Business Highlights

AP News
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Posted: Apr 03, 2012 5:39 PM
Business Highlights

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Auto sales surge in March, led by small cars

DETROIT (AP) _ Appealing small cars, low interest rates, truck deals and unseasonably warm weather helped the auto industry achieve its best monthly performance in almost four years in March.

General Motors Co. said Tuesday that its U.S. sales rose 12 percent compared with last March on solid demand for cars and small crossovers that achieve 30 miles per gallon or better on the highway. Chrysler Group's sales jumped 34 percent as buyers went for Fiat small cars and Chrysler sedans.

Toyota Motor Corp. said sales were up 15 percent, with sales of the Prius hybrid climbing 54 percent for the month. Sales at Ford Motor Co. rose 5 percent as demand for the Focus small car rose sharply.

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Recovery threatened by runaway student loan debt

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal student loan program seemed like a great idea back in 1965: Borrow to go to college now, pay it back later when you have a job.

But many borrowers these days are close to flunking out, tripped up by painful real-life lessons in math and economics.

Surging above $1 trillion, U.S. student loan debt has surpassed credit card and auto-loan debt. This debt explosion jeopardizes the fragile recovery, increases the burden on taxpayers and possibly sets the stage for a new economic crisis.

With a still-wobbly jobs market, these loans are increasingly hard to pay off. Unable to find work, many students have returned to school, further driving up their indebtedness.

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James Murdoch steps down as BSkyB chairman

LONDON (AP) _ Once his father's heir apparent, James Murdoch stepped down Tuesday as chairman of British Sky Broadcasting, surrendering one of the biggest jobs in the Murdoch media empire in a bid to distance the broadcaster from a deepening phone hacking scandal.

James Murdoch's credibility and competence have come under severe questioning because of the phone hacking crisis and alleged bribery by British newspapers while he was in charge, and he faces further questioning in the scandal.

Tuesday's announcement was just the latest in a string of setbacks for James Murdoch, who has been shedding titles since the scandal heated up.

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US factory orders rose 1.3 percent in February

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Businesses ordered more machinery and equipment from U.S. factories in February, a signal that many are investing in their companies despite the expiration of a tax credit.

Orders to U.S. factories increased 1.3 percent in February, the Commerce Department said. That offset a similar decline in January.

Demand for so-called core capital goods, a gauge of business investment plans, rose 1.7 percent. That was better than the government's preliminary estimate last week and followed a steep drop in January.

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Fed officials worried US job gains could fade

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal Reserve policymakers are worried that recent strong gains in hiring could fizzle if U.S. economic growth doesn't pick up. But there's no widespread support for additional bond purchases, even if the economy worsens.

The Fed minutes from the March 13 meeting disappointed Wall Street. Stocks and Treasury prices fell after the minutes were released Tuesday.

Members spent very little time discussing another round of bond purchases, the minutes showed. When the idea was mentioned, only a couple of members said they would support it and only if the economy lost momentum or inflation stayed below the Fed's target rate of 2 percent.

The Fed stuck with its plan to keep interest rates at record lows until at least late 2014. And the Fed sketched a slightly sunnier view of the economy, largely because of the best three months of hiring in two years.

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Molson Coors buying StarBev for $3.54 billion

DENVER (AP) _ Molson Coors will spend $3.54 billion to buy StarBev and its nine breweries in Central and Eastern Europe as it expands its operations further.

The Denver brewer is betting on a vibrant region once the economic crises subsides in the European Union, where unemployment has now reached the highest point since the euro was introduced in 1999.

The brewer slogged through a similar economic swamp recently, when the economic crises cut severely into the budgets of beer drinkers in the U.S. However, Molson Coors appears to have emerged leaner and stronger in its most recent quarter, and the U.S. economy appears to be on the mend. Beer sales are again on the rise.

StarBev had sales of about $1 billion last year, brewing more than 11 million barrels of beer.

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EU launches 2 antitrust probes against Motorola

BRUSSELS (AP) _ The European Union's competition watchdog on Tuesday opened two investigations into whether Motorola Mobility, which is being bought by Google, is unfairly restricting competitors from licensing essential patents.

The formal investigations were announced after Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. complained to the European Commission that Motorola Mobility was using legal injunctions against its rivals' key products _ such as the iPhone, iPad or Xbox _ as a way of gaining an edge in the market.

The Commission is now investigating whether the price Motorola Mobility is demanding for licensing its patents to Apple and Microsoft is excessive and whether its court cases against the two companies break EU competition rules.

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Facebook files patent countersuit against Yahoo

NEW YORK (AP) _ Facebook is stepping up its patent dispute with Yahoo by filing its own lawsuit against the struggling Internet icon.

Facebook's lawsuit Tuesday came just weeks after Yahoo Inc. claimed that Facebook violated 10 patents covering advertising, privacy controls and social networking. Facebook denied Yahoo's allegations and accused Yahoo of violating 10 of its patents covering photo tagging, advertising, online recommendations and more.

The spat is escalating as Facebook prepares for an initial public offering of stock in the coming weeks. If all goes expected, Facebook could fetch as much as $10 billion, gaining a value of $100 billion. Yahoo, which has struggled amid competition from Google and Facebook, has a market value of about $18.3 billion.

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Morgan Stanley to pay for some US foreclosures

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Federal Reserve says Morgan Stanley will review foreclosures carried out by its old mortgage subsidiary and reimburse any homeowners who were improperly forced out of their homes.

The Fed says it has settled with Morgan Stanley to "address a pattern of misconduct and negligence" at its former mortgage-loan unit, Saxon Mortgage Services Inc.

Morgan Stanley officials declined to comment on the settlement Monday.

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Union contracts to expire for 40,000 AT&T workers

NEW YORK (AP) _ Union contracts for 40,000 AT&T workers expire at midnight Saturday, putting the company at risk of a strike.

The workers are on the local-phone and long-haul data side of the business, and located mainly in the Midwest and California.

AT&T and the Communications Workers of America say negotiations are continuing. When the last big batch of contracts was negotiated three years ago at AT&T, the parties kept talking past the contract expiration, and there was no strike.

AT&T has 256,000 employees, of which slightly more than half are unionized. That makes it the country's largest private employer of union labor.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 64.94 points, or 0.5 percent, to 13,199.55. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 5.66 points to 1,413.38. The Nasdaq composite index dropped 6.13 to 3,113.57.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell $1.22 to end the day at $104.01 per barrel in New York, and Brent crude was down 57 cents to finish at $124.86 per barrel in London.

In other energy trading, heating oil fell by 2.21 cents to finish at $3.2275 per gallon and gasoline futures rose 1.32 cents to end at $3.3954 per gallon. Natural gas increased by 3.5 cents to finish at $2.1870 per 1,000 cubic feet.