WASHINGTON — The outlook for American jobs and trade looked a little brighter Thursday, despite growing uncertainty overseas.
The number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week fell to a seasonally adjusted 390,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the fewest since April.
Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit narrowed to $43.1 billion in September, its lowest point of the year, the Commerce Department said. Foreign sales of American-made autos, airplanes and heavy machinery pushed exports to an all-time high.
The data suggest layoffs are easing and the economy grew slightly better over the summer than the government estimated a month ago.
The reports "are modestly strong relative to expectations — encouraging confidence that the economy is gaining a bit of momentum," said Pierre Ellis, an analyst at Decision Economics.
Weekly applications for unemployment benefits have declined in three of the past four weeks, the Labor Department said. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 400,000, also the lowest point since April.
The downward trend in applications suggests businesses are laying off fewer workers. Still, applications need to consistently drop below 375,000 to signal sustained job gains. They haven't been at that level since February.
"The labor market is still weak and quite stagnant, but there are hopeful signs of some modest improvement," said Steve Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics.
In September, exports increased 1.4 percent to a record $180.4 billion, reflecting a big increase in shipments of U.S.-made autos and auto parts, the Commerce Department said. Imports were up a smaller 0.4 percent to $223.5 billion. Oil imports slowed after huge gains earlier in the year.
The deficit has narrowed for the past three months.
Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the lower trade deficit in September could boost growth in the July-September quarter to an annual rate of 2.8 percent, up from the government's initial estimate of 2.5 percent.
Still, Europe's debt crisis could push that region into a recession next year, which could reduce demand for American exports and slow U.S. growth.
A higher deficit acts as a drag on economic growth because it means fewer jobs for American workers.
The outlook for hiring has been mixed in recent months. The economy added only 80,000 jobs in October, the fewest in four months.
But the government also said last week that employers added more jobs in August and September than it had initially reported, and the unemployment rate dipped to 9 percent.
A separate report this week showed that employers advertised more jobs in September than at any other point in the past three years. That's a positive sign for future hiring, because most companies typically take one to three months to fill vacant positions.
Still, the unemployment rate has been stuck near 9 percent for more than two years, and the Federal Reserve said last week that it isn't expected to fall significantly through the end of next year.