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As expected, jobless claims inch higher

The see-saw ride for initial unemployment claims continues, with the latest figures showing a slight increase over last week.

The number of people who applied for new unemployment benefits rose by 7,000 to 343,000 in the week ended July 20, showing little change in the U.S. labor market, according to government data released Thursday. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected claims to rise to 342,000 from a revised 336,000 in the prior week, adjusted for seasonal variations. The average of new claims over the past month, a more reliable gauge than the volatile weekly number, dropped by 1,250 to 345,250, marking the lowest level since mid-May.

To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it's worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it's best not to read too much significance into any one report.

In terms of metrics, when jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it's considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape, and when the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are being created rather quickly. At this point, we've been below 350,000 in 11 of the last 16 weeks.

Above you'll find the chart showing weekly, initial unemployment claims going back to the beginning of 2007. (Remember, unlike the monthly jobs chart, a lower number is good news.) For context, I've added an arrow to show the point at which President Obama's Recovery Act began spending money.