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US home sales edged up 1 percent in December

Sales of existing U.S. homes edged up slightly in December, helping to lift sales for the year to the highest level in seven years.

Sales increased to an annual rate of 4.87 million units last month, up 1 percent from the November sales pace, the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday. Both months represented a slower pace of sales than earlier in 2013, reflecting the drag from higher mortgage rates and higher home prices.

For all of 2013, sales totaled 5.09 million, the best performance since 2006 when sales climbed to 6.48 million. However, the sales gains in 2005 and 2006 represented an unsustainable housing bubble. Analysts say a more normal sales pace currently would be around 5.5 million units.

Economic gauge shows modest gain

A measure of the economy’s health rose modestly in December, suggesting that growth will remain steady early this year.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading indicators rose 0.1 percent last month. That’s down from a 1 percent gain in November, the month after a partial 16-day shutdown of the federal government.

The index is designed to signal economic conditions over the next three to six months.

The surge in stock prices helped lift the index last month. Worries about upcoming budget battles in Washington could cause businesses and consumers to curb their spending. But Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein said a “better-than-expected holiday season might point to sustained stronger demand and could put the U.S. on a faster growth track in 2014.”

Breach at Neiman affects 1.1 million

Neiman Marcus Group said Thursday that hackers who waged a nearly three-month attack on its systems evaded detection for months after stealing personal data from up to 1.1 million shoppers.

So far, about 2,400 credit cards have been used in fraudulent transactions linked to the breach at its Neiman Marcus and Last Call stores, the high-end retailer said in a statement posted on its website.

This is the most detailed accounting of the intrusion, which lasted from July to October, that the company has released. The full scope of the breach remains under investigation, the company said.

Neiman Marcus, which operates five chains, including its namesake department store and Bergdorf Goodman, said online customers were not affected by the attack. Sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and PINs were not taken in the cyberattack, the company said.

The scope of the Neiman Marcus attack is far more limited than a similar breach at Target, which suffered a December breach that ultimately may affect more than 100 million customers.

Jobless aid applications flat

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits ticked up 1,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, a level consistent with steady job gains.

The Labor Department says the four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell for the third consecutive week to 331,500.

Both figures are close to pre-recession levels and suggest that fewer workers are being laid off.

Hiring still will need to pick up to make a dent in the still-high 6.7 percent unemployment rate. Many economists forecast that job gains will pick up this year.