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Update on the latest in business:

March 18, 2019

FINANCIAL MARKETS

Asian shares advance as investors watch US-China trade talks

TOKYO (AP) — Shares rose in Asia on Monday as investors awaited signs the U.S. and China could be making progress in negotiations on resolving the trade war between the two biggest economies.

China’s congress on Friday endorsed an investment law that aims to address complaints, particularly from the U.S., that China’s system is rigged against foreign companies. The U.S. claims China forces companies to share technology in order to do business in the country.

Wall Street ended last week on an upbeat note, with the S&P 500 gaining 0.5 percent Friday to 2,822.48, a new high for the year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 0.5 percent to 25,848.87. The Nasdaq composite climbed 0.8 percent, to 7,688.53. The S&P 500′s gain was 0.5 percent. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies picked up 3.90 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,553.54.

U.S. stocks have had a strong showing this year, with all the major indexes gaining at least 10 percent.

Traders are also confident that the Federal Reserve will hold off on any action that could jeopardize economic growth.

The dollar rose against the yenand weakened against the euro.

The price of U.S. crude oil slipped below $58. 50 a barrel.

DRUG PRICES-LOBBYING

Group with consumer-friendly vibe pushes drugmakers’

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Congress and the Trump administration aim to lower prescription drug costs, outside groups like the Alliance for Patient Access are raising their voices as they seek to sway the outcome.

But not all of these organizations are clear about who they actually represent. Their names can obscure the source of the message and they’re cagey about where all of their money comes from.

For example, the Alliance for Patient Access is a nonprofit group that gives off a consumer-friendly vibe yet is bankrolled by the powerful pharmaceutical industry. It’s also closely aligned with a Washington lobbying and public relations firm, Woodberry Associates, whose president, Brian Kennedy, is the nonprofit’s executive director.

Yet even a small degree of separation can be valuable for pharmaceutical companies at a time when the industry faces stiff political headwinds. Drug prices may provide a rare bipartisan issue on which Congress and the White House could collaborate on legislation ahead of the 2020 elections. In a prelude of sorts, the Senate Finance Committee last month grilled drug company executives over the cost of their products.

Anger is bubbling up from their constituents. A February poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly one in four Americans taking prescription drugs have difficultly affording their medications. Although majorities of the public trust pharmaceutical companies to develop new and effective drugs, only 25 percent trust them to price their products fairly — down from 41 percent in 2008.

LAST BLOCKBUSTER

Be Kind, Please Rewind: Oregon Blockbuster is last on Earth

BEND, Ore. (AP) — A Blockbuster Video in Bend, Oregon, is the last one on the planet after the only other Blockbuster, an Australia store, announced it’s closing on March 31.

Running the dated franchise has its challenges: The computers must be rebooted using floppy disks, and employees write membership cards by hand because the dot-matrix printer broke. But the store is now booming with business from longtime locals as well as tourists from as far away as Taiwan who snap selfies and buy souvenirs.

The store was once one of five Blockbusters owned by the same couple, Ken and Debbie Tisher, in three central Oregon towns. But by last year, the Bend franchise was the last local Blockbuster standing.

A tight budget meant no money to update the surviving store. That’s paying off now with a nostalgia factor that stops first-time visitors of a certain age in their tracks: the popcorn ceilings, low fluorescent lighting, wire metal video racks and the ubiquitous yellow-and-blue ticket stub logo that was a cultural touchstone for a generation.

Tourists started stopping by to snap selfies, and business picked up. The owners ordered up blue-and-yellow sweat shirts, T-shirts, cups, magnets, bumper stickers, hats and stocking caps from local vendors emblazoned with the words “The Last Blockbuster in America,” and they flew off the shelves.

Then, this month came a phone call: The world’s only other Blockbuster, in Perth, Australia, would soon close its doors. A new T-shirt order went out — this time with the slogan “The Last Blockbuster on the Planet” — and the store is already getting a new wave of selfie-snapping visitors from as far away as Europe and Asia.

ECONOMY-THE DAY AHEAD

Business and economic reports scheduled for today

WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Association of Home Builders releases its March housing market index today.

GERMANY-BANK MERGER

Germany’s Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank to hold talks on merger

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s biggest bank, Deutsche Bank, and domestic rival Commerzbank plan to open talks on a possible merger.

Commerzbank said in a brief statement Sunday that the two lenders “have agreed today to start discussions with an open outcome on a potential merger.”

Deutsche Bank said its management board had decided to “review strategic options” and stressed that there is no certainty of any transaction emerging. It added that “in this context we confirm that we are engaging in discussions with Commerzbank.”

Sunday’s announcement follows months of speculation that the two lenders, with encouragement from the German government, would explore a possible combination.

The banks had more than 133,000 full-time employees between them at the end of last year.

TRUMP-GENERAL MOTORS

Trump talks to GM CEO about Ohio plant closure

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump says he has spoken to General Motors CEO Mary Barra to vent his frustration about the automaker’s closure of an Ohio manufacturing plant while the U.S. economy continues to fare well.

Trump disclosed his conversation with Barra in a Sunday evening tweet that followed earlier posts during the weekend that blasted GM for closing its Lordstown plant and putting 1,700 people out of work. Those tweets criticized GM for letting down the U.S. and urged the company to reopen the plant or find a new owner quickly.

In his latest tweet, Trump said he reiterated to Barra that GM should do something quickly, including potentially selling the plant.

CHINA-ITALY

China’s Xi to make 3-nation Europe visit starting Thursday

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Italy, France and Monaco from Thursday to March 26.

The country’s foreign ministry announced the visit in a statement Monday.

Italy’s coalition government has sent mixed signals over whether it will sign a proposed agreement to join China’s Belt and Road infrastructure investment drive.

China’s trillion-dollar initiative to forge a new Silk Road aims to expand commerce by building ports, railways and other infrastructure across more than 60 countries from the South Pacific through Asia to Europe and Africa.

Projects under the initiative have faced complaints that they leave host countries with too much debt, and with too little work going to local companies.

Italy’s Undersecretary of State Guglielmo Picchi tweeted earlier this month that Italy should not sign the agreement.

APPLE WATCH-HEART

Apple Watch may spot heart problem but more research needed

WASHINGTON (AP) — A huge study suggests the Apple Watch sometimes can detect a worrisome irregular heartbeat. But experts say more work is needed to tell if using wearable technology to screen for heart problems really helps.

More than 419,000 Apple Watch users signed up for the study. An app would alert them if the watch spotted a heart rate problem that might signal atrial fibrillation, a condition that if untreated eventually can trigger strokes.

Stanford researchers reported preliminary results Saturday at a cardiology conference.

The watch flagged only a small group of people — about 2,100 — for a possible problem. Among those who got rechecked with EKG monitoring, a third had a-fib.

Experts say the study may not have included enough seniors, who are at high risk of the heart problem.

AMAZON HQ-VIRGINIA

Virginia county approves Amazon incentives despite protests

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Protesters repeatedly shouted “shame” as a northern Virginia county board unanimously approved a $23 million incentives package for Amazon to build a new headquarters there.

News outlets report the Arlington County Board’s 5-0 vote came after hours of heated public testimony Saturday. Supporters said Amazon’s plan to build a massive facility in Crystal City will lead to tens of thousands of good jobs. Opponents, however, said the tech giant doesn’t deserve public subsidies. They also said lower-income residents would be driven out.

Protester Chris Otten yelled profanities during the meeting, prompting security personnel to physically remove him. Video shows Otten screaming as he was carried, saying he had a broken arm.

Amazon last month abandoned its plan to also build a headquarters in New York City amid pushback from politicians and activists.

FILM-BOX OFFICE

Captain Marvel’ soars even higher with stellar 2nd weekend

LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Captain Marvel” has continued to dominate the global box office in its second weekend in theaters, leaving newcomers in the dust.

Walt Disney Studios on Sunday estimates that the intergalactic superhero has earned an additional $69.3 million from North American theaters and $120 million internationally, bringing its global grosses to $760 million.

In a very distant second, Paramount’s animated family film “Wonder Park” struggled with $16 million against a reported $100 million budget.

“Five Feet Apart” took third place. CBS Films and Lionsgate’s teen romance managed to nearly double its production budget with an estimated $13.2 million in ticket sales.

“How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” dropped to fourth place with around $9.3 million and Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Family Funeral” landed in fifth with $8.1 million.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES-MECHANICS

Southwest, mechanics reach tentative deal in labor dispute

DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines and a union representing its mechanics say they’re on the verge of ending a bitter, long-running labor dispute that has triggered hundreds of flight cancellations and raised safety concerns.

The two sides say the breakthrough announced Saturday consists of a preliminary agreement on a new contract after six years of negotiation between Southwest and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

The tentative deal still needs to be voted on by the roughly 2,400 mechanics who will receive a 20 percent raise if the contract is approved.

The agreement came after the Federal Aviation Administration warned that the deteriorating relationship between Southwest and its mechanics threatened to undermine the airline’s safety-management system.

Southwest had complained about mechanics flagging minor maintenance issues to force unnecessary flight cancellations.

PETROCHEMICAL FIRE-TEXAS

Fire breaks out at a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal

HOUSTON (AP) — Some Houston-area residents have been urged to remain indoors as a fire burns at a petrochemicals terminal.

The fire started Sunday morning at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of Houston, and continued to burn Sunday night. Deer Park officials issued a shelter-in-place directive after the fire was reported.

Efforts to extinguish the fire with foam continue.

Harris County officials say the fire started at the terminal that stores petrochemical liquids and gases, including fuel oil and bunker oil. The company’s website says the terminal has a storage capacity of 13.1 million barrels.

The fire is the second in as many days at a Houston-area petrochemical facility. A fire at an ExxonMobil plant in nearby Baytown that broke out Saturday has been contained.