Updated June 29 at 8:37pm

Jobless claims fall to lowest level in three months

Fewer Americans than projected filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, an indication companies are holding on to staff even as cold weather threatens to slow the world’s largest economy.

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Jobless claims fall to lowest level in three months

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WASHINGTON – Fewer Americans than projected filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, an indication companies are holding on to staff even as cold weather threatens to slow the world’s largest economy.

Jobless claims declined by 26,000 to 323,000 in the week ended March 1, fewer than any economist forecast in a Bloomberg survey and the least since the end of November, a Labor Department report showed Thursday in Washington. A Labor Department spokesman said the recent fluctuation coincides with states most affected by winter storms.

Fewer dismissals could set the stage for more robust hiring, in turn spurring consumers to feel more confident and giving them the means to spend more. That would help the economy pick up after a weather-induced slowdown in gauges from housing starts to retail sales early in the year.

“The overall trend here is positive and consistent with a gradually improving job market,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a U.S. strategist at TD Securities USA LLC in New York. “We have stemmed the bleeding in layoffs, what remains is to add jobs.”

The median forecast of 51 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 336,000. Estimates ranged from 325,000 to 350,000. The prior week’s claims were revised up to 349,000 from an initial reading of 348,000. The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week.

Productivity gain

Another report showed worker productivity rose less than previously calculated in the fourth quarter. Output per hour climbed at 1.8 percent annualized rate from October through December, less than the prior estimate of a 3.2 percent gain, according to separate Labor Department figures.

Labor costs tied to the gain in efficiency dropped at a 0.1 percent pace following a 2.1 percent decrease in the third quarter. For all of 2013, expenses climbed 1.1 percent, the smallest gain since 2010, when they dropped 1.2 percent.

Stock-index futures held earlier gains after the report. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in March climbed 0.2 percent to 1,875.4 at 8:42 a.m. in New York.

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