New claims for unemployment benefits fell by 15,000 last week in the latest sign the labor market was improving and could help the country resist the effects of a likely euro zone recession.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped to a seasonally adjusted 372,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims data was revised up to 387,000 from the previously reported 381,000.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 375,000. A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in the data, although the figures for three states, including California and Virginia, had been estimated.
Claims have now fallen in four of the last five weeks, and the four-week moving average - a better measure of trends - fell 3,250 to 376,500, the lowest level since June 2008.
Economists at Goldman Sachs said in December that weekly claims below 435,000 pointed to net monthly gains in jobs.
An improving labor market has boosted the view the economy wrapped up 2011 on better footing, leaving it well positioned to deal with headwinds from Europe's debt crisis and fiscal tightening at home.
Still, a moribund U.S. housing market and persistently high unemployment threaten the recovery.
In the week ending December 24, the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 22,000 to 3.595 million. Economists had forecast so-called continuing claims holding about steady at 3.58 million.
As of Dec 17, a total of 7.223 million people were claiming unemployment benefits under all programs, down 8,311 from the prior week.
Data on Wednesday showed U.S. manufacturing growing at its fastest pace in six months during December, capping a late-year upswing.
Fourth-quarter growth is seen topping a 3 percent annual pace, rising from the July-September period's 1.8 percent rate.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman)