- - Thursday, July 19, 2012

OIL

NEW YORK — World oil prices hit two-month highs Thursday as traders fretted over the impact of simmering geopolitical tensions in the crude-rich Middle East.

In New York, light sweet crude for delivery in August, soared $2.79 to $92.66 a barrel, the highest close since May 17.

In London, Brent North Sea oil for delivery in September jumped $2.64 to $107.80 per barrel, the highest close since May 22.

“Prices have climbed,” said Commerzbank analyst Carsten Fritsch, pointing to rising awareness of “geopolitical risks.”

“The conflict in Syria, which has already been under way for 16 months, appears to be escalating. … The Iran conflict is also coming into increasingly sharp focus, Israel having blamed Iran for the attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.”

Tensions in Syria rose as fighting in the capital Damascus entered its fifth day, Syrians fled across the border into Lebanon in the tens of thousands, and the Syrian opposition was said to be in control of all the border crossings between Iraq and Syria.

MORTGAGE

Rate on 30-year loan falls to 3.53 percent, a new record

Average rates on fixed mortgages fell again this week to record lows, creating more incentive for buyers to enter the recovering housing market.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on the 30-year loan fell to 3.53 percent. That’s down from 3.56 percent last week and the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.

The average rate on the 15-year mortgage, a popular refinancing option, declined to 2.83 percent, below last week’s previous record of 2.86 percent.

The rate on the 30-year loan has fallen to or matched record-low levels in 12 of the past 13 weeks.

Cheaper mortgages have contributed to a modest housing recovery. Home sales fell in June but were up from the same month last year. Home prices are rising in most markets.

HEALTH

Walgreen, Express Scripts sign new agreement

The Walgreen pharmacy chain will begin filling prescriptions from customers in the Express Scripts network again starting in September under a new multiyear contract that ends a costly impasse between the companies.

The agreement announced Thursday follows a series of disputes between Walgreen and Express Scripts that ended with the discontinuation of the contract between the drugstore operator and the pharmacy benefit manager last year.

The terms of the new agreement were not disclosed.

And Walgreen’s biggest drugstore rival, CVS Caremark, said it thinks it will keep a lot of the former Walgreen customers that it has won over the past year.

The developments illustrate the dexterity that providers are going to have to play to compete effectively in a rapidly changing health care marketplace.

Express Scripts administers prescription drug benefits for health plan sponsors and members, and it pays drugstores like Walgreen to fill prescriptions. Since January, Walgreen has not filled prescriptions for Express Scripts, saying the company was not paying enough in drug dispensing fees. Its sales have slumped since the split.

LABOR

Jobless claims rise to 386K on seasonal factors

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose by 34,000 last week, a figure that may have been skewed higher by seasonal factors.

Applications for benefits increased to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The gain followed a drop of 24,000 the previous week and was the biggest jump since April 2011.

Economists view the recent numbers with skepticism. The government struggles to adjust the data to reflect temporary summertime layoffs in the auto industry, they note. And this year, many automakers skipped those typical shutdowns to keep up with demand. That led to fewer layoffs two weeks ago, which the Labor Department didn’t anticipate.

“All of this is statistical noise,” Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., wrote in a note to clients. “What will be more important than these short-term gyrations is where claims settle down after the distortions end. We suspect that the data will point to a soggy labor market.”

The less volatile four-week average fell by 1,500 to 375,500.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports