Economic signs are improving

A GOOD SIGN: Weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 348,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the lowest level since March 2008. Unemployment applications have dropped 11 percent in four months.

The drop pushed new unemployment claims below the 350,000 level that economists normally associate with sustained strength in the labor market. Claims have declined for three weeks in a row.

MORE JOBS: Job gains have exceeded 200,000 for two consecutive months, and the unemployment rate dropped to a three-year low of 8.3 percent in January. Economists are cautiously optimistic that February will be another month of solid job gains.

ANOTHER BOOST: More jobs and tame inflation are giving consumers more buying power. Their higher spending could further boost growth and lower the unemployment rate for February for a sixth consecutive month.

NO WORK: About 23.8 million Americans are either out of work or underemployed, and there are no job openings for nearly three out of every four unemployed.

HIGHS ALL AROUND: The Dow Jones industrial average, Standard & Poor’s 500 and Nasdaq composite all notched their highest closes of 2012 on Thursday.

NEARING 13,000: The Dow closed at its highest level since May 19, 2008 – four months before the financial crisis imploded.

RECORD PROFIT: General Motors Co. earned $7.6 billion last year, the biggest profit in the automaker’s history. GM shares closed up $2.24 at $27.17.

THEY’RE GOING UP: Builders broke ground in January on a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 699,000 homes, the Commerce Department said. That nearly matches November’s three-year high. Single-family home construction cooled off slightly after a big jump in December.

Single-family home construction rose over the final three months of 2011 to its highest level in a year and a half. The steady, if modest, gains have made builders more confident about their prospects than they’ve been in nearly five years.

Construction of single-family homes did slip in January. But builders requested permits for those homes at the fastest rate in a year. That shows that many anticipate more buyers over the next 12 months – roughly the time it takes to build a single-family home once a permit is obtained.

ANOTHER BOOST: Home building is expected to add to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.

BAD TREND: Foreclosure filings for the Augusta metro area jumped in January, mirroring the trend in Georgia and nationwide.

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