U.S. stocks fell on Thursday despite data that showed the number of people filing for jobless benefits fell to the lowest level in about 17 months.

While shares slipped in the last trading session of 2009, the three major U.S. stock indexes were on track to post their best yearly gains since 2003.

Initial claims for U.S. unemployment insurance benefits fell 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 432,000 in the latest week, according to the Labor Department. While a drop in jobless claims is a bullish sign for the crucial labor market, some analysts cautioned that the holidays may have affected the data.

The number is positive, but there are fears that with temporary and holiday hiring, it may not be as good as it seems, said Dan Cook, senior market analyst at IG Markets in Chicago.

We also remain above 400,000, which is very high.

Volume is expected to be light throughout the day, with many investors out for the holidays. U.S. financial markets will be closed on Friday for New Year's Day.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> fell 59.78 points, or 0.57 percent, to 10,488.73. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> shed 4.52 points, or 0.40 percent, to 1,121.90. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> slid 8.14 points, or 0.36 percent, to 2,283.14.

The broad S&P 500 is up 24.2 percent for 2009, on track for its best performance since 2003. That gain comes on the heels of the S&P 500's slide of 38.5 percent in 2008, when the economic crisis led to Wall Street's worst year since the Great Depression.

Despite this year's rally, Wall Street is also set to cap its first-ever negative decade on a total-return basis, even with dividends reinvested.

Walt Disney Co was one of the Dow's best performers, up 0.7 percent at $32.49 after Marvel Entertainment Inc shareholders approved a merger with Disney.

Interpublic Group of Companies Inc shares gained 2.3 percent to $7.45 after Wedbush upgraded the stock to outperform and raised its price target on the advertising company to $9 from $5.50.

In other data released on Thursday, the Institute for Supply Management-New York said business activity in New York City expanded in December for the fifth straight month, though at a slower rate than November.

In addition, the ISM-Chicago business barometer was revised on Thursday to 58.7 in December, from an initial reading of 60 that it reported on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)