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A gloomy day caps a lousy week in markets

These are stories Report on Business is following Friday, Nov. 16, 2012.

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Markets troubled
Investors are in something of a foul mood again today, troubled by everything from the so-called fiscal cliff to Europe's woes as they close out a depressing week.

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"It's been another day of caution and uncertainty at the end of a difficult week for traders as markets head into their second negative week in a row and their worst week since May," said senior analyst Michael Hewson of CMC Markets in London.

"Trying to extract anything positive from this week's events has been difficult given the prevailing sense of pessimism amongst investors about politicians' ability to get on top of the problems affecting the global economy."

Tokyo's Nikkei jumped 2.2 per cent, but that's just about where any optimism ends, and it's related to hopes for further stimulus as Japan heads toward a mid-December election.

In Europe, major exchanges were down by up to about 1 per cent, and the gloom spread into North America, hitting the S&P 500, the Dow Jones industrial average and Toronto's S&P/TSX composite.

President Barack Obama is meeting today with Congressional leaders as they try to reach a deal that head off the fiscal cliff, a phrase coined by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that refers to a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts that will go into effect automatically on Jan. 1 in the absence of an increase.

"The political uncertainty created by events in the U.S. surrounding spending cuts and tax rises along with apprehension over the next steps with respect to Greece's finances are keeping investors on the sidelines and sending capital into defensive locations ahead of the weekend," said Mr. Hewson.

Hostilities in the Middle East are also playing into the market gloom.

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"The risk-off trade continues unabated," said chief economist David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff + Associates.

"Concerns over the heightened tensions around Gaza (the rockets are now hitting Tel Aviv), the fiscal cliff, earnings season (Dell's the latest to release poor results, expecially on the revenue line) and the euro area (particularly a Greek insolvency) … are at the heart of the renewed investor anxiety."

Hostess to shut down
Hostess Brands Inc. says it's shutting down amid a strike that "crippled the company's ability to produce and deliver products" across the United States, throwing some 18,500 people out of work.

Hostess, whose well-known brands include Twinkies, Wonder Bread and Ding Dong, among others, had warned the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union it would close up shop if the strike didn't end by late yesterday.

Today, the strike-bound food manufacturer said it is "winding down operations" and has filed documents with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for permission to shut down completely and sell off assets.

"Hostess Brands is unprofitable under its current cost structure, much of which is determined by union wages and pension costs," the company said.

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"The offer to the BCTGM included wage, benefit and work rule concessions but also gave Hostess Brands' 12 unions a 25-per-cent ownership stake in the company, representation on its board of directors and $100-million in reorganized Hostess Brands' debt."

Affected are 33 bakeries, more than 550 distribution operations and 570 stores in the U.S. Montreal's Saputo Inc. holds the rights to Hostess in Canada, though George Weston Ltd. holds Wonder Bread.

The Hostess workers have been on strike for a week as the company sought concessions and the union held firm. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the biggest union at Hostess, had already struck a deal with the company.

Employees say they have given enough for the struggling firm.

"We want to go back to work," Dan Carlson, who has worked at the Hostess operation in Lenexa, Kansas, for six years, told Reuters yesterday. "We can't keep giving."

The company, however, which started up in 1930, said it can't go on under its current cost structure. The motion to close was made to the court overseeing its Chapter 11 credit proceedings.

"We deeply regret the necessity of today's decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike," said chief executive officer Gregory Rayburn.

"Hostess Brands will move promptly to lay off most of its 18,500-member work force and focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders."

The company added it has access to $75-million in debtor-in-possession financing as it winds down its operations and moves to sell its brands, of which there are about 30.

"I'm certainly hopeful we can sell the brands and that the brands can live on," Mr. Rayburn told CNBC today.

"They are iconic."

Hostess said that in September, the union rejected its final offer that was "designed to lower costs so that the company could attract new financing and emerge from Chapter 11."

Astral halted
Shares of Canada's Astral Media Inc. were halted this morning as investors await word of a new bid by BCE Inc.

As The Globe and Mail's Jacquie McNish and Simon Houpt report, BCE and Astral are poised to unveil a new deal after being turned down by Canadian regulators.

They plan to sell several of Astral's English broadcast assets.

Petronas goes back to Ottawa
Malaysia's Petronas is taking  a second run at Progress Energy Resources Corp. after being rebuffed by the Canadian government.

Petronas and Progress had already said they were in talks with Canadian officials.

Today, news outlets reported that a revised offer has now been put in.

Canadian officials rejected the bid for Progress, saying it failed the country's "net benefit" test.

Also under scrutiny is a bid by China's CNOOC Ltd. for Canadian energy giant Nexen Inc.

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