Economy Watch: Jobless Claims Down, Lending Indicators Up

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Put a few more numbers in the positive column: During the week ending March 17, initial unemployment claims were 348,000, a decrease of 5,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 353,000, and a four-year low, according to the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday. The less volatile four-week moving average was 355,000, a decrease of 1,250 from the previous week’s revised average of 356,250.

Also, the Conference Board said on Thursday that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) moved up in February by 0.7 percent to 95.5, following a 0.2 percent increase in January and a 0.5 percent increase in December. The index is benchmarked to the relatively pleasant year of 2004, which is 100.

“Continued broad-based gains in the LEI for the United States confirm a more positive outlook for general economic activity in the first half of 2012, although still subdued consumer expectations and the purchasing managers’ index for new orders held the LEI back in February,” noted Conference Board economist Ataman Ozyildirim in a press statement. The organization’s coincident and lagging indexes were also up, though only by 0.2 percent each.

A few more housing numbers

More housing numbers in a week thick with them: According to Radar Logic Inc. on Thursday, its RPX Composite Price Index, which tracks home prices in 25 major U.S. metro areas, declined 5.42 percent during the year ending January 19 to $169.75 per square foot. The last time the RPX Composite was this low was in July 2002.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom in housing prices,” Quinn Eddins, director of research at Radar Logic, noted in a press statement. “The fact is there is still too much supply in the housing market for the current level of demand, particularly if you consider homes in the foreclosure process and those under water. At very least the excess supply will delay the recovery in housing prices, and could well push prices lower.”

Also, the FHFA said on Thursday that its House Price Index was unchanged in January month-over-month. Not only that, the previous increase of 0.7 percent in December almost vanished in a revision to an increase of 0.1 percent. The year-over-year decline for the index, which tracks houses whose mortgages are backed by the GSEs, was 0.8 percent,

Down day for stocks, but not Ohio Art

Wall Street had a down day on Thursday (with some exceptions, see below), seeing the Dow Jones Industrial Average drop 78.48 points, or 0.6 percent. The S&P 500 was down 0.72 percent and the Nasdaq declined 0.39 percent. Investors aren’t much worried about Europe at the moment, but there’s still a Chinese slowdown and the maddening price of oil to bother them.

In a remarkable example of equity markets behaving irrationally, shares in Ohio Art, maker of the Etch-a-Sketch soared on Thursday (and then dropped a bit) after an aide to presidential candidate Mitt Romney had inadvertently invented, on CNN, an unflattering metaphor for the campaign that referred to the toy. Or maybe not so irrationally: the toy’s sales are up, and one can imagine Democratic (or even rival Republican) operatives supplying Etch-a-Sketches to hecklers at Romney events.

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