Economic news is mixed

Reports released Thursday offered more bad news for the sputtering U.S. economy, though a ray of hope came in a national GDP analysis.

Permits down for new homes

The downward spiral of new residential building permits continued in the first half of 2008 in the Lexington area.

There were 1,093 permits issued for new homes, a 37.7 percent decline from the same months of 2007.

All eight Central Kentucky counties surveyed showed declines, a trend that began in 2006.

Fayette County had a 43.2 percent drop in the first half of 2008, The Market Edge reported Thursday. There were 410 permits issued, compared with 722 in the first half of 2007, The Market Edge said.

GDP makes a gain

The Commerce Department reported that gross domestic product increased in the second quarter at an annual rate of 1.9 percent, an improvement over the 0.9 percent growth logged in the first quarter.

GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States, and it is the best barometer of the country's economic fitness.

But it wasn't as robust as some economists had hoped. They had been forecasting growth at a 2.4 percent pace.

Still, though, hope came as consumers boosted spending at a 1.5 percent pace in the second quarter, probably because of national tax rebate programs. That was up from a 0.9 percent growth rate in the first quarter and the best showing since the third quarter of 2007.

Meanwhile, sales of U.S. exports grew at a 9.2 percent pace in the second quarter, up from a 5.1 percent growth rate in the first quarter. The weak dollar has made U.S. goods cheaper to foreign buyers, helping to bolster exports.

Joblessness grows

The number of people filing claims for unemployment benefits jumped last week to 448,000, the highest level in five years.

That was far worse than the decline of 8,000 that economists expected.

However, the government attributed much of the big jump to a special outreach program to notify people that they could qualify for up to 13 weeks of additional benefits because of legislation Congress passed in June.

Employment costs up

The Labor Department reported that employment costs for civilian workers rose by 0.7 percent in the April-June quarter, matching the gain in the first three months of the year.

Both of those quarterly increases, though, were the lowest in two years and provided further evidence that the weakening labor market is keeping a lid on wage pressures.

Crops and livestock

The cost of crops and livestock is up 16 percent this year compared to last year, driven higher by rising costs for feedstock and fuel. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows that prices for farm products rose 1.9 percent in June alone.

The annual report measures the price that farmers receive for their goods, not the ultimate price that consumers pay.

Crops and livestock costs amount to a fraction of the final cost of food, after transportation, packaging and marketing costs are also factored in.

30-year mortgages

Rates on 30-year mortgages, which shot up last week to the highest level in nearly a year, dropped slightly this week after passage of a housing rescue bill.

Freddie Mac reported the nationwide average dipped to 6.52 percent this week, down from 6.63 percent last week.