New claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week as layoffs ease and hiring slowly recovers.
The decline brought the four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility, to its lowest level since September 2008, when the financial crisis intensified. The report is an encouraging sign that the economy is getting closer to generating job gains, economists said.
"We're on the cusp of a hiring recovery," said Zach Pandl, an economist at Nomura Securities.
The Labor Department said Thursday that first-time claims for jobless benefits dropped by 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 442,000. That's below analysts' estimates of 450,000, according to Thomson Reuters.
Most of the drop resulted from a change in the calculations the department makes to seasonally adjust the data, a Labor Department analyst said.
The department updates its seasonal adjustment methods every year, and revises its data for the previous five years. Seasonal adjustment attempts to filter out expected changes in employment such as the layoff of temporary retail employees after the winter holidays. The goal of seasonally adjusted figures is to provide a more accurate picture of underlying economic trends.
Excluding seasonal adjustment, initial claims fell by more than 30,000 last week to 405,557.
Initial claims are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire new workers.
Many economists say claims need to fall below roughly 425,000 to signal that the economy will consistently create jobs, although some say it could happen with claims at higher levels.
Analysts forecast the nation will gain more than 150,000 jobs in March, partly due to temporary hiring for the Census. The March figures will be reported April 2.
That would be only the second time the economy has added jobs in the 28 months since the recession began.
The government will release an updated estimate of fourth-quarter growth on Friday.
The number of people continuing to claim unemployment benefits, meanwhile, fell to 4.6 million.
But that doesn't include millions of people who are receiving extended benefits for up to 73 extra weeks, paid for by the federal government, on top of the 26 customarily provided by the states.
Nearly 5.7 million people were on the extended benefit rolls for the week ended March 6, the latest data available. That is about 300,000 lower than the previous week. The extended benefit figures aren't seasonally adjusted and are volatile from week to week.
All told, more than 11.1 million people are claiming unemployment benefits, the department said.