Monday PM November 30th, 2009

Retailers have taken some mild encouragement from the first big holiday shopping weekend and now it's the e-tailers' turn. The attention now shifts to the online promotions known as Cyber Monday, as well getting people to come back and shop more. Retailers saw a huge crowd of bargain shoppers for early morning deals Friday, but economic worries were apparent as shoppers mostly stuck to their lists and focused on practical items. According to preliminary figures released Saturday by the research firm ShopperTrak sales rose 0.5 per cent over last year. Data released by the Internet research firm comScore shows online sales already up 11 per cent, thanks to a big boost from promotions the week leading into the Thanksgiving weekend. A California company that's tracking the sales, Core Metrics, says that as of early this afternoon, sales for the day were running about 20 per cent ahead of last year. The National Retail Federation trade group said Sunday it's sticking to its forecast for holiday sales to decline one per cent from last year.

Some price comparison Web sites are charged with running a "cash-for-ratings" scheme in which certain online retailers paid for higher rankings, while promising independent, reliable Web site comparisons. The state's enforcement action comes as the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" get the holiday shopping season started in earnest. Jerry Strickland with the Attorney General's Office says several Web sites represented themselves as neutral and unbiased, while online merchants paid to render higher ratings.

"Many times they just rebrand their product in a different Web site. Some of the Web sites included,,, All of these price comparison Web sites were doing the same thing—misleading consumers. Making consumers feel like the vendors they were being pushed to, that they were clicking through to get those products were more reputable than they really were. These vendors were simply paying money to become preferred vendors when in reality we had several complaints against those vendors and we had also filed some legal action against those vendors, previously."

Some of the affected Web sites say that their "operations have been suspended."

The Obama administration says it will crack down on mortgage companies that are failing to do enough to help borrowers at risk of foreclosure. The Treasury Department says it may fine mortgage companies that aren't doing enough to make permanent loan modifications under the government's $75 billion "making home affordable" relief program. Many mortgage companies have had trouble getting borrowers to return necessary documents to complete the modifications, which allow homeowners to have their mortgage interest rate reduced to as low as two per cent for five years.

A survey of large companies shows the economy is prompting stressed-out workers to call in sick more and seek greater help from employee assistance programs. Benefits consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide says 22 per cent of companies responding to an e-mail survey have seen an increase in unplanned absences. Nearly half saw more use of employee assistance programs, which typically offer counseling or stress management help. Workers also are using their health benefits more. Watson Wyatt says this is typical in a tough economy, when employees worried about layoffs try to use benefits while they still have them. Watson Wyatt Worldwide conducted the survey with the national business group on health.

The Federal Reserve is taking steps to reel in some of the huge sums of money pumped into the economy during the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York cautioned that investors shouldn't read anything about the timing when the central bank will need to reverse course and start boosting interest rates and removing other supports to fend off inflation. The upcoming operations involve so-called reverse repurchase agreements. That's when the Fed sells securities from its portfolio with an agreement to buy them back later. Reverse repos are one of the tools the Fed can use to drain some of the money it has plowed into the economy to ease financial troubles. Officials said the operations will be "extremely small" and won't affect the Fed's key interest rate. They wouldn't say what the dollar amount for the operations would total.

TheFederal Housing Administration is proposing stricter rules for lenders to reduce its risk and insure it can cover future losses. The agency proposes to require lenders to have a net worth of at least $1 million in the first year and $2.5 million within three years. That's up from the original requirement of $250,000. The FHA also wants to tighten approval requirements for lenders who want to originate, underwrite or service FHA loans and make them liable for those loans, including ones originated by mortgage brokers. There is a 30-day comment period on the proposals.

A former Indiana National Guard commander has died after suffering from lung cancer he believed was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in Iraq. A funeral home says 52-year-old retired Lt. Col. James gentry died Wednesday at his home in the Southern Indiana community of Williams. Gentry was commander of the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry, which was assigned to guard a water pumping plant in Basrah, Iraq, shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Several soldiers from the unit have sued defense contractor KBR, alleging it knowingly allowed them to be exposed to a known carcinogen. Houston-based KBR denies any wrongdoing. Gentry was not a party to the suit but believed his cancer was caused by exposure. Services will be Tuesday at Kraft Funeral Service in New Albany.

A judge has ordered an 11-month prison sentence for a man who helped authorities bring bribery charges against the wife of U.S. Representative John Conyers. Jim Rosendall represented Houston-based Synagro Technologies when he approved bribes to Monica Conyers to get her vote on a sludge disposal project in 2007. She was a member of the Detroit City Council at the time. Rosendall admitted approving bribes for Monica Conyers to get her vote on the Detroit city council in 2007. Rosendall cooperated with the FBI's investigation of city hall corruption. Synagro's $47 million-a-year contract with Detroit was rescinded after Rosendall's guilty plea in January.

A Texas researcher has found a way to reduce the toxins in cottonseed to make it edible not just for cattle, but also pigs, chickens, fish and humans. Researchers have worked for decades to neutralize gossypol, the poison found in cottonseed that only bovines' multiple stomachs can digest. Keerti S. Rathore, a Texas A&M University researcher, says he has discovered how to shut off gossypol production in the seeds but leave it in stems, leaves, flowers and tissue where the toxin is needed for protection from insects and disease. Researchers say the amount of cotton grown worldwide contains enough protein to feed 500 million people per year.


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