U.S. jobless claims drop, remain high

New jobless claims dropped sharply last week to a still-high 410,000 as the effect of superstorm Sandy probably eased. The figure for the week ended Saturday was down 41,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 451,000. But the 410,000 new claims, which was in line with analyst expectations, still were well above the four-week average of 396,250. The high levels of the past two weeks reversed a yearlong downward trend as the job market improved. Until the week ending Nov. 10, initial jobless claims hadn't topped 400,000 since mid-October 2011. New claims hit a 4 1/2-year low of 342,000 in early October.

Confidence gauge holds steady

Consumer confidence held at a five-year high in November, but there were signs that concerns about the "fiscal cliff" are starting to weigh on sentiments. The final November index of consumer sentiment stood at 82.7 based on the widely followed survey by Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan. That's a notch above the 82.6 reading for October, but down from the 84.9 preliminary index earlier in November. Details of the report released Wednesday showed consumers' mood about current conditions brightened in November, most likely reflecting the improving housing market and gains in job growth in October.

Mortgage rates plumb new low

Mortgage rates in the U.S. dropped to a record for a second week, decreasing borrowing costs as housing demand strengthens. The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to an all-time low of 3.31 percent in the week ended from 3.34 percent, Freddie Mac said. The average 15-year rate slipped to 2.63 percent, also a record, from 2.65 percent. Low mortgage rates have helped fuel a recovery in housing. Sales of previously owned homes gained 2.1 percent to a 4.79 million annual rate in October as inventories dropped to the lowest level in almost a decade, the National Association of Realtors said two days ago.

Money flows back into gold

Gold gained for the second time in three days as central banks increased holdings and rising tension in the Middle East boosted demand for the precious metal as an investment haven. Bullion holdings linked to exchange-traded products rose to a record. Brazil, Kazakhstan and Russia added to gold reserves last month, data on the International Monetary Fund's website show. Gold futures for December delivery rose 0.3 percent to settle at $1,728.20 an ounce on the Comex in New York. The precious metal has gained 10 percent this year.

'Potter' publisher's shares sink

Shares of Scholastic Corp. plunged the most in a decade after the publisher of the "Harry Potter" and "Hunger Games" books slashed its profit and revenue forecasts. The shares fell 18 percent to close at $26.05, their biggest one-day decline since February 2003. The stock had gained 6.2 percent this year through Tuesday. Profit from continuing operations will be $1.40 to $1.60 a share in fiscal 2013, down from a previous forecast of as much as $2.40, the New York-based company said. Sales will be $1.8 billion to $1.9 billion, compared with an earlier projection of as much as $2 billion.