People seeking employment create resumes and look for open positions on laptops provided by USAJobs at a job fair for space workers and those workers that lost jobs due to the end of the space shuttle program in Cape Canaveral, Fla. - AP

Unemployment aid applications drop

WASHINGTON — The number of people seeking unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level since early April, a sign the job market may be healing after a recent slump.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications fell 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 398,000. That's the first time applications have fallen below 400,000 in 16 weeks.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped to 413,750, the lowest since the week of April 23.

Economists cautioned that the lower level only reflects one week of data and that doesn't necessarily signal a trend.

The drop "is clearly good news," said Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Inc. Still, "we would prefer to see further data before concluding that the earlier downtrend in claims is being re-established."

Separately, the National Association of Realtors said more people signed contracts to buy homes in June for the second straight month. But the increase was not enough to signal a rebound in the weak housing market.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits remains higher than would be expected in a healthy economy. Consumers are holding back on spending because of stagnant wages, high unemployment, tighter credit, and depressed home prices. That's restraining economic growth.

Unemployment applications had fallen in February to 375,000, a level that signals healthy job growth. But they then surged to an eight-month high of 478,000 in April and have declined only slowly since then.

Some of the drop likely reflects seasonal volatility. Applications were elevated earlier this month partly because of temporary layoffs in the auto and other manufacturing industries, which are ending. Many auto companies close their factories in early July to prepare for new models.

The total number of people receiving unemployment benefits, meanwhile, dipped to 3.7 million. That doesn't include millions of people receiving extended benefits under emergency programs enacted during the recession. All told, 7.65 million people received benefits in the week ended July 9, the latest data available.

Analysts forecast that the economy grew in the April-June quarter by an annual rate of only 1.7 percent, the second straight quarter of anemic expansion. The government reports on second-quarter growth Friday.

Hiring has slowed in recent months. The economy added only 18,000 net jobs in June. That's the fewest in nine months and below the average of 215,000 jobs per month that the economy added from February through April. The unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent last month, the highest level of the year.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and many private economists expect growth to pick up in the second half of this year, predicting those temporary factors will fade. Gas prices, for example, averaged $3.70 a gallon on Wednesday, down from their peak of nearly $4 in early May.

But some are growing more concerned that the economy's weakness will persist. The Fed said Wednesday that its survey of economic activity found growth slowed in eight of its 12 regions in June and early July. The report, known as the Beige Book, was the weakest this year.

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