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The Conference Board reported Thursday that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.4 percent last month to 115.1.

The March reading points to an economy that, while descending through some turbulence, is making a fairly normal and expected transition to slower growth, economists said.

Also Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits plunged by 36,000 last week, the biggest drop in three years.

The drop, which government analysts cautioned was vastly overstated by special factors, pushed the number of applications down to a seasonally adjusted level of 296,000. It marks the third straight week of declining claims.

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