US jobless claims fall for fourth week in row
Job seekers check out opportunities at a jobs fair in Chicago (AFP)

New claims for US unemployment insurance benefits fell last week, sticking to a downward trend as the labor market strengthens.

Initial jobless claims, a sign of the pace of layoffs, totaled 289,000 in the week ending December 13, down by 6,000 from the previous week, according to government figures released Thursday.

Economists had expected a smaller decline.

The report marked the 13th week out of the past 14 when jobless claims came in below 300,000, and the fourth week in a row of declining claims.

The four-week moving average, which smooths out week-over-week volatility, dropped by 750 claims to 299,250. The average has fallen 21.4 percent from a year ago, when it stood at 368,000.

"As the Fed said yesterday, labor market conditions improved further," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve updated its forecasts to predict a sharper decline in unemployment over the next two years.

The Fed said it nows expect the unemployment rate, which is now at a six-year low of 5.8 percent, to end the year at that level rather that in a range between 5.9 and 6.0 percent.

The improvement in the job market should lower the jobless rate to between 5.2 and 5.3 percent in 2015 and to 5.0 to 5.2 percent in 2016, the central bank said.