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Business Highlights

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Recent wrecks belie improving rail safety record

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The nation’s railroads are safer than ever, despite recent high-profile accidents like this week’s fiery derailment in Maryland.

Derailments and crossing accidents have steadily declined nationwide even as businesses have come to increasingly rely on trains to move their raw materials and products.

The number of train accidents fell 43 per cent to 1,712 between 2003 and last year, while the number of incidents at rail crossings dropped 34 per cent to 1,960. And the total number of deaths declined 19 per cent to 705 over the decade.

Railroads have been investing in their equipment and track, their employee training and in technological tools to help detect problems before they can derail a train. Fewer derailments means fewer delayed deliveries and less need for railroads to re-route traffic for hours or even days. That all helps the industry’s bottom line.

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Like your health care policy? You may be losing it

WASHINGTON (AP) — Many people who buy their own health insurance could get surprises in the mail this fall: cancellation notices because their current policies aren’t up to the basic standards of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

They, and some small businesses, will have to find replacement plans. That has some state insurance officials worried about consumer confusion.

Rollout of the Affordable Care Act is going full speed ahead. New insurance markets called exchanges are to open in every state this fall. Middle-class consumers who don’t get coverage on the job will be able to pick private health plans, while low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that accept it.

The goal is to cover most of the nation’s nearly 50 million uninsured, but even Obama says there will be bumps in the road. And discontinued insurance plans could be another bump.

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China’s Shuanghui in $4.7 billion deal for Smithfield

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — That ham sandwich you had for lunch is the latest example of China’s growing appetite for U.S. investment.

Smithfield Foods Inc., one of the biggest pork producers in the U.S., on Wednesday agreed to be bought by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., the majority shareholder in China’s largest meat processor, for about $4.72 billion.

The deal, which still faces a federal regulatory review and Smithfield shareholder approval, is the largest takeover of a U.S. company by a Chinese firm. It’s the latest in a string of such deals made recently by Chinese companies.

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US banks report record earnings of $40.3 billion for Q1

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. banks earned more from January through March than during any quarter on record, buoyed by greater income from fees and fewer losses from bad loans.

The largest banks are increasingly driving the industry’s profits, while many smaller institutions continue to struggle.

The industry earned $40.3 billion in the first quarter, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Wednesday. That’s the highest figure ever for a single quarter. And it’s up 15.8 per cent from the first quarter of 2012.

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Buffett’s Berkshire buying NV Energy for $5.6 billion

NEW YORK (AP) — Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy utility is buying Nevada electric and natural gas company NV Energy Inc. for $5.6 billion in a deal that the companies say will marry MidAmerican’s expertise in renewable energy with Nevada’s solar and wind resources.

MidAmerican is paying $23.75 per share, a 23 per cent premium to NV’s closing price on Wednesday. Including debt, the deal is valued at about $10.1 billion. Both companies’ boards approved the sale, which will close in the first quarter of 2014, subject to approval by regulators and NV Energy shareholders.

NV Energy serves about 1.3 million customers through Nevada Power Co. and Sierra Pacific Power Co. Its shares spiked 23 per cent to $23.67 in aftermarket trading on news of the deal.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc., controlled by Warren Buffett, owns about 80 subsidiaries, including clothing, furniture and jewelry firms.

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Unemployment rates fall in nearly all US cities

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unemployment rates fell in almost all large U.S. cities in April, helped by stronger hiring. The gains show the job market is improving throughout the country.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that unemployment rates declined in 344 of the 372 largest metro areas. Rates rose in just 17 cities and were unchanged in 11.

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped in April to a four-year low of 7.5 per cent, down from 7.6 per cent in March. Employers have added an average of 208,000 jobs each month in the past six months. That’s up from just 138,000 in the previous six.

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Wealthy win lion’s share of major tax breaks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wealthier households benefit significantly more than lower earners from big tax breaks such as deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving, the government said in a study Wednesday.

More than half the benefits of 10 major tax breaks go to the one-fifth of U.S. households at the top of the income scale, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The top 1 per cent of earners reaps 17 per cent of these tax breaks, which also include preferential treatment of investment income and the deduction for sales and income taxes paid to state and local governments.

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Sallie Mae plans to split into 2, names new CEO

NEWARK, Del. (AP) — Sallie Mae plans to split into two separate, publicly traded companies. The student loan giant also named John Remondi as its CEO.

Sallie Mae, formally named SLM Corp., said Wednesday that the two separate companies — an education loan management business and a consumer banking business — would help unlock value and boost its long-term growth potential.

The education loan management business would include the company’s portfolios of federally guaranteed and private education loans, as well as most related servicing and collection activities. Remondi will continue as its CEO.

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Empire State Building stakeholders OK IPO plan

NEW YORK (AP) — The company that owns the Empire State Building is a step closer to going public.

According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, more than 80 per cent of shareholders approved a plan to turn the privately held company into a publicly traded real estate investment trust.

The plan, spearheaded by father-and-son real estate magnates Peter and Anthony Malkin, could raise up to $1 billion by selling stock in a new company. It will be called Empire State Realty Trust and include the Malkins’ holdings in Manhattan and Connecticut.

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Exxon rejects gay-discrimination ban

DALLAS (AP) — The CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. says there’s no quick replacement for oil, and sharply cutting oil’s use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it harder to lift 2 billion people out of poverty.

Tillerson jousted with environmental activists who proposed that the company set goals to reduce emissions from its products and operations.

Shareholders sided with the company and voted nearly 3-to-1 to reject the proposal.

By a 4-to-1 ratio, shareholders defeated a resolution to explicitly ban discrimination against gays. The Exxon board had argued that the company already banned discrimination of any type and didn’t need to add language regarding gays.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 106.59 points at 15,302.80, a loss of 0.7 per cent. The S&P 500 index was down 11.70 points to 1,648.36, also 0.7 per cent. The Nasdaq composite lost 21.37 points to 3,467.52, or 0.6 per cent.

Benchmark oil in New York for July delivery was down $1.69 to $93.31 a barrel. Brent crude, a benchmark for many international oil varieties, fell $1.33 to $102.90 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

Wholesale gasoline dropped 5 cents to $2.80 a gallon. Heating oil fell 3 cents to $2.88 per gallon. Natural gas shed 6 cents to $4.16 per 1,000 cubic feet.