WASHINGTON – The number of new applications for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 15,000 to 330,000 in the week ended Jan. 4, bringing initial claims down to their lowest level since the end of November, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expected claims to decline to 330,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis. Claims are always volatile in early January because of the end of the holiday season, however, and the report is less reliable as an indicator of the pace of layoffs and labor-market trends. The numbers usually return to normal at the end of the month. The average of new claims over the past four weeks, a more reliable gauge, dropped by 9,750 to 349,000. Meanwhile, the government said continuing claims increased by 50,000 to a seasonally adjusted 2.87 million in the week ended Dec. 28. Continuing claims reflect the number of people already receiving benefits. Initial claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 345,000 from an original reading of 339,000, based on more complete data.
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