Economic indicators index suggests growth slowing

A measure of the U.S. economy’s future health declined slightly in March, signaling that growth could slow this spring.

The Conference Board says its index of leading indicators dipped 0.1 percent last month to 94.7, the first decline after three months of gains. The gauge is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out.

Declines in consumer confidence, housing permits and new orders for manufactured goods pushed down the index.

Rates on fixed mortgages approaching record lows

Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages fell closer this week to their historic lows, making home ownership more affordable and refinancing more attractive.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate for the 30-year fixed loan dipped to 3.41 percent from 3.43 percent last week. That’s not far from the 3.31 percent rate reached in November, which was the lowest on records dating back to 1971.

The average rate on the 15-year fixed mortgage slipped to 2.64 percent from 2.65 percent the previous week. That nearly matches the record low of 2.63 percent, also reached in November.

Worldwide sales boost PepsiCo beyond forecasts

PepsiCo is selling more its snacks and drinks around the world, even as the maker of Frito-Lay, Tropicana and Quaker Oats tries to figure out how to sell more soda in the United States.

The company on Thursday reported a first-quarter profit that beat Wall Street expectations as it saw strong growth in emerging markets and benefited from a lower tax rate.

PepsiCo’s North American snacks unit also saw gains, with premium offerings such as Stacy’s pita chips and Sabra hummus performing particularly well. PepsiCo said it’s confident it can raise prices in the year ahead without scaring off customers.

Verizon profits outpacing those of competition

Verizon Communications Inc. on Thursday said that its profit rose 16 percent in the latest quarter as wireless revenue kept rising at a rate that’s the envy of the industry.

The New York-based phone company reported net income of $1.95 billion, or 68 cents per share, in the January to March period. That was up from $1.69 billion, or 59 cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts polled by FactSet had on average expected earnings of 66 cents per share for the latest quarter.

At its closest rival AT&T Inc., wireless service revenue has been rising just over 4 percent per year.

J.C. Penney cleans house, ousting two top executives

J.C. Penney is cleaning house.

The embattled department store chain announced Thursday that two top executives, Chief Operating Officer Michael Kramer and Chief Talent Officer Dan Walker, have left the company.

Kramer and Walker were among several executives hired in November 2011 by Penney’s former CEO Ron Johnson. Johnson was ousted April 8 after his plans to reinvent the chain led to disastrous results.

The departures are the latest changes by new CEO Mike Ullman, who was Johnson’s predecessor. The departures include key people who were hired to help carry out Johnson’s changes, which included getting rid of most sales and bringing in new hip brands.

The strategy was designed to attract younger, wealthier shoppers in a bid to reinvent the stodgy retailer, but it alienated Penney’s loyal customers.

Since Ullman has been back at the helm, the Plano, Texas-based chain also rehired Ken Mangone as executive vice president, design and sourcing. Mangone is a Penney veteran who helped to bolster the company’s store-label brands like St. John’s Bay.

– From news service reports