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WASHINGTON -- New U.S. claims for state unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, the fourth decline in five weeks, providing further evidence that the pace of layoffs has slowed after months of steep job cuts. Initial claims for state jobless benefits tumbled 34,000 to 601,000 in the week ended May 2, the Labor Department said in a weekly report Thursday. That's the lowest level since late January. Wall Street economists had expected a 4,000 rise, according to a Dow Jones Newswires survey.

The four-week average -- which aims to smooth volatility -- slid for a fourth-straight week, by 14,750 to 623,500, the lowest since mid-February (see chart above).

On a monthly basis, there was a decline of 35,250 claims (four-week moving average) from early April to early May. Going back to 1987, there have only been 16 times when the monthly decline in jobless claims was greater, and 9 of those 16 times were towards the end of, or following, the 1990-1991 recession and the 2001 recession.

Source: Jobless Claims Fall to Lowest Level Since Mid-February