The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, suggesting the labor market continued to strengthen.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 289,000 for the week ended Dec. 13, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
The report came a day after the Federal Reserve offered an upbeat assessment of the labor market and the broader economy, and signaled it could start raising interest rates next year.
"Continuing claims data lag initial jobless claims by one week, and last week’s one-off spike in continuing claims data is consistent with the calendar effects that boosted seasonally-adjusted initial claims data temporarily in recent readings," Barclays Research economist Jesse Hurwitz wrote in an e-mailed analysis. "We continue to look for further improvements in labor market separations and expect claims data to trend lower over time."
The U.S. central bank, which has kept its short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008, lowered its unemployment rate forecast on Wednesday. Many economists expect the first rate hike in mid-2015.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims edging up to 295,000 last week. The prior week's data was revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.
The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, slipped by 750 to 298,750.
Last week's data covered the period during which the government surveyed employers for December's nonfarm payrolls.
The four-week average of claims rose by 11,000 between the November and December survey periods, suggesting a step back in job growth after payrolls surged by 321,000 last month. The December payrolls are still expected to come in above 200,000.
Job gains have exceeded 200,000 for 10 straight months, the longest such stretch since 1994.
A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing last week's claims data.
The report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell by 147,000 to 2.37 million in the week ended Dec. 6.