By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits tumbled last week to its lowest level in nearly 15 years, adding to bullish signals on the labor market.
Though the decline probably exaggerates the jobs market's strength given a holiday-shortened week, Thursday's report suggested the economy was fairly healthy and weathering weakening global demand.
Claims are a welcome shot in the arm for those believing the economy is strong.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 43,000 to a seasonally adjusted 265,000 for the week ended Jan. 24, the lowest since April 2000, the Labor Department said. It was the biggest weekly decline since November 2012.
The drop exceeded economists' expectations for a fall to only 300,000, but last week also included the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which means fewer claims were likely processed.
The fall unwound the prior weeks' increases, which had pushed claims above the key 300,000 threshold. Economists had largely dismissed that rise as "noise," given difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations at the start of the year.
The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 8,250 last week to 298,500.
U.S. Treasury debt prices were trading lower, with the yield on the 10-year bond at session highs. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. stocks fell marginally.
The latest decline in applications for unemployment aid bolsters views of tightening labor market conditions and comes a day after the Federal Reserve ramped up its assessment of the labor market and the overall economy.
While the United States is bucking a weakening global economy, housing remains a soft spot.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday signed contracts to purchase previously owned homes tumbled to an eight-month low in December.
Separately, the Commerce Department said the homeownership rate dropped to a 20-year low in the fourth quarter.
But with the labor market strengthening, housing should regain momentum this year.
January's employment report next week is expected to show nonfarm payrolls increased 230,000 after rising 252,000 in December, according to a Reuters survey of economists. That would mark the 12th consecutive month of jobs gains above 200,000, the longest stretch since 1994.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 71,000 to 2.39 million in the week ended Jan. 17. The so-called continuing claims covered the period during which the government surveyed households for the unemployment rate.
Continuing claims fell 22,000 between the December and January survey periods, suggesting another drop in the jobless rate, which is currently at a 6½-year low of 5.6 percent.