WASHINGTON - Reports yesterday on unemployment claims and manufacturing and a forecast of U.S. economic activity pointed to an economy mending slowly and fitfully, without the job growth to fuel a vigorous recovery.

The number of newly laid-off workers nationwide filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week. New claims soared in Pennsylvania and rose in New Jersey.

But the four-week national average for jobless claims, which smooths out weekly fluctuations, fell - showing that the pace of layoffs continues to decline.

The second report showed that manufacturing activity in the Philadelphia area grew in December for the fifth straight month. Before that, manufacturing had declined for 10 months in a row, dating to October 2008.

Separately, a forecast of economic activity into 2010 rose for the eighth straight month in November.

Still, employers across the country remain reluctant to ramp up hiring.

A big problem is that companies lack confidence in the strength and sustainability of the recovery. FedEx Corp., for example, yesterday offered a tepid outlook for the quarter that ends in January. The package-delivery company expects the recovery to continue next year, but it questioned whether demand for its services would stay strong after the peak holiday-shipping season.

A look at yesterday's economic news:

Jobs. The Labor Department said the number of new unemployment claims rose 7,000, to 480,000, in the week that ended Saturday. That was worse than the decline to 465,000 economists had expected. But the four-week average dipped to 467,500, the 15th straight decline.

In Pennsylvania, new jobless claims increased 17,732 because of layoffs in the chemical, mining, metals, industrial machinery, transportation equipment, and glass industries.

New Jersey's new claims rose 3,109 because of layoffs in the construction, trade, service, transportation, and manufacturing fields. State claims are for the week ended Dec. 5.

Manufacturing. Activity rose in December at the fastest pace in four years as manufacturers' sales and employment rose, according to the report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

The bank's overall manufacturing index measured 20.4 compared with 16.7 in November. Any index number above zero indicates growth. The streak of negative index numbers ended in July.

Forecast. The Conference Board said its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.9 percent last month, up from 0.3 percent in October. The latest reading beat the 0.7 percent increase that economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected.