NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance fell sharply last week to the lowest level in 17 months, the government said Thursday. Analysts had expected an increase.
There were 432,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended Dec. 26, down 22,000 from the previous week's revised 454,000, the Labor Department said. The figure is the lowest since July 19, 2008, when there were 413,000 claims filed.
A consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com expected claims to jump to 460,000.
The 4-week moving average of initial claims totaled 460,250, down 5,500 from the previous week's revised average of 465,750.
"It's encouraging to see that we're continuing to move in the right direction toward 400,000 claims," said Tim Quinlan, economic analyst at Wells Fargo. "We're certainly off the highs we saw earlier this year.
Jobless claims have been trending downward since the end of March, when they peaked at 674,000, the highest figure since 1982.
Continuing claims: The government said 4,981,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended Dec. 19, the most recent data available. That's 57,000 down from the preceding week's revised 5,038,000 claims.
The 4-week moving average for ongoing claims fell by 122,250 to 5,101,250 from the previous week's revised 5,223,250.
But the slide may signal that more filers are dropping off those rolls into extended benefits.
Continuing claims reflect people filing each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks. The figures do not include those who have moved to state or federal extensions, or people whose benefits have expired.
Congress passed legislation last month to extend federally paid benefits up to 99 weeks, depending on the state, but the law only helps those who exhaust their federal unemployment lifelines by the year's end.
Lawmakers in the House and the Senate recently passed measures to extend the filing deadline through the end of February. The President is expected to sign the legislation soon.
Both chambers initially introduced bills to push the deadline to apply for benefits through 2010 or beyond, but Democratic leaders in the House scaled back the effort in hopes of getting the bill through the Senate more quickly.
State-by-state: Jobless claims in 10 states declined by more than 1,000 for the week ended Dec. 19, the most recent data available. Claims in Tennessee dropped the most, by 2,972.
A total of 12 states said claims increased by more than 1,000. Claims in New York jumped the most by 1,155. A state-supplied comment attributed the increase to layoffs in the construction, service and real estate industries.
Outlook: The employment picture will continue to improve as jobless claims continue to fall, but Quinlan said they will need to drop near 350,000 for positive job growth.
He expects nonfram payrolls to return to positive territory by the second quarter of 2010, and for the unemployment rate to fall by the end of the year.
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