THE number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week and a trend reading hit a near five-year low, a sign the grinding recovery in the labor market remains on track.
Other data on Thursday showed a sharp drop in productivity in the fourth quarter due to weak economic output.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000, the Labour Department said.
That was a higher level than analysts had expected, although the downward trend in layoffs still suggests the economy is strong enough that employers will need to add to their staffs.
Claims have trended lower in recent weeks and are around their lowest levels since the early days of the 2007-09 recession.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a gauge of the trend in layoffs, dropped 2,250 to 350,500. That was the lowest level since March 2008, suggesting a steady improvement in labor market conditions.
However, while employers have pulled back on layoffs, they have only added jobs at a lacklustre pace since the end of the recession.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid increased 8,000 to 3.22 million in the week ended Jan. 26.
"It still shows that the U.S. job market is on a lethargic pace to recovery," said Joe Manimbo, a market analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington.
Claims were volatile in January due to the timing of holidays and the dates on which weeks ended, but a Labour Department analyst said some of that volatility appeared to be receding. The analyst said there was nothing unusual in the data, and no states estimated their readings.
U.S. stock futures were trading slightly higher following release of the data, while prices on government debt were little changed.