WRAPUP 2-U.S. housing, regional factory data show economy's stamina
* Weekly jobless claims increase 18,000
* Data covers survey week for June nonfarm payrolls
* Existing home sales hit 3-1/2-year high in May
* Philadelphia Fed business index rebounds in June
WASHINGTON, June 20 (Reuters) - U.S. home resales hit a 3-1/2-year high in May and factory activity in the Mid-Atlantic region rebounded this month, backing the Federal Reserve's view of diminished downside risks to the economy's outlook. While other data on Thursday showed more Americans than expected filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week, the increase was not big enough to signal a material shift from the recent pace of moderate job growth. The data came a day after the Fed painted a fairly upbeat picture of the economy and said it expected to slow the pace of its bond purchases later this year and bring them to a halt around the middle of 2014. The Fed is buying $85 billion in bonds per month in an effort to keep interest rates low and drive down still-high unemployment. The National Association of Realtors said existing home sales jumped 4.2 percent to an annual rate of 5.18 million units, the highest level since November 2009. The median home price surged 15.4 percent from a year ago to $208,000. That was the biggest year-over-year increase since 2005 and left prices at their highest level since July 2008. "What we see is consistent with the continued healing of the housing market," said Michael Hanson, a senior economist with Bank of America. In a separate report, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said its business activity index rebounded to 12.5 this month from minus 5.2 in May. That was the highest reading since April 2011. Any reading above zero indicates an expansion of manufacturing in the region, which covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. The gain reflected a surge in new orders and an improvement in factory employment. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 354,000, the Labor Department said in a third report. The four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,500 to 348,250 - below the 350,000 mark economists usually associate with steady job gains.
TREND INTACT "The trend we've been seeing is still well intact. Where jobless claims are right now should tell you that the economy is doing okay, that it's on a decent path," said Brett Ryan, an economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. The reports underscored the economy's resilience, despite higher taxes and deep government spending cuts as Washington tries to slash its budget deficit. The housing market recovery is helping to blunt the impact of tight fiscal policy on the economy. The dollar rallied against the euro and yen on the data, while U.S. Treasuries prices fell. Stocks on Wall Street fell as investors worried about the start of a wind-down of monetary stimulus from the Fed that has been instrumental to the market's rally. Last week's data covered the period in which the government surveyed companies for June's nonfarm payrolls count. Claims increased 10,000 between the May and June survey periods, suggesting little change in the pace of job creation. Employers added 175,000 new jobs to their payrolls last month, with the unemployment rate ticking up a tenth of a percentage point to 7.6 percent. Job gains have averaged 172,000 per month over the last 12 months. The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 40,000 to 2.95 million in the week ended June 8.