NEW YORK – The U.S. economy should expand modestly in coming months as a healthy job market continues to trump weakness in housing prices, a gauge of future business activity showed on Thursday.
The Conference Board said its index of leading economic indicators rose a higher-than-expected 0.3 percent in May, boosted by rising stock prices, higher consumer expectations and the availability of jobs.
Economists said that jobs should continue to be plentiful, despite an unexpected surge in jobless claims last week.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that unemployment claims totaled 324,000 last week, up 10,000 from the previous week, to the highest level since mid-April.
While the big increase was unexpected, analysts said it did not change their view that the labor market remains hardy. Even with the increase, analysts noted claims remain close to their average — 319,000 — over the first 5 1/2 months of the year.
While the overall U.S. economy grew at a lackluster 0.6 percent in the first three months of this year, many analysts believe the pace has picked up significantly in the spring.
The Conference Board's upbeat report shows that the impact of the housing slump has been fairly contained so far, said Patrick Newport, an economist with Global Insight.
"It just hasn't spilled over to the rest of the economy," he said. It also indicates the economy is doing better than last month's leading indicators report suggested, Newport said.
May's increase reversed a revised 0.3 percent drop in April, down from the original 0.5 percent decline that economists blamed on soaring gas prices and a drop in building permits.
The report, designed to forecast economic activity over the next three to six months, tracks 10 economic indicators.
The advancing contributors in May, starting with the largest, were weekly unemployment insurance claims, stock prices, building permits, consumer expectations and vendor performance.
The negative contributors, beginning with the largest, were real money supply, average weekly manufacturing hours and interest rate spread.
With the latest report, the cumulative change in the index over the past six months has gone up 0.3 percent.
Wall Street is fairly confident that falling home prices and rising mortgage defaults won't damage the broader economy. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Wednesday the housing slump is nearing an end and that the losses so far have been contained.
But if mortgage rates keep rising, fewer people will want to buy homes and fewer homeowners will be able to refinance. If that happens, the residential real estate market's troubles could snowball and dampen consumer spending.
The Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which sets short-term interest rates, meets next week and is widely expected to leave rates unchanged as they have been for about a year.
A pickup in the economy has raised worries about rising inflation, however.
On Tuesday, the Commerce Department said construction of new homes fell in May as the nation's homebuilders were battered by the crisis in subprime lending and rising mortgage rates. Industry sentiment about the housing market fell in June to the lowest point in more than 16 years.
Secondary effects from the housing downturn like layoffs and restrained consumer spending could also start surfacing, said Aaron Smith, an economist with Moody's Economy.com. But the overall drag on the economy from the housing industry should decline in coming months, he said.
"Building permits cannot continue declining at the pace they have," Smith said.