By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, the Labor Department said on Thursday, but details of the report suggested the jobs market continued to grow at a moderate pace.
Other data suggested the economy remained on a steady growth path, with sales at wholesalers rising by the most in more than 1-1/2 years in November, keeping inventories balanced.
Initial claims for state jobless aid increased 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000. The prior week's figure was revised to show 5,000 fewer applications than previously reported.
Claims tend to be very volatile around this time of the year because of the holidays and seasonal layoffs, making it difficult to get a clear picture of the labor market's health.
While claims increased last week, there was nothing in the data to suggest a deterioration in labor market conditions.
"Jobless claims data continue to suggest steady but modest U.S. employment gains," said Robert Kavcic, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, increased 6,750 to 365,750, still at a level consistent with steady job gains.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data.
GRADUALLY IMPROVING LABOR MARKET
A Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in state level claims data and that no states had been estimated. He noted, however, that jobless claims on an unadjusted basis tend to peak in the second week of January and the rise in the week ended January 5 was a build-up to that.
Economists said it would take several more weeks before the data are free of seasonal distortions.
The labor market has been gradually improving, with job gains last year averaging 153,000 per month, little changed from 2011. That has not been enough to significantly cut the unemployment rate which ended the year at 7.8 percent.
A second report from the Labor Department showed job openings were unchanged at 3.7 million in November. Layoffs, however, declined and there was an increase in the number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs -- both signs of improving labor market conditions.
Job growth has been hobbled by uncertainty over fiscal policy. Economists said a last-minute deal by the U.S. Congress to avoid some of the $600 billion in deep government spending cuts and higher taxes, or the fiscal cliff, only eliminated part of the uncertainty.
"A sharp increase in hiring seems unlikely as the spending side of the debate remains unresolved and higher taxes on most households are likely to weigh modestly on consumer spending in the near term," said Jim Baird, chief investment strategist at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
A second report from the Commerce Department showed sales at wholesalers rebounded 2.3 percent in November, the largest gain since March 2011, after falling 0.9 percent in October.
Wholesale inventories rose 0.6 percent after advancing 0.3 percent in October.
Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product changes and accounted for almost a quarter of the economy's annual 3.1 percent growth pace in the third quarter.
Economists expect a drawdown on inventories in the fourth quarter, which would be a drag on growth. They largely left their GDP forecasts, ranging from 0.5 percent to 2.9 percent, unchanged after the wholesale inventory data.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid tumbled 127,000 to 3.11 million in the week ended December 29, the lowest level since July 2008.
Highlighting the typical volatility at the start of the year, the last time the so-called continuing claims fell so much was in January 2011 and economists expect some correction in coming weeks.
The insured unemployment rate fell to 2.4 percent, its lowest since July 2008.
"The good news is the underlying jobs market is improving," said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. "The bad news is we have a large number of people who are unemployed for a long time and unemployment insurance does not go on forever. So, some people might be falling off the rolls."
(Editing by Andrea Ricci)