Strong economic data points to more hiring

WASHINGTON (AP) — Factories are producing more cars, computers and household appliances, and applications for unemployment benefits over the past four weeks are at the lowest point since summer 2008.

Economic data released Thursday suggest that March will be the second straight month of strong job growth. And the reports helped Wall Street rebound a day after the market suffered its biggest drop in seven months.

Still, rising prices for household necessities and trouble overseas could slow the U.S. economy in the coming months.

A key reason for the brighter outlook is that factory production increased in February for the sixth straight month, the Federal Reserve said. Manufacturing output has grown in all but four months since the recession ended in June 2009. And manufacturers have created 190,000 jobs over the past year, the highest 12-month total for that group since 1998. Last month alone, factories added 33,000 net new jobs.

Rising factory output supports “more high-paying jobs, and more high-paying overtime,” said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight.

Fewer people are seeking unemployment benefits. Applications fell last week for the third time in four weeks, the Labor Department said. The four-week average has dropped to a 386,250 — the lowest level since July 2008. That’s near the 375,000 level that, if sustained, tends to signal declines in the unemployment rate.

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