WASHINGTON — Economic reports released Thursday suggest employers are laying off fewer workers, businesses are ordering more computers and appliances, and consumers are spending with more confidence. Combined, the data confirm the economy is improving, and further job gains are expected in 2011. Here's a look at some of the economic news:
The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 420,000, the Labor Department said. That's the second-lowest level since July 2008. Applications have fallen below 425,000 in four of the past five weeks — a significant improvement after hovering most of the year above 450,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose slightly to 426,000. The average had fallen for six straight weeks to the lowest level in more than two years.
Orders for long-lasting manufactured goods, excluding the volatile transportation category, rose by the most in eight months in November, the Commerce Department said. Factories saw demand increase for computers, appliances and heavy machinery. Total orders for durable goods dropped 1.3 percent, the department reported. That decline reflected sagging demand for aircraft and autos. But excluding transportation, orders rose 2.4 percent, the best showing since last March.
Spending and income
Consumer spending rose modestly last month, giving the economy a lift before the holidays. Spending increased 0.4 percent in November, the fifth straight monthly increase. Consumers' incomes grew 0.3 percent last month, lifted by gains in stock portfolios. Wages and salaries barely budged. Hiring slowed to a crawl in November, and paychecks got thinner
New home sales
Housing remains a drag on the economy. More people purchased new homes in November, though not enough to signal better times are ahead for the battered housing industry. Sales rose 5.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 290,000 units, the Commerce Department said. That's less than half the rate that economists consider healthy. And the increase follows a dismal October sales pace that nearly matched the lowest level in 47 years.