By Christopher S. Rugaber
WASHINGTON -- The economy is off to a fast start in 2012. The outlook for hiring is improving now that unemployment benefit applications are near a four-year low. Inflation is tame, business travel is rising and the depressed housing market is showing signs of improvement after three dismal years.
That's the picture shaped by a flurry of data Thursday. And it follows other reports showing the economy started the year with vitality. Companies are hiring more workers, consumer confidence is up, factories are cranking out more goods and bank lending is on the rise.