Update on the latest in business:
Asian shares rise on optimism over China-US trade talks
TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares advanced Friday after a moderate rise on Wall Street, amid persisting optimism over the potential for China-U.S. trade talks to help end a tariffs war between the two largest economies.
On Wall Street, the S&P 500 index edged 0.1 percent higher to 2,642.33. The benchmark U.S. index is up 12.4 percent over the last month, but has slipped 1.1 percent this week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped 0.1 percent to 24,553.24. About two-thirds of the stocks on the New York Stock Exchange closed with gains, but major stock indexes didn’t move much. The Nasdaq Composite index gained 0.7 percent to 7,073.46. The Russell 2000 of small-company stocks gained 0.7 percent to 1,464.41.
There are mixed messages on China-U.S. trade, with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying the two sides are still “miles and miles from getting a resolution” as they prepare for talks next week in Washington. But Ross told CNBC in an interview that he believed a deal was possible, and that a very large delegation of Chinese officials, led by Vice Premier Liu He, was headed to the U.S. capital for the talks.
The European Central Bank did not change its interest rates or its projection for when it might start raising them. European Central Bank head Mario Draghi said risks to the European economy are increasing and the bank is ready to “adjust all of its instruments” if it runs into serious trouble. The ECB is aiming to raise rates even though the European economy has cooled as countries including Germany have lost some strength.
Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose above $53.50 a barrel.
The dollar edged up against the yen and the euro.
Experts hold crunch meeting on planned German coal exit
BERLIN (AP) — Scientists, politicians, company representatives and environmental campaigners are meeting in Berlin to decide the fate of Germany’s coal industry amid pressure to end the use of fossil fuels as part of efforts to curb climate change.
The meeting Friday could finalize a report the German government can adopt to ensure the transition away from coal is as smooth as possible.
The government appointed the panel last year to ensure all interests, including those in the regions where coal mining still takes place, are heard. The 28 members have been haggling over the amount of funding affected regions and companies will get, and what the final deadline for coal use in Germany will be.
If Friday’s meeting fails to reach consensus, a further meeting is scheduled for Feb. 1.
Fire report could complicate PG&E bankruptcy decision
(Eds: Expands. With AP Photos.)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A state fire investigation’s conclusion that Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. equipment was not to blame for a 2017 wildfire that killed 22 people in Northern California wine country could hamper lawsuits by victims of the blaze and complicate the utility’s plans to file for bankruptcy.
In a long-awaited report, state investigators said Thursday the blaze that destroyed more than 5,600 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties started next to a residence and was caused by a private electrical system. The state firefighting agency did not find any violations of state law in its investigation of the Tubbs Fire.
PG&E previously said it plans to file for bankruptcy protection next week, citing at least $30 billion in potential damages over the wine country blaze and other California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
That blaze in November took out the city of Paradise and killed at least 86 people. The cause remains under investigation, but speculation has centered on PG&E after the utility reported power line problems nearby around the time it began.
The utility is facing hundreds of lawsuits from victims of the 2017 and 2018 fires.
Gov. Gavin Newson said it’s up to PG&E to decide whether to move ahead with bankruptcy given that more than half of its expected damages stemmed from the Tubbs Fire. The fire was one of more than 170 that torched the state in October 2017. State fire investigators have blamed PG&E power lines for some of those blazes.
Newsom said his goal is to make sure victims are made whole, that the state has “safe, reliable and affordable service,” and that ratepayers “are not paying the price of the neglect” by PG&E established in past wildfires.
Legal experts said PG&E will likely move forward with its planned bankruptcy. The company still faces billions of dollars in potential damages from other wildfires. Bankruptcy would also give it space to formulate a plan to prevent its equipment from causing more catastrophic fires in the future.
Lawsuits against the company over the wine country fire, additionally, did not appear to be going away.
“We’re going to stick by our guns,” said Michael Kelly, an attorney for victims of the fire.
There are still questions about why PG&E didn’t cut power to the area despite a high fire danger, he said. He said there is also evidence that contradicts the findings of state fire investigators.
The company hinted in a statement that it wasn’t retreating from its bankruptcy plan.
“Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade,” the company said.
Some details about the property where state fire investigators say the Tubbs fire began, including its owner and address, were blacked out of the report. It said the Napa County property about 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of Calistoga was built in 1946 on about 10.5 acres (4.2 hectares) with a wine cellar, pool and several outbuildings.
PG&E said in a Jan. 2 court filing that it believed a handyman performing unlicensed electrical work started the wine country fire. In that filing, it identified the owner of the Napa County compound as Ann Zink. The utility said it provided electricity to Zink’s property by a line that connected to a service riser but that Zink had a private system to carry power to other buildings as well as equipment such as a water pump and water storage tank.
PG&E said it had no responsibility to maintain or inspect the private system.
Zink, 91, told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2017 that her house was unoccupied at the time of the fire and she was at her other home in Riverside County when the blaze began.
Trading of PG&E Corp. stock was halted twice after news about the cause of the fire prompted a surge of buy orders. Once trading resumed, the price rocketed up, closing up $5.96, or nearly 75 percent, at $13.35 a share.
CHINA-SEARCH ENGINE BLOCKED
Microsoft’s Bing blocked in China, prompting grumbling
(Eds: Updates with service restored; adds photo. With AP Photos.)
BEIJING (AP) — Chinese internet users lost access to Microsoft’s Bing search engine for two days, setting off grumbling about the ruling Communist Party’s increasingly tight online censorship.
Microsoft Corp. said Friday that access had been restored. A brief statement gave no reason for the disruption or other details.
Comments on social media had accused regulators of choking off access to information. Others complained they were forced to use Chinese search engines they say deliver poor results.
“Why can’t we choose what we want to use?” said a comment signed Aurelito on the Sina Weibo microblog service.
Bing complied with government censorship rules by excluding foreign websites that are blocked by Chinese filters from search results. But President Xi Jinping’s government has steadily tightened control over online activity.
The agency that enforces online censorship, the Cyberspace Administration of China, didn’t respond to questions sent by fax.
China has by far the biggest population of internet users, with some 800 million people online, according to government data.
The Communist Party encourages internet use for business and education but blocks access to foreign websites run by news organizations, human rights and Tibet activists and others deemed subversive.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has promoted the notion of “internet sovereignty,” or the right of Beijing and other governments to dictate what their publics can do and see online.
Chinese filters block access to global social media including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Officials argue such services operating beyond their control pose a threat to national security.
Xi’s government also has tightened controls on use of virtual private network technology that can evade its filters.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit operated a search engine in China until 2010 that excluded blocked sites from results. The company closed that after hacking attacks aimed at stealing Google’s source code and breaking into email accounts were traced to China.
That has helped Chinese competitors such as search engine Baidu.com to flourish. But Baidu has been hit by repeated complaints that too many search results are irrelevant or are paid advertising.
Railroads say economy still growing at steady rate
(Eds: Updates with details of Norfolk Southern’s performance. Incorporates BC-US--Earns-Union Pacific and BC-US--Earns-Norfolk Southern. With AP Photos.)
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The economy appears to be going strong for the major freight railroads that haul the products and raw materials companies rely on, but the lingering trade disputes could derail business.
Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads all sounded optimistic about the economy when they reported hauling 3 percent more carloads of freight in the fourth quarter.
“Our customers in discreet markets are in large part doing OK,” Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz said Thursday. Shipments of steel, construction products, intermodal containers and a few other categories look particularly strong. “We think there is still opportunity for modest growth in the United States.”
Edward Jones analyst Dan Sherman said the railroads’ results won’t add much to fears that the economy is slowing down.
“There hasn’t been any indication at all that the economy is slowing even slightly,” Sherman said.
Union Pacific said its fourth-quarter net income jumped 29 percent to $1.55 billion, or $2.12 per share, and topped Wall Street expectations. The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad benefited from strong demand and efforts effort to streamline its operations that began in October. It has already stored 1,200 locomotives as it works to haul freight more efficiently.
The ongoing trade disputes create some uncertainty about certain products, but Union Pacific still expects volume will continue growing at a low-single-digit rate.
Nearly all the major U.S. railroads are implementing some of the operating principles that have led to dramatic improvements in the profitability of rival CSX over the last two years.
CSX reported $843 million in net income, or $1.01 per share, last week and promised to continue working to reduce costs and find ways to deliver more freight with fewer locomotives.
The number of carloads railroads carry is considered an indicator of the health of the overall economy because of the variety of goods rails deliver.
Norfolk Southern’s fourth-quarter profit surged 44 percent higher to $702 million, or $2.57 per share. The results topped the $2.30 per share that analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research expected.
Norfolk Southern is also planning to reform its operations, but railroad officials didn’t discuss many details Thursday. Instead, investors will have to wait until next month to hear what changes the railroad plans.
ECONOMY-THE DAY AHEAD
Major business and economic reports scheduled for release today.
Note: The Commerce Department will not release its durable goods report for December or its report on new home sales in December because of the government shutdown.
Experts: PG&E bankruptcy still likely
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Legal experts say a determination that Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. equipment was not to blame for a deadly 2017 California wildfire will probably not stop the utility from going ahead with its planned bankruptcy.
The company still faces billions of dollars in potential damages from other wildfires, including a 2018 blaze that took at least 86 lives and became the worst in the state’s history. Bankruptcy would also give the company space to formulate a plan to prevent its equipment from causing more catastrophic fires in the future.
Investigators said Thursday that the October 2017 wildfire that killed 22 people in California’s wine country was caused by a private electrical system, not equipment belonging to PG&E.
Football legend Joe Montana looking to score with marijuana
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco 49er legend Joe Montana is looking to hit pay dirt in the legal marijuana industry.
San Jose, California-based Caliva announced Thursday that the Hall of Fame quarterback’s venture capital firm was taking part in a $75 million investment in the company. It didn’t disclose Montana’s portion of the investment.
Caliva operates a farm and two retail stores in Northern California and distributes its branded products in roughly two dozen other retail outlets in the state.
The 62-year-old said in a statement that he was investing in marijuana in part to combat opioid addiction. Some doctors recommend marijuana to treat opioid addiction.
Former Yahoo! Inc. chief executive officer Carol Bartz also took part in the investment and will join the company’s board of directors.
Apple cuts jobs in shakeup of self-driving car division
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Apple is reducing the size of its workforce assigned to driverless car technology as the company reorganizes amid weakening sales of iPhones, its biggest moneymaker.
The company acknowledged the cutbacks in a Thursday statement, without specifying the number of jobs affected. CNBC reported that more than 200 employees were dismissed from Apple’s self-driving car division, known internally as “Project Titan.”
Apple says some of the employees who lost their jobs in the driverless car division have been reassigned to other parts of the company. Apple says it remains committed to helping build robotic cars, something it has been working on for several years but hasn’t made as many inroads so far in the field as Waymo, a Google spinoff that began a decade ago.
Judge upholds permit for oil refinery near national park
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota judge has upheld a state permit allowing for construction to begin on an oil refinery just 3 miles (5 kilometers) from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Judge Dann Greenwood ruled the Health Department effectively supported its position that the $800 million Davis Refinery being developed by Meridian Energy Group won’t be a major pollution source.
The National Parks Conservation Association, Environmental Law and Policy Center and Dakota Resource Council had challenged the state air quality permit. They issued a statement saying the judge’s ruling “gives a green light” for pollution at the park, and that they’ll explore all their options. That could include an appeal.
Two of the groups also are challenging a separate decision by other state regulators not to review whether the refinery site is appropriate.