Jobless claims fall to 391,000

By Annalyn Censky, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- In another sign that the job market is slowly recovering, the number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell last week.

There were 391,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended Feb. 19, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was down 22,000 from the week before, and better than the 410,000 claims economists surveyed by had expected.

The numbers point to the same trend economists have been speaking about for months: The job market is improving, but at a snails pace.

"It's clear that layoffs are trending down," said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo. "But there's been little evidence of hiring."

The weekly figure has hovered close to the 400,000 level since December, but is gradually heading lower overall. Economists look to the 4-week moving average to smooth out the volatility of week-to-week bumps.

The 4-week moving average fell to 402,000 from the previous week's revised average of 418,500.

While that's a sign of improvement, uprisings in the Middle East could halt the job market's progress, Vitner said.

"The situation in the Middle East is still intensifying," he said. "It affects the overall psychology of business, because we know higher energy prices lead to less economic growth, lower consumer spending and ultimately, cut into corporate earnings and hiring decisions."

Meanwhile, continuing claims -- which include people filing for the second week of benefits or more -- fell by 54,750 to 3,790,000 in the week ended Feb. 12, the most recent week available. To top of page

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