New claims for U.S. unemployment insurance benefits, a sign of the pace of layoffs, fell last week, pointing to a firming labor market, government data released Thursday showed.
Initial jobless claims totaled 294,000 in the week ending January 3, a drop of 4,000 from the previous week's unrevised level.
Economists had expected a stronger decline, with the average estimate pegged at 290,000.
The four-week moving average, which smooths out volatility, dipped to 290,500 claims, down 250 from the prior week's unrevised average.
Layoffs have appeared to be stabilizing as claims have trended below 300,000 for several months. In November, the economy added 321,000 jobs, the best monthly job growth in nearly three years, and the unemployment rate held steady at a six-year low of 5.8 percent.
"We think the trend in claims is still below 290,000, but the seasonal adjustment struggles mightily to cope with the volatility of the underlying data over the holidays, and the numbers can't be taken too seriously until the holiday effect has faded," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The Labor Department reports December numbers on Friday that are expected to show job growth slowed to 245,000 and the jobless rate fell to 5.7 percent.
"Even if the trend in claims has leveled off, it is low enough to be consistent with very big payroll gains, and if the economy strengthens again in the first half it could easily dip to new lows," Shepherdson said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015