WASHINGTON - Economic reports Thursday suggested that employers are laying off fewer workers, businesses are ordering more computers and appliances, more people are buying new homes, and consumers are spending more confidently.

Combined, the latest data confirm that the economy is improving, though the job market remains a problem with unemployment at a stubbornly high 9.8 percent.

"The recovery is moving into higher gear," said Jim O'Sullivan, global chief economist at MF Global Ltd., of New York.

The reports added to a run of better-than-forecast data that have prompted economists to raise their estimates for economic growth. The extension of Bush-era income-tax cuts for two years, a reduction in the payroll tax next year, and the Federal Reserve's plan to buy $600 billion of Treasury securities is adding to the optimism.

Here is a look at Thursday's data.

Jobless claims. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits edged down by 3,000 to 420,000, the Labor Department said. Still, economists say the number would need to dip to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant decline in unemployment.

The four-week average, a less volatile gauge, rose slightly to 426,000 after dropping for six straight weeks.

Durable-goods orders. 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 reflected sagging demand for aircraft and autos. Excluding transportation, orders surged 2.4 percent, the best showing since last March.

Personal spending and income. 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.

New homes. Sales rose 5.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 290,000 units, the government said. But that is less than half the rate that economists consider healthy.

Consumer sentiment. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index of consumer sentiment rose in December to 74.5, a six-momnth high, from 71.6 in November.

The economy is expected to pick up next year as consumers spend more freely. Most Americans will have more cash to spend because of a cut in Social Security taxes that Congress approved this month. But economic growth probably will not be fast enough to quickly reduce unemployment.