WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week, nearing its lowest level in five years in a sign of resilience for the U.S. labor market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 334,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
That was the smallest number of first-time applications since early May and near levels last seen the early days of the 2007-09 recession.
Many economists believe growing confidence in America's economic recovery has led U.S. employers to exit a long cycle of elevated layoffs. Moreover, it has been difficult to discern any increase in layoffs due to Washington's embrace of harsher fiscal austerity this year.
At the same time, firms have been shy to step up the pace of hiring and the country's unemployment rate is expected to end this year above 7 percent.
The jobless claims reading beat the expectations of economists polled by Reuters, who had expected a decline of 1,000. The four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, dropped 7,250 to 345,250.
A Labor Department analyst said no states had been estimated and there was nothing unusual in the state-level data.
The labor market is being closely watched for clues to when the Federal Reserve might start scaling back its expansive monetary stimulus.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last month a decision to start tapering the $85 billion in bonds the U.S. central bank is buying each month could come at one of its "next few meetings" if the economy appeared set to maintain momentum.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose 2,000 to 2.97 million in the week ended June 1.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)