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US housing recovery gains momentum in August

WASHINGTON (AP) — A jump in sales of previously occupied homes and further gains in home construction suggest the U.S. housing recovery is gaining momentum.

The pair of reports Wednesday follows other signs of steady progress in the housing market after years of stagnation. New-home sales are up, builder confidence has reached its highest level in more than six years and increases in home prices appear to be sustainable.

Sales and construction rates are still below healthy levels, economists caution. But the improvement has been steady.


Macy's NYC flagship getting $400 million makeover

NEW YORK (AP) — A $400 million makeover is giving New York's iconic Macy's store a sleek, new 21st-century style.

And some preservationists aren't happy about it. They see the overhaul of America's biggest department store as scrapping classic Beaux Arts and Art Deco touches in favor of the latest trend in retail design — something like an Apple computer store.

Macy's reconstruction, to be completed in 2015, will add 100,000 square feet to the 1.1 million square feet of existing retail space. Floor-to-ceiling fabric shrouds areas under renovation. But some sections already have been finished, including the world's largest women's shoe department, which offers 280,000 pairs of shoes — several thousand displayed in white settings.


FDA urged to set standards for arsenic in rice

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration may consider new standards for the levels of arsenic in rice as consumer groups are calling for federal guidance on how much of the carcinogen can be present in food.

So far, FDA officials say they have found no evidence that suggests rice is unsafe to eat. The agency has studied the issue for decades but is in the middle of conducting a new study of 1,200 samples of grocery-store rice products — short and long-grain rice, adult and baby cereals, drinks and even rice cakes — to measure arsenic levels.

Rice is thought to have arsenic in higher levels than most other foods because it is grown in water on the ground, optimal conditions for the contaminant to be absorbed in the rice. There are no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.


Gates, Buffett again top Forbes' billionaires list

NEW YORK (AP) — Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates remains the nation's richest man by far, as the tech and philanthropy giant took the top spot on the Forbes 400 list for the 19th year running, with a net worth of $66 billion.

Investor Warren Buffett, the head of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., again took second with $46 billion, while Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison remains third with $41 billion and brothers Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries Inc., tied for fourth with $31 billion.

Forbes said the rich mainly got richer in 2012, with net worth rising for 241 members of its list and shrinking for only 66. Rising stock prices, a rebound in real estate values and rare art prices helped.


Planned AEG sale muddies Los Angeles sports future

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A for-sale sign for the owner of the Staples Center arena, the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, Major League Soccer's LA Galaxy and a stake in the LA Lakers would be a major shock to the city's sports, entertainment and business establishment at any time.

But when Denver-based Anschutz Co. said Tuesday that it was "commencing a process" to sell subsidiary Anschutz Entertainment Group, the announcement left especially big questions about AEG's central role in courting the NFL's return to Los Angeles with Farmers Field, a planned downtown stadium going through late-round approvals with the city.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not so shocked, saying he had long known about the possible sale even as he publicly pushed for the building of the stadium. He insisted it would not derail the city as it pulls closer to the return of the NFL since the 1994 departure of the Rams and Raiders.


Premiums inching higher for popular Medicare plans

WASHINGTON (AP) — Monthly premiums for popular private insurance plans through Medicare are only inching up next year, the Obama administration said Wednesday, trumpeting good news for skeptical older voters on a closely watched election-year issue.

Republican Mitt Romney has warned that cuts in President Barack Obama's health care law would hobble programs such as Medicare Advantage, the private insurance option that's a thriving part of Medicare. But deputy Medicare administrator Jonathan Blum said such dire predictions have not proved to be true.

Average monthly premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will rise by $1.47 in 2013 to $32.59, said Blum. When premiums and out-of-pocket costs such as co-payments are combined, Medicare estimates that beneficiaries will actually spend less on average.


10 drugmakers team up to improve testing process

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Pharmaceutical industry heavyweights are teaming up to address a challenge that's long vexed drugmakers: how to improve the way experimental drugs are tested so they can get approved, and reach patients, faster.

Ten top U.S. and European drugmakers said Wednesday that they have started a nonprofit organization, called TransCelerate BioPharma, to collaborate on the problem.

Research productivity across the industry has been declining while costs have been rising over the past few decades. About 5,000 to 10,000 potential drugs fail for every one approved, although all but about five of those compounds are scrapped by the time costly tests in people begin.


GM offering customers more help with touch screens

DETROIT (AP) — New car smell? Check. Shiny paint job? Check. Complex touch screens and audio systems you can't figure out how to use? Check.

These systems are often the biggest source of frustration for new car buyers. So General Motors Co. says it's trying hard to make sure customers know how to use the electronic gadgets by training them at dealers and then offering help after a car is sold. The automaker says it will call customers after a purchase to see if they are having problems with the technology and may even make home visits.

The screens and audio systems are so complicated and sometimes work so poorly that they held down the auto industry's overall quality score in this year's J.D. Power and Associates initial quality survey. At GM, the touch-screen efforts are part of a push to boost overall quality and make people more likely to return to dealers to buy another GM product, said GM Vice President for Quality and Customer Experience Alicia Boler-Davis.


Groupon launches payments service in US

NEW YORK (AP) — Groupon launched a payment service Wednesday that allows businesses to accept credit cards using an iPhone or iPod Touch, becoming the latest company to enter the growing mobile payments market.

The announcement sent the online deals company's stock up nearly 14 percent. Groupon shares climbed 65 cents to close at $5.34 Wednesday. The Chicago-based company went public in November at a stock price of $20.

Groupon Payments is aimed mainly at businesses that offer deals through the company, though they can use the system to process any credit card transaction. A test program allows other merchants to use the service, but at higher rates.


Blackstone to buy Vivint for more than $2 billion

PROVO, Utah (AP) — Blackstone is leading a group that has agreed to buy home security provider Vivint for more than $2 billion.

Provo, Utah-based Vivint is one of the largest providers of home automation and security services in North America. Its shareholders include Goldman Sachs, Peterson Partners and Jupiter Partners.

Under the agreement announced Wednesday, Vivint will be acquired by a fund managed by the New York-based investment firm on behalf of its private equity investors.


By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial closed up 13.32 points, or 0.1 percent, at 13,577.96. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 1.73 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,461.05. The Nasdaq composite index rose 4.82 points, or 0.2 percent, to 3,182.62.

Oil ended at $91.98 on Wednesday, dropping $3.31, or 3.5 percent. Brent crude traded on the ICE Futures exchange in London fell $3.84, or 3.4 percent, to $108.19 per barrel.

Wholesale gasoline fell 7 cents $2.829 per gallon. Heating oil slipped 8.3 cents to $3.044 per gallon. Natural gas fell a penny to $2.762 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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