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Business Highlights

Associated Press Updated: February 27, 2015 at 6:17 pm
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As tastes change, big food makers try hipster guises

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — At a taco shop in Southern California, milkshakes are served in mason jars and a chalkboard menu lists "The 1%er" made with lobster meat.

The logo is a pink skull and instead of buzzers, customers are given license plates so servers can identify them when bringing out orders.

Nowhere is it evident that the U.S. Taco Co. is an outpost of a chain better known for cheesy gut bombs: Taco Bell.

Major companies are testing whether it would pay to tuck away their world famous logos in favor of more hipster guises: PepsiCo, for instance, introduced a craft soda called Caleb's last year and McDonald's opened a cafe that lists lentils and eggplant on its menu. The stealth efforts reflect the pressures on the country's biggest food makers, which are contending with the surging popularity of smaller brands that position themselves as decidedly less corporate.

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US economic growth in Q4 revised down to 2.2 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy slowed more sharply in the final three months of the year than initial estimates, reflecting weaker business stockpiling and a bigger trade deficit.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the economy as measured by the gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the October-December quarter, weaker than the 2.6 percent first estimated last month. It marked a major slowdown from the third quarter, which had been the strongest growth in 11 years.

Economists, however, remain optimistic that the deceleration was temporary. Many forecast that growth will rise above 3 percent in 2015, which would give the country the strongest economic growth in a decade. They say the job market has healed enough to generate strong consumer spending going forward.

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'House of Cards' dealt Netflix a winning hand

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Even if it never wins another award, "House of Cards" already ranks among the most influential series in television history.

The political drama launched Netflix's expansion into original programming two years ago, a risky bet that might have toppled the Internet video service had "House of Cards" flopped and squandered its estimated $100 million investment.

Instead, the show was an immediate hit with viewers and critics, giving Netflix the financial clout and creative firepower to further transform how we watch and define "television." And it spurred other online services such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google's YouTube to spend more on their own original content to create shows that rival those produced by broadcast and cable channels.

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Cuban cigar makers anticipate big bucks from US travelers

HAVANA (AP) — Over six decades rolling premium cigars with his small, wrinkled hands, Arnaldo Alfonso has taken pride in seeing his "habanos" sampled by visiting heads of state and other dignitaries.

Now he's delighted by the idea of customers lighting them up in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States, where Cuban cigars have been outlawed since the U.S. embargo took effect in 1962.

Cuban cigar makers are licking their chops over new U.S. rules, announced in December as part of a partial detente, allowing more Americans to travel to the island and legally bring back small quantities of the coveted stogies for the first time in decades.

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Signed contracts to buy US homes rise to 18-month high

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans signing contracts to buy homes rose at a healthy pace in January, a sign that home sales are poised to accelerate after a slow start to the year.

The National Association of Realtors said Friday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index increased 1.7 percent to 104.2 last month. December's figure was also revised higher to show a decline of only 1.5 percent, considerably better than a previously estimated drop of 3.7 percent.

The index is now 8.4 percent above its level one year ago and is at the highest level since August 2013.

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US consumer sentiment slips in February on icy weather

WASHINGTON (AP) — Harsh winter weather left U.S. consumers feeling a bit less confident this month, the University of Michigan says. But confidence levels still remain at the highest level in eight years.

The University of Michigan says its index of consumer sentiment slid to 95.4 in February from an 11-year high of 98.1 in January.

Overall, consumers' assessment of current economic activity and their expectations for the future both fell.

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Oil train wrecks increase pressure for tougher safety rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fiery wrecks of trains hauling crude oil have intensified pressure on the Obama administration to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.

On Feb. 5, the Transportation Department sent the White House draft rules that would require oil trains to use stronger tank cars and make other safety improvements.

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Former AIG CEO Robert Benmosche dies of cancer at 70

NEW YORK (AP) — Former AIG President and CEO Robert Benmosche, who led the insurer's turnaround after its $182 billion government bailout, has died of lung cancer at age 70, the company announced Friday.

The company says Benmosche died Friday morning at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Benmosche became AIG's CEO in August 2009, recruited for the job by the Obama administration. He had previously led the insurer MetLife.

American Insurance Group Inc. was bailed out at the height of the 2008 financial crisis after its near collapse when the subprime mortgage bubble burst.

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Uber says database containing driver info was breached

NEW YORK (AP) — Uber says a database containing the names and drivers' license numbers of 50,000 of its drivers was breached in May.

The ride-sharing service says it has notified the drivers and hasn't received any reports of the information being misused. Uber says it will offer a one-year membership in Experian's ProtectMyID Alert identity theft protection service to the drivers involved.

The company said Friday the breach affects drivers in multiple states, but involves only a "small percentage" of its current and former drivers.

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Google's Blogger drops plan to block nude pics amid uproar

NEW YORK (AP) — Actually, it is OK to post nudes on Google's Blogger service.

Google is backing off a Tuesday announcement to ban sexually explicit material on public Blogger sites. The company said Friday that there was an outcry from people incensed about the censorship of their nude photos.

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Fiat Chrysler recalls 467K SUVs for possible stalling

DETROIT (AP) — Fiat Chrysler is recalling more than 467,000 Dodge and Jeep SUVs worldwide to fix a faulty fuel pump relay at the root of a potential stalling problem.

It's the same problem that caused the recall of 189,000 other SUVs in September of last year, bringing the total to more than 656,000. A safety advocate says the recall should be expanded even further, contending that problems affect up to 5 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles with similar parts.

The recall announced Friday by the company covers 2012 and 2013 Dodge Durangos and 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokees outside North America. The Jeeps have diesel engines.

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Volkswagen profits up 20 percent for full year

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — German automaker Volkswagen says net profit rose 20 percent last year to 10.8 billion euros ($12.1 billion), but offered a cautious outlook for this year.

The maker of Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and SEAT brand cars said Friday that it increased its profit margins during 2014 and proposed to raise its dividend to shareholders.

For 2015, however, it saw a "persistently challenging market environment." It said sales would increase by at least 4 percent, "depending on economic conditions."

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Obama pitches privacy bill, Democrats say it falls short

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid "rapid growth" in the collection of data on Americans, the White House on Friday proposed legislation that calls on businesses to do more to help consumers protect their personal information.

The draft bill, first obtained by The Associated Press, gives a nod to consumers fed up with how much of their private lives wind up in the hands of marketers. But the proposal frustrated many privacy advocates, including Democrats on Capitol Hill, who say the bill won't change much for consumers. They cite several loopholes that would give companies a way to opt out without consequence.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 81.72 points, or 0.5 percent, to 18,132.70. The S&P 500 slid 6.24 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,104.50. The Nasdaq lost 24.36 points, or 0.5 percent, to 4,963.53.

The price of oil was boosted by gains in gasoline and heating oil futures. U.S. oil rose $1.59, or 3.3 percent, to $49.76. Brent crude, a benchmark for many international oils, rose $2.53, or 4.2 percent, to $62.58. Wholesale gasoline rose 6 cents to $1.768 a gallon. Heating oil jumped 16.3 cents to $2.30 a gallon. Natural gas rose 3.7 cents to $2.734 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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