WASHINGTON — Initial claims rose by 18,000 to 409,000 for the week ending Jan. 1, but the four-week moving average fell to its lowest level in more than two years, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Continuing claims fell to 4.103 million for the week ending Dec. 25.

Economists expected 400,000 initial claims and 4.1 million continuing claims.

Weekly initial claims tend to fluctuate widely from week to week and the figure for the week ending Dec. 25 was revised upward to 391,000 from 388,000. That’s still the lowest level since July 2008.

Initial claims have declined from a 2010 high of 504,000 the week ending Aug. 14.

The four-week moving average for initial claims, a less volatile figure, dropped for the third straight week to 410,750, the lowest level since July 2008. The four-week average for continuing claims fell to 4.123 million.

“Labor markets are improving,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said in a research note. “I fully expect tomorrow’s employment report to reflect this trend. The unevenness of the recovery, however, cannot cure what the recession revealed: we are a nation even more divided between haves and have-nots than many of us would like to admit.”

Subscribe Now

Independent and authoritative analysis and perspective for the bond buying industry.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.