New claims for U.S. unemployment benefits rose for the first time in four weeks, but the trend still pointed to a steady decline in job layoffs across the country, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Initial jobless claims climbed to 381,000 in the week ending Dec. 24, an increase of 15,000 from the prior week's upwardly revised 366,000 claims.
The rise was modestly worse than expected, with most analysts estimating an increase to 368,000 after claims hit their lowest level since April 2008 the previous week.
The four-week moving average fell to 375,000, a level last seen in June 2008.
The moving average has dropped 12% in the past six months, and more than 5% in a month.
"The unemployment claims data continue to signal that the pace of improvement in the labor market may be gaining momentum," RDQ Economics analysts said.
The claims numbers were part of a broader improvement in the overall jobs outlook that could pump up consumer spending, they said.
"Given the decline in the savings rate in recent months, stronger job creation is vitally important for the U.S. consumer," RDQ's John Ryding and Conrad DeQuadros said.
"And from this and other indications -- such as the strongest net jobs reading in the consumer confidence report since
January 2009 -- it appears this improved jobs picture may be falling into place at the end of 2011."
The unemployment rate fell to 8.6% in November from 9% in October. The December jobs report is slated to be published on Jan. 6.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011