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Data point to rebound from worst recession

THE number of newly laid-off Americans filing jobless claims fell more than expected last week, and retail sales grew last month for the first time in three months, fresh evidence that the worst of the recession may have passed.

The Labor Department yesterday said initial claims for unemployment benefits fell last week by 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 601,000. That's below analysts' estimates of 615,000.

Still, the number of people claiming benefits for more than a week rose 59,000 to more than 6.8 million, the highest on records dating to 1967. The department also revised last week's data on continuing claims, replacing what had been a drop of 15,000 with an increase of 6,000.

That means continuing claims have set records for 19 straight weeks. The data lag initial claims by a week.

Retail sales rose last month for the first time in three months as a rebound in demand at auto dealerships and gas stations helped offset weakness at department stores. The Commerce Department said retail sales rose 0.5 percent last month, in line with economists' expectations. It was the largest increase since sales rose 1.7 percent in January following six straight declines.

Consumers may be spending a bit more and layoffs may be slowing, but companies are reluctant to hire amid the longest recession since World War II. That makes it harder for the jobless to find work.

Jobless claims are a measure of the pace of layoffs and are seen as a timely, if volatile, indicator of the economy's health.

The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, fell to 621,750, down from a high of about 658,000 in early April. Many economists see the decline as a sign that layoffs have peaked and the recession is bottoming out.

Still, the levels are far above what is customary in a healthy economy. Initial claims stood at 388,000 a year ago.

The department last week said companies eliminated a net total of 345,000 jobs last month. While steep, that's about half the monthly average of jobs lost in the first quarter.

Yet the unemployment rate jumped to 9.4 percent last month, a 25-year high, as hundreds of thousands of people entered the labor market and began looking for work but couldn't find it, the department said.


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