Business Highlights

The Associated Press

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US economy gets lift from consumers, businesses

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ American consumers are growing more confident about the job market, companies are ordering more equipment and home prices are rising in most major cities.

The latest batch of government data suggests that the economy is improving just as the holiday shopping season begins. The only threat is a package of huge spending cuts and tax increases, known as the "fiscal cliff," that will kick in unless Congress strikes a budget deal by year's end.

Rising home values, more hiring and lower gas prices pushed consumer confidence in November to the highest level in nearly five years. And steady consumer spending appears to have encouraged businesses to invest more in October after pulling back over the summer.

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Obama to appeal to public on fiscal cliff

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ President Barack Obama plans to make a public case this week for his strategy for dealing with the looming fiscal cliff, traveling to the Philadelphia suburbs Friday as he pressures Republicans to allow tax increases on the wealthy while extending tax cuts for families earning $250,000 or less.

The White House said Tuesday that the president intends to hold a series of events aimed at building support for his approach to avoid across-the-board tax increases and steep spending cuts in defense and domestic programs. Obama will meet with small business owners at the White House on Tuesday and with middle-class families on Wednesday.

Obama's strategy is two-fold: Negotiate behind closed doors with Republicans while taking his agenda outside the Beltway only weeks after winning re-election. The president's visit to a small business in Hatfield, Pa., that makes parts for a construction toy company will cap a week of public outreach as the White House and congressional leaders seek a way to avoid the tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

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Record Powerball result of changes to boost sales

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) â¿¿ The historic Powerball jackpot boosted to $500 million on Tuesday was all part of a plan lottery officials put in place early this year to build jackpots faster, drive sales and generate more money for states that run the game.

Their plan appears to be working.

Powerball tickets doubled in price in January to $2, and while the number of tickets sold initially dropped, sales revenue has increased by about 35 percent over 2011.

Sales for Powerball reached a record $3.96 billion in fiscal 2012 and are expected to reach $5 billion this year, said Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Des Moines, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association, the group that runs the Powerball game.

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Hong Kong car park investment craze raises bubble fear

HONG KONG (AP) â¿¿ Investors looking for new places to park their cash in Hong Kong are driving up prices for parking spaces, sparking fears of a bubble in the Asian financial center.

Prices for parking spots in Hong Kong are nearing historic highs, the side effect of government curbs to cool the housing market amid worries of overheating following the latest round of monetary stimulus in the U.S. last month.

Over the weekend, a developer sold about 500 parking spots at a new suburban apartment complex at prices of up to 1.3 million Hong Kong dollars ($167,000) per space.

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As Great Lakes plummet, towns try to save harbors

ONEKAMA, Mich. (AP) â¿¿ For more than a century, easy access to Lake Michigan has made Onekama a popular place for summer visitors and a refuge for boaters fleeing dangerous storms. Now the community itself needs a rescue, from slumping lake levels that threaten its precious link to open water.

The Great Lakes, the world's biggest freshwater system, are shrinking because of drought and rising temperatures, a trend that accelerated with this year's almost snowless winter and scorching summer. Water levels have fallen to near-record lows on Lakes Michigan and Huron, while Erie, Ontario and Superior are below their historical averages. The decline is causing heavy economic losses, with cargo freighters forced to lighten their loads, marinas too shallow for pleasure boats and weeds sprouting on exposed bottomlands, chasing away swimmers and sunbathers.

Some of the greatest suffering is in small tourist towns that lack the economic diversity of bigger port cities. Yet they are last in line for federal money to deepen channels and repair infrastructure to support the boating traffic that keeps them afloat.

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RV industry's recovery gains speed in 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) â¿¿ The RV industry's recovery from the Great Recession has picked up speed.

Recreational Vehicle makers are churning out higher numbers of travel trailers bound for dealers' lots and, ultimately, campgrounds.

Overall shipments from manufacturers to dealers â¿¿ a key measure of consumer demand â¿¿ are expected to rise 10 percent in 2012 and could gain another 4.5 percent next year, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said Tuesday.

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ConAgra gobbles up store brands with Ralcorp deal

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ ConAgra Foods is set to become the nation's biggest maker of store-brand foods, with a $5 billion purchase of Ralcorp that expands its stake in the growing market for cereals, crackers and other packaged foods sold under private labels.

The deal announced Tuesday caps a year of acquisitions for ConAgra, which makes brands including Banquet, Chef Boyardee and Marie Callender's. The company, based in Omaha, Neb., also made multiple attempts to buy Ralcorp last year.

The latest bid for Ralcorp comes at a time when private-label brands â¿¿ also known as store brands or house brands â¿¿ are gaining popularity with price-conscious shoppers. Supermarkets and drug stores have also been working to improve the image of their brands as a way to control the rising costs for name brands.

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Executive embroiled in HP-Autonomy mess lashes out

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) â¿¿ An executive vilified by Hewlett-Packard Co. on allegations of an accounting ruse is escalating his counter-attack on the company accusing him.

In a letter to HP's board released Tuesday, former Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch fiercely defended his integrity. He also questions whether HP is using the charges of financial shenanigans to cover up damage caused by its own ineptitude.

HP fired back with a statement that predicted its findings of misconduct will be proven in anticipated legal proceedings about the dispute.

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ShopperTrak: Stores have a solid start to holidays

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ A firm that analyzes customer traffic says stores saw a solid increase in sales for the four-day start to the holiday season, as heavy Thanksgiving shopping offset a drop in Black Friday sales.

Chicago-based-ShopperTrak said late Tuesday that foot traffic was up 8.2 percent for the four-day weekend, starting with Thanksgiving, while total sales rose 2.7 percent to $22 billion, compared with the same period a year ago. The sales pace is higher than the 1.7 percent seen last year.

This year retailers had their earliest start ever to the holiday shopping season, as major stores including Target Corp. and Sears opened on Thanksgiving evening.

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Greek bankruptcy averted â¿¿ for now

ATHENS, Greece (AP) ⿿ European and global financial leaders have agreed to release ⿬44 billion ($57 billion) in critical loans to Greece and provide billions in additional debt relief in order to help the country stabilize its ailing economy.

After three weeks of negotiations, Greece's euro partners and the International Monetary Fund agreed early Tuesday morning to release the loans in four installments beginning next month. The leaders also settled on a raft of measures ⿿ including a debt buyback program and an interest rate cut on loans ⿿ that will reduce the country's debts by about ⿬40 billion.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras hailed the agreement in Brussels as a victory.

But the country will still face years of economic pain as austerity measures agreed to as part of the bailout package are implemented.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 89.24 points to 12,878.13. The Standard & Poor's 500 lost 7.35 points to 1,398.94 and the Nasdaq composite index lost 8.99 points to 2,967.79.

Crude oil fell 56 cents to close at $87.18 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, which is used to set prices for many international varieties of oil, fell $1.05 to $109.87 a barrel on London's ICE Futures exchange.

Wholesale gasoline for December delivery rose 0.58 cent to $2.7321 a gallon. Natural gas rose 3.9 cents to $3.769 per 1,000 cubic feet. Heating oil fell 3.71 cents to $3.0094 a gallon.

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

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