POLITICS

Business Highlights

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Sandy delivers heavy blow to US economy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Superstorm Sandy packed a bigger economic punch than most people had thought.

In its sweep through the Northeast, the storm halted sales at major retailers at the start of the crucial holiday shopping season, closed factories and slowed home sales in one of the most densely populated areas of the country.

On Thursday, for example, Kohl's, Target and Macy's blamed the storm for weak sales in November. Macy's and Nordstrom Inc. reported their first monthly sales drop since late 2009, when the U.S. economy was just emerging from the Great Recession.

And the government said this week that new-home sales plunged 32 percent in the Northeast last month and nearly 12 percent in the South. By contrast, sales surged nearly 63 percent in the Midwest and nearly 9 percent in the West.

Sandy is being blamed for about $62 billion in damage and other losses in the U.S., most of it in New York and New Jersey. It's the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, which caused $128 billion in damage in inflation-adjusted dollars.

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US economy grew at 2.7 percent rate in summer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate from July through September, much faster than first thought. The strength is expected to fade in the final months of the year because of the impact of Superstorm Sandy and uncertainty about looming tax increases and government spending cuts.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that growth in the third quarter was significantly better than the 2 percent rate estimated a month ago. And it was more than twice the 1.3 percent rate reported for the April-June quarter.

The main reason for the upward revision to the gross domestic product was businesses restocked at a faster pace than previously estimated. That offset weaker consumer spending growth.

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Retailers report weak sales gains for November

NEW YORK (AP) — Black Friday was no match for Superstorm Sandy.

Major retailers from Target to Macy's reported weak November sales as the strong start to the holiday shopping season — including a good showing on the day after Thanksgiving — wasn't enough to fully offset the damage caused by Sandy earlier in the month.

The storm stunted enthusiasm among shoppers during the first couple of weeks of November just as stores were preparing for the busiest shopping period of the year, a roughly two-month stretch at the end of the year when retailers can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.

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Pay a penalty? Biz owners face health care dilemma

NEW YORK (AP) — Rose Wang looks at her staff of 70 employees and wonders if she'll have to lay off some of them to comply with the health care law.

The owner of Binary Group Inc., an information technology firm based in Alexandria, Va., is one of many small business owners who will be required to provide health insurance for her staffers under a provision of the law that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. Wang already provides insurance, but she has struggled with premiums that have soared as much as 60 percent annually, so she requires employees to contribute to their coverage. She's worried because she doesn't know how much she'll have to pay under the Affordable Care Act.

Wang's worry is a gut-wrenching dilemma that many small business owners are concerned that they may face. Now that President Barack Obama has won re-election, the health care overhaul, which presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised to dismantle, is marching forward. Companies must decide before the start of 2014 what they'll do to comply with the law. Right now, no one knows how much the insurance will cost, and owners aren't sure if they'd be better off not buying it and paying a government a penalty of $2,000 per worker. Some owners are even threatening to defy the law. The big challenge for most small businesses is that they just don't have enough information to make concrete plans.

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Honda gets a do-over; revamps Civic to fix flaws

DETROIT (AP) — Honda has made a quick U-turn.

Just 19 months after its Civic compact hit showrooms and was slammed by critics, the company has revamped the car, giving it a sportier look and upgrading the interior.

It's an unusual and costly do-over. But Honda — among the auto industry's most highly-regarded brands — was worried the car's flaws would hurt sales and market share, analysts say.

The 2013 version goes on sale Thursday, and Honda has given it a sportier profile, replaced its chintzy dashboard and made the ride quieter. The revamp comes to market in about half the time it normally takes, and shows just how concerned Honda is about falling behind rivals.

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US pending home sales jump to nearly a 6-year high

WASHINGTON (AP) — An index measuring the number of Americans who signed contracts to buy homes in October jumped to nearly its highest level in almost six years. Steady job gains and record-low mortgage rates have made home buying more attractive.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index rose 5.2 percent to 104.8 in October. Excluding a few months when the index spiked because of a homebuyer tax credit, that is the highest level since March 2007.

The increase points to healthy sales increases of previously occupied homes in the months ahead. There's generally a one- to two-month lag between a signed contract and a completed sale.

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Applications for US jobless aid fall to 393,000

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 393,000 last week. It was the second straight drop after Superstorm Sandy had driven applications much higher earlier this month.

A Labor Department analyst said Thursday that the storm had little effect on last week's data. Applications had spiked to 451,000 three weeks ago after Sandy struck the East Coast, closing businesses in the Northeast and cutting off power to 8 million homes in 10 states.

People can claim unemployment benefits if their workplaces are forced to close and they aren't paid.

The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose to 405,250 last week. That figure has been elevated by the storm.

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Winning tickets sought in $588 million Powerball jackpot

DEARBORN, Mo. (AP) — The search is on for the country's newest multimillionaires, the holders of two tickets that matched all six numbers to split a record $588 million Powerball jackpot.

Lottery officials said Thursday that the winning tickets matching all six numbers were sold at a convenience store in suburban Phoenix and a gas station just off an interstate highway in a small northwestern Missouri town. Neither ticket holder had come forward.

The mystery fueled a giddy mood at the Trex Mart just outside Dearborn, Mo., as lottery officials and the media descended on the town of 500 people.

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Twinkies maker Hostess ready for its big bake sale

NEW YORK (AP) — The future of Twinkies is virtually assured.

Hostess Brands Inc. got final approval for its wind-down plans in bankruptcy court Thursday, setting the stage for its iconic snack cakes to find a second life with new owners — even as 18,000 jobs will be wiped out.

The company said in court that it's in talks with 110 potential buyers for its brands, which include CupCakes, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. The suitors include at least five national retailers such as supermarkets, a financial adviser for Hostess said. The process has been "so fast and furious" Hostess wasn't able to make its planned calls to potential buyers, said Joshua Scherer of Perella Weinberg Partners.

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Kroger lifts forecast after stronger third quarter

NEW YORK (AP) — Kroger Co. is raising its earnings outlook for the year after the nation's largest traditional supermarket chain reported a third-quarter profit that topped Wall Street expectations.

The company, which also operates Fry's, Food 4 Less and Ralphs, has been working to improve the shopping experience and build customer loyalty as it fends off competition from specialty grocers such as Whole Foods and big-box retailers such as Target, as well as dollar stores and drugstore chains.

As shopping habits change, the Cincinnati-based company has also been experimenting with new formats such as its larger "Marketplace" stores that have a bigger footprint and sell general merchandise in addition to groceries. It has also opened about a dozen smaller "Ruler" stores that focus primarily on cheaper, private-label products.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 36.71 points to close at 13,021.82. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 6.02 points to 1,415.95. The Nasdaq composite index gained 20.25 points to 3,012.03.

Benchmark crude rose $1.58 to close at $88.07. Brent crude, which is used to price international varieties of oil, rose $1.25 to $110.76 per barrel on the ICE Futures Exchange in London.

Heating oil rose 3.3 cents to $3.04 a gallon. Natural gas fell 15.3 cents to $3.65 per 1,000 cubic feet. Wholesale gasoline gained 5.3 cents to $2.79 a gallon

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