IN BRIEF

MGM Mirage signs deal to develop hotels

Casino operator MGM Mirage said Tuesday it signed a deal with Diaoyutai State Guesthouse to create a joint venture that will develop luxury nongambling hotels and resorts globally.

The venture will initially target locations in China, MGM said.

The expectation is that the joint venture will develop its own distinctive brand identity, associating MGM Grand with Diaoyutai to create unique luxury hotel resorts and related buildings, MGM Mirage said.

Home-sale contracts increase in February

More Americans signed contracts to buy previously owned homes in February, easing concern the real-estate market will worsen.

The National Association of Realtors’ index of signed purchase agreements rose 0.7 percent after dropping 4.2 percent in January. Economists had forecast a decline. The index was down 8.5 percent from a year earlier.

Lower borrowing costs and falling house prices are tempting some buyers back into the market, which is suffering its worst recession since 1991, economists said.

Board will look into Starbucks union effort

The National Labor Relations Board set a hearing to look into whether Starbucks Corp. illegally kept workers from unionizing at four of its Manhattan coffee shops.

The labor board alleged that Seattle-based Starbucks violated labor laws 30 times by “engaging in unfair labor practices,” based on a complaint filed by the International Workers of the World.

The Washington-based labor board said 11 managers at New York Starbucks were involved in firing two workers who supported unionizing, threatening to fire others and prohibiting “employees from discussing working conditions with other employees while at work.”

Starbucks shares rose 24 cents, or 0.77 percent, Tuesday to close at $31.49 on the Nasdaq National Market.

U.S. sues to shutter tax preparer outlets

The Justice Department sued to shut down 125 franchises of No. 2 U.S. tax preparer Jackson Hewitt Tax Service as the IRS accused the outlets of submitting thousands of fraudulent returns that cost the government more than $70 million.

The retail offices, in Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago and the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, preyed on people of “modest means,” the government said. The stores prepared more than 105,000 returns last year.

All of them are partly owned by Farrukh Sohail of Atlanta, who was accused in court papers of creating a “business environment” where “fraudulent tax return preparation is encouraged and flourishes.”

Harrah’s unit will transfer casino reins

A subsidiary of Harrah’s Entertainment will transfer management of the Prairie Band Casino outside Topeka, Kan., on July 1 to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, six months earlier than previously announced.

Harrah’s announced in May 2005 that it would not seek a renewal of its management contract of the American Indian casino which was scheduled to expire in January. The gaming company had managed the property since it opened in January 1998.

The company will continue to manage American Indian casinos outside Phoenix, San Diego and in Cherokee, N.C.

Weather linked to uptick in retail sales

Warmer weather spurred a 4.9 percent rise in U.S. retail sales last week, the biggest gain in two months, as consumers snapped up clothing and holiday foods for Easter and Passover.

Sales in the week through March 31 rose 0.3 percent from the prior seven days, the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities said Tuesday.

An early Easter this year is boosting March sales at the expense of April, the group said.

March sales will probably increase as much as 5 percent, the group said. Easter falls Sunday, compared with April 16 last year, driving purchases of gifts, candy, flowers and other holiday items in March instead of April.

BRUSSELS, Belgium

Apple iTunes deals may violate EU rules

The deals Apple struck with record labels to stock its European iTunes stores may violate EU competition rules, regulators said Tuesday.

Apple and the record companies were notified of an investigation into their agreements after regulators built up a “very strong case,” said European Union spokesman Jonathan Todd.

People can only download singles or albums from the iTunes store in their country of residence, a policy that amounts to unlawful “territorial sales restrictions,” the Commission said.

But Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said the company wanted to operate a single store for all of Europe, but music labels and publishers said there were limits to the rights they could grant to Apple.

NEW YORK

Quick, someone, Google ‘python’ for me

This was one search that you couldn’t just Google.

An employee’s python went missing over the weekend in Google’s sprawling Manhattan office, sending search teams on an all-out snake hunt. The searchers scoured the complex for the 3-foot-long snake and finally found the serpent, known as Kaiser, on Monday night.

“A snake was lost; it was not an April Fools’ joke. It was found last night,” Google spokeswoman Ellen West said Tuesday. “The snake has left the building.”

She declined to reveal specifics about where in the office Kaiser was discovered. And although West wouldn’t say how the snake made it to the office, she confirmed it belonged to a “Googler” and said the pet was now at its owner’s home.

NEW YORK

Bond prices decline amid quiet trading

U.S. Treasury bond prices ended lower Tuesday, after a quiet trading session, with government bonds taking their cue from movement in the stock market and easing tension between Britain and Iran.

At 5 p.m. EDT, the 10-year Treasury note was down $1.88 per $1,000 in face value, or 0.19 points, from its level at 5 p.m. Monday. Its yield, which moves in the opposite direction, rose to 4.67 percent from 4.64 percent.

The 30-year bond fell 0.19 points. Its yield rose to 4.85 percent from 4.84 percent.

The 2-year note fell 0.06 points. Its yield rose to 4.62 percent from 4.58 percent.

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