By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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.
Separately, the Commerce Department said new orders for manufactured goods tumbled 5.2 percent - the biggest drop since January 2009 when the economy was in the grip of a recession.
Excluding transportation, orders rose 0.7 percent in August after rising by the same margin the prior month.
Manufacturing has carried the economic recovery and while activity has cooled significantly in recent months, there are so far little signs of a hard landing.
The Institute for Supply Management's index of national manufacturing activity last month climbed above the 50 mark - which separates contraction from expansion - after three straight months below 50.
U.S. stocks rose at the open on the claims data, and investors were also encouraged comments by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on tools to tackle the region's debt crisis. The dollar fell against the euro.
Despite fears of tighter fiscal policy next January, there is little sign that companies are responding by laying off workers on a wide scale.
A second report showed planned layoffs at U.S. firms rose 4.9 percent in September. Despite the increase, the data marked a 15-year low in planned job cuts announced for the month of September, consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas said.
"Though private business surveys have indicated that companies are concerned about the tax hikes ... this report suggests that there has not yet been a pickup in plans by larger firms to reduce employment levels," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
Last week's claims data fell outside the survey period for the September employment report, but applications dropped 18,000 from the first week of the month, signaling some improvement in the pace of job creation last month.
The Labor Department will release the closely watched employment report for September on Friday at 8:30 a.m. (1230 GMT) - a month before the November 6 presidential election.
Employers are expected to have added 113,000 jobs to their payrolls in September, an increase from 96,000 in August, with the unemployment rate edging up by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent, according to a Reuters survey of economists.
The anticipated modest improvement in labor market conditions has also been telegraphed by increases in measures of manufacturing and service sector jobs in September. In addition, payrolls processor ADP on Wednesday reported better than expected private sector jobs gains in September.
Worries over the so-called fiscal cliff - automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts that will suck about $600 billion out of the economy next year if lawmakers fail to agree how to slash the budget deficit - are making businesses cautious about ramping up hiring.
Fears of tighter fiscal policy are not yet filtering through to consumers. September sales at U.S. retailers looked solid as shoppers finished up their back-to-school buying.
Sales at stores open at least a year at 17 chains tracked by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S rose 3.6 percent, matching analysts' expectations. In September 2011, such sales rose 6.4 percent.
(Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by Neil Stempleman)
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