Developing Nations Put Nuclear on Fast-Forward

Fast reactors can shrink nuclear-waste stockpiles, but can designers tame the inherent hazards?

By Peter Fairley on March 13, 2013

Fast reactors, whose high-speed neutrons can break down nuclear waste, are on the road to commercialization. That message has been advanced forcefully by Russia, China, and India.

At a global conference sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency last week in Paris, Russia and India described large demonstration plants that will start operating next year and further deployments that are still in the design phase. China, meanwhile, described a broad R&D effort to make fast reactors comprise at least one-fifth of its nuclear capacity by 2030.

By breaking down the longest-lasting and hottest components of spent fuel from light-water reactors, fast reactors would need only 2 percent of the space required by a conventional reactor to store spent fuel. Fast reactors would also reduce the time that the waste must remain in storage from roughly 300,000 years to just 300. “Are they going to eliminate the need for geological repositories? No. But it will reduce the burden,” says Thierry Dujardin, acting deputy director general for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency.

Despite that enticing promise, however, the inherent hazards of today’s state-of-the-art fast reactors also loomed large at the Paris confab, which concluded a few days before Monday’s two-year anniversary of the Fukushima accident in Japan. At the conference, Dujardin said that fuel safety and prevention of severe accidents need to be “high priorities” for fast reactor research.

The problem with most fast reactors in construction or development is the molten sodium that cools their cores. Molten sodium is highly corrosive and explodes on contact with water and oxygen. Most dangerous, however, is that the sodium-cooled fast reactor, or SFR, exhibits what physicists call positive reactivity. Unlike conventional reactors, which experience their fastest possible chain reaction when operating at full power, the SFR’s chain reaction is capable of further acceleration than its equipment is designed to handle. This puts such reactors at greater risk of a runaway reaction that could cause a core meltdown or breach its steel containment vessel.

Many technical presentations at last week’s meeting focused on improved materials and designs intended to protect SFRs from the most extreme accidents imaginable. But alternative core designs were also well represented, and some countries are hedging their bets by testing the alternatives. A U.S. company, Transatomic Power, recently revealed designs for a new kind of molten salt reactor, which has different safety characteristics than a reactor cooled by molten sodium metal and should be compact and cheap to manufacture (see “Safer Nuclear Power at Half the Price”).

This dual approach is visible within the fast reactor program of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation. Valery Rachkov, scientific director of the Leipunski Institute of Physics and Power Engineering within Rosatom, says Russia needs fast reactors to sustain its nuclear power program. Light-water reactors under construction in Russia will give the country an additional 10 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity by 2020—­a 42 percent jump—but further growth will become difficult unless Russia can manage its spent fuel, Rachkov says.

Hence Rosatom’s 2.5-billion-euro ($3.25-billion) investment directed not only at fast reactor technology but also facilities to recycle spent fuel into fuel for fast reactors. Rosatom has operated its BN-600, a 600-megawatt fast reactor, since 1980 at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. Rosatom expects to start operating an upgraded 880-megawatt version at Beloyarsk next year. That would be close to the 1,000-megawatt size of some commercial nuclear reactors.

Ivanovitch Zagorulko, a fast reactor specialist at Rosatom’s Leipunski Institute, says the BN-600 experienced serious sodium leaks only during its first four years of operation. And he says a 1987 incident—in which particle contaminants building up in the sodium coolant caused an acceleration of its chain reaction—was solved with an improved purification system and tighter airflow control during maintenance to keep contaminants out. He adds that the BN-800 provides further safety enhancements.

But Zagorulko says there is still a “big gap” between the BN-800’s design and the international safety criteria that Rosatom intends to meet with a 1,200-megawatt commercial-scale fast reactor, the BN-1200, now in the design phase. Sergey Shepelev, a representative of Afrikantov OKBM, a subsidiary of Rosatom, refused to discuss the BN-600’s 1987 incident during an open-panel session. When questioned after the session, Shepelev said there were “many versions” of the incident and that it was not known “which is right,” but that he was certain the BN-1200 was “absolutely a safe” design.

Rosatom is also developing another fast reactor cooled with molten lead. Lead coolant is less corrosive than sodium and chemically inert to water and air. It has never been used in a power plant, but the reactors in Russia’s nuclear submarines have long been cooled with a lead alloy. Rosatom’s plan calls for a 300-megawatt lead-cooled demonstration plant to be operating at Beloyarsk by 2020.

Some countries are more devoted to existing fast reactor technology. Indian researchers argued vehemently for the safety of sodium-cooled reactors at the Paris meeting. India’s 500-megawatt SFR demonstration plant is nearing completion at Kalpakkam, and the state-owned Indian Nuclear Power Corporation has a green light to build two more 500-megawatt SFRs at the site.

Redundant passive safety systems are one answer, according to Narayanasamy Mahendran, an engineer with Indian Nuclear Power. Backup cooling loops, for example, use convection alone to draw heat from the reactor and dump it into the air above the reactor building. Their plant has four such loops of two distinct designs. Any two should be capable of keeping a reactor cool in the event of a station blackout like the one that upended Fukushima. Similarly, he says, the core control rods are suspended by electromagnets and can thus passively drop by gravity to instantaneously scram the reactor during a station blackout.

European, Japanese, and U.S. researchers at Paris had research advances to note but no funding to support large demonstration projects. For the U.S., the focus is on finding repositories for interim and long-term waste storage. “The U.S. will be focused on geologic disposal for at least a few decades,” says Peter Lyons, the U.S. assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy.

Absent funding in Japan and Europe is largely due to the corrosive impact of Fukushima. France is going it alone on Europe’s only well-funded fast-reactor program: a 650-million-euro design called Astrid that incorporates some bold next-generation components. For example, solid-state electromagnetic pumps move sodium coolant. They are expected to be more efficient and reliable than pumps with moving parts.

However, Astrid’s future hangs on a French energy policy review that got underway last month that could yet see the country turn away from nuclear power (see “Will France Give Up Its Role as a Nuclear Powerhouse?”). Pierre Le Coz, the project’s manager at France’s Atomic Energy Commission, says that if France has begun pulling away from nuclear energy in five years, when Astrid’s design is mature, they probably won’t get the green light to build.

Japan’s fast reactor program once led the world, but it’s now frozen—along with all but two of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Successive Japanese prime ministers seek to redefine Japan’s energy policy in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Each of the Japanese speakers last week began their talks with a reminder of the over 100,000 people who are still displaced from their homes—some of whom will never return—and of the fisheries and large forests that are still contaminated.

They were just as mindful of the accident’s impact on their colleagues’ efforts to advance nuclear energy. As Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, put it in his address: “The fact that this accident has raised concerns around the world about the safety of nuclear power generation is something Japan takes with great seriousness.”

Biogen wins EU backing for big new MS drug hope

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON | Fri Mar 22, 2013 12:02pm EDT

(Reuters) – European regulators have recommended approval of two new multiple sclerosis pills from Biogen Idec and Sanofi, both of which are expected to become major sellers.

Friday’s decision by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was particularly significant for Biogen, since the U.S. biotech company is still awaiting a verdict on Tecfidera, or BG-12, in the United States.

Shares in Biogen, which have more than trebled in the last three years on rising hopes for Tecfidera, hit a new all-time high of $178.66 on Friday and stood 1 percent up on the day by 11.40 a.m. ET.

Tecfidera is one of the most highly anticipated new drug approvals for the pharmaceuticals industry in 2013, with analysts predicting billions of dollars a year in sales.

It will compete in the oral MS drug market against Novartis’s existing Gilenya and Aubagio, but many investors already see it as best in class.

“We believe Tecfidera will raise expectations for what people living with MS can achieve with their therapy,” Biogen CEO George Scangos said in a statement welcoming the news.

Oral drugs are changing the MS market dramatically, by offering patients a highly effective alternative to traditional injections, which can be painful and may cause flu-like symptoms.

Tecfidera and Sanofi’s Aubagio were both endorsed for treating relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), though the EMA decision still needs to be finalized before the drugs can be launched.

Aubagio was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the same use in September, while an FDA decision on the Biogen product is due by March 28.

Mark Schoenebaum, an analyst with ISI Group, said the European decision on Tecfidera was reassuring since the EMA only flagged up two safety issues.

The agency’s press release merely highlighted as side effects flushing, or redness of the skin, and gastrointestinal events, such as diarrhea and nausea.


The London-based agency also gave a green light to Gilead Sciences’s four-drug combination pill to treat HIV/AIDS, called Stribild. Gilead shares rose 2 percent.

The flurry of positive recommendations for new medicines, each of which analysts believe will become multibillion-dollar-a-year sellers, underscores a recent pick-up in research productivity by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sales of the Biogen MS drug are expected to reach $3.0 billion a year by 2017, outstripping revenues by the same time of $2.5 billion for Gilenya and $1.1 billion for Aubagio, according to consensus forecasts compiled by Thomson Reuters Pharma.

Tecfidera will add an important new leg to Biogen’s multiple sclerosis business, which already includes the injectable drugs Avonex and Tysabri.

Ariad Pharmaceuticals also won a recommendation for its drug Iclusig for chronic myeloid leukemia, while Baxter International and Halozyme Therapeutics secured EMA backing for HyQvia as a treatment for immunodeficiencies, lifting their stock 1 percent and 15 percent respectively.


Bayer and Johnson & Johnson, which together sell the anti-clotting drug Xarelto, had something to cheer about as well, with the EMA recommending the medicine for treating acute coronary syndrome (ACS).

That decision was in contrast to the position adopted by the FDA, which denied approval to expand use of Xarelto to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes in ACS patients earlier this month.

Deutsche Bank analysts said the EU stance was “an incremental positive” that would provide a modest uplift to peak sales forecasts.

Patients with ACS have suffered blood clots blocking blood supply to the heart.

Recommendations for marketing approval by the European Medicines Agency’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use, or CHMP, are normally endorsed by the European Commission within a couple of months.

(Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

Buyout firms face squeeze as investors go direct for deals

By Tommy Wilkes and Anjuli Davies

LONDON | Fri Mar 22, 2013 9:28am EDT

(Reuters) – Tired of the hefty fees charged by private equity firms and wanting more say over what they buy, big investors like pension funds and insurers are taking matters into their own hands.

Some are buying stakes in companies directly or teaming up to invest alongside private equity firms rather than locking money away in those firms’ funds.

That is posing a challenge to the $3 trillion private equity industry, where companies like KKR and Apax spearheaded the model of raising money from investors to put to work on their behalf in exchange for management and performance fees.

For the first time in their history, buyout firms are raising less money from investors, and there are signs that trend could continue.

According to industry tracker Preqin, 43 percent of investors in a survey this year said they planned to increase the money they put into co-investments, in which investors do deals alongside buyout firms but pay no fees.

The proportion of investors that currently co-invest had also risen to 36 percent by the first quarter of this year, up from 33 percent a year earlier, the surveys showed, indicating rising interest in investing outside traditional funds.

“Co-investment is an effective mechanism to get your fee down and it gives you more control over your exposure,” said Simon Moss, Head of Europe at Hermes GPE, an investor with 20 percent of its 6 billion pounds ($9.1 billion) in assets in co-investments.

In a private and opaque market, estimating how much capital bypasses private equity funds is difficult, but there are signs more investors are publicizing an alternative approach.

British insurer Legal & General said on Monday it was taking a 46.5 percent stake in UK housebuilder CALA Group alongside Patron Capital, part of a plan to do more direct investments in education, housing, transport and energy.

It follows big investors like The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), which last year bought a stake in motorcycle grand prix organizer Dorna, and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board in doing more deals outside of funds.

The $173 billion-strong CPPIB has now bypassed funds for more than $11 billion of private equity investments, according to its website, against $42 billion committed to funds since 2001. Past direct deals include stakes in jet engine component maker Avio and health and beauty group Alliance Boots.

In expanding co- and direct investing, pension funds and insurers are, in part, mimicking sovereign wealth funds which have long taken it on themselves to scour the world for assets.


The question of fees often looms largest in choosing how to put money to work. Backers of buyout funds typically face annual management fees of 2 percent and performance fees of 20 percent.

But the apparent cost-saving of avoiding fees can be misleading, as investors need in-house expertise and time on the road to examine possible deals. More concentrated exposure also means returns – or losses – are amplified.

Andre Bourbonnais, who leads private equity investments at CPPIB, told delegates at a recent conference in Berlin his fund has a team of 45 people in Hong Kong, London and Toronto “dedicated exclusively to executing on direct transactions.”

These staffing costs make going direct prohibitive for smaller investors, though by teaming up for direct stakes they can glean knowledge to help them decide on future deals.

“Sometimes private equity firms become so focused on securing an investment at the expense of thorough research … With a co-investment model, there is greater scope to objectively evaluate an opportunity,” Hermes GPE’s Moss said.

Heavy writedowns of their private equity fund holdings during the financial crisis has added to investors’ desire for more control over which companies they back.

But unlike the activist private equity manager, pension funds often prefer a hands off approach with the companies they own, and do not put their own staff on to boards.

This reluctance to commit extra resources to an investment means a lot will limit themselves to co-investing, where they can piggyback – but are also reliant – on the restructuring changes their buyout partners make to portfolio companies.

Where they do own stakes directly, pension funds often keep assets for longer than buyout houses, reducing the need for quick exits – a problem for private equity funds during the financial market crisis when deals dried up. Walgreen’s purchase of a stake in KKR and CPPIB-owned Alliance Boots last year shows it can be done, however.


Desperate for cash as clients cut back, private equity firms have shown themselves willing to team up with investors outside of their funds, even offering prospective clients the chance.

Hermes’ past deals include a stake in law firm Parabis alongside Duke Street, and a stake in Brit Insurance with London-based private equity giant CVC.

Some private equity executives say the rise of co-investment does not threaten their business model – rather, it aids it because investors are more likely to back their funds in future.

Private equity firms that successfully offer co-investments will be the “winners” of the future, Head of Infrastructure at AXA Private Equity Mathias Burghardt said.

“The ability to offer co-investments is very important,” he told Reuters. “The investor wants to shape his own portfolio.”

Other executives caution about the rush to team up outside the fund, and say a balance must be struck.

While investors want to learn about prospective deals as early as possible, buyout houses say bringing them in at initial stages is a non-starter because they do not want to reveal their hand until they are sure about price, financing and structure.

This leaves pension funds and insurers with a short window to decide whether or not to back a deal.

“We tell them you’ve got three weeks. In three weeks you either say yes or no. Sometimes that’s too tight for them,” one industry executive said at a conference in London last week.

(Editing by Alexander Smith and Mark Potter)

Data points to growing economic momentum

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON | Thu Mar 21, 2013 1:05pm EDT

(Reuters) – A clutch of data pointed to growing momentum in the economy during the first quarter, with jobless claims trending lower and factory activity and homes sales both on the rise.

The reports on Thursday built on recent upbeat data on hiring and consumer spending that have led many economists to see a sharp rebound in economic growth despite the onset of increased fiscal austerity. In particular, the claims data suggested March could be another month of solid job gains.

“There is enough strength in the economy to generate jobs on a sustained basis,” said Sam Bullard, an economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers said the data backed its view that gross domestic product would expand at close to a 3 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year. The economy eked out a growth rate of just 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.

However, Bullard and others noted that government belt tightening and the growing risk of a flare-up in Europe’s debt crisis are creating headwinds for the economy that could still cause trouble ahead. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve also indicated it was concerned about these issues when it pressed forward with its aggressive policy stimulus.

The federal government raised taxes on most Americans in January and a gaggle of budget cuts began this month, with the economic bite from reduced government spending expected to be concentrated in the next few months.

“The first quarter of 2013 is shaping up to be pretty good,” said Joshua Dennerlein, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “(But) as the Fed noted yesterday, we are worried about the second and third quarter with the fiscal tightening.”

While the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits edged higher last week to 336,000, a trend reading dropped to its lowest level in five years.

That bodes well for job creation in March because the data covered the survey period for the government’s monthly tally of nonfarm jobs. The four-week average of new claims fell last week to 339,750, down 6 percent relative to the survey week in February, when nonfarm payrolls increased by 236,000.

Gennadiy Goldberg, a strategist at TD Securities in New York, said the four-week average, which is seen as a measure of labor market trends, was consistent with a March payroll reading above 200,000.


Separately, two surveys of industry showed an increase in activity at American factories despite weakness in overseas markets like Europe.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said manufacturing activity in the mid-Atlantic region grew in March after contracting for two months in a row.

Also, financial data firm Markit said its preliminary Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index, which gauges activity nationwide, increased to 54.9 this month from 54.3 in February.

Data on the housing sector, which was blighted by the 2007-09 recession, was also upbeat.

Home resales hit a three-year high in February and prices jumped, adding to signs of an acceleration in the housing market recovery.

The National Association of Realtors said existing home sales increased 0.8 percent to an annual rate of 4.98 million units last month, the highest level since November 2009. The January sales pace was revised up a 4.94 million units from the previously reported 4.92 million units.

Another measure of home prices by the Federal Housing Finance Agency showed a 0.6 percent gain in January.

Also pointing to momentum in the economy, a gauge of future economic activity rose for a third straight month in February.

The positive signs on the economy were overshadowed in financial markets by a decline in tech sector shares and by worries that a banking crisis in Cyprus could enflame the European crisis. Stocks fell, as did yields on government debt.

(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington, Steven C. Johnson, Leah Schnurr and Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

U.S. options exchanges to launch “mini” options on five securities

By Doris Frankel

Fri Mar 15, 2013 3:49pm EDT

(Reuters) – U.S. options exchanges on Monday will introduce new mini-options on five popular higher-priced securities, including Apple and Google, a development expected to boost interest among retail investors.

The minis, which are 1/10th the size of a standard option, will be available on Apple Inc, Inc, Google Inc, the SPDR Gold Trust exchange-traded fund and the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust. If interest in the products is strong, more offerings are expected.

The new breed of option offers the opportunity for a small investor who holds less than 100 shares of high-profile securities to implement the same options strategies that exist for the traditional contract with much less capital.

Google and Apple, with prices north of $800 and $400 per share, respectively, also carry high option premiums. Previously, a retail trader may have found these options too costly because they would be committed to buy 100 shares of the security.

“Anytime you can expand investment products to retail investors who are qualified and excited to trade them, it is a win to all parties involved,” said TD Ameritrade’s chief derivatives strategist, J.J. Kinahan.

The mini-option has similar terms and contract features as the traditional product, but with certain key differences. Each contract represents only 10 shares of the underlying stock, versus the regular-sized options that represent 100 shares of a security.

“The product was designed with the retail trader in mind who may not have the capital to purchase 100 shares of those underlying securities and therefore could not hedge with a standard options contract,” said Kinahan. “They now can do so with the minis.”

The entry cost for trading these options is lower. A mini contract trading at $11.50 would cost $115 versus the cost of that standard “big” 100-share contract of $1,150 with the same quote, said Brian Overby, senior options analyst at online brokerage TradeKing in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The options industry has already seen explosive growth with the addition of weekly single-stock options since their introduction in June 2010. More than 4 million options contracts were traded in 2011 and 2012, the industry’s two biggest years.

The new mini-option opens the door for retail investors to utilize option strategies like the “covered call,” which helps protect against losses. Investors have the flexibility to sell a call on as little as a 10 share position on these expensive stocks, Overby said.

Investors previously had to own at least 100 shares of a stock to sell a call option against their stock position for it to be considered covered, Overby said. That carries a big cost for a stock like Google.

“Many investors often hold a relatively small number of shares in these stocks, and minis provide them with the ability to both hedge and write options on their holdings,” said Andy Nybo, head of derivatives at research firm TABB Group.

The options will carry the symbols AAPL7, AMZN7, GOOG7, GLD7 and SPY7.

(Reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Radio frequency chip makers tune in to smartphone race

By Sayantani Ghosh and Sruthi Ramakrishnan

Fri Mar 15, 2013 3:26pm EDT

(Reuters) – Radio frequency chip makers are set to gain as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Apple Inc unveil ever more sophisticated smartphones and tablets to battle for the No. 1 spot in the global mobile devices market.

Investors and analysts say they like shares of RF Micro Devices Inc, Skyworks Solutions Inc and Avago Technologies Ltd – companies that make the chips that enable gadgets to send and receive data wirelessly.

Samsung unveiled its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S4, in New York on Thursday. The S4 can stop and start videos when someone looks at the screen, flip between songs at the wave of a hand and record sound to accompany pictures.

As manufacturers improve and add new features to phones, which are increasingly used to stream music, video and games, they are boosting the RF chip technology used in the devices.

“The RF content in handsets continues to go up,” said Stewart Stecker, a portfolio manager at AlphaOne Capital. “That’s good from an immediate to longer-term perspective for the entire RF supply chain.”

The importance of RF chips will increase as network operators deploy high-speed wireless technology known as 4G LTE (long-term evolution), analysts said.

LTE requires a much higher number of frequency bands, which increases the number of RF chips in a phone.

The global LTE market is expected to almost double this year, surpassing the $10 billion mark, according to a March 13 report from telecom market research firm Infonetics Research.

“As you add LTE – that’s a whole other frequency – you need more radio, more RF equipment,” said Northland Securities analyst Tom Sepenzis.

A Verizon customer, for example, using a Samsung Galaxy S4 while traveling the world, would need to be able to use the LTE network in the United States and other countries, said Sepenzis.

“That requires more complex amplifiers that can handle multiple frequencies, requires better antenna solutions, switching capability to handle all the different frequencies. That obviously favors the RF component manufacturers,” he said.


Within the RF chip supplier group, analysts said those that have diversified their client base by supplying to Samsung, Apple, and other smartphone vendors such as China’s ZTE Corp are best placed to take advantage of demand.

After chipping away for years at Apple’s market share, Samsung emerged as the No. 1 seller of smartphones last year, undercutting its main competitor with cheaper handsets and a wide range of products.

Samsung sold 64.5 million smartphones in the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with 43.5 million iPhones sold by Apple, data from market research company Gartner shows.

Greensboro, North Carolina-based RF Micro receives about a quarter of its revenue from Samsung, up from 10 percent a year ago, data compiled by analysts showed. Orders from Apple account for a fifth of sales, they said. RF Micro declined to comment.

Power amplifier maker Skyworks relies on Samsung and Apple for about a quarter each of its revenue, analysts said. Skyworks was not available for comment.

T. Rowe Price Global Technology fund portfolio manager Josh Spencer said he likes Avago Technologies Ltd.

“Avago has some very high-end filtering technology that you have to have in the smartphone antennas,” Spencer said, adding that he was also considering buying RF Micro’s stock.

Shares of RF Micro and Skyworks gained 15 percent and 21 percent respectively from the beginning of the year until February 21, when the upward trend was interrupted by Qualcomm Inc’s unveiling of plans to make its own RF chip.

But both stocks recovered a day later after analysts said it was unlikely that Qualcomm would risk damaging integrated circuit partnerships to seek a profit opportunity of not more than $600 million.

Qualcomm has nearly half of the global market for “baseband” chips, which connect mobile phones to cellular networks, and therefore is also set to benefit from rapid LTE growth.

The S4 will use Samsung’s application processor in some regions and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips, which have LTE features, in others.

“Qualcomm has such dominance in the baseband market that they have pricing leverage even against big customers,” Spencer said.

(Editing by Robin Paxton)

Small business confidence, capital spending plans rise

WASHINGTON | Tue Mar 12, 2013 8:11am EDT

(Reuters) – Confidence among small businesses rose in February as owners shrugged off a tightening in fiscal policy and raised plans to increase capital spending and restock their warehouses.

The National Federation of Independent Business said on Tuesday its optimism index increased 1.9 percentage points to 90.8 last month, continuing to recover from a 2-1/2 year plunge in November.

The improvement in sentiment came even as small businesses braced for about $85 billion in across the board government spending cuts that started to take hold on March 1.

A two percent payroll tax cut expired on January 1 and tax rates for wealthy Americans went up.

Capital spending plans gained four points, while plans to increase inventories climbed six points last month. The share of owners viewing inventories as too low rose two points.

Owners’ outlook for business conditions in the next six months also improved two points.

Their perceptions of labor market conditions also improved, with the modest gains in the shares of owners planning to add jobs and those saying job openings were hard to fill.

Small business owners’ views of sales and credit conditions also improved last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

Economic growth gauge edged up last week: ECRI

NEW YORK | Fri Mar 15, 2013 10:31am EDT

(Reuters) – A measure of future economic growth edged higher last week, though the annualized growth rate faltered, a research group said on Friday.

The Economic Cycle Research Institute, a New York-based independent forecasting group, said its Weekly Leading Index rose to 129.9 in the week ended March 8 from a revised 129.5 the previous week. That was originally reported as 129.3.

The index’s annualized growth rate edged down to 6.3 percent from 6.4 percent a week earlier. It was the lowest level in eight weeks.

(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. doctor’s “gutsy” move led to baby’s cure from HIV

By Emily Le Coz and Julie Steenhuysen

JACKSON, Mississippi/CHICAGO, Illinois | Wed Mar 6, 2013 7:31pm EST

(Reuters) – The doctor who cured an HIV infected baby for the first time is happier talking to children than to adults and is finding all the attention since the news came out a little overwhelming.

Dr. Hannah Gay and colleagues Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts and Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported on the child’s case at a medical meeting in Atlanta on Sunday.

“The breakthrough has been exciting and I’m very hopeful that that’s going to lead to future research that will give us some answers,” said Gay, a Mississippi pediatrician and soft-spoken mother of four adult children.

But the attention is difficult for a woman “much more comfortable talking to children than adults,” said her husband, Paul Gay. “She didn’t anticipate this kind of explosion of attention.”

Dr. Gay, a 59-year-old native of Jackson, Mississippi, likes to spend time designing needle points, singing in her church choir and reading theology or medical literature when she’s not working 12-hour days treating patients, in a state with the nation’s highest poverty rate.

“She is the most unlikely person in the world to be getting this kind of international attention, really,” said Jay Richardson, her former pastor at the Highland Colony Baptist Church. “You don’t ever hear her talking about herself or trying to promote herself in any way. She’s a quiet, humble person. Extremely intelligent. Very committed to her faith. Very involved in her church. Very committed to teaching children the bible.”

Except for six years working in Ethiopia as a missionary, Dr. Gay has spent the bulk of her academic and professional career at the University of Mississippi, where she received her undergraduate and medical degrees and met her husband of 37 years. She has worked the better part of her career at the university’s medical center serving the state’s youngest victims of HIV.

During that time, Dr. Gay has published several articles about ways to keep mothers from passing HIV infection to their babies and participated in the federally sponsored Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Group, which studied the use of the aggressive treatment of children who are at high risk of infection.

Her daughter Ruth Gay Thomas says as an AIDS specialist her mother has had to fight the battles of her patients, overcoming access to healthcare and the stigma that comes along with being infected with HIV in the United States.

“She practices compassion and huge, unimaginable amounts of patience with her patients and their families,” Thomas said. “She really has to embody a whole lot more than just the smart doctor that knows the right medications to give.”

To treat her own rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Gay takes medicine that affects her immune system. “She has that in common with her patients, but it’s been a problem because with her compromised immune system, she can’t have as much of a hands-on touching of her patients that was always so satisfying for her,” her husband said.

When a rural hospital in Mississippi delivered a premature baby girl in July 2010 from a mother who had just tested positive for HIV during labor, it was only natural that they would turn to Dr. Gay. The child’s mother had not received any prenatal care, nor had she gotten any treatment for her HIV infection, putting the baby at high risk of becoming infected.

Dr. Gay chose to start the baby on the full treatment regimen of three potent drugs when she was just 30 hours old, even before the child’s infection was confirmed.

It was a bold move. Most babies exposed to HIV in the womb or during labor would have been given a six-week course of one or two drugs intended to reduce the risk of acquiring infection until tests could confirm she was infected.

“The doctor made a judgment call that the risks for this baby were so high that they were going to assume the baby was infected,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health or NIH.

Some critics have questioned Dr. Gay’s decision, which may have exposed the child to the risk of toxic medications without confirmation of her infection.

“This was a gutsy call that turned out to be correct,” said Fauci, adding that if it had turned out that the baby was not infected, they could have withdrawn the drugs. “They made the right guess.”

Dr. Gay continued to treat the child until January 2012, when she was 18 months old and her mother stopped bringing the child in for appointments. Gay’s team tracked her down in the fall of 2012, but the mother had not given her child any HIV medication since January.

Before restarting treatment, Gay did several tests, fully expecting that the virus had come roaring back. But none of the tests detected the virus. That’s when she brought in colleagues Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts and Persaud of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who did a series of ultrasensitive tests. They were only able to find trace amounts of genetic material from the virus, but nothing capable of rekindling the infection.

The child, now 30 months old, remains off medication and continues to fare well. “We can’t find any virus to treat at this point,” Dr. Gay said.

She said it is not clear what the child’s story will mean in the wider scheme of HIV research, but she hopes it may lead to a cure for other babies infected at birth.

“I guess the message that I want to get across to the public very strongly is, we don’t know yet if we can create the same outcome in other babies.” she said. “It’s far too early to draw too many conclusions. There’s not a cure in sight this week.”

Dr. Gay said she is glad that this is happening in Mississippi and hopes it boosts the state’s reputation.

“But it’s a whole lot bigger than this one child, the University Medical Center or the state,” she said. “It may take a long time, but I hope it will point us in the right direction to come up with a cure we can consistently apply to other babies worldwide.”

Colleagues at the medical center are planning a celebration for Dr. Gay to “let her know how proud we are,” said Amy Smith, a nurse practitioner who works with the doctor. “She’s the type that wouldn’t want a big fuss made about her, but we’re going to do it anyway.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Emily Le Coz; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Claudia Parsons)

Economic growth gauge strengthens in latest week: ECRI

NEW YORK | Fri Mar 8, 2013 10:38am EST

(Reuters) – A measure of future economic growth rose in the latest week although the annualized growth rate weakened, a research group said on Friday.

The Economic Cycle Research Institute, a New York-based independent forecasting group, said its Weekly Leading Index increased to 129.3 in the week ended March 1 from a revised 128.4 the previous week. That figure was originally reported as 128.5.

The index’s annualized growth rate softened to 6.2 percent from 6.8 percent a week earlier.

(Americas Economics and Markets Desk)