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) -- The number of first-timers applying for state unemployment benefits continued edging higher last week, the government said Thursday, defying projections for a subtle decrease and reaching its highest level since November 2009.

Initial jobless claims rose by 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 500,000 for the week ended Aug. 14, according to a Labor Department report. Consensus projections, provided by

, had pegged new claims to drop to 475,000 from the prior week's pre-revised 484,000 tally.

>>>U.S. Unemployment Rate Map

"They're awful. They're so bad here over the last few weeks that they just don't make sense. Not with profits being reported the way they are," said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, who also raised questions of potential distortions in the report. "They just don't add up. Do they bug me? Absolutely. But I just have a sneaky suspicion that weird seasonal adjustments combined with census workers coming off the roll is distorting the numbers. But, still, jobs have got to show up soon."

John Canally, economist at LPL Financial, agreed with the head-scratching nature of the report. Initial claims at 500,000 historically points to job losses in the private sector, he said. But other unemployment indicators elsewhere have suggested tepid, slow growth in the labor market.

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"It's disturbing to see this. Then again, if you look at all the other employment data, it doesn't confirm what's happening," Canally said, who also remains cautious of over-interpreting the report given seasonal trends and the recently laid-off census workers.

But concerns still remain. "This number raises the question of whether there is a negative job print in August," he said.

The moving average of new filers over the past four weeks, which tends to smooth out erratic swings in the week-to-week data, also edged higher last week by 8,000 to 482,500. Meanwhile, the number of those continuing on jobless benefit rolls for the week ended Aug. 7 retreated a bit to 4.478 million from 4.491 million the week before.

Wells Capital's Paulsen also said the 500,000 mark was a clear psychological barrier for market watchers, which could make for raucous trading given the lack of liquidity and volume.

Stocks got off to a slow start, as jobs data appeared to initially overwhelm news of


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$7.68 billion acquisition of


( MFE). The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

was losing 32 points, or 0.3%, to 10,383, while the

S&P 500

was dropping 3 points, or 0.3%, to 1,091.7 in recent trades.

--Written by Sung Moss in New York