___ Economy brightens as consumers spend, layoffs slow WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Economic reports suggest employers are laying off fewer workers, businesses are ordering more computers and appliances, and consumers are spending with more confidence. Combined, the data confirm the economy is improving, and further job gains are expected in 2011. The economy's outlook is brightening even though hiring has yet to strengthen enough to reduce an unemployment rate near 10 percent. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 420,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the second-lowest level since July 2008. ___ Mortgage rates edge down after 5 weeks of gains NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Rates on fixed mortgages dipped after rising for five weeks in a row. Still, they remain more than a half-point higher than last month and are at the highest level since late spring. Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage slipped to 4.81 percent from 4.83 percent in the previous week. Last month, the rate reached a 40-year low of 4.17 percent, but has since been edging higher. The average rate on the 15-year loan, a popular refinance option, also fell to 4.15 percent from 4.17 percent. It hit 3.57 percent in November, the lowest level on records starting in 1991. Rates had been rising since early November as investors shifted money out of Treasurys and into stocks on expectations that the recent tax-cut plan will boost economic growth and potentially increase inflation. The sell-off comes even as the Federal Reserve buys up $600 billion in bonds to try to lower interest rates. ___ Jo-Ann Stores being taken private for $1.6 billion NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Fabric and craft store chain Jo-Ann Stores Inc. is being taken private by investment firm Leonard Green & Partners LP for about $1.6 billion, the latest in a series of billion-dollar retail buyouts.