Fewer Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week. Thursday's data once again edged back from the 400,000 mark -- the level below which economists say signals a strengthening job market - after popping above it in the prior week.

New data released Thursday by the U.S. Labor Department shows that jobless claims dropped to 381,000 in the week ended Dec. 3, the fewest since February, which is a decrease of 23,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 404,000. Economists polled by Reuters called for 395,000 initial claims, on a seasonally adjusted basis.

The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figure, dropped to 393,250, a decrease of 3,000 from the previous week's revised average of 396,250.

The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits after an initial week of aid dropped by 174,000 in the week ended Nov. 26 to 3.58 million, the fewest since September 2008. 3,667,250, a decrease of 20,500 from the preceding week's revised average of 3,687,750.The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

Workers who have used up their 26 weeks of state benefits and are getting federal emergency and extended payments decreased by 178,610, to 2.79 million, in the week ended Nov. 19, the Labor Department said. 

The economy added 120,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent, the lowest point since March 2009.

Citigroup Inc. (C) Chief Executive Vikram Pandit said Tuesday that the bank will eliminate 4,500 jobs over the next few quarters in an effort to reduce costs.

Bank of America Corp. (BAC) said in the summer it would slash 30,000 jobs over the next few years, and the company's chief executive, Brian Moynihan, told investors and analysts during the Goldman Sachs conference that layoffs across the bank are under way.

U.S. consumer borrowing rose in October to the highest level in two years, driven by gains in non-revolving debt like auto and student loans, the U.S. Federal Reserve said Wednesday in a monthly report.

Thursday's jobless claims result came in better than economists forecasted.

After hitting a nine-month high of 77.2 this Monday, the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index (CESIYUSD) ended a half-year-long rally falling to 74.9 on Wednesday. A reading above positive 50 means the released economic indicator results are beating economists' expectations by a wide margin.

Analysis of previous cycles suggests that it usually takes about three months for the index to move from a peak to a valley. Therefore, the stock market could continue to trade higher until the surprise index reaches below a reading of zero, which is unlikely to happen until at least March of 2012.