___Weekly US unemployment benefits claims drop to 344,000 WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell by 22,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 344,000, indicating that the job market may be picking up. The four-week average of applications dropped 6,750 to 355,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Stronger hiring is one of the reasons economists expect more growth in 2013 after a disappointing October-December quarter, when the economy barely grew. ___ Jacob Lew becomes nation's 76th Treasury secretary WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Jacob Lew was sworn in Thursday as the nation's 76th Treasury secretary, a day before across-the-board government spending cuts kick in that could slow down the U.S. economy. Vice President Joe Biden led the brief ceremony at the Oval Office, with Lew's wife and family and President Barack Obama on hand. After the ceremony Lew walked to the Treasury Department and was greeted by employees who lined the steps of the building. ___ Penney's shares plunge after 4Q massive loss NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ J.C. Penney is the biggest loser. Shares of J.C. Penney Co. plunged 17 percent on Thursday, the biggest loser on the Standard & Poor's 500 index for most of the day. The drop comes a day after the department-store chain reported its fourth consecutive larger-than-expected quarterly loss on another steep sales decline The drop means that Penney shares, which are now trading under $18, have lost nearly 60 percent of their value since January of last year when CEO Ron Johnson announced his plan to ditch hundreds of sales in favor of "everyday low prices." ___ Sears 4Q loss narrows as company reduces expenses NEW YORK. (AP) â¿¿ Sears narrowed its fiscal fourth quarter loss as it reduced expenses and improved sales a little at its namesake stores. The results offer a glimmer of hope for a troubled department store chain that still has a long way to go to turn around its Sears and Kmart stores.