Carney dismisses concern about inflation expectations

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The future head of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, dismissed concern on Saturday about the danger of inflation expectations spiraling in Britain and elsewhere.

Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, has been an advocate of flexible inflation targeting, and said last month that monetary policy was not maxed out in major economies.

He has said the Bank of England may need to commit to keeping highly accommodative monetary policy even after the economy and possibly inflation pick up.

Asked at a news conference on Saturday if there was a risk that inflation expectations in Britain and other members of the Group of 20 leading economies become unmoored because of loose monetary policy, he said: “The risks globally are deficient demand.”

Pressed about the issue in Britain, where inflation has been above the UK’s 2 percent target since December 2009, Carney said: “I think that’s a question for the governor of the Bank of England, and his name is Mervyn King.”

He was speaking after a meeting of G20 central bankers and finance ministers.

Separately, Carney declined to endorse an International Monetary Fund opinion that the Canadian dollar was 5 to 15 percent higher than warranted by long-term economic fundamentals.

“We don’t comment on levels of exchange rates. We’ve noted for some time that the Canadian dollar is persistently strong,” he said.

“It’s something we take into account in the setting of monetary policy in Canada. It’s one of the reasons why policy is as accommodative as it is.”

(Editing by Mike Peacock)

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Analysis: G20 promises unlikely to end devaluation debate

By Jan Strupczewski

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Financial leaders from the world’s 20 biggest economies may have promised not to devalue their currencies to help exports, but the pledge will do little to keep exchange rates stable.

While G20 finance ministers and central bank governors can promise not to devalue their currencies directly, there can be no guarantees while central banks are pumping money into economies to make them grow again.

“We will refrain from competitive devaluation. We will not target our exchange rates for competitive purposes,” the G20 financial leaders said in a closing statement after meeting in Moscow on Friday and Saturday.

But it is precisely the ultra-loose monetary policy of the U.S. Federal Reserve or Bank of Japan, aimed at helping their domestic economies to grow, that depressed the dollar and the yen and sparked the whole competitive devaluation debate.

That trend is unlikely to change, something China and other key emerging markets were quick to warn against in Moscow.

Fed chief Ben Bernanke said on Friday that “the United States was using domestic policy tools to advance domestic objectives”.

Tokyo in turn insists that the Bank of Japan’s pledge to start buying unlimited amounts government bonds is purely to help its shrinking economy get out of recession.

The G20 agreed there was nothing wrong with such policies.

But a devaluation of a currency, whether deliberate or just a side-effect of monetary policy, is still a devaluation. Calling it competitive or otherwise just labels the intent behind the move.

Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, asked after the G20 talks how to distinguish whether monetary policy was aimed at boosting the economy or specifically targeting the exchange rate said: “It’s quite difficult to gauge that.”

While Japan has insisted that neither this week’s G7 or G20 currency statements required it to change policy tack in any way, anonymous briefing after the former said Tokyo was squarely being targeted.

Perhaps what riled the Group of Seven rich powers in particular is not Japan’s policy slate, which could bolster world economic recovery, but statements by some Japanese officials targeting specific levels for the yen.

“The market will take the G20 statement as an approval for what it has been doing — selling of the yen,” said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London. “No censure of Japan means they will be off to the money printing presses.”

G20 agreement that financial markets should set the exchange rate of a currency offers no relief to countries like Brazil whose relatively high interest rates attract capital from low interest-rate countries like the United States, putting upward pressure on its currency and making its exports more expensive.

European Central Bank Vice-President Vitor Constancio indicated the G20 pledge on avoiding competitive devaluations had more to do with the speed of exchange rate fluctuations.

“It all has to do with the avoidance of too abrupt movements in the exchange rate and keeping the exchange rate moving in just in one direction — that would of course raise questions and would have to be discussed,” Constancio told a news conference after the talks.

While G20 officials played down talk of “currency wars” — a term coined by Brazil — and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde said they were more “currency worries”, officials privately say they expect exchange rates to return to be on the agenda for many meetings to come.

“The G20 must consult permanently on what is happening in exchange rates, because it is a point of common interest. Any disorderly movements have to be discussed,” Constancio said.

(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Ekaterina Golubkova and G20 team in Moscow. Editing by Mike Peacock)

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G20 steps back from currency brink, heat off Japan

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Group of 20 nations declared on Saturday there would be no currency war and deferred plans to set new debt-cutting targets, underlining broad concern about the fragile state of the world economy.

Japan's expansive policies, which have driven down the yen, escaped direct criticism in a statement thrashed out in Moscow by policymakers from the G20, which spans developed and emerging markets and accounts for 90 percent of the world economy.

Analysts said the yen, which has dropped 20 percent as a result of aggressive monetary and fiscal policies to reflate the Japanese economy, may now continue to fall.

"The market will take the G20 statement as an approval for what it has been doing -- selling of the yen," said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London. "No censure of Japan means they will be off to the money printing presses."

After late-night talks, finance ministers and central bankers agreed on wording closer than expected to a joint statement issued last Tuesday by the Group of Seven rich nations backing market-determined exchange rates.

A draft communiqué on Friday had steered clear of the G7's call for economic policy not to be targeted at exchange rates. But the final version included a G20 commitment to refrain from competitive devaluations and stated monetary policy would be directed only at price stability and growth.

"The mood quite clearly early on was that we needed desperately to avoid protectionist measures ... that mood permeated quite quickly," Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters, adding that the wording of the G20 statement had been hardened up by the ministers.

As a result, it reflected a substantial, but not complete, endorsement of Tuesday's proclamation by the G7 nations - the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

As with the G7 intervention, Tokyo said it gave it a green light to pursue its policies unchecked.

"I have explained that (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe's administration is doing its utmost to escape from deflation and we have gained a certain understanding," Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters.

"We're confident that if Japan revives its own economy that would certainly affect the world economy as well. We gained understanding on this point."

Flaherty admitted it would be difficult to gauge if domestic policies were aimed at weakening currencies or not.


The G20 also made a commitment to a credible medium-term fiscal strategy, but stopped short of setting specific goals as most delegations felt any economic recovery was too fragile.

The communiqué said risks to the world economy had receded but growth remained too weak and unemployment too high.

"A sustained effort is required to continue building a stronger economic and monetary union in the euro area and to resolve uncertainties related to the fiscal situation in the United States and Japan, as well as to boost domestic sources of growth in surplus economies," it said.

A debt-cutting pact struck in Toronto in 2010 will expire this year if leaders fail to agree to extend it at a G20 summit of leaders in St Petersburg in September.

The United States says it is on track to meet its Toronto pledge but argues that the pace of future fiscal consolidation must not snuff out demand. Germany and others are pressing for another round of binding debt targets.

"We had a broad consensus in the G20 that we will stick to the commitment to fulfill the Toronto goals," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. "We do not have any interest in U.S.-bashing ... In St. Petersburg follow-up-goals will be decided."

The G20 put together a huge financial backstop to halt a market meltdown in 2009 but has failed to reach those heights since. At successive meetings, Germany has pressed the United States and others to do more to tackle their debts. Washington in turn has urged Berlin to do more to increase demand.

Backing in the communiqué for the use of domestic monetary policy to support economic recovery reflected the U.S. Federal Reserve's commitment to monetary stimulus through quantitative easing, or QE, to promote recovery and jobs.

QE entails large-scale bond buying -- $85 billion a month in the Fed's case -- that helps economic growth but has also unleashed destabilising capital flows into emerging markets.

A commitment to minimize such "negative spillovers" was an offsetting point in the text that China, fearful of asset bubbles and lost export competitiveness, highlighted.

"Major developed nations (should) pay attention to their monetary policy spillover," Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying in Moscow.

Russia, this year's chair of the G20, admitted the group had failed to reach agreement on medium-term budget deficit levels and expressed concern about ultra-loose policies that it and other emerging economies say could store up trouble for later.

On currencies, the G20 text reiterated its commitment last November, "to move more rapidly toward mores market-determined exchange rate systems and exchange rate flexibility to reflect underlying fundamentals, and avoid persistent exchange rate misalignments".

It said disorderly exchange rate movements and excess volatility in financial flows could harm economic and financial stability.

(Additional reporting by Gernot Heller, Lesley Wroughton, Maya Dyakina, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Jan Strupczewski, Lidia Kelly, Katya Golubkova, Jason Bush, Anirban Nag and Michael Martina. Writing by Douglas Busvine. Editing by Timothy Heritage/Mike Peacock)

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Beckham must wait before making PSG debut

SAINT-GERMAIN-EN-LAYE, France (AP) — David Beckham will have to wait at least one more week to make his debut for Paris Saint-Germain because his coach says he needs to get in better shape.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti ruled out the 37-year-old former England captain for Sunday's match against Sochaux in the French league.

"He will stay here and work," Ancelotti said Saturday. "He will stay here and improve his physical condition. He still needs to work, and with a week's work he will be ready the following week against Marseille."

PSG hosts title rival Marseille on Feb. 24 and again three days later in the French Cup.

"I think he can play easily against Marseille after one week more training, no problem," Ancelotti said. "I will make the decision whether he starts or not."

Beckham, looking to win a league championship in a fourth country, started full training with PSG this week and has not played since his last appearance for the Los Angeles Galaxy on Dec. 1. He worked out last week in London with personal fitness trainers.

"The level of French football is high, there is a lot of rhythm, a lot of intensity," Ancelotti said, adding he plans to use Beckham either in a defensive central midfield role or out wide on the right.

"He brings his experience, his quality, his professionalism. These are the things we need from David," said Ancelotti, who is close to Beckham after coaching him at AC Milan. "I'm not just keeping him for the Cup or the Champions League. He can play in every match."

Entering this weekend's matches, PSG leads Lyon by six points and Marseille by eight.

"We are in very good form at the moment," Ancelotti said, referring to PSG's unbeaten start to the year.

PSG took a step toward reaching the Champions League quarterfinals by winning 2-1 at Valencia this week.

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Pope's resignation 'shows leadership'

By Roland Martin, CNN Contributor

February 16, 2013 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)

Longest-reigning popes

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Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes

Longest-reigning popes


  • Pope Benedict stuns world by announcing he will resign

  • Roland Martin says it's a wise decision for a leader to step down when his powers fail

  • He says a mark of a good leader is the care he takes about the institution he is leaving

  • Martin: Too many in power try to hang on after they are no longer capable

Editor's note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- When Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1991, a reporter asked him what were the medical reasons that contributed to his leaving the bench -- and its lifetime appointment -- after serving for nearly 25 years. He was his usual blunt self.

"What's wrong with me?" Marshall said at the packed news conference. "I'm old. I'm getting old and falling apart."

When the news broke this week that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics because of his concerns about being able to do the job, many began to speculate that there were other reasons for the decision.

Roland Martin

Roland Martin

We have become accustomed to a pope dying in office. That's not a surprise. It has been nearly 600 years since the last pope, Gregory XII, quit in 1415.

Even though the job of pope is a lifetime appointment, frankly, it is selfish of any individual to hold on to the job for dear life, knowing full well they don't have the capacity to do the job.

"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," according to a statement from Pope Benedict released by the Vatican.

Whether we want to be honest or not, it was sad to watch the decline of Pope John Paul II. He was a vibrant figure when he became pope in 1978, traveling the world and spreading the gospel to anyone who would listen. But toward the end of his life in 2005, he was barely able to move or talk, clearly worn down by significant health challenges.

Any leader who respects the organization they serve should have the common sense to know when it's time to say goodbye. We've seen countless examples of CEOs, pastors, politicians and others hang on and on to a position of power, hurting the very people they were elected or chosen to serve.

It takes considerable courage for anyone to step away from the power bestowed upon them by a position, as well as the trappings that come with it.

I'll leave it to others to try to figure out other reasons behind the resignation. But we should at least acknowledge the value of an ego-less decision that reflects humility and concern about the very institution the pope pledged his life to.

All leaders should be concerned about their institution continuing to grow and thrive once their days are no more. That's why a proper succession plan is vitally important.

Too often we have assessed great leaders by what they did in their positions. But their final legacy really is defined by how they left a place.

Pope Benedict XVI knows full well the Catholic Church cannot grow and prosper if its leader is limited in traveling and attending to his flock. There comes a time when one chapter must end and another begins. He has more days behind him than in front of him. He should enjoy his last years in peace and tranquility, without having to worry about trying to do the work designed for a younger man.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.

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Participant, Doha Film Institute form $100 million film fund

LOS ANGELES ( – Participant Media has formed a $ 100 million film fund with Doha Film Institute with the goal of financing 12 to 16 feature films, the companies said Wednesday.

The revolving fund extends for a five-year period and the partners will collaborate on developing, producing and arranging distribution for various projects.

In addition to the film fund, Participant and DFI are exploring a joint venture to create content for Participant’s new television channel, which will launch in August.

Participant will create a Middle East branch based at Doha Film Institute’s Qatar headquarters as part of the pact.

Participant has had a strong year at the box office, producing the breakout snowbirds in India film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ($ 134.4 million worldwide) and the Best Picture nominated “Lincoln” ($ 221.2 million worldwide).

Doha Film Institute has backed less high-profile films, such as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Just Like a Woman.”

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TSX slips as golds offset gains in Rogers, Telus

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s main stock index fell to a 1-1/2 week low on Friday, led by gold stocks such as Goldcorp Inc and Barrick Gold Corp , as the price of the precious metal tumbled to a six-month low on weakening investor demand.

The decline outweighed gains made by telecom stocks, Rogers Communications Inc and Telus Corp , which reported robust quarterly results.

Economic data showed U.S. manufacturing got off to a weak start this year as motor vehicle assembly tumbled, and Canadian manufacturing sales recorded the biggest decline in about 3-1/2 years in December.

Investors also followed developments from the G20 meeting in Moscow, looking for signs in its final communique of the direction currencies might be heading after a period of heightened volatility.

The biggest impact on the market was resource prices, with gold tumbling to a six-month low on weak investor demand, currency uncertainty and a dearth of physical demand from China due to the Lunar New Year holiday.

“Gold always sells off ahead of the G20 meetings,” said John Ing, president of Maison Placements Canada.

“A currency war is going on. There’s the fear that central banks who are trying to protect their currencies might threaten gold sales.”

At midmorning, the Toronto Stock Exchange‘s S&P/TSX composite index <.gsptse> was down 25.20 points, or 0.20 percent, at 12,696.59, after dropping earlier to 12,686.21, its lowest point since February 4. Six of the 10 main sectors on the index were trading higher.</.gsptse>

The materials sector, which includes mining stocks, slid 2 percent. Goldcorp fell 2.5 percent to C$ 33.82 despite posting a lower-than-expected drop in adjusted quarterly profit on Thursday. Rival miner Barrick Gold fell 1.7 percent to C$ 31.90.

Energy shares slipped 0.4 percent as oil prices fell, with Suncor Energy Inc declining 0.9 percent to C$ 31.90.

The telecoms sector added 1.6 percent. Rogers, the country’s biggest wireless company, posted a 30 percent rise in adjusted quarterly profit, increased its dividend and said its chief executive would leave the company early next year. Its shares gained 4 percent to C$ 47.29.

Telus, another telecom giant, posted a 23 percent rise in quarterly profit, helped by strong growth in its wireless business. The stock was up 1.3 percent to C$ 67.63.

Financials, the index’s weightiest sector, rose 0.3 percent.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Living In | Van Cortlandt Village, the Bronx

 Living In | Van Cortlandt Village, the Bronx

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Wall Street flat after data, S&P on pace for seventh weekly gain

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged lower on Friday as equities continued a phase of consolidation after a strong start to the year but the seven-week winning streak for the S&P 500 remained intact.

The S&P 500, up nearly 7 percent so far this year, is facing strong technical resistance near the 1,525 level. But investors, expecting the index to advance further in the quarter, have held back from locking in profits.

"It looks like a little bit of profit taking, normal consolidation after a big run and maybe we might be seeing the first signs of nervousness ahead of the sequestration debate that will most likely starting up when Congress comes back," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

The "sequestration" - automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight - are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree to an alternative.

Data released Friday illustrated the bumpy road the U.S. economic recovery continues to take.

The New York Federal Reserve said manufacturing in New York state expanded for the first time in seven months, while Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading of consumer sentiment rose from the prior month and beat expectations.

But U.S. manufacturing fell in January after a rise in the prior month.

"We are at a point where the macro news will continue to be a two-steps forward, one-step back kind of progression, with most of the news showing a firmness, but an occasional data point that will represent a step back," Jim Russell, senior equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Cincinnati.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 6.64 points, or 0.05 percent, to 13,966.75. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> shed 1.35 points, or 0.09 percent, to 1,520.03. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 1.77 points, or 0.06 percent, to 3,196.89.

The benchmark S&P 500 is up 0.13 percent for the week and is on track to register its seventh straight week of gains by the close of trading Friday, a feat not seen since a run of consecutive weekly gains between December 2010 and January 2011.

A surge in merger and acquisition activity, with more than $158 billion in deals announced so far in 2013, has given further support to the equity market as it points to healthy valuations and bets on the economic outlook.

Herbalife shares pared earlier gains and were up 7.1 percent to $41, a day after billionaire investor Carl Icahn said in a regulatory filing that he now owns 13 percent of Herbalife and was ready to put it in play.

MeadWestvaco Corp climbed 9.8 percent to $34.77 as the biggest percentage gainer on the S&P index after activist investor Nelson Peltz's Trian Fund Management LP said in an SEC filing it had bought about 1.6 million shares of the packaging company.

Burger King Worldwide shares gained 2.5 percent to $17 after it beat estimates with a 94 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit, thanks to new menu additions.

Oil service stocks declined, weighed by a 5.5 percent drop in shares of Transocean to $56.05, after the rig contractor reported its fleet update and Deutsche Bank cut its rating on the stock to "sell." The PHLX oil service sector <.osx> lost 1.7 percent.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

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Ligety wins GS for 3rd gold medal at worlds

SCHLADMING, Austria (AP) — Ted Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three gold medals at a skiing world championships by blowing away the field in winning his favored giant slalom on Friday.

The American can match French great Jean-Claude Killy, who earned four golds in 1968, if he wins Sunday's slalom.

"I am super pumped. This is such a cool feeling," Ligety said. "I am glad I've done it ... it's been a dream for sure. It's been a really cool experience."

Defending champion Ligety, who also took the super-G and super-combined titles, built on his big first-run lead of 1.31 seconds with a fast start but cautious finish in the second.

Marcel Hirscher of Austria was 0.81 behind in second, and Manfred Moelgg of Italy took third, trailing Ligety by 1.75.

"This has been a crazy and unbelievable week. It's definitely far exceeded my expectations," Ligety said. "To win three gold medals here is awesome. It's a really cool feeling to join some of the legends of our sports."

Ligety is the first American to win two world GS titles, and has equaled Bode Miller's American record of four golds at the worlds.

"It's been pretty surreal," Ligety said. "I knew I had good chances of medals in those other two events but I didn't think the chances were gold-medal chances. So to achieve that this week it's been unbelievable. It's been by far the best week of ski racing in my life. So hopefully I can continue that streak and step up in those other events on a more regular basis.

"I definitely had a lot of pressure in the GS being the defending champion. With these gold medals it added a little bit of extra pressure for sure, so to live up to that is awesome."

Ligety, who smiled and closed his eyes several times while listening to the American anthem during the flower ceremony in the finish area, was widely praised by rivals and coaches.

"Ted is the man. He's the best in the world," Aksel Lund Svindal said. The Norwegian was second after the opening run but had only the 13th fastest time in the final run and was edged for third place by Moelgg by 0.04.

"It's not possible to beat Ted, I think," added Svindal, who won gold in downhill and bronze in super-G. "With two golds already in his pocket I bet he was fairly confident in the start."

Stephen Eberharter, the Austrian who won the 2002 Olympic GS, called Ligety's GS skiing "sensational."

"He completes these turns to perfection," Eberharter said. "He is unbelievably steady. And if he gets in trouble, he knows how to correct them immediately."

According to Alpine sport director Hans Pum of the Austrian ski federation, Ligety was "flying, not skiing. He goes from one victory to another."

"He's in very good form, he has a very good setup with the materials and he skis well," Pum said. "He got his first super-G win in the first race and then he just carried on. He's doing (whatever) he wants to."

After sunshine in the morning, grey clouds moved in and worsened visibility for the final run. In front of 35,000 visitors, Ligety increased his 1.31-second advantage over Hirscher from the first run to 1.68 before slowing down to avoid further risks.

"I wasn't easy. I took some risks but it was very difficult," Ligety said. "It was pretty dark and bumpy. I had several mistakes but I could afford them being 1.3 ahead."

Hirscher, the defending overall World Cup champion, posted the fastest time in the final run to win his second medal of the worlds after taking gold in the team event.

Hirscher hurt his lower back while GS training in nearby Haus on Thursday and had more treatment after his first run. The Austrian said he even considered skipping the race when he woke up at two in the morning.

"I wasn't sure if would make sense to race but I mobilized all energy in my body," Hirscher said. "Normally you would stay in bed. I had only had four or five hours of sleep. My neck also hurts ... it was difficult with the expectations. It was difficult to race and I am extremely happy with silver."

Hirscher was regarded as Ligety's closest challenger after beating the American in Val d'Isere, France, in December, Ligety's only loss in five World Cup giant slaloms this season. Most of the wins were by huge time differences.

"I've just had a good feeling on this hill and snow and I have high confidence," Ligety said, "so I think that helps me right now."

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How Carnival can clean up PR mess


  • David Bartlett: For Carnival, impact of 'cruise from hell' potentially devastating.

  • Passenger video, media puts Carnival increasingly on the defensive, he says

  • He says it must show real concern, lay out plan, go a long way to make amends

  • Don't try to justify or explain, he says, but get proactive now about fixing problem

Editor's note: David Bartlett is a senior vice president of Levick, a crisis and issues management and strategic communications firm based in Washington. He is the author of "Making Your Point" (St. Martin's Press), a guide to communication strategy and tactics.

(CNN) -- As three tugboats towed the disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph back to port in Mobile, Alabama, things went from bad to worse.

The fire that caused the ship to lose power and drift aimlessly on rough Gulf of Mexico swells was just the beginning. Raw sewage seeped into corridors and cabin ways. Food had to be rationed. There were fears of looting. Not surprisingly, passengers were furious and emotional. Some were reported to be "acting like savages."

For Carnival and the rest of the cruise line industry, the implications are potentially devastating. The deadly capsizing in January 2012 of the Costa Concordia ship off the coast of Italy still lingers in the public's mind. About a month later, the Costa Allegra liner suffered a similar engine fire, lost power, and was set adrift in pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean. Carnival owns Costa Cruises, and now a third high-profile crisis for Carnival in just over a year threatens to cement the perception among vacationers that cruising might not be worth the risk.

Five things we've learned about cruises

David Bartlett

David Bartlett

In the age of social and digital media, the problems faced by cruise lines are compounded. Using mobile phones, passengers aboard the Triumph have been providing concerned family members with constant updates. Those enraged family members have immediately passed the horror stories along to the eager media. The public is getting the full play-by-play in virtual real time, leaving Carnival playing catchup from an increasingly defensive posture.

But as bad as the potential damage to Carnival's image may be, the company, as well as the rest of the cruise line industry, has an opportunity to blunt the impact, if it acts quickly and wisely.

It seems counterintuitive, but while the gruesome stories of the "cruise from hell" are still fresh, the crisis offers an opportunity for the cruise line to make a compelling statement about the industry's commitment to its passengers. (Statements from Carnival.)

Crisis management experts know that customers and the general public are more likely to judge an organization by how it handles a problem than how it got into the problem in the first place. That means Carnival has to go much further than mere reimbursements and vouchers for onward travel.

The challenge to Carnival's reputation is three-fold.

First the company must articulate real concern for passengers and clearly communicate what it is doing to make things right for customers. This will require financial sacrifices, of course. But Carnival has little choice but to pay now and win some badly needed goodwill -- or pay later in the courtroom, in the court of public opinion, and, of course, at the cash register when bookings decline.

Second, the company must clearly communicate what it is doing to fix the problem and prevent anything like it from ever happening again. How did an engine fire, serious as that might be, so quickly develop into a disaster of this magnitude?

My celebration trip on the Carnival Triumph: From joy to misery

How could it have been allowed to happen? Why was the widely reported chaos and disorder allowed to develop? Why did Carnival not have emergency response plans in place? What is the industry doing to prepare for what would seem to be a manageable situation? The public will demand answers to these basic questions before it will begin to trust again. Uncertainty breathes life into a crisis. Accurate and timely information smothers it.

Third, Carnival must aggressively and clearly deliver these messages now, and for as long as it takes to restore the public's trust.

So far, the story has been about the unthinkable conditions the passengers have been forced to endure. Carnival must move aggressively to reshape that narrative to reflect all that it is doing to rectify the situation.

After a bad cruise, can you cruise into court?

Carnival has to resist the temptation to explain, minimize, or justify what happened and position itself instead as part of the solution to the problems that caused the disaster. That is what the public will focus on and remember, but only if Carnival is able to communicate it fast and effectively.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Bartlett.

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Charlie Sheen pays for injured teen’s therapy dog

MILWAUKEE (AP) — MILWAUKEE (AP) — There’s a 15-year-old Florida girl who didn’t really know much about Charlie Sheen before this week — but does now.

The actor wired $ 10,000 to Teagan Marti and her family on Thursday for a therapy dog to help in her rehabilitation from injuries sustained when she plummeted 100 feet from a Wisconsin amusement park ride in 2010.

“I think he’s a very kind person for helping me and my family and very generous,” Teagan Marti said by phone Thursday from her home in Parkland, Fla.

Teagan Marti suffered brain, spine, pelvis and internal injuries in July 2010 when nets and air bags that were supposed to catch riders on a free-fall ride were not raised. She had convinced her family to make the trip from Florida to Extreme World in Wisconsin Dells after seeing the amusement park’s Terminal Velocity ride on the Travel Channel.

She was hospitalized in Wisconsin and Florida for three months. She initially had no use of her arms or legs but through physical therapy is able to walk again with a walker.

Teagan Marti’s mother, Julie Marti, said they are financially in trouble from the medical bills and her recent divorce. Their house is being foreclosed upon and insurance isn’t covering physical therapy anymore, she said. She had no idea how they would pay for the English Golden Retriever puppy.

“I’m in such disbelief,” Julie Marti said. “I was crying. … What a guy. What a guy.”

The dog is being trained in Fond du Lac to turn on lights, pick up objects and be the teen’s constant companion.

Lucia Wilgus, of Eau Claire, became friends with the Martis after hearing of the accident and has spearheaded fundraising and helped find the dog and arrange training.

She sent a letter this week to Sheen through Sheen’s godfather, who is a Wilgus family friend and Benedictine brother in the Benet Lake, Wis. She estimated the training and related costs would be around $ 6,000.

Sheen said he decided to give more for extra costs. The request had a “personal vibe” since it came through his godfather, and “if there’s a need for more I told them to call me,” he said.

“I like to pay it forward,” Sheen said Thursday in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “People come into your orbit for a reason. You don’t always know what that is ahead of time, but if I ignore these requests then I don’t have any opportunity to see where these things lead us, or lead me.”

He said he doesn’t like to publicize most of his donations, but wanted to talk about this one to inspire others to donate.

Teagan Marti gets the dog on her birthday in September but hasn’t made up her mind on a name.

“I think they should name the dog Charlie,” Sheen joked.


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When Sharing Taxes Might Not Be a Good Idea

As a married couple, you probably share almost everything. But is that such a good idea when it comes to filing taxes?

Most couples file their return jointly, combining incomes and sharing deductions. That trend will probably continue, encouraged in large part by tax-law changes during the last few years to ease the marriage penalty. This filing phenomenon tended to show up when working spouses made roughly equal incomes; in many cases, they paid more taxes on their combined return than did unmarried couples filing separate returns as single taxpayers, forcing the married pair to face a tax penalty. Tweaks to the tax brackets have helped ease this problem.

But sometimes it pays for couples to re-examine how they file. There definitely are instances when filing separately might be warranted.

Togetherness or not?

Separate returns could produce tax savings if one spouse has a lot of medical expenses and a low income. By filing separately, the partner with the doctor bills might be more likely to meet the 7.5 percent threshold needed on 2012 returns to itemize medical costs. Medical deductions will be even more difficult to claim on 2013 and subsequent tax years because health care reform has increased the threshold to 10 percent.

If one spouse uses questionable tax-filing techniques, the other partner might be wise to insist on separate returns. When both partners sign a joint return, each is legally liable for the tax bill and any issues that might come up later. The Internal Revenue Service does offer innocent spouse protection, but the victimized partner must show he or she was indeed unaware of any tax scheme. Filing separately could afford more protection for you if the IRS comes around asking about a creative return.

And when a marriage is on the rocks, many couples decide to start splitting taxes even before the divorce decree is entered. This way they can avoid being tied together by tax issues after the marriage is over.

Not always a perfect union

But married filing separately could have some drawbacks.

Although the tax-rate disparities between single filers and married couples have been lessened in the two lowest tax brackets, spouses who file separately will find the tax rates for them aren’t as amenable in the upper ranges. In fact, a check of the tax brackets shows married-filing-separately taxpayers face the 28 percent, 33 percent and 35 percent brackets sooner than do other unmarried taxpayers.

For example, a single filer who earned $ 75,000 in 2012 would pay a maximum tax rate of 25 percent. But a married taxpayer who earned that same amount and filed a separate return would see a portion of his income fall into the 28 percent bracket. And while a single filer can make up to $ 178,650 and stay in the 28 percent range, a married taxpayer filing separately jumps to the 33 percent bracket when he makes more than $ 108,725.

Deduction flexibility also is sacrificed. If one spouse itemizes, both must itemize, splitting the items to be listed on a separate Schedule A for each. That means a partner with few deductions couldn’t use the standard amount and might get cheated when it comes to reducing taxable income.

Deduction, credit considerations

Many tax-cutting credits and deductions are forfeited. You can’t take the earned-income credit, claim adoption expenses or child and dependent-care costs, use educational tax credits or even deduct the interest you paid on a student loan if you’re married and filing separately. If you have children, you might find the child-tax credit reduced because it phases out at different income limits for the various filing statuses. And the amount of capital gains losses you can deduct is cut in half.

The married filing separately rules are complicated further if you live in a community property state — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin. In these places, state law determines whether your income can be considered as separate or community for tax purposes. See IRS Publication 555, Community Property, for more information.

You should go ahead and figure your taxes as both joint and separate filers and use the method that produces the lower tax bill. But chances are, you’ll find joint filing will be your best choice.

And after all, aren’t taxes a tiny price to pay for love?

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Wall Street flat as takeovers offset weak overseas data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Thursday as a flurry of merger deals and better-than-expected jobs data offset signs of economic weakness in Europe and Japan

Shares of H.J. Heinz Co jumped 20 percent to $72.51 after it said Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital will buy the food company for $72.50 a share, or $28 billion including debt.

Also supporting the market was data showing the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected in the latest week.

Stocks fell earlier after a report the euro zone's gross domestic product contracted by the steepest amount since the first quarter of 2009. In addition, Japan's GDP shrank 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter, crushing expectations of a modest return to growth.

"The only reason a company buys another company is because they see an upside. Even though we are at multiyear highs, this kind of activity shows that there is more room for a rally, feeding optimism to the market," said Randy Frederick, director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab.

But Frederick added the market would have to see small corrections before breaking above current levels, where indexes have been hovering for almost two weeks. The S&P 500 is up more than 6 percent so far this year, near its highest level since November 2007.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 13.75 points, or 0.10 percent, at 13,969.16. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.45 point, or 0.03 percent, at 1,519.88. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 1.35 points, or 0.04 percent, at 3,195.53.

Constellation Brands soared more than 35 percent to $43.20 after terms of its takeover of Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo were revised, granting it perpetual rights to distribute Corona and other Modelo brands in the United States. AB InBev ADRs gained 5.5 percent to $93.08.

American Airlines and US Airways Group said they plan to merge in a deal that will form the world's biggest air carrier, with an equity valuation of about $11 billion. US Airways shares fell 6.8 percent to $13.67.

Weakness in Europe contributed to a 5 percent drop in revenue from the region for Cisco Systems , which nonetheless beat estimates as it reported its results late Wednesday. The company's shares slid 1.4 percent to $20.85.

General Motors Co reported a weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter profit, also citing bigger losses in Europe alongside lower prices in its core North American market. The stock was off 1.7 percent at $28.19.

(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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Pistorius' girlfriend was a model, law graduate

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The leggy blonde model tweeted that Valentine's Day should be "a day of love for everyone."

Instead Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead in the home of her boyfriend, paralympian superstar Oscar Pistorius, who was charged with her murder.

Steenkamp, South African model with a law degree, campaigned against rape and violence against women. Thursday morning, Reeva Steenkamp was to give an inspirational talk at a Johannesburg school. The next day she was going to wear black to protest the brutal rape and mutilation of a 17-year-old.

But the glamorous South African celebrity was found dead in the early hours from four bullet wounds in the Pretoria home of Pistorius. The two had been dating for only a few months.

She was one of FHM magazine's 100 Sexiest Women in the World for the past two years, appeared in international and South African advertisements and was to make her debut next week as a celebrity contestant on the reality TV show "Tropika Island of Treasure" filmed in Jamaica. She was also the South African face of Avon cosmetics. Police said the model was 30.

The freckled blonde who appeared in scanty bikinis on magazine covers and sashayed down fashion ramps was "continuously breaking the model stereotype," said her publicist Sarit Tomlinson.

Steenkamp was "the sweetest, kindest, just angelic soul" and at the same time "a very inspiring individual, very passionate about speaking about women and empowerment."

Scores of tributes were posted online. Fellow model Mashadi Motsogi tweeted: "You will be missed my sister. I can't hold the tears back. Love you always. RIP."

Thursday morning, Steenkamp had been scheduled to give a motivational speech to school students in Johannesburg. "It was about empowerment and inspiration and what inspires you and how to follow your dreams," said Tomlinson, who had Steenkamp's notes for the speech.

Steenkamp was born in Cape Town then moved with her family as a child to Port Elizabeth. There she attended the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, graduating with a Bachelor of Law degree.

"She had a fantastic character and we all were very fond of her," said Hilda Fisher, secretary to the dean of law.

Six years ago, Steenkamp moved to Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, after she won the contract to represent Avon.

On Twitter, Steenkamp tweeted messages urging women to stand up against rape as well as her excitement about Valentine's Day.

"What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow?" she tweeted. "It should be a day of love for everyone."

Her last tweet was an enthusiastic acceptance of a friend's invite to celebrate the day with chocolate cupcakes topped with red hearts.

She also used her Twitter account to encourage her thousands of followers to fight sexual abuse.

"WEAR BLACK THIS FRIDAY IN SUPPORT AGAINST (hash)RAPE," she re-tweeted just hours before she was killed.

Steenkamp urged followers to stand up against violence against women, tweeting four days ago as South Africa was outraged by the particularly brutal rape and murder of a 17-year-old: "I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals in SA (South Africa). RIP Anene Booysen (hash)rape (hash)crime (hash)sayNO."

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Where's Obama's foreign policy?

By Isobel Coleman, Special to CNN

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)


  • Isobel Coleman: Obama mainly addressed domestic issues: economy, immigration, energy

  • He spoke very little about and offered nothing much new on foreign policy, she says

  • Coleman: He talked about ending Afghanistan War, spoke briefly about Iran, Syria, China

  • Coleman: His reinvigorated free trade agenda seems to be the boldest move

Editor's note: Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

(CNN) -- President Obama's State of the Union address predictably focused on his domestic priorities.

Immigration reform, a laundry list of economic initiatives including infrastructure improvements (Fix it First), clean energy, some manufacturing innovation, a bit of educational reform and the rhetorical high point of his speech -- gun control.

Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman

As in years past, foreign policy made up only about 15% of the speech, but even within that usual limited attention, Tuesday night's address pointed to few new directions.

On Afghanistan -- America's longest war -- Obama expressed just a continued commitment to bringing the troops home, ending "our war" while theirs continues. On Iran, there was a single sentence reiterating the need for a diplomatic solution, which makes me think that a big diplomatic push is not likely. On North Korea, boilerplate promises to isolate the country further after its provocative nuclear test, and on Syria, a call to "keep the pressure" on the regime, which means more watching from the sidelines as the horror unfolds.

Notably, China was mentioned only twice -- once in the context of jobs, and another time with respect to clean energy. Nothing about managing what could very well be this administration's most vexing but critically important bilateral relationship.

Obama's call for a reinvigorated free trade agenda was his boldest foreign policy statement of the evening. He is right to note that free trade "supports millions of good-paying American jobs," but his pledge to pursue a "comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership" -- a free trade agreement with Europe -- will run into significant opposition from organized labor, especially given ongoing weaknesses in the economy.

Without fast track negotiating authority, the prospects for such a deal are minimal. Fast track authority, which allows the president to negotiate trade deals that Congress can then only approve or disapprove but not amend, expired in 2007, and it would require quite a breakthrough for Congress to approve it again. Still, despite these challenges, an agreement is worth pursuing.

Aside from a free trade agreement with Europe, there was little else in this State of the Union that hinted at foreign policy ambition. But unpredictable events have a way of derailing America's best laid plans to stay above the fray of the world's messiest problems. Who could have predicted just a few months ago that Mali would get a mention in the State of the Union? Iraq -- not uttered once tonight -- could re-emerge as a formidable crisis; Iran, Pakistan and North Korea also have tremendous potential to erupt.

While this administration seems determined to focus inward on getting America's economic and fiscal house in order, I doubt events in the rest of the world will be so accommodating.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Isobel Coleman

Part of complete coverage on

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)

After Barack Obama's speech and Marco Rubio's rebuttal, we should have heard from Kim Peters, who has been unemployed for more than a year, says John Sutter.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1420 GMT (2220 HKT)

Anne-Marie Slaughter says the hallmark of the 2013 State of the Union address was progressive pragmatism.

February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)

David Rothkopf says a newly confident and empowered Obama offered an agenda for change and determination to get to the work of governing.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)

CNN invited contributors to weigh in on President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)

Jessica Massa says today's romantic landscape is full of ambiguity and gray areas about where any given connection might lead.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)

LZ Granderson: Marco Rubio was set to showcase the new, women-friendly face of the GOP. Too bad he had just cast a women-unfriendly vote.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)

Ruben Navarrette says Sen. Marco Rubio's effective response to the State of the Union showed he is someone to be reckoned with.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)

Matt Welch: The State of the Union laid out an agenda too costly for a country that wants to see what it's getting in return for debt.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)

Isobel Coleman says Obama's speech ignored huge challenges the U.S. faces in the world, ones which could quickly dominate domestic agenda.

February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)

Presidents once delivered State of the Union only in writing; now they reckon with a stream of social media comments, says Bob Greene.

February 12, 2013 -- Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT)

Peter Bergen says the interview with the bin Laden "shooter" adds important detail to the story of bin Laden's final minutes.

February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)

David Frum says many people want to believe in living alone, without traditional attachments, but is that kind of life best?

February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1612 GMT (0012 HKT)

Timothy Stanley says Pope Benedict XVI, who struggled to reconcile the Catholic Church's relationship with the modern world, embraced the living traditions of the church while attempting to extend its reach.

February 10, 2013 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)

Dean Obeidallah says the CBS dress advisory note to Grammy attendees was hilarious -- and sexist.

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Irish composer Raymond Deane talks Achill, Alma and ABBA too

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Irish composer Raymond Deane chafes at what he sees as a lack of recognition in his homeland for classical composers in a country better known for traditional fiddling and rock supergroup U2 than for notes on staves.

Classical music means Mozart and Beethoven and when you say Irish classical music their eyes just widen,” Deane, who recently turned 60, told Reuters over lunch at a French-style bistro in Dublin.

“Classical music doesn’t do much for the tourist industry except frighten off the tourists.”

Deane, who also is an activist who has taken up the causes of East Timorese and Palestinian human rights and campaigns to get artists to boycott Israel, described the Irish composer’s plight in the 1990s as “the honor of non-existence”.

Though he can rattle off the names of more than a half dozen Irish men and women composers of international stature, he says little has changed.

The difference is this year, Deane’s often haunting, sometimes playful chamber pieces got an airing at a birthday celebration in a Dublin church, one of his orchestral works was played at the National Concert Hall and September will see a concert staging of a new opera, “The Alma Fetish”.

The last, a collaboration with librettist Gavin Kostick, is a musical treatment of a theme that probably – actually, undoubtedly – would have been banned in Roman Catholic Ireland not too many years ago.

It is based on the love affair between composer Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma, a femme fatale for many a European intellectual, and the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. He became so enamored of her he ordered up a life-size doll shaped, in all respects, like Alma.

Although the performance will be a concert staging, Deane said the doll will be there in some form or other, possibly in projections.

“You couldn’t not have it, because it’s absolutely central,” he said, adding that he was in part attracted to the story of Alma’s and Kokoschka’s affair because of the Olympia doll character in Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann”. Alma also seduced Oskar to the main theme of one of Deane’s favorite operas, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”.

“Alma seduced Oskar to the ‘liebestod’ but in my version she sings and plays it as a Viennese waltz,” he said.

In a sign of the pan-European roots of his inspiration, Deane has quoted and used themes from composers as diverse as Mahler, Mussorgsky and Stockhausen in a musical career that began at about age 10 when his family moved from scenic but rustic Achill Island, off Ireland’s west coast, to Dublin, and Deane began writing down improvisations at the piano.

“It’s ridiculous, everyone is immature at the age of 10 but I was a particularly immature 10-year-old, and to think I’ve stood by a decision I made then, there’s really something absurd about it.”

Here’s what else he had to say about getting a musical education via the BBC’s classical station Radio 3, what he did or didn’t learn from his professors and why he makes no secret about liking ABBA‘s “Dancing Queen”:

Q: You studied under some of the musical greats of the 20th century, including the eternal enfant terrible Karlheinz Stockhausen. What did that do for you?

A: “‘Study’ in quotation marks – anybody else who would have gone through my particular curriculum vitae, studying with (composer) Gerald Bennett in Switzerland, Stockhausen in Cologne…would have made some use of them, seen them as opportunities. To a large extent I wasted all the opportunities that were offered to me by these people, quite perversely.”

Q: So where did you learn your craft, or more simply, how did you become a composer?

A: “I went to the usual university, did a degree at Maynooth (National University of Ireland), a doctorate. But my main musical education really was BBC Radio 3. When we came to Dublin in my early teens I had this old transistor radio that was really my main connection to the outer world and it wasn’t linked up to anything so the reception from the BBC was diabolical. The static was amazing and sometimes it would disappear completely. I would tune in and hear ‘tssshh’ and through this I would hear the music and then ‘tssshhh’. Sometimes it would disappear and I would try to imagine what I was missing. I think a lot of the kind of perverse quality of some of those early pieces of mine stems from that – a distant relationship and a rather distorted relationship to something.”

Q: Plus you and your composer friend Gerald Barry, in the days a quarter of a century ago before you swore off the drink, used to have some late evenings in which he’d play Rod Stewart and you’d pick ABBA, particularly “Dancing Queen”.

A: “I was a big fan of ABBA, I still have a lot of time for ABBA, I have a lot of time for the Beatles, a lot of time for Neil Young…Bruce Springsteen. My CD and record collection has a lot of non-classical stuff in it. I probably draw the line at rap.”

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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Want a Dog Like Banana Joe? There Are 7 For Sale in America

After two days of frenzied canine competition, a five year-old black-and-tan Affenpinscher named Banana Joe was crowned champion at the Westminster Dog Show on Tuesday night. But for those dog enthusiasts captivated by the dog’s Wookiee-ish countenance and shock of black hair—and hoping to snatch up one of their very own—we say: Good luck.

The breed’s official site, recognized by the American Kennel Club, lists only 12 active breeders in all of North America. “The reason they’re rare,” says Nancy Baybutt, the Affenpinscher Club’s Breeder Referral Chair, “is they have small litters—some of them as small as a single puppy—and the dogs are so small themselves that they have whelping problems. If they don’t thrive, there’s not a lot of them to save.” She also credits history for their rarity. “It was a German dog [that] was decimated during World War II,” she says. “Afterwards people didn’t want a German breed. It just never had the popularity.” The gene pool for Affens is so small that one of Baybutt’s dogs is a relative of Banana Joe.

Right now, seven puppy Affenpinschers are available for sale in the United States, according to Baybutt. Two, both males, are located in Tallahassee, Fla., and five can be found in Cornville, Ariz. Of the latter litter, only one of the dogs will look like Banana Joe. “The rest are red,” says Baybutt, who notes that the breed comes in several colors. The dogs sell for around $ 2,500.

If that’s a little steep for you, larger Affenpinschers are bred “by the puppy mills,” says Baybutt, and can be purchased online. But these dogs aren’t recognized by the breed’s official standard. They go for about $ 400. — Top News

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Mortgage Mess Still Mires Housing Recovery

President Obama says he wants more Americans to be able to save money by refinancing their mortgages. The trouble is that mortgage rates are rising, now at their highest level since September of last year, before the Federal Reserve announced it would buy more agency mortgage-backed securities in order to drive rates down. Last week applications to refinance fell 6 percent from the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“The banking industry has largely refinanced most prime customers in portfolio. For 2012, Q3/4 looks like the peak for industry mortgage banking revenue. The industry is expecting lower volumes in 2013,” says Christopher Whalen of Carrington Investment Services. “New loan originations will hopefully rise a bit this year to offset lower refinancing activity.”

But that has not been the case so far.

(Read More: Americans Tapping Into Home Equity Again)

Mortgage applications to purchase a home dropped more dramatically than did refinances, down 10 percent from the previous week. While one week does not a trend make, rising mortgage rates, coupled with severe inventory shortages, are not the mix needed for a healthy spring housing market.

(Read More: Beware the Escape Hatch in the New Mortgage Rules)

“Many homeowners may simply be deciding to play the market and wait for their home to appreciate before putting it up for sale. Despite the drop in applications, we have seen anecdotal evidence of homes selling very quickly after entering the market,” says Bob Walters, chief economist at Quicken.

Days on market are shrinking across the nation, but only because supplies are so low. It’s not just the former boom to bust to boom markets, like Phoenix and Las Vegas; local Realtor associations show inventories are down dramatically from a year ago in Charlotte (-29 percent), Dallas (-19 percent), Minneapolis (-32 percent), and Washington, DC (-36 percent) to name a few.

“The low and negative equity of a large number of mortgage holders has kept significant inventory off the market, and many would-be sellers with adequate equity feed into the problem by holding off until they find something to buy,” says Jonathan Miller of CEO of Miller Samuel Inc. “I believe the chronic low inventory phenomenon we are seeing has little to do with lack of consumer confidence and more to do with reasonable access to mortgage financing.”

President Obama echoed that sentiment in his State of the Union addressTuesday night.

“Overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home,” Mr. Obama said. Not exactly a new sentiment, as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has said the same thing several times, as have other federal regulators.

(Read More: Fewer Behind on Mortgages, but for How Long?)

Rising mortgage rates and tight credit standards keep first time-home buyers out, while falling inventories make it more difficult for existing home buyers to move up. The housing market is therefore still largely in the hands of all-cash investors, looking for distressed properties to buy and then rent out. Ironically, perhaps for now, more distressed properties coming to market will be what keeps home sales afloat.

-By CNBC’s Diana Olick; Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick or on Facebook at

Questions? Comments? [email protected]

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Wall Street flat, S&P 500 touches November 2007 high

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Wednesday after the S&P 500 index hit a November 2007 intraday high, but volume was low and investors stayed cautious with indexes near multi-year closing highs.

The benchmark index got a boost from Comcast Corp when the cable company said it will buy the rest of NBC Universal for $16.7 billion from General Electric Co .

Equities have been strong performers until recently, buoyed largely by healthy growth in corporate earnings, which helped the S&P 500 to rise 6.5 percent so far this year. The Dow industrials are about 1 percent away from an all-time intraday high, reached in October 2007.

Those gains could leave the market vulnerable to a pullback as investors take profits amid a dearth of new catalysts. While analysts see an upward bias in stocks, recent daily moves have been small and trading volumes light with indexes at multi-year highs.

"I was expecting a 12-15 percent return on the S&P for the whole year of 2013, and we have done about half of that in just 5-6 weeks," said Jack De Gan, principal at Harbor Advisory in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

"We will hit resistance, but the fundamentals and micro picture are looking good, so if there is a correction it's going to be a brief one."

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 52.99 points, or 0.38 percent, at 13,965.71. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.61 points, or 0.04 percent, at 1,518.82. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 3.35 points, or 0.11 percent, at 3,189.85.

Economic data proved no catalyst giving investors direction. The government said retail sales rose 0.1 percent in January, as expected. Tax increases and higher gasoline prices restrained spending.

The S&P 500 was well over its 50-day moving average of 1,460.92, a sign the market could be overbought.

Comcast agreed late Tuesday to buy General Electric Co's remaining 49 percent stake in NBC Universal for $16.7 billion. Comcast jumped 6.2 percent to $41.40 as the S&P's top percentage gainer while Dow component GE was up 3 percent to $23.26.

Deere & Co reported earnings that beat expectations and raised its full-year profit outlook. After initially rallying in premarket trading, the stock fell 2.3 percent to $91.80.

According to the latest Thomson Reuters data, of the 353 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.3 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Industrial and construction shares were lower even though in his State of the Union address President Barack Obama called for $50 billion in spending to create jobs by rebuilding degraded roads and bridges.

The Dow Jones Home Construction index <.djushb> was off 0.2 percent.

(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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