Summary Box: Unemployment benefit requests plunge

FEWER LAYOFFS: The number of people applying for unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in nearly three years, continuing a downward trend that suggests hiring could pick up this year. Applications sank by 36,000 to a seasonally adjusted 383,000.

SOME CAVEATS: Some analysts cautioned that severe winter weather in many parts of the country could have contributed to the sharp drop, closing some government offices and preventing people from filing applications.

BOTTOM LINE: Even so, many analysts said the decline points to better hiring ahead.