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US Economic Signals Advance

New U.S. reports are signaling that the American economy, the world's largest, is gaining strength.

The government said Thursday that the productivity of American workers increased at a healthy pace in the final months of 2013, up at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. The strong advance could help fuel corporate profits and boost hiring as the country continues to recover from the depths of the 2008 recession.

The government reported that the U.S. trade deficit widened in December, but said the gap between the country's exports and imports for all of 2013 fell to its lowest point since 2009. Exports for the year increased 2.8 percent to the highest level ever, as U.S. producers shipped record quantities of petroleum, food, consumer goods, cars and other items to overseas markets.

Another report showed that the number of workers making initial claims for unemployment compensation dropped 20,000 last week to 331,000. That suggests workers are facing fewer layoffs and possibly better job prospects.

The government is set Friday to release its employment figures for January. Employers added a paltry 74,000 new workers to their payrolls in December, but analysts are predicting a rebound in January to about the 185,000 average figure recorded during the last two years.

The U.S. jobless rate has fallen to 6.7 percent, a five-year low, but much of the drop has been attributed to discouraged job seekers dropping out of the labor market, and thus not counted in the government's unemployment figure.

The U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has begun to cut its direct support of the American economy as its shows steady, but uneven growth.