The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 17,000 last week to 297,000, returning initial claims to levels consistent with a steadily improving labor market after a surprising spike in the prior week. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims to fall to a seasonally adjusted 298,000 in the seven days ended Nov. 29, a week that included Thanksgiving. The decline brings new claims back below the key 300,000 level for the 12th time in the past 13 weeks. Still, initial claims are often quite volatile in the period stretching from Thanksgiving until the end of January because of the holiday season and poor weather. The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, rose by 4,750 to 299,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average, which remains near a postrecession low, smoothens out seasonal volatility in the weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends. Also, the government said continuing claims increased by 39,000 to a seasonally adjusted 2.36 million in the week ended Nov. 22, just a touch above a 15-year low. Continuing claims reflect the number of people already receiving benefits. Initial claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 314,000 from 313,000.
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