Business Highlights

The Associated Press

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Rising sales point to better year for housing

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ The housing market is flashing signs of health ahead of the spring-buying season.

Sales of previously occupied homes are at their highest level since May 2010. More first-time buyers are making purchases. And the supply of homes fell last month to its lowest point in nearly seven years, which could push home prices higher.

Sales have now risen nearly 13 percent over the past six months. While they are still well below the 6 million that economists equate with a healthy market, the gains have coincided with other changes in the market that suggest more sales are coming.

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States may tap mortgage money to fill budget gaps

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) â¿¿ The ink wasn't even dry on a settlement with the nation's top mortgage lenders when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon laid claim to a chunk of the money to avert a huge budget cut for public colleges and universities.

He's not the only politician eyeing the cash for purposes that have nothing to do with foreclosure. Like a pot of gold in a barren field, the $25 billion deal offers a tempting and timely source of funding for state governments with multimillion-dollar budget gaps.

Although most of the money goes directly to homeowners affected by the mortgage crisis, the settlement announced this month by attorneys general in 49 states includes nearly $2.7 billion for state governments to spend as they wish.

Some are pledging to use it as relief for struggling homeowners or to help related initiatives such as a Michigan plan to assist children left homeless by foreclosures. But several states are already planning to divert at least some of the money to prop up their budgets, and more will be wrestling with those decisions in the coming weeks.

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Obama seeks corporate tax rate cut, loophole limit

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ President Barack Obama rolled out a corporate tax overhaul plan Wednesday that lowers rates but also eliminates loopholes and subsidies cherished by the business world. A long-shot for action in an election year, the plan nevertheless stamps Obama's imprint on one of the most high-profile issues of the presidential campaign.

The president's plan to lower the corporate tax rate to 28 percent came on the same day Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney called for a 20 percent across-the-board cut in personal income tax rates, underscoring the potency of taxes as a political issue, especially during a modest economic recovery.

Obama has not laid out a plan for overhauling personal income taxes. But he has called for Bush era tax cuts to end on individuals making more than $200,000, thus increasing their taxes, and for a 30 percent minimum tax on taxpayers who make $1 million or more.

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West Virginia mine boss charged with fraud in deadly blast

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ Federal prosecutors investigating the West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 men are working their way up the corporate ladder with criminal charges.

On Wednesday, the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine became the highest-ranking company official charged in the 2010 disaster, and he is apparently cooperating with prosecutors, who said the investigation is far from over.

Gary May, 43, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, accused among other things of disabling a methane gas monitor, falsifying safety records and using code words to tip off miners underground about surprise inspections.

He could get up to five years in prison if found guilty.

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Greece lowers recovery expectations

ATHENS, Greece (AP) â¿¿ Greece on Wednesday insisted a new $172 billion bailout deal will "bind" it to the euro, but again lowered expectations of recovery as it faced skeptical world markets, continued protests and another downgrade of its debt deeper into junk status.

As the government scrambled to push new austerity measures, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said the new rescue package approved by eurozone countries would shield Greece from default.

Eurozone countries on Tuesday approved the new bailout deal, and a $141 billion debt writedown by banks and other private holders of Greek bonds.

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GM in alliance talks with Peugeot in Europe

PARIS (AP) â¿¿ General Motors Co. is in talks about a possible alliance with France's leading car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen, a deal that could dwarf PSA's partnerships with BMW, Mitsubishi Motors and Toyota.

Peugeot Citroen shares surged on news of the talks, which were confirmed Wednesday by France's labor minister.

The Paris-based maker of the Peugeot 207 hatchback and Citroen C4 Picasso minivan lost $578 million on its car business last year amid falling sales and concerns over management's strategy among industry analysts. The family controlled company whose roots stretch back over 200 years has been hard hit by the economic downturn in Europe, where it sells more than 50 percent of the 3.5 million cars it sells annually.

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HP says 1Q earnings down 44 percent, beats Street

PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) â¿¿ Hewlett-Packard Co., the maker of PCs and printers, on Wednesday said its net income fell, while sales fell 7 percent in the first full quarter under new CEO Meg Whitman.

HP's sales to consumers fared the worst, dipping 23 percent from a year earlier. HP is the world's largest maker of PCs, but it's been performing badly as buyers in the developed world are turning their attention to Apple's iPads and Macs. Meanwhile, it hasn't been able to capture the growing appetite for PCs in emerging markets.

Net income was $1.47 billion, or 73 cents per share, in the three months that ended Jan. 31. A year earlier, it was $2.6 billion, or $1.17 a share. Adjusted for one-time items, the company earned 92 cents per share, above the 87 cents expected by analysts surveyed by FactSet.

Revenue was $30 billion, down from $32.3 billion and slightly below expectations of $30.7 billion.

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MGM Resorts 4th-quarter loss narrows, revenue up

LAS VEGAS (AP) â¿¿ MGM Resorts International said Wednesday that high costs kept it in the red in the fourth quarter, but it lost less than a year earlier as more people stayed at its Las Vegas Strip casinos and visitors spent more on the food, gambling, entertainment and shopping it offers.

The company's revenue rose 55 percent to $2.3 billion from $1.48 billion, but its expenses rose slightly faster at 57 percent. Key among those costs was a $96 million write-down reflecting the tumbling value of the company's Borgata casino in Atlantic City, N.J., which it is selling, and of its Silver Legacy casino in Reno, Nev.

CEO Jim Murren was upbeat in an interview and during a conference call with investors because his company is generating more cash overall. He said that will help it reduce its interest payments and debt and, by next year, return to profitability.

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Microsoft hits Motorola, Google with EU complaint

BRUSSELS (AP) â¿¿ Microsoft on Wednesday lodged a formal complaint with the European Union's competition regulator against Motorola Mobility and its soon-to-be owner Google, saying Motorola's aggressive enforcement of patent rights against rivals breaks competition rules.

The complaint follows a similar step by Apple against Motorola last week.

Motorola is in the process of being taken over by Google for $12.5 billion, the biggest acquisition in the Californian company's history. Microsoft fears that Google will continue Motorola's tight hold on key patents.

Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have been hit by legal cases in Europe and the United States, with Motorola claiming that the companies' products are using key patents it owns without permission.

Apple and Microsoft, meanwhile, argue that Motorola is overcharging for the use of these patents, which cover technologies necessary to connect wirelessly to the Internet or stream video online.

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American Airlines to reduce jobs without layoffs

DALLAS (AP) â¿¿ American Airlines says that because of job-sharing and other steps, it won't have to furlough 500 flight attendants this spring.

American said two weeks ago that it planned to cut 500 flight attendants because it's flying less than it did a year ago.

The company and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said Wednesday that the furloughs won't be needed because so many workers signed up for job-sharing and voluntary leave.

The good news is temporary, however. The furloughs were to be on top of 13,000 jobs that American still wants to eliminate under a bankruptcy reorganization plan.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 27.02 points to finish at 12,938.67. The Standard & Poor's 500 lost 4.55 points to close at 1,357.66. The Nasdaq composite index declined 15.40 points to 2,933.17.

Brent crude, a benchmark for foreign oil imported by U.S. refineries to make gasoline, added $1.24 to end the day at $122.90 per barrel in London. The U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate crude, which has ample supplies in the Midwest, rose slightly, adding just 3 cents to finish at $106.28 per barrel in New York.

In other energy trading, heating oil rose by 3 cents to end at $3.27 per gallon. Gasoline futures rose by 2 cents to finish at $3.09 per gallon. Natural gas futures rose by 2 cents to end at $2.64 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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