Monthly average of unemployment claims falls to 15-year low

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits ticked lower last week, pushing down the four-week average of applications to its lowest level since April 2000.

Weekly applications fell 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 264,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That is just above a 15-year low reached three weeks ago. The average, a less volatile figure, dropped 7,750 to 271,750, the lowest in 15 years.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so their very low level is evidence that Americans are enjoying solid job security. It is also a sign employers are confident enough in the economy to keep their staffs, despite signs of sluggish growth.

"Claims continue to show no sign of the labor market weakening — if anything, the opposite," Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients.

The economy likely shrank in the first three months of the year. Economists blame a strong dollar, low oil prices that triggered cutbacks at oil and gas companies, and harsh winter weather that discouraged spending. A stronger dollar makes U.S. exports overseas more expensive, restraining sales.

Most analysts predict the economy is expanding in the April-June quarter, though the bounce-back hasn't been as strong as many had hoped.

Consumers spent cautiously in April, according to a report on retail and restaurant sales Wednesday. Americans have not ramped up their spending so far this year, as economists had predicted, despite strong job gains and gas prices that are $1 a gallon cheaper than a year ago.

The weak retail sales report led JPMorgan Chase to cut its forecast for second quarter growth to an annual rate of 2 percent, down from 2.5 percent.

Still, employers are hiring at a steady pace, which means more Americans are earning paychecks. That could fuel stronger growth in the second half of this year. Employers added 223,000 jobs in April, the government said last week, and the unemployment rate fell to a seven-year low of 5.4 percent.

The number of people receiving benefits was unchanged at 2.29 million. That is down 17 percent from a year earlier.

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