The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits bounced off five-year lows last week, pulling them back to levels consistent with modest job growth.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was unrevised.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected claims to increase to 350,000.
Claims have been very volatile this month, dropping sharply in the week ended January 12 and maintaining the trend in the following week. That was largely because the model used by the department to smooth out the seasonal variations has been unusually generous during the first three weeks of January.
The volatility in the so-called seasonal factors has to do with the timing of holidays and when the weekends. The January calendar this year is aligned to 2008 and claims have generally followed a similar pattern.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, gained 250 to 352,000, suggesting a steady improvement in labor market conditions.
A Labor Department analyst said the seasonal factor had anticipated claims would drop 24.8 percent last week. Unadjusted claims, however, only declined 16.1 percent. As a result, the seasonally adjusted claims increased last week.
He said no states were estimated and there was nothing unusual in the state-level data.
The claims data has no bearing on January's employment report, which is scheduled for release on Friday, as it falls outside the survey period.
Employers are expected to have added 160,000 jobs to their payrolls after an increase of 155,000 in December. The unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.8 percent.
The employment report could confirm that the economic recovery remains intact after output unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter. The drag largely came from temporary factors, which were expected to lift this quarter.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid increased 22,000 to 3.20 million in the week ended January 19.
The four-week moving average of so-called continuing claims was the lowest since July 2008.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)