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Wal-Mart's 1Q profit, sales disappoint

NEW YORK (AP) — The first few months of the year were tough for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The world's largest retailer reported Thursday that its first-quarter profit edged up just slightly, and the company struggled with a sales slump in its namesake business during the three-month period. The discounter also offered a quarterly profit outlook that came below Wall Street's projections. Its stock fell on the news.

Wal-Mart blamed a litany of factors affecting its budget-conscious customers, including a payroll tax increase, delayed tax refunds, job worries and bad weather. It is the latest in a string of big-name, consumer companies from McDonald's to Macy's, to cite such hurdles in the first quarter of the year.

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INFLUENCE GAME: Tech, labor spar on immigration

WASHINGTON (AP) — To the U.S. technology industry, there's a dramatic shortfall in the number of Americans skilled in computer programming and engineering that is hampering business. To unions and some Democrats, it's more sinister: The push by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to expand the number of visas for high-tech foreign workers is an attempt to dilute a lucrative job market with cheap, indentured labor.

The answer is somewhere in between, depending as much on new technologies and the U.S. education system's ability to keep up as on the immigration law itself. But the sliver of computer-related jobs inside the U.S. that might be designated for foreigners — fewer than 200,000 out of 6 million — has been enough to strain a bipartisan deal in the Senate on immigration reform, showcase the power of big labor and splinter a once-chummy group of elite tech leaders hoping to make inroads in Washington.

The Senate immigration bill — the result of months of quiet negotiations among eight influential senators — is on track to nearly double the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed to work in the U.S. under what's called an H-1B visa, from 65,000 to 110,000. The number of visas could climb as high as 180,000 depending on the number of applications received and the unemployment rate.

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American will favor passengers without roller bags

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — In a quest to speed up the boarding process, American Airlines is letting passengers board sooner if they travel lightly.

The airline said Thursday that people carrying just a personal item that fits under the seat — no rolling suitcases — will be allowed to board before most other passengers.

American said that the change will allow flights to take off sooner, helping the airline improve its on-time performance.

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Venezuelans scrambling to find scarce toilet paper

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans scrambled to stock up on toilet paper Thursday as fears of a bathroom emergency spread despite the socialist government's promise to import 50 million rolls.

After years of economic dysfunction, the country has gotten used to shortages of medicines and basic food items like milk and sugar but the scarcity of bathroom tissue has caused unusual alarm.

Thousands of rolls flew off the store's shelves as consumers streamed in and loaded up shopping carts Thursday morning.

Economists say Venezuela's shortages of some consumer products stem from price controls meant to make basic goods available to the poorest parts of society and the government's controls on foreign currency.

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US jobless claims jump to highest level in 6 weeks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose 32,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 360,000, the most since late March. The jump came a week after applications had reached a five-year low.

The less volatile four-week average rose just 1,250 to 339,250, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's a level consistent with modest job gains.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. The big increase might mean companies are cutting more jobs, possibly because of steep government spending cuts that kicked in March 1.

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US housing starts fell in April but permits surged

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. builders broke ground on fewer homes in April, one month after topping the 1 million mark for the first time since 2008. But most of the decline was in apartment construction, which tends to vary sharply from month to month.

And applications for new construction reached a five-year peak, evidence that the housing revival will be sustained.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that builders started construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 853,000, a 16.5 percent drop from the March pace of 1.02 million. Applications for building permits rose 14.3 percent to a rate of 1.02 million, the most since June 2008.

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US consumer prices fall 0.4 percent on cheaper gas

WASHINGTON (AP) — A plunge in the cost of gas drove down a measure of U.S. consumer prices last month by the most since December 2008. Excluding the drop in fuel costs, prices were largely unchanged.

The consumer price index fell 0.4 percent in April from March, the Labor Department said Thursday. The main reason the index fell was that gas prices plunged 8.1 percent.

For the 12 months that ended in April, overall prices rose 1.1 percent — the smallest year-over-year increase in 2½ years.

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US rate on 30-year mortgage rises to 3.51 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages rose this week but stayed near their historic lows. Cheaper mortgages have helped the economy by spurring more home-buying and refinancing.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate for the 30-year loan increased to 3.51 percent from 3.42 percent last week. That's still near the average of 3.31 percent reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971.

The average on the 15-year loan rose to 2.69 percent. That's up from 2.61 percent last week, which was the lowest on records going back to 1991.

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J.C. Penney posts bigger 1Q loss than expected

NEW YORK (AP) — The legacy of J.C. Penney's former CEO continues to cast a dark cloud over the department-store chain.

Penney on Thursday reported that it widened its loss in the first quarter on a 16 percent plunge in revenue. It marks the fifth straight quarter that the struggling company has posted massive declines.

The results show that Penney is still reeling from the turnaround plan orchestrated by its former CEO Ron Johnson, who was ousted last month after less than a year and a half on the job.

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Dell's dismal 1Q illuminates PC maker's challenges

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Dell's financial decay worsened during its latest quarter as the company slashed its personal computer prices in response to the growing popularity of smartphones and tablets.

The dismal performance announced Thursday provided the latest evidence of a technological shift that is making it difficult to sell laptop and desktop machines. Until recently, consumers had regularly replaced machines with faster ones every few years. The money is going instead to powerful, more convenient mobile devices such as phones and tablets. PC makers have had to cut prices sharply, obliterating their profit margins.

The trend also has hobbled another technology powerhouse, Hewlett-Packard Co., which is scheduled to report its latest quarterly numbers Wednesday.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 42.47 points to 15,233.22, a loss of 0.3 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 8.31 points to 1,650.47, down 0.5 percent. The Nasdaq composite index lost 6.37 points to 3,465.24, a drop of 0.2 percent.

Benchmark oil for June delivery rose 86 cents to close at $95.16 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after falling as low as $93.23. Brent crude, a benchmark for many international oil varieties, rose 28 cents to finish at $103.78 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

Wholesale gasoline gained 2 cents to end at $2.88 a gallon. Heating oil added 3 cents to finish at $2.91 a gallon. Natural gas lost 14 cents to end at $3.93 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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