Friday January 18, 2013

U.S. housing construction surges in December to end best year since 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. builders started work on homes in December at the fastest pace in 4 1/2 years and finished 2012 as their best year for residential construction since the early stages of the housing crisis.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that builders broke ground on houses and apartments last month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 954,000. That’s 12.1 percent higher than November’s annual rate. And it is nearly double the recession low reached in April 2009.

Construction increased last month for both single-family homes and apartments. And the pace in which builders requested permits to start more homes ticked up to a 4 1/2 year high.

For the year, builders started work on 780,000 homes. That’s still roughly half of the annual number of starts consistent with healthier markets. But it is an increase of 28.1 percent from 2011. And it is the most since 2008 -- shortly after the housing market began to collapse in late 2006 and 2007.

Steady hiring, record-low mortgage rates and a tight supply of new and previously occupied homes available for sale have helped boost sales and prices in most markets. That has persuaded builders to start more homes, which adds to economic growth and hiring.

Safety concerns about Boeing 787’s lithium batteries deepen as FAA grounds U.


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lithium batteries that can leak corrosive fluid and start fires have emerged as the chief safety concern involving Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, a problem that apparently is far more serious than government or company officials acknowledged less than a week ago.

The Federal Aviation Administration late Wednesday grounded Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced jetliner until the risk of battery fires is resolved. The order applies only to the six Dreamliners operated by United Airlines, the lone U.S. carrier with 787s. Other airlines and civil aviation authorities in other countries quickly followed suit.

Japan’s two largest air carriers voluntarily grounded their 787s on Wednesday ahead of the FAA’s order following an emergency landing by one of the planes in Japan. On Thursday, the European Aviation Safety Agency ordered all European carriers to ground the jetliner. The Indian government ordered Air India to ground its fleet of six Boeing 787s, and Ethiopian Airlines grounded its four 787s "for precautionary inspection."

Only hours before the FAA issued its order, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated to reporters that he considers the plane safe and wouldn’t hesitate to fly one. LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta unequivocally declared the plane safe at a news conference last week even while they ordered a safety review of the aircraft.

However, as details emerged of two battery failures only 10 days apart, it became apparent that the FAA wouldn’t be able to wait for completion of its safety review before taking action. An inspection of the All Nippon Airways 787 that made an emergency landing in western Japan found that electrolytes, a flammable battery fluid, had leaked from the plane’s main lithium-ion battery. Investigators found burn marks around the damage. Japan’s Kyodo News agency quoted transport ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi as saying the liquid leaked through the electrical room floor to the outside of the aircraft.

Poll: Most see harm if
debt limit not raised;
more support GOP
demand for spending cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Most Americans think jarring economic problems will erupt if lawmakers fail to increase the government’s borrowing limit. Yet they’re torn over how or even whether to raise it, leaning toward Republican demands that any boost be accompanied by spending cuts.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, 53 percent say that if the debt limit is not extended and the U.S. defaults, the country will face a major economic crisis. An additional 27 percent say such a crisis would be somewhat likely, while just 17 percent largely dismiss the prospects of such damage.

Separately, Republican officials said Wednesday that GOP lawmakers may seek a short-term extension of the debt limit, thus avoiding a default as early as next month by the U.S. Treasury while they try to negotiate spending cuts with President Barack Obama over the next few months. "The worst thing for the economy is for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get our debt and deficits under control," said Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate who is chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The poll’s findings echo many economists’ warnings that failure to raise the debt ceiling and the resulting, unprecedented federal default would risk wounding the world economy because many interest rates are pegged to the trustworthiness of the U.S. to pay its debts. Obama and many Republicans agree with that, though some GOP lawmakers eager to force Obama to accept spending cuts have downplayed a default’s impact.

When asked which political path to follow, 39 percent of poll respondents support the insistence by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that deep spending cuts be attached to any measure increasing the debt ceiling. That’s more than the 30 percent who back Obama’s demand that borrowing authority be raised quickly and not entwined with a bitter fight over trimming the budget.

Taxpayers will subsidize lenders for compensation to victims of mortgage abuses

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Consumer advocates have complained that U.S. mortgage lenders are getting off easy in a deal to settle charges that they wrongfully foreclosed on many homeowners.

Now it turns out the deal is even sweeter for the lenders than it appears: Taxpayers will subsidize them for the money they’re ponying up.

The Internal Revenue Service regards the lenders’ compensation to homeowners as a cost incurred in the course of doing business. Result: It’s fully tax-deductible.

Critics argue that big banks that were bailed out by taxpayers during the financial crisis are again being favored over the victims of their mortgage abuses.

"The government is abetting the behavior by not preventing the deduction," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "The taxpayers end up subsidizing the Wall Street banks after the headlines of a big-dollar settlement die down. That’s unfair to taxpayers."

Chicago man convicted of supporting terrorist group that attacked India sentenced to 14 years

CHICAGO (AP) -- A Chicago businessman was sentenced to 14 years in prison Thursday for providing material support to overseas terrorism, including a Pakistani group whose 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, left more than 160 people dead.

Tahawwur Rana did not address the court before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber imposed the sentence and did not react afterward. But his defense attorneys said the judge was right to reject prosecutors’ arguments that Rana deserved a stiffer sentence because the charges were related to terrorism.

Jurors in 2011 convicted Rana of providing support for the Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and for supporting a never-carried-out plot to attack a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. The cartoons angered many Muslims because pictures of the prophet are prohibited in Islam.

But jurors cleared Rana of the third and most serious charge of involvement in the three-day rampage in Mumbai, India’s largest city, which has often been called India’s 9/11.

"We think the judge made the right ruling," defense attorney Patrick Blegen said, adding that he intends to appeal Rana’s conviction because the judge refused to separate the Denmark and Mumbai charges. "I had always been our belief that it would be very difficult to get a fair trial if he had to face charges for two separate plots at once."

’Dear Abby’ columnist who offered advice and one-liners to millions of readers, dies at 94

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Pauline Friedman Phillips, who as Dear Abby dispensed snappy, sometimes saucy advice on love, marriage and meddling mothers-in-law to millions of newspaper readers around the world and opened the way for the likes of Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil and Oprah, has died. She was 94.

Phillips died Wednesday in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said Gene Willis, a publicist for the Universal Uclick syndicate.

"My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change," her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the column, said in a statement.

Private funeral services were held Thursday, Willis said.

The long-running "Dear Abby" column first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Mother and daughter started sharing the byline in 2000, and Jeanne Phillips took over in 2002, when the family announced Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer’s disease.

Social media buzzes at picture of 11-inch Subway ‘footlong’ sandwich on Facebook

NEW YORK (AP) -- What’s in an inch? Apparently, enough missing meat, cheese and tomatoes to cause an uproar.

Subway, the world’s largest fast food chain with 38,000 locations, is facing widespread criticism after a man who appears to be from Australia posted a photo on the company’s Facebook page of one of its footlong sandwiches next to a tape measure that shows the sub is just 11 inches.

More than 100,000 people have "liked" or commented on the photo, which had the caption "Subway pls respond." Lookalike pictures popped up elsewhere on Facebook. And The New York Post conducted its own investigation that found that four out of seven footlong sandwiches that it measured were shy of the 12 inches that makes a foot.

The original photo was no longer visible by Thursday afternoon on Subway’s Facebook page, which has 19.8 million fans. A spokesman for Subway, which is based in Milford, Conn., said Subway did not remove it.

Subway also said that the length of its sandwiches may vary slightly when its bread, which is baked at each Subway location, is not made to the chain’s exact specifications.

Algeria declares operation to free hostages over, but toll remains unclear

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Algerian special forces launched a rescue operation Thursday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert and freed foreign hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants, but estimates for the number of dead varied wildly from four to dozens.

Militants claiming revenge for France’s intervention against rebels in Mali seized the Ain Amenas natural gas complex on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage.

Algerian state television said Thursday that four captives, two Britons and two Filipinos, had died. But the militants said at least 35 hostages had died in the state’s rescue attempt. There was no way to independently verify the toll in the remote location, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from Algiers.

The reports of high casualties have deeply disturbed foreign governments, prompting a number to criticize Algeria’s operation. Britain’s Foreign Office attempted to prepare the British public by saying, "We should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack."

Oil prices rose $1.08 on the news to $95.32 on the New York Mercantile Exchange and prompted energy companies like BP PLC and Spain’s Compania Espanola de Petroleos SA to try to relocate energy workers at other Algerian plants. New video game casts players as rebels to
explore Syrian civil war

BEIRUT (AP) -- A new video game based on Syria’s civil war challenges players to make the hard choices facing the country’s rebels. Is it better to negotiate peace with the regime of President Bashar Assad, for example, or dispatch jihadist fighters to kill pro-government thugs?

The British designer of "Endgame: Syria" says he hopes the game will inform people who might otherwise remain ignorant about the conflict.

Views differ, however, on the appropriateness of using a video game to discuss a complex crisis that has killed more than 60,000 people since March 2011. Computer giant Apple has refused to distribute the game and some observers consider the mere idea insulting. Others love it, and one fan from inside Syria has suggested changes to make the game better mirror the actual war.

The dispute comes amid wider arguments about violent video games since last month’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead. This week, the National Rifle Association revised the recommended age for a new shooting game after criticisms by liberal groups.

Tomas Rawlings, who designed the Syria game, said he got the idea while watching TV pundits debate the possible consequences of directly arming Syria’s rebels, which Western nations have declined to do. He said he thought a game could explore such questions by allowing players to make choices and see their consequences.