Bailout repayments by banks bring recovery to 99 percent

Six banks are repaying their government bailouts, bringing the bank capital program close to 99 percent recovery.

The Treasury Department says that it received proceeds of $475 million when the banks repurchased preferred shares and other investments that the department got in exchange for its cash injections.

Banks received $245 billion under the program. Treasury has collected about $244 billion in repayments, fees and other income from bailed-out companies.

The banks are: Fifth Third Bancorp., based in Cincinnati; National Penn Bancshares Inc., based in Boyertown, Pa.; Lakeland Bancorp Inc., based in Oak Ridge, N.J.; Stockmens Financial Corp., based in Rapid City, S.D.; Bridge Capital Holdings, based in San Jose, Calif.; and Heritage Bancshares, based in Norfolk, Va.

Watchdog group says bailout left U.S. homeowners behind

The government’s bailout of banks, automakers and insurers helped prevent a more severe economic crisis, but might have sowed the seeds of the next one, a congressional watchdog group said Wednesday in its final report.

The Congressional Oversight Panel said that the government’s rescue fund may have prevented an economic depression by sending billions of dollars to companies crippled in the financial crisis that erupted in 2008. But little has been done to aid homeowners facing foreclosure or others far from Wall Street, it said.

“The good news is that America did not suffer another depression,” panel Chairman Ted Kaufman said. However, Treasury’s “programs for Main Street have been far less effective” than the cash injections that stabilized Wall Street banks during the worst financial crisis in generations.

Dollar at nearly 16-year low against yen as crisis deepens

The dollar dropped to its lowest point in almost 16 years late Wednesday amid the nuclear crisis in Japan, debt woes in Europe, tension in the Middle East and weak economic reports at home.

The dollar plunged to 76.53 Japanese yen late Wednesday, falling far below the April 1995 low of 79.75 yen.

The dollar was worth 80.83 yen late Tuesday.

A strong yen hurts the Asian country’s exporters, potentially deepening any hit to the economy from the current crisis.

Home construction, requests for permits decline sharply

Builders broke ground last month on the fewest homes in nearly two years and cut their requests for permits to start new projects to a five-decade low. The decline in construction activity is the latest evidence that the housing industry is years away from a recovery.

Home construction plunged 22.5 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 479,000 homes, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. It was the lowest level since April 2009 and the second-lowest on record, dating back more than a half-century.

The decline followed a surge in highly volatile apartment construction in January, which pushed the overall construction rate up to more than 600,000 units — the fastest rate in 20 months. Still, the building pace has been far below the 1.2 million units a year that economists consider healthy.

Single-family homes, which make up roughly 80 percent of home construction, fell 11.8 percent in February. Apartment and condominium construction dropped 47 percent, reversing much of January’s gains.

Demonstrations in Bahrain push oil prices above $98

Oil prices are rebounding after falling about 8 percent the past week as pro-reform demonstrations heat up in Bahrain, raising new tensions in the Middle East.

Benchmark crude for April delivery gained $1.20 to $98.38 per barrel Wednesday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Prices are rising as traders try to gauge world demand for oil amid a number of international crises.

In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi’s troops pounded rebel strongholds in a conflict that has halted the country’s oil exports. To the east, soldiers clashed with protesters in Bahrain. The country lies next to Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest producer of oil.

Analysts also expect Japan to eventually boost imports of oil, coal and other fuels to make up for the loss of nuclear power following last week’s earthquake.

Britain’s unemployment rate hits 17-year high for quarter

Britain’s unemployment rate has risen to 8 percent as the number of people out of work reached a 17-year high of more than 2.5 million.

The Office for National Statistics said the rate for the November-January period rose from 7.9 percent reported last month for the October-December period.

Total pay was up 2.3 percent compared with a year earlier, well below the current inflation rate of 4 percent.

The agency noted that the number of people age 65 or older who are working rose by 56,000 in the three months to 900,000, the highest figure since the current data series began in 1992.

Portugal’s borrowing costs rise after rating downgrade

Portugal’s borrowing costs rose in a bond sale Wednesday after its credit rating was cut amid fears that a political standoff could derail its recovery plan and Europe’s efforts to contain the debt crisis.

Investors demanded a 4.3 percent interest rate to take on $1.4 billion in 12-month Treasury bills. That is up from 4 percent two weeks ago and only 1 percent a year earlier.

The auction came a day after Moody’s downgraded the country’s credit rating, adding pressure on the beleaguered minority government which is battling to avoid taking a bailout like Greece and Ireland did last year.

Last weekend’s surprisingly broad European Union plan to deal with the debt crisis was greeted positively in the markets in the early part of the week. But pressure on Portugal remains, and its bailout could trigger a renewed deterioration in eurozone markets and destabilize other, bigger nations. Spain, Belgium and Italy are also weighed down by large debt.

Netflix trying to buy series before it airs on television

Netflix Inc. is trying to buy the Internet streaming rights to a 26-episode drama starring Kevin Spacey before the series is shown on a television network.

If the deal is completed, it would mark a bold step in a new direction for Netflix’s popular video subscription service. Netflix currently boasts more than 20,000 titles in its streaming library, but most of them are previously aired TV series and older movies.

Should it win rights to “House of Cards,” Netflix would emerge as an even more serious threat to pay-TV channels such as HBO. Netflix began the year with 20 million subscribers. Some analysts believe that by the end of this year the service could be as large as HBO, which is believed to have about 28 million subscribers.