The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits edged up slightly last week, the government said on Thursday in a report that nevertheless offered some hope the economy may soon start generating jobs.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits (search) rose a slim 2,000 to 398,000 in the week ending August 9, the Labor Department (search) said. The figures were close to expectations on Wall Street, where economists had expected claims to hold steady at the 390,000 level originally reported for the August 2 week.

Initial claims have held below 400,000 for four consecutive weeks. Economists say claims below that level indicate some job creation.

The four-week moving average of claims, which offers a more reliable labor-market guide by smoothing weekly volatility, inched down 4,250 to 394,250, its lowest level since mid-February. The four-week average has now dropped for five straight weeks.

The figures suggested the labor market, which has shed jobs for the last six months, has stabilized and may be showing some marginal improvement. A Labor Department aide said the report appeared to be unaffected by any unusual factors.

In another hopeful sign, the number of Americans who remained on the benefit rolls in the August 2 week after filing an initial claim, while still elevated, fell by 6,000 to 3.66 million.