Jobless claims drop signals labor improvement

By Annalyn Censky, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The number of Americans filing for initial unemployment benefits tumbled last week, the government reported Thursday, resuming a downward trend that could signal an improved job picture.

There were 404,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended Jan. 15, the Labor Department said.

That was down 37,000 from the 441,000 claims filed the week before, and slightly better than the 425,000 claims economists surveyed by had expected.

The elusive 400,000 level has been hard to break, with the weekly figure falling below that mark only once since the recession. It happened three weeks ago, but since then, the number has bounced around above that level.

Economists set their sights on 400,000, saying that level has to be broken before they can point to noteworth progress in the jobs recovery.

That said, it's not a "magic number," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets. "It's the trend that's more important."

Economists look at the four-week moving average to smooth out the week-to-week choppiness. That figure fell 4,000 to 411,750 from the previous week, showing continued, but slow, improvement in unemployment.

"The lower the figure goes, the more evidence there is that job creation is growing," Lee said.

Continuing claims also improved, sliding for the third week in a row to the lowest level since October 2008.

Continuing claims -- which includes people filing for the second week of benefits or more -- fell to 3,861,000 in the week ended Jan. 8, a decrease of 26,000 from the week before. To top of page

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