By Ben Leubsdorf

The number of Americans applying for new unemployment benefits fell last week, remaining at a low level consistent with a healthy U.S. labor market.

Initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs across the U.S., decreased by 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 265,000 in the week ended Dec. 24, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The decline matched economists' expectations and partly reversed a jump in the prior week; claims for the week ended Dec. 17 were left unrevised at 275,000.

"On the whole, we continue to expect further improvement in labor market conditions," Barclays economist Michael Gapen said in a note to clients.

Jobless claims have now hovered below 300,000 for 95 consecutive weeks, the longest such streak since 1970 -- when the U.S. workforce and population were far smaller than they are today.

Still, data on unemployment applications can be volatile from week to week, and especially around holidays when seasonal adjustments are difficult. A more stable measure, the four-week moving average of initial claims, fell by 750 to 263,000 last week.

The Labor Department said no special factors affected last week's claims data.

The agency on Thursday also said continuing unemployment claims, reflecting benefits drawn by workers for longer than a week, rose by 63,000 to 2,102,000 in the week ended Dec. 17. Data on continuing claims are released with a one-week lag.

The U.S. job market appears in good health as 2016 draws to a close. Growth in nonfarm payrolls averaged 180,000 a month during the first 11 months of the year, a solid pace of job creation, though a step down from 2015's monthly average of 229,000, according toLabor Department data.

The unemployment rate in November was 4.6%, its lowest level since August 2007 -- before the recession that began in December 2007 and ended in mid-2009.

"We have a strong labor market, and we have a resilient economy," Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said on Dec. 14, when the Fed announced it would raise short-term interest rates for just the second time since the financial crisis.

Also on Thursday, the Commerce Department reported the U.S. trade deficit in goods widened 5.5% in November from the prior month, reflecting a drop in exports and rising imports. In addition, the agency said retail inventories climbed 1.0% from October while wholesale inventories increased 0.9% in November. The advance figures were adjusted for seasonal variations but not price changes.

The wider trade gap suggested somewhat weaker growth in overall U.S. economic output during the final months of 2016, forecasters said, offset in part by rising inventories. Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities, lowered his estimate for the fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth rate to 1.8% from 2%.

Write to Ben Leubsdorf at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 29, 2016 10:32 ET (15:32 GMT)

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