* Weekly jobless claims rise 4,000
* Four-week moving average of claims unchanged
* Planned layoffs at U.S. firms rise 4.9 percent in September
By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, Oct 4 (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose only slightly last week, keeping in place a trend that suggests a mild improvement in the labor market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits climbed 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 367,000, the Labor Department said, below economists' expectations for a rise to 370,000.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, was unchanged at 375,000. A Labor Department official said there were no special factors influencing the report and no states had been estimated.
"The trend is still looking fairly stable. The labor market is improving but it is not really gathering direction for better or worse, it is still just plodding along," said Sean Incremona an economist at 4CAST in New York.
U.S. stock index futures held gains after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt trimmed losses.
Instant view on jobless claims:
Graphic for jobless claims: Graphic on planned layoffs:
Despite fears of tighter fiscal policy next January, there is little sign that companies are responding by laying off workers on a wide scale.
A second report showed planned layoffs at U.S. firms rose 4.9 percent in September. Despite the increase, the data marked a 15-year low in planned job cuts announced for the month of September, consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas said.
Last week's claims data fell outside the survey period for the September employment report, but applications dropped 18,000 from the first week of the month, signaling some improvement in the pace of job creation last month.
The Labor Department will release the closely watched employment report for September on Friday at 8:30 a.m. (1230 GMT), and a month before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Employers are expected to have added 113,000 jobs to their payrolls in September, an increase from 96,000 in August, with the unemployment rate edging up by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent, according to a Reuters survey of economists.
The anticipated modest improvement in labor market conditions has also been telegraphed by increases in measures of manufacturing and service sector jobs in September. In addition, payrolls processor ADP on Wednesday reported better than expected private sector jobs gains in September.
Worries over the so-called fiscal cliff - automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts that will suck about $600 billion out of the economy next year if lawmakers fail to agree how to slash the budget deficit - are making businesses cautious about ramping up hiring.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid was unchanged at 3.28 million in the week ended Sept. 22. It was the first time since December last year that so-called continuing claims were unchanged.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Neil Stempleman)
Keywords: USA ECONOMY/