Stocks skid as tension over Ukraine escalates

NEW YORK - Stocks closed sharply lower as tensions flared up over Russia's presence in Ukraine.

The Dow Jones industrial average slid 231.19 to 16,108.89. The S&P 500 index fell 21.86 to close at 1,846.34. The Nasdaq dropped 62.91 to 4,260.42.

U.S. and European leaders have been stepping up their rhetoric against Moscow ahead of a weekend vote in Crimea over whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that it will face "very serious" steps from the U.S. and Europe if it annexes Crimea.

Retail sales rebounded February, rise by 0.3%

WASHINGTON - U.S. retail sales bounced back in February after suffering a steep decline during a bitterly cold January. Shoppers spent more on autos, clothing and furniture.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that seasonally adjusted retail sales rose 0.3 percent in February. Spending had fallen 0.6 percent in January. Retail spending also fell 0.3 percent in December.

The increase suggests that consumer spending has started to recover after being tempered by snowstorms and freezing temperatures that blanketed much of the country.

Google overhauls look of search results on PCs

SAN FRANCISCO - Web surfing through the Internet's main gateway now looks slightly different on personal computers, thanks to a few cosmetic changes to Google's search engine this week.

The tweaks to the way Google's search results appear on desktop and laptop computers mirror a makeover on smartphones and tablets introduced a few months ago.

The new presentation increases font sizes and removes the underlines below the blue links of each search result on PCs. Ads appearing along the top and the right-hand panel of the results page no longer are presented in boxes shaded in blue and yellow. Marketing pitches are now marked by small ad tags to distinguish them from the rest of the results.

Google rolled out the new design on PCs with little fanfare, even though it will be seen by almost everyone who searches for information on personal computers. Google processes about two out of every three search requests made on PCs.

Average mortgage rate edges higher to 4.37%

WASHINGTON - Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages rose last week but remained close to historically low levels.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate for the 30-year loan increased to 4.37 percent from 4.28 percent last week. The average for the 15-year mortgage rose to 3.38 percent from 3.32 percent.

Mortgage rates have risen about a full point since hitting record lows a year ago.

BP regains ability to do U.S. government work

WASHINGTON - The oil company behind the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history can once again perform work for the federal government.

Under an agreement announced Thursday, more than two dozen BP entities and its Houston oil production and exploration arm can secure new government contracts. The company had been suspended from performing any new government work since November 2012. That's when BP agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges involving the death of 11 workers and lying to Congress about how much oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

GE sets IPO for finance spinoff later this year

FAIRFIELD, Conn. - General Electric is moving ahead with plans to spin off its North American consumer lending unit, and it aims to complete an initial public offering for the business later this year.

The company, to be called Synchrony Financial, estimates proceeds of up to $100 million from the offering according to a document filed Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wire reports