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Unemployment aid applications hit 4-year low

WASHINGTON — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid fell to a four-year low last week, bolstering the view that the job market is strengthening.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 348,000. That’s the lowest level since March 2008, just months into the Great Recession. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, dipped to 355,000, matching a four-year low.

Applications have steadily declined since last fall. The drop has coincided with the best three months of hiring in two years. From December through February, employers added an average of 245,000 jobs per month. That’s pushed down the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent, the lowest in three years.

The report suggests that employers added a similar level of jobs this month. This week’s figures cover the same week that the Labor Department surveys companies about hiring in March. Applications are slightly lower this week than in February’s survey week, which points to more job growth.

“U.S. employment growth looks to have continued in March at a respectable pace,” Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Separately, a measure of future U.S. economic activity rose for the fifth straight month.

The Conference Board said that its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.7 percent in February, after a 0.2 percent rise the previous month. The index is designed to anticipate economic conditions in the next three to six months. Most of its components have already been published.

Companies are hiring more because the economy is picking up. The economy grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the final three months of last year. That was better than the 1.8 percent rate in the previous quarter.

Most economists expect growth will slow in the current quarter to below 2.5 percent, despite the pickup in hiring.

Consumers may be spending less because of rising gas prices and small pay increases. And slowing growth in China and a likely recession in Europe could drag on exports.

Still, growth should pick up later this year as rising job creation gives consumers more spending power.

Lee forecasts growth will accelerate to 2.9 percent in the final three months of this year, from 2.2 percent in the current quarter.

“If someone’s been out of work for a long time, and gets a job, they may not go out and spend all they earn,” she said. “There’s a lag,” as they pay off debts and rebuild savings.