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UNEMPLOYMENT

Economy improving, but not enough for jobs

The economy is showing signs of modest improvement — not enough to reduce high unemployment but enough to ease fears that another recession might be near.

Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, though some of that was because of technical factors. And the economy grew slightly more in the April-June quarter than previously estimated. Growth is also expected to tick up in coming months.

Investors initially drew some hope from the latest data, as well as from news that Germany's government approved a plan to bolster Europe's response to its debt crisis. The Dow Jones industrial average surged more than 200 points in morning trading before erasing all its gains by mid-afternoon.

Some of the news Thursday wasn't encouraging. Chief executives of the nation's largest companies are more pessimistic than they were just three months ago, according to a survey by a trade group, the Business Roundtable.

Only about one-third of the CEOs said they plan to hire or boost spending in the next six months. That's down from about half who said so in June.

And fewer Americans signed contracts to buy homes in August, the second straight month of declines.

MORTGAGE

Rate on 30-year loans falls to record 4.01%

Fixed mortgage rates have fallen to historic new lows for a fourth straight week and are likely to fall further.

The average on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 4.01 percent from 4.09 percent this week, Freddie Mac said Thursday. That's the lowest rate since the mortgage buyer began keeping records in 1971. The last time long-term rates were lower was in 1951, when most long-term home loans lasted just 20 or 25 years.

The average on a 15-year fixed mortgage, a popular refinancing option, ticked down to 3.28 percent. Economists say that's the lowest rate ever for the loan.

Mortgage rates tend to track the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. The 10-year yield has risen this week to around 2 percent. A week ago, it touched 1.74 percent — the lowest level since the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis started keeping daily records in 1962. As recently as July, the 10-year yield exceeded 3 percent.

TAXES

H&R Block to discontinue Expresstax option

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — H&R Block Inc. is stopping service under its Expresstax brand that helped people who filed their taxes early and wanted refunds quickly.

The news comes a little more than two weeks after the nation's biggest tax preparer announced that it won't offer refund anticipation loans next tax season because it is getting more new clients and the appeal of the high-cost loans is shrinking.

Expresstax was traditionally an early season business, an H&R Block spokesman said. Typically, the customers who sought refund anticipation loans did so in late January and February. The spokesman could not confirm whether Expresstax handled a large percentage of the loans.

H&R Block said Thursday that it will record a pretax charge of about 2 cents or 3 cents per share in its fiscal second quarter related to discontinuing Expresstax service.

CEO Bill Cobb said in a statement that the company is getting rid of the brand because "it was no longer a growth driver and therefore not a good fit for our company."

CREDIT CARDS

Discover faces FDIC action regarding protection sales

NEW YORK — Discover Financial Services is facing an enforcement action by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. about the way it sold its payment protection, identity-theft protection and other products.

The Riverwoods, Ill.-based credit card company said in a regulatory filing late Wednesday that the agency has notified its banking division that it plans to take action, following an investigation started several months ago. Discover said it is cooperating in the probe. The FDIC would not comment.

The investigation follows the filing of a series of class action lawsuits in several U.S. District Courts challenging the company's marketing.

In addition payment protection and identity-theft protection, at issue are wallet protection, credit-score tracker and othere sales policies.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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