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WALL STREET

Stocks move higher as US job market improves

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks are higher in midday trading on Wall Street after the government reported that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in three months.

The Labor Department releases its February employment report tomorrow.

Staples plunged 15 percent after the company said it was closing 10 percent of its stores as more people shop online. Kroger rose after reporting higher sales at its supermarkets.

NET WORTH

Stock and housing gains put US net worth at record

WASHINGTON (AP) — A surging stock market and rebounding home prices boosted Americans' wealth to a record in the final three months of last year, though both trends have slowed so far in 2014.

Household net worth jumped nearly $3 trillion during last year's fourth quarter to $80.7 trillion. Stock and mutual fund portfolios gained nearly $1.7 trillion, or 9 percent.

The value of Americans' homes rose just over $400 billion, a 2 percent gain. And checking account balances, pensions plan assets and retirement savings, such as 401(k)s, also increased.

Home prices nationwide during 2013 rose by the most in eight years. And the Standard & Poor's 500 index of large stocks jumped 32 percent.

So far this year, home-price gains have slowed, and the S&P 500 has risen just 1.4 percent.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

US applications for jobless benefits drop to 323k

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped 26,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 323,000, the lowest level in three months as layoffs remain at pre-recession levels.

The Labor Department says the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell slightly to a seasonally adjusted 336,500.

That average indicates that companies are cutting few jobs and anticipate steady economic growth despite the winter slowdown. Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs.

Economists are watching these numbers ahead of the February jobs report being released Friday. Cold weather and snowstorms appear to have limited hiring in January and December.

A total of 3.4 million Americans received benefits as of Feb. 15 — the latest period for which figures are available — down from 3.49 million the previous week.

JOB CUTS

Survey: Employers announced plans for fewer layoffs in February

UNDATED (AP) — Fewer workers were losing their jobs last month, according to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Challenger says job cuts announced in February totaled less than 42,000, down 7.3 percent from January. Challenger says that's 24 percent less than a year ago and the lowest February total since the turn of the century.

CEO John Challenger says this isn't what he'd expect if "the economy is about ready to tip over or we're near recession." He says the relatively low number of layoffs suggests an improving business climate has reduced pressure on employers to cut jobs. At the current pace, he says, the first quarter could see the fewest job cuts since 1995.

The heaviest job-cut activity last month was in the financial sector. Challenger says some of those cuts were related to cutbacks in mortgage lending as interest rates rise, but a lot "were due to the ongoing shift away from branch banking toward increaded mobile banking."

PRODUCTIVITY

US productivity slows in fourth quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. productivity grew at an even slower annual rate than previously thought in the final three months of last year.

Economists are hoping productivity growth will revive in 2014, reflecting a stronger economy.

The Labor Department says productivity grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the October-December quarter, a slowdown from 3.5 percent productivity growth in the third quarter.

The new estimate was lower than the 3.2 percent gain the government had previously reported. Unit labor costs dipped 0.1 percent, a smaller drop than the 1.6 percent drop previously estimated.

For the year, productivity increased a tiny 0.5 percent, continuing a weak trend seen over the past three years. Analysts are forecasting a rebound in productivity this year, helped by stronger economic growth.

FACTORY ORDERS

US factory orders drop 0.7 percent in January

WASHINGTON (AP) — Orders to U.S. factories fell in January for a second straight month but a key category that signals business investment plans rebounded. That could be an indication that businesses are becoming more confident.

The Commerce Department says factory orders dipped 0.7 percent in January following an even bigger 2 percent decline December, which was a larger drop than first reported and the biggest decline since July. The weakness in both months was led by large declines in demand for commercial aircraft.

Orders for core capital goods, a proxy for business investment, rose 1.5 percent in January, recovering after a 1.6 percent drop in December.

Demand for durable goods, items expected to last at least three years, were down 1 percent while non-durable goods orders slipped 0.4 percent.

MORTGAGE RATES

Average US 30-year mortgage rate slips to 4.28 pct

WASHINGTON (AP) — Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages fell after three weeks of rises, edging closer to historically low levels.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate for the 30-year loan declined to 4.28 percent from 4.37 percent last week. The average for the 15-year mortgage fell to 3.32 percent from 3.39 percent.

A report released Tuesday by real estate data provider CoreLogic showed that U.S. home prices rose 0.9 percent in January after three months of declines, as a tight supply of properties likely supported prices despite slower sales.

Economists believe such outsize price gains might not continue much longer, however.

STAPLES-STORE CLOSINGS

Staples to shutter 225 stores as sales move online

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (AP) — Staples will close 225 stores by the end of next year and the office-supply retailer is initiating a plan to save about $500 million annually by 2015,

The Framingham, Mass., company says nearly half of its sales are now generated online, so it will aggressively cut costs to become more efficient. The closings, all in North America, will help the company meet its pre-tax savings goal.

The store closings amount to about 10 percent of Staples Inc.'s worldwide total of 2,200. It has 1,500 locations in the United States.

The company's fourth quarter earnings more than doubled compared with last year, when the company booked a restructuring charge of more than $176 million.

EARNS-KROGER

Kroger's profit beats Wall Street expectations

NEW YORK (AP) — Kroger is reporting a better-than-expected fourth-quarter profit as the nation's largest supermarket operator saw a key sales figure rise.

The Cincinnati-based company, which also operates Ralphs and Fry's, has fared better than its peers in adapting to a shifting supermarket landscape that is undergoing consolidation. In particular, supermarkets are facing stiffer competition from big-box retailers, specialty chains and other players.

For the period ending Feb. 1, Kroger Co. said sales at established locations rose 4.3 percent, excluding fuel.

It earned $422 million, or 81 cents per share. Excluding one-time items, it earned 78 cents per share, topping the 72 cent per share Wall Street expected.

A year ago, it earned $462 million, or 88 cents per share.

Revenue came in at $23.22 billion, above the $23.15 billion analysts expected.

CONGRESS-POWER PLANTS

House backs bill to block EPA power plant rule

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-controlled House has moved to block the president's plan to limit carbon pollution from new power plants.

It's an election-year strike at the White House. The House approved a bill Thursday targeting the power plant rule, as Republicans fight back against what they call the Obama administration's "war on coal."

President Barack Obama's proposal is a key part of his plan to fight climate change. It would set the first national limits on heat-trapping pollution from future power plants.

The House bill was approved 229-183. It would require the Environmental Protection Agency to set carbon emissions standards based on technology in use for at least a year.

Republicans and some coal-state Democrats say the EPA rule is based on carbon-capturing technology that does not currently exist.

The White House has threatened a veto.

OIL TRAINS-EMERGENCY ORDER

Feds issue emergency order on oil shipments

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal regulators are further tightening testing requirements for companies that transport oil by rail after a spate of explosions caused by crude train derailments in the U.S. and Canada.

Thursday's action from the U.S. Department of Transportation builds on a Feb. 25 order that targeted oil shipments for more stringent testing.

Testing has long been required to gauge the volatility of oil and other hazardous liquids. But there were no standards on how frequently that had to be done.

Transportation officials are now specifying that within the "reasonable, recent past" companies must have tested the flash point and boiling point of crude to determine how likely it is to ignite.

Officials are telling companies not to re-label crude as some other volatile product in an attempt to get around testing.

KENTUCKY BRIDGE COLLAPSE-LAWSUIT

Ky. sues crew of barge that collapsed bridge

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky transportation officials are suing the crew of a cargo ship that struck and collapsed part of a bridge, causing millions in damage and diverting traffic for four months.

The state Transportation Cabinet says in a lawsuit moved to federal court this week that it spent at least $7 million to repair the Eggner's Ferry Bridge over the Tennessee River after the Delta Mariner struck it on Jan. 26, 2012. The cabinet's lawsuit says the ship's crew ignored warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard that the western Kentucky bridge's navigation lights were out.

A message left for the cargo ship owners, Seattle-based Foss Maritime, was not immediately returned Thursday.

The wreck caused a 322-foot section of the span to collapse.

GOOGLE BARGE

Google barge cruising from San Francisco to delta

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google's mystery barge is floating toward its new home in California's delta after being ordered to leave San Francisco.

The barge departed from Treasure Island early Thursday to comply with a Jan. 31 regulatory order concluding that Google Inc. didn't have the proper permits to build the four-story vessel there.

Google says the odd-looking vessel consisting of steel shipping containers will be anchored in Stockton, a city located about 80 miles east of San Francisco on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta.

The Port of Stockton falls outside the jurisdiction of the agency that forced the barge to leave Treasure Island.

Google says the barge will serve as an interactive technology center once it's done. There has been speculation that it might be used as an aquatic store or party boat.

WEALTH GAP-SILICON VALLEY

Silicon Valley boom eludes many, drives income gap

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Silicon Valley is entering a fifth year of unfettered growth. The median household income is $90,000. The average single-family home sells for about $1 million. The airport is adding a multimillion-dollar private jet center.

But the river of money flowing through America's tech mecca has also driven housing costs to double while wages for low- and middle-skilled workers are stagnant. Now the widening income gap between the wealthy and those left behind is sparking debate, anger and sporadic protests.

Some even with jobs get supplies from a food bank. Rants against the 1 percent are spray-painted on buildings in wealthy towns. Security guards rally outside Apple Inc. demanding better wages with a banner that reads: "What's the matter with Silicon Valley? Prosperity for some, poverty for many. That's what."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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