Archive for March, 2010

Stocks end mixed after price, jobs reports (AP)

Thursday, March 18th, 2010 | Finance News

NEW YORK – Major stock indexes ended mixed Thursday on more evidence that the economy is regaining strength at a slow pace.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose for an eighth straight day, its longest unbroken climb since August. The Dow gained 46 points while broader indexes were little changed.

Reports indicated that inflation remains in check and manufacturing is growing. The government said, however, that first-time claims for unemployment benefits only inched lower.

The Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index was unchanged in February and that initial jobless claims fell last week. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve said manufacturing in its region increased this month. The Conference Board, a private research group, said its index of leading indicators rose at a slow pace last month.

"The market has been grinding higher on what has been benignly positive news," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist for RidgeWorth Investments. "There is a growing sense the economy is plodding along in the right direction."

Renewed concern about economic troubles in Greece kept the gains in check. The country said it might turn to the International Monetary Fund for support if European leaders can't agree to a bailout plan next week.

Stocks have been in a steady climb for about five weeks as economic reports signal the economy is seeing modest improvement.

The Dow rose 45.50, or 0.4 percent, to 10,779.17. That marks the highest close since Oct. 1, 2008. The Dow last rose for eight straight days in the period ended Aug. 27.

The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped 0.38, or less than 0.1 percent, to 1,165.83, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 2.19, or 0.1 percent, to 2,391.28.

Bond prices fell and yields rose following the economic reports. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.68 percent from 3.64 percent late Wednesday.

The dollar rose against other major currencies. Gold rose.

Crude oil fell 73 cents to settle at $82.20 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The Labor Department's Consumer Price Index was flat. Excluding volatile energy and food prices, it rose 0.1 percent. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters forecast an increase of 0.1 percent in both measures of inflation. On Wednesday, the government said that wholesale prices barely rose in February.

The Federal Reserve repeated this week that it expects inflation to remain low. That would allow the central bank to keep interest rates low to help revive lending and boost the economy.

The Labor Department said that initial jobless claims fell by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 457,000 last week. Although the drop was short of expectations, it was the third straight weekly slide. A four-week average of claims is up by 30,000 since the beginning of the year.

Initial claims have hovered around 450,000 in recent weeks, which Gayle called a "tipping point" between employers adding or cutting jobs.

Companies like 3M Co. got a boost from the Philadelphia Fed's report that manufacturing expanded in the Mid-Atlantic region for the seventh straight month in March. However, a drop in new orders signaled growth could slow.

The Conference Board's index of leading indicators rose 0.1 percent in February. That matched expectations but the increase in the gauge of future economic activity was the smallest in 11 months.

The concerns about Greece brought a reminder that the calm can be interrupted.

"That's why you're seeing a little bit of resistance," said Greg Merlino, president of Ameriway Financial Services. "Whenever we hear Greece, we get this knee-jerk reaction, is this the first domino to fall?"

Improved earnings reports gave the market some support.

FedEx Corp. said its fiscal third-quarter profit more than doubled. It also raised its full-year earnings forecast, which is now in line with analysts' expectations.

FedEx is considered a measure for the health of the overall economy because of the variety of products it ships. The stock rose $2.87, or 3.2 percent, to $92.67.

3M rose $1.49, or 1.8 percent, to $83.67.

Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume fell to 4.3 billion shares from 5 billion Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 2.37, or 0.4 percent, to 681.61.

Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 fell less than 0.1 percent, Germany's DAX index dropped 0.2 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.5 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1 percent.

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House Dems on track for vote on $940B health bill (AP)

Thursday, March 18th, 2010 | Finance News

WASHINGTON – House Democrats are pushing to the brink of passage a landmark, $940 billion health care overhaul bill that would simultaneously deliver on President Barack Obama's promise to expand coverage while slashing the deficit, a strategy aimed at winning over the party's fiscal conservatives.

Leaving nothing to chance, the White House announced that Obama has put off his planned trip to Asia for a second time, delaying it until June. Obama was to have left Sunday — when the House is planning to vote.

Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "He wants to be here for the history."

The 10-year plan would provide coverage to 32 million people now uninsured through a combination of tax credits for middle class households and an expansion of the Medicaid program for low income people. Release of the legislation later Thursday sets the stage for a House vote on Sunday, and Democrats have already signaled they plan to go it alone, without Republican support. The GOP has steadfastly opposed Obama's plan from the outset.

It would restructure one-sixth of the economy, covering 95 percent of eligible Americans, in the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare was created in 1965. It would also impose new obligations on individuals and businesses, requiring for the first time that most Americans carry health insurance and penalizing medium-sized and large companies that don't provide coverage for their workers.

Hospitals and doctors, drug companies and insurers would gain millions of new paying customers, but they would also have to adjust to major changes. Medicare cuts would force hospitals to operate more efficiently or risk going out of business, but seniors would see the coverage gap in their prescription benefits gradually eliminated. Insurance companies would face unprecendented federal regulation. Health care industries would be hit with new federal taxes. Upper-income households would face a new tax on investment earnings.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over its first 10 years, and continue to drive down the red ink thereafter. Democratic leaders said the deficit would be cut $1.2 trillion in the second decade_ and Obama called it the biggest reduction since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton put the federal budget on a path to surplus.

"This is but one virtue of a reform that would bring accountability to the insurance industry and bring greater economic security to all Americans," Obama said. "So I urge every member of Congress to consider this as they prepare for their important vote this weekend."

The Democrats' drive took on a growing sense of inevitability, picking up endorsements Wednesday from a longtime liberal holdout and from a retired Roman Catholic bishop and nuns who broke with church leaders over the bill's abortion provisions. Leaders appeared increasingly confident of getting the 216 votes they need to pass the bill.

But House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said his party's lawmakers will "do everything that we can do to make sure this bill never, ever, ever passes."

The legislation would be vulnerable to attack after it passes, since the biggest changes would be phased in slowly. The major expansion of coverage would not come until 2014, when new health insurance marketplaces open for business.

In the meantime, the legislation calls for a series of new consumer benefits. Starting this year, insurers could not deny coverage to children because of an pre-existing health problem, nor could they place lifetime dollar caps on the amount of coverage. A nhigh-risk health insurance pool would provide coverage to uninsured people who can't get private coverage because of health problems.

Democrats are following a complicated two-track legislative strategy for passing the bill. First, the House will have to approve a Senate bill that many of its Democratic members object to. Then both chambers will quickly pass a package of fixes agreed to in negotiations with the White House.

Since the House will vote first, Democratic leaders are seeking assurances from their Senate counterparts that they have enough votes to pass the follow-up measure as well.

Democrats are promising 72 hours for lawmakers and the public to review the legislation once it's released, so that would push a House vote on the bill until Sunday at the earliest — "during daylight hours," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Much of the legislation's longterm deficit reduction came from two key changes Democrats made in recent days, the budget office said. Starting in 2019, the bill would slow annual inflation increases in new federal tax credits available to help people pay health insurance premiums. Beginning in 2020, it would accelerate the impact of a tax on high cost insurance plan by indexing it to the general rate of inflation.

Labor unions earlier succeeded in easing other features of the insurance, and Thursday the AFL-CIO's executive council was deliberating over the latest changes.

The long-anticipated measure is actually the second of two bills that Obama hopes lawmakers will send him in coming days, more than a year after he urged Congress to remake the U.S. health care system. The first cleared the Senate late last year but went no further because House Democrats demanded significant changes — the very types of revisions now being packaged into the second bill.

After heavy lobbying from Obama, liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, announced his support Wednesday, becoming the first Democrat to declare he would vote in favor of the legislation after opposing an earlier version. Shortly after Kucinich's announcement, a letter was released from 60 leaders of religious orders urging lawmakers to vote for the legislation.

The endorsement reflected a division within the Catholic Church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the Senate-passed legislation, contending it would permit the use of federal funds for elective abortions.

Late Wednesday, however, retired Bishop John E. McCarthy of Austin, Texas, told The Associated Press he was urging approval of the legislation.

Reflecting growing opposition among states to the health care bill, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican, signed a measure Wednesday requiring the state attorney general to sue the federal government if residents are forced to buy health insurance. Similar legislation is pending in 37 other states.

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Associated Press writers David Espo, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Charles Babington, Alan Fram, Sam Hananel and C.J. Jackson contributed to this report.

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Owners threaten to shut down New Jersey nuke plant (AP)

Thursday, March 18th, 2010 | Finance News

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Owners of the nation's oldest nuclear power plant are threatening to shut it down rather than build cooling towers mandated by New Jersey environmental regulators.

Exelon Corp. says the $800 million it would cost to build the towers is more than the 40-year-old Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station is worth, and wants the state to withdraw its demand.

But environmentalists say the job could be done for about $200 million.

In January, the state Environmental Protection Department required the plant to build one or more "closed-cycle" cooling towers instead of relying on water drawn from the Oyster Creek in Lacey Township to cool the reactor.

The state says that process kills billions of shrimp and tens of thousands of fish, crabs and clams each year.

But the suburban Chicago-based Exelon insists the new technology would force it to shut down the reactor, which last year received a new 20-year license extension.

"This is not a bluff, not at all," said plant spokesman David Benson. "The cost of the cooling towers outweighs what Oyster Creek is worth."

Environmental groups are not convinced.

"I think it's all bluff and bluster," said Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "Exelon is like a spoiled child stamping its feet because it's not getting what it wants. They're saying they're going to take their ball and go home if they have to do what the state says they have to do."

The financial stakes are high. Exelon says the plant generates $129 million in economic activity in the state. It estimates the plant saves New Jerseyans another $190 million a year in reduced electricity costs.

With 700 jobs, it is the dominant employer in an area of small bungalows, marinas and boat-related businesses in the sandy Pinelands region. It also pays more than $10 million a year in local and state taxes.

Located about 60 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, Oyster Creek generates 636 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600,000 homes a year, and provides 9 percent of New Jersey's electricity.

But environmental groups say the plant is contributing to the rapid decline of Barnegat Bay — a centerpiece of the local tourism and recreational economy. The water coming out of the plant's discharge canal is about 10 degrees warmer than when it entered, and they claim it is altering the fragile ecosystem of the bay.

That has led to algae blooms that kill off marine life by reducing oxygen in the water, and contribute to increased jellyfish populations that discourage people from swimming in the bay and its many tributaries, environmentalists say.

But an even more immediate impact is seen at the plant itself, where vast amounts of marine life including fish and crab eggs, larvae and small animals are killed by getting sucked into the plant, or trapped against screening gates. The environmental group Save Barnegat Bay estimates the plant kills nearly 3 percent of the bay's marine life each day — an assertion Exelon disputes.

Exelon says cooling tower projects elsewhere in the country are proving to be expensive.

The Brayton Point Generating Station in Massachusetts is building a cooling tower system for $620 million. In 2003, Entergy, which owns the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y. just outside New York City, estimated it would cost $740 million to build cooling towers there. And Pacific Electric & Gas pegged the cost of cooling towers at its Diablo Canyon Power Plant in Avila Beach, Cal. at $2 billion per tower.

Cost aside, Exelon says cooling towers would create their own problems, including air pollution, noise and even the possibility of creating fog in the area. It also claims there is nowhere on the plant's grounds to put the cooling towers.

The Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station near Oswego, N.Y., went online Dec. 1, 1969, the same day as Oyster Creek. But Oyster Creek's original license was granted first, technically making it the oldest of the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors that are still operating.

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