NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The number of people filing for unemployment benefits last week edged lower, according to a government report released Thursday, as the closely watched measure of the strength of the employment market was somewhat stronger than Wall Street expectations.
The Labor Department reported that 331,000 people filed for initial jobless claims in the week ended Aug. 14, down from the revised 334,000 who filed the week before.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com forecast that claims would edge up to 335,000 from the previously reported 333,000 the week earlier.
The four-week moving average of initial claims filings was 337,000, a decrease of 2,500 from the previous week's revised average of 339,500.
The most recent figures may have been slightly lowered by Hurricanes Bonnie and Charley, which both caused evacuations in Florida before hitting the state at the end of last week.
Many state offices were closed Friday in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area because of forecasts that the storm would hit there, and some may have delayed filing for benefits due to preparations for the storms.
The week ending Aug. 15 is the week the government conducts its survey of employers that will be used in the closely watched August employment report. After three strong months of employment gains starting in March, the June and July reports were far below economists' forecasts.
If the August reading again shows weak job gains, that would increase the chances that policymakers at the Federal Reserve would pause on their stated path of raising interest rates when they meet Sept. 21.
A strong employment report, however, could raise expectations of more rate hikes by the end of the year, because it could suggest to investors and economists that the weak June and July numbers were aberrations.