Business Highlights

AP News
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Posted: Feb 19, 2015 5:53 PM

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Nearly 40 percent of Wal-Mart's US workers to get pay raises

BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Hoping to shed its reputation for offering little more than dead-end jobs, Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest private employer, is giving raises to nearly a half-million workers and offering what it says are more opportunities for advancement.

Wal-Mart told The Associated Press that as part of the $1 billion it's spending to change the way it trains and pays workers, the company will give raises to nearly 40 percent of its 1.3 million U.S. employees in the next six months.

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Ka-ching: Euro exit would cost Greece dear, shake eurozone

So what would it cost if Greece left the euro?

As European policymakers struggle to reach a deal to keep the country from a bankruptcy, experts are making rough estimates of the potential costs of failure.

Neither side wants Greece to leave the single currency zone. It's all about the conditions for staying: Athens is sick of the budget cuts they're being asked to make in return for 240 billion euros in loans. Greece's new government says a six-year recession shows that the requirements to restrain spending are strangling the economy.

The eurozone creditor countries, however, are refusing to lend it any more money without tough conditions.

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The mixed-up world of investing in emerging markets

NEW YORK (AP) — What's the one thing that makes investing in China just like investing in Qatar and in Brazil?

OK, that's a trick question. The three economies don't have much in common, except that they're all members of a group called the emerging world. But for years, many investors made little distinction between them and other emerging markets. And it didn't matter much that they did. Stock and bond markets across emerging markets often moved together, swinging up and down in concert.

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Applications for US unemployment aid plummet to 283,000

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, a sign that a recent string of strong job gains may continue.

Weekly applications for unemployment aid dropped 21,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 283,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile number, fell 6,500 to 289,750, its lowest level in 15 weeks.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have been near or below 300,000 since September, a very low reading by historical standards that points to solid hiring. The average has dropped 16 percent in the past year.

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Average US rate on 30-year mortgage rises to 3.76 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Average long-term U.S. mortgage rates have risen for a second straight week yet remained near historically low levels.

Mortgage company Freddie Mac said Thursday the nationwide average for a 30-year mortgage jumped to 3.76 percent from 3.69 percent last week. The average rate is still at its lowest level since May 2013.

The rate for the 15-year loan, a popular choice for people who are refinancing, increased to 3.05 percent from 2.99 percent last week.

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Gauge of US economy posts slight 0.2 percent January gain

WASHINGTON (AP) — An index designed to predict the future health of the U.S. economy rose in January by the smallest amount in five months, indicating the economy's momentum may have slowed a bit.

The New York-based Conference Board said Thursday its index of leading indicators increased 0.2 percent in January, the weakest gain since a 0.1 percent rise in August. In addition, the December increase was revised lower to a 0.4 percent rise instead of the initially reported 0.5 percent increase.

The pace of growth in the index has moderated in recent months from gains of 0.6 percent in both September and October to smaller increases since that time.

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Venezuela allows sale of dollars at near-black market rate

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans lined up Thursday for their first chance in years to change bolivars into dollars without having to justify why they need foreign currency.

The socialist South American country launched a new exchange system last week that allows individuals and businesses to circumvent decade-old currency controls and legally buy greenbacks. Last week, the system aimed at easing the country's crippling economic crisis went into effect for foreign credit cards. On Thursday, Venezuelans got their first crack at legally trading local currency for paper dollars at a rate approaching the one used on the country's black market.

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White House: Higher wages needed to make up for stagnation

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's top economists say that even as the U.S. has managed to kickstart a lasting and growing recovery, modest wage gains are far from making up for decades of paycheck stagnation for middle-class workers.

The White House, in its annual report to Congress, also warns that despite the nation's relative economic strength, slowdowns abroad still pose dangers at home.

The 400-page "Economic Report of the President" is a largely bullish portrayal of the economy replete with appendices, charts and statistical tables designed to support Obama's policy initiatives.

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Account shows ECB fears of deflation as it weighed stimulus

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank's governing council members wrestled with fears that falling prices could become ingrained in the eurozone economy before a "large majority" decided last month to launch a 1 trillion euro monetary boost.

That's according to an account of the ECB's historic closed-door deliberations on Jan. 22, when it acted to revive the economy of the 19-country eurozone.

With Thursday's publication of the account, the ECB joins the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, which both reveal minutes of their meetings weeks afterward.

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9/11 comment escalates US-Gulf airlines spat over subsidies

DALLAS (AP) — U.S. airlines have been sparring for several years with fast-growing Persian Gulf rivals that seem to be poaching passengers from the Americans. Now, a CEO's comment that dragged 9/11 into the debate has escalated the fight.

The three largest U.S. airlines claim that three big Gulf carriers have received more than $40 billion in subsidies from their governments since 2004, making competition with them unfair because their costs are artificially low. The CEOs of American, United and Delta are asking federal officials to renegotiate or kill treaties that have allowed airlines from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to increase flights to the U.S.

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Judge rules against American Express in antitrust suit

NEW YORK (AP) — American Express violated U.S. antitrust laws by barring merchants from asking customers to use one credit card over another, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The case was a major blow to American Express, who argued that its policies kept it competitive against the larger payment networks of Visa and MasterCard and their bank partners. American Express plans to appeal the decision.

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Employers snub union, make direct plea to workers with 'final' offer in West Coast port fight

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Cargo companies have gone straight to West Coast dockworkers with what they call their "last, best and final" offer in a contract dispute that has choked off billions of dollars in international trade.

The move is likely to upset union leaders who have been negotiating behind closed doors under a media blackout.

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California refinery unit down for maintenance before blast

TORRANCE, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California oil refinery unit that was damaged by an explosion was already offline for unplanned maintenance when the fire occurred, industry analysts said Thursday.

The so-called fluid catalytic cracker unit refines gasoline and is critical to producing California-grade fuel. It was down for two days after problems with a recently repaired component within it when another component exploded, the Oil Price Information Service, which tracks the oil industry, said Thursday. The blast caused a fire that shook the neighborhood on Wednesday and rained debris and ash on nearby lawns. Four contractors were taken to the hospital for evaluation for minor injuries.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 44.08 points, or 0.2 percent, to 17,985.77. The Standard & Poor's 500 index ended the day down 2.23 points, or 0.11 percent, at 2,097.45. The Nasdaq rose 18.34 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,924.70.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 98 cents to close at $51.16 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 32 cents to close at $60.21 in London. Wholesale gasoline rose 4.2 cents to close at $1.616 a gallon. Heating oil rose 3.5 cents to close at $1.994 a gallon. Natural gas fell 0.3 cent to close at $2.834 per 1,000 cubic feet.