Jobless benefit applications increase less than expected

More Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, but applications rose less than expected, holding at a level that signals a strong job market.

Initial claims for jobless benefits rose 11,000, to 278,000, for the week ended Jan. 31, the Labor Department said Thursday. In the previous week, shortened by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, jobless claims plunged dramatically. Analysts had expected claims last week to climb to 285,000.

The four-week moving average for jobless claims, which smooths out some of the volatility in the weekly numbers, fell 6,500 to 292,750.

Mortgage interest rates at lowest level in 20 months

Fixed mortgage interest rates fell this week to their lowest level in about 20 months, with Freddie Mac reporting that lenders were offering conventional 30-year loans at an average of 3.59 percent, down from 3.66 percent a week ago.

The average rate for a 15-year fixed home loan fell to 2.92 percent from 2.98 percent last week, Freddie Mac said in its weekly survey of lenders, issued Thursday. The starting rate also fell on hybrid loans that become adjustable after five years at a fixed rate.

Len Kiefer, deputy chief economist at Freddie Mac, said recent economic reports contained few signs that the economy was strong enough to trigger inflation and higher rates.

Competition at breakfast eats into growth at Dunkin’

Dunkin’ Brands Group saw its sales growth slow in the fourth quarter as it faced intensifying competition for on-the-go customers in the mornings.

The company said Thursday that U.S. sales for its Dunkin’ Donuts edged up 1.4 percent in the period, down from the growth of 3.5 percent a year ago. The slowdown comes after competitors such as Taco Bell have pushed into the breakfast category, a relative bright spot in the fast-food industry. On Wednesday, Yum had said Taco Bell’s quarterly sales rose 7 percent at established locations, boosted by its national breakfast launch.

CEO Nigel Travis said Dunkin’ also was hurt by the financial pressures weighing on its lower- and middle-income customers over the past year.

Dollar Tree alters financing in purchase of rival chain

Dollar Tree Inc. is shifting the way it will finance its $8.81 billion purchase of Family Dollar Stores Inc., increasing its bond offering after investors last week flocked to U.S. high-yield securities.

The discount retailer boosted the amount of bonds it’s selling by $750 million to $3.25 billion, according to a person familiar with the financing, who asked not to be identified. At the same time, it decreased the amount it’s seeking to raise from the leveraged-loan market as investors withdraw money from funds that buy that debt.

— From news service reports