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The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits plunged by 36,000 last week. It was the biggest drop in more than three years but Labor Department analysts cautioned that special factors were overstating the improvement.

The Labor Department said today that the huge decline pushed applications for jobless benefits down to a seasonally adjusted 296,000 last week, marking the third straight week of falling claims.

In other economic news, a closely watched index forecasting future business activity fell in March, a sign that the nation's economic growth may be slowing.

The Conference Board reported today that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.4 percent last month to 115.1. The decline was slightly larger than that expected by analysts, who had forecast a 0.3 percent drop in the index.

The March drop followed a rise of 0.1 percent in February, and a revised 0.3 percent decline in January.

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