Stocks edge up, shrug off weak economic data

NEW YORK -- Signs of a sluggish economic recovery sent government bond yields to their lowest level in a year Thursday. But strong earnings and a plea to push Microsoft's CEO aside helped push stocks higher.

Microsoft Corp. rose 2 percent after well-known hedge-fund manager David Einhorn called for the tech giant's board to replace CEO Steve Ballmer. Einhorn was quoted as saying at a conference late Wednesday that Ballmer's management was keeping the stock down.

Stocks reversed early losses and bond yields remained near their lowest level in a year after two reports suggested that the U.S. jobs market is recovering more slowly than anticipated.

--The Dow Jones industrial average rose 8.10 points, or 0.1 percent, to close at 12,402.76.

--The S&P 500 index rose 5.22, or 0.4 percent, to 1,325.69.

--The Nasdaq composite rose 21.54, or 0.8 percent, to 2,782.92.

First Financial agrees to sell insurance business

North Charleston-based First Financial Holdings said Thursday it has agreed to sell its First Southeast Insurance Services Inc. business for $38 million in cash to Hub International. The closing of this transaction is expected to occur by June 30.

First Financial said the deal will enable it to add to its capital reserves and focus on its core lending business, First Federal of Charleston.

Heinz planning to cut jobs, raise prices to sustain profits

PITTSBURGH -- H.J. Heinz Co.'s global expansion efforts are paying off, driving its fourth-quarter net income up 16 percent. But the world's biggest ketchup maker said it needs to raise prices and cut jobs to continue on its profitable path.

Heinz announced Thursday that it will shed up to 1,000 jobs globally in fiscal 2012 as it closes five factories. Heinz has 37,000 workers worldwide.

The closings include two factories in the U.S., two in Europe and one in the Pacific region. Eight hundred to 1,000 positions will be cut, and Heinz will be left with 76 factories. Heinz did not say which plants would close.

Ex-Nasdaq official pleads guilty in stock-fraud case

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A former Nasdaq manager pleaded guilty Thursday to stock fraud after admitting that he made more than $600,000 on insider trading. Donald L. Johnson, 56, of Ashburn, Va., was a managing director on Nasdaq's market intelligence desk until he retired in 2009.

He admitted to eight trades between 2006 and 2009 in which he profited roughly $641,000 from information that hadn't been publicly disclosed, prosecutors said. The trades were done in his wife's name. Johnson's lawyer, Jonathan Simms, said Johnson accepts responsibility for his actions.

Jobless claims increase, signaling sluggishness

WASHINGTON -- More people applied for unemployment benefits last week, the first increase in three weeks and evidence the job market still is sluggish.

The number of people seeking benefits rose by 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 424,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. No states cited extreme weather as a factor in the increase. Tornadoes and floods have devastated several states in the Midwest and South in the past month.

Fixed-mortgage rates at low for 3rd time in 2011

NEW YORK -- Fixed mortgage rates hit the lowest point of the year for the third straight week. Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on the 30-year loan fell to 4.60 percent from 4.61 percent. That's the lowest point since mid-December.

The average rate on the 15-year fixed mortgage, a popular refinance option, slipped to 3.78 percent from 3.80 percent. That marked the lowest level since late November.