Business Highlights

The Associated Press

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Big sales for small cars in February

DETROIT (AP) â¿¿ Small cars sold big in February.

With gasoline prices spiking 30 cents last month, demand soared for compact cars like the Focus and Civic. That lifted U.S. sales for Ford, Honda and other major automakers that reported February sales on Thursday.

Gasoline â¿¿ which now average $3.74 per gallon â¿¿ has sent more buyers looking for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Erich Merkle, Ford's top U.S. sales analyst, says small cars made up around 19 percent of industry sales in December. That rose to 21 percent in January and could go as high as 24 percent in February, once final sales are tallied.

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Strong retail sales are sign of improving economy

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Americans stepped up their spending in February, boosting sales at many stores and offering the latest sign that shoppers are feeling more confident about the economy.

As merchants reported their monthly sales figures Thursday, a diverse group including Target and Macy's reported sales gains that exceeded Wall Street estimates. Even Gap Inc., long mired in a sales slump, posted an unexpected increase.

The figures, based on revenue at stores opened at least a year, are considered an indicator of a retailer's health. Only a small group of retailers report monthly sales figures. But industry watchers say those merchants that do post monthly numbers offer a snapshot of consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70 percent of all economic activity.

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Unemployment applications dip to a 4-year low

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell slightly last week to the lowest point in four years, a further sign that the U.S. job market is improving.

A seasonally adjusted 351,000 people sought unemployment aid, down from 353,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That matches the four-year low reached three weeks ago.

The improving numbers show that steadily fewer people are being laid off and suggest that some companies are stepping up hiring.

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Consumers spend more after incomes rise again

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Consumers earned a little more in January and spent most of the extra money.

The modest gains should keep the economy growing slowly. But they disappointed economists, who were expecting bigger increases after two months of strong hiring.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that consumer spending increased 0.2 percent in January. That's better than December's reading of no change.

Americans' income rose 0.3 percent, the second straight monthly increase.

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Manufacturing grows at slower pace in February

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Manufacturing activity grew more slowly in February as U.S. factories received fewer new orders and paid higher prices for raw materials.

The Institute for Supply management, a trade group of purchasing managers, said Thursday that its manufacturing index fell last month to 52.4 from 54.1 in January.

The reading was the lowest since November. Still, any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

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Construction spending slips 0.1 percent in January

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ A sharp drop in commercial building projects caused a slight decline in construction spending in January. But the dip comes after previous figures were revised much higher.

Construction spending edged down 0.1 percent in January, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. That is the first drop since July. It follows a 1.4 percent increase in December and a big rise of 1.9 percent in November. November's figure was revised up from 0.4 percent.

Construction of factories, hotels and power plants all fell sharply in January, pushing down nonresidential construction by the most in a year. Government construction spending also fell. Federal construction spending dropped while state and local spending ticked up.

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Questions loom as Yelp looks to price IPO

Yelp's popular online reviews guide the hungry to the best restaurants, the thirsty to the friendliest bars and the flabby to the toughest personal trainers. But, on the eve of its initial public offering, the eight-year-old, still unprofitable company has yet to convince analysts of its long-term prospects.

San Francisco-based Yelp Inc. is expected to price its initial public offering of stock as early as Thursday evening. The company said last month it expects the stock to price between $12 and $14 per share. At the high end of the range, Yelp's offering could raise as much as $115 million before expenses. If the stock prices at $14, Yelp will be worth $778 million.

That's a lot for a company that hasn't turned a profit since its 2004 founding.

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Bernanke cites harm from long-term unemployment

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated his concern Thursday that chronic long-term unemployment threatens to reduce the nation's supply of skilled workers.

In a second day of congressional testimony, Bernanke noted that the economic recovery has been slower than normal. But he said he doubts that the Great Recession permanently reduced the economy's growth potential.

Bernanke said he did worry that more than 40 percent of America's unemployed â¿¿ 5.5 million people â¿¿ have been out of work for more than six months. He said that if the problem persists, more of the long-term unemployed will lose job skills and struggle to regain them.

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Kroger posts 4Q loss on pension costs

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ The Kroger Co. on Thursday reported a fourth-quarter net loss due to pension costs even though its focus on offering shoppers low prices and personalized deals led to higher sales.

The nation's biggest supermarket chain, which operates Kroger, Ralphs, Food 4 Less and other grocery stores, said the loss was the result of costs associated with consolidating its pension plans for union workers

But revenue from stores open at least a year â¿¿ a performance measure for a food company â¿¿ rose 4.9 percent during its fourth quarter. Kroger said total sales in the quarter increased 7.7 percent to $21.4 billion from a year ago. Excluding results from its fuel stations, which are subject to volatility and not considered part of the company's core business, sales increased 5 percent over the same period last year.

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Average rate on 30-year mortgage down to 3.90 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The average rate on the 30-year mortgage edged down this week to hover again above record lows. Cheaper rates have spurred modest improvements in the battered housing market, but not enough to signal a recovery.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year home loan fell to 3.90 percent from 3.95 percent the previous week. That's slightly above the 3.87 percent average rate hit two weeks ago, which was the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.

The average on the 15-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.17 percent from 3.19 percent a week ago. It hit a record 3.14 percent four weeks ago.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average added 28 points to close at 12,980.30. The S&P 500 index rose 8.41 points to 1,374.09, its highest closing level since June 5, 2008. The Nasdaq composite index rose 22.08 points to 2,988.97.

The price of West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil used as a benchmark, rose $1.77 to end at $108.84 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is imported by many U.S. refiners to make gasoline, rose $3.54 to finish at $126.20 a barrel in London.

Natural gas futures fell nearly 6 percent Thursday to end at $2.46 per thousand cubic feet. Heating oil rose 7 cents to finish at $3.28 a gallon.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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