Upbeat economic data sent U.S. stocks higher Thursday. Positive indicators in America's labor market and housing sector appear to be fueling hopes that a fragile economic recovery will accelerate.
Last month saw the U.S. unemployment rate fall from 10 percent to 9.7 percent. Now, the Labor Department is reporting a substantial drop in the number of newly-laid off Americans filing for jobless benefits. First-time claims for unemployment insurance totaled 440,000 last week, down 43,000 from the previous week. In addition, the four-week average of jobless claims and the total number of people receiving benefits are also down.
Chicago-based Mesirow Financial chief economist Diane Swonk says the latest jobless snapshot provides a better indication of America's employment trend than previous numbers that were influenced by the busy holiday shopping season.
"It is an improvement over what we have seen, and also it is more of a true figure," said Swonk.
The Obama administration is projecting a gradual reduction in America's stubbornly-high unemployment rate, with monthly job creation averaging 95,000 this year. The chairperson of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, Cristina Romer, spoke on Bloomberg Television:
"We are predicting positive job growth for 2010, and I know for people who have been living through the last year, that is an incredible change in the trajectory," he said.
More than 8 million Americans have lost their jobs since the United States slipped into recession in late 2007.
Meanwhile, U.S. housing market generated a double-dose of good news: better home sales and fewer foreclosures.
Walter Maloney is a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, which tracks home prices across the nation.
"Thirty-two states saw double-digit gains [in home prices] during the quarter. All but three states had double-digit gains from a year ago," Maloney said.
But if home prices are rebounding, they are doing so from a low base. The median price for a single-family American home in 2006 stood at $221,000, compared to $173,000 in the last quarter of 2009.
At the same time, a private group says home foreclosure filings fell 10 percent in January compared to December. Even so, foreclosure numbers remain higher than those reported a year ago. It was a rash of foreclosures in 2007 and 2008 that helped spark America's financial crisis and pushed a weakened economy into recession.