Summary Box: Unemployment aid applications fall

UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS DECLINE: First-time applications for unemployment benefits dropped last week to 421,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the second-lowest level this year and a sign that companies are cutting fewer jobs.

MORTGAGE RATES RISE: Mortgage rates rose for the fourth straight week, which could slow refinancings and hamper the housing market.

HIRING COULD BE AHEAD: The drop in claims hasn't yet translated into a lower unemployment rate, which rose to 9.8 percent last month. But that could change soon, particularly if Congress approves a deal on taxes and unemployment aid.