WASHINGTON -- Countering signs of a spring economic slowdown, initial jobless claims unexpectedly tumbled last week to nearly the lowest level in five years, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The number of people filing for first-time unemployment benefits fell to 339,000 for the week ending Saturday, down from the previous week's revised figure of 355,000, according to the Labor Department report.

The figure was close to the post-recession low of 334,000 recorded in early March. Last week marked only the second time since February 2008 that initial jobless claims fell below 340,000.

Economists had projected a more modest drop to about 351,000. Weekly claims below 350,000 indicate a moderately growing labor market.

But the weekly data can be volatile and it will take some time to determine whether job growth really is picking up.

The four-week average, which smooths out short-term variations, dropped last week to 357,500, down from the revised average of 362,000 the previous week.

The post-recession low for the four-week average was 340,750 in mid March of this year.

The economy added a disappointing 88,000 net jobs in March, triggering concerns that the recovery was headed for another spring slowdown as the federal government readied large, automatic budget cuts.

Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York, said he estimated job growth for April -- due to be reported next week -- will be about 200,000.



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