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Attendees carry their resumes as they arrive at a job fair in a Washington hotel in this file photo.JASON REED/Reuters

The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week and a trend reading hit a near five-year low, a sign the grinding recovery in the labour market remains on track.

Other data on Thursday showed a sharp drop in productivity in the fourth quarter due to weak economic output.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000, the Labor Department said.

That was a higher level than analysts had expected, although the downward trend in layoffs still suggests the economy is strong enough that employers will need to add to their staffs.

"The labour market is improving, but certainly not at a robust rate by any means," said Russell Price, an economist at Ameriprise Financial in Troy, Michigan.

Claims have trended lower in recent weeks and are around their lowest levels since the early days of the 2007-09 recession.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a gauge of the trend in layoffs, dropped 2,250 to 350,500. That was the lowest level since March 2008, suggesting a steady improvement in labour market conditions.

However, while employers have pulled back on layoffs, they have only added jobs at a lacklustre pace since the end of the recession.

The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid increased 8,000 to 3.22 million in the week ended Jan. 26.

"It still shows that the U.S. job market is on a lethargic pace to recovery," said Joe Manimbo, a market analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington.

Claims were volatile in January due to the timing of holidays and the dates on which weeks ended, but a Labor Department analyst said some of that volatility appeared to be receding. The analyst said there was nothing unusual in the data, and no states estimated their readings.

U.S. stock futures were trading slightly higher following release of the data, while prices on government debt were little changed.

A separate report showed U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the fourth quarter by the most in nearly two years as output increased only marginally despite steady gains in employment.

Productivity declined at a 2 per cent annual rate, the sharpest drop since the first quarter of 2011 and a larger fall than the 1.3-per-cent forecast in a Reuters poll.

Output rose 0.1 per cent outside the farm sector, while hours worked rose by 2.2 per cent.

Productivity is expected to rebound in the current period because analysts believe weak output during the fourth quarter was partially due to temporary factors like an unusually sharp decline in government spending on the military.

Data last week showed output in the overall economy contracted 0.1 per cent in the fourth quarter, and analysts expect gross domestic product to return to growth early this year.

Unit labour costs – a gauge of the labor-related cost for any given unit of output – climbed at a 4.5-per-cent rate in the fourth quarter, beating analysts' expectations of a 3-per-cent gain.

If sustained, higher unit labour costs could help fuel inflation, although many economists think slack in the economy is curtailing price pressures and believe the U.S. Federal Reserve has room to continue its easy money policies aimed at boosting economic growth.

The gain in unit labour costs was driven by a jump in compensation for workers, a reading that includes wages as well as employer contributions to social insurance and private benefit plans like health care.

Hourly compensation rose at a 2.4-per-cent rate during the last three months of the year.