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Update on the latest in business:

December 22, 2017


Asian shares creep higher, tracking Wall St pre-holiday lull

TOKYO (AP) — Share prices edged higher today in Asia, tracking modest gains on Wall Street.

Banks and energy companies led U.S. stocks higher in subdued trading yesterday, erasing modest losses from the day before. Sentiment was brightened by strong economic growth data. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.2 percent to 2,684.57 and the Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.2 percent to 24,782.29. The Nasdaq composite added 0.1 percent to 6,965.36 and the Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks picked up 0.5 percent, to 1,547.11.

The Commerce Department reported the U.S. economy grew at a solid 3.2 percent annual rate in the third quarter. That was slightly slower than previously estimated, but follows a 3.1 percent gain in GDP for the second quarter. Combined, the two quarters represent the best back-to-back quarterly growth rates in three years.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Friday approved a 5.2 trillion yen ($46 billion) defense budget to bolster ballistic missile defense capability amid escalating threats from North Korea. It would be the sixth annual increase under Abe, who ended a decade of military budget cuts after taking office in 2012. The defense spending is part of a 97.7 trillion ($860 billion) national budget for 2018, also the biggest ever.

Benchmark U.S. crude slipped but remained above $58 per barrel.

The dollar was nearly unchanged against the yen and gained against the euro.


China jails seller of VPN services

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese entrepreneur has been sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison for selling virtual private network service, a government newspaper said, as Beijing tries to stamp out use of technology that evades its internet filters.

Wu Xiangyang also was fined 500,000 yuan ($76,000) by the court in the southern region of Guangxi for operating his business without required licenses from 2013 until this June, according to the Procuratorate Daily. It said he was convicted of collecting “illegal revenue” of 792,638 yuan ($120,500).

The ruling Communist Party tries to block China’s internet users from seeing material deemed subversive or obscene. It is tightening control over VPNs, which create encrypted links between computers and can be used to see blocked websites.

The crackdown has disrupted work and study for millions of Chinese entrepreneurs, academics and other people.

The VPN crackdown is part of a campaign to tighten political control that activists say is the most severe since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.


Tokyo cuts estimated tab for 2020 Olympics to $12 billion

TOKYO (AP) — The latest price tag for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been trimmed slightly, but is still nearly twice the initial estimate even after a major cost-cutting effort.

The organizers say that the event will cost a total 1.35 trillion yen ($11.9 billion).

In their release, Tokyo 2020 officials said the U.S. dollar cost would be $12.6 billion. But at the current exchange rate of about 113 yen to the dollar it is just under $12 billion.

When Tokyo won the Olympics in September 2013, its bid was for 730 billion yen. That ballooned to over 3 trillion yen but was slashed to 1.4 trillion yen after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike launched a cost cutting campaign.

Organizers have managed to cut still more from the estimated cost by moving some events outside of Tokyo and using existing and temporary facilities.

Tokyo’s games won’t be the priciest ever: the 2012 London Olympics cost $19 billion, compared with the bid estimate of $6.5 billion.

Cities tend to exclude large amounts of associated costs when they submit a bid to host the Olympics. Such bids usually include only core components such as the main facilities so that the bids are easier to compare. Building design, security measures, transportation and other costs are largely excluded.


California court exposes drug makers to additional liability

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A sharply divided California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that pharmaceutical companies can be held liable for warning labels on generic versions of drugs they once made even after they’ve sold the drugs to other companies and stopped manufacturing them.

The 4-3 decision was a victory for consumer advocates, but the pharmaceutical industry had argued that such a finding would stifle innovation and lead to extraneous warnings on drugs that could deter people from using them.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan said the ruling was at odds with courts across the U.S. that have refused to hold a previous manufacturer responsible for failing to warn about injuries caused by a successive company’s product.

The ruling came in a lawsuit against drug company Novartis by the children of a woman who while pregnant in 2007 was prescribed a generic version of the drug terbutaline — an asthma medication that Novartis once sold under the brand name Brethine. The drug was used to stop the mother’s premature labor, but the children claim it caused them to suffer brain injuries.

They accuse Novartis of failing to warn their mother about those dangers though it knew or should have known about them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned in 2011 that injectable terbutaline should not be given to pregnant women to prevent preterm labor or treat it for a prolonged period.1 The lawsuit against Novartis claims studies going as far back as the 1970s raised concerns about using terbutaline on pregnant women.

Novartis argued it had sold its rights to Brethine in 2001 and had no additional responsibility.


Washington expands lawsuit against Comcast over service plan

SEATTLE (AP) — The state of Washington announced Thursday that it is expanding a lawsuit against cable and internet provider Comcast and accusing the company of discarding recorded customer service calls that the attorney general claims is evidence of the company’s alleged deceptive sales practices.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said investigators uncovered more illegal conduct by Comcast as the investigation developed, particularly as the state sought recorded customer service calls.

Philadelphia-based Comcast said it strongly disagrees with Ferguson’s new claims and said his assertions were based on flawed methodology and assumptions. The company said it will continue to vigorously defend itself in court.

The initial lawsuit filed in 2016 claimed Comcast profited from a misleading service protection plan and that Comcast committed more than 1.8 million violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act by charging improper service call fees and using improper credit screening practices.

Ferguson said Thursday that Comcast initially refused a request for access to recorded customer service calls as too burdensome, which launched a court fight. The company eventually turned over a limited sample of those calls but had already routinely deleted tens of thousands of recordings, saying it was not under any obligation to preserve them. Ferguson claims now that the company knowingly destroyed evidence.


Congress approves $2.1B for Veterans Affairs aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has approved $2.1 billion in emergency aid for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fill a budget hole in the ailing private-sector Choice program that threatened to delay medical care for hundreds of thousands of veterans.

The money was included in the year-end temporary spending bill. It will avert a shutdown of Choice, which allows veterans to receive government-paid care from private doctors outside the VA system.

VA Secretary David Shulkin had warned that the program would run out of money next month, with a “dramatic impact” on veterans care if Congress didn’t provide emergency money by year’s end.

Congress is seeking to overhaul Choice, a campaign priority of President Donald Trump’s. But lawmakers haven’t been able to reach a longer-term agreement because of rising costs and concerns over privatizing VA.


AT&T $1,000 tax bonus came after exchange with union head

WASHINGTON (AP) — After an exchange between AT&T’s CEO and a union representing its workers, the company says it took steps to pay workers a $1,000 bonus in response to President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.

The Communications Workers of America had pushed AT&T last month to guarantee workers would receive the $4,000 raise that White House economists said would be the result of the corporate tax cuts.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a phone call with the head of the union that company couldn’t do the $4,000 raise but was considering a $1,000 bonus to union and non-union employees.

That’s according to company spokesman Larry Solomon, who said AT&T then gave a quick heads up to members of Congress and the White House right before it announced the bonus Wednesday.


Long-term deal for children’s health again eludes Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has failed to approve long-term funds for a popular program that provides health insurance for nearly 9 million low-income children.

The Christmas season stalemate over the Children’s Health Insurance Program is leaving each party blaming the other. And states are scrambling to decide how to parcel out dwindling money.

Lawmakers scurrying to leave the Capitol for the holidays are expected to approve a short-term patch that Republicans said would keep state programs operating until late January or early February. Congress approved a similar stopgap solution in September.

Democrats and Republicans want to renew financing for the Children’s Health Insurance Program for several years. But they’ve clashed over how to pay for it.

The effort to provide long-term money will wait until early next year.


Strong showing for Obama health law as nearly 9M sign up

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government says about 8.8 million people have signed up for coverage next year under the Affordable Care Act. A deadline surge last week appears to account for the surprisingly strong numbers.

Thursday’s update came via Twitter from Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Total national sign-ups won’t be known for weeks, as some states with later deadlines continue to enroll customers.

The latest enrollment numbers come a day after President Donald Trump proclaimed that the GOP tax bill “essentially repealed Obamacare.” But the tax overhaul only repealed the health law’s fines on people who don’t carry health insurance, starting in 2019.

Other major elements of the Obama-era law remain in place, including Medicaid expansion and protection for people with pre-existing conditions.


Judge tosses out lawsuit against Trump over business ties

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York judge has rejected a lawsuit by restaurant workers, a hotel event booker and a watchdog group who say President Donald Trump has business conflicts that violate the Constitution.

The lawsuit was rejected Thursday by federal Judge George Daniels, who says the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

The lawsuit earlier this year alleged that Trump’s “vast, complicated, and secret” business interests were creating conflicts of interest. The lawsuit claimed the business ties violated the Constitution’s ban against receiving money from foreign governments for hotel stays or office leases.

Trump had called the lawsuit “totally without merit.” The lawsuit asked the judge to declare Trump’s business dealings a Constitutional violation. Other lawsuits have made similar claims.


SEC: ex-Florida firm defrauded thousands in $1.2B scheme

MIAMI (AP) — The Securities and Exchange Commission is charging that a former Florida-based company defrauded thousands of investors in a $1.2 billion scheme.

The SEC filed a civil complaint Thursday in federal court in Miami claiming Robert H. Shapiro and his Woodbridge Group of Companies formerly headquartered in Boca Raton defrauded more than 8,400 investors.

A federal judge ordered a temporary asset freeze against Shapiro and his investment companies and ordered them account to for investor money.

The SEC says Woodbridge claimed to operate a loan business that would pay investors returns of up to 10 percent annually. In reality, the SEC says it operated a classic Ponzi scheme in which newer investor money was used to pay older investors.

A Shapiro attorney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.


Schmidt resigning as exec chair at Google parent Alphabet

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) — Eric Schmidt is stepping down as the executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet in January.

The company says he will become a technical adviser and will continue to sit on the board.

Schmidt joined Google in 2001 as CEO, three years after the search giant was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google launched a new structure in October 2015, making Alphabet a holding company for Google and related businesses. Some of those “other bets” include self-driving cars, smart thermostats and internet-delivering balloons.

Schmidt said in a statement that he felt the Alphabet structure was working well, with Google and its other bets thriving. He said he plans to spend more time on science and technology issues and philanthropy.


FCC proposes $13.4M fine for TV-station owner Sinclair

NEW YORK (AP) — The Federal Communications Commission has proposed fining TV-station owner Sinclair $13.4 million for not identifying paid programming as advertising.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. is one of the country’s largest owners of TV stations. It pays networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox for the national news, shows and sports it airs on those stations and airs local news shows.

The FCC said Thursday that Sinclair’s Salt Lake City station produced news story-like programming for local news broadcasts and longer 30-minute TV programs for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

The FCC said these spots that weren’t properly identified as ads aired more than 1,700 times in 2016 across 64 Sinclair-owned TV stations and also on 13 other stations not owned by the company. The FCC said Sinclair apparently didn’t tell these stations that it didn’t own that it was providing an ad.


Papa John’s founder out as CEO weeks after NFL comments

NEW YORK (AP) — Papa John’s says its founder John Schnatter will step down as CEO next month, about two months after he publicly criticized the NFL leadership over national anthem protests by football players.

The company said Thursday that Schnatter remains chairman but be replaced as chief executive by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1.

Schnatter had blamed slowing sales growth on the outcry surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Papa John’s International Inc. is an NFL sponsor and advertiser. Schnatter also said at the time that customers had a negative view of the chain’s association with the NFL.

The comments drew praise from white supremacists and the company apologized two weeks later. Ritchie would not say if Schnatter’s NFL comments played a role in the job change.


Nestle warned it lacks rights to California spring water

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nestle, which makes Arrowhead bottled water, may have to stop taking millions of gallons of water from Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest because state regulators say it lacks valid permits.

The State Water Resources Control Board notified the company on Wednesday that an investigation concluded it doesn’t have proper rights to about a quarter of the water it currently withdraws for bottling.

That works out to about 8.5 million gallons out of about 32 million gallons a year that Nestle Waters North America pipes from wells and collection tunnels in the forest.

Nestle says it’s reviewing the report.

The company has argued it inherited forest water rights dating back more than a century.

Environmental groups have challenged the water use, arguing it’s improper and threatens local wildlife.


Facebook signs deal with music label Universal Music

NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook and record label Universal Music Group have signed a multiyear deal that will let Facebook users share videos that have the label’s music in them.

Right now, if Facebook’s regular users upload videos that contain Universal’s music, the videos will get taken down.

The companies did not say when users would be able to share music in videos on platforms owned by Facebook. They hinted that more music features could be coming.

Facebook declined to comment about its music strategy beyond the press release. Universal did not immediately answer questions.

Facebook is trying to get people to watch and share more videos.

YouTube, the world’s largest destination for online video, sells music-streaming subscriptions, but Spotify and Apple Music are thought to be more popular.

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