NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - New jobless claims fell in the United States last week, the government said Thursday, with slightly fewer people filing claims than Wall Street expected.
The Labor Department said 341,000 people filed new claims for state unemployment benefits in the week ended Jan. 17, compared with a revised 342,000 the prior week. Economists, on average, expected 345,000 new claims, according to Briefing.com.
The four-week moving average of new claims, which irons out the volatility of the weekly data, fell to 344,500 from a revised 347,750 the prior week. It was the lowest level for the four-week moving average since the week of Jan. 27, 2001.
But continued claims, the number of people out of work for a week or more, rose to 3.14 million for the week ended Jan. 10, the latest data available, from a revised 3.13 million the prior week.
On Wall Street, stock market futures were little changed after the report, pointing to a mixed opening on Wall Street. Treasury bond prices were also little changed.
Though it usually takes a while for unemployment to fall once the economy's started growing again -- since employers are hesitant to start hiring until they believe the recovery is for real -- the United States has enjoyed eight straight quarters of growth, including the strongest performance in 20 years in the third quarter, without significant job creation.
In fact, since February 2001, just before the 2001 recession began, more than 2.4 million payroll jobs have been lost, according to the Labor Department, making this recession/recovery period the most "jobless" since World War II.
Several indicators have been pointing up for the job market, including a steady, if slow, decline in weekly jobless claims, leading many economists to forecast greater job growth this year.
But some economists worry that structural changes in the job market, including technological advances and a growing appetite for cheap offshore labor, will keep hiring muted in 2004.