The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week fell slightly more than expected, pointing to an economy that was continuing to gain steam.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 330,000, the Labor Department said today.

However, claims for the prior week were revised to show 6,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications to fall to 335,000 last week.

The four-week moving average for new claims fell 9,750 to 349,000.

A Labor Department analyst said no states had been estimated, but noted that adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations remained a challenge.

While claims have been extremely volatile around the Christmas season, they are still largely consistent with other labour market indicators that have painted an upbeat picture of the jobs market and the overall economy.

Last week's data has no bearing on the US government's closely watched employment report for December.

The government is expected to report tomorrow that non-farm payrolls increased 196,000 last month after gaining 203,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll of economists. The US unemployment rate is forecast to be steady at a five-year low of 7%.

Today's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programmes after an initial week of aid rose 50,000 to 2.87 million in the week ended December 28.

A total of 4.19 million people were receiving benefits under all programmess in the week ended December 21.

With benefits for more than a million long-term unemployed Americans having expired on December 28, that figure should decline sharply in the weeks ahead.