Initial filings for state unemployment insurance aid fell for the third straight week, dropping to 316,000 in the week ended March 17 from an upwardly revised 320,000 for the previous week, the Labor Department said.
A department analyst said there were no special factors behind the decline in new claims, which fell to their lowest level since the week ended Feb. 3.
Jobless claims are at a level economists see as consistent with stable employment.
Analysts on Wall Street had expected claims, which provide a rough guide to the pace of layoffs, to rise to 324,000 from the 318,000 initially reported for the March 10 week.
A four-week moving average of claims, which smooths weekly volatility to provide a better sense of underlying job-market trends, also fell for the second straight week, dropping to 326,000 from 329,750 in the prior week.
The total number of unemployed still on the benefit rolls after drawing an initial week of aid fell 69,000 to 2.50 million in the week ended March 10, the latest period for which figures are available.
Leading Indicators Slip 0.5%
Separately, industry research group The Conference Board said Thursday that its composite index of leading indicators, which is meant to foreshadow changes in the economy three to six months in advance, slipped 0.5% to 137.3 in February after a revised 0.3% decline in January.
The drop in February, while expected, was the steepest since February 2006.
Conference Board labor economist Ken Goldstein said in a statement that the index suggests "moderate but choppy growth" with consumers continuing to spend despite swings in energy prices and sagging home values.
The index tracks 10 economic indicators, including stock prices, unemployment claims, homebuilding permits and money supply.
In February, more people filed for unemployment insurance, fewer homebuilders obtained permission to build houses and consumers adopted a more tempered outlook on the economy's future, the Conference Board said.
The coincident index increased 0.3% in February after a 0.1% decline in January and the lagging index increased 0.2% in February after increasing 0.7% in December.