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The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, pointing to steadily improving labor market conditions, despite two straight months of weak hiring.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000, 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 falling to 335,000 in the week ended Feb. 15.
The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labor market conditions as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 1,750 to 338,500.
A Labor Department analyst said no states were estimated and there were no special factors affecting the state level data.
The claims data covered the survey week for February's nonfarm payrolls report. Snow storms slammed parts of the country last week, which could have kept some workers at home.
The brutally cold weather was blamed for a sharp slowdown in hiring in December and January. Claims have been tucked in a 325,000-348,000 range this year suggesting no fundamental shift in labor market conditions.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid increased 37,000 to 2.98 million in the week ended Feb. 8.
The so-called continuing claims have been elevated in recent weeks and some economists say the cold weather could be preventing many recipients from going out to search for work and companies to delay hiring.
Separately, U.S. consumer prices rose in January as unseasonably cold weather boosted demand for electricity and heating fuel, but inflation pressures remained muted.
The Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index edged up 0.1 percent, with increases in the cost of household energy accounting for most of the increase. The CPI had risen 0.2 percent in December and last month's gain was in line with economists' expectations.
In the 12 months to January, consumer prices advanced 1.6 percent after increasing 1.5 percent in December.
Stripping out the volatile energy and food components, the so-called core CPI also rose 0.1 percent for a second straight month. In the 12 months to January, core CPI rose 1.6 percent, slowing from a 1.7 percent increase in December and the smallest rise since June.
With consumer inflation continuing to run below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target, monetary policy is likely to remain accommodative for a while even as the U.S. central bank reduces the amount of money it is injecting into the economy each month.
Last month, electricity prices rose 1.8 percent, the largest gain since March 2010. Natural gas prices surged 3.6 percent, while heating fuel jumped 3.7 percent. Those increases offset a 1.0 percent fall in the price of gasoline.
Within the core CPI, there were increases in rents, medical care costs and prescription drugs. Tobacco prices recorded their largest gain since July. These tend to rise at the beginning of the year because of tax hikes.
Elsewhere, there were declines in the price of new motor vehicles, prices for used cars and trucks and apparel. Airline fares dropped 2.2 percent.