WASHINGTON - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose only slightly last week after a big drop the week before, keeping in place a trend that suggested a mild improvement in the labor market.

Other data on Thursday showed a sharp drop in new orders for US factory goods as demand for aircraft collapsed and Americans eased off on automobile purchases. But orders outside transportation rose for a second straight month, which should calm fears of a rapid loss of momentum in factory activity.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits climbed 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 367,000, the Labor Department said, below economists' expectations for a rise to 370,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, was unchanged at 375,000. A Labor Department official said there were no special factors influencing the report and no states had been estimated.

"The trend is still looking fairly stable. The labor market is improving but it is not really gathering direction for better or worse, it is still just plodding along," said Sean Incremona an economist at 4CAST in New York.

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