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US jobless claims fall; continuing claims lowest since 1988

New applications for U.S. jobless benefits unexpectedly fell last week and the number of Americans on unemployment rolls hit a 28-1/2-year low, pointing to a rapidly tightening labor market that could encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in June.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 236,000 for the week ended May 6, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week were unrevised.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 245,000.

Claims have now been below 300,000, a threshold associated with a healthy labor market, for 114 straight weeks. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was smaller. The labor market is close to full employment, with the unemployment rate at a near 10-year low of 4.4 percent.

Thursday's claims report also showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid tumbled 61,000 to 1.92 million in the week ended April 29, the lowest level since November 1988.

The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims fell 27,500 to 1.97 million, the lowest level since February 1974.

Labor market strength, also marked by a sharp rebound in job growth in April, has left financial markets anticipating further monetary policy tightening from the Fed in June.

The U.S. central bank increased its benchmark overnight interest rate by 25 basis points in March and has forecast two more rate hikes this year. The economy created 211,000 job in April after adding only 79,000 positions in March.

A Labor Department official said there were no special factors influencing last week's data and only claims for Louisiana had been estimated.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 500 to 243,500 last week.