Initial claims for unemployment insurance dropped to 366,000 last week, the lowest level since May 2008, in another sign that the job market is making a significant improvement.
The new figures released Thursday by the Labor Department showed a drop of 19,000 initial claims from the previous week's adjusted figure of 385,000. The four-week average is 387,750 — below the 400,000 level that economists say is key to cutting into the unemployment rate.
There were 427,000 initial jobless claims in the same week last year, and more than 600,000 people filed for unemployment benefits weekly during the depths of the Great Recession in early 2009.
"It looks like Christmas is coming after all this year for the economy," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York. "Initial jobless claims have tumbled the last two weeks in a way that suggests more Americans are finding work."
The new jobless figures are consistent with an annualized economic growth rate of about 3.5% in the last three months of the year, Rupkey said, which would be a marked improvement over the 2% growth rate in the third quarter.
The sharp downward trend in jobless claims comes after the unemployment rate fell to 8.6% in November, from 9% the previous month. Thursday's data helped boost investors, with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining 45 points.