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Jobless claims hint at improving labor market

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, suggesting some traction in the labor market recovery.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 344,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 4,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications to fall to 360,000.

Claims have seen large swings in recent months because of difficulties smoothing the data for seasonal fluctuations, making it hard to get a clear pulse of the labor market's health.

But economists say not all the improvement in claims can be attributed to seasonal factors, suggesting some pick-up in the labor market recovery.

Last week's decline left claims at the lower end of the their range for this year. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, fell 6,750 to 355,000.

A Labor Department analyst said no states were estimated.

Job gains have averaged 177,000 per month over the past six months. At least 250,000 jobs per month over a sustained period are needed to significantly reduce the ranks of unemployed, economists say.

The unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 7.9 percent in January. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday the jobless rate was unlikely to reach more normal levels for several years.

High unemployment prompted the U.S. central bank last year to launch an open-ended bond buying program that it said it would keep up until it saw a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 91,000 to 3.07 million in the week ended February 16, the lowest level since June 2008. The household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived was also conducted during the week ended Feb 16.