By Josh Mitchell

WASHINGTON-The number of Americans who applied for first-time unemployment checks fell sharply last week to one of the lowest levels in four decades, bolstering the Federal Reserve's view that the labor market is tightening.

Initial jobless claims, a measure of how many workers were laid off, declined 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 235,000 in the week ended Dec. 31, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was the lowest level since mid-November and the second lowest since late 1973.

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expected 260,000 initial claims.

The figures, based on a survey of states, are often imprecise and later revised, particularly around holidays.Labor Department economists reported no special factors that may have distorted the latest week's data.

Broader trends show an exceptionally low level of claims, suggesting employers continue to hire steadily or maintain payrolls rather than lay off workers. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a more-reliable figure because it evens out weekly volatility in the data, fell by 5,750 to 256,750 last week.

Thursday's report also showed continuing unemployment claims, reflecting benefits drawn by workers for longer than a week, increased 16,000 to just over 2.1 million in the week ended Dec. 24. Data on continuing claims are released with a one-week lag.

Other reports suggest the U.S. continues to steadily add jobs despite choppy economic growth. The Labor Department previously reported that employers added 178,000 jobs in November-in line with the past year's trend--and the unemployment rate fell to a nine-year low of 4.6%.The jobs expansion, coupled with modestly rising inflation, gave Fed officials the confidence to raise its benchmark interest rate slightly in mid-December. Officials indicated they would raise rates further this year if the labor market and economy strengthened as they expected.

The Labor Department is set to release a broader snapshot of the labor market Friday, showing hiring figures for December. Economists estimate employers added 183,000 jobs and that unemployment rose to 4.7% last month.

The Labor Department report on jobless claims can be accessed at: http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/eta/ui/current.htm.

Write to Josh Mitchell at joshua.mitchell@wsj.com.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 05, 2017 08:45 ET (13:45 GMT)

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