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    WASHINGTON-- The early-spring sales season for the housing market is looking decidedly tepid, economists say. Officials will release monthly sales data this week for new and existing homes, and expect to hear that both series remained at lackluster rates in March. An unusually tough winter hit sales in recent months.

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    The recovery from the recession has been nasty, brutish and long. It also is shaping up as one of the most enduring. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the semiofficial arbiter of business cycles, judges that the U.S. economy began expanding again in June 2009, just over 58 months ago.

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    We're supposedly in a new era of financial sobriety. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Amid the rubble of the 2008 financial crisis, there was talk of a return to thrift.

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    The snapback in the stock market last week certainly restored some of the investor complacency so rudely shaken by the mini crash the week before. The latest price action only affirmed the conventional wisdom that the five-year-plus bull market has plenty of juice left in it. After all, the economy is still getting better, slowly but surely.

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    Employers are maintaining a slow pace of layoffs and the economy may soon see a pick up in jobs growth, economists said Thursday after the government released a weekly report on jobless claims. In the week that ended April 12, initial claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits reached 304,000, the U.S. That tally is up 2,000 from 302,000 in the prior week, which was the lowest level since September 2007..

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    The Fed's balance sheet is approaching $4.1 trillion, a hard number to wrap your head around. It's a big number, even by Washington standards. It's twice the government expenditures for all 50 states, equal to the net worth of 56 Bill Gates and could buy 6.5 billion iPhones, notes Vincent Reinhart, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley.

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    Now that you've recovered from the trauma of filing last year's tax return, your impulse is probably to forget about taxes for a good long while. Now is actually the best time to plan ahead for future tax savings. Any missteps you made last year are still fresh in your mind, plus you're still up to speed on the current rules.

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    Beef: It's what you can't afford for dinner-- for years to come. Fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) said Thursday that it would raise prices "somewhere in the mid-single digits" beginning this quarter to offset higher food costs. Jack Hartung, the company's chief financial officer, said that "beef prices are expected to continue to move higher as supply remains tight" and already Chipolte's steak costs are high.

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    Accountants weren't the only ones cheering this year's record number of tax returns. This past Tuesday's dreaded tax deadline actually marked a pleasant occasion for most filers. Of the 100 million or so returns processed through April 4, nearly 80% resulted in a refund averaging $2,792. The total sum paid out was about $5 billion, or 2.5%, higher than a year earlier.

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    For details of foreign central banks' holdings of U.S. marketable securities held at the Federal Reserve, see: http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h41/Current/h41.pdf.

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    For details of the Federal Reserve's money supply report, see: http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h41/current/h41.pdf. http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h6/current/h6.pdf. http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h3/current/h3.pdf.

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    WASHINGTON-- President Barack Obama announced Thursday that enrollment in public exchanges for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act has now topped the 8 million mark. "This thing is working," Obama said. The president said that he was open to consider legislation to improve the Obamacare law if Republicans were willing to go along.

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    The U.S. Federal Reserve's Board of Governors took the unusual step of considering an enforcement issue on Thursday, less than two months after Chair Janet Yellen pledged that top officials would have more direct involvement in such decisions.

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    SAN FRANCISCO-- Oil futures, supported by uncertainty surrounding Ukraine as well as some upbeat U.S. economic data that bode well for the outlook on energy demand. May crude rose 54 cents, or 0.5%, to settle at$ 104.30 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange-- the highest settlement since March 3. With trading closed for Good Friday, prices ended the holiday-shortened week with a gain of 0.5%. -Myra P. Saefong; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com.

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    By Myra P. Saefong and William L. Watts, MarketWatch. SAN FRANCISCO-- Oil futures on Thursday settled at their highest level in more than six weeks, buoyed by uncertainty in Ukraine as the latest U.S. economic data generally supported a brighter outlook for energy demand. Natural-gas prices, meanwhile, climbed by nearly 5% after a weekly rise in U.S. supplies came in smaller than the market expected.

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    *Prices fall as data points to bullish economy* Treasury to sell $96 bln new supply next week* Bond market to close early Thursday, closed Friday* Treasury sells $18 bln, 5- year TIPS By Karen Brettell NEW YORK, April 17- U.S. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits ticked up 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 304,000 for the week ended April 12, the Labor Department...

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    * Unrealized result was a $53 bln loss due to market drop. * Potential political lightning rod for U.S. central bank. By Jonathan Spicer. The Federal Reserve logged $84 billion in net profit last year on its massive portfolio of assets, and average income will probably remain higher than before the financial crisis for another decade to come, according to an annual report.

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    The official nonpartisan take on President Obama's 2015 budget proposal is in: He would curb deficits even more than today's policies. Of course, the budget wheels for next year are already in motion in Congress, making the president's budget, in effect, a dead letter.