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Business news in brief

Unemployment-aid filings down 4,000

WASHINGTON -- Fewer people sought U.S. unemployment benefits last week, a sign Americans are benefiting from job security.

The Labor Department says applications for weekly unemployment aid fell 4,000 to 232,000, the lowest level in nearly three months. The four-week average, a less volatile figure, declined 2,750 to 240,750.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have been below 300,000, a historically low figure, for 115 weeks. That's the longest such streak since 1970.

The rock-bottom figure adds to evidence that companies are holding onto workers and hiring at a steady pace. Americans are spending more, factories have cranked up output and home sales are strong, boosting the economy after it barely expanded in the first three months of the year.

-- The Associated Press

Rates fall for 15-, 30-year mortgages

WASHINGTON -- Long-term U.S. mortgage rates inched lower this week. It was the fifth-straight week that the benchmark 30-year rate hovered near the 4 percent threshold.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on 30-year fixed-rate home loans slipped to 4.02 percent from 4.05 percent last week. The rate stood at 3.58 percent a year ago and averaged 3.65 percent in 2016, the lowest level in records dating to 1971.

The rate on 15-year mortgages eased to 3.27 percent from 3.29 percent last week.

"Political drama in Washington prompted mortgage rates to fall as investors scale back their expectations for the passage of legislation that might boost economic growth," said Svenja Gudell, chief economist at real estate data provider Zillow.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., surveys lenders across the country between Monday and Wednesday each week. The average doesn't include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

The average fee for a 30-year mortgage was unchanged this week at 0.5 point. The fee on 15-year loans also held steady at 0.5 point. Rates on adjustable five-year loans declined to 3.13 percent from 3.14 percent last week. The fee remained at 0.5 point.

-- The Associated Press

Microsoft to set up Africa cloud-data hubs

Microsoft Corp. will offer cloud-computing services from data centers in Africa for the first time, seeking an edge over rivals in attracting the continent's customers.

The software maker said Thursday that it plans to open two data centers in Johannesburg and Cape Town as part of an expansion that stretches across 40 regions globally. Previously companies in Africa had to rely on Microsoft's European data-center hubs in Ireland and the Netherlands.

By moving data centers closer to customers, Microsoft is able to speed up cloud-service delivery and comply with laws that require certain data to be stored locally. The expansion in Africa will allow Microsoft to get a jump on its larger cloud rival Amazon.com Inc.

-- Bloomberg News

U.S. said to squeeze Fiat for diesel deal

DETROIT -- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles could soon face legal action over excess diesel emissions if there is no agreement reached soon with federal investigators, according to media reports.

The U.S. Department of Justice is poised to take action by Wednesday if an agreement isn't reached, according to reports, from both Reuters and Bloomberg.

The automaker faces a hearing Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit in California filed by vehicle owners that accuses the company of using so-called defeat devices, which disable pollution controls to enhance performance.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.

The company said that it has been working cooperatively with the agencies for months and "is committed to addressing their questions concerning the emissions control software calibrations in 2014-2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 vehicles equipped with 3.0 Liter V6 diesel engines."

-- Detroit Free Press

McDonald's swaps soft serve's vanilla

NEW YORK -- McDonald's says it removed artificial flavor from its vanilla soft-serve dessert.

The chain says it started switching to natural vanilla flavor last fall, and the rollout is nearly complete at its more than 14,000 U.S. locations. McDonald's announced the change Wednesday. The soft-serve already had no artificial colors or preservatives.

McDonald's says a regular size soft-serve cone is still 200 calories. The company has made tweaks before that have increased the calorie count but did not detail them. The cone was listed at 170 calories as recently as 2015.

The chain also noted that it switched from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar for its chocolate and strawberry syrups.

Food companies have made many changes to their ingredients in recent years to address customer demand for more natural products.

-- The Associated Press

Alibaba profit slightly misses forecast

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s earnings lagged estimates after it swallowed a higher tax bill and splurged on the entertainment and cloud computing businesses that are fueling revenue growth. The shares dropped the most in almost a year.

China's biggest e-commerce company posted adjusted earnings-per-share of 63 cents, missing the 65-cent average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That came even as revenue rose at a faster-than-expected 60 percent to $5.6 billion.

Alibaba said its fiscal fourth-quarter profit rose 85 percent to $1.4 billion, thanks to strong sales as well as selling some investments. Sales across its e-commerce businesses rose 47 percent.

While Chinese consumption remains strong, the world's second-largest economy showed signs of cooling as growth in retail sales and industrial output sputtered in April with regulators cracking down on mounting financial leverage. Alibaba has expanded into new areas in response to the deceleration, buying control of Lazada Group SA to gain a Southeast Asian foothold and waging a price-based war with Tencent Holdings Ltd. in cloud-computing services.

The shares fell as much as 5.6 percent to $114 in New York, the biggest intraday drop since June but closed Thursday at $121.27, up less than 1 percent.

-- Bloomberg News

Business on 05/19/2017

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