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Business Highlights

December 30, 2020 GMT

Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies

An Associated Press investigation has found an army of children toiling beneath a canopy of towering palm oil trees in Indonesia and Malaysia, the main suppliers of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. They are kept out of school and forced to work for free or for little pay, and routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals. Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse. The AP traced the fruits of their labor to the supply chains of popular cereals, candies and ice creams sold by Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo and many other leading food companies. It also was linked to that most American of treats — Girl Scout cookies.

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British lawmakers approve post-Brexit trade deal with EU

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s House of Commons has voted resoundingly to approve a trade deal with the European Union, paving the way for an orderly break with the bloc that will finally complete the U.K.’s years-long Brexit journey. With just a day to spare, lawmakers voted 521 to 73 to approve the agreement sealed between the U.K. government and the EU last week. It will become British law once it passes through the unelected House of Lords and gets formal royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II. The U.K. left the EU almost a year ago, but remained within the bloc’s economic embrace during a transition period.

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EU, China leaders seal long-awaited investment deal

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union top officials and Chinese President Xi Jinping have concluded a long-awaited business investment deal with the potential to annoy the new American administration. The EU hopes the agreement, known as CAI, will help correct an imbalance in market access and create new investment opportunities for European companies in China by ensuring they can compete on an equal footing when operating in the country. But it may cause tension with the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden only weeks after the EU proposed a trans-Atlantic dialogue to address “the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.”

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Scandal-battered utility now faces specter of pricy lawsuits

CLEVELAND (AP) — Ohio’s largest utility faces more than a dozen lawsuits filed by angry shareholders even as it is already battered by scandal. A suspected bribery and corruption scheme involving Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. includes some of the country’s largest institutional investors. The first lawsuits were filed within a week and now total more than a dozen. FirstEnergy is also under federal investigation for in a suspected $60 million bribery scheme. It isn’t the first time the utility has found itself defending its actions. It settled a class action lawsuit in 2004 for nearly $80 million for lying about a hole in a reactor head at a nuclear plant and for contributing to the largest blackout in U.S. history.

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Trump’s hesitation on relief bill will delay aid payments

WASHINGTON (AP) — The $900 billion economic relief package that President Donald Trump signed over the weekend will deliver vital aid to millions of struggling households and businesses. Yet his nearly one-week delay in signing the bill means that it will take that much longer for the financial support to arrive. The package that Trump signed at his private club in Florida on Sunday will extend two unemployment benefit programs, which are providing aid to 14 million people and which expired last week, as well as provide small business loans and up to $600 in cash payments to most individuals. It will also extend a moratorium on evictions for one month. The measure does not include aid for states and localities that are being forced to turn to layoffs and service cuts as their tax revenue dries up.

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COVID cluckers: Pandemic feeds demand for backyard chickens

ROSS, Calif. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic is coming home to roost in America’s backyards. Forced to hunker down at home, more people are setting up coops and raising their own chickens, which provide an earthy hobby, animal companionship and a steady supply of fresh eggs. Amateur chicken-keeping has been growing in popularity in recent years as people become more focused on environmental sustainability and the food they eat. The pandemic has accelerated those trends, prompting more people to take the leap into poultry parenthood. Businesses that sell chicks, coops and other supplies say they’ve seen a surge in demand since the pandemic took hold.

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US home contract signings at record levels in November

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — The number of Americans who signed contracts to buy homes declined again last month, but was still a record high for November, traditionally the beginning of the seasonal slowdown in the real estate market. The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that its index of pending sales fell 2.6% to 125.7 in November, down from October’s revised reading of 129.1. Contract signings are a barometer of finalized purchases over the next two months, so Wednesday’s report may preview what could be a strong winter for the housing market. Contract signings are still 16.4% ahead of where they were last year.

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US stocks rise in afternoon trading as 2020 winds down

Stocks rose on Wall Street, putting the market back on a positive footing following a modest pullback the day before. The S&P 500 rose 0.2% in afternoon trading Wednesday and is hovering around its record high. The gains were broad, with technology stocks leading. Small-company stocks again outpaced their larger rivals, as they have been doing all month. That’s a sign that investors are feeling more optimistic about the economy. Investors were encouraged to see that Britain had authorized a coronavirus vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca which is easier to handle than others.

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UK hospitals struggle; tougher rules eyed to fight variant

LONDON (AP) — British officials are considering tougher coronavirus restrictions as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients surpasses the first peak of the outbreak in the spring. Authorities are blaming a new, more transmissible variant of the virus for soaring infection rates. England had 20,426 coronavirus patients in hospitals as of Monday, above the previous high of 18,974 on April 12. Almost half of the people in England are under strict restrictions on movement and everyday life in an attempt to curb the spread. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is scheduled to update Parliament on Wednesday on whether more areas will be put into the top tier of lockdown measures.

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Boeing Max returns to US skies with first passenger flight

American Airlines flew a commercial flight using a Boeing 737 Max, the first one in U.S. skies since Max planes were grounded after two deadly crashes. An airline spokesman said American flight 718 on Tuesday left Miami International Airport with about 100 passengers. It landed in the afternoon at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved changes that Boeing made to an automated flight-control system implicated in crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people in all. In both crashes, the system pushed the nose down repeatedly based on faulty sensor readings, and pilots were unable to regain control.

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The S&P 500 rose 5 points, or 0.1%, to 3,732.04. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 73.89 points, or 0.2%, to 30,409.56. The Nasdaq composite rose 19.78 points, or 0.2%, to 12,870. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies gained 20.63 points, or 1.1%, to 1,979.99.