By CHRISTOPHER RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, a sign that layoffs declined and hiring is likely strong.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 216,000, a very low level by historical standards. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 235,750.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs, since people cannot claim benefits unless they lose a job through no fault of their own. Businesses are hiring at healthy levels and posted the most open jobs in nearly two decades in December. With demand for workers strong, companies are holding onto their staffs.
Other economic reports have suggested growth may be slowing this year. Manufacturing output and retail sales have both fallen in the past two months. Still, consumer optimism has bounced back, according to some measures, after falling sharply in the wake of the 35-day partial government shutdown. That could revive spending going forward.
The economy expanded at a 3.8 percent annual rate last summer and fall. But analysts forecast growth weakened in the final three months of last year, to roughly 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The report on fourth-quarter growth was delayed by the government shutdown and is scheduled to be released next week.
Growth has likely slowed further in the first three months of this year, economists expect, with some projecting it to be as slow as 1.5 percent to 2 percent at an annual rate.
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