Wall Street Week Ahead: A lump of coal for "Fiscal Cliff-mas"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street traders are going to have to pack their tablets and work computers in their holiday luggage after all.

A traditionally quiet week could become hellish for traders as politicians in Washington are likely to fall short of an agreement to deal with $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts due to kick in early next year. Many economists forecast that this "fiscal cliff" will push the economy into recession.

Thursday's debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner failed to secure passage of his own bill that was meant to pressure President Obama and Senate Democrats, only added to worry that the protracted budget talks will stretch into 2013.

Still, the market remains resilient. Friday's decline on Wall Street, triggered by Boehner's fiasco, was not enough to prevent the S&P 500 from posting its best week in four.

"The markets have been sort of taking this in stride," said Sandy Lincoln, chief market strategist at BMO Asset Management U.S. in Chicago, which has about $38 billion in assets under management.

"The markets still basically believe that something will be done," he said.

If something happens next week, it will come in a short time frame. Markets will be open for a half-day on Christmas Eve, when Congress will not be in session, and will close on Tuesday for Christmas. Wall Street will resume regular stock trading on Wednesday, but volume is expected to be light throughout the rest of the week with scores of market participants away on a holiday break.

For the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes posted gains, with the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> up 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 <.spx> up 1.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> up 1.7 percent.

Stocks also have booked solid gains for the year so far, with just five trading sessions left in 2012: The Dow has advanced 8 percent, while the S&P 500 has climbed 13.7 percent and the Nasdaq has jumped 16 percent.


Equity volumes are expected to fall sharply next week. Last year, daily volume on each of the last five trading days dropped on average by about 49 percent, compared with the rest of 2011 - to just over 4 billion shares a day exchanging hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT in the final five sessions of the year from a 2011 daily average of 7.9 billion.

If the trend repeats, low volumes could generate a spike in volatility as traders keep track of any advance in the cliff talks in Washington.

"I'm guessing it's going to be a low volume week. There's not a whole lot other than the fiscal cliff that is going to continue to take the headlines," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, in Cincinnati.

"A lot of people already have a foot out the door, and with the possibility of some market-moving news, you get the possibility of increased volatility."

Economic data would have to be way off the mark to move markets next week. But if the recent trend of better-than-expected economic data holds, stocks will have strong fundamental support that could prevent selling from getting overextended even as the fiscal cliff negotiations grind along.

Small and mid-cap stocks have outperformed their larger peers in the last couple of months, indicating a shift in investor sentiment toward the U.S. economy. The S&P MidCap 400 Index <.mid> overcame a technical level by confirming its close above 1,000 for a second week.

"We view the outperformance of the mid-caps and the break of that level as a strong sign for the overall market," Schaeffer's Bell said.

"Whenever you have flight to risk, it shows investors are beginning to have more of a risk appetite."

Evidence of that shift could be a spike in shares in the defense sector, expected to take a hit as defense spending is a key component of the budget talks.

The PHLX defense sector index <.dfx> hit a historic high on Thursday, and far outperformed the market on Friday with a dip of just 0.26 percent, while the three major U.S. stock indexes finished the day down about 1 percent.

Following a half-day on Wall Street on Monday ahead of the Christmas holiday, Wednesday will bring the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. It is expected to show a ninth-straight month of gains.

U.S. jobless claims on Thursday are seen roughly in line with the previous week's level, with the forecast at 360,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared with the previous week's 361,000.

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: rodrigo.campos(at)thomsonreuters.com)

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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La.-Lafayette tops ECU in New Orleans Bowl, 43-34

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether Terrance Broadway was throwing, running, or throwing on the run, he gave East Carolina fits and justified Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth's decision to let his sophomore quarterback finish the season as his starter.

Broadway passed for 316 yards and ran for 108, helping Louisiana-Lafayette repeat as winners of the New Orleans Bowl with a 43-34 victory against East Carolina on Saturday.

The performance capped a 2012 campaign which opened with Broadway backing up senior Blaine Gautier, who broke a bone in his throwing hand in late September.

"Terrance comes in and just has a phenomenal season," Hudspeth said, describing the difficult decision not to give Gautier, the New Orleans Bowl MVP a year ago, his job back when he was healthy again late in the season. "We really had hit our stride and the best thing about Blaine is he understood."

Broadway had to sit out last season after transferring from Houston, and saw this year's New Orleans Bowl as his first real chance to add some kind of championship to his name after coming up short as a high school standout in Baton Rouge, La.

"My main goal was to get our team a big win in this bowl game and just to get that monkey off my back that I didn't have a ring from high school and last year," Broadway said. "I was very focused on that."

Alonzo Harris rushed for 120 yards, including touchdowns of 6 and 68 yards for the Ragin' Cajuns (9-4), who briefly squandered a three-touchdown lead before moving back in front for good on Broadway's 14-yard scoring pass to Javone Lawson late in the third quarter.

"Nothing fazes our team," said Broadway, who also ran for a 12-yard score. "Everybody on our team responds to adversity well. So when they came back on us and made a game out of it, our team is still upbeat and saying we're going to win this game."

And they did, with Brett Baer adding his second and third field goals in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Shane Carden passed for 278 yards and two touchdowns for East Carolina (8-5) but was intercepted in Cajuns territory by Jemarlous Moten in the fourth quarter as ECU drove for a potential tying or go-ahead score.

"They did a good job of changing, I guess, the coverage throughout the game," Carden said of ULL. "But I think our offense could execute a lot better. It was nothing really they were doing. It was a lot of us just not executing routine plays."

The Pirates' Reggie Bullock rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

"The game plan was fine. We just needed the execution of the calls. We've always played hard. That was not a problem," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We had a chance there late in the game. ... I was proud of our guys."

Carden's touchdowns went to Justin Hardy for 19 yards and Danny Webster for 16 yards. Hardy finished with five catches for 59 yards. East Carolina's Andrew Bodenheimer had five catches for a team-high 65 yards, but could not secure a crucial fourth-down pass in the final minutes as defensive back T.J. Worthy ripped the ball away in ECU territory. That allowed the Cajuns to run the clock down to 15 seconds before setting up Baer's final field goal from 40-yards out.

Jamal Robinson had six catches for 116 yards for ULL, including a 39-yarder that was Broadway's longest completion. Lawson finished with four catches for 71 yards.

The Cajuns carried a 37-31 lead into the fourth quarter after Lawson juggled but secured the ball for a sprawling, rolling TD catch. The point-after kick failed, however, and East Carolina made it 37-34 on Warren Harvey's 26-yard field goal.

Broadway's interception on a tipped pass gave East Carolina the ball on the Cajuns 39, but Moten stepped in front of Carden's long pass over the middle to help preserve the slim lead.

Red-clad Ragin' Cajuns fans made up the bulk of a record New Orleans Bowl crowd of 48,828, and they were celebrating early.

Broadway's scoring run, his ninth rushing TD of the season, gave ULL a 7-0 lead and Harry Peoples' 10-yard scoring made it 14-0.

ECU didn't get a first down until early in the second quarter, when Carden converted on third-and-long with Jabril Solomon for a 45-yard gain. That set up Bullock's first touchdown from 5 yards out to make it 14-7.

Harris' two scores had the Cajuns seemingly in command at 28-7, but ECU responded with two touchdowns in a span of 13 seconds to make it a one-score game.

First came Hardy's leaping, outstretched grab in the back of the end zone. Then Darryl Surgent fumbled a kickoff return, giving ECU the ball on the Cajuns 16. Carden found Webster over the middle for a score on the next play.

Louisiana-Lafayette was able to regain some momentum in the final 37 seconds of the first half, driving 47 yards on five plays to set up Baer's 50-yard field goal, which was the same distance and direction as his game-winner at the end of last year's New Orleans Bowl.

The Pirates tied it in the third quarter on Harvey's 45-yard field goal and Bullock's 13-yard scoring run, capping a drive that included a converted fourth-and-3.

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How to Track Santa on Christmas Eve

Anybody wondering when to put out the milk and cookies this Christmas Eve can track Santa Claus‘ epic journey around the globe, from magical start to mythical finish.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, will keep an eagle eye on jolly St. Nick’s movements Monday (Dec. 24), beginning with Santa’s reindeer-powered liftoff from the North Pole. You can follow along at the “NORAD Tracks Santa” website on the fateful day.

NORAD — which ordinarily watches out for missiles, aircraft or space vehicles that could pose a threat to the United States or Canada — will use four different types of resources to keep tabs on Kris Kringle Monday, officials said.

First, radar installations near the North Pole will flag Santa’s departure. Then a constellation of reconnaissance satellites will watch St. Nick fly, taking advantage of a unique characteristic of his lead reindeer.

“Amazingly, Rudolph’s bright red nose gives off an infrared signature, which allows our satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa,” NORAD officials explain at the Santa-tracking website.

A global network of high-speed “Santa Cams” — which are used just once a year — also capture photos and video of the gift-laden sleigh as it speeds by. Finally, Santa will get some chaperones as he enters North American airspace.

“Canadian NORAD fighter pilots flying the CF-18 fighter jets intercept and welcome Santa to North America,” NORAD officials write. “In the United States, American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15, F-16 or the F-22 get the thrill of flying alongside Santa and his famous reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and, of course, Rudolph.”

NORAD has been tracking Santa every year since 1958, when the binational organization was formed. But the tradition actually began three years earlier with NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD).

In 1955, a Sears Roebuck & Co. branch in Colorado Springs ran an advertisement with a telephone number that kids could use to call Santa. But the number was misprinted and actually put children through to the CONAD commander-in-chief’s operations hotline.

“The director of operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole,” NORAD officials write. “Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.”

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook and Google+

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Will media stay on gun story?


  • Howard Kurtz: Conventional wisdom is that media will lose interest in guns

  • He says that's been the pattern of media behavior after Columbine, other shootings

  • This time seems like it might be different, he says

  • Kurtz: Reporters profoundly shaken by story, should stay on it

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The conventional wisdom is that Newtown has just a few more days to run as a major media story.

The reporters are pulling out of the grief-stricken Connecticut town, which means no more live shots every hour. The White House press corps responded to President Obama's announcement Wednesday of a task force on gun control with the first three reporters asking about the impending fiscal cliff. And after every previous mass shooting, from Columbine to Aurora, the media's attention has soon drifted away.

But I believe this time will be different.

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

I believe the horror of 20 young children being gunned down has pricked the conscience of those in the news business, along with the rest of America.

I could be wrong, of course. The press is notorious for suffering from ADD.

But every conversation I've had with journalists has quickly drifted to this subject and just as quickly turned intense. Most have talked about how their thoughts have centered on their children, and grandchildren, and the unspeakable fear of anything happening to them. All have spoken about how hard it is to watch the coverage, and many have recalled crying as they watch interviews with the victims' families, or even when Obama teared up while addressing the nation.

Watch: Blaming Jon Stewart for the Newtown Shootings?

I've watched Fox's Megyn Kelly choke back tears on the air after watching an interview from Newtown. I've heard CNN's Don Lemon admit that he is on the verge of crying all the time. I've seen MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, say that day in Connecticut "changed everything" and prompted him to rethink his longstanding opposition to gun control, which earned him top ratings from the NRA.

Maybe Newtown will be the 9/11 of school safety.

Watch: Media Fantasy: Touting Ben Affleck (Uh Huh) for the Senate

The media paid scant attention to gun control in the past, in part because of a conviction that the NRA would block any reform on Capitol Hill. At the same time, they took their cue from the fact that officeholders in both parties were avoiding the issue at all costs—Republicans because they mainly support the status quo, Democrats because they mostly deem it political poison.

But since when is it our job solely to take dictation from pols? When it comes to subjects like climate change and same-sex marriage, the press has been out ahead of the political establishment. Given the carnage in Newtown as the latest example, journalists should demand whether we can do better. The fact that Obama now promises to submit gun legislation to Congress will help the narrative, but it shouldn't be a mandatory requirement for coverage.

Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown

This is not a plea for a press-driven crusade for gun control. In fact, it's imperative that journalists be seen as honest brokers who are fair to all sides. MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, in an interview with Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who opposes gun restrictions, said: "So we need to just be complacent in the fact that we can send our children to school to be assassinated." That is demonization, just as some conservative pundits are unfairly accusing liberal commentators who push for gun control of "politicizing" a tragedy or of pushing God out of the public schools.

The question of school safety extends beyond guns to mental illness and societal influences. With even some NRA supporters asking why law-abiding hunters need automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, it's time for a nuanced debate that goes beyond the usual finger-pointing. Bob Costas got hammered for using an NFL murder-suicide to raise the gun issue during a halftime commentary, but he was right to broach the subject.

Here is where the media have not just an opportunity but a responsibility. The news business has no problem giving saturation coverage to such salacious stories as David Petraeus' dalliance with Paula Broadwell. Isn't keeping our children safe from lunatics far more important by an order of magnitude?

I think the press is up to the challenge. Based on what I've heard in the voices of people in the profession, they will not soon forget what happened in Newtown. And they shouldn't let the rest of us forget either.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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Alderman calls fire that claimed the lives of 2 children 'senseless'

A 3-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl died this morning after they and two other children were left home alone in the Englewood neighborhood, officials say. (Posted Dec. 22nd, 2012)

Hours before a fire swept through their bedroom, killing their younger sister and cousin, Darnell and Marquis were watching Batman cartoons as their mother and aunt were dressing for a night out, the boys said in an interview.

But in the middle of the night, before the two adults returned home to check on the four children, a hot plate being used to heat the room fell onto some clothes, igniting a fire, the boys and authorities said.

Darnell, 7, and Marquis, 4, managed to run out a back door with the help of their aunt to escape the fire in their West Englewood home, they said.

But a 2-year-old boy, identified at the Cook County medical examiner’s office as Javaris Meakens, and a 3-year-old girl, Jariyah Meakens, perished in the blaze that was contained in a bedroom of the house.

“When the fire started, everything shut off,” said Darnell, who said it was his sister and cousin who were left in the house. “Auntie came to get us. When (she) saw the fire, she called all our names. When I opened the door, she told me, ‘Come on, the fire’s getting closer.’”

On Saturday, the children’s mothers were being questioned by Chicago police, but no charges had been filed. The two surviving children told authorities they were left alone in the house when the fire broke out.

The children were interviewed as they sat with four adult women. Because their parents have not been charged, police would not release the names of the children’s mothers.

The fire occurred about 3:30 a.m. in the 6400 block of South Paulina Street, officials said.

When firefighters arrived, there were flames shooting out of the middle bedroom, and smoke throughout the first floor apartment, said James Mungovan, the Deputy District Chief for District 5 with the Chicago Fire Department.

At first, firemen concentrated on getting water to the blaze, Mungovan said. Once the fire was extinguished, they learned the two children did not survive, he said.

“We got here in a timely matter. We got water on the fire and we made our searches, which revealed two deceased people,” he said. “The fire had advanced to the stage where it was open, free-burning.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Mungovan said.

But authorities are looking closely at the hot plate that was found in the bedroom, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Fire Department.
“There is no official cause yet,” Langford said. “We did not find one working smoke detector in that building.”
On Saturday morning, a crew of firemen went door to door on the block offering free smoke detectors to neighbors and talking to them about fire safety.

Ald. Toni Foulkes, 15th, said she arrived to the house about an hour after the fire was reported.

Officials from the Fire Department told her the blaze apparently was started by a hot plate that was being used to heat a bedroom, she said.

“This was senseless,” Foulkes said, shaking her head as she stood outside the two-story grey-stone building. “The oldest (boy), he was just terrified. It bothers me.”

Earlier that morning, as firefighters battled the blaze, neighbors Michelle Washington and Tiffany Williams saw the two boys standing outside without coats and shoes, they said.

They invited the boys into their home to keep warm.

Darnell and Marquis told the women their mother and aunt went to a party at the “haunted house” and told them to go to sleep, Washington said. When the boys woke up, they saw the fire and smoke.

“They looked shaken and scared,” Washington said.

It was at Washington's home that investigators from the Bomb and Arson unit and the Office of Fire Investigations interviewed the boys, the women said.

The children were later taken into protective custody by the Department of Children and Family Services.

News of the younger children’s deaths shook up the West Englewood block and riled up neighbors, who said they often saw Darnell walking home alone from school.

Some neighbors said there was no gas service at the house, which is why the family was using the hot plate to keep warm.

The family had lived on the block for about a year and a half, said neighbor Ken Allison. Neighbors often saw the women with their children, he said, but they were not well known.

“There’s no way they should have left those kids alone,” he said, his voice rising with indignation. “There’s no room to half-step as a parent. There’s too much going on.”

When firefighters arrived around 3:30 a.m., they weren't able to get into the home because of intense heat and fire, a Chicago Fire Department official said. Fire was heavy throughout the basement and first floor, he said.

Firefighters cut through burglar bars on the windows, he said.

Firefighters eventually found the two children cuddled up in a bed, fire officials said at a news conference.

The basement windows were all shattered. A white Christmas tree, smudged with smoke, stood near a front room window.

A neighbor told an investigator that the second-floor tenants recently moved out of the brick and stone two-flat.


Twitter: @PeterNickeas

Twitter: @lollybowean

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Early signs show Egypt's new constitution passing

CAIRO (Reuters) - Early indications showed Egyptians approved an Islamist-drafted constitution after Saturday's final round of voting in a referendum despite opposition criticism of the measure as divisive.

An official from the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, which backs Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, said that after nearly 4 million votes had been counted there was a majority of 74 percent in favor of the constitution.

Exit polls from the opposition National Salvation Front also showed the constitution passing, an official said.

Last week's first round returned 57 percent in favor of the constitution, according to unofficial data. The vote was split over two days as many judges refused to supervise the ballot.

The referendum committee may not declare official results for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.

Islamist backers of Mursi say the constitution is vital to move to democracy, nearly two years after an Arab Spring revolt overthrew authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. It will provide stability for a weak economy, they say.

But the opposition accuses Mursi of pushing through a text that favors Islamists and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.

"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stockbroker, heading to a polling station in Giza, in greater Cairo.

At another polling station, some voters said they were more interested in ending Egypt's long period of political instability than in the Islamist aspects of the charter.

"We have to extend our hands to Mursi to help fix the country," said Hisham Kamal, an accountant.


Hours before polls closed, Vice President Mahmoud Mekky announced his resignation. He said he wanted to quit last month but stayed on to help Mursi tackle a crisis that blew up when the Islamist leader assumed wide powers.

Mekky, a prominent judge who said he was uncomfortable in politics, disclosed earlier he had not been informed of Mursi's power grab. The timing of his resignation appeared linked to the lack of a vice-presidential post under the draft constitution.

Rights groups reported alleged law violations during voting. They said some polling stations opened late, that Islamists illegally campaigned at some of them, and complained of voter registration irregularities, including listing of a dead person.

The new basic law sets a limit of two four-year presidential terms. It says sharia law principles remain the main source of legislation but adds an article to explain this further. It also says Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia - a source of concern to Christians and other non-Muslims.

If the constitution passes, there will be parliamentary elections in about two months.

After the first round of voting, the opposition said alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.

But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said its investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million voters. About 25 million were eligible to vote in the second round.


If the charter is approved, the opposition says it is a recipe for trouble since it will not have received sufficiently broad backing and that it will not have been a fair vote.

"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.

Protesters accused the president of acting like a pharaoh, and he was forced to issue a second decree two weeks ago that amended a provision putting his decisions above legal challenge.

Said cited "serious violations" on the first day of voting, and said anger against Mursi was growing. "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."

At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals hurled stones at each other on Friday in Alexandria, the second-biggest city. Two buses were torched.

Late on Saturday, Mursi announced the names of 90 new members he had appointed to the upper house of parliament, state media reported, and a presidential official said the list was mainly liberals and other non-Islamists.

Mursi's main opponents from liberal, socialist and other parties said they had refused to take any seats.

Two-thirds of the 270-member upper house was elected in a vote early this year, with one third appointed by the president. Mursi, elected in June, had not named them till now. Mursi's Islamist party and its allies dominate the assembly.

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Jason Webb)

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Wall Street ends lower after "fiscal cliff" setback

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks finished lower on Friday after a Republican plan to avoid the "fiscal cliff" failed to gain sufficient support on Thursday night, draining hopes that a deal would be reached before 2013.

Still, stocks managed to rebound from the day's lows near the end of the session, and for the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes still ended higher, with the S&P 500 gaining 1.2 percent.

Trading was volatile because of waning confidence in the prospect of a deal out of Washington, and in part, as the result of the quarterly expiration of options and futures contracts. The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> or VIX, the market's favorite barometer of investor anxiety, finished below its session high.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner failed to garner enough votes from even his own party to pass his "Plan B" tax bill late on Thursday. It was the latest setback in negotiations to avoid $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that some say could tip the U.S. economy into recession.

"The failure with Plan B was disappointing, if not terribly surprising, but now there's a real lack of clarity about what will happen, and markets hate that," said Mike Hennessy, managing director of investments for Morgan Creek in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 120.88 points, or 0.91 percent, to 13,190.84 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> fell 13.54 points, or 0.94 percent, to 1,430.15. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 29.38 points, or 0.96 percent, to 3,021.01.

"Amazingly, this sharp decline today may not actually change the technical picture much - unless the decline gets worse," said Larry McMillan, president of options research firm McMillan Analysis Corp, in a research note.

For the week, the Dow gained 0.4 percent and the Nasdaq climbed 1.7 percent.

On Friday, Herbalife dropped for an eighth straight session. Investor Bill Ackman recently ramped up his campaign against the company. The stock skidded 19.2 percent to $27.27 and has lost more than 35 percent this week.

Plan B, which called for tax increases on those who earn $1 million or more a year, was not going to pass the Democratic-led Senate or win acceptance from the White House anyway. But it exposed the reality that it will be difficult to get Republican support for the more expansive tax increases that President Barack Obama has urged.

Still, the declines of about 1 percent in the three major U.S. stock indexes suggest that investors do not believe the economy will be unduly damaged by the absence of a deal, said Mark Lehmann, president of JMP Securities, in San Francisco.

"You could have easily woken up today and seen the market down 300 or 400 points, and everyone would have said, 'That's telling you this is really dire,'" Lehmann said.

"I think if you get into mid-January and (the talks) keep going like this, you get worried, but I don't think we're going to get there."

Banking shares, which outperform during economic expansion and have led the market on signs of progress on resolving the fiscal impasse, led Friday's declines. Citigroup Inc fell 1.7 percent to $39.49, while Bank of America slid 2 percent to $11.29. The KBW Banks index <.bkx> lost 1.19 percent.

Volatility on Friday was exacerbated in part by "quadruple witching," the quarterly expiration of stock index futures and options, stock options and single stock futures contracts.

About 8.59 billion shares changed hands on major U.S. exchanges, more than the daily average of 6.47 billion daily in 2012, in part because of the "quadruple witching" expiration.

The day's round of data indicated the economy was surprisingly resilient in November; consumer spending rose by the most in three years and a gauge of business investment jumped.

But separate data showed consumer sentiment slumped in December. The S&P Retail Index <.spxrt> fell 1.2 percent.

U.S.-listed shares of Research in Motion sank 22.7 percent to $10.91 after the Canadian company, known as the BlackBerry maker, reported its first-ever decline in its subscriber numbers on Thursday alongside a new fee structure for its high-margin services segment.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica and Leah Schnurr; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal)

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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors

When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.

"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."

Just a bit.

The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.

"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."

In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).

Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.

"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.

Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.

She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.

By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.

She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."

But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.

Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.

"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."

Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.

She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.

"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."

The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.

"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."

Besides, she's having far too much fun.

Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.

"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."

Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.

Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.

"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.

Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.

"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.

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EPA finalizes boiler rule to reduce air pollution

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency finalized rules Friday aimed at reducing toxic air pollution from industrial boilers and incinerators while offering industry more flexibility and lower costs to comply with the new standards.

Obama administration officials said most of the 1.5 million boilers nationwide are not covered by the regulation since they are too small or emit too little pollution to warrant controls.

The changes will require pollution controls at about 2,300 of the largest and most polluting boilers nationwide, including those found at refineries and chemical plants. Those boilers will have three years to comply and could be granted a fourth year if they need to install pollution controls.

Another 197,000 smaller boilers would be able to meet the rule through routine tune-ups.

The EPA said it cut the cost of compliance by about $ 1.5 billion.

Republicans have opposed the environmental regulations as detrimental to business during tough economic times and unsuccessfully tried to slow down the new rules in Congress.

The EPA estimated that despite the flexibility and the decision to target the largest polluters, the rules will still provide significant health benefits. The new standards will prevent up to 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks and 52,000 asthma attacks, according to the agency.

EPA estimated that Americans would receive $ 13 to $ 29 in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the final standards and lead to a small net increase in jobs.

Environmental groups said the rules were not as stringent as they had hoped but would help Americans breathe cleaner air. “These standards are a mixed bag,” said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Clean Air Program.

Industry groups said the regulations were still overly burdensome. Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the rules were “far from being realistic” and accused the EPA of pushing “another costly and crippling regulation at a time when our economy is on the brink.”

Industrial boilers burn coal and other fuels to generate steam and hot water for heat and electricity. After coal-fired power plants, boilers are the nation’s second-largest source of mercury emissions, a potent neurotoxin. But boilers are among a handful of pollution sources that still have no standards for toxic emissions.

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Goodbye, U.S. Postal Service?

This Christmas could be the Post Office's last, says John Avlon.


  • The U.S. Postal Service is bleeding money and heading toward insolvency

  • John Avlon: Congress can save the postal service in deal on the fiscal cliff

  • He says the urgency is clear, let's hope for a Christmas miracle

  • Avlon: But be prepared that Washington dysfunction can doom the postal service

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- It's the time of year for dashing through the snow to the crowded post office, with arms full of holiday gifts for family and friends.

Not to break the atmosphere of holiday cheer, but this Christmas could be the last for the U.S. Postal Service. It is losing $25 million dollars a day and staring down insolvency -- unless Congress steps in to pass a reform package that reduces its costs.

With just a few days left in the congressional calendar, there is still some small hope for a Christmas miracle -- maybe the Postal Service can be saved as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff. But with even Hurricane Sandy relief stalled, skepticism is growing.

John Avlon

John Avlon

The real question is, what's taken them so long? After all, back in April the Senate passed an imperfect but bipartisan bill by 62-37. It would have saved some $20 billion, cut some 100 distribution centers, and reduced head count by an additional 100,000 through incentives for early retirement, while reducing red tape to encourage entrepreneurialism and keeping Saturday delivery in place for at least another two years. At the time, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said, "The situation is not hopeless; the situation is dire. My hope is that our friends over in the U.S. House, given the bipartisan steps we took this week, will feel a sense of urgency."

To which the House might as well have replied, "Not so much."

In August, the Postal Service defaulted for the first time, unable to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirees' health benefits. The headline in Government Executive magazine said it all: "Postal Service defaults, Congress does nothing."

The usual suspects were at fault -- hyperpartisan politics and the ideological arrogance that always makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa greeted the news of the Senate bill by calling it a "taxpayer-funded bailout." His primary complaint was that the Senate bill did not go far enough. He was not alone -- Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also expressed disappointment at the scope of the Senate bill, saying that it fell "far short of the Postal Service's plan."

But Issa's alternative couldn't even get to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And so nothing happened. Even after the USPS defaulted on a second $5.5 billion payment, the response was crickets.

Washington insiders said that action would be taken after the election, when lawmakers would be free to make potentially unpopular decisions. But despite a series of closed-door meetings, nothing has been done.

It's possible that the nearly $20 billion in savings could be part of a fiscal cliff deal. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested that ending Saturday delivery, except for packages, could be part of a compromise that could save big bucks down the road. Another aspect of a savings plan could be suspending the USPS' onerous obligation to fully fund its pension costs upfront, a requirement that would push many businesses into bankruptcy. And last fiscal year, the post office posted a record $15.9 billion loss.

"As the nation creeps toward the 'fiscal cliff,' the U.S. Postal Service is clearly marching toward a financial collapse of its own," says Carper. "The Postal Service's financial crisis is growing worse, not better. It is imperative that Congress get to work on this issue and find a solution immediately. ... Recently key House and Senate leaders on postal reform have had productive discussions on a path forward, and while there may be some differences of opinion in some of the policy approaches needed to save the Postal Service, there is broad agreement that reform needs to happen -- the sooner the better."

The urgency couldn't be clearer -- but even at this yuletide 11th hour, signs of progress are slim to none. If Congress fails to pass a bill, we'll be back to square one in the new year, with the Senate needing to pass a new bill which will then have to be ratified by the House. There is just no rational reason to think that lift will be any easier in the next Congress than in the current lame duck Congress, where our elected officials are supposedly more free to do the right thing, freed from electoral consequences.

So as you crowd your local post office this holiday season, look around and realize that the clock is ticking. The Postal Service is fighting for its life. And Congress seems determined to ignore its cries for help.

"Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night" can stop the U.S. Postal Service from making its appointed rounds -- but congressional division and dysfunction apparently can.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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Metra to install defibrillators throughout system


(Tribune illustration / March 13, 2012)

Hundreds of defibrillators will be installed on all of Metra’s trains, officials said today.

The commuter rail line plans to equip its trains with nearly 300 of the automatic external defibrillators, according to a news release.

Another 125 of the devices will be installed “throughout work facilities and Metra police vehicles,” the release said.

Metra is partnering in the effort with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Cardiac Science.

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Italy PM Monti resigns, elections likely in February

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tendered his resignation to the president on Friday after 13 months in office, opening the way to a highly uncertain national election in February.

The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, has kept his own political plans a closely guarded secret but he has faced growing pressure to seek a second term.

President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to dissolve parliament in the next few days and has already indicated that the most likely date for the election is February 24.

In an unexpected move, Napolitano said he would hold consultations with political leaders from all the main parties on Saturday to discuss the next steps. In the meantime Monti will continue in a caretaker capacity.

European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have called for Monti's economic reform agenda to continue but Italy's two main parties have said he should stay out of the race.

Monti, who handed in his resignation during a brief meeting at the presidential palace shortly after parliament approved his government's 2013 budget, will hold a news conference on Sunday at which he is expected clarify his intentions.

Ordinary Italians are weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts and opinion polls offer little evidence that they are ready to give Monti a second term. A survey this week showed 61 percent saying he should not stand.

Whether he runs or not, his legacy will loom over an election which will be fought out over the painful measures he has introduced to try to rein in Italy's huge public debt and revive its stagnant economy.

His resignation came a couple of months before the end of his term, after his technocrat government lost the support of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party in parliament earlier this month.

Speculation is swirling over Monti's next moves. These could include outlining policy recommendations, endorsing a centrist alliance committed to his reform agenda or even standing as a candidate in the election himself.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has held a strong lead in the polls for months but a centrist alliance led by Monti could gain enough support in the Senate to force the PD to seek a coalition deal which could help shape the economic agenda.


Senior figures from the alliance, including both the UDC party, which is close to the Roman Catholic Church, and a new group founded by Ferrari sports car chairman Luca di Montezemolo, have been hoping to gain Monti's backing.

He has not said clearly whether he intends to run, but he has dropped heavy hints he will continue to push a reform agenda that has the backing of both Italy's business community and its European partners.

The PD has promised to stick to the deficit reduction targets Monti has agreed with the European Union and says it will maintain the broad course he has set while putting more emphasis on reviving growth.

Berlusconi's return to the political arena has added to the already considerable uncertainty about the centre-right's intentions and increased the likelihood of a messy and potentially bitter election campaign.

The billionaire media tycoon has fluctuated between attacking the government's "Germano-centric" austerity policies and promising to stand aside if Monti agrees to lead the centre right, but now appears to have settled on an anti-Monti line.

He has pledged to cut taxes and scrap a hated housing tax which Monti imposed. He has also sounded a stridently anti-German line which has at times echoed the tone of the populist 5-Star Movement headed by maverick comic Beppe Grillo.

The PD and the PDL, both of which supported Monti's technocrat government in parliament, have made it clear they would not be happy if he ran against them and there have been foretastes of the kind of attacks he can expect.

Former centre-left prime minister Massimo D'Alema said in an interview last week that it would be "morally questionable" for Monti to run against the PD, which backed all of his reforms and which has pledged to maintain his pledges to European partners.

Berlusconi who has mounted an intensive media campaign in the past few days, echoed that criticism this week, saying Monti risked losing the credibility he has won over the past year and becoming a "little political figure".

(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Paolo Biondi; Writing by Gavin Jones and James Mackenzie; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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Clearwire, Sprint set $120 million breakup fee

Sprint Corp promised to pay Clearwire Corp a $120 million breakup fee if its $2.2 billion purchase of roughly half of the smaller wireless service provider does not go ahead but it restricted Clearwire's ability to entertain other offers.

Sprint, the majority owner of Clearwire, announced details of its purchase agreement in a regulatory filing on Tuesday, the day after it said it would buy out the rest of Clearwire for $2.97 per share.

Clearwire shares were below the offer price at $2.88 in morning trade.

Some shareholders said they were disappointed by the price, which requires approval from a majority of Clearwire's minority shareholders. While one shareholder is looking for support for a class action lawsuit against the deal, another is still holding out hope for a higher bid.

But Sprint said in the filing that Clearwire had agreed to a no-shop restriction of its ability to solicit other offers.

It also said that Clearwire would be restricted from providing information to or engaging in discussions or negotiations with third parties regarding an acquisition proposal, subject to certain exceptions.

It did not disclose the potential exceptions to the rule.

The Clearwire deal is conditional on the sale of a 70 percent stake in Sprint to Japan's SoftBank Corp for $20 billion, which is expected to close around mid-2013.

Sprint would have to pay the breakup fee if the SoftBank deal does not happen, if it or Clearwire terminates the agreement, or if their deal has not been consummated on or before October 15, 2013, according to the filing.

The merger agreement also includes a "no-shop" restriction on Clearwire's ability to solicit acquisition proposals.

Sprint has support for the deal from at least three Clearwire shareholders owning 13 percent of the company - Intel Corp, Comcast Corp and cable company Bright House.

Clearwire shares were down 3 cents or 1 percent at $2.88 in morning trade on Nasdaq. Sprint stock was down 8 cents or 1.4 percent at $5.48 on New York Stock Exchange.
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