Update on the latest business

FINANCIAL MARKETS

U.S. stocks slip as China virus spreads, death toll spikes

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stocks fell in midday trading Thursday over heightened fears that the global economy could take a hit as the number of confirmed cases and the death toll from a virus in China spiked.

World health officials expressed “great concern” that the new type of coronavirus is starting to spread between people outside of China, which is essentially on lockdown.

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Communications and health care companies led the losses. Facebook fell 6.7% and Anthem fell 2.9%.

Industrial companies also fell broadly. UPS skidded 4.6% after the package delivery company gave investors a disappointing profit forecast.

Most technology companies also fell, though solid earnings from Microsoft, ServiceNow and Lam Research helped the sector reach modest gains.

ECONOMY-GDP

US economy grew modestly last quarter against a hazy outlook

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy expanded at a moderate 2.1% annual rate in the final three months of 2019, capping a year when a weak global landscape and a sharp pullback in business investment resulting from President Donald Trump’s trade fights combined to slow growth.

The fourth-quarter rise in the gross domestic product — the economy’s total output of goods and services — matched the third-quarter gain, the government said Thursday. For all of last year, economic growth — 2.3% — was the weakest since Trump’s election in 2016.

The picture that emerged Thursday from the government’s first estimate of growth in the October-December quarter was a mixed one: Consumers kept spending, but they have grown more cautious. Incomes are rising but at a slower pace. Most alarmingly, businesses have been sharply reducing their investment as Trump’s ongoing trade fights have heightened uncertainty for corporations.

At the same time, low interest rates, low inflation and a robust job market have given consumers and home buyers the means to keep fueling steady if only modest growth.

MORTGAGE RATES

US mortgage rates continue to fall; 30-year loan at 3.51%

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. long-term mortgage rates continued to fall this week, breaching already historically low levels and offering an incentive to potential homebuyers.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to 3.51% from 3.60% last week. The benchmark rate stood at 4.46% a year ago.

The average rate on a 15-year mortgage declined to 3% from 3.04% last week.

Federal Reserve policymakers continued to hold interest rates low at their latest meeting this week.

FEDERAL RESERVE-VOLCKER RULE

Federal Reserve proposes loosening rules on bank investments

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve approved a proposal Thursday to loosen a financial-crisis era rule that prevents banks from investing in venture capital funds.

The proposal would affect the so-called “Volcker Rule,” which was created after the 2008 financial meltdown. The rule bars banks from trading with government-insured deposits in an effort to prevent the kind of excesses that led to the financial crisis and Great Recession. Thursday’s proposal would clarify several aspects of the rule and follows a previous loosening of the Volcker Rule last fall.

The draft rule would exempt venture capital funds from the Volcker Rule’s provision that bars banks from investing in hedge or private equity funds.

The proposal was approved by the Fed’s governors on a 4-1 vote, with Fed Chairman Jerome Powell supporting the change.

Powell said Thursday that regulators have six years’ experience with the Volcker Rule, and “we have learned that a simpler, clearer approach to implementing the rule makes it easier for both banks and regulators.”

ALTRIA-JUUL

Cost of Juul stake continues to mount for Marlboro maker

UNDATED (AP) — The company that makes Marlboro cigarettes saw in late 2018 the opportunity to offset declining tobacco sales with a $13 billion investment in Juul, the e-cigarette maker.

That investment has come at a tremendous cost, the latest a $4.1 billion hit announced Thursday by Altria as legal cases against the company continue to mount. That follows a $4.5 billion writedown in October, when Altria slashed the value of its investment in Juul Labs by a third.

Since October, the company said the number of legal cases against Juul have spiked 80%.

Juul has been hit by new federal and state investigations into its marketing amid an explosion of underage vaping among teenagers. Separately, an outbreak of lung injuries tied to vaping pressured the market for e-cigarettes. Federal officials have since identified a thickening agent added to illicit THC vaping liquids as the culprit behind the “vast majority” of the lung injuries.

Efforts to capitalize on new technologies such as e-cigarettes is crucial for companies like Altria, which took a 35% stake in Juul at the end of 2018. But few saw the risks involved. The Richmond, Virginia, company on Thursday reported that it had swung to a loss in the fourth quarter from the associated costs, citing burgeoning legal cases that it expects to grow.

EUROPE-NBCUNIVERSAL

EU fines NBCUniversal for restricting film merchandise sales

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union authorities have fined NBCUniversal for restricting cross-border sales of “Jurassic Park” toys, “Minions” school bags, “Big Lebowski” mugs and other licensed film merchandise, in the bloc’s latest regulatory effort to enforce the competition rules governing its single market.

Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager on Thursday slapped a 14.3 million euro ($15.8 million) penalty on NBCUniversal and other companies owned by parent Comcast Corp. for “anti-competitive licensing and distribution practices” that are illegal under the bloc’s rules.

Vestager said NBCUniversal contracts banned licensees from selling products in some countries and in some cases put limits on how they could sell online.

The EU said NBCUniversal carried out the illegal behavior for more than six years, beginning at the start of 2013 as the company ramped up its licensing efforts ahead of the launch of “Despicable Me 2,” and it ended in September 2019, when the company dropped all its sales restrictions.

HUMMER RETURNS

Hummer is making a comeback, but this time it’s electric

DETROIT (AP) — The Hummer, once a gas-guzzling target for environmentalists, is making a comeback. But this time around it won’t burn fuel or spew greenhouse gases.

General Motors announced Thursday that it will start selling a battery-powered Hummer pickup truck in September of 2021. At least part of the new Hummer will be shown in a 30-second television ad featuring basketball star LeBron James during the second quarter of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

GM gave only a few details about the truck, which will be unveiled officially on May 20. It will have a huge battery to generate the equivalent of 1,000 horsepower, and will be able to go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds. The Hummer also will produce 11,500 foot pounds of torque, a measure of rotational force that indicates a high towing capacity.

The truck will be sold under the GMC brand as the Hummer EV. The new version will have similar design elements but will not look like the Hummer of the past, said GM spokeswoman Michelle Malcho.

GM wouldn’t reveal the price or say how far the new truck can go on a single charge of its battery.

EARNS-COCA-COLA

Drink innovation helps Coke exceed 4Q forecasts

ATLANTA (AP) — New drinks like Coca-Cola Plus Coffee helped Coca-Cola Co. to a better-than-expected fourth quarter.

The Atlanta beverage maker said sales of fizzy drinks rose 3% for the quarter and 2% for the year, driven by strong sales in China, Brazil and Southeast Asia. Coke also got a boost from enhanced waters, like smartwater and Topo Chico, and sports drinks like Powerade. Sales in that category rose 2% for the quarter and 3% for the year.

Coke reported net income of $2 billion, more than double the $870 million it reported in the October-December period last year. Earnings, adjusted for non-recurring items, came to 44 cents per share.

The results surpassed Wall Street expectations.

Coke said it earned $2.11 per share for the full year, up 1% from 2018. This year, it expects to earn $2.25 per share.

The world’s largest beverage maker posted revenue of $9.07 billion in fourth quarter, also topping forecasts.

OLD BAY HOT SAUCE

Old Bay hot sauce with ‘Chesapeake flavor’ has fiery debut

BALTIMORE (AP) — A new product from a famous Baltimore-based seasoning company made a sizzling debut on Wednesday when it sold out within an hour of being released.

The Old Bay website temporarily crashed after eager buyers flooded the site to buy its new hot sauce, the company confirmed in a tweet. The seasoning seller thanked customers for being willing to “try something new” and joked that all the love “may have broken the internet.”

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