* Jobless claims fall 27,000 last week
* Four-week average of claims rises 1,500
* Continuing claims fall to 4-1/2 year low
* Data suggests labor market conditions firming
By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, offering hope that the sluggish labor market recovery may have picked up a step.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 341,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 2,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected claims to fall to 360,000.
"This is consistent with the good news coming out of the employment market, signs that things are getting better," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York.
The dollar rose against the yen, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell after the data.
A Labor Department analyst said claims for Illinois and snowstorm-hit Connecticut had been estimated. Nevertheless, because most claims are filed online, the blizzard that slammed the East Coast appeared to have little effect on the broader claims data, he said.
While companies are no longer aggressively laying off workers, they still appear to be in no hurry to step-up hiring against the backdrop of still lackluster demand.
The economy has struggled to grow much more than 2 percent since the 2007-09 recession ended.
Job gains averaged 181,000 per month in 2012, far less than the at least 250,000 that economists say is needed to significantly reduce the ranks of unemployed.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 1,500 to 352,500. The average hit a near five-year low in the prior week, but economists said a drop in first-time claims early this year likely was exaggerated by difficulties smoothing out the data for seasonal fluctuations.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 130,000 to 3.11 million in the week ended Feb. 2.
That was the lowest level since July 2008 and could reflect people exhausting their benefits.
So-called continuing claims had hovered around 3.2 million since late November and economists had viewed that as an indication of little change in the unemployment rate.
The jobless rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 7.9 percent in January.