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US jobless claims drop to 339,000; reach 4-year low

WASHINGTON--The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid plummeted last week to seasonally adjusted 339,000, the lowest level in more than four years. The sharp drop offered a hopeful sign that the job market could pick up.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications fell by 30,000 to the fewest since February 2008. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped by 11,500 to 364,000, a six-month low.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They can fluctuate sharply from week to week. If they stay near last week's level, it would likely signal better hiring ahead.

When applications consistently drop below 375,000, it suggests that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

These positive figures follow the surprisingly upbeat September employment report. The report said the unemployment rate fell in September to 7.8 percent, from 8.1 percent in August.

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