WASHINGTON — The U.S. job market showed resilience in three reports Thursday, suggesting it may able to withstand a federal budget battle that could bring more economic uncertainty in coming months.
A survey showed private hiring increased last month, while layoffs declined and applications for unemployment benefits stayed near a four-year low. The data led some economists to raise their forecasts for December job growth one day before the government releases its employment report.
“The job market held firm in December despite the intensifying fiscal cliff negotiations,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. “Businesses even became somewhat more aggressive in their hiring at year end.”
The most encouraging sign came from payroll provider ADP, whose monthly employment survey showed businesses added 215,000 jobs last month, the most in 10 months. November's total was 148,000.
Economists tend to approach the ADP survey with some skepticism because it sometimes diverges sharply from the government's job figures. The Labor Department releases its jobs report Friday.
But some economists were hopeful after seeing businesses were less inclined to cut jobs last month.
Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said the number of announced job cuts fell 43 percent in December from November, and overall planned layoffs in 2012 hit the lowest level since 1997.
The decline in layoffs coincided with a drop last month in the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits. The four-week average was little changed at 360,000 last week. That's only slightly above the previous week's 359,750, which was the lowest since March 2008.
Most economists expect the Labor Department report will show employers added about 150,000 jobs and the unemployment rate stayed at 7.7 percent.
Some economists saw potential for stronger gains based on Thursday's data. Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, raised his forecast for job growth to 190,000 jobs, from 150,000. Credit Suisse increased its forecast to 185,000, from 165,000.
Still, many economists remained cautious about where the job market is headed. While Congress and the White House reached a deal this week that removed the threat of tax increases to most Americans, they postponed the more difficult decisions on cutting spending. And the government must also increase its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by late February or risk defaulting on its debt.
Congressional Republicans are pressing for deep spending cuts in return for any increase in the borrowing limit. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he wants the issues kept separate.
Even with modest gains in hiring, the unemployment rate remains high. It fell to 7.7 percent in November from 7.9 percent in October, mostly because many of the unemployed stopped looking for jobs.
The number of people receiving jobless benefits fell to 5.4 million in the week ended Dec. 15, the latest data available. That's down about 70,000 from the previous week. The figure includes about 2.1 million people receiving emergency benefits paid for by the federal government. The White House and Congress agreed earlier this week to extend that program for another year.