Business Highlights

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Job openings fall for second straight month

WASHINGTON (AP) - Employers posted fewer jobs in December, the latest evidence that businesses are not ready to step up hiring.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised nearly 3.1 million jobs in December, a drop of almost 140,000 from November and the second straight monthly decline. That's the lowest total since September.

The report provides an indication of future hiring patterns because it can take several months to fill many jobs.

Openings have risen by more than 700,000 since they bottomed out in July 2009, one month after the recession ended. That's an increase of 31 percent.

Analysts expect companies will start hiring again soon, noting that other data suggest the economy is improving. Consumers are spending more, layoffs are at pre-recession levels and the Dow Jones industrial average is above 12,000.

Also, a separate report from the National Federation of Independent Business on Tuesday said confidence among small employers is at the highest level since the recession began in December 2007.

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Business travel bounces back as economy improves

NEW YORK (AP) - Business travel is bouncing back.

U.S. companies are forecast to spend 5 percent more on travel in 2011 than they did last year - a sign of confidence in the economy that is giving a boost to airlines, hotels and rental-car companies. That's double the growth rate from 2010, which followed two years of decline.

Last year's bump in business travel - companies spent an estimated $228 billion - helped U.S. airlines post their first collective profit in three years. And profits are rising at hotel chains like Marriott and Hyatt and rental-car companies like Avis and Hertz.

Perhaps the most telling sign of a rebound, industry officials say, is the return of corporate retreats. They had all but vanished during the recession, part of an effort by businesses to avoid the appearance of extravagance at a time of government bailouts and rising unemployment.

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Government: No electronic flaws in Toyotas

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration's investigation into Toyota safety problems found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration and other safety problems. Government investigators said Tuesday the only known cause of the problems are mechanical defects that were fixed in previous recalls.

The Transportation Department, assisted by engineers with NASA, said its 10-month study of Toyota vehicles concluded there was no electronic cause of unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. The study, which was launched at the request of Congress, responded to consumer complaints that flawed electronics could be the culprit behind Toyota's spate of recalls.

Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they reviewed consumer complaints and warranty data in detail and found that many of the complaints involved cases in which the vehicle accelerated after it was stationary or at very low speeds.

Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles globally since fall 2009 to address sticking accelerator pedals, gas pedals that became trapped in floor mats, and other safety issues. The recalls have posed a major challenge for the world's No. 1 automaker, which has scrambled to protect its reputation for safety and reliability.

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More charges announced in NY insider trading probe

NEW YORK (AP) - Federal authorities revealed charges Tuesday against three hedge fund portfolio managers and a hedge fund analyst, describing a paper-shredding, flash drive-destroying panic that ensued when they thought they faced the scrutiny of investigators.

The two new arrests and the announcement of two guilty pleas expanded a federal crackdown on insider trading that masks itself as legitimate market research. The case raised the number charged in the probe to 12. The Securities and Exchange Commission said the conspiracy earned more than $30 million in illegal profits.

The investigation was revealed in the fall and has so far concentrated on a group of hedge fund portfolio managers who authorities say tried to learn inside information about public companies through contacts at a California-based public research firm, Primary Global Research. The company boasted of its research results, but authorities say it sometimes specialized in linking corrupt employees of public companies willing to prematurely divulge earnings results or acquisition announcements with hedge fund managers eager for a trading edge.

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Disney 1Q tops Street on strength in all units

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Walt Disney Co. on Tuesday posted a 54 percent jump in earnings in the latest quarter. The results beat analyst expectations thanks to higher advertising revenue at its ESPN and ABC television networks, stronger performance at its theme parks and cost cutting at its movie studio.

The company reported strength in all units, a sign that cost cutting and strategic shifts combined with a revived economy were helping the house of Mickey Mouse. Disney reported a slightly higher, though still modest loss in the interactive division, but revenue in that unit was up 58 percent.

Net income at the Burbank, Calif.-based company in the three months to Jan. 1 hit $1.3 billion, or 68 cents per share, from $844 million, or 44 cents per share, a year earlier.

Revenue grew 10 percent to $10.7 billion from $9.7 billion a year ago.

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McDonald's sales top expectations; Europe stronger

OAK BROOK, Ill. (AP) - McDonald's Corp. reported a 5.3 percent rise in January sales at locations open more than a year, giving credit to its McCafe hot chocolate, Chicken McNuggets and the addition of oatmeal to the menu.

A strong gain in Europe, the fast-food chain's largest region, made up for a relatively weak sales gain the U.S.

That topped the average forecast from analysts of 4 percent, according to FactSet Research.

The company has outperformed its competitors during the past few years with an expanding menu and an emphasis on low-priced items.

Growth in the U.S., which accounts for 34 percent of the company's revenue, came in weaker than the rest of the world. U.S. sales at stores open at least a year rose 3.1 percent.

However, Europe - accounting for 40 percent of revenue - saw that same figure rise 7 percent. This was well above some analysts' expectations and good news for the fast-food chain as many thought the relatively weaker economies of Europe would take more of a toll on its business there.

McDonald's, like many of its peers, is dealing with higher ingredient costs and expects to raise prices this year. The company has already increased prices in some parts of the world, which hasn't yet seemed to dampen demand.

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Kindred Healthcare buying RehabCare for $900M

NEW YORK (AP) - Kindred Healthcare's $900 million agreement to buy rival RehabCare Group would expand its rehabilitation service business and keep patients under its care throughout their recovery.

Both companies operate long-term acute care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities. Kindred is the larger of the two companies, but RehabCare has a larger contract business to provide rehabilitation services at hospitals and nursing and assisted living facilities it doesn't own.

The combined company will have 118 long term acute care hospitals, 226 nursing and rehabilitation centers, and 121 inpatient rehabilitation facilities, and 1,808 rehabilitation service contracts. It will do business in 46 states.

In addition to the $900 million in cash and stock that Kindred would pay for RehabCare under the deal announced Tuesday, it will assume $400 million in debt.

Kindred President and CEO Paul Diaz said the combined company will have the chance to boost its revenue by moving patients from one facility to another, such as from a long-term hospital to a nursing facility, as their recovery continues.

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China hikes interest rates again to damp inflation

BEIJING (AP) - China's central bank raised interest rates for the second time in just over a month in a bid to dampen high inflation and guide blistering economic growth to a sustainable level.

The People's Bank of China announced Tuesday on its website that the benchmark 1-year deposit rate would rise by a quarter percentage point to 3 percent and the 1-year lending rate would increase by the same amount to 6.06 percent. The increases are effective Wednesday.

Its last rate hike came on Christmas Day, when the bank raised both benchmark rates by a quarter point. China's leaders have sought to cool surging inflation that could pose a threat to political stability.

Rising prices are especially sensitive in a country where poor families can spend up to half their incomes on food. Higher incomes have helped to offset price hikes, but inflation undercuts economic gains that help support the ruling Communist Party's claim to power.

Tuesday's announcement, which is the third rate hike since last October, dragged European shares lower. Asian markets were already closed. Investors worry that slower Chinese growth could affect the United States, Australia and other economies by cutting demand for their exports of iron ore, machinery and other goods.

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3M boosts 1Q dividend, authorizes $7B buyback plan

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (AP) - 3M Co. is boosting its first-quarter dividend to 55 cents from 52.5 cents and plans to repurchase up to $7 billion worth of its common shares.

The diversified technology manufacturer, based in Maplewood, Minn., says its board of directors authorized the dividend Tuesday. It says the cash dividend will be paid on March 12 to shareholders of record at the close of business on Feb. 18.

The company says the new share repurchase authorization replaces an earlier buyback plan under which $2.2 billion remained as of November.

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Egypt central bank intervenes to boost pound

CAIRO (AP) - Egypt's central bank stepped in Tuesday to halt a sharp fall in the country's currency, while the stock exchange outlined regulations aimed at thwarting potentially steep losses when it reopens next week as massive anti-government protests batter investor confidence.

The Egyptian pound had dropped to near six-year lows against the U.S. dollar in recent days after banks that had been shuttered for a week because of the demonstrations demanding the president's ouster reopened. The pound closed Tuesday at 5.870 to the U.S. dollar, rebounding sharply from the previous day's close of 5.9615 to the dollar.

Central Bank Deputy Governor Hisham Ramez told the state-run Middle East News Agency the bank's intervention resulted in the pound's strengthening against the U.S. dollar. Ramez said the bank is "constantly monitoring the pound's movement, and that the bank is ready to intervene at any time" if the circumstances require such a step. He did not say how much the bank had pumped into currency markets.

Economists and analysts said the bank had shown it was ready to step in, but it remained unclear how much support it would, or could provide.

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The Dow Jones industrial average rose 71.52 points, or 0.6 percent, to close at 12,233.15.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 5.52, or 0.4 percent, to 1,324.57. The Nasdaq composite index rose 13.06, or 0.5 percent, to 2,797.05.

West Texas Intermediate crude, or WTI, for March delivery lost 54 cents to settle at $86.88 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, Brent crude rose 65 cents to settle at $100.52 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In other Nymex trading in March contracts, heating oil rose 2.57 cents to settle at $2.7318 a gallon and gasoline gained 4.37 cents to settle at $2.4942 a gallon. Natural gas fell 6.4 cents to settle at $4.040 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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