US jobless claims inch higher

New claims for US unemployment benefits rose slightly last week but remained near their lowest level in five years, government data released Thursday showed.

Initial jobless claims totaled 336,000 in the week ending March 16, up a modest 2,000 from the prior week, the Labor Department reported.

The prior week's number was upwardly revised by 2,000 to 334,000.

Despite the uptick last week, jobless claims, an indicator of the pace of layoffs, stayed close to the 330,000 reading hit in early January, the lowest level since February 2008 as the Great Recession was taking hold.

The four-week moving average of initial claims fell by 7,500, to 339,750.

The downward trend in claims came amid a slowly improving labor market. In February, job growth picked up sharply and the unemployment rate dipped two-tenths a percentage point to 7.7 percent, its weakest level since December 2008.

Jennifer Lee of BMO Capital Markets noted that the last week's claims coincided with the Labor Department's key survey week for the March jobs report.

"With claims 30,000 below the last survey period, it suggests that we could see a 200,000-plus increase in March payrolls," she said in a research note.