width=310The number of workers filing new applications for unemployment insurance fell less than expected last week, while the trade deficit widened slightly in April, pointing to a moderate economic recovery.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dipped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 456,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected claims to slip to 448,000 from the previously reported 453,000, which was revised to up to 459,000 in Thursday's report.

The four-week moving average of new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labor market trends, rose 2,500 to 463,000.

Separately, the trade gap edged up to $40.3 billion in April from $40 billion for March as weaker foreign demand hurt U.S. exports, a Commerce Department report showed.

Markets had expected the trade gap to widen to around $41.0 billion. U.S. stock futures held gains after the data, while Treasury debt prices extended losses.

The jobless claims data is in line with what Fed Chairman Bernanke said yesterday, that though the economic recovery seems sustainable it is going to be long slow process, and the jobs data is just one more indicator of that, said Tommy Williams, president at Williams Financial Advisors in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday the economic recovery was on solid footing, but it could be years before job losses are restored.

The labor market, the Achilles heel of the economy as it recovers from the worst downturn since the 1930s, suffered a setback in May when businesses sharply scaled back on hiring after a spurt in the prior two months.

Government data on Friday showed private payrolls only grew 41,000 after expanding 218,000 in April.

With both the weekly claims and the four-week moving average hovering above levels analysts view as consistent with sustainable job growth, unemployment will likely remain high for a while, piling pressure on President Barack Obama.

Public disenchantment over a near 10 percent unemployment rate and the slow pace of the economic recovery are weighing on Obama's approval ratings and threaten the Democratic Party's control of Congress in November's mid-term elections.

Still, the labor market is showing measured progress. In the final week of May, the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 255,000, the largest decline this year, to 4.46 million, the Labor Department said.

That was the lowest level since December 2008 and could be both a reflection of laid off workers getting jobs and exhausting their benefits.

Markets had expected so-called continuing claims only fall to 4.64 million.

Labor market growth is key to sustaining the economic recovery at a time when a fiscal crisis in Europe is threatening the global recovery and domestic exports.

Exports fell 0.7 percent in April to $148.8 billion after a big jump in March, Commerce Department data showed. Exports had risen most months since hitting a trough of $124.1 billion in April 2009, when world trade was still reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis.

Imports dipped 0.4 percent in April to $189.1 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Doug Palmer; Editing by Neil Stempleman)