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Business today

By Wire services
Published April 20, 2004

ECONOMIC INDICATORS RISE: The Conference Board reported Monday that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.3 percent in March, following no change in February and a 0.4 percent rise in January. The gauge of economic activity over the next six months or so had six of its 10 elements rise last month, including new orders for consumer goods to manufacturers. The report was in line with analysts' expectations. The Conference Board also reported that its indicator of current economic activity rose for the seventh straight month in March, indicating that economic momentum remains strong.

GATX ACQUIRED BY CIT GROUP: GATX Technology Services in Tampa is being acquired by CIT Group Inc. for $200-million cash and assumption of an undisclosed amount of debt. The sale is expected to close by the end of July. GATX's computer equipment leasing division will combine with CIT's middle market leasing unit in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. A GATX spokeswoman said Technology Services, which has a facility in Oldsmar in addition to its headquarters in Tampa, has 172 employees. She said the sale will result in layoffs, although the magnitude and timing of the cuts is not yet known. GATX Technology's assets were valued at $520-million, with sales of $200-million in 2003.

FEMA MONEY GOES ELSEWHERE: Florida communities will receive nearly $2.6-million in federal grants to protect buildings from storm damage. None of the Federal Emergency Management Agency awards went to Tampa Bay area counties. Bishop Nevins Academy, a Catholic school in Sarasota County which also serves as a hurricane shelter, will receive about $241,000 for installing hurricane shutters.

PALMS OF PASADENA EXPANDS: Palms of Pasadena Hospital in south Pinellas County will begin a $23.5-million expansion in May with construction of a new emergency department topped with two new inpatient floors with 45 beds each. The renovation will double the size of the emergency area at the 307-bed hospital. The hospital, which is owned by IASIS Healthcare of Franklin, Tenn., will remain open throughout construction.

POE GROUP SALES CLIMB: Poe Financial Group of Tampa said Monday it has written more than $300-million in insurance premiums, up 50 percent from this time last year. Separately, one of Poe's member companies, Atlantic Preferred Insurance Co., has received its first A.M. Best rating, a B+. Founded by former Tampa mayor William Poe Sr., Poe Financial has 210,000 policyholders and employs 185 people.

COKE READIES MID-CALORIE SODA: Coke is launching a mid-calorie cola that promises half the sugar, carbohydrates and calories of its regular version. The Atlanta company said Monday that Coca-Cola C2 will debut first in Japan and then the United States this summer. The company has been researching the idea for a year. PepsiCo Inc. announced earlier that it planed to sell a mid-calorie cola named Pepsi Edge this summer. Also, Cadbury Schweppes hinted at an industry conference in New York in December that it is looking at a lower-calorie version of Dr Pepper.

SHORT-TERM T-BILLS TICK UP: The Treasury Department sold $16-billion in three-month bills at a discount rate of 0.935 percent, up from 0.915 percent last week. An additional $13-billion was sold in six-month bills at a rate of 1.080 percent, up from 1.025 percent. The Federal Reserve said Monday the average yield for one-year constant-maturity Treasury bills rose to 1.41 percent last week from 1.32 percent the previous week.

SHELL INTERNAL INVESTIGATION ENDS: A top executive of Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. wrote in an e-mail he was "sick and tired about lying" about the company's inflated oil and gas reserves estimates, an investigation commissioned by Shell reported Monday. The investigation, whose findings Shell accepted in full, found that some bosses knew for almost two years that the company had overstated the size of its reserves. Shell also announced that CFO Judith Boynton had stepped down, the latest in a string of high-level casualties since Shell's announcement in January that its confirmed oil and gas holdings were much smaller than it had claimed. The company said Monday it had downgraded a total of 4.35-billion barrels, or about 22 percent of its reserves, from "proven" to less certain categories.

BUFFETT SHOPS TICKETS TO MEETING: Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has sold hundreds of tickets to the company's annual meeting in an effort to foil Internet auctions for the passes. Buffett listed tickets to the event, attended by more than 10,000 shareholders and their guests last year, on eBay Inc.'s Web site late Friday at $5 a pair after seeing sellers scalp them for as much as $58 each. By Monday afternoon he had sold 352. The annual gathering in Omaha, Neb., is a magnet for admirers of Buffett, 73, who has become the world's second-richest man by spotting undervalued assets.

MICROSOFT, MINNESOTA SETTLE: Microsoft Corp. said Monday it has reached a settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by Minnesota customers who claimed the software giant overcharged them in violation of state antitrust laws. The world's biggest software company said terms were still being worked out. The deal will be presented to the state court in early summer, company spokeswoman Stacy Drake said. The settlement interrupted a jury trial that was expected to last several more weeks. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had said they were seeking as much as $505-million - and Minnesota law would have automatically tripled that, said Microsoft attorney David Tulchin.

EARNINGS

WachoviaCorp.: The Charlotte, N.C., bank that is also Florida's second-largest said first-quarter earnings rose 22 percent, with all four of its major business lines delivering record earnings and double-digit growth. The bank said it also reduced its portfolio of bad loans in the quarter, setting aside $44-million to cover them.

Excluding one-time items, earnings per share would have been 98 cents per share. On that basis, analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had forecast a profit of 90 cents per share.

Lincare HoldingsInc.: The Clearwater provider of home oxygen services said reductions in Medicare reimbursements for respiratory medications reduced revenues for the quarter ended March 31 by $12.3-million. Lincare has 745 locations and more than 495,000 customers in 47 states.

FannieMae: The government-sponsored mortgage company's revenues jumped 9.2 percent in the first quarter but its earnings overall dipped 2 percent as it recorded paper losses in hedging against risk, the company said Monday.

Kraft FoodsInc.: Kraft's first-quarter profits tumbled 34 percent amid continuing restructuring costs and sluggish sales volume. Excluding charges totaling 12 cents a share for restructuring, the company said earnings would have been 45 cents per share - 2 cents better than the consensus estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call.

Eli Lilly and Co.: Lilly said first-quarter earnings dipped 2 percent in part because of a $362-million expense related to an acquisition, but the drugmaker's results still beat analysts' expectations by 4 cents a share.

3MCo.: The diversified manufacturer saw first-quarter profit surge 43.8 percent as the maker of Post-it Notes and Scotch-brand tapes benefited from swings in foreign currency and increased sales in its display business. The results beat the average estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call by 3 cents a share.

Washington Mutual Inc.: The second-biggest mortgage lender said first-quarter net income rose 5 percent, reflecting the sale of a unit to Citigroup Inc. The profit included $644-million of income before taxes from discontinued operations associated with the consumer-finance unit sold during the quarter, the company said.

[Last modified April 20, 2004, 01:20:37]

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