highest since just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks seven years ago.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said Thursday that factory orders in August plunged by 4 percent compared to July, a much steeper decline than the 2.5 percent drop analysts expected and the biggest setback since a 4.8 percent plunge in October 2006.

The weakness was led by big declines in orders for aircraft, down 38.1 percent, and autos, which fell by 10.6 percent, the worst performance in nearly six years.

The reports disappointed Wall Street. Shares fell in early trading, as the Dow dropped 194 points, or 1.8 percent, to 10,637 and the S&P 500 fell 23.7 points, or 2 percent, to 1,137.

The hurricanes, which hit Texas and Louisiana earlier this month, added about 45,000 claims from the two states for the week ending Sept. 27, the department said.

The hurricanes have led to higher claims for several weeks. As a result, the four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, jumped to 474,000, up 11,500 from the previous week.

In the week ending Sept. 20, Texas reported a 22,235 jump in claims. Louisiana said claims rose by 9,671.

The number of people continuing to receive benefits increased to 3.59 million, up 48,000 and higher than analysts' estimates. That's the highest total in five years.

Jobless claims are at elevated levels even excluding the hurricanes. Weekly claims have now topped 400,000 for 11 straight weeks, a level economists consider a sign of recession. A year ago, claims stood at 324,000.

"There's little doubt that the rising trend in jobless claims reflects a marked deterioration in job market conditions," David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities, wrote in a note to clients.

The economy is struggling with the financial crisis that has led to tighter credit and slowing consumer spending.

The Senate on Wednesday approved an administration-backed bill to provide $700 billion to the Treasury Department to purchase up bad mortgage debt from the financial system as a way to get banks to resume more normal lending operations.

Economists expect a separate Labor Department report Friday on payrolls to reflect further weakness in the labor market. They predict the report will show that the nation's employers cut 100,000 jobs last month. That's on top of 605,000 jobs that were eliminated in the first eight months of this year.

The report is expected to show that the jobless rate remains at 6.1 percent. The rate jumped above 6 percent for the first time in five years in August.

The financial crisis will likely cause greater job cuts in the coming months. Several large, troubled banks have been bought by competitors and layoffs are likely.

Citigroup Inc. on Monday purchased Wachovia Corp., which had about 120,000 employees. JPMorgan Chase & Co. last week bought Seattle-based Washington Mutual, which employed roughly 43,000.

Several companies have announced layoffs in the past week, including aluminum company Alcoa Inc., auto retailer CarMax, Inc. and chicken producer Pilgrim's Pride Corp.