By John S. McClenahen Contrary to economists' expectations, initial claims for unemployment insurance fell to a seasonally adjusted 376,000 last week, reports the U.S. Labor Department. It was the lowest level of claims since July and 25,000 fewer than the revised figure of 401,000 for the week ending Nov. 9. An increase to about 410,000 had been expected. The Labor Department's four-week moving average for initial jobless claims also fell, down 4,500 to 395,750, the first time it's been below 400,000 since this past August. "While we don't want to make too much of this data, the latest jobless claims report suggests the labor market is not deteriorating," says Gerald D. Cohen, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "We might actually see some job growth in November." Encouraging as well is the latest reading of leading economic indicators from the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group. Following four straight months of declines, the index remained unchanged in October at 111.4 (1996=100). Six of the 10 components that make up the index of leading indicators were positive last month, including manufacturers' new orders for both nondefense capital goods and consumer goods. The index signals where the U.S. economy is likely to be within six months. "The positive economic fundamentals are finally beginning to counter the sharp drop in confidence that has beset the consumer sector in the past few months," says Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers. "Interest rates are at their lowest level in decades, productivity and income growth are strong, and business inventories are lean," he observes. "Together, these forces should keep final demand on a modest recovery path over coming months despite the generally anxious climate that pervades the nation."