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NEW YORK — U.S. stocks climbed Friday as banks made a rapid recovery following a steep fall a day ago. Investors hoped Deutsche Bank and the financial system in general were in better shape than they had feared.

Banks made the biggest gains Friday as Germany's largest bank tried to reassure investors about its financial health. Investors hope Deutsche Bank will be able to negotiate down the massive cost of settling a U.S. investigation into mortgage securities. Energy companies rose as the price of oil continued to move higher, and strong earnings from Costco sent consumer stocks higher.

Deutsche Bank is the largest lender in Germany, and investors are concerned about not only its plunging stock price, but the potential effect on the financial system if Deutsche Bank gets into serious trouble and the German government does not help it. Those fears faded on Friday.

"People came to the realization that this isn't likely to be a big systemic risk that ripples through the financial sector," said Nate Thooft, head of global asset allocation for Manulife Asset Management.

The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 164.70 points, or 0.9 percent, to 18,308.15. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rebounded 17.14 points, or 0.8 percent, to 2,168.27. The Nasdaq composite rose 42.85 points, or 0.8 percent, to 5,312.

The Department of Justice wants Deutsche Bank to pay $14 billion to end an investigation into mortgage-backed securities, and the stock jumped Friday after a report that the bank could settle the case with a smaller payment. Deutsche Bank's U.S.-listed stock rose $1.61, or 14 percent, to $13.09. The stock has been pummeled this year and is trading near all-time lows.

Financial stocks tumbled Thursday afternoon following reports that some hedge funds were moving their business out of Deutsche Bank. On Friday, bank stocks and the broader market regained almost all of those losses.

Thooft said he does not think banks are in great danger, but he said there are causes for concern, including the health of Italy's banks. Meanwhile, with interest rates so low and regulation getting tighter, there are plenty of reasons for investors to avoid bank stocks.

That didn't stop the financial sector, the weakest sector in the market this year, from rallying on Friday. Among U.S. banks, JPMorgan Chase added 94 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $66.59 and Citigroup gained $1.43, or 3.1 percent, to $47.23.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 41 cents to $48.24 a barrel in New York, and it rose 8 percent over the last three days. Brent crude, the international standard, slipped 18 cents to $49.06 a barrel in London.

Oil prices surged this week after the nations of OPEC, which collectively produce more than one-third of the world's oil, surprised investors with an agreement on a small cut in production. Investors hope energy companies will book larger profits as a result. Chevron jumped $1.65, or 1.6 percent, to $102.92 and EOG Resources rose $1.66, or 1.7 percent, to $96.71.

Warehouse club operator Costco Wholesale jumped $5.02, or 3.4 percent, to $152.51 after it reported a profit that was larger than analysts expected. Companies that make and sell household necessities also climbed. Procter & Gamble gained $1.52, or 1.7 percent, to $89.75 and Wal-Mart rose $1.39, or 2 percent, to $72.12.

Cognizant Technology Solutions tumbled after the information technology consulting and outsourcing firm said it's investigating possible bribes paid to officials in India. Cognizant said it's looking into potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and has informed the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Cognizant also said its president Gordon Coburn resigned. The stock fell $7.37, or 13.4 percent, to $47.63.

Major stock indexes set records this quarter thanks mostly to tech stocks. The S&P 500 technology index climbed 12 percent over the last three months. Apple, the most valuable company in the S&P 500, surged 18 percent, partly on indications of strong sales for the newest iPhones. Microsoft, the next-largest company, rose 13 percent and another tech giant, Google parent Alphabet, leaped 14 percent.

Bond prices sank. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.60 percent from 1.56 percent. Stocks that pay high dividends, like utilities and real estate and phone companies, traded lower.

In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline picked up 2 cents to $1.49 a gallon. Heating oil rose 2 cents to $1.53 a gallon. Natural gas slipped 5 cents to $2.91 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold fell $8.90 to $1,317.10 an ounce. Silver rose 3 cents to $19.21 an ounce. Copper gained 2 cents to $2.21 a pound.

The dollar rose to 101.41 yen from 101.07 yen. The euro rose to $1.1237 from $1.1216.

Germany's DAX climbed 1 percent and France's CAC 40 added 0.1 percent. The FTSE 100 in Britain lost 0.3 percent. Major indexes in Asia slumped on concerns about the banking industry. Japan's Nikkei 225 slumped 1.5 percent and South Korea's Kospi fell 1.2 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index sank 1.9 percent.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Sharp-eyed lawyering resulted in a shorter prison term for the last of the defendants to be sentenced for stealing almost $4 million from First National Bank of Lawrence County, and it could bode well for her co-defendants.

Peggy Sutton, 61, received a 51-month sentence from U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker on Friday afternoon, six months shorter than the sentences Baker gave Brenda Montgomery on Thursday and Cindy Tate on Friday morning.

Sutton was the only one of the three who had promptly confessed to the 10-year conspiracy to steal cash from the bank vault, and she reportedly attempted suicide when the theft was discovered in April 2015. Her lawyer, Tim Dudley of Little Rock, was the first to contact federal prosecutors with an offer to plead guilty.

Unlike her co-conspirators, she sobbed as she addressed Baker and thanked the court for ordering mental health counseling that had helped her understand what she caused her "inexcusable" crime.

But her early acceptance of responsibility and cooperation with the investigation wasn't what persuaded Baker to give Sutton a shorter sentence. Instead, it was Dudley's questioning of a discrepancy between the calculation of the numeric offense level in the plea agreement hammered out in the spring and the calculation included in the pre-sentencing report by the federal probation officer.

The discrepancy had not been noted by Bill James, the Little Rock attorney who represented Montgomery, or by Tate's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Jegley agreed with Dudley's interpretation, and Judge Baker said she would give "the benefit of the bargain" to the defendant.

Jegley told the court that she would contact the attorneys for Montgomery and Tate, and Dudley suggested that the first two defendants would likely be resentenced to 51 months because the negotiations with federal prosecutors always contemplated identical deals.

All three were sentenced to three years of supervised release following their prison sentences, and each had agreed to be responsible for repaying a third of the $3.95 million that was stolen — almost $1.32 million each.

Even the longer sentences imposed on Montgomery and Tate were a disappointment to the family that controls First National Bank. In the three separate sentencing hearings, Virginia Smith Fields used strong language to describe the women who victimized the small-town bank that her grandfather, father and brother worked to build and preserve.

Her brother, Milton Smith, has been CEO of the bank since their father died unexpectedly in 1994. Now 49, he said he had known the three defendants since he was a child; each had worked at the bank at least 30 years.

But the Smith family dropped its request that Baker reject the conditional plea agreement after she accepted it in Montgomery's case on Thursday. The 57-month sentences that Baker gave Montgomery and Tate were the high end of the range that was contemplated by the plea deal, but Dudley argued that the range should have been 41-51 months after his client was given maximum credit for accepting responsibility.

Jegley said the negotiation was the same for all three.

It's not clear what became of the money, which was stolen in cash from the bank's main vault, although Fields suggested to the judge that Sutton had gambled away her ill-gotten gains.

The theft has shaken Walnut Ridge, other employees told the judge when she asked for oral impact statements from victims. Tammy Franks, senior vice president and head cashier, said the bank's approximately 60 employees were "a family that has been devastated" by the crime perpetrated by three women who were part of that family-like organization.

Another SVP, Lorra Whitmire, said she had bought stock in the bank that had offered excellent salaries and benefits, especially to women. "The price we have paid for credibility in our small community cannot be measured," she said.

Whitmire also told Judge Baker that the forensic audit that identified the $4 million theft had also uncovered sexual misconduct by Tate that resulted in the resignation of another bank officer. He was not named in court, and Milton Smith declined to identify him.

Another bank employee, Vicki Boothe, complained to Baker that Sutton had bullied, belittled and embarrassed her from the day she was hired as a teller in 2001, and the fallout from the theft had left her emotionally and physically exhausted and caused her home life to suffer.

The bank recovered $2.7 million from a private insurance policy, but Milton Smith pointed out to the court that the financial damage was not limited to the money stolen. The bank is bearing the expense of parallel civil litigation, and the loss has reduced shareholder dividends and bonuses and raises for employees.  

Montgomery's request to report to prison at the start of 2017, after the Christmas holidays, was denied, and she and Tate were both given 45 days to report. But Sutton asked to start her sentence as soon as possible, so she was ordered to report in 30 days if the federal Bureau of Prisons is ready for her that soon.  

LITTLE ROCK - Supporters of a ballot measure that would place limits on damages in medical lawsuits have asked Arkansas' highest court to dismiss one of two efforts to remove it from the November ballot.

Health Care Access for Arkansans argued in a motion filed Friday that a group challenging the proposal has no constitutional right to challenge the secretary of state's approval of petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

The motion comes just a day after a retired judge appointed by the state Supreme Court to review petitions said all of the signatures submitted could be disqualified if justices find the campaign did not submit written confirmation that canvassers passed criminal background checks.

Supporters argue that voters and taxpayers can challenge the sufficiency of ballot measures only by voting.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - Gov. Asa Hutchinson wants the heads of five state agencies to review water quality issues within the watershed of the Buffalo National River and make sure Arkansas has a means to preserve and protect it.

While the U.S. Department of Interior governs the free-flowing waterway, Hutchinson's "Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee" will address activity beyond the National Park Service boundaries. The Buffalo is a major tourist attraction, attracting thousands of nature-lovers annually.

The committee includes agency heads covering tourism, environmental quality, natural resources, health and agriculture. Hutchinson announced the creation of the committee Friday.

The governor says he wants the panel to use a science-based approach to improve or maintain water quality, and include data from a recent study looking at the impact of a hog-feeding operation near Mount Judea.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Arkansas bank deposits grew at a 7.5 percent clip in the year that ended June 30, handily beating the national growth rate and topping $60 billion for the first time as the number of separate bank charters and branch locations continued to decline.

More than $2 billion of the state's $4.28 billion in additional deposits flowed to Bank of the Ozarks, the fast-growing publicly traded bank headquartered in Little Rock. With Arkansas deposits of $5.42 billion, up 61 percent from $3.37 billion in mid-2015, Bank of the Ozarks moved from No. 7 last year to No. 2, passing Bank of America, Regions Bank, First Security Bank, Simmons Bank and Centennial Bank.

Arvest Bank still had the most Arkansas deposits as of June 30, $7.67 billion, but Bank of the Ozarks overtook Arvest as the largest bank chartered in Arkansas ranked by total assets when it completed two acquisitions in July.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. released its annual summary of deposits Friday. It is an accounting taken at midyear by the government agency that insures bank deposits. It is not a holistic report card on the health of a bank or of the banking industry, but it is the only official report that provides Arkansas-specific trend data for multistate banks like Arvest, Regions and Bank of America.

BOZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday morning. Its June 30 call report filed with the FDIC showed that its brokered deposits — bundled deposits that banks seek out to supplement "core" customer deposits in order to fund loan demand — had tripled from $501 million to $1.5 billion in 12 months.

Last year, when the summary of deposits showed a 22 percent growth in Arkansas deposits from mid-2014 to mid-2015, BOZ's chief operating officer, Tyler Vance, credited winning bids on public deposits from state agencies and municipalities across the state.

Below is a list of the 20 banks with the most in-state deposits. In-state mergers brought two of them into the top 20: Farmers & Merchants Bank of Stuttgart, which acquired Bank of Fayetteville in November, and Citizens Bank of Batesville, which acquired Parkway Bank of Rogers in December.

Those acquisitions explain why the total number of banks doing business in the state as of June 30, 127, was down by two from a year earlier. The number of separate bank branch locations, 1,354, was down by 11 from mid-2015. The number of branches has declined by 10 percent from the peak in mid-2008.

Top 20 Banks in Arkansas by Deposit

  Institution Name HQ
State
No. of Branches 2016 Deposits Change in Deposits (2015-16) Market Share
(June 2016)
Change in Market Share (2015-16)
1 Arvest Bank AR 117 $7,674,575 7.21% 12.63% -0.32%
2 Bank of the Ozarks AR 81 $5,417,588 60.96% 8.91% 49.50%
3 Bank of America NC 23 $4,193,480 4.23% 6.90% -3.09%
4 Regions Bank AL 95 $4,127,862 7.32% 6.79% -0.29%
5 Centennial Bank AR 80 $3,819,469 10.61% 6.28% 2.78%
6 Simmons Bank AR 85 $3,697,837 4.68% 6.08% -2.72%
7 First Security Bank AR 77 $3,616,454 -0.05% 5.95% -7.03%
8 BancorpSouth Bank MS 46 $1,637,464 0.02% 2.69% -7.24%
9 Bear State Bank AR 35 $1,226,888 6.32% 2.02% -0.98%
10 IberiaBank LA 23 $1,162,085 -6.78% 1.91% -13.57%
11 First National Bank of Fort Smith AR 18 $976,082 3.80% 1.61% -3.01%
12 U.S. Bank OH 42 $949,167 0.63% 1.56% -6.59%
13 Farmers Bank & Trust (Magnolia) AR 20 $936,693 3.53% 1.54% -3.75%
14 First National Bank (Paragould) AR 14 $863,680 15.22% 1.42% 6.77%
15 Farmers & Merchants Bank (Stuttgart)* AR 19 $811,880 2.78% 1.34% -4.29%
16 First Community Bank (Batesville) AR 13 $789,037 14.23% 1.30% 6.56%
17 Southern Bancorp Bank AR 24 $763,909 0.11% 1.26% -6.67%
18 Wells Fargo Bank SD 3 $615,417 2.48% 1.01% -4.72%
19 Citizens Bank (Batesville)** AR 18 $569,168 5.55% 0.94% -1.05%
20 Chambers Bank AR 18 $552,788 -4.46% 0.91% -10.78%

*Acquired Bank of Fayetteville on Nov. 30, 2015; 2015 deposits have been combined for comparison
**Acquired Parkway Bank of Rogers on Dec. 22, 2015; 2015 deposits have been combined for comparison
Dollars in thousands



American Fuel Cell & Coated Fabrics Co. of Magnolia announced this week that "a substantial portion of the workforce will remain employed" until November 2017 and "potentially beyond."

This news follows last week's announcement that Amfuel's plant in Magnolia would close as a new plant opens in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Cammie Hambrice, executive director of Magnolia Economic Development Corp., said between 225 and 250 are employed at the facility that is set to close. She said the organization has been working with the Amfuel management, which purchased the company in June 2015, by making resources available and bringing partners to the table to help with new equipment and relocation.

Those partners include the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions and Southern Arkansas University Tech.

"We were saddened" when Amfuel announced it would be closing the plant, Hambrice said, calling the announcement this week that the plant would continue into 2017 a surprise. 

"I'm very excited about it," she said.

Amfuel said its executives met with representatives from the United Steelworkers Local 607L on Tuesday to discuss the closure. 

"The discussions were fruitful, and the company and the union left the meeting committed to crafting a mutually acceptable plan and process that will keep as many workers employed in Magnolia as possible for as long as possible," according to a joint news release.

A timeline for the final decommissioning of the plant has not been determined.

"The union and Amfuel management have formed a cooperative partnership since the takeover in January," Michael Martin, a representative of the Steelworkers union, said in the news release. "As unfortunate as this turn of events is, we intend to continue our cooperative efforts to support our membership and to aid them to the best of our ability through this trying time."

Amfuel CEO Britt Gourley said the aging plant is falling apart. 

"We have emphasized a number of times that the walls of the Magnolia structure are essentially crumbling around us," Gourley said. "Only cooperation with the union and concerted effort and dedication of our employees has kept it standing for this long. 

"We remain committed to our employees, to our union partners, and to the Magnolia community, to thoroughly evaluate all of our options in Magnolia to keep as many people at work for as long as possible, and to minimize the unavoidable effects to the greatest extent possible."

The parties are scheduled to meet several more times in the coming weeks to continue negotiations.

"To comment on negotiations that are, by their nature, private is to really invite misunderstandings, mistrust and inconsistent messages," Gourley told Arkansas Business by email. "That all said, we will come forth with our union colleagues with additional press releases as we progress."

LITTLE ROCK - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 12 Arkansas counties as natural disaster areas due to losses caused by heavy rain, flooding and high winds Since April 1.

Thursday's designation by the USDA qualifies farmers in a dozen Arkansas counties for low interest emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency. Farmers in those counties have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for loans to help cover part of actual losses.

The counties are Carroll, Clay, Craighead, Independence, Jackson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Madison, Prairie, Randolph, White and Woodruff.

In addition to the emergency loan program, the FSA has a variety of other programs to help eligible farmers recover from adversity. Other programs that do not require a disaster declaration can also provide assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Virginia Smith Fields repeatedly turned to glare at Brenda Montgomery as she pleaded, unsuccessfully, with U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker to reject a plea deal under which Montgomery would spend less than five years in federal prison.

Fields talked about the small-town bank that her grandfather, father and brother worked to build and preserve, and she vented her fury at the first of three defendants to be sentenced for her role in stealing nearly $4 million from First National Bank of Lawrence County over the course of 10 years.

Fields, of Austin, Texas, described Montgomery as a "petty, delusional manipulator" and a "sociopathic narcissist of the highest order," and complained that Montgomery had shown no remorse and paid no restitution since the theft was discovered in April 2015.

Instead, Fields said Montgomery, who was 57 when she offered her guilty plea in May, had used stolen money to hire a high-priced lawyer — Bill James of Little Rock — and even had the nerve to ask the court for probation rather than a prison sentence.

She asked Baker to reject the plea deal and to let a jury trial determine Montgomery's punishment, which could have been up to 30 years in prison.

Fields' brother, Milton Smith, CEO of the bank at Walnut Ridge since their father died unexpectedly in 1994, also asked Baker to reject the conditional plea deal that Montgomery and her co-defendants, Cindy Tate and Peggy Sutton, entered with federal prosecutors.

Smith, 49, said he had known all three of the defendants since he was a child — Montgomery had worked for the bank for 35 years, and the three had combined tenure at the bank of nearly a century. Yet none of the three has paid any restitution, and Smith told Arkansas Business that only Sutton had expressed any remorse to him personally.

The losses that exceeded the amount stolen — lost dividends, legal and accounting expenses — were compounded, he told the judge, by an "emotional toll" that was "difficult to describe."

Montgomery, however, told Baker that she felt the "deepest remorse for my crime" and for letting down her husband, coworkers and friends. And James said a letter Montgomery wrote asking to be sentenced to probation — a violation of the plea agreement, which anticipated 41 to 57 months in prison — was a mistake that had been withdrawn.

Baker disappointed the Smith siblings by accepting the plea agreement, but she did sentence Montgomery to the 57-month maximum contemplated by the deal. That will be followed by three years of supervised release.

Montgomery agreed to pay restitution of almost $1.32 million — a third of the $3.95 million she, Tate and Sutton admitted stealing during the course of a 10-year conspiracy.

James asked that his client be allowed to report to prison after the Christmas holidays, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Jegley said she would not object to giving Montgomery 60 days to report. But Baker said she thought 45 days was adequate and ordered Montgomery to report to prison on Nov. 14.

Tate and Sutton are scheduled to be sentenced Friday, Tate at 10:45 a.m. and Sutton at 1:30 p.m. Sutton's attorney, Tim Dudley of Little Rock, attended the sentencing hearing and said he expected his client to receive the same sentence.

The exact nature of the embezzlement was not discussed at Thursday's hearing. In a press release announcing the conditional pleas by the three defendants in May, federal prosecutors said the three stole money from the vault at the main bank office and would transfer cash from branches to cover the shortage when Tate, as head cashier, got advance notice of internal audits.

But Smith said Thursday that the cover-up involved bookkeeping entries, although there may have been some cash transfers as well.

Tate was 57 as of May, and Sutton, a former teller, was 61. In her impassioned statement to Judge Baker, Virginia Fields said Montgomery knew that Sutton was going to attempt suicide when a surprise audit uncovered the shortage, but didn't report it to authorities.

Smith confirmed that Sutton had made a suicide attempt, but he said rumors of a suicide pact by all three women or a plan to shift the blame to Sutton after she killed herself were never confirmed.

LITTLE ROCK - A federal judge on Thursday temporarily prohibited Arkansas from blocking Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, expanding her order requiring the state to continue paying for services for three patients who had sued over the move.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a preliminary injunction preventing Arkansas from suspending payments to Planned Parenthood for any services to Medicaid patients in the state. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year terminated the organization's Medicaid contract because of secretly recorded videos made by an anti-abortion group.

Previously: How Planned Parenthood has been successful in court when states made similar attacks on funding.

Baker last year had ordered the state to continue paying for services for three women who sued over the defunding move, and Planned Parenthood asked her to expand that decision to cover any Medicaid patients who want to obtain health care services through the organization. The state has appealed that ruling covering the three patients to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Baker ruled Thursday that any future Medicaid patients who seek services at Planned Parenthood would suffer irreparable harm if she didn't expand that order.

"Should the court fail to issue injunctive relief, members of the patient class will be denied their choice of provider for family planning services," she wrote.

Planned Parenthood praised the ruling.

"This is a win for the Arkansans who rely on Planned Parenthood of the Heartland for birth control, cancer screenings, and other essential health care," Suzanna de Baca, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said in a statement. "Every person deserves access to quality, affordable health care from the provider they know and trust, and today, the court recognized that."

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge did not have an immediate comment on the ruling.

The state has said Planned Parenthood received $51,000 in Medicaid funds in the fiscal year before Hutchinson's decision to terminate the contract. None of the money paid for abortions. Baker last year had initially blocked the defunding move, but later narrowed her order to the three patients.

Arkansas is among several states that tried to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood. Republican lawmakers and governors around the country targeted the organization after several videos were released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress. The center said the videos showed that Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue for profit.

Planned Parenthood said the videos were heavily edited and denied seeking any payments beyond legally permitted reimbursement of costs. The organization, in an effort to squelch the controversy, announced last year it would no longer accept reimbursement for the cost of providing the tissue to researchers. A federal appeals court earlier this month upheld a judge's injunction blocking Louisiana from cutting off funding to the organization.

A Texas grand jury that looked into the videos cleared Planned Parenthood in January of misusing fetal tissue and indicted anti-abortion activists involved in making the videos. Prosecutors later dropped those charges, agreeing with defense attorneys that the grand jury exceeded its authority by investigating the activists.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, said Thursday that it is investing $27 million to expand production capacity at its case-ready beef and pork plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The project will add 55,000 SF for new production lines and warehouse space, as well as 350 jobs, bringing total employment there to more than 1,400.  

The company said the move will increase the plant's capacity to produce fresh ground beef, beef and pork cuts, and meal kits for distribution to retail grocers. The expansion is underway and scheduled to be complete in July. 

Tyson Foods operates three plants in the area. The company has a pepperoni plant in Council Bluffs and a bacon plant in Omaha. In all, Tyson Foods employs about 2,000 people in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area.

"This project is great news for our plant, our community and our customers," said Steve Friedrichsen, complex manager of the Council Bluffs case-ready plant. "We are committed to the Council Bluffs community and look forward adding more jobs with this expansion, while also meeting the growing demand for case-ready products."

The Council Bluffs case-ready plant generated an annual payroll of $37 million in 2015, the company said.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is issuing new nursing home standards that reverse a longstanding industry practice and preserve the rights of patients to sue in cases of abuse or neglect.

Currently, many nursing homes require patients seeking admission to first agree to resolve disputes through binding arbitration, relinquishing the court system.

The industry argued that arbitration —done properly— can keep costs down for all patients by avoiding large jury awards. Consumer advocates and trial lawyers countered that requiring such agreements as a condition of admission coerced vulnerable patients and families into signing away their rights.

Nursing homes will still be able to offer arbitration as a voluntary option after a problem arises.

Effective Nov. 28, the requirement is part of the first major rewrite of nursing home rules in 25 years.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Sage Partners, a commercial real estate firm with offices in Fayetteville, Little Rock, Rogers and Bentonville, announced this week the purchase of the Colony West Shopping Center in Little Rock for $7.1 million.

The shopping center was previously owned by Doyle Rogers Family LP. The property was sold to Colony West Group LLC, whose registered agent is Jason N. Bramlett of Fayetteville. Sage Partners will lease and manage the shopping center.

The 87,000-SF retail center sits on about seven acres located at the intersection at Rodney Parham Road and I-430 in Little Rock. Anchored by Kroger, Colony West includes tenants such as Simmons Bank and Chainwheel.

According to T.J. Lefler of Sage Partners, there are currently three vacancies at the shopping center — about 10,000 SF of space.

"This property has been a shopping destination in Little Rock for over 40 years," Lefler said. "We are thrilled to have another quality asset in Little Rock with great partners."

Lefler said the main appeal of the property was its location and the tenants. He said they've already added a tenant since the purchase.

"I think it's a good mix of tenants there that I don't think are going anywhere," Lefler said. "Kroger is a great anchor, some tenants have three- to 10-year leases, and all of the tenants we interviewed have been there for a very long time and they were very happy."

Lefler said there are some minor renovations planned, mainly to enhance the cosmetic features including landscaping and the parking lot.

A TEDx event on Friday in Little Rock will feature 13 speakers from a variety of professions and industries.

The event begins at 8 a.m. at the Ron Robinson Theater in the River Market District.

TEDx events are intentionally small. They're designed to be intimate events that provoke discussion and promote connection. TED is a nonprofit and the TEDx events are local, self-organized events that are designed to be similar to TED events.

The theme of this year's TEDxMarkhamSt is "New Beginnings."

Speakers at TEDxMarkhamSt include:

  • Julien Mirivel - associate professor of speech communication and interim associate dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Michael Moore - vice president for academic affairs for the University of Arkansas System and chief academic officer/COO for eVersity
  • Yang Lou-Branch - senior GIS analyst at Arkansas Economic Development Commission/owner and architectural illustrator at Y Illustrations
  • Christina Littlejohn - executive director of Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
  • Michael Watson - founder of The Watson Foundation and the Watson Institute
  • Deni Bechard - author and activist
  • Holly Fish - director of human resources and branding for EGP PLLC Certified Public Accountants & Consultants
  • Ana Kilani - founder and CEO of Greenhaus x Sustainable
  • Douglas Hutchings - CEO of Picasolar Inc.
  • Rupa Dash - co-founder and CEO of World Woman Foundation
  • Nicole Hart - CEO of ARVets
  • Tim Whitley - president and co-founder of Team SI
  • Carolina Cruz-Neira - professor and director of the Emerging Analytics Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Visit the TEDxMarkhamSt website for more information. Seating is limited but tickets are still available for the event and can be purchased online. If tickets are still available Friday they will be available for purchase at the door. 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy expanded at a slightly faster pace in the spring than previously reported, aided by new-found strength in business construction.

The Commerce Department said Thursday the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy, expanded at an annual pace of 1.4 percent in the April-June quarter. That is up from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent growth. Much of the upward revision reflected an increase in spending on structures such as office buildings.

The modest second quarter gain followed weaker readings of 0.8 percent GDP growth in the first quarter and 0.9 percent in the final three months of last year. Economists, however, believe the economy has accelerated in the current quarter, helped by strong consumer spending.

"Because this revision was largely due to new June data, this suggests that the quarter ended stronger than it started," said Steven Wood of Contingent Macro Research.

The latest GDP reading marked the government's third and final look at the second quarter.

Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, grew at a 4.3 percent rate in the second quarter. That is down slightly from a previous estimate of 4.4 percent but still the best showing since late 2014.

The economy slowed sharply in the fourth quarter of last year, and GDP growth has averaged just 1 percent over the past nine months. Much of that weakness reflected a sharp slowdown in the growth of inventories as businesses with unsold goods cut back on restocking their store shelves.

But economists believe the inventory correction has run its course, and inventory restocking will help fuel growth in the second half of this year.

Analysts at Macroeconomic Advisers are forecasting that growth will rebound to 3 percent in the current July-September quarter. They are forecasting a solid 2.4 percent increase in GDP for the final three months of this year.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, in an appearance before Congress Wednesday, indicated that the central bank is still on track to boost its key policy rate by the end of this year. The Fed has left the rate unchanged so far this year in response to the weaker-than-expected economic growth both in the United States and the global economy.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - The Nature Conservancy and BHP Billiton say a donation from the company will help improve water quality in Arkansas and aid conservation efforts near Houston.

A $14 million donation targets riverfront property and forestland in the two states. The selected sites are Greers Ferry Lake watershed in Arkansas and the Columbia Bottomlands in Texas. In Texas, the Nature Conservancy has purchased nearly 1,900 acres of forested land on the Brazos and San Bernard rivers. The bottomlands are a major stopover for migratory birds.

Funds have also been used to buy 1,840 acres on the upper Little Red River. The area has more than 80 80 native fish and aquatic species, including some found nowhere else.

The Nature Conservancy and BHP Billiton announced the work Thursday.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

WASHINGTON — Fewer Americans signed contracts to buy homes in August, as a shortage of properties for sale is weighing on the market.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index fell 2.4 percent last month to 108.5, its lowest reading since January. The number of signed contracts slumped sharply in the South, the nation's largest housing market. But pending sales improved in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

Home purchases and prices have risen much of this year but a slowdown surfaced in August as a lack of inventory has hurt the market. Would-be buyers are confronting increasingly limited choices and rising prices, offsetting the benefits of low mortgage rates.

Pending sales contracts are a barometer of future purchases — a sign that sales levels might fall in the coming months. A sale is typically completed a month or two after a contract is signed.

Completed sales dipped 0.9 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million, the Realtors said last week. Still, home sales up 3 percent so far this year.

But increased demand has drained the market of sales listings.

Inventory has plummeted 10.1 percent from a year ago to 2.04 million homes. This shortage has prompted sales prices to climb at a 5.1 percent annual clip to a median of $240,200 in August.

Affordability is emerging as a major obstacle despite low 30-year mortgage rates averaging less than 4 percent.

A stunning 24 percent of county housing markets are unaffordable, meaning that there is a historically high median cost of buying relative to average wages, according to a new report by ATTOM Data Solutions, a housing data provider. That figure is up from 19 percent a year ago.

The markets with problematically high prices relative to historic averages include Houston, Brooklyn, Dallas and San Antonio.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - A retired judge appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to review petitions submitted for a measure limiting medical lawsuit damages said Wednesday that all of the approved signatures could be invalidated, a move that would disqualify the measure from the November ballot.

The campaign behind the proposed constitutional amendment didn't certify in writing that its paid canvassers had passed a criminal background check, retired Judge J.W. Looney said in a report, adding that the violation could be a "material defect and disallow the counting of all signatures" that had been approved by election officials.

The proposed amendment would allow the Legislature to cap non-economic damages awarded for medical injury against health care providers at a minimum of $250,000.

The high court is considering two lawsuits attempting to block votes on the proposal in November. The Committee to Protect Arkansas Families, which filed the suit that prompted Looney's report, is challenging the measure's petitions and its language.

"The corporate nursing home owners will stop at nothing in their quest for higher profits, including blatantly violating the law to try and pass a constitutional amendment to protect themselves," committee director Martha Deaver said in a statement. "The special master's report calls out the sponsor's blatant disregard for the law when trying to amend our state's constitution."

The group behind the proposed amendment has argued the limits are needed to control health care costs and said Wednesday that it worked carefully to honor the petition process. Looney wrote the group's sponsor said he made "verbal" certifications of the background checks..

"We are confident that the Supreme Court will respect the will of the people and keep Issue 4 on the ballot this November," Chase Dugger, executive director of Health Care Access for Arkansans, said in an email. "Reforms like Issue 4 have been put in place in half the states across the nation and have led to greater access to doctors and better care. Arkansas doesn't need to be left behind."

Earlier this year, election officials verified there were 93,102 signatures from registered voters, more than the 84,859 required to qualify for the ballot.

But Looney said 1,872 of the signatures should be tossed for other violations, including canvassers who hadn't submitted their names to the state before collecting signatures. He also said another 10,764 signatures could be invalidated if justices rule that the campaign and the firm it hired to gather signatures violated the law by using a third party for background checks.

He also recommended several hundred signatures by the group that had been rejected by the state be counted.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and four business leaders spoke out Wednesday against two proposals that would legalize marijuana use by those with certain medical conditions. 

Griffin, speaking at a news conference at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, said legalizing marijuana will not only negatively affect public safety, but also the quality of products made in Arkansas.

He said the state is continuing to compete for good-paying and sustainable jobs that are attracted by a skilled, focused and alert workforce.

Griffin said that if voters approve either proposal, Arkansas would lose its competitive advantage over other states where companies have trouble hiring because they can't find enough people who can pass drug tests.

He added employers want to pursue excellence and "you can pursue excellence better drug free."

Hutchinson, a former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the marijuana proposals would create potential for abuse by those without medical ailments who could obtain the drug more easily if it's legal for medical use.

Both proposals, which voters might face on the November ballot, have been challenged in court. On Tuesday, a retired Arkansas judge appointed by the state Supreme Court ruled in one of the challenges, saying more than enough valid signatures were submitted for one of the proposals. 

Employee Safety, Hiring Issues

Joe Carter, CEO of asbestos abatement company Snyder Environmental Inc. in North Little Rock, said he's concerned about legalization increasing the liability insurance premiums businesses pay and the cost of workers' compensation, as well as negatively effects on employee safety.

He also said the proposal also includes an anti-discrimination clause that would prevent him from firing employees who test positive for marijuana.  

"This is going to provide a tremendous amount of economic incentive for me to employ Texans and other people who do not have this anti-discrimination protection for the use of medical marijuana," Carter said.

Grady Harvel, president and COO of AFCO Steel Inc. of Little Rock, said his company had experienced a 300 percent increase in terminations for failed drug tests in Colorado since that state legalized marijuana for both recreational and medical use.

The company also has a facility in Van Buren.

Harvel said AFCO conducts pre-employment and random drug screenings because its workers use heavy equipment to lift large pieces of steel every day. 

"One moment of inattention in our building could create a very serious accident or death," he said.

Harvel said the drug screenings keep all AFCO employees safe, but legal advisers have told the company it could not implement its drug policies in their current form if voters approve the proposal.

Doug Wasson, president and CEO of Kinco Constructors in Little Rock, said his company conducts pre-employment, random and post-absence drug screenings and would not be able to continue its policy if medical marijuana is legalized in Arkansas.

He said the proposals pose a threat to public safety because Kinco's employees, and others in the construction industry, affect every aspect of people's lives by working on hospitals, schools, roads, water lines and more.

Butch Rice, president and CEO of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe, said his industry already faces a shortage of qualified drivers and legalizing marijuana would make the situation worse. The industry has a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, as drivers cross state lines and must be safe while on the road.

He added that he was concerned about non-commercial drivers under the influence of marijuana causing accidents that involve truck drivers, who would then be working in an unsafe environment.

Rice is also chairman of the Arkansas Trucking Association Board, which announced on Wednesday its opposition to both medical marijuana proposals because it believes passage of either would reduce the pool of qualified job candidates and result in unintended legal and safety consequences for businesses and the public.

No Use On the Job

David Couch, spokesman for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, told Arkansas Business that his proposal specifically prohibits the use of medical marijuana while someone is on the job.

He said marijuana would be treated the same as other medicines, such as Oxycontin, in that regard. 

Couch added that he was surprised by the opposition of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. He said legalization could bring thousands of new jobs to the state and sales of marijuana are expected to have a nationwide economic impact of $44 billion by 2020 if current trends continue.

Ryan Denham, the deputy director for the other medical marijuana campaign, Arkansans for Compassionate Care, told The Associated Press that fears about workforce problems hasn't been a problem in the 25 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

"They don't have these types of societal or workforce problems, and largely it's been a net positive for the state economies," Denham told reporters.

 

The unemployment rate in the Little Rock zone averaged 3.8 percent in the second quarter, its lowest rate on record according to the latest Little Rock Burgundy Book

The Fayetteville MSA unemployment rate remained the lowest in the zone at 2.8 percent, followed by the Little Rock MSA rate at 3.4 percent, according to the report, released Wednesday.

The Burgundy Book is a quarterly review of economic information by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The St. Louis district's Little Rock zone includes the majority of Arkansas, except the northeast part of the state. The population in the zone is about 2.5 million, including 710,000 who live in the Little Rock metropolitan statistical area.

More: See the complete report.

According to the report, payroll employment growth remained positive across the zone in the second quarter with business contacts suggesting that nominal wages were increasing. Almost two-thirds of respondents reported that wages were higher or slightly higher in the third quarter compared with the same period last year.

Manufacturing employment declined slightly across the zone in the second quarter, but employment in the nondurable goods sector grew by 2.1 percent.

The report said employment growth in the transportation sector slowed sharply from 3.3 percent last quarter to 0.2 percent. Despite the slow job growth, transportation contacts continued to report strong demand for truck drivers.

"Truck drivers continue to be in high demand. Some companies struggle to hire new drivers after the retirement of experienced drivers," a southwest Arkansas contact said in the report.

Related: Arkansas Trucking Association looks to college for driver help.

Growth in home sales increased by more than 15 percent over sales in the second quarter of 2015. Construction activity was also strong and building permits increased at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole.

In the Little Rock zone, credit card delinquency has continued to accelerate and households slightly increased their mortgage debt balances.

In auto sales, dealers reported that sales fell short of expectations; however, auto debt growth remained high.

In the agriculture industry, consistent rain and increased acreage are expected to result in large production increases for corn, cotton, and rice. Sorghum and soybeans are both expected to experience production declines, with sorghum production projected to be less than 10 percent of last year’s; this is the result of a sorghum price drop and pest issues.

HONG KONG/MUMBAI - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is in talks to buy a minority stake in India's largest e-commerce firm Flipkart, two sources familiar with the matter said, as the world's biggest retailer aims to get a slice of a fast-growing online retail market.

One of the sources said the U.S. retailer was looking to invest between $750 million and $1 billion in Flipkart, but the final value and size of the stake would depend on the outcome of talks about the Indian company's overall valuation.

He added Wal-Mart and Flipkart were also contemplating a collaboration that would see them leverage each other's expertise in retail and supply chains in India.

Both sources declined to be identified because the talks are preliminary and have not been made public. Wal-Mart in India and Flipkart declined to comment.

A deal would pit Wal-Mart against U.S. rival Amazon, which has been expanding rapidly in the South Asian country's retail market and is now Flipkart's biggest competitor. Wal-Mart only operates wholesale stores in India.

"With Amazon slowly taking a lead over the Indian players, all these unicorns including Flipkart and Snapdeal are out there in the market to raise funds," the source said.

"Companies like Wal-Mart would be more long-term investors, but there aren't too many like them to write such big cheques."

Flipkart has been valued at about $11.5 billion, local media reported last month, citing a U.S. regulatory filing from investor Valic, a division of American International Group Inc.

The company was valued at as much as $15 billion earlier this year, but cut-throat competition, reduced private funding, and elusive profitability is putting pressure on e-commerce players in India.

Launched in 2007 by two former Amazon employees, Flipkart sells everything from cellphones to suitcases and cosmetics. Current investors include Tiger Global Management and Accel Partners.

Flipkart and smaller rival Snapdeal have been looking to raise fresh capital to compete with deep-pocketed Amazon in an industry that relies on steep discounts on products and heavy spending on marketing, technology and delivery networks to lure customers.

India's Economic Times newspaper, which first reported the talks on Tuesday, said a meeting between the two sides was scheduled for this week.

Wal-Mart agreed in June to take a 5 percent stake in China's JD.com, giving the U.S. firm a ringside seat in JD.com's bitter rivalry with Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

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