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The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 2,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, a sign that layoffs are weighing less on the job market and economic growth. The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average dropped 13,500 to 335,000. More than 4.7 million Americans collected benefits at the end of last year. Many economists blamed the slowdown in hiring on bad weather and statistical quirks, and projected stronger gains in the new year. They also have become more optimistic about the fourth quarter. Several are projecting a strong annual growth rate of 3 percent or more.

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