Jobless claims drop 21,000 to prerecession levels

First-time applications for jobless benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in nearly two months, an indication that the job market is improving, even amid policy uncertainty in Washington. 

Those applying for unemployment benefits fell 21,000 to a seasonally adjusted 323,000 last week, as employers laid off fewer workers, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. 

The four-week moving average, which provides a better idea of the labor market's health, made inroads for the third straight week, falling 6,750 to 338,500 from the previous week's revised average of 345,250.

Each measure represents prerecession levels. 

Weekly claims rose sharply through October as furloughed federal workers and contractors applied for benefits because of the 16-day government shutdown and several states, including California, made adjusts to computer systems that cleared out a backlog and pushed up the figures. 

In October, employers added 204,000, well above economists' estimates and seemingly ignoring the shutdown. 

The jobless rate increased to 7.3 percent from 7.2. 

After a lackluster summer, the monthly average popped back up to an average of more than 200,000 a month since August. 

With the jobs gains came better economic growth numbers, too. 

But the Federal Reserve remained unmoved by the data, especially after the shutdown uncertainty, and decided to maintain its $85 billion in monthly stimulus. 

As the figures from the shutdown shake out and, if the economy shows stronger signs of life in the coming months, the central bank will probably begin a taper in the spring, although it could happen earlier.