Energy prices stunt first quarter growth

High gasoline prices, government budget cuts and weaker-than-expected consumer spending caused the U.S. economy to grow only slightly in the first three months of the year.

The Commerce Department estimated Thursday that the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the January-March quarter. That was the same as its first estimate a month ago.

Consumer spending grew at just half the rate of the previous quarter. And a surge in imports widened the U.S. trade deficit.

Most economists think the economy is doing a little better in the current April-June quarter, although consumers remain squeezed by gas prices, scant pay increases and a depressed housing market.

More people apply for unemployment

More people applied for unemployment benefits last week, the first increase in three weeks and evidence that the job market is still sluggish.

The number of people seeking benefits rose by 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 424,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. No states cited extreme weather as a factor in the increase, a department spokesman said. Tornadoes and floods have devastated several states in the Midwest and South in the past month.

Applications are above the 375,000 level that is consistent with sustainable job growth. Weekly applications peaked at 659,000 during the recession.

Profitable Heinz to cut 800 to 1,000 jobs

H.J. Heinz Co.’s global expansion efforts are paying off, driving its fourth-quarter net income up 16 percent. But the world’s biggest ketchup maker said it needs to raise prices and cut jobs to continue on its profitable path.

Heinz, based in Pittburgh, announced Thursday that it will shed up to 1,000 jobs globally in fiscal 2012 as it closes five factories. Heinz has 37,000 workers worldwide.

The closings include two factories in the U.S., two in Europe and one in the Pacific region and involves 800 to 1,000 positions. Heinz, which will be left with 76 factories, did not say which plants would close.

Earnings give boost to Tiffany outlook

In another sign that the luxury retail sector remains strong, Tiffany & Co. said Thursday its first-quarter profit rose 25 percent on higher revenue worldwide.

The results handily beat expectations and the jewelry maker also raised its forecast for the year above current Wall Street estimates.

The New York company, known for its iconic turquoise box, said net income rose to $81.1 million, or 63 cents per share, for the three months ended April 30, up from $64.4 million, or 50 cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts expected earnings of 57 cents per share, according to FactSet.

Sales of homes in foreclosure decline

Sales of homes in some stage of foreclosure declined in the first three months of the year, but they still accounted for 28 percent of all home sales — a share nearly six times higher than what it would be in a healthy housing market.

The pace at which homes are entering the foreclosure process has slowed in recent months amid bank and court delays. Distressed properties remain a fixture of a housing market still searching for a sustained recovery. The properties, often in need of repair, typically sell at a discount, weakening prices for other homes.

Ex-NASDAQ manager guilty of insider fraud

A former NASDAQ manager pleaded guilty Thursday to stock fraud after admitting that he made more than $600,000 on insider trading.

Donald L. Johnson, 56, of Ashburn, Va., was a managing director on NASDAQ’s market intelligence desk until he retired in 2009. Johnson admitted to eight trades between 2006 and 2009 in which he profited roughly $641,000 from information that hadn’t been publicly disclosed, prosecutor Justin Goodyear said.

In some cases, he bought company shares to capitalize on favorable news; in other cases he used short sales to profit on bad news that sent shares tumbling.

The trades were done in his wife’s name, Goodyear said.

Facebook hires former Bush aides

Facebook is hiring two aides of former President George W. Bush as lobbyists. The world’s largest online social network is stepping up efforts to friend Washington as it grows. Facebook said Thursday it hired Joel Kaplan as vice president of U.S. public policy in a newly created position. Kaplan will oversee the company’s public policy strategy and interactions with federal and state policymakers. He was previously deputy chief of staff in the Bush White House. The other hire, Myriah Jordan, will join Facebook as policy manager, focusing on congressional relations. Jordan previously worked in the Bush White House in the office of the Chief of Staff.