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China's easing of birth limit a boon to couples, companies

BEIJING (AP) China's decision to abolish its one-child policy is a boon to couples and to sellers of goods from formula to diapers to toys. And it might help defuse economic stresses caused by an aging population.

The impact of the surprise change announced Thursday is expected to be gradual. But with incomes rising in the world's most populous country, even a small uptick in births could translate into higher demand from Chinese that could ripple around the world.

The decision to let all married couples have two children, ending a policy that limited many urban families to one, coincides with official efforts to encourage economic growth based on consumer spending.

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US economy slowed to 1.5 pct. growth rate in third quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) The U.S. economy slowed sharply in the summer, reflecting a cutback in businesses' stockpiling of goods, which offset solid consumer spending. But most economists think growth has been strengthening since the July-September quarter ended.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that the economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, grew at a tepid annual rate of 1.5 percent in the July-September quarter, far below the 3.9 percent rate of the previous quarter.

The biggest reason was a push by businesses to shrink unwanted stockpiles, which slashed 1.4 percentage points from quarterly growth but is expected to be only temporary. Encouragingly for the economy, consumer spending remained solid over the summer: It rose at a 3.2 percent annual rate, down only slightly from the previous quarter.

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Pfizer, Allergan in deal talks to create drug giant

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) Pfizer and Botox maker Allergan are discussing a potential deal that could be the biggest of 2015, a year marked by a rapid-fire pace of megadeals, particularly in health care.

A merger could enable Viagra maker Pfizer, the world's second-biggest drugmaker by revenue, to surpass Switzerland's Novartis AG and regain the industry's top spot. It would also add Allergan's brand-name medicines for eye conditions, infections and heart disease to Pfizer's extensive portfolio of vaccines and drugs for cancer, pain, erectile dysfunction and other conditions.

In separate statements, both companies on Thursday said they were in "preliminary friendly discussions." Allergan PLC said there's no certainty that the talks with Pfizer Inc. will lead to a deal.

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Wal-Mart sticks to free shipping with some restriction

NEW YORK (AP) Wal-Mart is promising it won't be beat on prices this holiday season. But online shoppers shouldn't expect free shipping without any restrictions.

In a sneak peak to its holiday strategies, the world's largest retailer says it will offer price cuts, or what it refers to as "rollbacks," starting Nov. 1 on thousands of holiday products that will last at least 90 days. That's the same time as a year ago. It also says it will offer fewer weekend-only deals.

But as competitive pressure mounts for free holiday shipping, Wal-Mart is sticking with its $50 minimum. Instead, it's encouraging online shoppers whose orders fall below the minimum to pick them up at the store.

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Russell Simmons' RushCard creates fund to help customers

NEW YORK (AP) RushCard, the pre-paid debit card backed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, will create a "multi-million dollar" fund to help cover the costs that its customers suffered while the card was beset by technical problems earlier this month.

RushCard customers who can show they incurred late fees, lost a deposit on an apartment, or any such financial setback as a direct result of the RushCard problems will be compensated, the company said Thursday. It has not yet laid out a timetable for when this fund will be implemented, or what criteria or documentation would be required to get repaid.

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US jobless aid applications fell to 42-year low last month

WASHINGTON (AP) The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid barely rose last week and the average level of applications in the past month fell to a 42-year low.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications rose just 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000, a very low level historically that suggests employers are cutting few jobs. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 4,000 to 259,250. That is the fewest since December 1973.

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Fewer Americans signed contracts to buy homes in September

WASHINGTON (AP) September marked a slowdown in Americans signing contracts to buy homes, the second consecutive decline for a real estate market that has been rebounding for the first half of 2015.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index dropped 2.3 percent to 106.8 last month. The index has risen 3 percent over the past 12 months, aided by solid hiring levels and low mortgage rates that fueled stronger demand during the traditional summer buying season. But evidence of fading momentum has surfaced in recent months.

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Aetna tops 3Q profit forecasts, raises 2015 guidance again

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) Aetna joined a growing list of health insurers topping Wall Street's quarterly profit expectations, and it did so despite higher taxes and costs from a number of acquisitions.

It also raised its 2015 forecast again, saying Thursday that it now expects adjusted earnings to range between $7.45 and $7.55 per share. That's up from a per-share earnings forecast of $7.40 in August, but still mostly short of the $7.53 that analysts are looking for.

In the third quarter, Aetna's net income slid 6 percent to $560.1 million from $594.5 million in last year's quarter. Adjusted results totaled $1.90 per share, which is 12 cents better than analysts had projected, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research.

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Starbucks delivers sales gains in 4th quarter

SEATTLE (AP) Starbucks Corp. delivered another quarter of sales gains as more customers visited its stores worldwide. But the coffee giant's shares slipped in extended trading Thursday after it issued a modest profit forecast for the current quarter.

The company said it expects to earn 44 to 45 cents per share for the current period, just shy of the 47 cents per share that analysts were expecting.

Starbucks otherwise reported an impressive fiscal fourth quarter earning $652.5 million, or 43 cents per share, meeting market forecasts. Revenue jumped nearly 18 percent to $4.91 billion.

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Chinese luxury shopping undeterred by economic jitters

MILAN (AP) Wealthy Chinese remain the No. 1 buyers of luxury products worldwide, appearing inured to economic turmoil at home as they zigzag the globe in search of deals on everything from handbags to jewelry, according to a new study by Bain consultancy.

The study released Thursday by the Altagamma association of Italian luxury producers forecasts that global sales of personal luxury goods will jump 13 percent to 253 billion euros ($276 billion) this year. That's after two years of more modest 3 percent growth.

The study noted that a plunge in the Chinese stock market this year had hurt consumer confidence more in the United States, which has fresh memories of the 2008 financial crisis, than in China.

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Apple opens its first stores in Arab world in the Emirates

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Apple opened its first retail stores in the Arab world on Thursday in the luxury malls of the United Arab Emirates, hoping to sell wealthy consumers on their new high-end smartwatches.

Apple's two new stores, at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates and Abu Dhabi's Yas Mall, find themselves alongside other global luxury brands like Emporio Armani, Fendi and Burberry. And that's no accident, industry watchers say, as Apple wants to give wealthy consumers hands-on experience with its new Apple Watch line, with some of the high-tech timepieces costing as much as $17,000.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 23.72 points, or 0.1 percent, to 17,755.80. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dipped 0.94 point, less than 0.1 percent, to 2,089.41. The Nasdaq composite index sank 21.42 points, or 0.4 percent, to 5,074.27.

U.S. crude added 12 cents to $46.06 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, lost 25 cents to $48.80 a barrel in London. In other trading, wholesale gasoline was unchanged at $1.350 a gallon in New York, heating oil fell less than 1 cent to $1.475 a gallon and natural gas slid 4.1 cents to $2.257 per 1,000 cubic feet.