Business Highlights

Markets Associated Press

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US auto sales fall 4 percent in August

DETROIT (AP) — U.S. sales of new cars and trucks fell in August, ending summer on a low note for the auto industry and making it less likely that this year's auto sales will match the record set in 2015.

General Motors' sales dropped 5 percent from last August while Ford's sales were down 8 percent. Toyota's sales were down 5 percent, Honda's fell 4 percent and Nissan's dropped 6.5 percent. Volkswagen's sales dropped 9 percent. Hyundai's sales were flat.

Fiat Chrysler bucked the trend with a 3 percent increase in sales, while Subaru's were up 15 percent. Both companies benefited from consumers' increasing preference for SUVs. Sales of Fiat Chrysler's Jeep brand rose 12 percent.

Overall industry sales dropped 4 percent to 1.5 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp. Total sales through August are up less than 1 percent over last year.

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Apple says several billion dollars set aside for US taxes

LONDON (AP) — Apple's chief executive says the company has put aside "several billion dollars" to pay tax liabilities in the United States as it repatriates some of its huge overseas earnings.

Tim Cook told Irish state network RTE in an interview broadcast Thursday that the money, part of profits from 2014, should be brought back to the U.S. next year. He did not specify how much would be repatriated.

Apple holds nearly $215 billion in cash and securities outside the U.S., much of that generated by its Irish subsidiaries. Cook has complained in the past that high U.S. taxes have discouraged the company from bringing those earnings home.

This week, the European Union ordered the company based in Cupertino, California, to pay $14.5 billion in back taxes to Ireland plus billions more in interest.

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Wal-Mart cutting about 7,000 back-office store jobs

NEW YORK (AP) — Wal-Mart is cutting about 7,000 back-office store jobs over the next few months as it centralizes its invoice and accounting departments, expanding a test it announced in June.

The nation's largest private employer said Thursday that the cuts will take place in all its namesake stores, confirming the move reported by The Wall Street Journal. The goal is to get workers out of the backrooms and onto the selling floors as Wal-Mart faces increasing competition from online leader Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart said it believes most of the displaced workers will find new jobs that involve direct contact with shoppers and that the change was not a downsizing move. The customer-facing jobs would include positions like working in the online pickup department or as pharmacy technicians.

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Stocks, starting September on a quiet note, notch tiny gains

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stocks staged a late recovery Thursday and finished mostly higher, led by technology and metals companies. However energy companies continued to fall with the price of oil.

In early trading the Dow Jones industrial average lost as much as 105 points. But those losses faded around noon and stocks finished more or less back where they started. Banks and utility companies slipped, and energy companies took losses as oil prices fell for the fourth day in a row.

It has now been almost two months since the stock market has made a big move. The market recorded a tiny loss in August after an extraordinarily quiet month.

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US productivity down in spring, while labor costs rise

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. productivity fell in the April-June quarter by a larger amount than first estimated, while labor costs accelerated sharply.

Productivity declined at an annual rate of 0.6 percent, even worse than the 0.5 percent drop initially reported, the Labor Department reported Thursday. It marked the third straight quarter that productivity has fallen.

Labor costs rose at an annual rate of 4.3 percent, the biggest rise since a 5.7 percent increase in the fourth quarter. Labor costs had fallen at a 0.3 percent rate in the first quarter.

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Explosion at SpaceX launch pad destroys rocket, satellite

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A massive fireball and explosion erupted Thursday at SpaceX's main launch pad, destroying a rocket as well as a satellite that Facebook was counting on to spread internet service in Africa.

There were no injuries. The pad had been cleared of workers before what was supposed to be a routine pre-launch rocket engine test.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk said the accident occurred while the rocket was being fueled and originated around the upper-stage oxygen tank.

The explosion — heard and felt for miles around — dealt a severe blow to SpaceX, still scrambling to catch up with satellite deliveries following a launch accident last year. It's also a setback for NASA, which has been relying on the private space company to keep the International Space Station stocked with supplies and, ultimately, astronauts.

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US construction spending unchanged in July

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. construction spending was unchanged in July as weakness in spending on government projects offset gains in home building and the strongest month for non-residential construction on record.

Construction spending was flat in July but declines in May and June were revised to show slight gains, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. Spending in June is now reported up 0.9 percent while May showed an increase of 0.1 percent.

The advance in July was led by a 1.7 percent increase in spending on non-residential projects which rose to an all-time high of $429.5 billion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. Office building and shopping centers both showed solid gains.

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US factory activity shrinks for first time in 6 months

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. manufacturing contracted last month for the first time since February, as new orders and output plummeted and factories cut jobs.

The Institute for Supply Management said Thursday that its manufacturing index dropped to 49.4 in August from 52.6 in July. Any reading below 50 signals contraction.

The report suggests that manufacturers continue to struggle as businesses spend less on machinery, computers and other large equipment. Auto sales have also leveled off this year after reaching a record level in 2015.

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Weekly requests for US jobless aid rise but still near lows

WASHINGTON (AP) — Slightly more Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, but the overall levels still remain near historic lows in a positive sign for the job market.

Applications for jobless aid rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 263,000, matching its four-week moving average, the Labor Department said Thursday. The number of people collecting unemployment checks has fallen 4.4 percent from a year ago to 2.16 million.

Weekly requests for jobless benefits have stayed below the threshold of 300,000 for 78 straight weeks, the longest streak since 1970. This indicates that employers are holding onto their workers in the belief that the broader U.S. economy will continue to grow.

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US average 30-year mortgage rate rises to 3.46 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Long-term U.S. mortgage rates rose this week amid expectations in financial markets that an increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve may be on the horizon. Mortgage rates remain at historically low levels, however.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac said Thursday the average for the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.46 percent, up from 3.43 percent last week. The average rate is down from 3.89 percent a year ago, and is close to its all-time low of 3.31 percent in November 2012.

The 15-year fixed mortgage rate increased to 2.77 percent from 2.74 percent.

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The Dow Jones industrial average rose 18.42 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,419.30. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 0.09 points to 2,170.86. The Nasdaq composite gained 13.99 points, or 0.3 percent, to 5,227.21.

U.S. crude oil gave up $1.54, or 3.4 percent, to $43.16 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the benchmark for international oil prices, fell $1.44, or 3.1 percent, to $45.45 a barrel in London. Wholesale gasoline dropped 6 cents to $1.27 a gallon. Heating oil fell 4 cents to $1.38 a gallon. Natural gas fell 10 cents to $2.79 per 1,000 cubic feet.