A $1.6 billion windfall due to cheaper gas

Gasoline falling to $2 a gallon at the pump will put $1.6 billion back in drivers' wallets this holiday season. That's how much consumers will save during their year-end travels compared with last year, according to GasBuddy Organization, a price tracker based in Gaithersburg, Md. The average nationwide pump price dropped to $1.99 a gallon on Dec. 20, the lowest in more than six years, and was at $2.01 Tuesday. Consumers are benefiting from a 66 percent drop in crude oil over the past 18 months. That has boosted refiners' profit margins, encouraging them to produce record amounts of fuel. Prices are poised to remain depressed into next year after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries refused to limit its output. According to the GasBuddy's holiday survey, 88 percent of those heading out of town will be traveling by car, with 66 percent driving at least 200 miles round-trip. The organization defines year-end travel as spanning Dec. 23 through Jan. 3.

U.S. existing home sales tank in November

Home sales plunged sharply in November, as buyers faced rising prices and new regulations that might have delayed some closings. The National Association of Realtors said Tuesday that sales of existing homes collapsed 10.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.76 million. It was the weakest pace in 19 months. The setback follows solid gains in real estate for much of 2015. Sales of existing homes are on track to rise roughly 5 percent for the entire year. But the introduction of a new disclosure form in October likely prevented many home buyers from closing on sales in November. Home values are also rising at more than double the pace of wages. The median home sales price was $220,300 in November, a 6.3 percent annual increase from a year ago. Sales fell in all major geographic regions, including the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.

New Orleans to build new airport terminal

Work on a new terminal at the Louis Armstrong International Airport will begin in early January. The $807 million project is being hailed as the most important construction job for the city since the Louisiana Superdome in 1975. On Monday, the New Orleans Aviation Board approved final construction costs. The total cost amounts to $807 million when design and engineering, a new airport access road, a stormwater pump station and other costs are included. The project is being funded primarily with general airport revenue bonds.

Starbucks rakes in big bucks from gift cards

The money taken in by Starbucks gift cards is approaching the size of a small country's economy. The company says that more than $25 billion has been loaded onto its gift cards since they were launched a decade and a half ago. That's about the gross domestic product of Trinidad and Tobago — a relatively prosperous, energy-producing nation off the Venezuelan coast. A fifth of that amount was loaded onto Starbucks cards just in the fiscal year ended in October, which points to a big acceleration in recent years. And that snowball is still rolling, with Starbucks saying that it's on track for "another record performance" in gift card sales this holiday season.

Hillshire Brands to pay $4M to settle suit

Hillshire Brands will pay $4 million to settle federal claims that black employees at a North Texas food plant were exposed to dangerous work conditions and subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment. Former workers at the Sara Lee plant in Paris, Texas, gathered Tuesday for a news conference in Dallas to highlight the settlement approved last week by a federal judge. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier found that black workers were exposed to asbestos and other toxins. They also were targets of racial slurs and graffiti. Sara Lee ended its Paris operations in 2011 and part of the company later became Hillshire Brands, which in turn was bought by Tyson Foods. A Tyson spokesman says the company is committed to treating workers with dignity and respect.

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