) -- The number of first timers applying for state unemployment insurance inched lower last week, according to a Labor Department report released Thursday, a day before the release of a highly anticipated jobs report.
The number of initial jobless claims fell by 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 469,000 for the week ending Feb. 27. The final figure landed in line with analysts' estimates, who anticipated a fall to 470,000 from a pre-revised 495,000.
The four-week moving average, which tends to smooth out distortions during the month, also showed improvement, declining by 3,250 to 470,450.
The number of those continuing to receive benefits fell to 4.5 million for the week ending Feb. 20, from 4.634 million the week before.
The Labor Department on Friday is set to release a more complete snapshot of February's jobs market. Nonfarm payrolls are expected to have lost another 65,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate probably edged a tenth of a percentage point higher to 9.8%. But many expect some distortions to show up in the figures because of the relentless snowfall that hit much of the country last month.
Thursday's initial claims report suggested as much. In its state-by-state breakdown for the week of Feb. 20 -- a week that reflected a sharp upward climb in initial jobless claims -- many states in the northeast reported the biggest jumps. New Jersey saw the most marked increase, as the rough weather caused office closures and a backlog in claims.
Still, market observers already received some improving hints of what's ahead for Friday. One assessment from
Automatic Data Processing
(ADP - Get Report)
private sector employers shed their fewest jobs in two years
, while another from Challenger, Gray & Christmas said announced layoffs fell 41% last month.
Big names like
(MRK - Get Report)
(ORCL - Get Report)
continued making layoff news last month. But just this week,
said it would open several new stores, which will add more than 1500 positions.
Firms also experienced a surge in productivity after months of cost cutting left a sea of workers adrift in the unemployed ranks. The Labor Department raised its fourth-quarter productivity estimate Thursday, saying output soared 6.9%. In essence, firms have figured out how to do more with less, making future job creation that much more elusive.
The claims data helped stocks open just to the upside, as the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
added 25 points, or 0.2%, to 10,422 and the
gained 3 points, or 0.2%, to 1122.
-- Written by Sung Moss in New York