WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, but the underlying trend continued to point to a strengthening labor market.
The labor market optimism was, however, dimmed somewhat by a survey on Thursday showing employment in the services industries fell in February for the first time in two years, even as the overall sector continued to expand.
But economists cautioned against reading too much into the drop, noting that past declines had not translated into overall labor market weakness.
"At first glance that is a concern ... but we've seen this happen with the employment index before. There are also no other signs that service sector hiring is slowing," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000 for the week ended Feb.27, the Labor Department said. Economists had forecast claims slipping to 271,000 in the latest week.
Claims have now been below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with healthy labor market conditions, for a year. That is the longest period since the early 1970s. The four-week moving average of claims, seen as a bettermeasure of labor market trends, fell to the lowest level since late November - indicating no stress in the jobs market despite financial market conditions having tightened after fears of recession sparked a global stock market sell-off.
"Through some of the ups and downs in the weekly series, it looks like the trend in initial claims has improved over the past month, signaling that the labor market continues to improve despite weakness in several other recent economic reports," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
The labor market's resilience was reinforced by another report from global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc showing announced layoffs by U.S. companies tumbled 18 percent to 61,599 in February.
In a separate report, the Institute for Supply Management said its index of services industries employment fell 2.4 percentage points to a reading of 49.7 percent, dropping below the 50 threshold for the first since February 2014.
That contributed to the ISM's nonmanufacturing index dipping 0.1 percentage point to a reading of 53.4 last month. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the U.S. services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy.
While the weak employment reading poses a risk to Friday's jobs report for February, another survey from data firm Markit showed services industry employment held firm in February, though its overall services sector index fell to a near two-and-half year low, in part because of a blizzard that slammed the Northeast.
A report on Wednesday showed strong private sector hiring last month. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 190,000 jobs last month after rising 151,000 in January. The unemployment rate is seen steady at an eight-year low of 4.9 percent.
The dollar fell against a basket of currencies and U.S. stocks were trading modestly lower, also reflecting weaker oil prices. U.S. government debt rose marginally.
The encouraging labor market data joins reports on manufacturing and consumer spending in suggesting economic growth picked up at the start of the year after slowing to an annual rate of 1.0 percent in the fourth quarter.
In a fourth report, the Commerce Department said new orders for manufactured goods rebounded 1.6 percent after dropping 2.9 percent in December. That was the largest increase since June and followed two straight months of declines.
"It should be clear to most that the recession fears were overblown," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.
The increase in factory orders was the latest suggestion that the worst of the factory slump was likely over.
Factory activity, which accounts for about 12 percent of the economy, has been slammed by a strong dollar and weak global demand, which have undercut exports. Spending cuts by energy firms in the wake of a plunge in oil prices are also a drag, as are efforts by businesses to reduce an inventory glut.
In another report, the Labor Department said nonfarm productivity fell at a 2.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter and not the 3.0 percent pace it reported last month. Still, labor-related costs increased solidly as companies employed more workers to raise output.
Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci