WASHINGTON — The economy appears slightly healthier than many had feared it was a few weeks ago, raising hopes that it can end the year on an upward slope.

WASHINGTON — The economy appears slightly healthier than many had feared it was a few weeks ago, raising hopes that it can end the year on an upward slope.

A raft of data Thursday show layoffs are trending down to a six-month low and factories in the Mid-Atlantic are growing again after contracting for two months. Nevertheless, home sales fell and the housing market is expected weigh on the economy deep into 2012.

The outlook for the final six months of the year has improved from August, when many thought the economy was at growing risk of falling back into a recession. Other recent reports showed hiring picked up slightly in September and consumers boosted their spending on retail goods by the most since March.

Most economists now expect modest growth for the rest of this year. Still, they caution that it's unlikely to be strong enough to significantly lower the unemployment rate, which has been stuck near 9 percent for more than two years. And a recession in Europe, which many now predict, could slow growth in 2012.

Macroeconomic Advisers forecasts the economy will expand at an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the July-September quarter, and 2.6 percent in the final three months of the year.

Reports Thursday were mostly positive:

The average number of people applying for unemployment benefits each week over the past four weeks fell to 403,000, the Labor Department said. That's the lowest level for the four-week average since mid-April. Manufacturing grew in the Philadelphia region in October after contracting for two straight months, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said. The Conference Board index of leading economic indicators rose 0.2 percent in September. It was the fifth-consecutive gain for the index.