New reports reveal battered US economy

WASHINGTON: The US government released a quartet of reports on Wednesday that paint a bleak picture of the nation's economy: Jobless claims remain at recessionary levels, Americans cut back on their spending by the largest amount since the 2001 terrorist attacks, orders to U.S. factories plummeted and homes sales fell to the lowest level in nearly 18 years.

The Labor Department reported that initial requests for unemployment benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 529,000 from the previous week's upwardly revised figure of 543,000. But claims remain at recessionary levels. The four-week average, which smooths out fluctuations, rose to 518,000, its highest level since January 1983, when the economy was emerging from a steep recession.

One minor bright spot showed the number of people continuing to claim unemployment insurance dropped unexpectedly to 3.96 million, from the previous week's 4.02 million, which was the highest level in 25 years. The labor market has grown by about half since 1983.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending plunged by 1 percent in October, even worse than the 0.9 percent decline that had been expected. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity.

Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods also plunged last month by the largest amount in two years. Orders for durable goods dropped by 6.2 percent, more than double the decline economists expected. The Commerce Department report showed widespread declines throughout manufacturing led by decreases in autos and airplanes.

The department also reported that new home sales decreased 5.3 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 433,000 homes, the lowest level since January 1991, another period when the country was undergoing a steep housing downturn.

The median price of a new home sold in October fell to $218,000, down 7 percent from a year ago, and the lowest since September 2004.

Wall Street appeared ready to give back some of its recent gains as investors reacted to the downbeat economic readings. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 60 points in early trading Wednesday. The stock market is coming off of three sessions of gains, so some giveback, especially with disappointing data, is to be expected.

With the economy showing further signs that it is headed into a steep swoon, the administration and the Federal Reserve rolled out two new programs Tuesday that would provide up to $800 billion in an effort to get more loans flowing in such critical areas as mortgage lending, credit cards, auto loans and small business loans.

Credit markets liked the new efforts, but private economists said the new moves were not likely to be the last changes in the government's vast rescue program, which has already undergone significant alterations since it was passed by Congress on Oct. 3.

Analysts believe more work will need to be done because of their expectations that the economy's vital signs will continue to worsen as the country slips into what many believe could be the worst recession since the early 1980s.

The unemployment rate has hit a 14-year high of 6.5 percent, putting pressure on personal incomes. The government reported Tuesday that the overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, shrank at an annual rate of 0.5 percent in the July-September quarter, reflecting the fact that consumer spending fell at the fastest pace in 28 years.

Nariman Behravesh, an economist at IHS Global Insight, said he was expecting GDP to shrink at a 4 percent rate in the current quarter, reflecting the battering consumers are taking from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. He predicted that the economy would remain in recession through the first half of next year.

"We are in the early stages of one of the worst recessions in the postwar period, even factoring in a massive stimulus program," Behravesh.

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