WASHINGTON (AP) -- Applications for unemployment benefits soared to the highest level since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks while the trade deficit shrank more than expected as demand for imports plunged, further evidence of the struggling U.S. economy.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that jobless claims shot up by 32,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 516,000, the highest total in seven years. The tally was much higher than analysts expected and a further indication of how much the labor market is deteriorating amid the shrinking economy. The government reported last week that the unemployment rate surged to a 14-year high of 6.5 percent in October.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said the trade deficit declined by a bigger-than-expected amount in September, falling by 4.4 percent to $56.5 billion as imports experienced a record plunge.
The import decline was led by a huge fall in imported oil as the average price for crude dropped by a record $12.41 per barrel and the volume of shipments fell to the lowest level in five years. But demand for other types of imports also fell, with imported cars and car parts dropping to the lowest level in more than five years, an indication that foreign automakers are feeling the pinch hitting U.S. consumers.
President-elect Barack Obama has said that dealing with the worst financial crisis to hit this country in seven decades will be his No. 1 priority when he takes office, and his Democratic allies in Congress were laying the groundwork for changes with hearings scheduled Thursday.
The House Oversight Committee will examine the role hedge funds may have played in recent market turbulence. Among those scheduled to testify was billionaire investor George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management.
Meanwhile, the Senate Banking Committee will hear from executives of a number of financial institutions including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo on the issue of how the government's $700 billion rescue effort is operating, and particularly whether the government should be requiring more commitments on the use of the money to address rising mortgage foreclosure problems.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced Wednesday that the administration had scrapped the original centerpiece of the rescue program - a proposal to buy troubled assets to get them off the books of banks as a way of promoting increased lending.
Instead, Paulson said the administration will proceed with an alternative plan to spend $250 billion to buy stock in the banks as a way of bolstering their financial situation and accomplishing the same goal - getting the institutions to return to more normal lending.
However, critics contend the administration should be imposing more restrictions on the stock purchases as a way of insuring the banks will use the government resources to increase lending rather than just hoarding the cash, or using it to acquire other banks or boost dividends for stockholders.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was still disappointed in the administration's unwillingness to issue strict guidelines to ensure that participating firms use the funds to increase lending.
Another report detailing the difficulties facing the economy is expected later Thursday with the government announcing the budget deficit for October.
The deficit is expected to show a big increase in October, the first month of the new budget year, rising to $101.5 billion, compared to $57 billion in October 2007. The soaring costs of the bank rescue and the weak economy are expected to put the country on track to run up a record deficit for the current budget year of between $700 billion and $1 trillion, a staggering sum for a single year.
Despite its new flexibility, the administration said Wednesday it remains opposed to using the rescue fund to bail out the ailing auto industry or to provide guarantees for home loans, an idea that supporters contend offers the greatest hope for helping legions of Americans who are facing foreclosure.
Congressional Democrats felt otherwise on autos, and strongly. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were pressing for quick passage of a major package for carmakers during a postelection session that begins Nov. 18, and one key House Democrat was putting together legislation that would send $25 billion in emergency loans to the beleaguered industry in exchange for a government ownership stake in the Big Three car companies.
Paulson told reporters Wednesday that the administration was exploring the possibility of setting up a program in conjunction with the Federal Reserve that would provide support for the $1 trillion market in securities that fund such vital consumer products as credit cards, auto loans and students loans. About 40 percent of consumer credit is supplied through the sale of these securities that are backed by payments consumers make on their credit cards and other loans.
The administration already has spoken for all but $60 billion of the initial $350 billion supplied by Congress, including the $250 billion for direct stock purchases from banks and $40 billion for a new loan supplied on Monday to help stabilize troubled insurance giant American International Group.
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