Claims for U.S. jobless benefits fell last week and productivity cooled in the fourth quarter, signaling hiring may accelerate as companies reach the limits of how much efficiency they can wring from existing workforces.

Applications (INJCJC) for unemployment insurance payments dropped by 12,000 to 367,000 in the week ended Jan. 28, according to Labor Department figures issued today in Washington. Worker output per hour increased at a 0.7 percent annual rate from October through December, down from a 1.9 percent gain in the prior three months, another report showed.

After focusing on cutting costs during the recession, American businesses are taking on more staff as they gain confidence the recovery will be sustained. In prepared remarks to Congress today, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke today highlighted improvements in the job market and production, while cautioning the outlook remains “uncertain.”

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