Business Highlights

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

___

For many in US, cash saved at gas pump is staying in pockets

WASHINGTON (AP) — In recent months, the stage seemed set for American consumers to do what they've traditionally done best: Spend money — and drive the economy.

The lowest gas prices in five years had given people more spending money. But even though Americans spent $6.7 billion less at gas stations in January than they had two months earlier, the extra cash didn't get spent anywhere else: Retail sales, excluding gas, fell slightly from November to January.

Drivers instead seem to have used their extra money to further rebuild their savings and reduce their debts.

For now, the slowdown in consumer spending likely means the economy will grow more slowly in the first quarter of the year than economists had previously envisioned.

___

In Europe, cheaper goods help consumer but also pose risks

MILAN (AP) — In Milan's teeming commercial district, something unusual is happening this winter — Italians are shopping.

It's a big relief for store owners after a six-year decline in sales due to recession. Still, Renato Borghi, the president of the Italian fashion federation, is uneasy: Shoppers, he notes, are relying on the seasonal discounts. If they start expecting lower prices, the industry is in for trouble.

Across Europe, companies are discounting to attract shoppers. That's helping cash-strapped families and even giving retail sales and the economy a much-needed boost. But weak prices also carry the risk of deflation.

___

Greece: Loan extension request will satisfy Europe, Greece

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis sounded cautiously optimistic Wednesday of achieving a last-minute deal with Greece's European creditors that would keep the country solvent and within the euro currency.

Greece's creditors have said the country has until Friday to request an extension to the 240 billion euro bailout that has kept Greece afloat since 2010 and whose main component expires on Feb. 28.

___

How to handle an employee's offensive social media post

NEW YORK (AP) — Whether it's comments about news events, long-held beliefs or a bad joke, an employee's offensive posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites can damage a company's image and profits.

If the comments are racist, homophobic, sexist or against a religious group, tolerating discriminatory comments puts an employer at risk for lawsuits and losing customers.

Small businesses are typically unprepared when they are thrust into the spotlight in such a negative way. While many large companies have social media policies, small companies often don't.

___

SEC Filing: Duke says it expects to settle criminal probe

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy said Wednesday it expects to pay $100 million to settle an ongoing federal criminal investigation that began after a massive coal ash spill at a North Carolina plant.

The details are contained in an earnings report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh began the investigation after a February 2014 spill at Duke's Eden plant coated more than 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge.

In a conference call discussing the earnings report, executives at the nation's largest electricity company said the proposed settlement could be filed in court within days. Any settlement would still need to be approved by a federal judge.

___

Blast devastates refinery, sends ash raining down on area

TORRANCE, Calif. (AP) — An explosion devastated a section of a major refinery on Wednesday morning, raining down ash in the area and, experts say, likely helping to increase California gas prices, which have been creeping up in recent weeks.

A huge smokestack flare — in which workers were burning off flammable product after the explosion — could be seen for miles around. Four contractors suffered minor injuries as workers fled the site of the blast, according to Exxon Mobil Corp., which owns the refinery.

The facility, a structure several stories tall, was shattered. Crews poured water onto the structure afterward, and a fire spokesman said at midday the situation was controlled.

___

Companies in West Coast port dispute make appeal to workers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Maritime companies are making their case for a new labor contract directly to West Coast dockworkers, hoping the rank-and-file will pressure union negotiators to reach a deal that would let billions of dollars of cargo now stuck at West Coast ports flow freely again.

Employers on Wednesday distributed letters at major ports from Los Angeles to Washington state that detailed what they called their last, best and final contract offer.

Meanwhile, negotiators for the maritime association of employers and dockworkers' union met with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in San Francisco.

___

US wholesale prices drop 0.8 per cent in January, driven down by big plunge in gasoline price

WASHINGTON - U.S. wholesale prices fell by a record amount in January, led by the biggest drop in gasoline prices in six years.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that its producer price index declined 0.8 per cent last month, the biggest drop in a data series that goes back to November 2009 when the government changed the calculation methods for its wholesale price index.

Excluding volatile food and energy costs, wholesale prices edged down 0.1 per cent in January after a 0.3 per cent rise for core prices in December.

___

Home construction slips in January

U.S. homebuilders slowed the pace of construction in January, breaking ground on fewer single-family houses ahead of the spring buying season.

Housing starts slipped 2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.07 million last month, down from 1.09 million in December, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

Leading that decline was a sharp 6.7 percent monthly drop in starts for single-family houses. Still, a healing economy has caused building activity to move at a faster clip, with single-family starts climbing 18.7 percent over the past 12 months.

___

US factory output rose a modest 0.2 percent in January

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. factory production edged up last month as manufacturers cranked out more computers, clothing and steel and other metals, offsetting declines in autos and aerospace.

Factory production increased 0.2 percent in January after a flat reading in December, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday. The data suggests manufacturing is still supporting the economy, even though it is growing at a weaker pace than last year.

Strong hiring has given Americans more money to spend, which has boosted demand for cars, electronics and other manufactured goods. That is countering the impact of weak growth overseas, which has dragged down U.S. factories' exports.

___

Swiss prosecutors probe HSBC subsidiary for money laundering

BERLIN (AP) — Geneva prosecutors searched the premises of HSBC's Swiss subsidiary on Wednesday after launching a money-laundering investigation over a report that the bank helped hide millions of dollars for drug traffickers, arms dealers and celebrities.

Prosecutors said they were investigating HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) SA for suspected aggravated money laundering. The investigation could later be extended to people suspected of committing or participating in money laundering, they said in a statement.

The investigation stemmed from "the recent public revelations" about the private bank, prosecutors said. They said a search at its premises in Geneva was carried out Wednesday, but gave no details.

___

Actavis plans name change to Allergan

Drugmaker Actavis is planning to change its name as it draws closer to finishing another big deal, the $66 billion purchase of Botox maker Allergan that it announced last fall.

Actavis said Wednesday that it will adopt the Allergan corporate name after securing Actavis shareholders' approval for the switch at its annual meeting later this year.

Ireland-based Actavis outbid Canadian drugmaker Valeant Pharmaceuticals for Allergan with an offer of about $219 in cash and stock for each share. Both Actavis and Allergan shareholders are scheduled to vote on the deal March 10. Allergan is based in Irvine, California.

___

Sony outlines 3-year recovery plan, targets $4.2B earnings

TOKYO (AP) — Money-losing Sony will spin off its video-and-sound business into a separate company and shrink its headquarters as part of a three-year turnaround plan to speed up decision-making and become profitable again.

The company is targeting an operating profit of 500 billion yen ($4.2 billion) and a 10 percent return on equity for the fiscal year through March 2018.

It won't target sales, highlighting its new approach of valuing profitability and not going after size.

___

By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 17.73 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,029.85. The S&P 500 eased 0.7 point, or 0.03 percent, to 2,099.68. The Nasdaq composite rose 7.10 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,906.36.

The price of benchmark U.S. crude fell $1.39 to $52.14 a barrel. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $2 to $60.53 a barrel. The price of wholesale gasoline fell 2 cents to $1.574 a gallon. Heating oil slipped 2 cents to $1.959 a gallon. Natural gas rose 7 cents to $2.831 per 1,000 cubic feet.