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Published: Friday, 5/8/2009

Initial jobless claims down; stores report higher sales


WASHINGTON - The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment insurance unexpectedly fell last week to the lowest level in three months, a sign the worst of the job cuts may be over.

In separate reports, April retail sales results yesterday improved as discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other stores beat expectations. Analysts acknowledged the positive economic signals but cautioned that any recovery will be subdued as long as unemployment stays high.

Initial jobless claims decreased by 34,000 to 601,000 in the week ending May 2, the fewest since late January, from a revised 635,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said yesterday. The number of people collecting benefits climbed to 6.35 million the prior week, the 14th consecutive record, showing companies are not hiring even as staff reductions abate.

In Ohio, the number of initial unemployment claims rose last week to 23,914, up from 22,101 the week before and double what they were a year ago. In Lucas County, initial claims were up to 1,032 last week, half of what they were the week before but up 44 percent from a year ago.

"We're looking for much less damage to the economy from here," said Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.

While there's a "very good shot" unemployment will top 10 percent before falling, he said, "the good news is, there's less chance we'll go much higher than 10 percent."

Another Labor report showed worker efficiency rose in the first quarter. Productivity, a measure of employee output per hour, rose at a 0.8 percent annual rate, compared with the 0.6 percent decline reported for the fourth quarter. Labor costs climbed 3.3 percent, compared with a 5.7 percent gain in the previous three months.

Meanwhile, retailer reports showed business is tough.

Among merchants that reported sales, mall-based stores including Gap, American Eagle, and Wet Seal posted smaller declines than analysts had forecast. The Children's Place, T.J. Maxx owner TJX Cos. Inc., and The Buckle saw bigger gains than expected.

Wal-Mart reported a 5 percent same-store sales gain, much better than the 2.9 percent increase that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected. The company continues to take market shares away from rivals as shoppers look for deals in the recession. Grocery, health and wellness products, entertainment, and home furnishings were among its top items.

A tally by Goldman Sachs and the International Council of Shopping Centers found that same-stores sales rose 0.7 percent, the first overall increase in six months.

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