Business Highlights

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Biotech drops again, pulling down market

NEW YORK (AP) — Biotech stocks tumbled again Thursday and the broader market followed.

After a two-day respite, investors again started dumping shares of cutting-edge drug companies and other industries that have soared over the past year. But biotechnology stocks have turned volatile in recent weeks as regulators scrutinize the cost of their drugs and investors worry their earnings won’t justify lofty stock prices.

On Thursday, the Nasdaq composite, which is weighted heavily toward tech and biotech companies, had its worst day since November 2011.

The rout started slowly and picked up speed throughout the day. By the close, the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index had its worst day since November 2011. Few companies escaped the sell-off. Of the Nasdaq’s 100 largest stocks, only one, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, a freight company, ended higher.

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GM puts 2 engineers on paid leave in recall case

DETROIT (AP) — General Motors has suspended two engineers with pay in the first disciplinary action linked to its delayed recall of more than 2 million small cars for a deadly ignition switch problem.

The move stems from GM’s internal investigation of the matter. At congressional hearings last week, lawmakers alleged that at least one company engineer tried to cover up the switch problem. GM CEO Mary Barra promised action against anyone deemed to have acted inappropriately.

GM, in a statement Thursday, said the engineers were placed on leave after a briefing from former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, whom GM has hired to figure out why it took more than a decade to recall the cars. GM says at least 13 people have been killed in crashes linked to the defective switch, but family members of those who died say the death toll is much higher.

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Wal-Mart and Wild Oats unveil cheaper organic line

NEW YORK (AP) — Wal-Mart is using its massive size to drive down the price of organic food items from tomato paste to chicken broth to make them more affordable for its low-income customers.

The world’s largest retailer and nation’s largest grocery seller said Thursday that it has teamed up with Wild Oats to sell a new line of organic foods, starting this month, that’s at least 25 per cent cheaper than the national organic brands it carries and in line with the prices of its branded non-organic alternatives. Wild Oats helped pioneer the organic food trend in the late 1980s but has largely disappeared from store shelves since 2007.

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$4 billion: Bogus tax refunds a growing problem

WASHINGTON (AP) — An Internet connection and a bunch of stolen identities are all it takes for crooks to collect billions of dollars in bogus federal tax refunds. And the scam is proving too pervasive to stop.

A government report in November said the IRS issued $4 billion in fraudulent tax refunds over the previous year to criminals who were using other people’s personal information. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that the “scale, scope and execution of these fraud schemes” has grown substantially and the Justice Department in the past year has charged 880 people.

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Applications for US jobless aid dip 32K to 300,000

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level in almost seven years, falling 32,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 300,000.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell 4,750 to 316,250.

Fewer Americans sought benefits last week than at any point since the Great Recession began at the end of 2007. Applications are at their lowest level since May of that year.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The decrease suggests that employers expect stronger economic growth in the coming months and are holding onto their workers.

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US budget deficit falls in March to $37 billion

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government’s budget deficit shrank to just $37 billion in March from $107 billion in the same month last year, the latest sign of improvement in the nation’s finances. The deficit was the lowest for the month of March in 14 years.

The deficit fell partly because revenue jumped 16 per cent to $216 billion, the Treasury Department said in its monthly budget report Thursday. Individual income and Social Security tax receipts have increased as employers have steadily hired more workers in the past year.

Changes in the timing of about $40 billion in benefit payments and tax receipts were also a big reason for the smaller deficit. Most of that change involved benefit payments that were made in February this year but had occurred in March last year.

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IMF official: Bold actions needed for recovery

The head of the International Monetary Fund said Thursday the global economy is finally turning the corner after a deep recession but the recovery remains too weak.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde called on governments to aggressively pursue programs to spur economic growth to help the millions of people who remain unemployed.

The discussions on how to boost growth and fight poverty were likely to be overshadowed by rising tensions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Finance officials from the world’s seven major economies were to meet Thursday to discuss whether to increase sanctions against Moscow.

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Average US 30-year mortgage rate down to 4.34 pct

WASHINGTON (AP) — Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages declined this week, edging closer to historically low levels as the spring home-buying season begins.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate for the 30-year loan fell to 4.34 per cent from 4.41 per cent last week. The average for the 15-year mortgage eased to 3.38 per cent from 3.47 per cent.

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

Going into the spring buying season, the housing market faces a dilemma: Too few people are selling homes. Yet too few buyers can afford the homes that are for sale.

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Health secretary: 7.5 million now signed up

WASHINGTON (AP) — Enrollment for the president’s health care law has grown to 7.5 million Americans, the Obama administration announced Thursday, handing the president and his Democrats better numbers to tout in the face of election-year attacks.

Sign-ups for the law, which remains unpopular with many Americans, stood at 7.1 million last week, past a target number that had once seemed unattainable

But people who had already started signing up when the enrolment period closed March 31, or who had trouble signing up, were given extra time to finalize their applications. Four hundred thousand more have now done so, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee. Sebelius said she expects the figure to continue to grow.

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US judge sentences SAC Capital in $1.8B fraud deal

NEW YORK (AP) — The once high-flying hedge fund SAC Capital was sentenced on criminal fraud charges Thursday under a $1.8 billion deal that prosecutors say included the largest criminal fine ever imposed in an insider trading case.

U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan formally administered the sentence on Stamford, Conn.-based SAC Capital LP and three related entities based on pleas last fall by the companies to wire fraud and securities fraud.

The judge said nearly $400 million earned illegally by one of the companies was a “staggering amount” reflecting a corrupt corporate culture.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones Industrial average fell 266.96 points, 1.6 per cent, to 16,170.22. The Nasdaq composite index lost 129.79 points, or 3.1 per cent, to close 4,054.11, its biggest drop since November 2011. The Standard & Poor’s 500 lost 39.1 points, or 2.1 per cent, to 1,833.08.

Benchmark crude for May delivery fell 20 cents to $103.40 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oil prices, slipped 52 cents to $107.46 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London. Wholesale gasoline was flat at $3.01 a gallon. Natural gas rose 7 cents to $4.66 per 1,000 cubic feet. Heating oil fell 2 cents at $2.94 a gallon.

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