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Economic gauge posts April gain

A gauge designed to predict the economy’s health posted a solid gain in April, further evidence of stronger growth after a severe winter dampened activity.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading indicators increased 0.4 percent in April after an upwardly revised 1 percent gain in March. The strength in April was led by improving conditions in the housing and financial markets.

“Despite a brutal winter which brought the economy to a halt, the overall trend in the leading economic index has remained positive,” Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein said. He said stronger spending by consumers and higher business investment to bolster growth in coming months.

The economy grew at a barely discernible 0.1 percent rate in the January-March quarter, but many analysts expect growth will bounce back to an annual rate of more than 3.5 percent in the current quarter.

NYSE chief exits as ICE integration proceeds

Citing a rapid integration with the IntercontinentalExchange Group, Duncan Niederauer stepped down Thursday as CEO of the New York Stock Exchange.

Niederauer had been expected to stay until the end of the year.

ICE, the futures exchange based in Atlanta, closed on its acquisition of the NYSE in November for about $8 billion.

Thomas Farley, NYSE’s chief operating officer, will succeed Niederauer, taking the title of president of the NYSE Group.

Niederauer, 54, served as CEO of NYSE Euronext, the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, from 2007 through late 2013. He will continue as president of ICE through Aug. 2, the company said.

Ragu, Bertolli bring Unilever $2.15 billion

Unilever PLC says it has agreed to sell ownership of its Ragu and Bertolli brand sauces in North America to Japan’s Mizkan Group for $2.15 billion.

Ragu is the best-selling pasta sauce in the United States. Unilever said Thursday that the two businesses have combined annual sales of $600 million.

The deal includes ownership of two factories: a sauce processing and packaging facility in Owensboro, Kentucky, and a tomato processing plant in Stockton, California.

Mizkan is a privately held maker of condiments and sauces that started as a rice vinegar maker in central Japan more than 200 years ago.

It is seeking to expand its international businesses to counterbalance poor prospects in its domestic market because of Japan’s aging population.

Unilever said the deal will close in June.

Jobless aid requests rise, but low overall

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits jumped last week, but it remained at a low level that suggests hiring should remain steady.

Applications rose 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The increase comes after applications fell to their lowest level since May 2007 two weeks ago.

The four-week average, a less-volatile measure, dipped 1,000 to 322,500. The average reached a seven-year low of 312,000 last month.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the low levels suggest that companies are cutting few jobs.

The number of people receiving benefits fell to 2.65 million, the fewest since Dec. 1, 2007, when the recession began.