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    Mortgage applications head downward

    Contract interest rates were mostly higher

     It has been a down week for mortgage applications.

    The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports that its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows the number of applications fell 3.2% for the week ending November 20. The previous week’s results included an adjustment for the Veteran’s Day holiday.

    The Refinance Index dropped 5% from the previous week, but the refinance share of mortgage activity inched up to 58.7% of total applications from 58.6% the week before.

    The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6.4%, the FHA share dipped to 13.7% from 14.4%, the VA share was 11.0%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.7%.

    Contract interest rates

    • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dropped four basis points -- from 4.18% to 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.49 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell to 3.99% from 4.05%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA was down three basis points to 3.87%, with points increasing to 0.49 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged.
    • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs inched down from 3.40% to 3.39%, with points down to 0.43 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose one basis point to 3.19%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

    The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

    It has been a down week for mortgage applications.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports that its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows the...
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    Toro TimeCutter riding mowers recalled

    The mowers' fuel filters can become brittle and fractured

    The Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 9,000 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada.

    The fuel filters on the mowers can become brittle and fractured, allowing fuel to leak and posing a fire hazard.

    The firm has reported five incidents of fuel leaking. No injuries have been reported.

    The 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers are red and black, with a gray seat. “TORO” is printed on the front and sides of the mower. A black and white “TIMECUTTER” decal is located in front of the operator seat. The model number and serial number are located on a decal affixed to the frame, under the seat.

    The following models are being recalled:

    Model Number

    Serial Number Range

    74710

    315000876 - 315002048

    74720

    315000101 - 315003342

    74731

    315000152 - 315000437

    74750

    315000101 - 315001155

    74780

    315000101 - 315001700

    74781

    315000101 - 315000150

    74784

    315000340 - 315001172

    74787

    315000403 - 315000437

    74790

    315000178 - 315000320
    315001400 - 315001493

    74797

    315000624 - 315000698

    The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Home Depot and other hardware, lawn and garden stores nationwide from November 2014, through October 2015, for about $3,400.

    Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact the nearest Toro dealer to schedule a free repair. Consumers with registered machines will receive a letter and a fuel filter, and may contact a Toro Dealer if they are uncomfortable with the replacement procedure.

    Consumers may contact Toro toll-free at 844-521-2384 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at https://www.toro.com/en/product-safety-information/product-recall-information for more information.

    The Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 9,000 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada. The fuel filters on the mowe...
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    Audi details fix for 3.0-liter TDI diesels, awaits U.S. approval

    Revised software will be installed as soon as regulators approve, carmaker vows

    Audi is trying to move the "dirty diesel" scandal into the rear-view mirror. It is preparing to submit plans for revised emissions control software that it says will resolve problems affecting the 3.0-liter TDI engines in Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen vehicles.

    Audi executives say the plans are a result of recent discussions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and says it will install the software as soon as it is approved by the agencies.

    Audi was dragged into the larger controversy surrounding its parent company, Volkswagen, when it was discovered that some of the auxilary emission control devices (AECDs) on its diesel engines were not properly described in the applications submitted for U.S. approval when the engines were developed.

    Volkswagen has insisted its 3.0-liter diesels are not affected by the illegal "defeat devices" found on the 2.0-liter VW TDI engines. The Audi 3.0-liter engines were developed by Audi and are used in certain Audi and Porsche vehicles, as well as the VW Toureg. 

    Defeat device 

    One of the AECDs on the Audi engines is regarded as a "defeat device" under U.S. law, Audi conceded. It turns on emission control systems when the cars are being tested and turns it off when the tests are over, causing the cars to appear to meet pollution standards while in ordinary, everyday use they may be emitting more pollution than the law allows. Audi describes that device as "the software for the temperature conditioning of the exhaust-gas cleaning system."

    "Audi has agreed with the environmental authorities on further steps of cooperation in which the concrete measures to be taken will be specified. The company has committed to continue cooperating transparently and fully," Audi said in a prepared statement. "The focus will be on finding quick, uncomplicated and customer-friendly solutions."

    This engine was developed by Audi and is used in U.S. Audi models A6, A7, A8, Q5, and Q7 from model year 2009 onwards. Volkswagen uses the engine in the Toureg and Porsche and has used it in the Cayenne since model year 2013.  

    Audi is trying to move the "dirty diesel" scandal into the rear-view mirror. It is preparing to submit plans for revised emissions control software that it...
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      Twenty hot Black Friday deals on electronics

      Record savings this year on HDTV sets

      Electronic gadgets make up a big chunk of the average Christmas shopping list. Whether it's a new smartphone or a big screen TV, consumers seem to like gifts that they plug in.

      The editors at Best Black Friday, who have worked with us in the run-up to the holiday season to identify some of the best buys, have submitted their picks for the best deals on electronics.

      If an HDTV happens to be on your list, you are likely to find record low prices for select models and sizes, as well as video game bundles.

      “While stores such as Walmart have taken steps back in certain areas, their overall sale is strong once again,” the website reports. “After waiting every other retailer out, Amazon finally gave us a preview of their upcoming sale, and while it is vague, a few of their items have made our Top 20 list.”

      The list breaks down into these categories:

      HDTVs

      • Toshiba 49" 1080p LED HDTV for $149.99 at Best Buy
      • 50" 1080p LED TV for $149.99 at Amazon
      • 32" LED TV for $75 at Amazon
      • TCL Roku 32″ 720p LED Smart HDTV for $125 at Walmart and Amazon
      • TCL Roku 55″ 1080p Smart LED HDTV for $348 at Walmart and Amazon
      • Samsung 60″ 1080p LED Smart HDTV for $697.99 at Target and Best Buy
      • Samsung 40″ 1080p LED Smart HDTV + $90 Kohl’s Cash for $319.99 at Kohl’s
      • Samsung 40" inch HDTV + Xbox One Bundle for $499.98 at Best Buy

      Tablets

      • iPad Air 2 (64GB and 128GB) for $150 Off at Sam’s Club
      • iPad Mini 4 64GB and 128GB (Best Buy) and 16GB (Staples) for $100 Off
      • iPad Air 2 16GB for $359.99 at eBay

      Video Games

      • Xbox One Gears of War Bundle + Fallout 4 & Extra Controller for $299.99 at Dell
      • Xbox One and PS4 Bundles for $299.99 + $75 Kohl’s Cash at Kohl’s
      • Xbox One Bundle + Samsung 40-inch HDTV for $499.98 at Best Buy

      Smartphones

      • iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus – $250 Gift Card for Unsubsidized Purchases and $50 Off for 2-Year Subsidized Plans at Target
      • $250 Savings on any Samsung smartphone ($150 savings + $100 Black Friday Gift Card) at Walmart

      Computers

      • 13.3″ MacBook Pro or 21.5″ iMac for $899.99 at Best Buy
      • Toshiba Satellite CL45 14″ Laptop for $119.99 at Office Depot and OfficeMax
      • Bonus Deal! – ASUS 15″ Laptop for $129 at Amazon

      Other Electronics

      • Save Up To $100 On Apple Watches at Best Buy
      • Beats Studio Headphones for $169 at Walmart
      • Canon EOS Rebel T5 digital SLR camera 18-55mm lens and 75-300mm lens with a bag for $399.99 at Kohl’s

      While buying a non-sale item on Black Friday will cost you, the BestBlackFriday.com editors say missing a Black Friday doorbuster exacts a price as well.

      Last year the site followed the prices for hundreds of the top Black Friday electronics for a few months into April to see how much their prices went up. It found the average doorbuster electronic price goes up by $48.43 after Black Friday. HDTVs increase by $63.79, and video game consoles increase by $50.85.

      Electronic gadgets make up a big chunk of the average Christmas shopping list. Whether it's a new smartphone or a big screen TV, consumers seem to like gif...
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      Essential Republican leadership qualities: square jaw, deep voice

      Study finds GOP voters like a manly candidate while Dems prefer a softer leader

      It's widely thought that taller political candidates have an advantage over their shorter counterparts, although Jeb Bush has had occasion to question that theory in recent months.

      Donald Trump, on the other hand, would perhaps agree with a new study that finds a deep voice and a square jaw are important assets for conservative politicians. For politicians on the liberal side, it's more important to have gentle features. That's the conclusion of two recent scientific articles from Aarhus University in Denmark.

      The findings run counter to the ideal of a democratic society -- you know, the one that says voters carefully study the issues and then choose the candidate whose approach they think is most likely to produce a good outcome. 

      Sorry, say researchers Lasse Laustsen and Michael Bang Petersen from the university's Department of Political Science.

      "A deep tone of voice appeals to conservative voters. More generally, conservative voters seem to have a preference for politicians who look physically strong and masculine, while liberal voters prefer those who have less dominant features and seem more accommodating, perhaps even slightly feminine," said Laustsen.

      Whether this explains Hillary Clinton's appeal to liberal voters is a question each voter must decide for him- or herself.

      One could argue that voters shouldn't be swayed by physical characteristics, but John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that's beside the point.

      "What Laustsen and Petersen do is both exciting and important. Some people may be uncomfortable knowing that our preferences are determined by forces that we don't entirely understand. But of course, as scientists we still have to deal with it," said Hibbing, who didn't take part in the Laustsen and Petersen's research.

      A menacing world

      As for why Republicans prefer basso profundo candidates, Laustsen says you have to dig a little deeper.

      Republican voters prefer strong politicians -- or politicians whose deep voices make them sound like they are strong -- because they believe the world is a more dangerous and menacing place than Democratic voters, he said.

      "If you hold up images of objects that people consider dangerous or unpleasant, for example of large spiders, and then measure the production of sweat from people's fingertips (skin conductance response), you get an indication of spontaneous physical reaction. In these cases, conservative voters react more strongly than liberal ones. This could indicate a large visceral difference in the way these voter groups perceive the world," Laustsen said.

      Some might suggest that the research is useful for voters because it can help them understand why they instinctively react positively or negatively to a given candidate.

      But Laustsen and Petersen are skeptical.  

      "Some American research indicates that participants in lab tests are able to determine which of two unknown candidates they like more after having been exposed to images of them for less than 0.1 second. This suggests that these processes are really fast and subconscious. So I think it's hard to rein in," Laustsen said.

      It's widely thought that taller political candidates have an advantage over their shorter counterparts, although Jeb Bush has had occasion to question that...
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      Nestle finds some of its food has been sourced with forced labor

      Company announces reforms for its operations in Thailand

      It turns out some of the food and pet food products U.S. consumers have been buying have been produced with slave labor.

      After media reports surfaced earlier this year, alleging human rights abuses in the Thailand seafood industry – including the use of forced labor – food giant Nestle said it launched an internal investigation.

      Nestle said its investigators determined that some of the reports were true. It has published an action plan on seafood that comes from Thailand.

      The company said the plan contains several actions designed to protect workers from abuses, improve working conditions, and tackle unacceptable practices including juvenile and teenage working.

      No overnight solution

      “Nestlé is committed to eliminating forced labor in our seafood supply chain in Thailand, working alongside other stakeholders to tackle this serious and complex issue,” said Magdi Batato, Nestle's executive vice-president of operations. “This will be neither a quick nor an easy endeavor, but we look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead.”

      In its action plan, Nestle said it is committed to making sure its products are not associated with forced labor and announced new enforcement measures to require all suppliers to respect human rights and comply with labor laws.

      Human rights pressure

      Human rights activists have maintained that U.S. consumers have been purchasing products in supermarkets without knowing they were the result of slave labor. The New York Times reports Nestle faces a class action lawsuit that claims its Fancy Feast cat food has been the product of forced labor.

      The admission by Nestle is likely to focus renewed conditions under which many U.S. consumer products are sourced or manufactured in foreign countries. Just this week, the human rights group China Labor Watch released its “Sweatshop Toys List,” said to catalog the abusive conditions under which many popular toys are produced.

      The report detailed what it said were 29 violations, at least 21 of which violate Chinese law, in factories supplying to Hasbro, Mattel and Mattel-owned Fisher Price, McDonald’s, Jakks Pacific, Disney, NSI Toys, Battat, MGA Entertainment, and Walmart.

      It turns out some of the food and pet food products U.S. consumers have been buying have been produced with slave labor.After media reports surfaced ea...
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      The best and worst gift cards to buy this season

      Convenience and rewards help cards stand out

      Gift cards are one of the most popular items to give and receive for the holidays. Easy to purchase, easy to travel with, and always appreciated -- they most certainly make holiday shopping easier.

      With six out of ten people saying they’d like to receive a gift card this year, it’s no wonder they have consistently been the most requested gift for the past eight years. But while gift cards certainly make holiday shopping easier, a new study finds that certain gift cards may be falling short.

      Some retailers offer better terms on their gift cards than others.

      Not all gift cards are created equal

      Personal finance website GOBankingRates.com has researched and compiled a list of the ten best -- and five worst -- gift cards to buy this season. To come up with its ranking, GOBankingRates surveyed gift card offerings from 30 major retailers and providers on 10 factors that most affect gift card appeal, including ease of purchase and redemption as well as avoiding costs.

      The ten best gift cards are as follows: 

      1. Nordstrom
      2. Amazon
      3. Walmart
      4. Starbucks
      5. Lowe’s
      6. Macy’s
      7. JCPenney
      8. Target
      9. Toys“R”Us
      10. Best Buy

      And here are the five worst gift cards:

      1. MasterCard
      2. American Express
      3. eBay
      4. H&M
      5. Google Play

      Ease of use, incentives and rewards are all factors

      "The best gift cards stood out by offering a convenient and cheap way to give with features like free shipping or the option to send a gift card digitally,” said Elysa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GOBankingRates study. “Some retailers even reward customers who buy and use their gift cards.”

      Of the gift cards in the winner’s circle, none charge a purchasing fee or have an expiration date.

      Rewards were also a factor in determining the best gift cards. Starbucks, for example, offer customers a $5 off coupon just for registering their Starbucks gift card and joining My Starbucks Rewards while Nordstrom donates 1% of gift card purchases.

      So, before saying, “Go Go Gadget Gift Card” while checking off your holiday shopping list, keep in mind that not all are created equal: Nordstrom, Amazon, and Walmart offer the best gift cards for holiday shoppers, while MasterCard, American Express, and eBay have the worst, according to GOBankingRates.com.  

      Gift cards are one of the most popular items to give and receive for the holidays. Easy to purchase, easy to travel with, and always appreciated -- they mo...
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      Consumer confidence takes it on the chin

      Job market jitters get the blame

      After posting a modest decline in October, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index posted a substantial decline this month, dropping to 90.4 from 99.1 in October.

      At the same time, the Present Situation Index fell from 114.6 to 108.1, and the Expectations Index plunged more than 10 points -- from 88.7 to 78.6.

      “The decline was mainly due to a less favorable view of the job market,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Heading into 2016, consumers are cautious about the labor market and expect little change in business conditions.”

      The view from the consumer

      Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was less positive in November. Those saying business conditions are “good” slipped from 26.8% to 24.4%. However, those who said conditions are “bad” also decreased -- from 18.3% to 16.9%.

      Consumers were less upbeat about the current state of the job market. Those who believe jobs are “plentiful” decreased from 22.7 percent to 19.9 percent, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” increased to 26.2% from 24.6%.

      Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook dropped sharply in November. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased from 18.1% to 14.8%, while those who said business conditions will worsen edged up to 11.0% from 10.4%.

      The outlook for the labor market was also more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead fell from 14.4% to 11.6%, while those expecting there will be fewer jobs increased from 16.6% to 18.7%.

      The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase dipped from 18.1% to 17.2%, while the proportion expecting a decline rose from 10.5% to 11.8%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen around what consumers buy and watch. The cut-off date for the preliminary results was November 12.

      After posting a modest decline in October, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index posted a substantial decline this month, dropping to 90.4 from ...
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      Home prices post across-the-board gains in September

      Strength comes largely from the West

      Home prices across the U.S. continued to rise in September, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

      Year-over-year

      The National Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a slightly higher year-over-year gain with a 4.9% annual increase in September 2015 versus a 4.6% increase in August 2015. The 10-City Composite was up 5.0% in the year ending in September, compared to 4.7% in the previous year. The 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.5% versus 5.1% in the year ending in September.

      After adjusting for the CPI core rate of inflation, the S&P/Case Shiller National Home Price Index rose 3% from September 2014 to September 2015.

      San Francisco, Denver, and Portland reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities, with double-digit price increases of 11.2%, 10.9%, and 10.1%, respectively. Seventeen cities reported greater price increases in the year ending September 2015 versus the year ending August 2015. Phoenix had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, reporting a gain of 5.3% in September 2015 -- the tenth consecutive increase in annual price gains.

      “Home prices and housing continue to show strength with home prices rising at more than double the rate of inflation,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The general economy appeared to slow slightly earlier in the fall, but is now showing renewed strength.”

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a gain of 0.2% month-over-month in September. Both the 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite reported gains of 0.2% month-over-month. After seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a gain of 0.8%, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites both increased 0.6% month-over-month. Fifteen of 20 cities reported increases in September before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, 19 cities increased for the month.

      Blizter says that while interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve may be in the cards, he doesn't expect a major impact on the housing market.

      “While this will make news,” he said, “it is not likely to push mortgage rates far above the recent level of 4% on 30 year conventional loans. In the last year, mortgage rates have moved in a narrow range as home prices have risen; it will take much more from the Fed to slow home price gains.”

      Home prices across the U.S. continued to rise in September, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.Year-over-yearThe National Index, ...
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      Economic growth still limping along

      But it's not as bad as first indicated

      The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has taken a second look at how the economy was doing during the summer. And while things are a little better than they were in the “advance” report issued a month ago, there's a long way to go.

      According to the BEA, real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes -- increased at an annual rate of 2.1% in the third quarter of 2015.

      While an improvement over the 1.5% growth rate reported earlier, it's a far cry from the 3.9% surge in the second quarter.

      This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than what was available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. The new data shows the decrease in private inventory investment was smaller than previously estimated. A third and “final” estimate will be released in December.

      Ups and downs

      The increase in real GDP in the third quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending, residential fixed investment, and exports that were partly offset by a negative contributions from private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

      The deceleration in real GDP from the second quarter to the third quarter came from a downturn in private inventory investments and decelerations in exports, PCE, nonresidential fixed investments, in-state and local government spending, and in-residential fixed investments that were partly offset by a deceleration in imports.

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 1.3% in the third quarter – up 0.2% from the second. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core rate” of GDP inflation was 1.3%; it was 1.2% in the second three months of the year.

      The complete GDP report is available on the BEA website.

      The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has taken a second look at how the economy was doing during the summer. And while things are a ...
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      Exmark recalls Quest riding mowers

      The mowers' fuel filters can become brittle and fractured

      Exmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 500 2015 Quest riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada.

      The fuel filters on the mowers can become brittle and fractured, allowing fuel to leak and posing a fire hazard.

      The firm has reported one incident of fuel leaking. No injuries have been reported.

      The 2015 Quest riding mowers are red, black and gray. “Exmark” is printed on the sides and in front of the operator seat. “Quest” is printed on the front of the riding mowers. The model number and serial number are located on a decal affixed to the frame, under the seat.

      The recalled mode number is QTS452CEM34200. Quest mower has serial numbers ranging from 315606482 to 315628458.

      The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at hardware, lawn and garden stores nationwide from November 2014, through October 2015, for about $3,700.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact an Exmark dealer to schedule a free repair. Consumers with registered mowers will receive a letter and a fuel filter, and may contact an Exmark Dealer if they are uncomfortable with the replacement procedure.

      Consumers may contact Exmark toll-free at 800-667-5296 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.exmark.com/Service-And-Support/Recalls/ for more information.

      Exmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 500 2015 Quest riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada. The fuel filters on the mowers can ...
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      Five things shoppers should know before Black Friday

      It may not be necessary to fight the crowds at the mall

      This week is a make-or-break time for the nation's retailers. All are hoping to draw consumers to their Black Friday deals, at a time when consumers appear to be in the diver's seat, with an increasing array of options.

      The deals started weeks ago, both in stores and online, though retailers will likely save their best doorbusters for the big day itself.

      The National Retail Federation's (NRF) Thanksgiving Weekend Survey estimates as many as 135.8 million consumers may shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and/or Sunday. That's in line with last year's results.

      “The importance of Thanksgiving weekend to both retailers and consumers will never change,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “However, retailers have already given consumers several good reasons to start their holiday shopping earlier.

      Before getting out your credit card, here are five things weekend shoppers should know.

      The deals will be staggered

      Shoppers looking for the best bargains this week will need to stay alert all the way to Cyber Monday. The NRF says it expects retailers will offer exclusive savings each day of the promotional weekend.

      In years past, Black Friday was largely confined to one day, and at big box retailers it was over very quickly. That produced a lot of complaints from consumers who lined up in the middle of the night, only to find the item that drew them to the store was sold out in the first few minutes.

      Retailers responded by staggering their promotions, giving more consumers a chance. And as important as Black Friday weekend is to retailers, that's not the only weekend in which you'll find bargains.

      “It’s important to remember, there will be several important weekends to keep an eye on before we wrap up the holiday season,” Shay said.

      Not everything is marked down on Black Friday

      There's no question that many items will be marked down to bargain levels on Black Friday, but remember that not everything will be. In fact, a study conducted in 2012 found that some non-sale items were downright expensive on Black Friday.

      The study, by Shop Advisor, tracked the prices of 252 toys from the first day of Autumn and found that in the 54 days from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, the day with the lowest percentage -- 46 percent -- of products on sale below their initial holiday season price was Black Friday.

      As a matter of fact, Black Friday turned out to be the day on which shoppers begin to see prices spike on select items. On Black Friday itself, 24% of the toys on Shop Advisor's list were priced above their initial holiday season price. The company's survey last year pretty much confirmed that trend remains intact.

      More doorbusters are available online

      Each year more consumers do more of their holiday shopping online, and retailers have taken notice. As a result, it might not be necessary to get up at dawn or brave the mob at the mall to get a bargain.

      This year Amazon.com has been particularly aggressive rolling out its Black Friday deals. It's rolling out new Black Friday deals each day throughout the week.

      Brick and mortar retailers are also making some of their best bargains available on their websites. Sam's Club has most of its top doorbuster electronics available online with free shipping, including the PS4 Uncharted Bundle, Xbox Gears of War Bundle, a Vizio 58-inch HDTV, the iPad Air 2, and many other popular items.

      Dell has all of its deals online, and the prices are the same as, if not better, than stores that are selling their products in traditional brick and mortar locations.

      Free shipping is really important

      Buying online is extremely convenient, but if you have to pay for shipping, that can erode any savings you might have realized. So when shopping at an online retailer, check out the shipping charge policy.

      An increasing number of retailers now provide free shipping, at least during the holiday period. But make sure you read the fine print. It's likely there is a minimum purchase amount required in order to get that perk.

      For the best savings, find online stores with no minimum purchase requirement and, as a bonus, will pay for shipping on any returns.

      Patience pays off

      If none of this weekend's bargains catch your eye, you shouldn't settle. There will be more bargains to come.

      With a less-than-robust economy, retailers will be under pressure to move merchandise. By the middle of December, we could see an all-out price war.

      Last year, Shop Advisor found the best day to snag a bargain was not Black Friday, but December 18.

      This week is a make-or-break time for the nation's retailers. All are hoping to draw consumers to their Black Friday deals, at a time when consumers appear...
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      Chipotle-linked E. coli reported in three more states

      CDC says common meal ingredient is the likely source

      The E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants has widened to three additional states – New York, Minnesota, and Ohio.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least 45 people have been reported sick with the E. coli strain STEC 026.

      “The epidemiologic evidence available at this time suggests that a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in several states is a likely source of this outbreak,” CDC said in its latest update.

      The CDC says 43 of 45 people who became ill reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in the week before their illness started. Health officials are still investigating to determine what specific food is linked to the illness.

      Company response

      “We take this incident very seriously because the safety of our food and wellbeing of our customers is always our highest priority,” said Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. “We are committed to taking any and all necessary actions to make sure our food is as safe as possible, and we are working diligently with the health agencies.”

      The news of the latest outbreaks did not go down well on Wall Street. Chipotle stock plunged 12.5% in Friday's trading.

      As of now, there are six states in which the STEC O26 strain of E. coli has shown up. In addition to New York, Minnesota, and Ohio, there are the original states – Washington, Oregon, and California.

      Of the 45 people who have become ill, the CDC said 16 required admission to a hospital. To date, there have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths.

      What to do

      The CDC says consumers who become ill after eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant should inform a doctor immediately. Symptoms of E. coli include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, pale skin tone, fatigue, irritability, bleeding from the nose or mouth, decreased urination, and small, unexplained bruises.

      Symptoms usually occur two to eight days after exposure to tainted food.

      Chipotle says the additional cases do not necessarily mean the problem is spreading. The company says investigators have suggested that in incidents like this, it is not unusual to see additional cases after the initial incident as the investigation moves forward.

      The company believes the source of the problem appears to have been contained during a period in late October.

      “We offer our sincerest apologies to those who have been affected,” said Ells. “We will leave no stone unturned to ensure the safety of our food – from enhancing the safety and quality assurance program for all of our fresh produce suppliers, to examining all of our food safety procedures from farm to restaurant, and expanding testing programs for produce, meat and dairy items before they are sent to our restaurants.”

      The E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants has widened to three additional states – New York, Minnesota, and Ohio.The Centers fo...
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      Toy safety for the holidays -- and all days

      Here are some tips for keeping your children safe

      The holiday season can be stressful enough, so you don't need worrying about the toys you buy for your kids to add to it.

      Along those lines, there is some good news. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports there's been a decline in toy recalls in the past few years, so that should take some of the pressure off parents.

      In 2015, CPSC issued 25 toy recalls, compared with 172 in 2008. But, even with that decline, too many toys that are unsafe continue to show up at U.S. ports. Thankfully, they never get into kids' hands.

      The agency also receives reports of kids who have suffered toy-related injuries -- and even deaths. A report released for calendar year 2014 shows an estimated 183,800 toy-related injuries and 11 deaths. For toy-related deaths and injuries, it is important to note that although a toy was associated with many of the incidents, the toy was not necessarily the cause of the death or injury.

      What to do

      The CPSC offers the following tips on what you can do to help keep your little ones safe:

      • Choose age appropriate toys by reading the age label on the toy. For children younger than three, avoid toys with small parts, which can cause choking. In particular avoid deflated or broken balloons, small parts, or small balls.
      • Scooters and other riding toys, such as skateboards and in-line skates, go fast -- and falls could be deadly. Helmets and safety gear should be worn properly at all times and they should be sized to fit. Avoid riding a scooter on a street or roadway with other motor vehicles.
      • Magnets -- Children's magnetic toys are covered by a strong safety standard that prevents magnets from being swallowed. High-powered magnet sets, which are covered by a mandatory standard, also have small magnets that are dangerous and should be kept away from children. Whether marketed for children or adults, building and play sets with small magnets should also be kept away from small children.
      The holiday season can be stressful enough, so you don't need worrying about the toys you buy for your kids to add to it.Along those lines, there is so...
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      At Walmart, Cyber Monday will start Sunday night

      Retailer says this will let consumers get their shopping done earlier so they can get a good night's sleep

      In the huge hoopla over Black Friday, and which stores will and won't be open on Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday has sort of been overlooked. After all, it almost seems a relic of a bygone era.

      In the old days – 10 or 12 years ago – Cyber Monday was a pretty big deal. After Black Friday was in the books, consumers would return to work on Monday and take advantage of the boss's broadband Internet to order gifts online.

      Consumers waited until Monday because, by and large, they didn't have access to high-speed Internet at home. Now that just about everyone is on broadband, they aren't waiting until Monday to order things.

      8 p.m. start time

      Even so, Walmart is calling attention to Cyber Monday by doing to it what it did to Black Friday a few years back – start it early. The retailer says it will make all of its Cyber Monday deals available starting at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.

      The company says it's moving up the schedule to provide a simpler and more convenient experience for customers who are searching the Web on Sunday night and often waiting up past midnight to do their shopping. Now, they say, everyone can get a good night's sleep. 

      “It can be exhausting for working parents and millenials to stay up past midnight to shop online, only to wake up early the next day to get ready for work,” said Fernando Madeira, President and CEO, Walmart.com. “By starting Cyber Monday hours earlier on Sunday evening and quadrupling the number of Cyber Monday specials, we’re making it easier for customers to get ahead of the busiest online shopping day of the year and save on the best gifts.”

      Cyber Monday bargains

      Walmart says some of the deals include $500 off an LG 65-inch HDTV and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for $599, a savings of $200. Both items will be available with free shipping.

      Other Cyber Monday deals include:

      • Air Hogs Star Wars Remote Control X-34 Landspeeder – $19, plus free shipping to store
      • 14-ft. Trampoline with Enclosure – $189, plus free shipping
      • Porter Cable 3-Tool Combo Kit – $79, plus free shipping
      • Air Hogs Video Drone – $75, plus free shipping
      In the huge hoopla over Black Friday, and which stores will and won't be open on Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday has sort of been overlooked. After all, it almo...
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      Fewer New York shops ask for ID when selling cigarettes

      Study finds compliance fall-off after tougher law goes into effect

      New York City enacted a law in 2014 that raised the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. The law was aimed at reducing smoking rates, especially among young people.

      A law, of course, is only as effective as its enforcement. And researchers at NYU and UCLA have found that compliance with identification (ID) checks has significantly decreased since the law went into effect last year.

      Before the law changed, researchers say 29% of retailers sampled were non-compliant. After the change, 38% of sampled retailers failed to ask for ID when selling cigarettes to young people.

      Researchers also examined new minimum price laws for cigarettes and found a similar pattern.

      Troubling pattern

      "This study reveals a troubling pattern of non-compliance with ID check and minimum price laws among some retailers in New York City," said lead author, Dr. Diana Silver, an associate professor of public health policy at NYU's College of Global Public Health. "Without serious attention to strengthening enforcement of its current laws, New York City will fail to realize the full potential of its efforts to reduce smoking."

      There could be several reasons for the lack of enforcement. For one thing, a lot of retailers might still be unaware that the age limit has risen.

      Researchers note the new law did not go into effect until nine months after its enactment.

      Multiple jurisdictions

      Then, there's the fact that enforcement measures for retailer tobacco laws involve five different city and state agencies. Researchers say they all have unique protocols, and in many cases no additional resources were allocated for inspection, prosecution, and follow-up of those violating the new laws.

      Under federal law, states are required to make sure non-compliance with ID check laws never fall below 20%. Dr. James Macinko, one of the study's authors, says the current level of non-compliance is troubling.

      "In addition, sales below legal minimum prices present additional challenges for controlling access to cigarettes not just among youth, but among the entire city's population," he said.

      In 2014 New York City enacted a law that raised the minimum age to buy cigarettes, from 18 to 21. The law was aimed at reducing smoking rates, especially a...
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      Existing-home sales tumble in October

      Three of the four geographic regions posted declines

      Sales of previously-owned homes fell in October even though mortgage interest rates were below 4% for a third straight month.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, fell 3.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.36 million. Even with that decline, sales are 3.9% above the year-ago pace of 5.16 million.

      A pullback in contract signings the last couple of months is getting the blame.

      "New and existing-home supply has struggled to improve so far this fall, leading to few choices for buyers and no easement of the ongoing affordability concerns still prevalent in some markets," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Furthermore, the mixed signals of slowing economic growth and volatility in the financial markets slightly tempered demand and contributed to the decreasing pace of sales."

      Still, Yun remains optimistic. "As long as solid job creation continues,” he said, “a gradual easing of credit standards even with moderately higher mortgage rates should support steady demand and sales continuing to rise above a year ago."

      Pricing and inventory

      The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $219,600 -- 5.8% above October and the 44th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

      Total housing inventory at the end of October dropped 2.3% to 2.14 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 4.5% lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.8-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 4.7 months in September.

      Sales by region

      • Existing-home sales in the Northeast were at an annual rate of 760,000 in October, unchanged from September, but 8.6% above a year ago. The median price posted a year-over-year gain of 1.3% to $248,900.
      • In the Midwest, sales dipped 0.8% percent to an annual rate of 1.3 million, but are 8.3% higher than they were in October of 2014. The median price was $172,300, up 5.7% from a year ago.
      • Sales in the South fell 3.2% to an annual rate of 2.14 million in October, but are still 0.5% above October of 2014. The median price was $188,800, up 6.2% from the same month last year.
      • Existing-home sales in the West plunged 8.7% to an annual rate of 1.16 million, but remain 2.7% above October of 2014. The median price shot up 8.0% to $319,000.
      Sales of previously-owned homes fell in October even though mortgage interest rates were below 4% for a third straight month.The National Association o...
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      Time to plan for next year's health flexible spending arrangements

      You may be able to carry over money

      Not that you don't have enough to do with the holidays approaching, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding those who are eligible that this is the time to begin planning to take full advantage of their employer’s health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) during 2016.

      FSAs provide employees a way to use tax-free dollars to pay medical expenses not covered by other health plans. Because eligible employees need to decide how much to contribute through payroll deductions before the plan year begins, many employers are offering the option to participate during the 2016 plan year.

      If you want to contribute during the new year, you must make this choice again for 2016 -- even if you contributed in this year. Self-employed individuals are not eligible.

      How it works

      Those who elect to participate may contribute up to $2,550 during the 2016 plan year, the same as in 2015. Amounts contributed are not subject to federal income tax, Social Security tax, or Medicare tax. If the plan allows, the employer may also contribute to your FSA.

      Throughout the year, employees can then use the money to pay qualified medical expenses not covered by their health plan, including co-pays, deductibles, and a variety of medical products and services ranging from dental and vision care to eyeglasses and hearing aids. Interested employees should check with their employer for details on eligible expenses and claim procedures.

      Carryover option

      Under the use or lose provision, participating employees must often incur eligible expenses by the end of the plan year, or forfeit any unspent amounts. But under a special rule, employers may -- if they choose -- offer participating employees more time through either the carryover option or the grace period option.

      Under the carryover option, an employee can carry over up to $500 of unused funds to the following plan year; for example, an employee with $500 of unspent funds at the end of 2016 would still have those funds available to use in 2017.

      Under the grace period option, an employee has until 2½ months after the end of the plan year to incur eligible expenses -- for example, March 15, 2017, for a plan year ending on Dec. 31, 2016. Employers can offer either option, but not both, or none at all.

      Employers are not required to offer FSAs. Accordingly, interested employees should check with their employer to see if they offer an FSA.

      More information about FSAs is available in IRS Publication 969.  

      Not that you don't have enough to do with the holidays approaching, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding those who are eligible that this is...
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      Nissan recalls 2015 Altimas and 2016 Maximas

      The brakes may not function properly

      Nissan North America is recalling 119 model year 2015 Altima and 2016 Maxima vehicles manufactured October 6, 2015, to October 7, 2015.

      The vehicles have front brake calipers whose mounting bolts may not be properly tightened. If the bolts were not properly tightened, the caliper may detach and reduce braking ability, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will check the brake caliper mounting bolts, tightening them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early December 2015.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

      Nissan North America is recalling 119 model year 2015 Altima and 2016 Maxima vehicles manufactured October 6, 2015, to October 7, 2015. The vehicle...
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      VW dirty diesel scandal expands to at least 85,000 more vehicles in U.S.

      3.0-liter diesels in VW, Audio and Porsche models also used illegal "defeat devices"

      Like a cloud of billowing smoke, the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal just keeps expanding. The Environmental Protection Agency now says that at least 85,000 additional VW, Audi and Porsche vehicles are equipped with software allegedly designed to cheat emissions tests.

      The EPA said today that Volkswagen and Audi officials yesterday admitted that the software that fudges on emissions tests was present on all vehicles powered by the VW group’s 3.0-liter diesel V-6 engine since the 2009 model year.

      Previously, it had been thought that the deceptive software was present on about half a million 2.0-liter TDI diesel models and about 10,000 3.0-liter engines. But now the EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) say the software exists on an additional 75,000 VW, Audi and Porsche cars and SUVs.

      In a related development, a CARB official said it is "likely" VW will buy back at least some of the cars containing the 2.0-liter TDI "Clean Diesel" engines.

      CARB Chairman Mary Nichols told a German newspaper the agency expects that vehicles with the first generation of VW’s 2.0-liter diesel engine will require a hardware “retrofit” to bring their emissions into compliance. The trouble is, Nichols said, such retrofits have struggled to achieve their intended goals in the past.

      “We have seen in the past that retrofit devices just don’t work as well as they are intended to, even if it is being done by the original manufacturer,” Nichols told Handelsblatt. “So I think it is quite likely that they will end up buying back at least some portion of the fleet from the current owners.”

      Volkswagen has lately been downplaying the likely cost of the scandal, painting a positive picture for financial analysts at the same time it cuts its capital budget 8% to free up money to repair or replace the affected models.

      Software changes

      “We are fully cooperating with the environmental authorities and working on concrete measures that will resolve this situation,” said Jeri Ward, Audi of America communications chief. “We’ll need some software changes in the future that will ultimately resolve this and there are more discussions that will be needed with the agencies.” 

      Ward acknowledged that the software was used on all 3.0-liter diesels since the 2009 model year, according to Automotive News.

      VW, Audi and Porsche have halted sales of diesel models pending the outcome of the inquiry.

      VW executives met with officials of the EPA and CARB yesterday and informed them that the illegal "defeat devices" had been found on the additional models.

      The illicit software basically recognizes when a car is undergoing an emissions tests and activites pollution-control equipment that is automatically turned off when the test is ended.

      A Porsche Cayenne dieselLike a cloud of billowing smoke, the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal just keeps expanding. The Environmental Protection Agenc...
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