Business Highlights

The Associated Press

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Europe exhales after another good week

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) â¿¿ Europe has taken a step back from the brink.

Three weeks into the year, borrowing rates for debt-saddled countries have fallen to more manageable levels. Auctions of government debt have gone better, a sign of increased investor confidence.

And while it may have been an embarrassment, especially to France, a sweeping downgrade of nine European countries last week by Standard & Poor's, the credit rating agency, has been met with a shrug in financial markets.

All this is in stark contrast to the final weeks of last year, when countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece watched helplessly as the costs of managing their debt spiraled ever higher, and governments fell in Athens and Rome.

High hurdles remain: Greece must still cut a deal with its private creditors, to say nothing of the long-term problems â¿¿ massive debt, uncompetitive economies and the prospect of years of cutbacks in public spending.

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NZ police raid file-sharing site founder's mansion

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) â¿¿ New Zealand police raided several homes and businesses linked to the founder of Megaupload.com, a giant Internet file-sharing site shut down by U.S. authorities, on Friday and seized guns, millions of dollars and nearly $5 million worth of luxury cars, officials said.

Police arrested founder Kim Dotcom and three Megaupload employees on U.S. accusations that they facilitated millions of illegal downloads of films, music and other content costing copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue. Extradition proceedings against them could last a year or more.

With 150 million registered users, about 50 million hits daily and endorsements from music superstars, Megaupload.com was among the world's biggest file-sharing sites. According to a U.S. indictment, the site, which was shut down Thursday, earned Dotcom $42 million in 2010 alone.

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Home sales up at end of dismal year, offering hope

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Home sales in December reached their highest pace in nearly a year. The gain coincided with other signs that the troubled housing market improved at the end of last year.

Analysts cautioned that sales remain historically low and that it will take years for the home market to return to full health.

Still, the third straight monthly sales increase was encouraging. And economists noted that conditions are in place for further gains this year:

Prices have declined. Mortgage rates have never been lower. Homebuilders are slightly more hopeful because more people are saying they might be open to buying this year. And home construction picked up in the final quarter of last year.

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GE 4Q profit falls, sales miss estimates

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ General Electric Co. said Friday that its fourth-quarter earnings fell 18 percent as revenue declined after it sold its stake in the NBC network.

Revenue of nearly $38 billion was lower than what Wall Street expected.

The Fairfield, Conn., industrial conglomerate, which makes everything from jet engines to light bulbs, earned $3.73 billion, or 35 cents per share, compared with $4.54 billion, or 42 cents per share a year earlier.

Revenue fell 8 percent to $37.97 billion. The decline was largely due to the company's sale of its majority stake in NBC Universal to Comcast last year. But GE also said it also saw slower growth in Europe, and its ongoing effort to make its GE Capital financing arm more efficient reduced revenue at the unit by 9 percent. GE Capital is the company's second-largest segment.

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Fed spells out how it will forecast rate changes

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The Federal Reserve has specified how it will begin signaling when its benchmark interest rate will rise and what the rate will be at points in the future.

Four times a year starting Wednesday, the Fed will show in a chart the year when Fed officials predict they will begin raising the rate. Another chart will show individual Fed members' predictions for the rate at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2014.

More guidance on rates might help lower long-term yields further â¿¿ in effect providing a kind of stimulus. Lower rates could lead consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more. The economy would likely benefit.

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Kodak gets 2013 deadline to reorganize

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) â¿¿ Eastman Kodak Co. has a little over a year to reshape its money-losing businesses and deliver a get-out-of-bankruptcy plan.

Girded by a $950 million financing deal with Citigroup Inc., the photography pioneer aims to keep operating normally during bankruptcy while it peddles a trove of digital-imaging patents.

After years of mammoth cost-cutting and turnaround efforts, Kodak ran short of cash and sought protection from its creditors Thursday. It is required under its bankruptcy financing terms to produce a reorganization plan by Feb. 15, 2013.

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Safety agency calls for checks on A380 wing parts

BERLIN (AP) â¿¿ Europe's air safety authority told airlines Friday to inspect nearly a third of the world's A380 superjumbo jets within about six weeks after Airbus found new cracks in metal brackets inside the wings.

The European Aviation Safety Agency issued an airworthiness directive that called for "a detailed visual inspection" of the aircraft's so-called "wing rib feet" â¿¿ the metal brackets that connect the wing's ribs to its skin.

"This condition, if not detected and corrected, could potentially affect the structural integrity of the airplane," EASA said.

EASA said the order applies to 20 A380s. The agency gave airlines between four days and six weeks from Jan. 24 to carry out the checks. The deadline depends how much flying time the giant planes have clocked.

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Wal-Mart names first woman as Sam's Club CEO

BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) â¿¿ Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, said Friday that it has named Rosalind Brewer as CEO of Sam's Club â¿¿ the first woman and the first African-American to hold a CEO position at one of the company's business units.

Brewer, 49, is replacing Brian Cornell, 52, who is leaving the company so he can return to the Northeast for family reasons. He had served in the role since 2009.

Brewer, who will also be president of Sam's Club, was previously president of the retailer's U.S. East business unit. She will report to CEO Mike Duke. The moves are effective Feb. 1.

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Novartis drug investigated after 11 deaths

LONDON (AP) â¿¿ A European agency is investigating a multiple sclerosis drug made by industry giant Novartis to determine whether the medicine played any role in the deaths at least 11 patients.

The drug, Gilenya, was licensed last year in the European Union to treat a severe type of multiple sclerosis. It can cause a slow heart rate when first taken and doctors closely monitor patients after the first dose.

The European Medicines Agency, which is now investigating the drug, said it isn't clear if it caused the deaths. One of the fatalities occurred in the United States, where a patient died within 24 hours of taking the first dose.

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Zynga mulls online gambling market

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) â¿¿ Zynga, the social game company known for "FarmVille" and "Zynga Poker," is mulling a new market â¿¿ online gambling.

Zynga Inc. confirmed Friday that it is in active talks with potential partners. San Francisco-based Zynga says it is speaking to the potential partners in order to "better understand and explore" the opportunity in online gambling involving real money.

The company's "Zynga Poker" title is the world's largest online poker game. Zynga says seven million people play every day and 30 million do so each month. That game, however, is played with fake money.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 96.50 points, or 0.8 percent, to close at 12,720.48. The S&P 500 index inched up 0.88 to 1,315.38. The Nasdaq composite index fell 1.63 points to 2,786.70.

Benchmark oil fell $2.21 to end at $98.33 per barrel in New York. Brent crude fell $1.69 to finish at $111.55 per barrel in London.

In other energy trading, natural gas fell 3 cents to finish at $2.39 per 1,000 cubic feet. The price remains near a 10-year low because a mild winter has cut demand and supplies remain plentiful. Heating oil fell 5 cents to end at $2.99 per gallon and gasoline futures fell 3 cents to $2.78 per gallon.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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