The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits fell as expected last week and a measure of underlying job market trends hit a 1-1/2 year low, strengthening views the labor market was close to turning.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected claims to dip to 440,000 from a previously reported 442,000 the prior week, a number that was revised to 445,000 in Thursday's report.
A Labor Department official described the report as fairly uneventful.
The four-week moving average of new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, dropped 6,750 to 447,250, the lowest level since September 2008.
The data came a day before the release of the government's closely watched employment report for March, which is expected to show nonfarm payrolls grew only for the second time since the recession started in December 2007.
Thursday's data has no impact on the March employment report since it falls outside the survey period for the latter.
Claims continue to grind lower, all consistent with the idea that layoffs are abating, said Tom Porcelli, senior economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York.
U.S. stock index futures held their gains after the report, while Treasury debt prices were little changed. The dollar held gains against the yen.
A Reuters survey forecast payrolls increased 190,000 last month, boosted by hiring for the 2010 census and a bounce back from February's weather-related losses. Payrolls fell 36,000 in February.
The median projection from the 20 economists who have forecast payrolls most accurately over the past year predicts 200,000 jobs were created in March.
While claims for unemployment benefits have resumed their downward trend after stalling early this year, they are still above the 400,000 threshold that analysts say will signal labor market stability.
The number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 6,000 to 4.66 million in the week ended March 20, the lowest since December 2008, the Labor Department said.
Analysts had expected so-called continuing claims to fall to 4.61 million.
The insured unemployment rate, which measures the percentage of the insured labor force that is jobless, was steady at 3.6 percent in the week ended March 20. The rate has been unchanged at 3.6 percent for five weeks now.
Separately, the number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms rose in March, although planned job cuts for the first quarter were down sharply from a year ago, global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc said.
Employers announced 67,611 planned job cuts last month, up from 42,090 the previous month. The first-quarter total of 181,183 layoffs, however, is 69 percent lower than the 578,510 announced in the first quarter of 2009.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)