Stocks down as investors worry over mortgage rates

Investors are brushing aside some positive economic news on lingering concerns over the housing market.

Investors are brushing aside some positive economic news on lingering concerns over the housing market.

But while U.S. markets were in negative territory Thursday, stocks are likely to end the year on an upbeat note: The S&P 500 index is up 12 percent and the Dow is up 11 percent in a year marked by big corporate profits. The Dow is back to levels last seen in August 2008, prior to the heat of the financial crisis, while the S&P might just eke out the best December in 20 years, if it manages to go back to positive territory.

At midday, the Dow Jones industrial average was off 23.73 points, or 0.2 percent, to 11,561.70. The S&P 500 edged down 2.64, or 0.2 percent, to 1,257.14, while the technology-focused Nasdaq composite index fell 3.98, or 0.2 percent, to 2,662.95.

The week has been thinly traded, and Thursday is effectively being considered the last trading day of note because of the spate of economic data and also because even fewer traders are expected to show up on Friday, the last day of the year.

Despite the strong corporate profits recorded during the year, economists have been worried about the stubbornly high rate of unemployment at 9.8 percent. Thursday's report from the Labor Department should offer some relief.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to its lowest point in nearly two and a half years, a sign that the job market is slowly improving. Applications dropped by 34,000 to 388,000, the fewest since July 2008, the Labor Department said Thursday. Unemployment claims generally predict where the job market will go over the next few months.

In further positive news, the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for December showed that companies in the Midwest were faring better. The index, which surveys business conditions in the states of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, came in with a reading of 68.6, up from 62.5 in the previous month. Economists had been expecting the index to drop to 61.

Home sales also fared well. The National Association of Realtors said the number of people who signed contracts to buy homes rose in November, the fourth increase since contract signings hit a low in June. Its index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes increased 3.5 percent.

However, with mortgage rates creeping up, investors worried over its effect on home sales. The average rate on 30-year fixed mortgages rose this week to 4.86 percent, the highest level in seven months.

U.S. Treasurys are also down slightly, which has led to a slight bump up in yields. The benchmark 10-year bond is yielding 3.39 percent, up from 3.35 at Wednesday's close.

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