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Briefs

Existing home sales off sharply

Sales of U.S. existing homes slipped in February to their lowest level since July 2012 as severe winter weather, rising prices and a tight supply of homes discouraged buyers.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales declined 0.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.6 million.

That was the sixth decline in the past seven months.

Freezing temperatures and snowstorms likely kept many buyers from visiting open houses. And higher mortgage rates have weighed on sales since last fall.

Still, there were some signs that the market could pick up in coming months. Sales improved in the South and West, where weather was less of a factor.

And more people decided to sell, boosting the supply of available homes 6.4 percent to 2 million.

Starbucks to boost beer, wine offerings

Starbucks plans to turn more of its cafés into a destination for beer and wine in the evenings.

The coffee company says it is looking to expand alcohol sales to thousands of stores over the next several years, although it didn’t provide a precise timeline.

The chain first offered beer and wine after 4 p.m. at one of its Seattle cafés in 2010. “Starbucks Evenings” is now available in 26 cafés, with plans to reach 40 by the end of the year.

The cafés also serve a variety of small dishes ranging in price from $3 to $5, such as bacon-wrapped dates, truffle macaroni and cheese, and flatbreads.

The regular coffee menu is also available during that time.

The expansion of “Starbucks Evenings” is part of the company’s push to boost sales after the morning rush hour when people are getting their caffeine fix.

It’s a common concept in the restaurant industry – figuring out ways to maximize sales throughout the day because stores have to pay for rent and labor anyway.

Record profit offsets recall fine at Toyota

Toyota Motor Corp., headed to a record profit, can afford the $1.2 billion fine levied by the U.S. government for hiding information about defects in its cars.

If anything, the settlement may even deliver relief for Toyota shareholders and customers as a sign the automaker has put the four-year recall debacle behind it.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda declined to comment directly Thursday on the U.S. settlement, in which the Japanese automaker said it hid information about defects that had caused unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, resulting in injuries and deaths.

All that he would say was what he has repeatedly said before: “We have returned to basics and are putting customers first.”

Economic gauge posts solid gain

A measure of the U.S. economy’s health rose in February by the largest amount in three months, suggesting growth should rebound after a severe winter.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading indicators increased 0.5 percent in February after a slight 0.1 percent rise in January and a 0.1 percent decline in December. It was the best showing since a 0.9 percent gain in November.

Economists said the better-than-expected increase indicates any weather-related problems the economy is experiencing now will be short-lived and the economy will be poised for better growth in the second half of this year.

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