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Ahead Of The Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid likely fell last week, continuing a downward trend that indicates the job market is improving.

Economists forecast that applications fell 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 349,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.

A drop would signal further strengthening of the job market one day before the government releases its March employment report. Economists expect that employers added 195,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate remained 7.7 percent, a four-year low.

Last week, the department said applications rose 16,000 to 357,000, the second straight gain. But the four-week average, a less volatile measure, moved up only 2,250 to 343,000. That was only slightly above the five-year low reached in the previous week.

The downward trend in unemployment claims signals companies are laying off fewer workers. That suggests companies aren't worried that business will fall off in the near future.

Still, layoffs are only half of the equation. Businesses also need to be confident enough in the economic outlook to add more jobs.

Job growth has picked up in recent months. Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs per month from November through February. That's nearly double the average from last spring.

Stronger economic growth this year has spurred more hiring. A steady housing recovery has boosted home construction and prices. Higher home prices make Americans feel wealthier, which can spur more spending.

In February, consumer spending rose by the most in five months. And consumer confidence improved in March from the previous month, according to a survey released last week by the University of Michigan.

Two reports Wednesday, however, suggested companies may have grown more cautious last month. Services companies grew in March but at a slower pace than in February, according to the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group. Service firms, which include retailers, hotels, restaurants and financial companies, cut back on hiring and a measure of new orders fell.

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