WASHINGTON New orders for manufactured goods rose in December and a gauge of future business investment rebounded, showing the economy ended the year with more momentum than previously thought.
Other reports on Thursday showed new claims for jobless benefits rose moderately last week, suggesting the labor market was healing only slowly, while new U.S. single-family home sales unexpectedly fell in December.
The Commerce Department said orders for durable goods climbed 3.0 percent last month, boosted by a surge in aircraft orders. Economists had forecast orders rising 2.0 percent.
"There's some momentum here," said Jacob Oubina, an economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York. "Heading into the first quarter, the momentum is going to be pretty decent."
Durable goods range from toasters to big-ticket items like aircraft which are meant to last three years and more.
The data suggested U.S. companies could be growing more willing to invest the $2 trillion pile of cash they amassed in recent years.
Orders for capital goods outside defense and excluding aircraft, which are a proxy for business spending plans, climbed a steeper-than-expected 2.9 percent. They had declined the previous two months, and the U.S. Federal Reserve warned on Wednesday that business investment had cooled.
Also pointing to rising investments, shipments of orders within that category, which go into the calculation of gross domestic product, rose 2.9 percent after declining 1.0 percent in November.
The overall increase in orders was buoyed by an 18.9 percent jump in orders for civilian aircraft. Boeing received 287 orders for aircraft during the month, according to the plane maker's website, up from 96 in November.
The Conference Board said its index of future U.S. economic activity rose to a five-month high in December as labor market conditions improved.
U.S. stock prices .SPX fell, with housing-related stocks among the top decliners after the report on new home sales dented optimism that the housing market may have reached a bottom. Prices rose for U.S. Treasury debt.
In a separate report, the Commerce Department said new U.S. single-family home sales unexpectedly fell in December for the first time in four months, while the median home price dropped.
The housing market remains constrained by high unemployment, falling prices and an oversupply of unsold homes following a bust that triggered the 2007-09 recession. Despite the decline in sales, there were a record low 157,000 new homes on the market last month.
Labor Department data showed new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits rose last week but the underlying trend continued to point to improving labor market conditions.
Initial claims for state unemployment aid increased 21,000 to 377,000. The four-week moving average for initial claims, which provides a better view of trends, fell 2,500 to 377,500.
"We're still very much established below 400,000, continuing to suggest that there is modest improvement in the labor market," said Lindsey Piegza, an economist at FTN Financial in New York.
On Wednesday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the U.S. central bank could do more to help growth if the economy falters, and the Fed indicated interest rates would likely remain near zero until late 2014.
Among the darker clouds looming over the U.S. economy is a sovereign debt crisis in Europe that is widely seen triggering a recession in the euro zone.
Greece held negotiations on a debt swap with private creditors in Athens on Thursday aimed at averting a chaotic default that could send shockwaves through the global economy.
Increased consumer spending and efforts by companies to restock their shelves likely led the U.S. economy to accelerate at the end of 2011 although many economists expect some of that strength to wane early this year.
A report due Friday is expected to show the economy grew at a 3.0 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, up from 1.8 percent in the previous period.
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington and Emily Flitter and Karen Brettell in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci and James Dalgleish)