updated 12/18/2008 10:22:50 AM ET 2008-12-18T15:22:50

A private research group's measure of the economy's health fell again in November and its six-month rate of decline hit the worst level since 1991.

Major Market Indices

The New York-based Conference Board on Thursday said its index of leading economic indicators fell for the second straight month, dropping 0.4 percent in November. That was slightly better than the 0.5 percent decline economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected.

The index is designed to forecast economic activity in the next three to six months based on 10 economic components, including stock prices, building permits and initial claims for unemployment benefits.

Based on revised numbers, the index has decreased 2.8 percent in the six months through November, the worst drop since 1991, when the economy was in a recession.

Drops in building permits and stock prices, and increases in unemployment claims led the index lower. The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications for jobless benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 554,000 last week, from an upwardly revised figure of 575,000 the previous week. Still, the four-week moving average, which smooths out fluctuations, increased slightly to 543,750 claims, the highest since December 1982. The labor force has grown by about half since then.

Without increases to the money supply from federal bailouts, the leading indicators' reading would have been far worse. The recession that officially began in December 2007 continues to ravage businesses in almost every sector.

Insurer Aetna Inc. said Wednesday it plans to cut 1,000 jobs, or nearly 3 percent of its work force, by year's end. And Circuit City Stores Inc. said it plans to break leases for almost all the 155 stores it plans to close this month. The chain has 700 stores total.

Chrysler LLC, faced with a glut of unsold cars, said Wednesday it is closing all 30 of its manufacturing plants for a month, instead of the two-week shutdown it usually takes.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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