By John S. McClenahen Confounding the consensus forecast that initial claims for unemployment insurance would rise to 380,000 for the week ending Feb. 9, they actually fell to 373,000, some 8,000 fewer than the previous week's revised figure of 381,000, reveal data from the U.S. Labor Department. In addition, the four-week moving average for jobless claims fell to 376,000, some 5,500 fewer than the running average for the week ending Feb. 2 and their lowest level since mid-August 2001. "If claims remain around current levels, February employment should show little change from January -- and might even rise," says Gerald D. Cohen, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. In a separate report from the U.S. Commerce Department, business inventories were pegged at $1.14 trillion at the end of December, down 0.4% from their November 2001 mark. "Retail inventories, the only new piece of data in this report, declined 0.1% as a 0.1% increase in auto inventories was offset by a 0.2% decline in non-auto retailers' inventories," notes Cohen. At the end of December, the inventory-to-sales ratio was 1.39, a near-record low.