JC Penney outlook spooks Wall Street

J.C. Penney Co. reported earnings Thursday. AP/Mary ltaffer/File

Stocks end lower amid trade jitters

NEW YORK — U.S. stock indexes closed slightly lower Thursday after a day of mostly choppy trading, wiping out some of the market's gains from a day earlier.

Technology stocks took some of the worst losses. Fast-food chains and other consumer-focused companies, utilities and banks also declined, outweighing gains in energy and industrial stocks. Small-company stocks fared better than the rest of the market.

The indexes veered solidly into the red by late afternoon ahead of a new round of trade talks between the U.S. and China. The countries have threatened tariffs on each other.

"Now that we're making it out of earnings season, geopolitical is going to come back into the forefront of what the market's concerns are," said Shawn Cruz, manager of trader strategy at TD Ameritrade. "And that may continue to drive intraday volatility until we get more certainty as far as what is actually going to come out of these trade talks."

JC Penney outlook spooks Wall St.

NEW YORK — J.C. Penney blamed weak clothing sales on bad spring weather and said it would offer more plus-size fashions to try and boost sales. The company also cut its earnings outlook for the year and its stock tumbled.

Penney said cool weather hurt sales of its kids and women's clothing. Sales of its men's clothing, however, rose as it increased its big and tall selection. 

During the first quarter, the retailer's sales rose 0.2 percent at established stores, nowhere near the 2.1 percent growth analysts expected, according to FactSet. Penney reported a loss of $78 million, or 25 cents per share, for the three months ended April 5. Adjusted for one-time items, the loss was 22 cents per share, matching what analysts expected.

Revenue fell 4.1 percent to $2.67 billion, beating projections of $2.6 billion, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research.

Walmart's online sales rebounding

NEW YORK — Walmart's improving store experience and rebounding online sales helped to power first-quarter results.

The world's largest retailer reported Thursday that both revenue and profits beat Wall Street estimates. Sales at stores opened at least a year rose a solid 2.1 percent. Online sales rose 33 percent in the first quarter, a strong showing after a disappointing 23 percent increase in the final quarter of last year. 

It's an encouraging report from Walmart as it searches for solid footing in a rapidly changing environment that includes a dominant Amazon.com that is encroaching online and in some cases, just down the street.

Since buying Jet.com for more than $3 billion nearly two years ago, Walmart has further buttressed its presence online, acquired brands like Bonobos and ModCloth. It has vastly increased the number of goods its sells outside of its stores.

It's also strengthening delivery to make shopping at Walmart even more attractive. In March, Walmart said it would expand same-day delivery to more than 40 percent of U.S. households, or 100 metro areas by the end of the year.

NC may be looking to court Apple

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislative leaders say they're committing to an expansion of tax breaks for companies promising thousands of jobs, a move that comes as people familiar with recruitment efforts tell the Associated Press tech giant Apple is strongly considering the state for a new corporate campus.

The legislature's top two leaders said Thursday that officials will lower the threshold for so-called "transformative" companies to get massive state subsidies. A North Carolina government official and an economic development official told The Associated Press that Apple will decide soon whether to build a planned hub near Raleigh. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of business recruitment.

The economic development official said Apple could create 5,000 jobs, with a later target of 10,000 jobs. Apple declined to comment.

Maersk posts sales hike, cites risks

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Danish shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk says its first-quarter revenue increased by 30 percent to $9.3 billion, but also noted increased uncertainties due to geopolitical risks, trade tensions and other factors impacting freight rates, bunker prices and rate of exchange.

CEO Soeren Skou says that the group's results in its key ocean business was "unsatisfactory" in the short term. The group posted a $239 million deficit.

Skou added that the Copenhagen-based group was implementing a number of short-term initiatives to improve profitability in the hopes of making more this year than in 2017, when profit was $356 million.

Thursday's earnings were the first to include the acquisition of German container shipping company Hamburg Sud.

UN says global economy will grow by 3%

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations is forecasting that the global economy will expand by more than 3 percent this year and next year — but it warns that increasing risks could trigger "a shock to investment and trade" and a sharp drop to 1.8 percent growth in 2019.

The U.N.'s mid-year report on the World Economic Situation and Prospects launched Thursday says growth in the world economy is surpassing expectations, reflecting further growth in developed countries and broadly favorable investment conditions.

However, the report said, "downside risks" have increased including "a rise in the probability of trade conflicts between major economies."

A U.N. official cited the Trump administration's imposition of tariffs in January and proposed new tariffs against China, but also the renegotiation of the U.S. trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Critics: Sugar program is a sour deal 

WASHINGTON — Food processors, soft drink manufacturers and candy makers are squaring off against the U.S. sugar industry in a familiar battle over a program that props up sugar prices.

The battle over the sugar program, a web of price supports, loans and tariffs that critics say gouges consumers, is one of the key battles in this year's farm bill, a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy.

GOP leaders are promoting this year's renewal of the measure as tightening work and job training requirements for food stamps. But the food stamp proposal has driven Democrats away from the bill, which means Republicans must pass the measure with minimal GOP defections. That puts pressure on past Republican critics of costly farm subsidies to vote for them.

Mortgage rates in US at 7-year highs

WASHINGTON — Long-term U.S. mortgage rates jumped this week, marking their highest levels in seven years amid the peak home buying season.

The benchmark 30-year rate pushed toward the significant 5 percent level. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages was 4.61 percent, up from 4.55 percent last week. The new average rate was the highest since May 19, 2011. By contrast, the 30-year rate averaged 4.02 percent a year ago.

The average rate on 15-year, fixed-rate loans climbed to 4.08 percent from 4.01 percent last week.

The latest indications of a strong economy and rising commodity prices — gasoline is at a four-year high — lifted yields on bonds and mortgage rates followed suit.

Kroger ups stake in UK online grocer

CINCINNATI — Kroger is upping its investment in the British online grocer Ocado as it fends off Amazon.com and other online threats to traditional grocers.

The Harris Teeter parent said Thursday that the subscription rights agreement will give it access to Ocado's online ordering, automated fulfillment and home delivery technology in the U.S.

Kroger  and Ocado will choose three sites for development of new, automated warehouse facilities in the U.S. They'll identify up to 20 over the first three years of the deal.

The threat to traditional grocers became crystal clear after Amazon's $16 billion acquisition of Whole Foods. Kroger is also in competition with Walmart and Target.

Wire reports