Durable Orders, Jobless Claims Rise; New Homes Fall

By John S. McClenahen If the U.S. economy were a baseball game, then the latest score would be 2-1. However, that statistic is not as positive as it might seem. In fact, negative data outnumbered the positives in economic figures the federal government released on Feb. 27. First-time claims for unemployment insurance last week rose to 417,000, an increase of 11,000 from the revised figure of 406,000 for the week ending Feb. 15, reported the U.S. Department of Labor. The four-week moving average for initial claims, which many economists consider a better indicator of labor market trends, also increased last week. It now stands at 399,750, up 4,000 from its previous mark and suggests the economy still is struggling to sustain existing jobs or create new ones. Sales of single-family new homes fell 15.1% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 914,000, the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development said. In contrast, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors earlier this week reported a significant increase in the sales of existing single-family homes during January. Indeed, sales were at a record monthly mark. So while the drop in new-home sales is substantial and discouraging, it's still a little early to conclude that the economically hot U.S. housing market has begun to cool down dramatically. Meanwhile, in a decidedly positive sign for the economy generally and manufacturing in particular, the Commerce Department said new orders for manufactured durable goods increased 3.3% in January to $174.8 billion, an unexpectedly strong showing. January's increase followed a 0.4% decrease in new orders for durables in December 2002. Not counting transportation, new orders for durable goods in January rose 2.5%. Excluding defense orders, durables posted a 3.6% increase.

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