America got a mixed bag of signals on the economy Thursday.
New claims for jobless benefits rose in the latest week, but the average over four weeks dropped. Home sales gained in August, although not by enough to keep the monthly sales from being the second worst in more than a decade. And a gauge of future business activity pointed toward economic growth, albeit sluggish, come the winter. Not terrible data, but not terribly good either.
The tally of newly laid-off workers requesting unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time in five weeks as the job market remains sluggish.
Initial claims for jobless aid rose by 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 465,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Many economists had expected a flat reading or small drop.
The rise suggests that jobs remain scarce and some companies are still cutting workers amid weak economic growth. Initial claims have fallen from a recent spike above a half-million last month. But they have been stuck above 450,000 for most of this year.
"What's becoming increasing clear is that this isn't a normal recovery," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak. "There's little we can do to create jobs until demand returns, and demand isn't returning."
Separately, the National Association of Realtors said sales of previously occupied homes rose 7.6 percent in August from July, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.13 million. Still, it was the second-worst month for sales in more than a decade. July was the worst month for sales in 15 years, a factor unchanged by a slightly upward revision.
And the Conference Board, a private research group, said its index of leading economic indicators rose modestly in August, more evidence that the economy will keep growing at a slow pace through the fall.
Jobless claims typically fall below 400,000 when hiring is robust and the economy is growing.
The four-week average of claims, a less volatile measure, declined by 3,250 to 463,250. That's the lowest level since the end of July, but down by only 4,000 since January.
Initial claims, while volatile, are considered a real-time snapshot of the job market. The weekly claims figures are considered a measure of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire.
New requests for jobless benefits have fallen sharply since June 2009, the month the recession ended. They topped 600,000 at the end of that month. But most of the decline took place last year.
Economic growth has slowed considerably in recent months, and many employers are reluctant to add new employees. The economy grew at a 1.6 percent annual rate in the second quarter, an anemic pace that isn't fast enough to reduce the jobless rate, now at 9.6 percent. Growth in the current July-September quarter isn't expected to be much faster.
While layoffs have eased since the recession ended, hiring hasn't picked up much. Businesses added a net total of only 67,000 jobs in August. The economy needs to generate a net total of almost 300,000 jobs a month to reduce the unemployment rate to 8 percent over the next two years, according to an estimate by the Labor Department.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits fell by 48,000 to 4.49 million, the department said. But that doesn't include several million people who are receiving unemployment aid under extended programs approved by Congress during the recession.
The extended benefit rolls rose by about 200,000 to nearly 5.2 million in the week ending Sept. 4, the latest data available.
Some companies are still cutting jobs. Cessna Aircraft said Tuesday that it will lay off 700 workers because the economy hasn't recovered as strongly as the company had hoped earlier this year. The latest reductions are on top of 8,000 jobs the company has shed since late 2008, reducing its work force by half.