U.S. unemployment benefit applications fall to 336K

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WASHINGTON The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000 last week, bringing applications to pre-recession levels.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average dropped 9,250 to 348,250. The average was elevated by the 16-day partial government shutdown and backlogs in California that occurred because of computer upgrades. Weekly applications have fallen for four straight weeks.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The decline suggests companies are cutting very few workers. Still, they are not hiring many new ones. Falling applications are typically followed by more job gains. But hiring has slowed in recent months, rather than accelerated.

The economy added an average 143,000 jobs a month from July through September. That's down from an average of 182,000 in April through June, and 207,000 during the first three months of the year.

October's jobs report, to be released Friday, likely will look even weaker. Economists expect that employers added just 122,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate rose to 7.3 percent, according to FactSet.

But much of the weakness in October's jobs report will likely reflect the temporary impact of the shutdown. Most economists expect any spike in the jobless rate will be reversed in November.

The economy was strengthening ahead of the shutdown, the government said Thursday in a separate report. Growth accelerated at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter, up from a 2.5 percent rate in the April-June quarter.

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