WASHINGTON - Economic reports Thursday suggest employers are laying off fewer workers, businesses are ordering more computers and appliances, and consumers are spending more confidently.

Combined, the latest data confirm that the economy is improving, even though too few jobs are being created to lower the nation's 9.8 percent unemployment rate.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits edged down by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 420,000, the Labor Department said. That was the second drop in three weeks. The four-week average, a less volatile gauge, rose slightly to 426,000.

Companies increased their orders for long-lasting manufactured products, excluding volatile transportation goods, by the sharpest amount in eight months, the Commerce Department said. Demand rose for computers, appliances and heavy machinery.

Total orders for durable goods dropped 1.3 percent. That decline reflected sagging demand for aircraft and autos. But excluding transportation, orders surged 2.4 percent, the best showing since last March.

Personal spending rose modestly last month, giving the economy a lift before the holidays. Spending increased 0.4 percent, the fifth straight monthly increase.

Consumers' incomes grew 0.3 percent last month, lifted by gains in stock portfolios. Wages and salaries barely budged. Hiring slowed in November. - AP

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