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Lockout claims denied by BlueCross BlueShield

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York has denied claims by one of its unions that the company plans to lock out 400 union workers if a new contract is not reached by 11:59 p.m. Monday.

Julie R. Snyder, director of corporate relations and communications, said a lockout is not being considered.

"We're not [at the contract's expiration] yet," she said. "They are at the table bargaining today. We hope to reach a fair and equitable agreement before the contract expiration.."

The company is negotiating with Local 212, Office and Professional Employees International union.

The union had said that a taped message that updates management on the status of negotiations indicated that the employees covered by the contract would be prevented from working once it expired.

30-year mortgage rate falls

NEW YORK (AP) -- The rate on the 30-year mortgage fell last week, staying below 5 percent. But low rates have done little to lift the struggling housing market.

Freddie Mac says the average rate on the 30-year loan declined to 4.80 percent from 4.91 percent the previous week. It hit a 40-year low of 4.17 percent in November.

The average rate on the 15-year fixed mortgage fell to 4.02 percent from 4.13 percent. It reached 3.57 percent in November, the lowest level on records dating back to 1991.

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Jobless applicants decline

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, resuming a downward trend that signals stronger job growth ahead.

Applications for unemployment benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 403,000 in the week ending April 16, the Labor Department said Thursday. The decline partially reversed a jump in applications from the previous week, which economists said was largely the result of a seasonal quirk.

The four-week average rose for the second straight week to 399,000. Still, the broader trend in unemployment applications suggests employers are stepping up hiring.

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Rising prices are a concern

NEW YORK (AP) -- A private research group said U.S. economic growth should strengthen by summer but cautioned that consumer concerns over rising gas and food prices could drag on the expansion.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.4 percent in March. The index, which is a measure of future economic activity, has increased for nine straight months.

Growing demand for U.S. manufactured goods and a rebound in requests for building permits helped drive last month's gains. Six of the index's 10 components rose. The index rose 1.0 percent in February, revised higher from the initial estimate of 0.8 percent.

The leading indicators began moving sharply higher last fall, coinciding with a decline in the unemployment rate and a stock market rally.

Still, the trade group said one of the components of its index -- a consumer confidence survey -- tumbled to a two-year low last month. The primary reason for the decline is that many people are increasingly worried about inflation.

Consumers are spending more, but the rise in costs for basic necessities could force them to spend less on discretionary goods. That could slow economic growth. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

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Bank to withdraw its stock

In preparation for its acquisition by M&T Bank Corp., Delaware's Wilmington Trust Corp. said it has told the New York Stock Exchange that it will seek to voluntarily withdraw its stock from its NYSE listing upon the closing of the deal.

Buffalo-based M&T agreed to pay $351 million in stock to buy Wilmington Trust, gaining the No. 1 market share in Delaware to add to its strong Mid-Atlantic presence, as well as a prominent money manager.

Wilmington Trust shareholders have already approved the deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter, pending regulatory approvals.

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