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Jobless claims drop sharply

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing for initial unemployment insurance fell sharply last week, according to government data released Thursday.

There were 440,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended Feb. 6, down 43,000 from a revised 483,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said in a weekly report.

Economists were expecting initial claims to drop to 465,000, according to a consensus estimate from Briefing.com.

The 4-week moving average of initial claims, which smoothes out volatility in the measure, was 468,500. That's down 1,000 from the previous week's revised average of 469,500.

A Labor Department spokesman said the snow storm that crippled much of the East Coast last week did not impact the number of jobless claims filed.

"Next week's numbers will definitely be impacted by weather," said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities. "But a drop in claims fits with the more positive news we saw in the January jobs report."

The Labor Department said last week that the U.S. unemployment rate fell unexpectedly in January to 9.7% from 10%. Businesses shed 20,000 jobs for the month, far fewer than the 150,000 jobs that were lost in December.

"There are some clear positives in the labor market," Vitner said, pointing to the manufacturing sector, to which some workers have returned to work after being unemployed for a short period of time.

Still, weekly initial claims totals remain "extremely high" and it is difficult to glean anything about the underlying trends in the job market from just one week of data, Vitner warned.

Continuing claims: The government said 4,538,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended Jan. 30, the most recent data available. That's down 79,000 from the preceding week's revised 4,617,000 claims.

Economists were expecting continuing claims to have declined 2,000 to 4,600,000.

The 4-week moving average of continuing claims was 4,603,500, a drop of 17,750 from the preceding week's revised average of 4,621,250.

However, many economists say the decline in continuing claims reflects a growing number of filers who have dropped off the jobless rolls into extended unemployment benefits.

Continuing claims reflect people filing each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks. The figures do not include those people who have moved to state or federal extensions, or people whose benefits have expired.

"The number of people receiving extended benefits is unprecedented," Vitner said.  To top of page

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