Figures show a recovering labor market

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WASHINGTON — Businesses are growing more confident in the economy, investing in more equipment and laying off fewer workers.

Government figures on manufacturing and unemployment claims released Thursday raised hopes on the eve of a report on how much the economy grew in the October-December quarter.

Still, 2011 ended up as the worst year on record for new-home sales, a reminder that the economy has a long way to go.

“Business optimism seems to be picking up, which is critical to the growth and competitiveness of the U.S. economy over the long haul,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.

That growth was evident after Caterpillar said its fourth-quarter profit jumped 60 percent. The world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment also issued 2012 guidance above Wall Street predictions.

Factories are busier in large part because businesses are ordering more communication equipment, industrial machinery and autos. Economists pay close attention to demand for such core capital goods, which are considered a good proxy for business investment plans.

The increase offered some reassurance about the status of the recovery. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cited the decline while warning that the economy remains vulnerable.

After seeing the government’s report, some economists said those concerns may have been premature.

Companies are also laying off fewer workers, which has some economists optimistic about job growth in January.

Weekly applications rose last week to a seasonally adjusted 377,000. But that followed a week in which they fell to near a four-year low. And the longer-term trend is pointing to a healthier job market.