The Labor Department said 421,000 initial jobless claims were filed in the week ending December 4, a drop of 17,000 from the prior week's upwardly revised figure of 438,000 claims.
The latest reading was better than the average analyst forecast that claims would fall to 429,000 from the prior week's initial estimate of 436,000 claims.
"This decline was in line with expectations and points to improvement in the labor market since earlier in the year," said Andrew Gledhill at Moody's Analytics.
Jobless claims two weeks ago fell to 410,000, the lowest level in more than two years.
Analysts point out the seasonally adjusted weekly initial jobless claims data, which can be volatile, typically tend to be more volatile late in the year.
The four-week moving average, which helps to smooth volatility, was 427,500, down by 4,000 from the prior week's revised figure, the Labor Department said. It was the fifth consecutive weekly decline in the moving average, which now has dropped to its lowest level since August 2008.
The government's November jobs data published last week showed a sharp slowdown in the number of jobs created and a 0.2 point rise in the unemployment rate to 9.8%. High unemployment is expected to continue through next year amid a still-fragile recovery from severe recession that officially ended in June 2009.
But adding to the optimism, Bank of America on Dec. 8 released a survey of 801 U.S. chief financial officers which showed 47% expected their companies to hire additional employees next year, up from 28% who forecast hiring last year.
In addition, 64% CFOs expected revenue growth in 2011, up from 61% last year. "Despite the challenging economic climate, many CFOs have growing confidence that their companies have weathered the worst of the storm and are poised for expansion," said Laura Whitley of Bank of America.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010