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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Amazon Buys Online Fabric Store - WSJ.com

Amazon.com Inc. said Wednesday it acquired online fabric store Fabric.com, as the Internet retailer continues its effort to expand product offerings. Financial terms of the deal weren't disclosed. Fabric.com, which sells custom measured and cut fabrics, as well as patterns, sewing tools and accessories, will continue to function as a stand-alone operation based in Marietta, Ga. Fabric.com Chief Executive Stephen Friedman said in a press release that the deal should help Fabric.com expand its inventory, as well as benefit from Amazon's e-commerce technology and "customer service expertise."

--The Wall Street Journal Online

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Progress Software to buy Iona for $148.4 million

Progress Software Corp. agreed to buy Ireland-based Iona Technologies Plc for about $148.4 million, the maker of tools for integrating different software programs said Wednesday.

Progress said it will pay $4.05 per share for the Dublin maker of software integration technology. The offer represents a premium of 13 percent over Iona's closing price of $3.60 on Tuesday.

Iona had put itself up for sale in February after a period of steady sales decline, particularly to banks, its largest customer segment.

The price projects to a total value of $148.4 million, based on the 36.6 million shares Iona had outstanding at the end of March. Progress said the deal has an equity value of $162 million and is worth $106 million net of cash and marketable securities that Iona held as of March 31.

Iona's board has approved the deal, which the companies expect to close in September.

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Ethanol producers' shares rise after capacity idled - Forbes.com


Shares of large ethanol producers rose Wednesday after one company raised the amount of newly built capacity it will keep idle to 330 million gallons per year.

VeraSun Energy Corp. increased to three the number of its recently completed ethanol plants that it has decided to not start.

Last week, the company announced a delay in starting two 110 million-gallon per year ethanol plants, one in Welcome, Minn., and the other in Hartley, Iowa. The third 110 million-gallon-per-year plant now slated for a delayed startup is in Hankinson, N.D.

The delays are widely seen as the result of record high prices for corn, a key feedstock for the plants, and weak ethanol prices.

Corn for December delivery settled Tuesday at $7.475 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade. The contract hit an all-time trading high of $7.915 a bushel on June 16.

Corn prices have surged more than 80 percent in the past year amid sharp increases in global demand to feed people and livestock and make ethanol in the U.S., which has hurt profit margins in the ethanol industry.

Barring a retreat in corn prices, margin relief will have to come from higher ethanol prices, something that may happen if VeraSun's actions are harbingers of tighter supply - or at least a slowdown in the growth of supply.

Deutsche Bank-North America analyst Christina McGlone, writing in a client note, said that "if corn prices relative to ethanol prices force too much capacity to go off-line, at that point, gasoline refiners/blenders will have to bid up the price of ethanol to entice additional production."

Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Joseph A. Gomes said in an interview that the share price increase of ethanol producers may stem from news that VeraSun and other corn ethanol producers are not beginning to run new plants. Assuming demand for ethanol remains stable, that could help raise ethanol's price, thus increasing margins.

In late morning trading, shares of VeraSun rose 13 cents, or 3.1 percent, to $4.09; Pacific Ethanol Inc. rose 9 cents, or 4.9 percent, to $1.94; and Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. rose 18 cents, or 4.4 percent, to $4.28.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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Bloomberg.com: Economy

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- Sales of new homes extended their decline and orders for durable goods stagnated in May, underscoring forecasts that the Federal Reserve's first interest- rate increase since 2006 is still months away.

New-home sales fell to a 512,000 annual pace, the second- lowest level since 1991, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. Bookings for goods meant to last several years totaled $213.6 billion, the same as in April, Commerce reported. Both figures matched the median forecast of economists.

The reports indicate the manufacturing and housing industries aren't strong enough to withstand higher borrowing costs. Fed officials are forecast to halt their series of rate cuts today and may stop short of signaling they're ready to tighten.

``I don't think the Fed is going to seriously start raising interest rates until the economy is out of the doldrums and that won't be until sometime next year,'' Patrick Newport, an economist at Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Treasuries stayed lower after the figures, with benchmark 10-year note yields at 4.13 percent at 8:34 a.m. in New York, from 4.10 percent late yesterday. The Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index gained 0.6 percent to 1,322.90.

Fed officials will keep their benchmark rate at 2 percent today, according to all 102 economists in a Bloomberg News survey. While most analysts in a separate survey this month said the central bank will hold off on a rate boost until next year, interest-rate futures show some traders are betting on a move as soon as August.

`Have the Courage'

``The Fed, in my opinion, has to have the courage to sit tight and not do anything despite what will be ugly inflation data in the next few months,'' said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York. ``If they raise rates they are really going to punish housing and financial assets.''

The median new-home sales price last month decreased 5.7 percent from May 2007 to $231,000. These figures can be influenced by changes in the mix of sales at the regional level. For that reason, economists prefer price measures that track the same home over time.

One such gauge, the S&P/Case-Shiller index, showed yesterday that prices in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas fell 15.3 percent in April from a year earlier, the steepest decline since the group began keeping records in 2001.

Compared with a year earlier, sales of new homes were down 40 percent, today's Commerce report showed.

Unsold Properties

The supply of homes at the current sales rate rose to 10.9 months' worth from 10.7 months in April. The number of homes completed and waiting to be sold decreased to 182,000.

New-home purchases dropped in two of four regions. They decreased 12 percent in the West and 7.9 percent in the Northeast. The 114,000 sales at an annual pace in the West were the lowest since September 1982. Sales rose 5.1 percent in the Midwest and 0.4 percent in the South.

``It feels to us as though we're pretty much on the bottom, but that doesn't make you feel too good,'' Robert Toll, chief executive officer of Toll Brothers Inc., the largest U.S. luxury- home builder, said in a Bloomberg Television interview yesterday. ``We have noticed some good times coming back in some markets, but in other markets, there's no sign of recovery.''

Credit-Card Debt

American Express Co., the biggest U.S. credit-card company by purchases and cash advances, today said customers are falling behind on their debt at a faster-than-anticipated pace, signaling the economy is worsening.

``Business conditions continue to weaken in the U.S. and so far this month we have seen credit indicators deteriorate beyond our expectations,'' Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault said in a statement.

Durable-goods orders for April were revised to show a 1 percent drop that was larger than previously estimated. Excluding demand for transportation equipment, which tends to be volatile, orders declined 0.9 percent, the first drop in three months.

The durables report signaled the domestic slowdown, spurred by the housing recession and weaker consumer spending, offset the benefit of record exports. That pattern probably continued in June, as reports from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve banks last week showed manufacturing in their regions shrank at a faster pace this month.

``Obviously you're seeing very weak consumer numbers and housing numbers,'' James O'Sullivan, a senior economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. ``Chances are the trend is still weakening.''

Autos Drop

Metals, machinery and automobiles were among the goods that saw a drop in demand last month. Those declines were offset by gains in computers, appliances, commercial aircraft and defense equipment.

Bookings for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a measure of future business investment, fell 0.8 percent and April's 4 percent gain was revised down to 3.1 percent. Shipments of those items, a number used in calculating gross domestic product, increased 0.6 percent following a 0.9 percent gain in April that was larger than previously estimated.

The figures may lead some economists to boost forecasts for growth this quarter and lower estimates for the second half of the year.

Carmakers are paring output or shifting production to more fuel-efficient vehicles. General Motors Corp., struggling to return to profit amid record gasoline prices, said June 3 it will close four truck plants, make more small cars, and may drop its Hummer brand of large sport-utility vehicles.

``You've seen a virtual collapse in the mid-utility market,'' Fritz Henderson, chief operating officer of GM, said in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 3. ``Now it's pickup trucks that are being affected by fuel prices, and also by construction and housing'' slumps.

Among the biggest costs for manufacturers, oil rose to more than $137 a barrel this week.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Willis in Washington at bwillis@bloomberg.net

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Yahoo And Publicis Work Together On Mobile Advertising Initiative - washingtonpost.com

Today, Paris-based ad holding company Publicis Groupe formed an ad network spanning all four major ad serving systems?Microsoft ( NSDQ: MSFT), Google/DoubleClick, Yahoo ( NSDQ: YHOO) and AOL ( NYSE: TWX)?to tightly coordinate campaigns across these platforms. The announcement also included an additional deal with Yahoo for mobile advertising, which aims to help brands reach mobile consumers more easily.

The breakdown of the deal: Publicis will integrate its current media buying systems with Yahoo!'s Right Media Exchange (which also recently signed a deal with Publicis rival WPP's GroupM), and with AMP!, Yahoo's advertising management platform. Publicis Groupe's mobile marketing agency, Phonevalley, will also lean heavily on Yahoo's Blueprint technology which is the backbone of Yahoo! Go, a platform that supports widgets and third-party apps. Blueprint, in theory, allows developers to create an app once that can run on the Yahoo! Go platform, which is compatible with hundreds of phones around the world. Brands working with Publicis could tap into this capability, making it easier to develop one campaign that could work on various phones, carriers and across multiple countries. Phonevalley is claiming to be the first global agency to integrate Blueprint. In addition, Yahoo! and Publicis Groupe will work with Yahoo's Smart Ads technology, allowing Publicis to create numerous permutations of a given brand's message more easily.


This relationship may provide a much needed boost to mobile advertising. Often times, ad agencies don't have the expertise in-house to roll out a campaign that may need to be adapted for hundreds of phones, carriers and countries. Of course, this is a pretty big win for Yahoo, which has been slowly setting up an empire of mobile search and advertising relationships around the world with carriers. Just last week, Yahoo announced five new partners, bringing the total list of carriers that uses its mobile search to 60 over the last 18 months.

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Monsanto Targets Higher US Corn Planting, To Boost Prices

CHICAGO -(Dow Jones)- Monsanto Co. (MON) predicts a rebound in U.S. corn planting next year while targeting further expansion in Europe and Asia for its seeds and herbicides.

The world's largest seed producer, which on Wednesday reported a 42% increase in fiscal third-quarter profit, forecast U.S. farmers will plant around 90 million acres of corn for the 2009 harvest, responding to the continued rise in prices fueled by surging global food demand.

U.S. farmers cut corn planting from 92.5 million acres in 2007 to 86 million acres this year, switching to higher-priced soybeans and wheat.

"The vote at Monsanto is that we're going to see a lot of corn going in the ground next year," Hugh Grant, Monsanto's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, said Wednesday during a conference call following the release of the third- quarter results.

Monsanto is already the largest provider of corn seeds to U.S. farmers, and boosted its own forecast of market share gains next year. The company also plans to raise prices for corn seeds by an average of 20% next year. Prices on a new range of soybean seeds due to be launched in 2009 will be released later in the summer.

Grant said U.S. corn planting next year would also hinge on the level of damage to the current crop from widespread flooding in the Midwest.

He said it would be several weeks before the impact on crop yields could be assessed, though Monsanto expects little financial impact from the flooding. While farmers may buy additional seeds to replant damaged crops, the replacement seeds carry low margins.

While attention has been focused on the immediate impact of the floods, Monsanto said the wet conditions could also intensify the problem of pests. " It's likely there will be significant bug pressure," said Brett Begemann, executive vice-president global commercial.

Targeting Europe And Asia

Soaring sales of Monsanto's genetically modified corn seeds offering protection against pests and bad weather contributed to record third-quarter profits, and the company raised its full-year forecast for the fourth time in six months.

Net income rose from $570 million to $811 million in the quarter ended May 31, with earnings per share of $1.45 surpassing the consensus among analysts by around 10 cents. Sales rose to $3.6 billion.

For fiscal 2008, it expects earnings per share of $3.63, though the increase trailed analysts' forecast by 8 cents.

The company's shares were down 6.4% to $127.10 in recent trading. The stock has nearly doubled over the past year, with rising commodity prices encouraging more farmers to buy its higher-yielding crop seeds.

Grant said Monsanto continues to seek opportunities for acquisitions and organic growth, notably in Europe and Asia, though said he was "not sure" if the large agricultural regions in Russia and Ukraine would be target markets.

The company has bought seed companies in Latin America and central America in recent months, as well as vegetable seed businesses to expand into the high- margin protected crop market.

Grant said he would update investors later this summer on Monsanto's five-year plan to double sales by 2012, a target that had been based largely on organic growth.

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US May new home sales down 2.5 pct to 512,000 unit annual pace UPDATE - Forbes.com

WASHINGTON (Thomson Financial) - Sales of new homes in the United States continued to fall in May, dragging prices down and increasing the time it takes for builders to hand over the keys to new homeowners, the Commerce Department reported on Wednesday.

New home sales were down 2.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 512,000 units. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters IFR Markets had expected a smaller slowdown to 515,000 annual units.

The median price of a new home fell 5.7 percent from a year earlier to $231,000. 'But these numbers are so erratic as to be usless,' said Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics.

Builders managed to cut 16.9 percent off the actual number of unsold homes to 453,000, the largest monthly decline since July 1997. However, the slower sales pace left the inventory of new homes at a 10.9 months supply, up from 10.7 in the previous month.

'Continued large supply relative to demand, in spite of a sharp decline in housing starts, indicates that prices of new homes will remain on a downward trend for some time and until they are low enough to stimulate sufficient demand to clear the market,' said Joshua Shapiro of MFR.

Sales estimates were revised down by 1,000 units for April, adding to a modest net revision of minus 9,000 units for the previous three months.

Meanwhile, sales in the West fell by 11.6 percent to an annual rate of 114,000 units, the lowest level since September 1982. Sales in the Northeast fell by 7.9 percent to a 35,000 annual unit pace.

New home sales increased in the Midwest and South, by 5.1 percent and 0.4 percent respectively. Sales in the South, the country's largest region, reached an annual pace of 281,000 units.

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Bloomberg.com: Worldwide

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- American Express Co., the biggest U.S. credit-card company by purchases and cash advances, said customers are falling further behind on their debt, signaling the economy is worsening.

``Business conditions continue to weaken in the U.S. and so far this month we have seen credit indicators deteriorate beyond our expectations,'' Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault said in a statement today announcing the company would receive as much as $1.8 billion in a settlement with competitor MasterCard Inc.

American Express and rivals Capital One Financial Corp. and Discover Financial Services have fallen more than 30 percent in the past 12 months in New York trading as consumers absorb the housing slump, rising unemployment and higher food and fuel bills. New York-based American Express adopted a ``cautious view'' for the year in January after cardholder spending slowed and overdue payments rose in December.

``If you look at the employment situation, clearly that's deteriorated, and consumer confidence is down as well,'' said Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst with KBW Inc. in New York who has a ``market perform'' rating on the stock. ``Both play a key role in the credit-card industry.''

The U.S. lost jobs in May for a fifth month and the unemployment rate rose by the most in more than two decades. Payrolls fell by 49,000 after a 28,000 drop in April, the Labor Department said June 6. The jobless rate increased by half a point to 5.5 percent.

Consumer Confidence

Confidence among Americans dropped to the lowest level in 16 years, the Conference Board said yesterday.

American Express declined 20 cents to $41.90 at 11:30 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

First-quarter loss provisions in the company's U.S. card business rose 52 percent to $881 million as net income declined 11 percent to $974 million. The company will probably post adjusted earnings per share of 83 cents in the second quarter, compared with 88 cents a year earlier, according to 15 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

American Express's affluent customers help shelter the company from problems of borrowers with the riskiest credit histories, Chenault said June 4.

Today's statement didn't specify the types of customers having the most trouble repaying loans, and spokesman Michael O'Neill declined to discuss who had the worst payment rates.

Defaults by cardholders worsened most in areas where U.S. home prices dropped by more than 5 to 10 percent, Chief Financial Officer Daniel Henry said in April in a conference call.

Business Customers

American Express said in March it was buying General Electric Co.'s corporate charge-card unit for $1.1 billion to add business customers as consumers struggle to pay back loans.

The company has dropped 32 percent in the past 12 months, compared with the 46 percent slide at Capital One and 52 percent plunge at Discover.

MasterCard, which runs a network and doesn't extend loans to consumers, gained $14.17, or 5.1 percent, to $294.54. The company has climbed 82 percent over 12 months.

The legal accord is ``an overhang that's eliminated,'' said Sakhrani. ``The amount of the settlement is not ideal, but it's a manageable amount.'' MasterCard had net income of $446.9 million in the first quarter.

MasterCard will pay as much as $1.8 billion in quarterly payments over three years to settle the complaint that it blocked banks from issuing American Express cards.

`A Cushion'

``The settlement was higher than we thought it would be,'' said Sakhrani. ``It's clearly a cushion'' for American Express against bad loans.

American Express sued competitors MasterCard and Visa Inc. in November 2004 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they violated antitrust laws by preventing member banks from offering rival cards. Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., the two biggest U.S. banks, later agreed to offer American Express services.

Visa settled in November for $2.25 billion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Holm in New York at eholm2@bloomberg.net.

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Bloomberg.com: Worldwide

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- Countrywide Financial Corp., the mortgage lender that lost $2.5 billion amid rising defaults and foreclosures, misled borrowers into taking risky loans they couldn't afford, California Attorney General Jerry Brown said.

Countrywide, Chief Executive Officer Angelo Mozilo and a unit specializing in loans to consumers with poor credit used deceptive marketing tactics to entice thousands of borrowers into adjustable-rate loans without disclosing that their payments would balloon in later months, Brown claimed in a complaint filed today in Los Angeles state court, according to his spokesman, Gareth Lacy.

The lawsuit, the first by a state, comes the same day as Countrywide's shareholders are voting today on a $3 billion takeover offer proposed by Bank of America Corp. in January. Countrywide, based in Calabasas, California, and Mozilo also face a suit by Illinois over similar allegations.

The suit ``isn't the one thing that is going to change the deal,'' said Stuart Plesser, an analyst at Standard & Poor's Corp. who advises selling Bank of America shares. ``It seems that whatever they throw at BofA, they are going ahead with this deal.''

Countrywide's conduct violated California's unfair business practices law, according to the complaint.

`Blind Eye'

``Defendants turned a blind eye to the ongoing deceptive practices engaged in by Countrywide's loan officers,'' according to the complaint. ``Defendants cared only about selling increasing numbers of loans at any cost in order to maximize Countrywide's profits on the secondary market.''

Brown seeks restitution for borrowers, civil penalties of as much as $2,500 per violation and a court order halting the practices.

Rick Simon, a spokesman for Countrywide, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment. Scott Silvestri, a Bank of America spokesman, declined to comment.

Countrywide gained 14 cents to $4.80 at 10:54 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Before today, the stock had slumped 87 percent in the past year. Bank of America gained $1.09, or 4.1 percent, to $21.71.

Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis said June 11 that he was committed to purchasing Countrywide and believes it benefits shareholders. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank said in an April 30 regulatory filing it may not guarantee $38.1 billion of Countrywide's debt, fueling speculation that bondholders face a higher risk of default.

The case is People of the State of California v Countrywide Financial Corp., Los Angeles Superior Court.

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Gullo in San Francisco at kgullo@bloomberg.net; Ari Levy in San Francisco at alevy5@bloomberg.net

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Watch what the Fed says... - Jun. 25, 2008

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Fed's words will speak louder than its actions this afternoon.

It's all but certain the central bank is going to sit tight at 2:15 ET and keep its key federal funds rate at 2%. There's a better chance of "The Love Guru" winning next year's Oscar for Best Picture than of an interest rate hike or cut today.

But what the Fed says in its accompanying statement will be crucial.

With inflation fears on the rise, there is growing speculation that the Fed may begin to raise rates as soon as its next meeting on Aug. 5. Many economists think that would be too soon, however, because the economy is still in a precarious state, and higher rates would kill any chance for a recovery.

So how should you parse the Fed's statement? Here are some key things to look out for.

"Substantial easing and moderate growth"

In the statement following its last meeting in April, the Fed set the stage for a pause today by saying that "the substantial easing of monetary policy to date, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate growth over time and to mitigate risks to economic activity."

If that phrase, or something similar to it, remains in today's statement, that's probably a sign that the Fed will remain on hold for a while. It's signaling that it thinks its seven rate cuts since last September and series of loans to banks should help put an end to the credit crunch.

"Inflation risks"

However, people will also be looking for clues as to how serious the Fed is considering raising rates.

It seems likely that the Fed will show more concerns about inflation. In the April statement, the central bank did not seem too alarmed about the big increase in commodities prices.

The Fed acknowledged that "energy and other commodity prices have increased, and some indicators of inflation expectations have risen in recent months." But it also noted that it "expects inflation to moderate in coming quarters, reflecting a projected leveling-out of energy and other commodity prices."

But oil prices have soared 20% since the Fed's last meeting.

"The perception is that the inflation situation is worse. They will lean more on the inflation risk in this statement," said John Derrick, director of research with U.S. Global Investors Inc., an investment firm based in San Antonio. "They may hint at rate hikes down the road."

What about the dollar?

It's also worth nothing that the dollar hasn't done much against the euro since the last meeting, rising just 1%. (Some market experts blame the Fed's rate cuts for weakening the dollar and spurring the boom in oil and other commodity prices.)

So could the Fed actually do the unthinkable and mention the dollar specifically in its statement?

The central bank has typically avoided talking about the dollar. But that's been changing. In a speech earlier this month, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said the Fed would be "attentive to the implications of changes in the value of the dollar for inflation."

Richard Sparks, a senior equities analyst with Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, said he's not sure the Fed would go so far to talk about currency in the statement.

"The Fed has been trying to talk up the dollar. But it's one thing to do so when giving speeches and another to make it part of an official policy statement," he said.

Nonetheless, traders will be monitoring the statement closely for any discussion of the dollar.

Ashraf Laidi, chief currency strategist with investment brokerage CMC Markets US, wrote in a note to clients yesterday that "in the event that the Fed mentions the dollar in the statement," he would expect the euro to fall against the dollar.

One euro currently equals about $1.56. Laidi wrote that if the Fed talks about the dollar, the exchange rate could go as low as about $1.538 dollars per euro.

But he thinks another dollar defense is unlikely. After all, despite the concerns about inflation, the Fed can't completely rule out a rate cut down the road either since many of the other factors the Fed talked about in April have not improved.

"Household and business spending has been subdued and labor markets have softened further. Financial markets remain under considerable stress, and tight credit conditions and the deepening housing contraction are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters," the Fed said in April.

And since then, the unemployment rate has shot up to 5.5%, consumer confidence has plunged, housing prices and sales have dropped and the broader stock market indices are trading lower.

Add all that up and the Fed has an unenviable task.

"The Fed is caught right now with a fight on two fronts - the weak dollar and inflation on one side and the slowing economy on the other side," said Sparks. "I'm not sure what the Fed can do or say now to have a desired effect at this point."

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