Published: Apr 29, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

      WASHINGTON (AP) - The number of Americans filing claims for
unemployment benefits dropped for a second consecutive week,
further evidence that the job market is slowly improving.
      The Labor Department said Thursday that initial applications for
jobless benefits dropped by 11,000 to 448,000, the lowest level in
four weeks. The new total was slightly higher than economists had
expected.
      The four-week average for claims edged up slightly to 462,500,
still above the level that economists believe signals sustained
improvements in the job market.
      Claims have been on a rollercoaster in recent weeks, posting
sharp increases in the first two weeks of April and then falling
for the past two weeks. Part of those swings reflected troubles
that the government has in seasonally adjusting the figures around
Easter which falls at different times each year.
      However, economists said the uneven declines in claims also
reflect the fact that the labor market is still struggling to
emerge from the country's worst recession since the 1930s.
      The unemployment rate has been stuck at 9.7 percent for three
consecutive months. Many economists believe that the 10.1 percent
jobless rate hit in October may turn out to be the peak for
unemployment in this slump but they are not forecasting a rapid
improvement given all the headwinds still facing the economy. The
economy did add 162,000 jobs in March, the largest increase in
three years.
      Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said the
new claims report showed that "U.S. labor markets continue to
heal, slowly."
      Guatieri predicted that payrolls should show a moderate gain in
April. The consensus view of economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters
is that payroll jobs increased by 175,000 in April while the
unemployment rate will remain stuck at 9.7 percent. The Labor
Department will release the April jobless report on May 7.
      Many analysts believe that the four-week moving average needs to
fall below 425,000 to signal sustained job growth. Applications for
jobless benefits peaked during the recession at 651,000 in March
2009.
      The number of people continuing to claims benefits fell by
18,000 to 4.65 million.
      That figure lags the initial claims by one week. It doesn't
include millions of people who have used up the regular 26 weeks of
benefits typically provided by states and are receiving extended
benefits of up to 73 additional weeks paid by the federal
government.
      About 5.4 million people were receiving extended benefits for
the week ending April 10, the latest data available.
      The department said that 43 states and territories had declines
in claims for the week ending April 17 while 10 states saw
increases.
      The states with the largest declines were New York, a drop of
21,000 which was attributed to fewer layoffs in the service and
transportation industries, and California, which saw claims fall by
15,380.
      The states and territories with the largest increases in claims
for the week of April 17 were Puerto Rico, up 3,549; Iowa, up
1,606, and Georgia, up 1,412.
      There have been some hopeful signs recently in the economy. Many
companies are reporting strong first-quarter profits as consumers,
who account for 70 percent of the total economy, spend more.
      While the profit turnaround has not yet produced a dramatic
increase in hiring, it at least provides hope that the worst of the
economic slump is over.
      Companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index have reported 76
percent higher operating earnings than a year ago - on pace to be
the biggest year-over-year increase ever, according to S&P analyst
Howard Silverblatt. Nearly half the companies in the index have
reported earnings so far.
      Part of the reason for the big jump is that the economy was
hitting the depths of the recession a year ago, making the rebound
look more impressive.
      Among the winners was Ford Motor Co. which reported a $2.1
billion profit on 15 percent higher revenue for the first quarter
this year and said it plans to boost production. Caterpillar Inc.
also reversed a loss from a year ago and said demand for its
construction and mining equipment is surging.
      A number of major corporations have boosted their full-year
profit forecasts this month. This week alone, the list includes
DuPont Co., Estee Lauder Cos. and Whirlpool Corp.