By Bob Willis

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) — More Americans than anticipated filed claims for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting a backlog of applications from the year-end holidays.

Initial jobless claims rose by 36,000 to 482,000 in the week ended Jan. 16, the highest level in two months, from 446,000 the prior week, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The jump was due to an “administrative” accumulation from late December and early January holidays, and did not reflect “economic” reasons, a Labor Department spokesman said.

The biggest increase in sales in two decades and an expanding economy may be prompting companies to retain remaining staff after cutting 7.2 million workers from payrolls since the recession began in December 2007. A rebound in hiring may take longer to develop, one reason why unemployment is forecast to average 10 percent this year.

“The trend in employment is still toward improvement,” said James O’Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global Ltd. In New York. “This level of claims is still associated with net declines in payrolls, but the message is that declines are getting smaller and smaller.”

Stock-index futures dropped immediately after the report, erasing earlier gains. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was down 0.1 percent to 1,133.2 at 8:49 a.m. in New York. Treasury securities fell.

Exceeds Forecast

Initial jobless claims were forecast to decline to 440,000 from 444,000 the week before, according to the median estimate of 40 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. Estimates ranged from 430,000 to 457,000.

Government workers took time to sort through applications that piled up in prior weeks after returning from Christmas and New Year vacations, the Labor Department spokesman said in a press conference. That suggests claims in the prior two weeks may have been lower than the numbers indicated. The number of applications is likely to fall when the next week’s data are released, the spokesman said.

In addition, because state offices were closed on Jan. 18 for the Martin Luther King holiday, the government had to estimate claims for six states and the District of Columbia, the spokesman said.

Continuing claims fell by 18,000 to 4.6 million in the week ended Jan. 9. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

Extended Benefits

Today’s report showed the number of people who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting extended payments increased by about 613,000 to 5.92 million in the week ended Jan. 2.

The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits, which tends to track the jobless rate, held at 3.5 percent in the week ended Jan. 9, today’s report showed.

The U.S. unexpectedly lost 85,000 jobs in December after a revision for November showed the first payroll gain in almost two years, according to Labor Department data released Jan. 9.

The unemployment rate held at 10 percent, near the 26-year high of 10.1 percent reached in October. The report also showed workers were unemployed for 29.1 weeks on average, the most since records began in 1948.

Job Losses

The loss of jobs since the recession began has been the worst in the post-World War II era.

The world’s largest economy probably grew in excess of 5 percent at an annual rate in the fourth quarter, the best performance in almost six years, according to forecasts by economists at JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse in New York. Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.2 percent in the previous three months, the first gain in more than a year.

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