Talk of aid boosts some life insurers' stock

Shares of large U.S. life insurance companies initially surged Wednesday following news they may receive aid from the government's $700 billion financial industry rescue program. But the Treasury Department said that only life insurers that own banks or saving and loans qualify for assistance, and that no new programs for the industry were being considered. Shares of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., which spiked 35 percent to $11.40 minutes after the market opened, closed at $9.59, a gain of 13.5 percent. Hartford and Lincoln National Corp., two of the nation's largest life insurers, and several others applied to become thrift holding companies last fall and were approved this year.

Regulators discuss short-selling restrictions

Federal regulators opened a public debate Wednesday over ways to restrict trades that bet against a stock, as investors and lawmakers clamor for brakes on moves they say worsened the market's downturn. One option the Securities and Exchange Commission advanced is restoring a Depression-era rule that prohibits short sellers from making their trades until a stock ticks at least one penny above its previous trading price. The goal of the so-called uptick rule is to prevent selling sprees that feed upon themselves -- actions that battered the stocks of banks and other companies over the past year. Another approach would ban short-selling for the rest of the trading session in a stock that declines by 10 percent or more. The five SEC commissioners, who voted unanimously to put forward five alternative short-selling plans, could settle on one and formally OK it sometime after a 60-day public comment period.

Mortgage applications keep increasing

Mortgage applications continued to rise last week, as low interest rates allowed borrowers to refinance their home loans at the lowest rates in decades. The Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday its seasonally adjusted weekly application index climbed 4.7 percent for the week ended April 3. The index came in at 1,250.6, up from 1194.4 a week earlier. It was the highest level of applications since the week ending Jan. 9, when the index hit 1324.8. About 78 percent of applications came from borrowers seeking to refinance home loans.

Aventine files for bankruptcy protection

Ethanol producer Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Wednesday, the latest victim in an industry stung by volatile commodity prices and shrinking profit margins. The Pekin, Ill.-based company warned last month that it may have to file if it could not raise sufficient cash in the near-term. In its Delaware court filing, Aventine listed assets of $799 million with $491 million in debt. The company listed 30 creditors.

Berkshire Hathaway's credit rating lowered

Ratings agency Moody's has downgraded the credit rating for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and several of the company's insurance subsidiaries. Moody's says billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire and its insurance companies, including National Indemnity and Geico, aren't as strong financially because the market value of their investments has fallen. Also, Moody's says the recession hurt Berkshire's noninsurance businesses. Moody's Investors Service lowered Omaha-based Berkshire's rating to Aa2 from Aaa. The rating for National Indemnity and most of Berkshire's insurers was cut to Aa1 from Aaa. The ratings for Geico and General Re fell to Aa3 from Aa1.

Sharp anticipates bigger loss than projected

Japanese electronics maker Sharp Corp. is forecasting a bigger loss than first anticipated for the fiscal year ended in March, blaming the global recession, a clean out of inventory and restructuring costs. Sharp expects to post a net loss of 130 billion yen ($1.3 billion), worse than the 100 billion yen loss it had projected in February. "The global financial crisis is hurting all sectors at an unprecedented speed and scale," Sharp President Mikio Katayama told reporters Wednesday in Tokyo. Sharp has said it will cut 1,500 contract workers in Japan by the end of March, and its directors will forgo bonus pay in June and accept pay cuts of as much as 50 percent.