Jobless claims in US unexpectedly decline to five-year low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell sharply last week to its lowest level since the early days of the 2007-09 recession ,suggesting the job market is still healing despite weakness in the broader economy.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 324,000 the Labor Department said on Thursday. The level of claims was the lowest since January 2008, a month after the beginning of a deep recession.

A Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in the data and no states had estimated their claims.

The data runs counter to a growing number of signals that economic activity softened in March and April, a phenomena economists have dubbed the spring swoon because it also happened in the previous two years.

The data has no direct bearing on the Labor Department's monthly employment report for April due on Friday. However, it suggests that while employers have been shy about hiring, they are feeling less pressure to lay workers off.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a less volatile measure of labor market trends, fell 16,000 last week to 342,250.

Economists expect Friday's jobs report will show employers hired 145,000 people last month. Employers added only 88,000 workers to their payrolls in March after a solid 268,000 increase in February.

The recent slowdown in the economy has been blamed on government belt-tightening, although analysts also think a mild winter followed by an unusually cold March may have led some employers and consumers to bring forward hiring and purchases.

Ongoing weakness in the labor market led the U.S. Federal Reserve to keep a monetary stimulus programs at full throttle on Wednesday following a two-day policy review. Policymakers said in a statement they could even step up bond purchases to help the economy more if needed.

Analysts had expected 345,000 new jobless claims last week.

The prior week's reading was revised to show 3,000 more applications than previously reported.

Claims during the spring are difficult to adjust for seasonal swings, although a Labor Department analyst said most spring holiday breaks have passed.

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