Business News in Brief

In Wroclaw, Poland, a woman pushes a cart through a supermarket. Investors attracted to Poland by the European Union's fastest economic growth are staying put even as industries and banks start to lose their momentum. BARTEK SADOWSKI / Bloomberg News
In Wroclaw, Poland, a woman pushes a cart through a supermarket. Investors attracted to Poland by the European Union's fastest economic growth are staying put even as industries and banks start to lose their momentum. BARTEK SADOWSKI / Bloomberg News
Posted: March 23, 2012

IN THE REGION

Average fixed mortgage rate tops 4%

Thirty-year fixed interest rates climbed above 4 percent for the first time since Oct. 27, Freddie Mac reported Thursday. The rate climbed to 4.08 percent from 3.92 percent a week ago. Last year, the 30-year rate was 4.81 percent. On Oct. 27, the 30-year stood at 4.10 percent. The 15-year fixed rate was 3.30 percent, up from 3.16 percent last week. It was 4.04 percent a year ago. "Mortgage rates are catching up with increases in U.S. Treasury bond yields, placing the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate above 4 percent for the first time since the end of October 2011" said Freddie chief economist Frank Nothaft. "Bond yields rose over the past two weeks, in part due to an improving assessment of the state of the economy by the Federal Reserve, better than expected results of commercial bank stress tests and the likelihood of a second bailout for Greece."

- Alan J. Heavens

Jobless aid falls to 4-year low

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid fell to a four-year low last week, bolstering the view that the job market is strengthening. The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 5,000, to a seasonally adjusted 348,000. That's the lowest level since March 2008. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, dipped to 355,000, matching a four-year low. Applications have steadily declined since last fall. - Inquirer Staff

Urban Outfitters CFO moving to REI

Urban Outfitters Inc. chief financial officer Eric Artz, whose imminent departure was announced Wednesday by the Philadelphia retailer, is taking the CFO job in May at outdoor retail cooperative REI, the Seattle-based enterprise said Thursday. Artz had been at Urban Outfitters since early 2010. He is leaving the company about two months after the surprise resignation in January of CEO Glen T. Senk, who has been replaced by Urban Outfitters founder and board chairman Richard A. Hayne. REI operates 123 stores in 30 states, including in Conshohocken and Marlton, and had more than $1.8 billion in sales in 2011. ?. - Maria Panaritis

City Council passes investment bill

City Council passed a bill Thursday that exempts Philadelphia-based investment funds and their general partners from paying the city's business privilege and net profits tax. The bill's sponsor, Councilman Bill Green, said Philadelphia is "the only major city in the country without huge numbers of investment funds, venture capital funds, private equity funds." The ones located here, he said, are in tax-exempt Keystone Opportunity Zones. "When an investment fund makes money, the money actually belongs to the people who invest in the fund and not the fund itself," Green said. "But under our tax code â ¦ they would have to give the first 6.5 percent of what they make to the city instead of to the people who invest." Green said several funds promised to locate in the city if his bill passed. The city would gain revenue, he said, just from the wage tax collected from the funds' employees. The bill passed 16-1, with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. dissenting . - Troy Graham

ELSEWHERE

McDonald's names first black CEO

McDonald's Corp. announced that chief operating officer Don Thompson will take over as chief executive officer, becoming the first black CEO of the world's largest restaurant chain after Jim Skinner retires this year. Thompson, 48, who became president and operating chief in January 2010, will assume his new role July 1, Illinois-based McDonald's said. Skinner, 67, who ran McDonald's for more than seven years, also will retire from the board, where he serves as vice chairman. Thompson takes over as the company works to keep boosting sales and profit amid increasing competition and higher commodity prices. ? - Bloomberg News

IRS refund checks averaging $3,000

That Internal Revenue Service refund check many families eagerly await this time of year is down slightly from 2011 but still not too shabby: an average of about $3,000. Through March 10, the IRS has issued 59.2 million refund checks totaling $174.4 billion, agency chief Douglas H. Shulman said Thursday. That compares with 59 million refunds totaling $178.3 billion a year ago. This year's checks average $2,946, down marginally from last year's $3,022. An IRS spokesman said the agency isn't certain why the figure has dipped. He noted that the widely used Making Work Pay tax credit created by the 2009 economic stimulus law had expired. Nearly 26 million filers prepared their own electronic returns, an 11 percent jump from 2011. - AP

American Airlines contract in doubt

American Airlines will ask a federal bankruptcy judge next week to throw out its union contracts if it can't reach cost-cutting deals with labor unions. American's lead bankruptcy lawyer, Harvey Miller, said Thursday that the company and unions bargained in good faith but that he doesn't expect a compromises. Union officials disputed the lawyer's comments. American and parent AMR Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection in November. Last month, the airline made cost-cutting proposals to the unions that include the elimination of 13,000 jobs and the outsourcing of maintenance work. - AP

U.S. lawsuit seeks millions from AT&T

The Justice Department on Thursday sued to recover millions of dollars from AT&T Corp., alleging the company improperly billed the government for services that are designed for use by the deaf and hard-of-hearing who place calls by typing messages over the Internet. The system has been abused by callers overseas who use it to defraud U.S. merchants by ordering goods with stolen credit cards and counterfeit checks. The federal government ordered telecom companies to register users. The lawsuit said AT&T failed to adopt procedures to detect or prevent fraudulent users from registering. - AP

Senate passes small-business bill

Congressional legislation to help startup companies raise capital by reducing some federal regulations won easy passage in the Senate on Thursday despite warnings from some Democrats that less government oversight would mean more abuse and scams. President Obama supports the measure, which stands to be one of the few bipartisan bills to pass Congress during this contentious election year. The measure would remove SEC regulations preventing small businesses from using advertisements to solicit investors, raise from 500 to 2,000 the number of shareholders a company or community bank can have before it must register with the SEC, and allow smaller companies to sell up to $50 million in shares, compared with $5 million now, without filing some SEC paperwork. - AP

Sears names new appliances executive

Sears Holdings Corp., the retailer controlled by hedge-fund owner Edward Lampert, named a Sony Electronics Inc. executive to head its home appliances unit as the company works to boost sales of the Kenmore brand. Steve Haber spent more than 20 years at Sony, including overseeing its consumer-electronics sales in the U.S., Illinois-based Sears said Thursday in a statement. Haber replaces Dev Mukherjee, who resigned this month. Haber is taking over the division that controls Kenmore, the top-selling appliance brand in the nation. - AP

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