Jobless claims top forecast, home sales fall

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WASHINGTON — More Ameri­cans than forecast filed claims for jobless benefits and sales of previously owned homes unexpectedly dropped, indicating the almost three-year-old economic expansion might be moderating.

Jobless claims fell by 2,000 to 386,000 in the week ended April 14 from a revised 388,000 the prior period, Labor Department figures showed Thursday.

The median forecast of 47 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a drop to 370,000. Purchases of homes fell 2.6 percent to a 4.48 million annual rate in March, the National Association of Realtors reported.

The claims data bolstered Federal Reserve concerns that growth might not be fast enough to sustain improvements in the job market that have helped push unemployment to a three-year low.

Other reports Thursday showed that an index of leading indicators rose for a sixth month and consumer confidence improved, while manufacturing in the Philadelphia area grew at a slower pace.

“The economy has slowed a notch,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pa., who is the most accurate forecaster of existing-home sales for the two years through February, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “We’re just not going to be able to duplicate the growth we saw in the first quarter.”

Other reports Thursday offered signs of strength for the global economy.

Germany’s economy, Europe’s largest, will expand 0.9 percent this year, up from a prior estimate of 0.8 percent, four leading economic institutes, including Munich-based Ifo, said Thursday in their twice-yearly economic outlook for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. The economy will grow 2 percent in 2013, they said.

Japan reported the fastest export growth in a year and a smaller-than-expected trade deficit, aiding prospects of a sustained recovery for the world’s No. 3 economy.

In the U.S., estimates for jobless claims in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 350,000 to 390,000. The Labor Department revised the previous week’s figure up from 380,000. After being revised to 370,000 from an initial estimate of 360,000, the week before that was revised back to 362,000, Thursday’s data showed.

States are revising the figures more than usual and as of now there is no explanation for the changes, a Labor Department spokesman said. The repeated revisions may make it more difficult to determine the trend in claims.

Residential real estate remains the economy’s soft spot, challenged by stricter lending standards, lower home values and the threat of more foreclosures.

Sales of existing single-family homes decreased 2.5 percent to an annual rate of 3.97 million. Purchases of multifamily properties, including condominiums and townhouses, fell to a 510,000 pace from 530,000.

Existing-home sales, tabulated when a contract closes, climbed to 4.26 million last year, from 4.19 million in 2010.

Demand peaked at 7.1 million in 2005 during the housing boom. In 2008, sales totaled 4.1 million, the least since 1995.

There were some bright spots in the report. The median price of a previously owned home rose 2.5 percent to $163,800 from $160,600 in March 2011.

Cheaper financing is doing its part to sustain home sales. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.88 percent last week, close to the record-low of 3.87 percent reached in February, according to Freddie Mac data.

To help hold down borrowing costs like mortgage rates, Fed policy makers last month said they will continue to swap $400 billion in short-term securities with long-term debt to lengthen the average maturity of the central bank’s holdings, a move dubbed Operation Twist. The program is scheduled to come to a close by the end of June. Policymakers next meet on April 24- 25.

Separately, the New York-based Conference Board said its gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months climbed 0.3 percent after a 0.7 percent gain in February that was the biggest in 11 months. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a rise of 0.2 percent in March.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s general economic index decreased to 8.5, the lowest level since January, from 12.5 in March. Economists forecast the gauge would dip to 12, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. Readings greater than zero signal expansion in the area covering eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.

Another regional report this week showed that manufacturing in the New York area expanded in April at the slowest pace in five months.

“If the regional manufacturing economies are slowing, it signals the national manufacturing economy is slowing as well,” said Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America Corp. in New York.

Slower economies in Europe and China may restrain exports and limit bookings to American factories, which have been the mainstay of the expansion. At the same time, a pickup in motor vehicle sales in the first quarter remains a source of strength.

Consumer confidence is holding up, another report Thursday showed. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index was minus 31.4 in the period ended April 15, compared with minus 32.8 over the previous seven days. The reading equaled that from two weeks earlier as the best since March 2008.


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