The Labor Department reported that initial jobless claims dropped to a seasonally adjusted 623,000, down from a revised figure of 636,000 and below estimates of 635,000.
A drop hints that companies are cutting fewer workers and could be a sign that the recession is bottoming out. The four-week average, used to average out fluctuations, was also down to 626,750, about 30,000 below the number in April. A year ago, initial claims were 378,000.
However, the 6.78 million people that continue receive unemployment in the week ending on May 16 is the largest total since 1967 and the 17th straight record week. These continuing claims lag one week behind the new jobless claims.
The next round of nationwide unemployment numbers is due out from the Labor Department on June 5.
Since the beginning of the recession in December 2007, a net total of 5.7 million jobs have been lost and the unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent in April.
Meanwhile, orders for big-ticket manufactured goods rose by 1.9 percent in April, the largest amount in 16 months, according to a Commerce Department report.
A rise of new orders in two of the past three months followed a decline in the previous six. But, the report did revise down its March estimate of new orders for manufactured goods from a 0.8 percent drop previously reported to a 2.1 percent drop.
The Commerce Department also said Thursday that new U.S. home sales were almost flat in April, rising 0.3 percent but down 34 percent from April 2008. The median sales price fell to $209,700, down 14.9 percent from 2008.
The Mortgage Bankers Association reported a record high of 12 percent of homeowners are behind on their payments or in foreclosure in the first quarter of 2009.
In a survey of economists by the National Association for Business Economics, more than 90 percent predicted that the recession will end in the third or fourth quarter of 2009, according to the Associated Press.
Earlier in the week, a report found that consumer confidence rose considerably in May to its highest level in eight months. The index rose to 54.9 from 40.8 in April. In 1985, the index was at 100.
“Looking ahead, consumers are considerably less pessimistic than they were earlier this year, and expectations are that business conditions, the labor market and incomes will improve in the coming months. While confidence is still weak by historical standards, as far as consumers are concerned, the worst is now behind us,” said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center that publishes the survey.