jobs_web.jpgWASHINGTON — The outlook for the U.S. job market brightened a little after the government said fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week and surveys of private companies showed hiring increased in June.

The economy is still far from healthy. U.S. service companies grew more slowly last month. Retail sales figures were disappointing. And central banks in Europe and China cut their interest rates, an indication that they expect weaker growth ahead.

But despite all the gloom, American factories and service firms kept hiring in June. Economists say that suggests many companies are less worried that the spring slump will endure.


Retailers could be sweating it out this summer. Shoppers, worried about jobs and the economy, pulled back on spending in June, slowing sales for most retailers to the weakest pace since 2009. And that could leave merchants on edge, wondering if Americans will spend more when the back-to-school season starts in late July.

The June results, based on revenue at stores opened at least a year, are considered an indicator of a retailer's health. Only a small group of chain stores report monthly sales figures. But the results offer a snapshot of consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity.

The figures have shown an uneven recovery. Discounters and high-end stores, for example, notched stronger growth last month. But for most, sales were disappointing.


As the U.S. economy steadies, however, bank closings have become rarer. Fewer U.S. banks are failing than at any time since the financial crisis erupted in 2008. The healthier banking industry is helping sustain an economy slowed by lackluster hiring, weak manufacturing and Europe's debt crisis.

Banks have benefited from low interest rates, higher account fees and more mergers. The recovery from the financial crisis has helped, too. It means more people and businesses can take out and repay loans.

Banks remain generally cautious about lending. And their rebound has yet to drive a robust economic recovery from the recession that officially ended three years ago. But the banks’ gains have allowed them to make gradually more loans and keep the economy from slowing further. Bank loans rose at a 2.1 percent annual rate in the first three months of 2012 and at a 4.6 percent rate since then, according to the latest Federal Reserve data.