Business Highlights

By The Associated Press

___

Banks rethink the branch, but will it work?

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ In an age when checks can be deposited by smartphone and almost everyone retrieves cash from ATMs, the corner bank can seem a relic, with its paper deposit slips, marble countertops and human tellers behind glass partitions.

But some banking executives say the brick-and-mortar branch is still the best way to serve existing customers and snag new ones. They're trying to rebuild the nation's neighborhood banks into hip, airy spaces where customers sign up for loans without touching a piece of paper, sign in to ATMs with a tap of their smartphones and talk to off-site tellers by video.

Flashiness is only part of the reason for the makeovers. Mounting costs from legal fees and new regulations â¿¿ vestiges of the financial crisis â¿¿ have given the banks good reason to become more efficient. The new branches will help them replace expensive human workers with cheaper machines, a development that could eventually make the bank teller an endangered species.

___

Obama budget: Spending cuts, higher smokers' taxes

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Mixing modest curbs on spending with tax increases reviled by Republicans, President Barack Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget on Wednesday that would raise taxes on smokers and wealthy Americans and trim Social Security benefits for millions.

Obama's 2014 blueprint combines a $242 billion infusion of new spending for road and rail projects, early education and jobs initiatives â¿¿ all favored by Democrats â¿¿ with longer-term savings from programs including Medicare and the military. It promises at least a start in cutting huge annual federal deficits.

The president pitched his plan as a good-faith offer to his GOP rivals since it incorporates a proposal he made to Republicans in December that wasn't radically different from a GOP plan drafted by House Speaker John Boehner. But it follows January's bitterly fought 10-year, $600 billion-plus tax increase that has stiffened GOP resolve against further tax hikes.

___

Stocks rise sharply, led by gains in technology

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Technology stocks roared back Wednesday, driving the Standard & Poor's 500 and Dow Jones industrial average to record highs.

The industry has lagged the broader market this year, but surged after network communication company Adtran reported earnings that were double what Wall Street analysts expected. That boosted optimism that businesses will increase spending on technology equipment.

Chipmakers Micron and Intel jumped, as did other network equipment makers like Cisco and JDS Uniphase. Stocks were also up on an optimistic reading of the Federal Reserve Bank's latest minutes.

___

Minutes show Fed supports stimulus through midyear

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ A majority of Federal Reserve policymakers want to continue extraordinary bond purchases to help boost the U.S. economy at least through the middle of the year, according to minutes from the Fed's last meeting released Wednesday.

But many members indicated they want to slow and eventually end the program before the end of the year, as long as the job market and economy show sustained improvement. The Fed's purchases of about $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds are intended to lower long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing and spending.

The minutes of the Fed's March 19-20 meeting were released at 9 a.m. EDT â¿¿ five hours earlier than planned â¿¿ after the Fed inadvertently sent them a day earlier to congressional staffers and lobbyists.

___

Research firm: PC sales plunge as Windows 8 flops

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Microsoft's Windows 8 software appears to be driving buyers away from PCs and toward smartphones and tablets, research firm IDC said Wednesday. That's leading to the fastest drop in PC sales the firm has ever seen.

Global shipments of PCs fell 14 percent in the first three months this year, IDC said. That's the sharpest plunge since the firm started tracking the industry in 1994.

The report comes after a year of bad news for the PC. Consumers, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S., are steering their dollars toward tablets and smartphones rather than upgrading their home PCs. It's the biggest challenge to the personal computer since the IBM PC was released in 1981.

___

US budget deficit for March grows by $107 billion

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The U.S. federal budget deficit grew more slowly in March than the previous month, keeping the annual spending shortfall on pace to finish below $1 trillion for the first time in five years.

The deficit grew by $106.5 billion in March, well below the $203.5 billion added in February, the Treasury Department said Wednesday.

Through the first six months of the year, the deficit has reached $600 billion. That's smaller than the $779 billion racked up in the first six months of the 2012 budget year. The budget year began on Oct. 1.

___

Jobless rates fall in most US cities in February

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Unemployment rates fell in more than 80 percent of large U.S. cities in February from January, suggesting that strong hiring that month benefited the vast majority of the country.

The Labor Department says rates fell in 311 of the nation's 372 largest metro areas. They rose in 45 and were unchanged in 16.

Nationwide, employers added 268,000 jobs in February, the most in a year. That pushed down the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent. But hiring slowed sharply last month, when employers added only 88,000 jobs.

___

Post office retreats on eliminating Saturday mail

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The financially beleaguered Postal Service backpedaled on its plan to end Saturday mail delivery, conceding Wednesday that its gamble to compel congressional approval had failed.

With limited options for saving money, the governing board said the agency should reopen negotiations with unions to lower labor costs and consider raising mail prices.

Yet the board also said it's not possible for the Postal Service to meet its goals for reduced spending without altering the delivery schedule. Delaying "responsible changes," the board said, only makes it more likely that the Postal Service "may become a burden" to taxpayers.

___

ConocoPhillips delays 2014 Arctic marine drilling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) â¿¿ ConocoPhillips Alaska announced Wednesday it will not drill in Arctic waters off Alaska's northwest shore in 2014.

Environmental groups hailed the decision and said the experience of Royal Dutch Shell PLC in 2012 demonstrated that oil companies are not prepared to drill in the fragile Arctic environment.

ConocoPhillips said uncertainties of evolving federal regulatory requirements are the reason for backing off.

___

EU warns of imbalances in Spain, Slovenia

BRUSSELS (AP) â¿¿ The European Commission turned up the heat on Spain and Slovenia Wednesday, warning that the two struggling countries are facing "excessive" problems fixing their economies, while France's government came under pressure to get its debt under control.

In its health-check of European Union countries with debt and deficit problems, the Commission singled out Spain and Slovenia as countries where swift action was needed. Both countries have been hit by recession, high unemployment and ailing financial sectors.

The Commission's report recommended that the two countries must both move swiftly to fix their ailing banking sectors â¿¿ either through recapitalizing or winding down some banks â¿¿ to ensure a path toward sustainable growth.

___

By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 128.78 points, or 0.9 percent, to 14,802.24. The Nasdaq composite, which is heavily weighted with technology stocks, had the biggest percentage gain of the three main indexes Wednesday, rising 59.39 points, or 1.8 percent, to 3,297.25 The S&P 500 rose 19.12 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,587.73.

Benchmark crude for May delivery finished up 44 cents at $94.64 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, which sets the price of oil used by many U.S. refineries to make gasoline, fell 37 cents to finish at $105.78 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

Wholesale gasoline prices dropped 8 cents, or 2.6 percent, to end at $2.87 a gallon. Natural gas rose 7 cents to end at $4.09 per 1,000 cubic feet. Heating oil futures dropped just 1 cent to finish at $2.95 a gallon.

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

More from Opinion

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's Ouster Proves CEOs Aren't Above the Rules

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's Ouster Proves CEOs Aren't Above the Rules

Red Hat CFO Tells TheStreet: Tech Trends Are Still in Our Favor

Red Hat CFO Tells TheStreet: Tech Trends Are Still in Our Favor

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio