The Labor Department says applications fell 7,000 in the week ended March 2. That's near five-year lows reached in January. And the four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 7,000 to 348,750. That's the lowest since March 2008, just a few months into the Great Recession.
The Labor Department also reports worker productivity shrank 1.9 percent in the final three months of last year, mostly because of temporary factors including defense cuts and slower company restocking that dragged down growth. Economists say are those trends should reverse in the current quarter.
Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers says retailers saw modest sales gains in February as consumers, uninspired by cool weather and worried about the economy, shopped cautiously for spring merchandise.
And the U.S. trade deficit widened in January, reflecting a big jump in oil imports and a drop in exports. The Commerce Department says the deficit rose to $44.4 billion, an increase of 16.5 percent from December. U.S. exports dropped 1.2 percent to $184.5 billion, reflecting declines in sales to Europe, China, Japan and Brazil.