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Today in business: 5 things you need to know
Home sales rise, Europe gives Cyprus an ultimatum, and more in our roundup of the business stories that are making news and driving opinion
A Miami, Fla., home for sale on March 6.
A Miami, Fla., home for sale on March 6. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

1. HOME SALES RISE
Sales of existing homes rose to a three-year high in February, the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday. The 0.8 percent increase to an annual rate of 4.98 million homes — 10 percent more than a year earlier — was the latest in a series of signs of improvement in the housing market. The association also said that the median price for existing homes rose by 11.6 percent from a year ago to $173,600, the strongest gain in more than seven years. One thing driving up prices is a shortage of homes on the market, because developers are building fewer houses and underwater homeowners are waiting to sell when they can get more than they owe. [USA Today]
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2. EUROPE PRESSURES CYPRUS ON BAILOUT
European Central Bank officials on Thursday warned Cyprus they would pull the plug on the country's banks unless it proposes an acceptable bailout plan by Monday. The eastern Mediterranean island's leaders are trying to come up with a Plan B to raise $7.5 billion toward a $13 billion bailout plan the country needs to avert a financial collapse. The Cypriot parliament, in a 0-36 vote with 19 abstentions, this week rejected a proposal to come up with the money by imposing a tax on deposits in the country's banks, with some angry lawmakers calling the idea "bank robbery." [Reuters]
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3. MORTGAGE RATES FALL FROM SIX-MONTH HIGH
Rates on 30-year mortgages dropped to 3.54 percent this week from a six-month high of 3.63 percent, Freddie Mac reported Thursday. Cyprus' financial crisis was behind the change, as it has driven investors to the safety of U.S Treasury bonds, which guide home loans. As demand for the bonds rises, their yield falls, and, in turn, so do mortgage rates. "For American mortgage borrowers, bad news is good news," said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of mortgage information site HSH.com. [Bloomberg]
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4. JOBLESS CLAIMS RISE SLIGHTLY BUT LAYOFFS EASE
Applications for unemployment benefits inched higher over the last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, but the more significant four-week average hovered at the lowest level since 2008. That suggests that lay-offs have finally returned to levels similar to those seen before the Great Recession. "Layoffs have dropped. That's important," said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist for Jefferies. "We're also getting hiring. There are two sides of that equation." [CNN]
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5. FEDERAL RESERVE STANDS BY STIMULUS
Federal Reserve officials wound up a meeting on Wednesday saying they intended to continue the central bank's policy of pumping money into the economy to boost the recovery. Despite a series of encouraging economic reporters recently, the Fed's policy makers say economic growth won't pick up without some help, so they'll continue buying up bonds and keeping short-term interest rates near zero until the unemployment rate, currently 7.7 percent, falls to 6.5 percent. "We are seeing improvement," Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said. "One thing we would need is to see this is not temporary improvement." [Associated Press]

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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