New claims for unemployment benefits were unchanged in the latest week, foiling expectations that they would rise and providing further evidence that the job market was slowly healing.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that seasonally adjusted jobless claims were unchanged at 351,000, the lowest level in four years. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast initial claims rising to 354,000.
The last two weekly readings have been the lowest since March 2008. The four-week moving average for new claims, a measure of labor market trends, fell 7,000 to 359,000 - also the lowest since March 2008.
With weekly claims approaching levels last seen before the recession that began in December 2007, economists say employers might be close to ending a long cycle of heavy layoffs, laying the ground for more hiring.
"For the past 16 weeks, first-time filers consistently posted beneath 400k, with just two irregular readings of 404k last November and 402k last month interrupting the pattern. Having adequately moved past that benchmark...claims will be pushed to push past another, lower barrier for 2012," said economist Vimombi Nshom of IFR Economics. "That would exemplify continued momentum in the labor market as indications of layoffs try to crawl back to a level resembled during expansion in the business cycle, as opposed to these 300k-400k readings becoming the 'new normal.'"
Already, the jobless rate has fallen sharply, dropping to 8.3 percent in January from 9.1 percent in August. Job gains have exceeded 200,000 for two straight months.
The U.S. Federal Reserve has left benchmark interest rates near zero since December 2008 to coax companies into hiring, and the recent improvement in the labor market has dampened expectations of further monetary stimulus.
A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in last week's data, although claims were estimated for three states, including California.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 52,000 to 3.392 million in the week ended February 11 from a revised reading of 3.444 million. The drop left continuing claims at their lowest level since August 2008.
Economists had forecast continuing claims falling to 3.460 million from a previously reported 3.426 million.
The improvements in the labor market have helped President Barack Obama's reelection bid because voters consider jobs to be the most important issue in the November presidential election.
But considerable slack still remains in the jobs market, with 23.8 million Americans either out of work or underemployed. There are no job openings for nearly three out of every four unemployed.
A total of 7.503 million people were claiming unemployment benefits during the week ended February 4 under all programs, down 178,619 from the prior week.
Reuters contributed to this report.