WASHINGTON -- New jobless claims dropped last week to 340,000, near a post-Great Recession low, and the less volatile four-week average fell to its lowest level in five years, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The data were another sign of improvement in the labor market ahead of Friday's February unemployment report, despite tax increases that took effect on Jan. 1.

Analysts project that the economy added about 160,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate remains at 7.9 percent.

Economists had expected initial jobless claims to rise last week to about 355,000.

Instead, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time fell by 7,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 347,000, the Labor Department said.

Economists say that weekly jobless claims below 350,000 indicate moderate growth in the labor market.

The new figure is close to the five-year low of 330,000, reached in mid-January. And the overall trend has been downward in recent weeks after seasonally adjusted claims spiked to 371,000 at the end of January.

The four-week average, which smooths out the data, also fell by 7,000 last week, to 348,750. That was the lowest level since early March 2008, as the Great Recession was just starting to have an effect on the jobs market.

A year later, the economy was averaging about 660,000 new jobless claims a week.