U.S manufacturing grew in June at its slowest pace in 11 months and the number of Americans filing new applications for jobless benefits fell slightly last week, pointing to an economy mired in a soft patch.
The weakening economic tone was also underscored by other reports on Thursday showing a gauge of factory activity in the Mid-Atlantic region tumbled to a 10-month low in June and a pullback in home resales in May.
The data came one day after the Federal Reserve eased monetary policy further by extending a program to re-weight securities it holds toward longer maturities to hold down borrowing costs and signaled it was ready to do more to help the flagging recovery.
"We've seen a pretty steady diet of lower-than-expected data points, pointing to a continued slowdown, and that has not changed," said Paul Nolte, managing director at Dearborn Partners in Chicago.
Financial information firm Markit said its U.S. "flash" manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index fell to 52.9 in June from 54.0 in May. The June reading was the lowest since last July although it stayed above 50, indicating an expansion in activity.
For the second straight month, weaker demand from Europe and large emerging markets such as China dented sales. Markit said U.S. manufacturers reported the second largest decline in new export orders since September 2009.
In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 387,000.
However, the four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, increased 3,500 to 386,250 - the highest level since early December.
The claims data covered the survey week for June's nonfarm payrolls and the report pointed to little or no improvement on the paltry 69,000 jobs added in May. Claims rose 15,000 between the May and June survey periods.
"This confirms the weak labor market we have. I suspect we would see a modest rebound in payrolls in June but it would still be below 150,000. It's going to be another month of sub-par jobs data," said Sam Bullard, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The run of poor data was extended further, with the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank reporting that factory activity in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware contracted for second month in June as orders and shipments sank.
Manufacturing has been one of the strongest links in an otherwise frail U.S. economic recovery, but weaker overseas demand, especially in Europe where a debt crisis has resulted in tough austerity measures by governments, may be starting to take its toll.
LABOR MARKET STRUGGLING
Slowing manufacturing bodes ill for the labor market, which has stumbled badly in the past few months. Both the Markit PMI and the Philadelphia surveys showed weakness in employment measures.
"The impact of weak sales on employment is a key concern," said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson. "The close fit of the survey data with non-farm payroll number suggests that the official (employment) data for June will show a further weakening of the labor market."
Labor market weakness prompted the Federal Reserve to extend its so-called Operation Twist program, which was due to expire this month, through the end of the year. It was expanded by $267 billion.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the U.S. central bank had considerable scope to take further action and a lack of sustained progress in the labor market would require it.
Much of the recent weakness in the labor market has been due to a decline in hiring, rather than increased layoffs.
Data on Tuesday showed job openings dropped to a five-month low in April, spread across all sectors of the economy. There are no jobs for more than two out of every three unemployed Americans.
New applications for unemployment benefits have barely budged since April. But the economy is not falling off the cliff just yet. A gauge of future U.S. economic activity rebounded in May, other data showed.
While home resales fell 1.5 percent last month that followed April's hefty 3.4 percent increase, and the median home price rose for a fourth straight month.
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