Jobless claims hover near four-year lows

WASHINGTON – New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits edged down last week, holding near four-year lows, according to a government report on Thursday that suggested the labor market was gaining momentum.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 351,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week’s figure was revised up to 353,000 from the previously reported 351,000.

Claims have been hovering near four-year lows over the last few weeks. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims unchanged at 351,000 last week.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, dropped 5,500 to 354,000 – the lowest level since March 2008.

New applications for jobless benefits have declined through much of February, raising hopes for a third straight month of solid employment gains.

Nonfarm employment likely increased 200,000 last month, according to a Reuters survey, after rising 243,000 in January. The unemployment rate is seen holding at a three-year low of 8.3 percent in February.

The government will release February’s employment report on March 9. While the labor market is gaining momentum, the level of employment is still 5.82 million from its prerecession level.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke described the labor market as “far from normal” and that further improvement would require stronger growth in final demand and production.

A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data and that no states had been estimated.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 2,000 to 3.40 million in the week ended Feb. 18.

So-called continued claims covered the survey period for the household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived. Continued claims have declined 165,000 between the January and February survey periods.

U.S. foreclosure filings hit four-year low in 2011

NEW YORK ― The number of U.S. homes that received a foreclosure filing fell to a four-year low in 2011 as a slowdown in processing hit the market, RealtyTrac said in a report on Thursday.

Foreclosure filings, which include default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions, slid by 34 percent in 2011, the lowest level since 2007, just as the housing market was starting to crumble. RealtyTrac said there were filings on 1,887,777 homes last year.

Bank seizures of homes fell to 804,423 from 1,050,500 in 2010, also marking the lowest level in four years.

“A big part that is inflating the size of the decrease is a continuing extended foreclosure process,” said Daren Blomquist, director of marketing communications at RealtyTrac.

“Especially in some states, we have a dysfunctional foreclosure process that is bogging down foreclosures, but more importantly, it’s bogging down and hampering the housing recovery.”

Foreclosure activity slowed following claims in 2010 that lenders had relied on “robo-signing” where documents were signed without a review of the case files.

Blomquist said there were signs in recent months that in some markets lenders were starting to tackle the backlog and activity will likely increase in 2012.

Nevada ranked as the state with highest foreclosure rate for the fifth year in a row, with one in 16 Nevada homes receiving at least one foreclosure filing in 2011. Even so, Nevada saw a 31 percent decrease in foreclosure activity for the year.

The length of time for foreclosure processing continued to increase in the final quarter of the year. Homes took on average 348 days to move through the process, up from 336 days in the third quarter and 305 days in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Mortgage applications eased last week: MBA

NEW YORK  ― Applications for home mortgages slipped last week, led by a drop in purchase demand as low interest rates were not enough to entice home buyers, an industry group said on Wednesday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity, which includes both refinancing and home purchase demand, fell 2.6 percent in the week ended Dec 16.

The MBA’s seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications dipped 1.6 percent, while the gauge of loan requests for home purchases lost 4.9 percent.

“Remarkably low rates are not enough, as many homeowners continue to hold back due to lack of equity in their properties, poor credit and a weak job market,” Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of research and economics, said in a statement.

Fixed 30-year mortgage rates averaged 4.08 percent, down 4 basis points from 4.12 percent the week before. It was the lowest rate this year, the MBA said.

The refinance share of total mortgage activity rose to 80.7 percent of applications from 79.7 percent the previous week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of U.S. retail residential mortgage applications, according to MBA.

Tiffany recent torrid sales growth shows signs of slowing

NEW YORK ― Tiffany & Co. gave a holiday quarter profit outlook that missed Wall Street expectations, and signs that the recent torrid pace of its sales gains is slowing sent shares down 7 percent.

The upscale jeweler reported higher-than-expected third-quarter earnings, helped by sales of more expensive jewelry, and said that its sales gains would continue in the holiday season.

But Tiffany left unchanged its forecast for a high-teens percentage increase in sales for the full year, which ends in late January.

Tiffany Chief Executive Michael Kowalski said in a statement there had been “recent sales weaknesses in Europe and in the eastern part of the U.S.”

Globally, sales were up 17 percent in the third quarter, excluding the impact of currency translation. But that is below the 19 percent pace in the first three quarters combined. The slowdown was limited to the Americas and Europe, which together make up nearly 60 percent of Tiffany’s business.

Another concern is that gross margin, a measure of the profitability of jewelry sold, slipped and could dip further, Morningstar analyst Paul Swinand said.

“The worry is that there is a turn in the margin and slowing down of the pace of sales growth,” Swinand said.

Tiffany’s gross margin edged down 0.6 point to 57.9 percent in the third quarter, largely because it sold more pricy jewelry, which the company said has lower margins.

Tiffany said it expects fourth quarter earnings per share of $1.48 to $1.58, below the $1.63 Wall Street analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The upscale jeweler expects sales to rise at a low-teens percentage rate for the holiday quarter.

Tiffany’s sales at stores open at least a year, excluding the effect of currency translations, rose 16 percent in the third quarter.

Despite volatile stock markets, sales grew in every region. The fastest growth came from Asia where they rose 40 percent in the quarter, taking into account the effect of currency. China, the fastest growing luxury market, was a standout.

At Tiffany’s famed Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan, sales rose 24 percent, helped by the record number of tourists visiting New York.

The results echo those of upscale department stores Saks Inc., Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, which all recently reported that high end shoppers are still spending.In Europe, where leaders are trying to manage fears about the future of the euro, sales rose 15 percent in the third quarter.Tiffany reported net income of $89.7 million, or 70 cents per share, for the quarter, up from $55.1 million, or 43 cents per share, a year earlier and above the 61 cents a share that analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

New claims for unemployment benefits fall 9,000 in latest week

WASHINGTON ― New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits fell below 400,000 last week for the first time in five weeks and a trend reading also edged lower, suggesting a modest improvement in the still-moribund labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 9,000 in the week ending October 29 to a seasonally adjusted 397,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The government raised slightly its estimate for claims filed during the prior week to 406,000.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims edging down to 400,000 from the previously reported 402,000.

The level of weekly claims remains well above pre-recession levels and has dipped below 400,000 only on brief occasions this year, suggesting no fast turnaround is imminent for the jobs market.

A Labor Department official said the government had to estimate claims for two states — Connecticut and Oklahoma — but believed the estimates did not affect the overall report.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, fell 2,000 to 404,500.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 15,000 to 3.683 million in the week ended Oct. 22.

Economists had forecast so-called continuing claims at 3.69 million.

A total of 6.782 million people were claiming unemployment benefits in the week ended Oct. 15, up from 6.679 million during the prior week.

June import prices post first decline in a year as oil, food costs fall

WASHINGTON ―Import prices fell in June for the first time in a year as petroleum and food costs tumbled, according to a government report on Wednesday that suggested the commodity-driven spike in inflation was abating.

Overall import prices dropped 0.5 percent, breaking eight straight months of increases, the Labor Department said, after gaining 0.1 percent in May.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected prices to drop 0.6 percent last month. Import prices were up 13.6 percent in the 12 months through June.

Stripping out fuel and food, import prices were flat after rising 0.6 percent in May. The report supported the contention by Federal Reserve officials and independent economists that the commodity-induced jump in inflation would be temporary.

Data on Thursday is expected to show that wholesale prices fell 0.2 percent in June from May, according to a Reuters survey. The producer price index rose 0.2 percent in May.

High inflation undercut economic activity in first quarter, with growth slowing sharply to a 1.9 percent annual rate after a brisk 3.1 percent expansion in the final three months of 2010.

So far, data suggest that still-high commodity prices and disruptions to motor vehicle production because of a shortage of parts from Japan contributed to keeping growth sluggish during the April-June quarter.

Last month, a 1.6 percent drop in imported petroleum prices helped to push import prices down. The drop in petroleum in June was the biggest in a year and followed a 0.9 percent fall in May.

Imported food prices declined 1.9 percent, the largest fall in more than two years, after sliding 0.7 percent in May.

The price of imported motor vehicles and parts rose 0.3 percent last month after increasing 0.5 percent in May. The rise in motor vehicle prices reflects the lingering effects of supply chain disruptions after the March earthquake in Japan.

The Labor Department report also showed export prices edged up 0.1 percent in June after rising 0.2 percent the prior month. Analysts had expected export prices to gain 0.2 percent.