Shares of Travelers Cos. (TRV) shot up more than 4 percent in pre-market action after the insurance giant Thursday reported a much higher third quarter profit, earning $935 million, or $1.65 a share. Per-share earnings far exceeded a consensus estimate of $1.30 a share, according to a poll of 15 analysts by Zacks.com. The company credited fewer losses from national disasters as part of the reason for the boost in profit. Last year, the Minneapolis-based company earned $214 million, or 36 cents a share, in the third quarter. Travelers also declared a 10 percent increase in its regular quarterly dividend and committed to buy back an additional $6 billion in shares.

AT&T (T) reported lower earnings as more and more Americans hang up on landline phone service. The nation's largest communications company reported it earned $3.19 billion, down 1.2 percent from $3.23 billion a year ago. On a per-share basis, AT&T earned 54 cents a share, a penny less than last year. AT&T, which provides cellular phone service for Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) popular iPhone, said it added more than 2 million new wireless subscribers in the quarter, well surpassing expectations. Shares of AT&T were higher in extended hours trading, up more than 3 percent.
McDonald's Corp. (MCD) said profits rose 6 percent in the third quarter, as Americans, uninhibited by a soft economy, feasted heartily on the fast-food chain's latest offering, the 1/3 pound Angus burger. In the three months ending Sept. 30, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company reported earning $1.26 billion, or $1.15 a share, even as revenue slid 3.5 percent to $6.05 billion on worldwide currency fluctuations. Last year, McDonald's earned $1.19 billion, or $1.05 a share, on revenue of $6.27 billion. Shares of the company were trending higher ahead of the opening bell on Wall Street.

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) today takes the wraps off the latest version of its venerable Windows operating system, Windows 7. Tech gurus have largely praised the new system for its faster operation and streamlined design, especially when compared to its bloated predecessor, Windows Vista. The new software retails for $120 for home users. Shares of the Redmond, Wash., company were slightly higher in pre-market activity, up 0.6 percent to $26.75.

More earnings in brief:

United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) reported third-quarter net income fell more than 43 percent to $549 million, or 55 cents a share, compared to a profit of $970 million, or 96 cents a share, a year ago. Revenue slid almost 15 percent to $11.2 billion.

Drug-maker Merck & Co. (MRK) said sales improved in the third quarter, but credited a gain from the sale of its animal health business for boosting earnings more than 200 percent. Merck, which is soon to acquire rival Schering-Plough Corp. (SGP), reported it earned $3.46 billion, or $1.61 a share, from $1.12 billion, or 51 cents, a year earlier.

Xerox Corp. (XRX) reported another drop in quarterly profit as the economy kept business spending on office supplies and equipment companies in check. The Norwalk, Conn.-based company earned $123 million, or 14 cents a share, in the three months ending Sep. 30. That's down 52 percent from $258 million, or 29 cents a share, a year ago.

Select analyst calls:
  • Motorola Inc. (MOT) raised to Overweight at Thomas Weisel.
  • Novellus Systems Inc. (NVLS) raised to Hold at Deutsche Bank.
  • Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) cut to Neutral at UBS.
  • Tractor Supply Co. (TSCO) cut to Underweight at Piper Jaffray.

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