WASHINGTON - The number of laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits declined last week, providing a slight break from a recent rise in layoffs.
The Labor Department reported that applications for jobless benefits totaled 328,000 last week, the lowest level in a month and down a better-than-expected 10,000 from the previous week.
However, the four-week average for claims rose to 339,000, the highest level since layoffs spiked in the fall of 2005.
Layoffs have been increasing this year, reflecting weakness in such hard-hit industries as housing and auto manufacturing.
In other economic news, the nation's big retailers reported disappointing sales results for February as unseasonably cold weather put a damper on go-shopping moods.
Big chains with lackluster results included Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. Meanwhile, high-end stores like Nordstrom Inc. continued their winning streak.
The Federal Reserve reported the net worth of U.S. households hit a record of $55.6 trillion in the October-December quarter, pushed higher by stock market gains.
For the entire year, household net worth rose by 7.4 percent, slightly slower than the 7.9 percent increase in 2005.
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 68.25 points Thursday to close at 12,260.70 as the market extended its recovery after last week's big plunge.
The February unemployment rate will be released Friday. Analysts are expecting it will remain unchanged at 4.6 percent, but payroll growth will slow to 100,000.
Analysts expect the jobless rate will increase slightly this year to around 5 percent, reflecting the slowdown that has occurred as the economy felt the effects of a two-year Federal Reserve campaign to raise interest rates to combat inflation.
While the Fed is expected to be successful in its goal of achieving a "soft landing" in which inflation eases and the economy slows to a more sustainable pace, last week's turmoil on Wall Street and global stock markets have raised concerns that a more severe outcome is possible.
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