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Sony swings to quarterly profit

ony reported a $277 million profit for the January-March quarter on Wednesday, marking a reversal from a year ago on losses trimmed from its struggling PlayStation 3 video game business.

Sony Corp. (SNE), which also has a sprawling entertainment business, including a Hollywood studio, had racked up a 67.6 billion yen loss during the same period the previous year.

The Tokyo-based manufacturer of the Walkman portable music player said Wednesday that it expects profits in coming months to dwindle because of a strengthening yen, which batters the earnings of Japanese exporters such as Sony.

Sales were solid in liquid-crystal display TVs, digital cameras and Vaio computers, the Tokyo-based manufacturer said. But sales of mobile phones, old-style picture tube TVs and PlayStation 2 machines declined during the fiscal fourth quarter, which ended March 31.

Quarterly sales dropped 6.5% to $18.6 billion, Sony said.

Sony's latest results underline a steady recovery on the reduction of losses in its PlayStation 3 business and the sale of assets, including its former headquarters in Tokyo.

The PlayStation 3, which went on sale in late 2006, required enormous startup costs and has yet to post a profit as a business for Sony. It has also lagged behind rival Wii console from Nintendo Co.

Sony said it sold 9.24 million PlayStation 3 machines in the fiscal year ended March 31, and expects to sell 10 million PS3 consoles in the fiscal year through March 2009.

Sony's bottom line for the fiscal year just ended was also helped by the absence of expenses for a massive battery recall that hit the previous year.

In the previous year, Sony recalled millions of lithium-ion laptop batteries suspected of defects that caused them to burst into flames in some cases.

For the fiscal year ended March 31, Sony posted a better-than-expected profit of $3.5 billion, a record for Sony and nearly three times the profit earned in the previous fiscal year.

For the fiscal year through March 2009, Sony expects profit to slide 21.5% to $2.8 billion. It expects sales to edge up 1% to $86 billion.

Unfavorable currency swings are expected to hurt Sony's earnings for the current fiscal year, the company said.

Sony said it is expecting the dollar to trade around ¥100 for the fiscal year. The dollar, which traded at an average of about ¥114 last year, fell below ¥100 earlier this year and is now trading near ¥105.

Sony's profitability in its core electronics sector improved in the fiscal year ended March. Sales in its movies unit declined 11% because fewer films were released compared with the previous year.

Releases for the fiscal year just ended that contributed to theater and home entertainment revenue included "Spider-Man 3" and "Superbad," according to Sony.

Sony's music business in Japan also fared better compared with a year ago, boosted by best-selling albums. Sony's results reflected its equity holdings in major joint ventures, such as Sony BMG Music Entertainment, which saw success with Avril Lavigne's "The Best Damn Thing" and Alicia Keys' "As I Am" hit albums.

But equity-related income declined on year from Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB because of greater research and development costs, it said.

Sony shares rose 1.3% to close at $46 on Wednesday. The earnings were announced shortly after the close.

Foreclosure filings hit record in April

U.S. foreclosure filings reached a record high in April, rising almost 65% over the previous year and putting municipalities at risk by cutting into the value of taxed property, according to a study released Wednesday.

Some 243,353 households, nearly one in 519, received a foreclosure filing during April, according to the U.S. Foreclosure Market Report from RealtyTrac, an online marketplace that tracks foreclosed properties. That was up 4% from March, and surpassed the record of 239,851 set in August 2007.

It's "the highest monthly total we've seen since we began issuing the report in January 2005," said chief executive James J. Saccacio in a statement.

RealtyTrac's measure of foreclosure filings includes notices of default, auction sales and bank repossessions. According to the report, 54,574 were fully repossessed by banks in April.

Property tax plunge: The record number of foreclosures added their weight to an already saturated real estate market, pulling down home prices. Plunging home values reduce the money that cities, villages and towns collect in property taxes.

In particular jeopardy are parts of Nevada, California, Arizona and Florida, whose states maintained the highest foreclosure rates, according to RealtyTrac.
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"For example, the city council in Vallejo, Calif. - part of a metropolitan area with a foreclosure rate that ranked sixth highest in the nation in April - last week voted to have the city file for bankruptcy," said Saccacio.

The state of California had the second-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, up 112% over the previous year and affecting about one in 204 households. The top spot among states was held by Nevada, which maintained a foreclosure rate 3.6 times the national average, affecting about one in 146 homes.

Nationwide, single-family home prices have fallen 7.7% since the beginning of the year to the lowest level since at least 1982, according to the National Association of Realtors, and data from real-estate broker Zip Realty showed that the number of houses on the market grew by 3.5% in April.

With more homes being seized by banks, local governments also lose out on tax revenue from sale transactions. "It's really hitting the municipalities from multiple fronts," said RealtyTrac marketing vice president Rick Sharga in an interview.

Ten hardest hit metro areas: Cities in California and Florida have been particularly hard-hit. Areas in those states accounted for 9 of the top 10 metropolitan foreclosure rates.

The California metro areas of Merced, Stockton, Modesto and Riverside-San Bernardino took the top four spots. In Merced, one out of 66 households was hit by foreclosure in April.

In Florida, Cape Coral-Fort Myers came in at number 5, Port St. Lucie-Fort Pierce and Fort Lauderdale came in at numbers 9 and 10.

Also making an appearance was Las Vegas, a city that had seen heavy real estate speculation, at number 7 with one in 116 households receiving foreclosure notices.

As Congress debates plans to prop up troubled homeowners, the foreclosure rate shows little signs of slowing. Delinquent mortgage payments, which lead to foreclosure, will likely rise over the next six to 12 months, according to a key mortgage trend statistic from First American CoreLogic.


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Nikkei rises to highest in 4 months

Japan's key stock index rose to its highest in four months Wednesday as investors welcomed the dollar's stability and upbeat earnings reports from telecommunications giant NTT and other companies.

The Nikkei 225 index climbed 164.82 points, or 1.18%, to 14,118.55 points on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, its highest finish since Jan. 10.

The dollar's strength against the yen pushed up exporter issues, while the market welcomed results from some leading companies such as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., which Tuesday reported a 32% jump in profits.

Amid lingering concerns about the health of the U.S. economy, however, "investors don't want to take a big risk at this point," said Yasuyoshi Shizuma at BNP Paribas (BNP).

In currencies, the dollar traded at ¥104.88 midafternoon in Tokyo, up from ¥104.74 late Tuesday in New York. In March, the dollar fell below ¥100.

Automakers Honda Motor Co. (HMC) surged 3.11%, while Mazda Motor Corp. rose 1.32%, while electronics maker NEC gained 0.96%.

Mining shares gained after base metals on the London Metal Exchange mostly gained overnight, especially zinc on reports about smelter shutdowns in China after a strong earthquake. Toho Zinc gained 3.5% and Nippon Mining Holdings added 4.2%.

Electronics maker Pioneer nose-dived 18% on disappointing earnings reports and a forecast for a fifth consecutive year of losses amid a difficult business environment on costly restructuring in its TV operations.

Gas hits 7th straight record high

Retail gas prices hit record highs for the seventh day in a row, auto group AAA's Web site showed Wednesday.

The nationwide average for a gallon of regular unleaded hit $3.758, up 2 and six-tenths of a cent from the previous day's high of $3.732.

Gas prices have now risen for eight straight days. The pinch on consumers at the pump comes just ahead of the summer driving season.

The AAA national average shows gas prices up more than 11% over the past month and up nearly 22% from year-ago levels.

Retail gas prices have been pushed up by crude oil prices, which have doubled in the last 12 months.

Stocks on inflation watch

Investors appeared nervous early Wednesday, ahead of a key inflation reading.

About three hours before the open, Nasdaq and S&P futures were lower and pointing to a negative start on Wall Street.

Investors are awaiting the Consumer Price Index report, the government's key inflation reading, due out at 8:30 a.m. ET.

The overall CPI is forecast to be up 0.3%, according to economists surveyed by Briefing.com. So-called core CPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, is forecast to be up 0.2% in April. Both increases would match the gains seen in March.

At 10:30 a.m. ET comes the report on U.S. fuel inventories. Congress voted Tuesday in favor of measures aimed at stopping President Bush from continuing to fill the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But oil still hit a trading record of $126.98 during the trading session Tuesday before retreating to finish up $1.57 at $125.80.

In early electronic trading Wednesday oil prices retreated slightly, with a barrel of U.S. crude falling 29 cents to $125.51.

In major corporate news, Carl Icahn reportedly is considering the idea of launching a proxy fight for control of the board at Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) after the company saw share prices plunge following the rejection of the takeover bid by Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500). Shares of Yahoo jumped in afternoon trading Tuesday, but they remain 7% below their level before the withdrawal of the Microsoft bid earlier this month.

Clear Channel (CCU, Fortune 500) agreed to a lower buyout offer from private equity firms late Tuesday as part of a settlement the radio broadcaster made with the banks financing the deal.

American International Group (AIG, Fortune 500) is due to hold its annual meeting today. CEO Martin Sullivan is under fire after the insurer posted heavy losses in the two most recent quarters. Former CEO Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, still the largest individual shareholder at AIG, pushed the world's largest insurer to postpone the meeting in a letter released Monday.

After the bell Tuesday, Applied Materials (AMAT, Fortune 500), the leading maker of equipment used by computer chipmakers, reported lower earnings and revenue as new orders in the period fell. Still, earnings excluding special items beat forecasts of analysts surveyed by earnings tracker Thomson First Call by a penny a share. But shares fell about 3% in after-hours trading.

Electronics and entertainment conglomerate Sony (SNE) reported a $277 million profit for the January-March quarter on Wednesday, marking a reversal from a year ago on losses. Shares closed up in Tokyo Wednesday ahead of the after-market report there.

Department store operator Macy's (M, Fortune 500) is due to report earnings before the U.S. market open.

In global trade, Japan's benchmark stock index rose to its highest level in four months. European stocks drifted in morning trading.

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Google, Big Oil invest $115 million in solar startup

The souring economy hasn’t dissuaded green tech investors from making big bets on renewable energy. On Wednesday, solar power plant builder BrightSource Energy announced it had raised $115 million from a group of investors that include Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic arm, and oil giants Chevron and BP.

The investment in the Oakland, Calif.-based startup is Google’s (GOOG) second big solar energy play in the past two months. In April, Google.org joined a $130 million round for eSolar, a Pasadena solar power plant company whose chairman is Idealab founder BIll Gross.

BrightSource Energy, started by American-Israeli solar pioneer Arnold Goldman, has contracts to supply California utility PG&E (PCG) with up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from power plants to be built in the Mojave Desert on the California-Nevada border. BrightSource has developed a new solar technology, dubbed distributed power tower, that focuses fields of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats on a tower containing a water-filled boiler. The sun’s rays superheat the water and the resulting steam drives an electricity-generating turbine. (Artist rendering of BrightSource’s planned Ivanpah plant above.)

Given that a 500-megawatt solar power plant can cost more than $1 billion to build, $115 million is but a drop in the bucket. But it will allow BrightSource, which previously raised $45 million, to proceed with the development of its technology as it seeks project financing for construction of its first power plants.

And it can’t hurt to have such high-profile backers when you negotiate power purchase agreements with utilities. Besides Google, BP Alternative Energy (BP) and Chevron Technology Ventures (CVX), previous investors participating in the new round include Morgan Stanley (MS), VantagePoint Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and DBL Investors.

Another new BrightSource investor is Norweigan oil and gas behemoth StatoilHydro (STO). Apparently, even Big Oil has seen the light when it comes to hedging its bets with green energy.

Wall Street needs new regulation - Schumer

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he believes the credit crisis may get worse and that regulatory failings helped fuel the problems rocking the economy.

The chairman of the Joint Economic Committee presided over a hearing exploring the problems in the credit markets and what changes in regulation were necessary to avoid future market disruptions. Witnesses included former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and experts from a number of leading think tanks.

Schumer said he shared the hope of economists that "the worst of the credit crisis is behind us, but I am not convinced that it is over."

Schumer's remarks echoed a proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to update how the nation's financial sector is supervised, including far more centralized regulation.

"In my view, this credit crisis is as much a failure of regulation as it is a failure of the marketplace," Schumer said. "We have a 21st century global financial system, but a 20th century national set of financial regulations. That needs to change soon."

Schumer criticized the administration and Republican members of Congress who argue that government should do everything possible to avoid interfering with markets.

"The market does not solve all problems by itself and neither does the government," he said.

Volcker suggested that the failures in the credit markets were widespread, ranging from regulation to basic economic problems such as the rising U.S. trade gap. He endorsed the idea of the Fed becoming the principal financial regulator, although he cautioned that the central bank "is not equipped to do it now."

He said a greater oversight role for the Fed would require the creation of a new position filled by an official who is held accountable. But he suggested that the needed regulatory changes will not be easy to accomplish.

"The life of a regulator is not a happy one. When things are going well no one wants to be regulated," he said. "When things go bad, everyone asks, 'Where were you?

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Fed moves on credit card crackdown

The Federal Reserve on Friday pushed ahead with a proposal to stop abuses by credit card issuers, a day after two other key bank regulatory agencies proposed effectively the same package of new rules.

The move comes at a time when the $2 trillion industry has come under increasing scrutiny.

"The proposed rules are intended to establish a new baseline for fairness in how credit card plans operate," said Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, which regulates many U.S. banks. "Consumers relying on credit cards should be better able to predict how their decisions and actions will affect their costs."

Among other things, the plan would allow consumers more time to pay monthly bills. It would also prevent companies from applying interest-rate increases retroactively to pre-existing balances. And it would ban "double cycle billing," a practice that computes finance charges based on previous billing cycles.

A top financial services lobbyist blasted the plan.

"The Federal Reserve's proposal is an unprecedented regulatory intrusion into marketplace pricing and product offerings," said Edward Yingling, chief executive of the American Bankers Association.

On Thursday, the Office of Thrift Supervision, responsible for overseeing the nation's savings and loans, and the National Credit Union Administration, approved proposed rules the Fed "substantively similar."

The reforms will be subject to public comment for 75 days. The agencies expect to finalize any new regulatory changes by the end of the year.

Regulators under pressure to act

Under the new scheme, companies that issue credit cards would be required to outline the factors that determine which of several advertised interest rates and credit limits a customer will receive. In addition, the rules would prevent companies from charging fees to open an account and receive credit.

Regulators, most notably the Fed, have been under pressure from politicians to do a better job of overseeing the banking industry in general or risk losing some of their regulatory powers.

At the same time, lawmakers have pushed to make the credit card industry more consumer friendly at a time when Americans struggle with debt and increasingly rely on their credit cards to make ends meet.

U.S. consumers were saddled with $850 billion in credit card debt as of the end of last year, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., joined by a group of fellow Democratic lawmakers, unveiled legislation on Wednesday that incorporated some of those same regulatory proposals and added some new ones such as preventing issuers from charging customers a fee to pay a credit card bill by phone.

Earlier this year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced a legislative plan dubbed the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which garnered attention at a House hearing last month.

Industry says rules could choke off credit

Card industry representatives have been quick to warn that the passage of new legislation or additional regulation could hurt all credit card carriers.

"We are deeply concerned that these rules will result in less competition, higher consumer prices, fewer consumer choices, and reduced consumer access to credit cards," said Yingling, the banking industry advocate. In short, everyday consumers will bear the real cost of these proposals.

Americans with shabby credit histories, for example, may no longer have similar access to credit. At the same time, consumers with good credit could soon find themselves facing higher interest rates.

In the early 1980s, before issuers relied on credit scores in vetting customers, interest rates hovered around 18% and everyone paid an annual fee.

Nowadays consumers pay an average interest rate of just over 13%, and three quarters of card issuers do not charge an annual fee, according to the bankers group.

The consumer federation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said they were encouraged by the joint proposal, but added that regulators did not address other problems like unwarranted interest rate changes and aggressive marketing to college students.

"It's a good first step in addressing a number of abusive practices," said Travis Plunkett, legislative director at the consumer federation. "However, it will still be necessary for Congress to step in because the proposal only deals with a few of the problems that have been identified."

At the same time, legislators could have quite a fight on their hands. Previous efforts trying to reform the industry have largely failed, while recent legislative proposals have found little support among GOP lawmakers.

Source: CNN

Mixed end to upbeat week

Stocks were mixed Friday, following an otherwise upbeat week on Wall Street, as rising oil and gold prices and Sun Microsystems' surprise quarterly loss countered any relief about the April employment report.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) rose 0.4%. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index added 0.3% and the Nasdaq composite (COMP) lost a few points. All three major gauges ended the week with slim gains.

Stocks had risen through the morning on the employment report, but lost steam by midday.

"The employment report got us going in the morning, but we've had a big rally and are perhaps due for a bit of a pullback," said Greg Church, president at Church Capital.

Stocks closed at 4-month highs Thursday, as investors hailed better-than-expected readings on manufacturing and consumer spending, one day after the Fed cut interest rates and hinted the economy seems to have stabilized.

Bets that the worst is over also helped buoy stocks in April, following five down months on Wall Street caused by questions about the depth of the housing and credit market crises.

Questions still remain, Church said, limiting any upside for stocks in the short term.

Better employment picture: Employers cut 20,000 jobs from their payrolls in April, surprising economists who were expecting a bigger deficit of 75,000, according to Briefing.com estimates. Employers cut 81,000 jobs the previous month.

The unemployment rate, generated by a separate survey, fell to 5% from 5.1% in the previous month. Economists thought it would rise to 5.2%, on average. And average hourly earnings, the report's inflation component, rose just 0.1%, versus forecasts for a rise of 0.3%. Earnings rose 0.3% in the previous month. (Full story).

Another report showed factory orders jumped a surprising 1.4% in March, topping forecasts for a rise of 0.2%. Orders fell 1.3% in February.

Fed action: The central bank said Friday that it will join central banks in Europe in building on recent efforts to manage the global credit crisis. The Fed will boost the amount of emergency reserves it makes available to U.S. banks to $150 billion in May, up from $100 billion in April. (Full story).

Earnings news: Sun Microsystems and Chevron were among the companies reporting quarterly results late Thursday and early Friday. With 78% of the S&P 500 results already out, earnings are currently on track to have fallen 15% from a year earlier.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) reported a surprise quarterly loss late Thursday, with the weak economy causing some customers to put off buying big-ticket items. Sun also forecast flat revenue for the current quarter, and said it could cut up to 2,500 jobs. Shares slipped 22.6%. (Full story).

Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500) reported higher quarterly earnings that topped forecasts on higher quarterly revenue that missed expectations. Shares inched higher. (Full story).

In other company news, Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) talks have reportedly intensified, as the two tech leaders attempt to reach a friendly merger agreement, the Wall Street Journal reported. Earlier in the day, the Journal said that Microsoft's bid for Yahoo could turn hostile.

Investools (SWIM) shares slumped 29% in unusually active New York Stock Exchange trade, after the brokerage and seller of financial education products said that the SEC is probing some of its business practices.

On the upside, the rally in commodity prices gave a boost to some of the underlying stocks, including Aluminum maker Alcoa (AA, Fortune 500) and chemical maker DuPont (DD, Fortune 500).

Market breadth was mixed. On the New York Stock Exchange, winners topped losers 9 to 7 on volume of 1.27 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, decliners topped advancers 4 to 3 on volume of 2.28 billion shares.

Dollar rebounds: The dollar continued its recovery against the euro and yen on the improved economic news and on bets that the Fed will pause its rate-cutting campaign. (Full story).

Bonds slump: Treasury prices continued to retreat as investors pulled money out of the so-called safe-haven investment and poured it into stocks. The decline sent the yield on the benchmark 10-year note to 3.86% from 3.76% late Thursday. Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Commodities: Oil and gold prices climbed, while gas prices eased modestly.

U.S. light crude oil for June delivery rose $3.80 to settle at $116.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

COMEX gold for June delivery rose $7.10 to $858 an ounce.

Additionally, the national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas slipped to 3.622 from an all-time record of $3.623 the previous day, AAA reported. Gas prices had hit all-time highs for 17 straight days.

Source: cnn

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George W Bush has offered $770m (£390m) in international food aid to help ease the effects of surging food prices that have sparked riots in some countries.

The US president said he was asking Congress to approve his request.

The White House has come under intense pressure to step in as high food and petrol prices have squeezed poor families both at home and abroad.

The global crisis has sparked rioting in several developing countries, with the threat of worse to come.

"We're sending a clear message to the world that America will lead the fight against hunger for years to come," said Mr Bush.

'Silent tsunami'

The new money would come in addition to some $200m the US president released for emergency food aid two weeks ago, but Mr Bush warned that "more needs to be done".

"In some of the world's poorest nations, rising prices can mean the difference between getting a daily meal and going without food," he said.

"The American people are generous people and compassionate people. We believe in the timeless truth, to whom much is given, much is expected."

Food price increases, dubbed by the United Nations World Food Programme a "silent tsunami", have sparked riots in some countries, including Haiti, Cameroon and Indonesia.

The UN has warned that high prices are expected to continue despite increased production.

Source: BBC


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Stocks were mixed Thursday morning as investors weighed Exxon Mobil's earnings miss, a big rise in jobless claims and signs that consumer spending continues to hold up despite the economic slowdown.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) and the broader Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index were both little changed in the first few minutes of trade. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) added 0.4%.

Stocks ended lower Wednesday - on the last day of an otherwise strong April - as investors took a 'sell the news' reaction after the Federal Reserve cut a key short-term interest rate, as expected, and signaled it may not cut rates again anytime soon. Stocks were mixed early Thursday.

In the news:

Income drops, spending rises. Personal income rose a less-than-expected 0.3% in March, while personal spending rose a greater-than-forecast 0.4%, the Commerce Department reported. The Core PCE deflator, the report's inflation component, rose a greater-than-expected 0.2%. (Full story).

Jobless claims. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment jumped by 35,000 last week, the government said, topping forecasts for a rise of 18,000. (Full story).

Exxon Mobil. The No. 1 U.S. oil company reported sharply higher quarterly sales and earnings on surging oil prices, but results were shy of forecasts, sending shares more than 3% lower in morning trade. Stock (XOM, Fortune 500).

Source: cnn

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