06/26/2013 06:02 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Business Highlights


Microsoft tweaks Windows 8, blamed for PC slump

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Microsoft is trying to avert slumping PC sales and growing criticism of its flagship operating system with the release of a revised version of Windows 8.

On Wednesday, Microsoft made a preview version of Windows 8.1 available for download. It includes alterations meant to address consumer dissatisfaction with the operating system. Analysts believe users' frustration with Windows 8 is partly to blame for the biggest drop in personal computer sales in nearly two decades.

At a conference in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the company pushed hard to get people to adopt a radical new tile-based "Modern" user interface in Windows 8. Microsoft is now back-pedaling, making it easier to reach and use the older "desktop" interface.


Slower US growth might lead Fed to delay tapering

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy may not be strong enough for the Federal Reserve to slow its bond purchases later this year.

That's the takeaway from economists after the government cut its estimate Wednesday of growth in the January-March quarter to a 1.8 per cent annual rate, sharply below its previous estimate of a 2.4 per cent rate. The main reason: Consumers spent less than previously thought.

Most economists think growth will remain low as consumers and businesses continue to adjust to federal spending cuts and higher taxes. Growth is expected to reach an annual rate of only about 2 per cent in the April-June quarter. Even if the economy improves slightly, it would be hard to meet the Fed's forecast of 2.3 per cent to 2.6 per cent growth for 2013.


BofA executive: Small business is making a comeback

NEW YORK (AP) — Robb Hilson's job as head of small business banking at Bank of America is to convince small business owners that the bank wants to do business with them.

That's not easy when small businesses have consistently said in surveys that they find it hard to get loans from banks, and when banks have become more cautious about lending to small companies following the recession. But in the 18 months Hilson has been on the job at the nation's second-largest bank it has had some success with its 3.2 million small business customers. Last year, Bank of America made $8.7 billion in new loans to small businesses, up 28 per cent from 2011.

Hilson, 54, took the job as small business executive in November 2011 soon after Bank of America started placing 1,000 bankers in cities and communities around the country to serve small companies. Bank of America and other big banks began bolstering their small business outreach after they were criticized by company owners and lawmakers for stringent lending standards that prevented many companies from getting loans. Bank of America was also one of the banks that pledged to the Small Business Administration that it would increase its loans to small business.


Pardoned financier Marc Rich dies in Switzerland

GENEVA (AP) — He was a wheeler-dealer pardoned by another consummate dealmaker, a working-class Jewish boy who left Belgium to escape the Nazis and rose to become the billionaire "King of Commodities."

Marc Rich's connections to the rich and powerful not only made him fabulously wealthy but when he was indicted for fraud, racketeering and tax evasion on a grand scale, they helped secure him a pardon from Bill Clinton, hours before the U.S. president left office.

That triggered a political firestorm from critics who alleged Rich bought his pardon through donations that his ex-wife had made to the Democratic Party.


Would you pay $50 to see a flick? Some fans did

NEW YORK (AP) — So this was the deal: For $50, you got to see Brad Pitt's hotly anticipated zombie thriller "World War Z" before all your friends. You also got 3D glasses to keep, popcorn and sodas, a poster, the DVD when it comes out, and an intimate dinner with Brad.

Just kidding! No dinner with Brad.

But hundreds of fans did pay $50 for the other stuff last week in a small-scale marketing experiment in five theatres — and the studio, Paramount Pictures, says it worked well. With all the recent talk about future movie ticket prices climbing into the stratosphere, is it a harbinger of things to come?


Seed giant Monsanto's fiscal 3Q profit slips 3 per cent

Monsanto's fiscal third quarter earnings slipped 3 per cent, as hits to the agricultural product maker's cotton and soybean segments weighed on results.

The St. Louis company also said Wednesday that it tried to plant a seed for future growth by eating some drought-related expenses in the recently completed quarter.

Monsanto said the 2012 drought that parched stretches of the United States forced it to use South American greenhouses more often to produce corn seeds. That contributed to a 7 per cent increase in cost of goods sold in this year's quarter. Monsanto decided to swallow the higher expenses tied to seed production instead of passing them along through price hikes.


BP mounts offensive in spill settlement dispute

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With an ad blitz and a tersely worded letter, BP is mounting an increasingly aggressive campaign to challenge what could be billions of dollars in settlement payouts to businesses following its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In letters that started going out Tuesday, BP warns lawyers for many Gulf Coast businesses that it may seek to recover at least some of their clients' shares of the multibillion-dollar settlement if it successfully appeals a key ruling in the legal wrangling spawned by the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

The London-based oil giant says it is sending hundreds of the letters to attorneys for businesses the company believes received excessive payments from the court-supervised settlement program.


IEA: Global renewable energy growing fast

NEW YORK (AP) — Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will edge out natural gas as the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday by the International Energy Agency.

Developing countries are building more wind, solar and hydro-electric power plants to meet rising power demand and to combat local pollution problems. And the costs of renewables are falling below the cost of traditional power sources such as coal, natural gas and oil in some markets with high-priced power.

Renewable power, including hydropower, is the fastest-growing power generation sector, and it is expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next five years. By 2018 it will make up a quarter of the world's energy mix, according to the report, up from 20 per cent in 2011.


Wal-Mart ends relationship with Paula Deen

NEW YORK (AP) — Paula Deen lost another chunk of her empire on Wednesday.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that it has ended its relationship with the Southern celebrity chef, part of the continuing fallout in the wake of revelations that she used racial slurs in the past. The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Ark., currently carries a variety of products under her moniker, including food items, cookware and health and wellness products, at all of its 4,000 U.S. namesake stores. The retailer began selling her merchandise several years ago.


NY top court: Starbucks baristas must share tips

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Starbucks baristas must share their tips with shift supervisors, but assistant managers don't get a cut, New York's highest court ruled Wednesday.

The Court of Appeals found that shift supervisors do much of the same work as the coffee servers and therefore get to share in the tips. The court also ruled that the company can deny those tips to assistant managers.

The ruling, responding to two lawsuits, backed Starbucks' policy of divvying up the tips, saying it's consistent with labour law.

Hospitality industry groups say the state court decision will likely affect policies at similar restaurants and coffee shops, and it will affect 42,000 New York businesses statewide and a quarter-million hospitality industry workers in New York City alone.


By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 149.83 points, or 1 per cent, to 14,910.14. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 15.23, or 1 per cent, to 1,603.26. The Nasdaq composite index gained 28.34, or 1 per cent, to 3,376.22.

Benchmark oil for August delivery rose 18 cents Wednesday to close at $95.50 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, which is used to set prices for oil used by many U.S. refineries to make gasoline, rose 40 cents to finish at $101.66 a barrel.

Natural gas rose 6 cents to end at $3.71 per 1,000 cubic feet. Heating oil was flat at $2.85 a gallon. Wholesale gasoline dropped 1 cent to finish at $2.73 a gallon.