Stocks Edge Higher

Stocks in New York trade with gains as investors absorb the latest unemployment and mortgage data.
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Updated from 10:51 a.m. EST

Stocks on Wall Street were adding to gains at the approach of the earlier-than-usual market close Wednesday despite the release of higher-than-expected jobless claims and other economic data.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

was up 42 points at 8461, and the

S&P 500

gained 5 points at 868. The

Nasdaq

was recently up 1.5 points at 1523.

Markets were set to close at 1 p.m. EST ahead of the Christmas holiday, but there was no shortage of data. Mortgage application data, personal income data and initial jobless claims, retail sales and durable goods data were all released early Wednesday.

The Labor Department reported that Initial applications for

unemployment benefits

increased to a seasonally adjusted 586,000 last week from 554,000 in the prior week, well above expectations for 558,000.

It's basically a function of the increasing frequency of layoff notices, says Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight, noting that the auto companies are gearing down and slowing exports are not helping employment numbers.

"You have to remember that employment is a lagging indicator of the economy, so you might see unemployment still rising, even when the economy turns around," says Bethune, who estimates we are close to the worst part of the recession.

In other data Wednesday, durable orders fell by 1%, vs. an expectation for a 3.1% drop, according to the Commerce Department.

Also,

consumer spending

declined 0.6% in November, 0.2% less than expected, according to the Commerce Department. Personal income fell 2%, vs. an expectation for no change. Notably the

ABC News

and

Washington Post

consumer comfort index, was -48, up from -51 a week prior. But those figures compare to a 23-year average of -11.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said on Wednesday that the Market Composite Index, a measure of

mortgage loan application

volume, was 1245.4 for the week ended Dec. 19, a 48% increase on a seasonally adjusted basis from 841.4 one week earlier.

Borrowers are taking advantage of Interest rates that plummeted last month after the

Federal Reserve

said it would buy up to $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities and other debt issued by government-controlled mortgage giants

Fannie Mae

(FNM)

and

Freddie Mac

(FRE)

.

Housing data have been a focus for those keeping a pulse on the recession. According to data released earlier in the week, existing-home sales and new-home sales both declined more than expected in November, according to data from the Census Bureau and the National Association of Realtors.

In company news,

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

said late Tuesday that, after years of dispute, it will pay as much as $640 million to settle 63 lawsuits associated with wage-and-hour violations.

Meanwhile, insurer

AIG

(AIG) - Get Report

said Wednesday that it bought about $16 billion in investments known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, through a financing company set up by the insurer and the government to help relieve AIG of its exposure to the riskiest portion of the credit markets.

Automakers worldwide continue to feel the economic crunch. Japanese automaker

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

said Wednesday its global vehicle sales declined 21.8% in November, the greatest decline in eight years. Meanwhile, its rival,

Nissan

(NSANY)

, said its worldwide sales also declined, falling 19.8%.

Japan's No. 2 carmaker,

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

said Wednesday that its global production in November fell 9.9% to 326,176 vehicles, the biggest drop in five years. Honda does not provide global vehicle sales.

As Tokyo is working to combat the global economic crisis, Japan's cabinet approved a $974.12 billion budget for the next fiscal year, the largest amount ever for an initially planned budget, according to a report in

The Wall Street Journal

.

Japan's Nikkei and Hong Kong's Hang Seng ended with losses Wednesday. While, the FTSE in London was falling a fraction of a percent, and the DAX in Frankfurt was closed for the day.

In commodities, oil continued to fall, giving up $1.47 to $37.51 a barrel. Gold was rising $4.60 to $842.70 an ounce.

Longer-dated U.S. Treasury securities were recently rising. The 10-year was up 4/32 to yield 2.2%, and the 30-year was adding 7.5/32, yielding 2.6%. The dollar was recently weaker against the euro and yen, and stronger against the pound.

Stocks on Wall Street closed with losses Tuesday as investors digested the final

gross domestic product

figure for the third quarter and more dim housing numbers.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.