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U.S. consumer sentiment falls in March

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. consumer sentiment fell in March as consumers were less hopeful about the prospects for the overall economy, a survey released on Friday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan’s final March reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment came in at 80.0, up a tick from the preliminary 79.9 March reading but down from an 81.6 the month before.

It was slightly below the median forecast of 80.5 among economists polled by Reuters.

“Current conditions in the overall economy were reported by consumers to have recently weakened, and long term prospects for the economy softened,” survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

The survey’s barometer of current economic conditions fell to 95.7 from the preliminary 96.1 reading but edged up from the 95.4 reading in the prior month. Expectations called for a 96.3 reading.

The survey’s gauge of consumer expectations slipped to 70.0 from the 72.7 in February, but rose from the preliminary 69.4, and was just below an expected 70.2.

The survey’s one-year inflation expectation remained unchanged at 3.2 percent from both the February and preliminary March readings, while the survey’s five-year inflation outlook was also unmoved at 2.9 percent.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)

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Airbus, Bank of China team up on financing and aircraft leasing

PARIS (Reuters) – Airbus Group (AIR.PA) said on Friday it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Bank of China (601988.SS) to cooperate on financing operations and aircraft management.

Both parties will cooperate on domestic and international settlement, global cash management and treasury operations as well as loan and trade financing, aircraft leasing, aircraft asset management, hedging and corporate loans.

“The agreement will provide broader financing options to Airbus Group’s customers, including various currency options, and develop corporate and structured finance opportunities in China and globally,” Airbus said in a statement.

(Reporting by Natalie Huet)

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Wall St. opens up on China stimulus bets

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. stocks rose at the open on Friday lifted by remarks from China’s Premier Li Keqiang that the Chinese government was ready to take steps to support its economy.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI rose 43.42 points or 0.27 percent, to 16,307.65, the SP 500 .SPX gained 6.47 points, or 0.35 percent, to 1,855.51 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC added 13.991 points, or 0.34 percent, to 4,165.224.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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U.S. regulator closes investigation into Tesla Model S sedan fires

(Reuters) – U.S. safety regulators said they had closed an investigation into electric sports car maker Tesla Motors Inc’s (TSLA.O) popular Model S sedans.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigations into the company’s Model S luxury electric cars in November after three cars caught fire.

“A defect trend has not been identified,” the regulator said on its website.

“The closing of the investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist.”

(Reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bangalore; Editing by Kirti Pandey)

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Amid ruins of Greek economy, green shoots emerge

ATHENS (Reuters) – On a cold day in January, car dealer Dimitris Antonopoulos handed over the keys of a brand new, white Jaguar worth 122,000 euros ($167,600), the first one sold in Greece in more than a year amid signs that a brutal recession might be easing.

Businesses say they have started to see a few, still tender green shoots rising out of the economy’s ruins – raising hopes that Greece’s freefall has finally hit bottom, though few are willing to bet on a full recovery.

A raft of positive economic data in recent weeks has lent credence to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s declaration that Greece has turned a corner, and evidence on the ground suggests Europe’s most troubled economy might be enjoying more than a statistical bounce.

As Athens gears up to host an informal meeting of EU finance ministers next week, the mood in Antonopoulos’s Tzortzis SA Jaguar-Land Rover showroom is brightening.

“It has been psychologically tough, going to work to face a sales drought. The phones started ringing again, but it’s too early to say we have turned the corner,” Antonopoulos said.

“Much will depend on whether growth returns. Our clients are mostly business people and they are still quite reserved.”

Elsewhere in Athens, cranes are busy building a new opera house and national library centre near the capital’s coast, a regeneration project funded by the foundation of late shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos and designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Some stalled motorway projects have resumed, helped by the unblocking of EU funds.

Drilling machines are also working on a new subway line that will link the city’s centre with the main port Piraeus.

On the corporate front, the country’s biggest cement maker Titan (TTNr.AT), last month said resuming such state-funded projects would boost demand for cement in Greece this year for the first time since 2006.

OTE (OTEr.AT), Greece’s biggest phone company, saw sales rise for the first time in five years in the fourth quarter of 2013. Hellenic Petroleum (HEPr.AT) said domestic fuel demand rose in the same period for the first time in 18 quarters.


The government, which predicts that the 182 billion euro economy will finally grow – albeit a mild 0.6 percent – this year, has already spoken of a “Greek success story” and is mulling a return to the bond markets in the coming weeks.

Economists remain cautious, given the fragility of the ruling coalition backing Greece’s EU/IMF bailout and a jobless rate stuck near 28 percent.

“The jury is still out on whether Greece will see a meaningful pick up in exports and households remain pessimistic about their personal finances, meaning little prospect of a big spending rise,” said Ben May at Capital Economics.

Back in Greece’s car showrooms, sales began a five-year slide in 2008 but turned positive in September last year, albeit from depressed levels.

Antonopoulos’s January transaction – the first Greek sale of a Jaguar in more than a year according to registration data collected by statistics service ELSTAT – can only have helped.

February was the sixth month in a row of rising sales, thanks in part to higher demand for used cars and corporate sales as rental firms expand fleets on strong tourism bookings.

New and used cars registrations remain a fraction of their pre-crisis levels. There were 78,630 of them last year compared to 347,354 in 2008 when the recession started, as cuts and taxes to shore up public finances squeezed household budgets.

But the premium car segment – which tends to be the first to signal an oncoming slump and the first to show signs of recovery – has given some grounds for muted optimism after six years of a brutal recession that shrank overall output by a quarter.

Some of the higher-end lines from premium brands like BMW (BMWG.DE) and Mercedes (DAIGn.DE) showed higher numbers this year, even though figures remain volatile and a far cry from pre-crisis levels. Only eight luxury Porsche (PSHG_p.DE) cars were sold in Greece last year, down from 457 in 2008.

Where things are booming is the used car segment – in years past, one new car was sold for every two used ones but the crisis has turned the ratio to about one-to-eight.

“Greeks are opting for cheaper solutions. There is more activity in used cars,” said Stelios Syristatidis, sales manager at Karenta, a VW-Audi dealer.

For now, it is all enough to hearten potential customers like plumber Costas Vihos.

“I have been spending money to keep my 13-year old clunker running but it’s time to part. I’m in the market for a new car with a bit of financing,” he said as he checked out new models at a VW showroom. “How much worse can things get?” ($1 = 0.7278 euros)

(Editing by Deepa Babington and Andrew Heavens)

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Nine partners quit Patton Boggs amid merger talks

(Reuters) – In the latest defections to hit Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs, nine partners are leaving the firm, according to several sources with direct knowledge of the moves.

The departures come as the 350-lawyer Patton Boggs is in merger talks with the larger Squire Sanders and it deals with ongoing financial woes.

Two of the partners are among the top dozen performing lawyers at the firm, according to one of the sources, who is familiar with Patton Boggs but did not want to be named. One of the parting lawyers, Benjamin Chew, led the commercial litigation and antitrust group, while Kevin Boardman had been on the firm’s strategic planning committee.

According to the sources, Boardman and five other partners are moving to McGuireWoods to open a Dallas office for the Virginia firm, while Chew and another partner have accepted offers at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

The departing partners either declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Patton Boggs managing partner Edward Newberry did not respond to several requests for comment. He told the National Law Journal earlier this month that he expected between 15 and 20 partners to leave as the result of a forced reduction of lawyers at the firm.

“There are people we’ve asked to leave who have not left yet,” he said in a March 8 email to Reuters, referring to a number of layoffs and dismissals that the firm conducted in 2013.

Last summer, shortly after Patton Boggs announced there would be firm-wide layoffs, 17 partners simultaneously announced their exit.

After the latest moves, Patton Boggs has 166 partners left, according to the firm’s website. The firm staffed as many as 600 lawyers and consultants in 2011, but the figure has fallen to about 350, according to law firm tracking company Leopard Solutions.

Revenue at Patton Boggs dropped by 12 percent from 2012 to 2013, to $278 million, according to figures in an internal memo obtained by Reuters in January, and the firm recently hired restructuring advisers.

On February 26 the firm announced it was in merger talks – for at least the third time with another law firm in the last six months – with the larger firm Squire Sanders.

The merger talks are considered by former Patton Boggs lawyers and legal experts as a “make-or-break” deal for the firm because of its growing financial strain.

The nine exiting partners come from various Patton Boggs practice areas, including private equity, intellectual property, litigation and antitrust, according to sources close to Patton Boggs who did not want to be named.

(Reporting By Casey Sullivan; Editing by Ted Botha and Tom Brown)

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U.S. consumers step up spending in February, inflation remains muted

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer spending rose in February, in the latest sign that the economy was regaining strength after being chilled by bad weather.

The Commerce Department said on Friday that consumer spending increased 0.3 percent last month after rising by a revised 0.2 percent in January. Spending was previously reported to have increased 0.4 percent in January.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rising 0.3 percent in February.

The dollar rose to a session high against the yen after the data. U.S. stock index futures were little changed.

Spending in February was lifted by an increase in services consumption, likely because of increased demand for health care and utilities.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending rose 0.2 percent in February after gaining 0.1 percent in January.

This so-called real spending measure goes into the calculation of gross domestic product. Consumer spending rose at its fastest pace in three years in the fourth quarter, helping to lift economic growth to an annualized pace of 2.6 percent during the period.

A combination of bad weather, a slow pace of inventory accumulation by businesses, the expiration of long-term unemployment benefits and cuts to food stamps is expected to hold back growth to around a 2 percent rate in the first quarter.

But a rebound is expected as these factors fade.

Income rose 0.3 percent last month after rising by the same margin in January. It continues to be supported by government transfers for healthcare payments.

Income at the disposal of households after adjusting for inflation rose 0.3 percent. The saving rate, which is the percentage of disposable income households are socking away, rose to 4.3 percent last month from 4.2 percent in January.

There were few signs of inflation pressure in February. A price index for consumer spending edged up 0.1 percent for a second straight month in February.

Prices in February rose 0.9 percent from a year ago, compared to a 1.2 percent advance in January over the previous 12 months. February’s increase was the smallest since October.

Excluding food and energy, the price index for consumer spending rose 0.1 percent for an eighth straight month. Core prices were up 1.1 percent from a year ago, after rising by the same margin in January.

Both inflation measures remain stuck below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. That suggests the Fed, which is expected to wrap up its monthly bond purchases by the end of 2014, will only gradually raise interest rates when it starts tightening monetary policy.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

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Lufthansa pilots announce three-day strike for next week

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Pilots at Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), Germany’s largest airline, will hold a three-day strike from April 2 to April 4, their union said on Friday, as they seek to pressure the German airline in pay and contract negotiations.

The strike, which will run from midnight on April 2 until 11:59 p.m. (2159 GMT) on April 4, will likely result in the cancellation of hundreds of flights, and will be the third strike to hit Frankfurt, Europe’s third largest hub and Lufthansa’s home base, within six weeks.

The dispute is over pay increases and so-called ‘transition contracts’ awarded to pilots retiring before the legal pension age officially kicks in.

Union Vereinigung Cockpit, which represents around 5,400 Lufthansa pilots, said on Friday it had tried to offer suggestions to resolve the pay row but that the airline had not taken up the offer seriously.

“We won’t let ourselves be given the run-around by Lufthansa,” VC board member Ilona Ritter said in a statement on Friday.

More than 99 percent of the pilots had voted in favor of strike action to resolve the transition contract issue in a ballot.

VC said it would not strike during the Easter school holiday period, which starts on April 14 across most of Germany.

A spokesman for Lufthansa said the airline could not immediately comment.

Lufthansa had cancelled a third of its around 1,800 services on Thursday due to a strike by public sector workers employed in areas such as baggage handling at German airports.

That strike came after industrial action by security staff had caused thousands of passengers to miss their flights at the end of February.

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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Euro zone banks slow crisis loan returns as extra cash falls

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The pace at which euro zone banks are repaying their crisis loans to the European Central Bank has slowed significantly as extra cash in the system reaches critically low levels.

Banks will return 1.558 billion euros ($2.14 billion) to the ECB on April 2, a lot less than this week’s repayments of 18.909 billion euros and also far below the 9 billion forecast in a Reuters poll. ECB/REFI

Over the past three weeks, banks repaid in total around 40 billion euros, driven in part by the expiry of some of the sovereign bonds that they had bought with the cheap money. Lenders have also been shaping up their balance sheets for the review the ECB is making of their assets before it takes over banking supervision.

This meant that excess liquidity – the amount of money banks have beyond what they need for their day-to-day operations – fell to 104 billion euros on Friday, the lowest since late 2011.

It peaked in early 2012 at around 800 billion euros.

Overnight bank-to-bank borrowing costs are expected to move up once excess liquidity drops below a certain level, seen between 80 billion and 100 billion euros.

“It becomes a situation now, where the level of excess liquidity will have an effect on EONIA and this is a reason for banks to repay less,” said a money market trader who asked not to be named.

The main gauge of overnight money market costs, EONIA stood at 0.171 percent on Wednesday compared with 0.169 percent earlier this week.

“We expect EONIA to rise to around 0.20 percent next week,” the trader said.

This development makes it more expensive for banks to get overnight funding and more attractive for them to hold on to the cheap long-term ECB loans.

The ECB lent banks more than one trillion euros in three-year loans during the euro zone’s debt crisis, in December 2011 and February 2012, to help lenders ride out funding constraints.

Since January of last year, banks have repaid more than half of those loans.

On Friday, the ECB said three banks would repay 175.2 million euros from the first LTRO on April 2, and five banks would pay back 1.383 billion from the second LTRO.

(Reporting by Frankfurt newsroom; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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