WASHINGTON (AP) – The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits was up by just 4,000 last week, putting the weekly average over the past month at the lowest level in nearly six years.

Analysts said the big improvement in claims in recent weeks was apparently not a fluke but an actual sign that the labor market has improved significantly.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 277,000 persons went to state unemployment offices last week to make applications for jobless benefits, compared to an increase of 4,000 from the previous week.

That was below the gain of 12,000 that economists had been expecting and provided further evidence that the labor market has strengthened significantly in recent weeks.

The four-week moving average for claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, fell again last week to 276,500, the lowest level since April 2000. Jobless claims have been below the 300,000-mark for five of the past six weeks.

Private economists had initially cautioned against reading too much into the big improvement, contending that benefit applications are notoriously hard to read during the winter months because of trouble adjusting for seasonal factors.

However, with the latest improvement and the sharp drop in the unemployment rate in January to 4.7 percent, a 41/2-year low, analysts said they now believe the figures are correctly signaling an underlying upturn in job prospects.

“We have been quite skeptical throughout January because data tend to be erratic around the holidays and the turn of the year,” said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital.

“However, we are reaching a point on the calendar when the data should be settling down and there is no indication that the number of new filers is poised to move back to the 310,000 to 340,000 range that prevailed in 2005 prior to the hurricanes,” Stanley said.

Wall Street was initially bolstered by the nearly six-year low in the four-week average for unemployment claims, but worries about longer-term economic prospects weighed on investors later in the trading day Thursday.

The Dow Jones industrial average finished up 24.73 points at 10,883.35 after gaining 108.86 points on Wednesday.

The economy created 1.98 million new jobs last year after adding 2.1 million jobs in 2004. Those strong job gains followed job losses in 2001 and 2002 and only a tiny increase in 2003 as the country struggled with a prolonged jobless recovery following the 2001 recession.

The strengthening labor market in recent weeks is certain to gain attention at the Federal Reserve where officials have been boosting interest rates gradually since June 2004 in an effort to cool economic growth enough to make sure that tight labor markets do not trigger higher inflation.

Many analysts believe the Fed, which increased a key rate for the 14th time last week, the last meeting for Alan Greenspan as chairman, will boost rates for a 15th time at Ben Bernanke’s first rate-setting session on March 28.

Financial markets are closely awaiting Bernanke’s first congressional testimony as Fed chairman which will occur next Wednesday when he delivers the central bank’s semi-annual economic report to Congress.

On the Net:

Jobless claims: http://www.ows.doleta.gov

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