Business Briefs – March 4, 2016

Applications for Jobless Aid Rise by 6K, Still at Low Level

WASHINGTON (AP) – More Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, but their numbers remained low enough to suggest that layoffs are rare and the job market is healthy.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of people seeking jobless aid rose by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000, highest since the end of January. The less-volatile four-week moving average slipped by 1,750 to 270,250, lowest since late November. The number of people collecting benefits has dropped 6.2 percent over the past year to 2.26 million.

Amazon Amplifies Its Alexa Line Of Voice-Controlled Devices

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Amazon.com is introducing two devices designed to amplify the role its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people’s homes and lives.

The products unveiled Thursday are echoes of Amazon’s Echo, a cylinder-shaped speaker with internet-connected microphones that became Alexa’s first major showcase when it debuted in late 2014. Set these gadgets up and they’ll listen for your voice and respond to commands — for instance, to read the morning’s headlines.

U.S. Productivity Stuck in Slow-Growth Mode

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. productivity fell in the final quarter of 2015 at the sharpest pace in nearly two years. The Labor Department said Thursday that productivity — the amount of output per hour of work — fell at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the October-December period.

For all of 2015, productivity rose just 0.7 percent, marking the fifth straight year of weak gains. Productivity is a key ingredient needed for rising living standards. Increased productivity enables businesses to pay employees higher wages without having to boost the cost of the products and services they sell.

Tech Industry Groups, Security Experts Back Apple

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A slew of tech industry groups and civil liberties advocates are filing court documents backing Apple in its fight with the FBI.

Several police groups, meanwhile, filed briefs in support of federal authorities who are seeking Apple’s help in hacking an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. The so-called “friends of the court” briefs come in advance of a March 22 hearing in which Apple is asking U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym to reverse an order requiring Apple help authorities hack into the phone.

Average U.S. Rate on 30-Year Mortgage Ticks Up to 3.64 Percent

WASHINGTON (AP) – Average long-term U.S. mortgage rates rose this week for the first time in two months as global economic anxiety and market turbulence eased.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage increased to 3.64 percent from 3.62 percent last week. The benchmark rate remains below the 3.75 percent level it marked a year ago.

The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages edged up to 2.94 percent from 2.93 percent last week

Investigations Into Energy Magnate’s Death Could Take Months

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – State officials say investigations into the death of energy magnate Aubrey McClendon in a car crash could take months to complete.

Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Ashley Peters says a probe likely will take up to two weeks, while the state medical examiner’s office says an autopsy investigation could take as long as three months.

Police say McClendon’s Chevrolet Tahoe slammed into a concrete embankment and burst into flames, killing the 56-year-old energy company CEO. McClendon had been indicted just hours earlier by a federal grand jury on charges of gas-lease bid rigging.

First Oil Flows From Alaska Reserve Set Aside in ’23

NUIQSUT, Alaska (AP) – ConocoPhillips has become the first oil company to draw crude from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Rising from the edgeless, wind-scoured, snow-covered tundra is a million-pound drilling rig pulling the first commercial oil from a reserve set aside nearly a century ago. It’s an area the size of Indiana, which President Warren G. Harding dedicated as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy in 1923.

The Bureau of Land Management, which controls the reserve, in 2013 identified 12 million acres that could be available for development while setting aside 11 million acres to protect wild animals and grazing lands.

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