(Bloomberg News) A gauge of U.S. corporate credit risk dropped for a third day as data showed initial jobless claims rose more than forecast, stoking speculation that the Federal Reserve will initiate new stimulus measures.

The Markit CDX North America Investment Grade Index, a credit-default swaps benchmark used to hedge against losses on corporate debt or to speculate on creditworthiness, decreased 0.6 basis point to a mid-price of 107.8 basis points at 11:47 a.m. in New York, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg. Contracts tied to Morgan Stanley jumped while those on Southwest Airlines Co. dropped to the lowest since May after the carrier reported a 42 percent climb in profit.

Investors are seeking more growth initiatives from the central bank as concern builds that the economic recovery will stumble, pressuring companies' balance sheets and their ability to repay borrowings. Data from the Labor Department today showed that applications for unemployment benefits rose to 386,000 last week from 350,000 the previous period.

"The market expects the Fed to do something," Sharon Stark, chief market strategist at Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama, said in a telephone interview. "It's tough for the economy to gain any momentum if you're not creating jobs and there are more people filing for unemployment."

Economists had called for 365,000 initial claims in the week ended July 14, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey. The volatility was tied to shifts in the timing of automobile plants' seasonal layoffs, according to a Labor Department spokesman.

Congressional Testimony

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke completed his second day of testimony to Congress yesterday in his semi-annual report on the economy and monetary policy. Bernanke said the central bank is prepared to use easing tools, including asset purchases, to combat potential stalled progress in reducing unemployment.

A separate report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia showed manufacturing in the region contracted for the third consecutive month. The regional bank's general economic index rose to minus 12.9 in July from minus 16.6 the month before. Readings of less than zero signal contraction in the area, which covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.

Moody's Investors Service Liquidity-Stress Index for speculative-grade companies fell to 3.4 percent in the second week of July from 3.6 percent in June, analysts for the ratings company led by Tom Marshella said in a research note dated July 18. The index, which declines when liquidity positions improve, reached a record low 3.3 percent in May.

Corporate Liquidity

Liquidity conditions for high-yield companies were healthy even as the number of credit-rating downgrades outpaced upgrades, according to the report.

"Good corporate-earnings growth in recent years and what has been a receptive debt market are allowing most companies to proactively manage liquidity and, where necessary, refinance pending maturities at a manageable cost," Marshella wrote.

Southwest, the biggest low-fare carrier, reported second- quarter net income of $228 million, or 30 cents a share, up from $161 million, or 21 cents, in the year-earlier period. Revenue jumped 4.7 percent to $4.62 billion, the Dallas-based company said in a statement today.

The cost to guard against losses on the debt of Southwest dropped 4.4 basis points to a mid-price of 155.6 basis points at 11:57 a.m. in New York, Bloomberg prices show. That's the lowest on an intra-day basis since the contracts declined to 154.4 basis points on May 11.

CDS Surge

Morgan Stanley, the sixth-largest U.S. bank by assets, reported a 50 percent drop in second-quarter earnings to $591 million, or 29 cents a share. Excluding accounting adjustments tied to the New York-based bank's own credit spreads, profit was 16 cents a share, missing the 29-cent average estimate of 20 analysts in a Bloomberg News survey.

Credit-default swaps tied to Morgan Stanley climbed 4.9 basis points to a mid-price of 345.7 basis points at 12:04 p.m. in New York, Bloomberg prices show.

The swaps gauge typically falls as investor confidence improves and rises as it deteriorates. Credit swaps pay the buyer face value if a borrower fails to meet its obligations, less the value of the defaulted debt. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.