Business Highlights

The Associated Press

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Stocks record biggest gains of year; Dow up 218

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Bank stocks turbocharged a rally across the financial markets Tuesday, and all three major stock indexes posted their biggest gains of the year. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 218 points and closed at its highest level since the end of 2007.

The Nasdaq composite closed above 3,000 for the first time since December 2000, when dot-com stocks were collapsing.

There was already plenty of good news driving the market higher Tuesday â¿¿ the strongest retail sales gain since September and an encouraging assessment of the economy from the Federal Reserve.

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Fed notes better economy, takes no policy action

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The Federal Reserve sketched a mildly brighter view of the economy Tuesday after a burst of hiring since its last meeting in January. It took no further steps to aid the recovery and repeated its plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero through 2014.

After a one-day policy meeting, the Fed said unemployment should continue to decline gradually as the economy expands. It also noted that consumer spending and business investment have picked up.

And it took a more hopeful view of Europe's debt crisis. Though the crisis still threatens the global economy, the danger has eased, the Fed said.

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Students seek to stop loan interest rate hike

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Millions of college students could be in for a shock this summer when the interest rate on a popular federally subsidized student loan is to double unless Congress acts.

College students on Tuesday delivered more than 130,000 letters to congressional leaders asking them to stop rates from increasing from the current 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The rate hike affects new Stafford loans, which are issued to low- and middle-income undergraduates. The letter-writers hope to raise enough awareness to get Congress to stop it.

President Barack Obama frequently tells crowds it's important for Congress to stop the hike because one of the most daunting challenges after high school graduation is affording college. His administration has said keeping the rate low would help 7.4 million borrowers save on average more than a thousand dollars over the life of a loan.

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IDC raises 2012 forecast for tablet computers

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Research group IDC increased its forecast for tablet computer shipments this year after 2011 ended stronger than it had anticipated.

IDC said Tuesday that it now expects worldwide shipments of 106 million in 2012, up from the previous forecast of nearly 88 million. The new figure represents 54 percent growth from nearly 69 million shipments in 2011.

The November introduction of Amazon.com Inc.'s low-cost Kindle Fire, which runs a modified version of Google's Android operating system, helped 2011 growth, IDC said.

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Citibank, 3 others fail Fed stress test; 15 banks pass

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Four major U.S. banks failed to show they have enough capital to survive another serious downturn, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. The list included Citigroup, the nation's third-largest bank.

The Fed said 15 of the19 major banks that it tested passed. The Fed noted that all 19 are in a much stronger position than immediately after the 2008 financial crisis.

But SunTrust, Ally Financial and MetLife joined Citi in failing the test's minimum capital requirements.

The Fed reviewed the banks' balance sheets to determine whether they could withstand a potential crisis that sends unemployment to 13 percent, causes stock prices to fall by half and lowers home prices 21 percent from today's levels.

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Obama warns China against 'skirting the rules'

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ President Barack Obama warned China Tuesday that it would not be allowed to gain a competitive advantage in world trade by "skirting the rules."

Making an election-year pitch to American workers and businesses, Obama announced that Washington has brought a new trade case against Beijing. The goal is to pressure China, a rising Asian economic power, to end its restrictions on exports of key materials used to manufacture hybrid-car batteries, flat-screen televisions and other high-tech goods.

The U.S., working with the European Union and Japan, asked the World Trade Organization Tuesday to facilitate talks with China over its curtailment of exports of what's known as rare earth minerals. Obama cast the fresh action against China as part of a broader push to level the playing field for U.S. companies.

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US retail sales rose 1.1 percent in February

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Americans stepped up spending on retail goods in February, evidence that a stronger job market is boosting the economy.

Consumers bought more vehicles, clothes and appliances. They also paid higher prices for gas.

Retail sales increased 1.1 percent last month, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. It was the biggest gain since September. The government also revised upward the sales figures for the previous two months.

Some economists noted that the February increase and the revisions could lead to faster economic growth. They also could put pressure on the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, to rethink a plan to hold interest rates at record lows until at least late 2014.

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US job openings fell in January from 3½ year high

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of U.S. jobs openings fell in January from a three and a half year high reached the month before. The modest decline suggests hiring could continue at its healthy pace but may not accelerate.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers posted 3.46 million job openings in January. That's down from 3.54 million advertised in December, the most since August 2008. The department also revised data back to January 2007.

The figures follow a government report Friday that showed the economy added 227,000 net jobs in February. It was the third straight month of strong job gains.

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Cruise industry leaders re-emphasize safety

MIAMI (AP) â¿¿ Cruise industry leaders on Tuesday gathered for their first annual convention since the Costa Concordia disaster, driving home their commitment to safety and expressing confidence that the resulting lull in business is only temporary.

The Concordia accident, in which 32 people died when the ship ran aground in January off the coast of Italy, cast a long shadow over this year's Cruise Shipping Miami conference. The annual meeting draws thousands of people who work in the cruise and travel industries in more than 100 countries.

Costa's parent company, Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise operator, said booking trends are running behind last year, leading it last week to slash 2012 profit forecasts nearly in half. Miami-based Carnival's brands also include Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Cunard Line.

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JPMorgan increases quarterly dividend to 30 cents

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ JPMorgan Chase says it is increasing its quarterly stock dividend to 30 cents per share from 25 cents.

The bank says the increase was authorized by the Federal Reserve, which recently conducted a stress test on the 19 largest financial institutions.

JPMorgan, the largest bank in the nation by assets, said Tuesday that the Fed also authorized it to buy back $15 billion of its own stock by the end of the first quarter of 2013.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones Industrial rose 217.97 points to finish at 13,177.68, its highest close since Dec. 31, 2007. The close put the Dow within 1,000 points of its all-time record, 14,164.53, set less than three months earlier, on Oct. 9, 2007.

The Nasdaq composite index rose 56.22 points, or 1.9 percent, to 3,039.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 index closed up 24.87 points, or 1.8 percent, at 1,395.96, its highest level since June 5, 2008.

Benchmark oil increased 37 cents to finish at $106.71 in New York. Brent crude ended up 88 cents at $126.22 per barrel in London.

Natural gas rose 3 cents to finish $2.299 per 1,000 cubic feet in New York trading. Heating oil futures rose 3 cents to finish at $3.27 per gallon and gasoline futures increased 3 cents to $3.35 per gallon.

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

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