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The Week

The Fed's 6.5 per cent solution Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business followed this week.

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Fed sets thresholds
The Federal Reserve opened a new front in its war on high unemployment with new thresholds that would trigger a hike in interest rates.

The U.S. central bank said it expects to hold its benchmark rate near zero for "at least as long as" the U.S. jobless rate runs above 6.5 per cent and projected inflation is at 2.5 per cent or slower. The jobless rate is now 7.7 per cent.

For chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues on the Fed's policy-making panel, the Federal Open Market Committee, the battle against unemployment has been a troubled one. While its focus has been on unemployment for a few years, this week's announcement marked the first specific target for the jobless rate. The new thresholds replace the Fed's previous pledge to hold rates near zero until at least mid-2015.

As The Globe and Mail's Kevin Carmichael reports, the Fed also announced plans to pump some $45-billion (U.S.) more a month into its asset-purchase program.

"Forward guidance based on macroeconomic thresholds is meant to provide more transparency on the way the Fed evaluates its future changes to the policy rate," said senior economist Martin Schwerdtfeger.

"This should help market participants and the public in general to better assess the timing of policy changes as economic conditions evolve."

Which is why a new way of thinking is needed in what remains an ugly period for the global economy.

Five and out
Mark Carney, the celebrated next governor of the Bank of England, plans to return to Canada after five years at the Old Lady of Threadneedle.

Mr. Carney told The Globe and Mail this week that one of the selling points on leaving the Bank of Canada was the offer of taking just five years, rather than the traditional eight, at the Bank of England, Boyd Erman reports.

“It matters because of the ages of my children, and when they would finish school, and the ability to come back here,” he said. “One can play things out. If your children graduate school there, and they end up going to university there, and then one thing leads to another. That makes it easier.”

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who chased Mr. Carney hard, also offered £624,000 ($810,000) in salary and pension contributions, more than double the compensation of the incumbent governor, Sir Mervyn King.

Debt burden climbs
Be careful what you wish for. As in, the gift you wish your spouse gets you. At least if he or she is paying for it with credit.

According to Statistics Canada this week, the key measure of the consumer burden, credit market debt to disposable income, fattened in the third quarter to 164.6 per cent, compared to the second quarter’s 163.3 per cent.

This has been an issue for the Bank of Canada and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

While Statistics Canada noted that the pace of credit growth has slowed, the central bank has questioned whether that easing will last..

“For now, thanks to the record low cost of borrowing, debt remains manageable for the majority of Canadians,” said Toronto-Dominion Bank economist Diana Petramala.

“However, the high level of debt leaves households more vulnerable to a rise in interest rates than they have been in the past. Given the prospects that interest rates will eventually rise, households must cool their spending and borrowing further.”

Housing slows
The construction industry is feeling the pinch of the slowdown in Canada's housing market.

Indeed, housing starts in November fell below an annual rate of 200,000 for the first time in a year.

As The Globe and Mail's Tara Perkins reports, the chill in Ontario and British Columbia is pulling down the number of national residential construction starts, which, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., slipped in November to an annual pace of 196,125 from 203,487 in October.

"The modest decline is consistent with what appears to be a softly-landing housing market, at least in the vast majority of the country," said Robert Kavcic of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

"With national sales down about 10 per cent since the spring high, and given that construction tends to lag demand, the surge in starts to above 250,000 in April is looking increasingly like a near-term high for Canadian residential construction."

November's decline marked the third in a row, and this is seen as continuing.

"We continue to expect that new-home construction will moderate gradually over the coming months as housing market activity transitions to more sustainable levels over the medium-term," said David Onyett-Jeffries of Royal Bank of Canada.

Wasn't that a party?
It must have been, because Silvio Berlusconi wants back in.

Italy's former prime minister, known for his partying ways and living the high life, put some chill in the markets this week by announcing last weekend that he plans to run again.

Mario Monti, the current leader, said he'll resign once the government's budget is passed.

Mr. Monti heads the technocrat government that was put in place to help get Rome back on track. Investors are obviously antsy with the promise of his departure, though it would come just about two months before what was scheduled.

"One factor behind weakness in the risk trades is that Italian political stability is giving rise to earlier-than-expected elections as Monti looks set to resign and Berlusconi’s anti-austerity mangling of the crisis looks set to possibly return," Derek Holt and Dov Zigler said early this week as the markets shuddered.

"That risks throwing Europe back into the disarray that had been characteristic before Monti’s interim technocratic government restored market order."

Eight things
1. The Financial Times Alphaville team has done up some fun T-shirts to raise money for The Global Fund for Children, emblazoned with sayings like "I went to 10 Eurogroup meetings and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt," "Neo-Keynesians do it better," and, my favourite, "This T-shirt has been pledged as ECB collateral." They're on eBay.

2. Here's what Frank Abagnale Jr., the man behind Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Catch Me If You Can, told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal: "Of all the things I did, the easiest profession (to fake) was the lawyer. As the lawyer, I found most of it was a matter of research, which I was great at — that's what I did to death — and then basically persuading people that you're right and they're wrong."

3. On learning of the death at age 91 of Norman Joseph Woodland, one of the inventors of the bar code, I went looking (in my usual sick way) to see if caskets now carry bar codes. Of course I couldn't find them online  because you wouldn't need them online - I did, though, find the Beloved Walnut and In God's Care models at casketdirect.ca - but I did find this in The Atlantic, about Batesville Casket Co.: "Using bar codes and touch-screen computers, line workers can custom-build the caskets more than a thousand different ways, outfitting them in 22 possible colours, with an array of decorative hardware, interior trimmings, and personalized 'life symbols.'"

4. Poland's Tomasz Paczkowski explains to the newspaper Fakt why more than half his head is bandaged (as told by The Telegraph):  “My wife had gone to work and asked me to help with the house work. After breakfast I started to work. I turned on the boxing channel on the TV, opened a beer and started ironing. I was really getting involved in the boxing and was not really thinking about what I was doing. Suddenly the phone rang and I mucked things up: instead of grabbing the receiver I picked up the iron and put it to my ear.”

5. CareerBliss has published its annual list of the 50 Happiest Companies in America, which is based on how the employees of said companies feel. Top of the list is Pfizer Inc. (Wonder if they get free Viagra?)

6. From Reuters: "Spanish police arrested a Panamanian woman on Wednesday who landed in Barcelona from Bogota, Colombia, with cocaine stuffed inside her breast implants."

7. Analyst research note line of the week, from RBC Dominion Securities: "Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. Sleigh Bells on the Mountain: Q4/F12 in line, outlook unchanged."

8. Colour commentary of the week, from Kit Juckes, the chief of foreign exchange at Société Générale: "There was one thing that the 2011 Census of England and Wales, whose results are splashed all over the press today, didn't tell you - the people who live and work on this island are becoming increasingly unproductive. Not slacking, since the number of hours they spend 'working' is going up (by 2.6 per cent in the last year) but unproductive because the real value of their output has fallen marginally over the same period. What's wrong with us? Are we just sitting here making jokes on Twitter/Facebook while we do our Christmas shopping online? Don't answer that!! As a general rule I try not to write too much about sports, and Arsenal in particular, in these pieces. But a bunch of highly paid footballers took the trouble to go all the way to Yorkshire yesterday, and then played not the usual 90 minutes of football but about 130 minutes, achieving absolutely no discernible output in the process. That's properly unproductive, leading the way for the whole country, apparently."

The week from Top Business

Required reading
It would be easy to dismiss all the fuss about corruption as a uniquely Quebec problem, Barrie McKenna writes. But that’s dangerously shortsighted.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Sherry Cooper, who blazed a trail for women on Bay Street, is retiring after three decades to write books, give speeches and perhaps sit on a few corporate boards, Barrie McKenna reports.

Securities regulators are eyeing a crackdown on the mutual fund industry’s fees, including a possible outright ban on some charges, as they look to shield investors from soaring, and often opaque, costs, Janet McFarland reports.

Alberta issued a chilly response to Ottawa’s new foreign investment rules, with senior ministers concerned that investment in the oil sands will slow now that wealthy state-controlled energy firms are essentially off-limits for more takeovers in the province. Carrie Tait, Shawn McCarthy and Nathan VanderKlippe report.

Apple Inc. is looking a little bruised. Iain Marlow takes an in-depth look at the tech giant.

What to watch for next week
Expect trouble in manufacturing (and hockey) to play a role in what is expected to be a flat economic reading from Statistics Canada Friday.

The agency reports on how the economy performed in October, the kickoff to the fourth quarter, and economists expect to see that gross domestic product flat-lined, with anywhere of a slight contraction of 0.1 per cent to a mild expansion of 0.1 per cent.

"The NHL lockout looks to carve deeply into the arts & entertainment category, while manufacturing sales took a nasty stumble in the month," said Douglas Porter of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

"This one-two punch will offset mild growth in many other categories. As well, persistent softness in construction, utilities and the public sector will weigh. On balance, another month of no growth after a flat result in September and a small drop in August will leave Q4 barely unchanged versus Q3 at this point."

Separately, the Canadian Real Estate Association is expected to report Monday on home sales in November. Expect to see a hefty drop, given that we already know sales plunged in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Mr. Porter expects national sales slipped about 12 per cent last month.

For investors, Research In Motion Ltd. reports quarterly results Thursday.

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