US jobless claims trend at lowest since 1973
Now hiring sign (AFP Photo/Spencer Platt)

Fewer Americans filed new claims for US unemployment insurance benefits last week than expected, holding to low levels in a firm labor market, government data showed Thursday.

The Labor Department said initial jobless claims, a sign of the level of layoffs, fell by 18,000 to 259,000 in the week ending June 18. The prior week's level was unrevised at 277,000.

Analysts had forecast claims would decline to 273,000. Claims have held below 300,0000 for 68 straight weeks, the longest streak since 1973.

"Initial claims suggest the sharp slowdown in job growth recently will not persist. A strengthening housing market and service growth will drive near-term gains," said Kathryn Asher of Moody's Analytics.

The four-week moving claims average fell by 2,250 to 267,000 last week. A year ago it was 274,250.

A poor May jobs report, with job growth of 38,000 payrolls the lowest in nearly six years, and a soft April report have raised concerns the jobs market may be losing steam. The unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent in May, its lowest level since November 2009, largely due to a fall in the size of the civilian labor force.

Jim O'Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics, noted that historically major slowdowns in the trend of employment growth have been associated with upward-trending claims.

"The message from claims continues to be that the April/May payrolls data greatly exaggerated the extent to which the trend in employment growth is weakening," O'Sullivan said in a client note.