The Labor Department said initial applications for unemployment benefits rose more than anticipated to a seasonally adjusted 586,000 last week. That is the highest level since November 1982, though the work force has grown by about half since then.
The swelling rate of unemployment has been a particular concern for investors. The more people lose their jobs, or fear they will lose their jobs, the more they close their wallets. And consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
Other reports were gloomy, but a bit less grim than anticipated. The Commerce Department said consumer spending dropped 0.6 percent in November - the fifth straight monthly drop - and durable goods orders fell 1 percent in November.
The reaction on Wall Street to Wednesday's economic data was practically a shrug. Investors have largely been factoring in bad numbers for the fourth quarter as companies ranging from banks to retailers to automakers struggle with a slumping economy.
Now even automakers outside the United States are getting seriously bruised by plummeting demand from consumers. Toyota, Japan's No. 1 automaker, said its global vehicle sales sank 21.8 percent in November - the biggest drop in eight years - while its rival Nissan said global production tumbled by a record 33.7 percent due to depressed U.S. sales.
Furthermore, Wednesday's trading is considered largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Trading volumes were extremely low ahead of Christmas, and the markets close early Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time. And with only four trading days left in 2008, most buying and selling appears to be investors trying to dress up their portfolios after a year of unprecedented market turmoil.
In midmorning trading, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 22.86, or 0.27 percent, to 8,442.35. The Dow has fallen for five straight sessions. The index is well off its November lows, but down for the typically strong month of December.
Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 index futures rose 1.10, or 0.13 percent, to 864.26, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 2.79, or 0.18 percent, to 1,518.75. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 3.56, or 0.76 percent, to 465.08.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 5 to 4 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume amounted to 101.7 million shares.
Bond prices, like stocks, were little changed. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was flat at 2.18 percent.
The dollar fell against most other major currencies. Gold prices rose.
Light, sweet crude fell $1.44 to $37.54 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Markets overseas declined. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 2.37 percent, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index fell 0.26 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.93 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.21 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.39 percent.
On the Net:
New York Stock Exchange: http://www.nyse.com
Nasdaq Stock Market: http://www.nasdaq.com