United, Southwest shed fuel hedge deals

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have shed at least part of their protection against rising fuel costs this year to more fully benefit from prices expected to remain near five-year lows. Southwest unwound hedges for all of its fuel consumption this year and in 2018, while United closed out most of its remaining first-quarter positions, airline officials said. U.S. carriers are reporting record profits for 2014 largely on the strength of fuel prices that have declined 50 percent since Feb. 20, 2014. Fuel is the largest expense for airlines, accounting for about a third of their operating costs. Airlines use hedging contracts to lock in prices in advance as protection against swings in the cost of fuel.

Initial jobless claims declined last week

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week for the first time in a month, a sign that layoffs remain low and hiring is probably still healthy. The Labor Department said that weekly applications dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 307,000. The decline comes after applications spiked the previous week to a seven-month high. Most of the volatility reflects widespread layoffs of temporary employees hired by retailers, restaurants and other companies for the winter holidays. The government seeks to adjust the data for those seasonal trends, but doesn't always do so perfectly. Applications have been near or below 300,000 since September, a historically low level that suggests companies are cutting few workers.

Icahn seeks to place 2 on Gannett board

Activist investor Carl Icahn has nominated two people to the board of USA Today publisher Gannett Co. Gannett says it will evaluate the proposal but found it surprising. The media company is planning to split its print and broadcast divisions into separate companies. Icahn, who owns a 6.6 percent stake in Gannett, says in an SEC filing that he is concerned that the separated companies might become targets of a takeover attempt. He says he wants to make sure shareholders will be able to weigh in on any offer.

T-Mobile offering deals to credit risks

T-Mobile doesn't want bad credit scores to prevent customers from getting the best deals on its smartphones anymore. Starting Sunday, the wireless carrier is launching "Smartphone Equality," a program that gives all customers a way to get offers previously available only to those with great credit. The idea came about after T-Mobile store associates noticed too many people coming in for promotions, only to find out that they didn't meet the "well-qualified customers" fine print. T-Mobile estimated that half of Americans were excluded from its offers because of bad credit scores.

Kinder Morgan to buy oil pipeline firm

Kinder Morgan said that it has agreed to buy Hiland Partners, an oil pipeline and gathering company owned by billionaire Harold Hamm, for about $3 billion, expanding its presence in the oil-rich Bakken rock formation. The transaction comes as the price of crude oil remains at lows unseen since the end of the last decade. That has led oil companies to cut production in hopes of reducing supply, eventually leading to a resurgence in oil prices. Now, Kinder Morgan, regarded as one of the savviest oil pipeline companies around, has secured what it described as a crucial asset in the Bakken formation.

Wells Fargo, JPMorgan settle kickback case

Wells Fargo & Co. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will pay a combined $35.7 million to settle a U.S. regulator's allegations that their loan officers took illegal kickbacks for steering customers to a now-defunct title company. More than 100 loan officers at Wells Fargo and six at JPMorgan accepted the improper rewards, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in a settlement. Wells Fargo agreed to pay $24 million in fines and $10.8 million to compensate customers, while JPMorgan's payments total $900,000. Neither bank admitted or denied the allegations.

Family Dollar investors OK Dollar Tree deal

The battle over dollar stores is nearly over. Family Dollar shareholders voted to approve a takeover bid by rival Dollar Tree, despite higher competing offers from Dollar General. The deal with Dollar Tree still needs to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission, but Family Dollar expects it to close by March. Dollar Tree first offered to buy Matthews, N.C.-based Family Dollar in July for about $8.5 billion. Dollar General offered higher bids that were repeatedly rejected.