By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week while the trade deficit in June was the smallest in 1-1/2 years, hopeful signs for the struggling economy.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday, suggesting a modest improvement in the jobs market.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 370,000 last week. The four-week moving average of new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 2,250 to 368,250.
A second report from the Commerce Department showed the shortfall on the trade balance narrowed 10.7 percent to $42.9 billion, the smallest since December 2010, as low oil prices curbed imports.
That was way below economists' expectations for a $47.5 billion deficit. The petroleum import bill fell as the average price per barrel of crude oil dropped by the most since January 2009.
Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics in Toronto, said the jobless claims data suggested labor market conditions were "fairly stable."
"The pick-up in jobs growth in July may therefore be sustained in August," he said.
Nonfarm payrolls increased 163,000 in July, the most in five months, after three months of gains below 100,000. But the unemployment rate rose by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.3 percent.
Last week's report was the first in several weeks not affected by auto plant shutdowns, which caused wide swings in claims in July, making it difficult to get a clean read of the jobs market.
Worries of deep government spending cuts and higher taxes scheduled to kick in at the turn of the year and Europe's on-going debt crisis were making companies cautious about hiring new workers, economists say.
"The good news is the narrowing of the trade deficit due to oil, which is indicating the economy has stabilized at a low level. Sluggish growth ahead, but no signs of recession," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York.
The trade data, which showed exports increased 0.9 percent to a record $185.0 billion, suggested an upward revision to second-quarter growth.
Overall imports of goods and services declined 1.5 percent to $227.9 billion.
Trade subtracted almost a third of a percentage point from gross domestic product in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 1.5 percent annual rate, slowing from the first quarter's 2.0 percent pace.
While exports showed strength in June, anecdotal evidence suggests a slowdown because of weak global demand. The Institute for Supply Management's export index declined in July for a third straight month.
There also are concerns the worst drought since 1956, which has ravaged half of the country, could hit agricultural exports.
U.S. exports to the 27-nation European Union, in the grip of a continuing debt crisis that has slowed growth on the continent, increased 1.7 percent in June to $23.3 billion.
The EU collectively was the United States' second largest export market last year, and exports in the first half of 2012 were 2.9 percent above the same period in 2011.
U.S. exports to China, which is also growing more slowly than in recent years, fell 4.3 percent in June.
China has been one of the fastest growing markets for U.S. goods, and exports to that country were up 6.7 percent for the first six months of 2012.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)
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