Jobless Claims Drop to Lowest Level in a Month

The number of laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in a month even though wildfires added to the unemployment rolls in California.

The Labor Department reported that 317,000 applicants filed for jobless claims last week, down by 13,000 from the previous week. It was the lowest level since Oct. 9.

The bigger-than-expected improvement came even though benefit applications were boosted by almost 3,000 in California as a result of the wildfires that struck that state. Last week's increase brought to almost 4,000 the number of layoffs in California attributed to the adverse effects of the fires.

Even with last week's decline in overall claims, the four-week average for claims edged up to 329,750, the highest level since mid-April.

Economists are looking for the unemployment rate, currently at 4.7 percent, to rise to 5 percent in coming months as the economy is buffeted by the effects of a housing recession, a severe credit crunch and record-high oil prices, which this week briefly touched $98 per barrel.

Because of these forces, analysts believe the economy, which recorded a solid 3.9 percent growth rate in the July-September quarter, will slow significantly in coming quarters.

Some analysts believe growth will be less than 2 percent in the current quarter and even weaker in the first three months of next year, the period in which they see the maximum danger that the country could slip into a recession.

Federal Reserve officials cut a key interest rate for the second time in two months last week but signaled that at the moment they don't see a need for further rate cuts. However, that view could change if turmoil in the stock market, which has seen sharp price declines in recent days, becomes more severe.