More Americans apply for unemployment benefits

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week after reaching the lowest level in 5 1/2 years. But the broader trend suggests companies are laying off fewer workers and could step up hiring in the months ahead.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for first-time benefits rose 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000 in the week ending Aug. 17. That’s up from 323,000 in the previous week, which was the lowest since Jan. 2008.

The four-week average, which smooths week to week fluctuations, fell by 2,250 to 330,500. That’s the sixth straight decline and the lowest for the average since November 2007.

At the depths of the recession in March 2009, applications numbered 670,000.

Fixed-mortgage rates rise to highest level in two years

Average U.S. rates for fixed mortgages rose this week to their highest levels in two years, driven by heightened speculation that the Federal Reserve will slow its bond purchases later this year.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on the 30-year loan jumped to 4.58 percent, up from 4.40 percent last week. The average on the 15-year fixed loan rose to 3.60 percent from 3.44 percent. Both averages are the highest since July 2011.

Rates have risen more than a full percentage point since May. Last week’s spike comes after more Fed members signaled they could be open to reducing the bond purchases as early as September. The purchases have helped keep long-term interest rates low, including mortgage rates.

Despite the increase, mortgage rates remain low by historical standards. And recent reports suggest the jump in rates has yet to sap the housing recovery’s momentum.

Walmart plans to buy more U.S.-made goods

Walmart Stores Inc. is hoping for a groundswell “made-in-America” movement.

The world’s largest retailer hosted its first two-day summit Thursday bringing together retailers, suppliers and government officials that it hopes will build on the company’s recent commitment to drive more manufacturing in the U.S.

The event, which attracted representatives from 500 manufacturers, eight governors, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and officials from three dozen states, comes seven months after the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter pledged that it planned to buy $50 billion more U. S. made goods over the next decade. That’s the equivalent of just more than 10 percent of what Walmart will sell at retail this year.

Gap’s summer lineup boosts earnings outlook

Gap Inc. raised its earnings per share outlook for the year on Thursday, after its summer lineup helped boost second-quarter results and advanced its turnaround push.

The higher guidance was short of Wall Street expectations, but the company also hiked its annual dividend by 20 cents, or 33 percent, to 80 cents per share. Its shares rose 1 percent to $42.43 in aftermarket trading. Over the past year, the stock was up 21 percent.

– From news service reports