Unemployment aid requests fall to near new 3-year low


WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people requesting unemployment benefits last week plunged to a nearly three-year low, bolstering the likelihood that companies will increase the pace of hiring this year.

Applications for unemployment benefits fell by 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department reported today. It was the third decline in the last four weeks. Applications are now at their lowest level since May 2008.

The four-week average for applications, a less volatile figure, fell last week to 388,500. That's the lowest level since July 2008, the last time the four-week average was below 400,000.

Applications that remain consistently below 375,000 tend to signal declines in the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefit applications peaked during the recession at 651,000.

Analysts are predicting strong job gains in the February employment report, which the government will release on Friday. Brightening the outlook for more aggressive hiring, the manufacturing sector is growing at the fastest pace in nearly seven years and retailers are reporting strong gains for February after the best holiday shopping season since 2006.

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