By John S. McClenahen Defying economic forecasters who anticipated a nearly 40,000 increase, initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits fell for the week ending Nov. 17. Initial claims totaled 427,000, some 15,000 fewer than the 442,000 for the week ending Nov. 10, reports the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. Nov. 17 marked the fourth consecutive week of decline. "Part of the decline in claims in recent weeks may be due to quirky seasonals, since Thanksgiving [was] unusually early," observes Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "Still, if jobless claims continue to decline in coming weeks, we would have to visit the timing of [economic] recovery," he says. "A near-term move down to 400,000 claims per week could imply that a recovery might get underway in Q1 [the first quarter of 2002] rather than in Q2 as we currently expect," Steinberg suggests.