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Unemployment claims dip lower

By Hibah Yousuf, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The number of Americans filing either continuing or first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, a sign that the job market continues to slowly improve.

The number of Americans filing for ongoing claims dropped 80,000 to 3,706,000 in the week ended March 5, the most recent week available. That was the lowest number of continuing claims since September 2008, and below economists' forecast for 3,750,000 continuing claims.

Ongoing claims reflect people who file each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, usually at 26 weeks.

Although the decline is a welcome sign, Moody's Capital Markets Group chief economist John Lonski warned that the figure may be skewed by the expiration of benefits for those Americans who have been jobless for long periods of time and are no longer eligible for unemployment insurance.

While the length of eligibility varies by state, that maximum length of time Americans can file for benefits is 99 weeks.

Still, the downward trend in jobless claims is consistent with the recent decline in the unemployment rate, Lonski said. The unemployment rate fell to 8.9% last month, which the best reading since April 2009.

Meanwhile, there were 385,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended March 12, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was down 16,000 from the previous week's upwardly revised 401,000.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had expected initial claims to ease to 386,000 in the latest report.

The 4-week moving average of initial claims, which aims to smooth out volatility, also improved, falling to 386,250 from the previous week's revised average of 397,250.

The weekly figure had been drifting within the 400,000 and 500,000 range for over a year, but has managed to trend downward and break below that level in recent weeks. In fact, jobless claims filed during the last week of February were the lowest since May 2008.

"We are making progress on the jobs front, and we'll likely continue to see claims fall throughout the month of March," Lonski said. "But for many Americans, the progress is still too slow."

While the outlook for job creation has been brighter in recent months, Lonski said the recent volatility in the stock market may stall business and consumer spending, which in turn can damage prospects for hiring.

"The key to job creation is sufficient growth in spending by both consumers and businesses," Lonski said. "And unfortunately, what's happening in financial markets threatens to slow spending and the pace of hiring."  To top of page

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