One in 10 American households with a mortgage is at risk of losing its home, and the foreclosure crisis could worsen if jobs remain scarce.
About 9.9 percent of homeowners had missed at least one mortgage payment as of June 30, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Thursday. That number, adjusted for seasonal factors, was barely down from a record-high of more than 10 percent as of April 30.
The Labor Department said requests for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week. The drop in first-time claims to a seasonally adjusted 473,000 was the first decline in a month and a hopeful sign after a raft of dismal economic reports.
Still, unemployment claims remain much higher than they would be in a healthy economy. Employers are reluctant to hire as economic growth appears to be slowing.
The number of Americans who are missing payments and falling into foreclosure has followed the upward trend in unemployment. The jobless rate has remained near double digits all year.
"Ultimately, the housing story, whether it is delinquencies, homes sales or housing starts, is an employment story," Jay Brinkmann, the Mortgage Bankers Association's top economist, said in a statement. "Only when we see a consistent increase in employment will we see an increase in sales and starts, and a sustained improvement in the delinquency numbers."
More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. Economists expect the number of foreclosures to grow well into next year.
Besides forcing people from their homes, foreclosures and distressed home sales have pressured home values and crippled the broader housing industry. They have made it difficult for homebuilders to compete with the depressed prices and discouraged potential sellers from putting homes on the market.
The housing market is struggling even as mortgage rates fell to the lowest level in decades for the ninth time in 10 weeks. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said the average rate for a 30-year fixed loan fell to 4.36 percent this week.
Rates have fallen since the spring as investors, spooked by a slowing economy, shifted money into the safety of Treasury bonds. That has lowered the yields on long-term Treasuries. Mortgage rates tend to track those yields.
The economy has grown for four straight quarters. But the pace has slowed from a 5 percent annual rate in last year's fourth quarter to 3.7 percent in the January-to-March period. It has weakened even further in the past several months.
Many economists expect the government Friday to revise lower its growth estimate for the April-to-June quarter to below 2 percent. That's weak in normal times and even more worrisome after a steep recession.
The drop in unemployment claims comes after a steep rise the previous three weeks that sent claims to their highest level in nine months. Even with last week's decline, the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 486,750, the most since November 2009.
Jobless claims fell steadily last year as the economy began expanding, dropping from a peak of 651,000 in March 2009 to about 460,000 at the start of this year. After fluctuating around that level for most of this year, claims started climbing again last month.
In a healthy economy, claims generally fall below 400,000.
The report is mildly encouraging but should be treated with caution, said Doug Porter, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, because the weekly claims report is highly volatile.
The total unemployment benefit rolls climbed steeply, as more people join extended unemployment aid programs that were renewed last month by Congress. During the recession, Congress added up to 73 weeks of emergency aid on top of the 26 weeks typically provided by the states.
All told, about 10.1 million people were receiving unemployment checks in the week ended Aug. 7, the latest data available. That's up about 260,000 from the previous week.
The extended program lapsed in June, throwing nearly 2 million people off the rolls. But since Congress renewed the program, the total benefit rolls have increased by 2.2 million, according to Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak.
That suggests "that there is little if any meaningful hiring throughout the economy," Greenhaus wrote in a note to clients.
Some companies are still cutting workers. Northrop Grumman Corp. said Wednesday that it will lay off 642 workers at its shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., by the end of the year. The shipyard currently has 11,000 employees.
And in late July, a NASA private contractor, the United Space Alliance, began telling 1,400 employees that they would be laid off in the fall as the U.S. space agency ends the space shuttle program.
The United Space Alliance is owned by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. and has 8,100 employees.
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