[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/12/18/art.gaspump.jpg caption="Gas prices are up 0.3 cents to $1.670 a gallon, but the national average is still well below where it was this summer."]
CNN Financial News Producer
The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to 554,000. That’s a decline of 21,000 from the 26-year high of 575,000 claims the previous week. Another slight improvement was seen in the number of people who continue to receive jobless benefits, which declined to 4.38 million from 4.43 million the prior week. Claims climbed the most in Tennessee, up 12,170, due to layoffs in the manufacturing industry. Wisconsin saw jobless claims fall the most, by 8,593, due to fewer layoffs in the construction, manufacturing and service industries.
New rules to shield credit card holders from increases in interest rates on existing account balances are expected to be approved today by the Federal Reserve and other banking regulators. The changes - part of the most sweeping clampdown on the industry in decades - will allow credit card companies to raise interest rates only on new credit cards and future purchases or advances, rather than on current balances.
Chrysler is shutting down all vehicle production in the United States starting tomorrow for at least a month – a move that will affect some 46,000 workers. All 30 of the carmaker's plants will close after the last shift on Friday, and employees will not be asked to return to work before Jan. 19. Chrysler blamed the "continued lack of consumer credit for the American car buyer" for the slow-down in sales that forced the move. Chrysler is the last of the Big Three to suspend operations for January. Last week, General Motors said it was idling 30% of its North American manufacturing capacity during the first quarter of 2009. And Ford is adding a week to its normal two-week seasonal shutdown at a number of its plants.
FedEx - a company considered a barometer for the overall economy - says it’s instituting a hiring freeze and will cut salaries as part of a plan to reduce costs. Effective Jan. 1, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith will receive a 20% pay cut. Other senior execs will get 7.5%-10% cuts. And as a number of other companies have done in recent weeks, FedEx will also suspend company matching of 401(k) plan contributions.
Gas prices are up 0.3 cents to $1.670 a gallon. The current national average is now $2.444 below the record high price of $4.114 that AAA reported on July 17, 2008. Two states have regular unleaded gas prices of $2 and higher. 48 states and the District of Columbia have regular unleaded gas prices below $2. The highest gas prices are in Alaska ($2.629). The cheapest gas prices are in Utah ($1.495).
Oil prices are down nearly $2 to $38 a barrel. Crude dropped below $40 a barrel Wednesday for the first time in more than 4 years.
Stocks on Wall Street are off to a slow start today as investors weigh a better-than-expected report on the job market and the lowest oil prices since 2004 against the fate of the American auto industry.
Electric cars may be the future, but they need lithium-ion batteries to run - and the United States is far behind its Asian rivals when it comes to making them. Now, 14 U.S. technology companies are joining forces. They plan to ask the incoming Obama Administration for $1 billion in federal aid to build a battery manufacturing plant.
There’s no question the United States is playing catch-up here … more than four dozen advanced battery factories are being built in China, but not one in the U.S. Reversing course could have major long-term implications as many experts believe battery technology and the capacity to make them could eventually become as strategically important as oil is today. That’s today’s Energy Fix.
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