Bond yields, earnings lift stocks

NEW YORK — U.S. stocks finished broadly higher Thursday as bond yields rose, easing concerns about a troubling drop in long-term yields over the past week.

Gains in financial, technology and industrial stocks outweighed losses in utilities and communications companies. Smaller company stocks outgained the broader market.

Following a sharp rebound from a dismal end to 2018, the benchmark S&P 500 index is on track for its biggest quarterly gain since the third quarter of 2009.

Thursday's rally, which followed a stumble earlier in the day, came as bond yields rose off their recent lows. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.39 percent from 2.37 percent late Wednesday.

"The markets are looking closely at bond yields, and the fact that bond yields have eased a little bit is a reason for the stock market to breathe a little easier today," said Erik Davidson, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank.

Pending home sales slip after surge

WASHINGTON — Fewer Americans signed contracts to purchase homes in February after a big gain the previous month.

The National Association of Realtors says that its pending home sales index slipped 1 percent to 101.9. That followed a 4.3 percent jump in January, which came after average mortgage rates fell from a recent peak of nearly 5 percent in November.

Slower home price increases, lower mortgage rates and a pickup in the number of homes for sale has spurred a budding rebound in home sales this year, after they slumped in 2018. Sales of existing homes soared 11.8 percent in January, the biggest jump in more than three years.

Pending sales are a measure of home purchases that are usually completed a month or two later.

Amazon adds 800 tech jobs in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas — Amazon plans to add 800 high-tech jobs in Central Texas as part of an expansion of its Austin hub. A company said in a statement that the new jobs will include software and hardware engineering, research science and cloud computing.

Amazon currently employs more than 20,000 workers across its 17 North American technology hubs. More than 1,000 jobs have been created in the Austin area in the last four years.

Amazon says overall it's created more than 22,000 jobs and invested at least $7 billion in Texas since 2011.

Disney to ban smoking areas in parks

ORLANDO, Fla. — Disney is eliminating smoking areas at its theme and water parks in California and Florida.

The company said Thursday that smoking also won't be allowed at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex or Downtown Disney in California starting May 1.

Smoking areas will be available outside the parks and those entertainment areas. Disney Springs in Florida and the company's hotels also will have smoking areas.

The smoking policy was part of several rule changes the company is making at its parks.

Loose or dry ice won't be permitted for coolers or cooler bags, and Disney is limiting stroller sizes to 31 inches wide and 52 inches long. The company also said stroller wagons wouldn't be allowed after May 1.

Mortgages post biggest drop in decade

WASHINGTON — Purchasing a home just became a lot cheaper, thanks mostly to the Federal Reserve's decision to put its interest rate hikes on hold for now.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage plunged to 4.06 percent this week, down from 4.28 percent. That's the steepest weekly drop in a decade.

Last week, Fed chairman Jerome Powell said the U.S. economy faces several headwinds, including slowing global growth, a trade war with China, and fading impacts of last year's tax cuts. Fed policymakers signaled they were unlikely to raise rates this year, after projecting two hikes in December.

Lower mortgage rates, slowing home price increases and a pickup in the number of available homes appear to be rejuvenating home sales after a slowdown last year.

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American Air stops Venezuela fligths

FORT WORTH, Texas — American Airlines is indefinitely suspending flights to Venezuela as political turmoil and unrest continues to grip the country.

Airline spokeswoman Martha Pantin said Thursday that the airline will try to resume service when conditions are right but has no timetable for doing so.

On March 15, American announced it was suspending its two daily flights from Miami to Caracas and one from Miami to Maracaibo through April 1. The airline acted after its pilots' union told members not to operate flights to Venezuela because of safety concerns.

American was the last U.S. airline flying to Venezuela.

The United States was the first nation to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, heightening tension with the regime of President Nicolas Maduro. U.S. diplomats left the country this month.

Icelandic budget airline halts flights

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Icelandic budget airline WOW Air ceased operations on Thursday, stranding passengers across two continents.

In a statement on its website the airline, which had earlier suspended all its flights, told passengers there would be no further flights and advised them to check flights with other airlines for ways to reach their destinations.

The airline, founded by entrepreneur Skuli Mogensen, began operations in 2012 and specialized in ultra-cheap flights between North America and Europe, with flights to airports in cities including Washington, D.C, New York, Paris, London and its Reykjavik hub.

Its bankruptcy comes after six months of turbulent negotiations to sell the low-cost carrier, first to its main rival and flag-ship carrier Icelandair and later to Indigo Partners, an American company operating the airline Wizz.

Tourism is Iceland's largest industry and WOW's disappearance is set to have an effect on this summer's high season.

In its early years the airline expanded fast to 37 destinations and reported up to 60 percent annual growth in passenger numbers. Its revenue per passenger, however, has not kept up and fell by about 20 percent in 2017, according to the last earnings report.

WOW grounded at least six planes in North America that were set to leave late Wednesday from Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Detroit, New York and Baltimore. In Europe, Reykjavik-bound planes from seven cities — Amsterdam, Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt and Copenhagen — did not take off Thursday.

Wire reports