The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits plunged 26,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 359,000, a hopeful sign for the job market. It's the lowest level of weekly applications in nine weeks.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average, a less-volatile measure, declined 4,500 to 374,000. That's the first drop in six weeks.
Weekly unemployment applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. When they consistently fall below 375,000, it typically indicates that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Rate on 30-year loan hits record low 3.40%
Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages fell again to new record lows. The decline suggests the Federal Reserve's stimulus efforts may be having an impact on mortgage rates.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year loan dropped to 3.40 percent. That's down from last week's rate of 3.49 percent, which was the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.
The average on the 15-year fixed mortgage, a popular refinancing option, fell to 2.73 percent, down from the record low of 2.77 percent last week.
Student debt reaches record 1 in 5 households
With college enrollment growing, student debt has stretched to a record number of U.S. households — nearly 1 in 5 — with the biggest burdens falling on the young and poor.
The analysis by the Pew Research Center found that 22.4 million households, or 19 percent, had college debt in 2010. That is double the share in 1989, and up from 15 percent in 2007, just prior to the recession, representing the biggest three-year increase in student debt in more than two decades.
The increase was driven by higher tuition costs as well as rising college enrollment during the economic downturn. The biggest jumps occurred in households at the two extremes of the income distribution. More well-off families are digging deeper into their pockets to pay for costly private colleges, while lower-income people in search of higher-wage jobs are enrolling in community colleges, public universities and other schools as a way to boost their resumes.
Contracts to buy homes fell slightly in August
The number of Americans who signed contracts to buy previously occupied homes fell in August from a two-year high in July.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that its index of sales agreements dropped 2.6 percent last month to 99.2. In July, the index rose to 101.9. That was the highest level since April 2010, when the market benefited from a federal home-buying tax credit.
A reading of 100 is considered healthy. The index is 10.7 percent higher than it was a year ago. The index bottomed at 75.88 in June 2010 after the tax credit expired.
Durable orders fall; business investment up
Demand for long-lasting manufactured goods plunged in August because of a huge drop in volatile commercial aircraft orders. But in a hopeful sign, orders that reflect business investment plans rose.
The Commerce Department said Thursday that total durable goods orders fell 13.2 percent in August. That's the biggest drop since January 2009 when the country was in recession. Aircraft orders fell steeply, pulling down the headline figure.
Economists tend to pay more attention to core capital goods, which signal investment plans. Those orders rose 1.1 percent. That's the first increase since May, although it follows steep declines in the previous two months.
• From wire dispatches and staff reports