– January 27, 2015

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Written on 01/27/2015, 8:48 am by MARTIN CRUTSINGER, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — Orders for long-lasting manufactured goods dropped sharply in December, dragged lower by a big decline in demand in the volatile commercial...
Written on 01/27/2015, 8:46 am by PAUL WISEMAN, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — U.S. consumers welcomed the new year with a surge in confidence. The Conference Board reported Tuesday that its consumer confidence index climbed this month to 102.9, highest level since August 2007 — four months before the start of the Great Recession. January's figure was up from a revised 93.1 in December. "Consumers started the year in a buoyant mood," Andrew Hunter, an analyst at Capital Economics, wrote in a research note. Americans haven't felt this good about current economic conditions since January 2008. And they are the most optimistic they've been since February 2011 about business conditions over the next six months. The Conference Board also found that 20.5 percent of consumers surveyed described jobs as "plentiful" — the biggest share in nearly seven years. The figure had dropped as low as 3.1 percent in November and December 2009. Consumer confidence has been rising as the economy improves. Employers added nearly 3 million jobs last year, most since 1999. The unemployment rate last month tumbled to a 6-year low of 5.6 percent. The economy grew from July through September at a 5 percent annual rate, fastest in 11 years. Adding to improving spirits: Gas prices have plunged to $2.04 a gallon Tuesday from $2.32 a gallon a month ago, according to AAA. Lower gasoline prices leave more money in consumers' wallets to spend on other things. Bricklin Dwyer, an economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research note that the stronger consumer confidence numbers "support our forecast for continued strength in consumer spending." Absent from the economic success story so far are significant wage gains: Adjusted for inflation, hourly earnings for private-sector employees were the same last month as they'd been in December 2008.
Written on 01/27/2015, 8:31 am by CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — U.S. home prices rose at a modest pace in November, held back by weaker sales and a limited number of houses for sale. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index, released Tuesday, increased 4.3 percent in November from 12 months earlier. That's down slightly from a 4.5 percent pace in October. Home price gains have decelerated for 12 straight months. The slowdown in price increases should help boost sales this year. Home values rose at a double-digit pace in early 2014, making many homes unaffordable. Sales of existing homes fell 3.1 percent to 4.93 million last year. First-time buyers in particular were priced out of many neighborhoods and accounted for a historically low proportion of sales last year. Economists are hopeful that home sales and construction will rebound this year, partly because price gains are returning to levels consistent with a stable housing market. Lower mortgage rates, healthy hiring, and lower down payment requirements from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may also spur sales. "The housing market is heading in the right direction," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at real estate data provider Zillow. "This year ought to be much more friendly for buyers in general. More inventory ... slowing price gains and continued low mortgage rates will all contribute to buyers feeling more comfortable this year than in previous years." Home values have risen for lower-priced homes, Humphries said, which gives those homeowners more equity and should encourage more of them to sell. That should bring more modest-priced homes on the market that are affordable for first-time buyers, he added. Home prices in all 20 cities increased over the past 12 months, the Case-Shiller index showed. San Francisco's increase of 8.9 percent was the largest, followed by Miami at 8.6 percent. Cleveland posted the smallest gain, at 0.6 percent. The 20-city index fell 0.2 percent in November from October. The index's monthly price changes aren't adjusted for seasonal variations, such as slower home buying in winter. Eleven cities reported price gains in November from the previous month, led by Tampa's 0.8 percent gain. Chicago's price drop of 1.1 percent was the largest. Other recent data on housing suggests that sales and construction are on the upswing. While sales of existing homes fell in 2014, they picked up in December, increasing 2.4 percent from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 5.04 million. Many economists forecast sales will rise to about 5.2 million this year. Mortgage rates have fallen for four straight weeks and the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is just 3.63 percent. That makes it easier for would-be buyers to purchase a home. It has also prompted a spike of refinancing applications that could enable many Americans to lower their monthly mortgage payments, freeing up cash to spend or save. Home construction, meanwhile, jumped 4.4 percent last month to an annual rate of 1.09 million. Builders began construction on 1.01 million new houses and apartments in 2014, the most in nine years and 8.8 percent more than in 2013. The Case-Shiller index covers roughly half of U.S. homes. The index measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The November figures are the latest available.
Written on 01/26/2015, 2:54 pm by JOHN ROGERS, Associated Press
(AP) — Like pilgrims flocking to a holy shrine, they come from all over the world to pay homage, not to a deity but to something similar — the people they see on TV and in the movies. They are the seekers of the Hollywood Sign, that symbol of the Land of the Rich and Famous. And just like those on pilgrimages to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Acropolis in Greece, they press to get as close as they can to the immortality of fame that it represents. Unlike visitors to other sites, however, Hollywood Sign seekers can't just take a bus or join a tour group. Arriving at the sign that towers magnificently over Los Angeles' skyline requires traipsing through a densely populated hillside neighborhood of 20,000 people, one dotted by multimillion-dollar homes located on steep, narrow, almost impassable canyon roads. "There will probably be 10,000 of them here this weekend," said Guy Pohlman in a voice echoing a mixture of foreboding and disgust as he stood in front of his home just a few doors down from a once-secret back way to the closest hiking trail to the sign atop a mountain peak in LA's sprawling Griffith Park. "I've seen people stand on my wall to get a picture," Pohlman said. "I've seen them stand on my neighbor's garage. I've seen them stop in the middle of the street and stand on their cars. They block our emergency vehicles. They block our mail delivery." Sometimes they get stuck at the top of Pohlman's narrow street and struggle to turn around without bashing into a neighbor's wall. Sometimes a resident comes out of a house to scream at them to go away. But still they come. "It's as if you want to touch the feet of the statues of the saints," pop-culture historian Leo Braudy said of what drives them. "There's a kind of desire to get something of that aura for yourself." You can't quite touch the Hollywood sign, thanks to a protective fence, a bank of security cameras and the threat of arrest. But you can get close enough for a great photo, one of those poses where you pretend to be holding the sign aloft like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. It's a fine souvenir to send home to let the folks know you've been to the land where the movie stars live. And the easiest way to do that is to drive right through one of their neighborhoods. It's a place called Hollywoodland that the sign, ironically enough, was erected in 1923 to promote when the homes were built. The people moved in, the sign was abandoned, and like a cheap movie set, it began to fall apart. By the time the city got around to declaring it a landmark in 1973, it was falling down. Eventually, a deep-pocketed coalition forked over the money to fix it, and in 1978, the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust was created to protect it. In the years that followed, it became a Hollywood starlet of sorts, painted, face-lifted and beautiful — but unapproachable. It was just too difficult to find a canyon route to the sign. That changed when smartphones became popular, and residents say the neighborhood hasn't been the same since. "Now you have Sally or Suri or whatever her name is and she tells you just how to get there," City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area, said of the directions-giving iPhone voice. Even worse, said Vincent Jeffords, who lives down the street from Pohlman, "If you Google 'Hollywood sign and hiking trails' on your smartphone, it will send you right here." Indeed, doing so will even give you one website listing Pohlman's address — perhaps posted by the guy who stood on his wall — as the best place to take a picture. The city recently responded by restricting weekend parking to locals and putting up an electronic pedestrian gate to the trail's better known entrance. Now, people coming to see the sign on weekends must at least walk really far. LaBonge would like to see further parking restrictions and perhaps a shuttle service from the park. For his part, Pohlman says, he doesn't mind people walking through his neighborhood so long as they stay off his wall and don't trash his neighbors' property. He's come to accept that his home has become sort of a bivouac point. Seemingly to prove his point, two young women suddenly emerge at his carport — sweaty, out of breath and asking for water. Zeta Kearney, a wedding planner from the Spanish island of Ibiza, and her friend Elyse Smith, an oil trader from London, have just taken selfies at the sign, one of which will be on Kearney's Facebook page. "It was great," Kearney says. "We had so much fun we're coming back tomorrow."
Written on 01/26/2015, 1:18 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — The U.S. stock market is finishing with tiny gains as investors weigh corporate earnings, mergers, and the implications of an election victory in Greece by a party opposed to that country's bailout plan. The Dow Jones industrial average rose six points, or 0.03 percent, to close at 17,678 on Monday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up five points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,057. The Nasdaq composite rose 13 points, 0.3 percent, to 4,771. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.82 percent from 1.80 percent late Friday.
Written on 01/26/2015, 12:32 pm by Business Journal staff
The Friant Water Authority is searching for a new chief executive as part of reorganization designed to manage increased workload due to the drought. The Friant Water Authority board has approved splitting the general manager's job into two positions — a chief executive to focus on strategic and policy issues and be the face of the authority and a general manager to engage with the authority's key initiatives. The chief executive will report to the board, while the general manager will report to the chief executive. Current General Manager Ron Jacobsma will maintain this role, while a search is being launched to hire a chief executive. The board also formed three new board-level committees to develop recommendations for the Friant Water Authority's reorganization, an interim water supply committee to focus on water supply issues until the reorganization is complete and a search committee to find the new chief executive officer.
Written on 01/26/2015, 12:19 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — Standard & Poor's rating agency on Monday downgraded Russia's credit grade by one notch to junk status, citing a weakened economic outlook. The agency dropped the rating to BB+ from BBB- as it sees the country's financial buffers at risk amid a slide in the country's currency and weakening revenue from oil exports. "In our view, the Russian Federation's monetary policy flexibility has weakened, as have its economic growth prospects," it said. Russia's economy has been hit hard by the double impact of weaker prices for its energy exports as well as Western sanctions. The Russian currency tumbled on the downgrade, dropping nearly 7 percent to 68.5 rubles to the dollar. Standard & Poor's said that Russia's financial system is weakening, limiting room for maneuver for Russia's Central Bank. It said the bank "faces increasingly difficult monetary policy decisions," while also trying to preserve incentives for growth. The Russian economy is expected to contract by 4 to 5 percent this year for the first time since President Vladimir Putin took the helm in 2000. Capital outflows, which averaged $57 billion annually during 2009 to 2013, soared to $152 billion last year. "Stresses could mount for Russian corporations and banks that have foreign currency debt service requirements without a concomitant foreign currency revenue stream," the rating agency said. There was no immediate comment to the downgrade by the Russian government, which have sought to play down the anticipated move. Prior to the announcement, Putin had a meeting with Cabinet members on anti-crisis measures. He said the government should focus on cutting spending, keeping inflation under control and making sure that the country doesn't waste its hard currency reserves.
Written on 01/26/2015, 12:18 pm by 
(AP) — A small drone flying low to the ground crashed onto the White House grounds before dawn Monday, triggering a major emergency response and raising fresh questions about security at the presidential mansion. A man later came forward to say he was responsible and didn't mean to fly it over the complex. The man contacted the Secret Service at midmorning after reports of the crash spread in the media. Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said the man had been interviewed by Secret Service agents and was cooperating with the investigation. "Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device," Leary said. He added that investigators were interviewing others to corroborate the man's story, as well as examining evidence from the scene. A U.S. official said the man is a Washington resident and that investigators don't currently have any reason to doubt his story. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity. Although President Barack Obama was not at home, the security breach prompted a lockdown of the entire complex until officials could examine the drone. The White House later said it did not pose a threat. The drone crashed on the southeast side of the White House grounds just after 3 a.m., Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said. The device was described as a two-foot-long quadcopter — a commercially available unmanned aircraft that is lifted by four propellers. Many small quadcopters are essentially sophisticated toys that can also be useful for commercial operations like aerial photography and inspections. Often weighing only a few pounds, they sell for as little as a few hundred dollars or less, and were popular Christmas gifts last year. The president and first lady Michelle Obama were traveling in India, but their daughters, Sasha and Malia, may have been at home. White House officials declined to comment on the daughters' whereabouts Monday, but ahead of the president's trip aides had said the daughters would remain in Washington so as not to miss school. "The early indications are that it does not pose any sort of ongoing threat to anybody at the White House," said presidential spokesman Josh Earnest. Still, the incident was likely to reinvigorate a long-running public debate about the use of commercial drones in U.S. skies — as well as White House security. The Secret Service is still recovering after a string of breaches that raised questions about whether the president is adequately protected. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a chief critic of Secret Service leadership, said the agency has been working for some time to figure out how to deal with the threat posed by unmanned aircraft. He said a wake-up call came in 2013 when a camera drone crashed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a campaign event in Germany. "Any time you can breach the White House perimeter, it's deeply concerning," Chaffetz said in an interview Monday. "You don't know if it's some guy in a van down by the river controlling the drone or somebody who has some very nefarious intentions." Although remote-controlled airplanes and related toys have been available for decades, White House aides could not recall any similar incidents having occurred in the past. The incident comes just as policymakers are, for the first time, grappling seriously with how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation's skies. The recent proliferation of inexpensive drones has prompted growing fears about potential collisions with traditional aircraft. Technological advances have also made it easier to equip drones with advanced capabilities such as cameras, raising privacy issues as well as concerns that such devices could carry weapons. Industry experts said that to carry and fire a weapon, a drone would need more engines and more propellers than most commercially-manufactured quadcopters. At the urging of the drone industry, the Obama administration is on the verge of proposing rules to permit commercial flights by small drones, but no date has yet been set for release of the proposal. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration bans commercial drone flights — with some exceptions — and hobbyists are barred from flying drones above 400 feet in altitude or within 5 miles of an airport. Airspace around the White House is heavily restricted to protect the president and other sensitive sites in the vicinity. Yet Monday's crash wasn't the first time police have responded to reports of drones in the area. Last August, District of Columbia police reported the arrest of a person who got stuck in a tree while trying to retrieve a small drone lodged in the branches. And in July, U.S. Park Service police investigated reports of a small quadcopter in the vicinity of the Lincoln Memorial, according a compilation of recent incidents by the FAA. The response from emergency officials to Monday's crash was swift and intense. Police, fire and other emergency vehicles swarmed the White House, and the entire perimeter was locked down for about two hours. After daylight, more than a dozen officers fanned out to search the lawn with flashlights, and there was a heavier-than-usual presence of Secret Service agents on the roof of the White House. The agency recently has faced persistent questions about its effectiveness and ability to protect the president. Four high-ranking executives were reassigned this month, and former Director Julia Pierson was forced to resign last year after a Texas man armed with a knife was able to get over a White House fence and run into the executive mansion before being subdued. ___Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
Written on 01/26/2015, 12:16 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — Kaiser Permanente nurses in California have approved a new contract that boosts pay and improves patient care along with health and safety protections for nurses, a union official said. Registered nurses and nurse practitioners who work at 21 hospitals and 65 clinics across Northern and Central California voted last week to approve the new three-year deal, the California Nurses Association said Monday. About 18,000 Kaiser nurses in the state went on a two-day strike in November, and another walkout was planned for last week but an agreement was reached. The California Nurses Association represents the Kaiser nurses. Those workers are part of the National Nurses United organization. Under the new contract, roughly 540 registered nurse positions will be added, which nurses say should substantially improve the quality of care for hospitalized patients. It also signals a "renewed commitment" to training and employment opportunities for new graduates at a time when many hospitals have frozen hiring, the union said. The new contract includes a 14 percent pay raise over three years, the union said. Under the contract, a new committee of nurses will work with management to address concerns nurses have about care standards at Kaiser facilities. The contract also includes paid time for 25 registered nurses annually to participate in the union's disaster-relief program, which has dispatched hundreds of nurses to help with medical services following disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the Haiti earthquake to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The union appreciates the commitment Kaiser's leadership made to address concerns, Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro said. A Kaiser representative did not have an immediate comment Monday. The union said it is now committed to helping mental health workers finalize a contract. About 2,600 psychologists, counselors and therapists held a two-day strike earlier this month to bring attention to what they say are inadequate staffing and long wait times for appointments.
Written on 01/26/2015, 11:29 am by Hannah Esqueda
Centerpoint Athletic Club was recently acquired by local fitness chain Sierra Sports Clubs.  The central Fresno gym is one of five sports clubs now owned by the group. Robert and Juli Mitchell purchased the gym from Mark Geis earlier this month and club members have already been notified.  "It worked out great for [Robert Mitchell] and it worked out great for me," Geis said. "The sale just makes sense for both of us." Tina Naffziger will serve as the club's new manager once Geis, who purchased the club in 2003, transitions to his new role as director of corporate wellness and sales with Sierra Sports Clubs. In the new position, he will work with local businesses and corporations to develop health and fitness incentive programs for employees and help companies meet new requirements under the Affordable Healthcare Act. In addition to Centerpoint, Sierra Sports Clubs owns four other fitness locations throughout Fresno: Sunnyside Fitness and Tennis in southeast Fresno, Shapemakers in northeast Fresno, Sierra Athletic Club on Blackstone Avenue near Shaw Avenue and Sierra Sport and Racquet Club in northwest Fresno. Geis said he estimates total membership to be around 10,000 between all five locations.  For now, Centerpoint is expected to keep its name and current club members will have the option of upgrading their plans to allow for usage of all five facilities.  "The idea is that once they're in the Sierra Sports Club family, they can go anywhere," he said. Having access to the other four facilities will be a plus for current members as they will now have access to more in-house trainers, exercise classes, handball and racket sport courts, pools and banquet and catering services, Geis said.  "They're pretty well located all over Fresno so now our club members will have a choice to go to five different athletic clubs," he said. 

Latest State News

Written on 01/26/2015, 2:54 pm by JOHN ROGERS, Associated Press
(AP) — Like pilgrims flocking to a holy...
Written on 01/26/2015, 9:49 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — Power was being restored Sunday...
Written on 01/26/2015, 9:41 am by FRANK JORDANS, Associated Press
(AP) — WikiLeaks on Monday criticized...
Written on 01/26/2015, 9:40 am by BRANDON BAILEY, AP Technology Writer
(AP) — IBM is pooh-poohing a published...

Latest National News

Written on 01/27/2015, 8:48 am by MARTIN CRUTSINGER, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — Orders for long-lasting...
Written on 01/27/2015, 8:46 am by PAUL WISEMAN, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — U.S. consumers welcomed the new...
Written on 01/27/2015, 8:31 am by CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
(AP) — U.S. home prices rose at a...
Written on 01/26/2015, 1:18 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — The U.S. stock market is...