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NEW THIS DIGEST:

Adds: DUKE-PROGRESS MERGER

Updates: WALL STREET, FISCAL CLIFF

TOP STORIES

ECONOMY-SANDY

WASHINGTON â¿¿ Superstorm Sandy packed a bigger economic punch than most people had thought. The storm halted sales at major retailers at the start of the crucial holiday shopping season offsetting a strong Thanksgiving Day weekend. It also shut down factories in the Philadelphia and New York region and hurt home sales in the Northeast. Governors in New York and New Jersey have increased their federal aid requests to nearly $80 billion to rebuild in the region. Still, a flurry of reports show the U.S. economy outside the storm-affected states is improving. And the rebuilding efforts could give the economy a boost in the New Year. By Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger.

AP photos.

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BROKEN BUDGETS-SUPERSTORM

TOMS RIVER, N.J. â¿¿ Superstorm Sandy may have one more nasty surprise still to come: higher taxes. The math is simple and cruel. Unless shore towns from Rhode Island to New Jersey get a big influx of aid from the state and federal governments, which are themselves strapped for cash, they will have no choice but to raise taxes on homes and businesses that survived to make up for the loss. By Wayne Parry.

AP photos.

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â¿¿ ECONOMY-GDP â¿¿ The U.S. economy grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate from July through September, much faster than first thought. The strength may fade in the final months of the year if Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach a budget deal.

â¿¿ RETAIL SALES â¿¿ Major retailers such as Kohl's, Target and Macy's are reporting weak sales in November as a strong Thanksgiving weekend wasn't enough to fully offset a slow start to the month caused by Superstorm Sandy.

SMALLBIZ-SMALL TALK

NEW YORK â¿¿ Small business owners eagerly looked forward to the presidential election to get some clarity on many issues â¿¿ most notably what would happen with health care since candidate Romney promised to dismantle it. With President Barack Obama the victor, about the only thing that is certain is that by 2014, many small companies are going to have to provide health care, or pay a penalty. Now small business owners are weighing possibilities that range from adding surcharges to customer bills to pay for insurance to flouting the law entirely. By Joyce M. Rosenberg.

AP photo.

â¿¿ SMALLBIZ-ENTREPRENEURSHIP â¿¿ Researchers at two colleges say slow improvement in the economy boosted entrepreneurship last year.

OF MUTUAL INTEREST-INVESTOR OUTLOOK, Q&A

It's not all about the "fiscal cliff." That's a refreshing sentiment while stock markets are being held in thrall by every comment from lawmakers in Washington on the state of budget negotiations. If no deal on the budget is reached by the end of the year, huge tax increases and spending cuts will come into effect Jan. 1. Economists say those measures could push the U.S. back into recession. Yet Bill Stromberg, director of global equity and global equity research at Baltimore, Md.-based T. Rowe Price Group, says that the "cliff" shouldn't be investors' main focus. By Business Writer Steve Rothwell.

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â¿¿ FISCAL CLIFF â¿¿ For the first time since the Nov. 6 election, partisan bickering trumps bargaining as Democrats and Republicans vie for the political high ground in talks to avoid year-end tax increases and spending cuts that threaten harm to middle class pocketbooks.

AUTO SHOW-HONDA-DO-OVER

In a sign of how competitive small cars have become, Honda is putting out a redesigned Civic just 19 months after the previous one hit showrooms. Honda forced through the changes in about half the time it normally takes after critics slammed the car's boxy styling, cheap interior, and noisy ride. By Auto Writers Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin.

AP photos.

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â¿¿ AUTO SHOW-HOT CARS â¿¿ The Los Angeles Auto Show opens to the public Friday. Here are some of the most talked-about vehicles that will be making their world debuts at the event. By Auto Writers Dee-Ann Durbin and Tom Krisher. Eds: Updates Wednesday's list of hot cars from the LA Auto Show.

FACTORY FIRE-TRIANGLE ECHOES

NEW YORK â¿¿ Terrified women leaping to their deaths. Locked exits trapping workers. Piles of clothing blocking stairwells to safety. The fire that raced through a garment factory in Bangladesh last week and killed 112 workers bore eerie echoes of another inferno that burned more than a century ago: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City. While the 1911 Triangle fire spurred the modern-day organized labor movement and workplace safety improvements, experts question whether the same will happen in Bangladesh. By Meghan Barr.

AP photos.

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BANGLADESH-FACTORY FIRE

DHAKA, Bangladesh â¿¿ The owner of Bangladesh factory ravaged in fire says he didn't know it needed emergency exits, a sign of how far removed the leaders of the nation's garment industry are from issues of worker safety. By Julhas Alam.

AP photos, video, audio.

MARKETS & ECONOMY:

PENDING HOME SALES

WASHINGTON â¿¿ An index measuring the number of Americans who signed contracts to buy homes in October jumped to nearly its highest level in almost six years. Steady job gains and record-low mortgage rates have made home buying more attractive. By Economics Writer Christopher S. Rugaber.

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â¿¿ MORTGAGE RATES â¿¿ Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages stayed close to record lows this week, a trend that has made home buying more affordable and helped the housing market recover. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate on the 30-year loan edged up to 3.32 percent. That's close to last week's rate of 3.31 percent, the lowest on records dating to 1971.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

WASHINGTON â¿¿ The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 393,000 last week. It was the second straight drop after Superstorm Sandy had driven applications much higher earlier this month. By Economics Writer Christopher S. Rugaber.

WALL STREET

NEW YORK â¿¿ Optimism that a budget deal will be reached in Washington sends stocks modestly higher. A pair of economic reports also brightens the mood. By Business Writer Matthew Craft.

â¿¿ OIL PRICES â¿¿ The price of oil is rising to $88 a barrel on optimism about encouraging economic news.

POWERBALL-JACKPOT

DEARBORN, Mo. â¿¿ The search is on for the country's newest multimillionaires, the holders of two tickets that matched all six numbers to claim the record $588 million Powerball jackpot. Lottery officials say winning tickets were sold in Arizona and at a convenience store in this small Missouri interstate town where store employees and townspeople are buzzing about who may have scored the big prize. The ticket-holders will split the jackpot, and the Missouri store owner says his $50,000 prize for selling the winning ticket may fund Christmas bonuses for his workers. By Maria Sudekum and Brian Skoloff.

AP photos, video.

DROUGHT-RIVER SHIPPING

ST. LOUIS â¿¿ After months of drought, the companies that ship grain and other goods down the Mississippi River are being haunted by a potential nightmare: If water levels fall too low, the nation's main inland waterway could be closed just as the harvest heads to market. Any closure would upend the shipping system that has carried American grain to market for generations. Now companies are scrambling to find alternative ways to get commodities to the Gulf Coast. By Jim Suhr and Jim Salter.

AP photos.

RETAIL/CONSUMER:

HOSTESS-BANKRUPTCY

NEW YORK â¿¿ Hostess Brands Inc. says it's in talks with more than 100 parties interested in buying its brands, which include Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. Those interested parties now include at least five national retailers such as supermarkets, a banker for the company says in bankruptcy court. By Food Industry Writer Candice Choi.

EARNS-KROGER

NEW YORK â¿¿ Kroger Co. is raising its earnings outlook for the year after the nation's largest traditional supermarket chain reported a third-quarter profit that topped Wall Street expectations. By Food Industry Writer Candace Choi.

â¿¿ EARNS-TIFFANY â¿¿ Tiffany's third-quarter net income falls 30 percent as costs for precious metal and diamonds rise while the economy remains weak. The luxury jewelry seller cut its profit forecast for the year.

â¿¿ EARNS-BARNES & NOBLE â¿¿ Barnes & Noble reports a profit for its fiscal second-quarter as higher revenue from its Nook e-book and e-bookstore division offset a decline at retail stores.

â¿¿ DUKE-PROGRESS MERGER â¿¿ Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers will step down as head of the largest U.S. electric utility as part of a settlement with the North Carolina utilities regulator.

â¿¿ PORT STRIKE â¿¿ A strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has shut down most of the terminals at the nation's busiest port complex.

INDUSTRY:

FRANCE-CONCORDE CRASH

VERSAILLES, France â¿¿ A French appeals court overturned manslaughter convictions against Continental Airlines and a mechanic for the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people, ruling that their mistakes did not make them legally responsible for the deaths. The crash hastened the end for the already-faltering supersonic Concorde, synonymous with high-tech luxury but a commercial failure, scrapped in 2003. By Greg Keller.

AP photos.

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â¿¿ FRANCE-CONCORDE CRASH-TIMELINE â¿¿ Key moments in the history of the Concorde.

â¿¿ CHINA-GM FACTORY â¿¿ General Motors and its joint venture partners in China will spend $1 billion to build a third car plant to keep up with demand for vehicles in the world's biggest auto market.

â¿¿ MENINGITIS OUTBREAK-PUBLIC CITIZEN â¿¿ A government watchdog group is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to re-inspect more than a dozen specialty pharmacies with prior records of violations, in light of a recent deadly outbreak tied to compounded drugs.

â¿¿ SPAIN-IBERIA STRIKE â¿¿ Labor unions representing most workers in Spain's Iberia airline say they will stage six days of strikes right before Christmas to protest the company's plans to lay off 4,500 workers.

TECHNOLOGY & MEDIA:

MICROSOFT-WINDOWS 8

NEW YORK â¿¿ Sales of personal computers in the U.S. didn't get any boost from the launch of Windows 8, confounding the hopes of Microsoft and PC makers, research firm NPD Group said Thursday. By Technology Writer Peter Svensson.

AP photo.

TV-CNN-ZUCKER

NEW YORK â¿¿ CNN has named former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker as its new top executive. Zucker is replacing Jim Walton, who announced he was leaving this past summer.

AP Photo.

BRITAIN-PHONE HACKING

LONDON â¿¿ Britain's unruly newspapers should be regulated by an independent body dominated by non-journalists with the power to levy steep fines, a judge said in a report sparked by scandals involving the country's fiercely independent press. Whether that will happen remains unclear. Prime Minister David Cameron immediately expressed misgivings about the judge's recommendation the new regulator be enshrined in law â¿¿ and called on a press accused of being unable to control itself to implement the reforms quickly. By Jill Lawless.

AP Photos.

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â¿¿ BRITAIN-PHONE HACKING-GLANCE â¿¿ A look at some prominent press scandals investigated by Leveson's report.

â¿¿ LIVINGSOCIAL-LAYOFFS â¿¿ Online deals company LivingSocial is cutting 400 jobs worldwide, or about 9 percent of its work force, as the deals market continues to face challenges.

â¿¿ EMAIL PRIVACY â¿¿ Over objections from law enforcement officials, the Senate Judiciary Committee passes a bill that will require police to obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can access the content of a consumer's emails and private files from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other Internet providers.

INTERNATIONAL:

â¿¿ JAPAN-CHINA-AUTOS â¿¿ Chinese vehicle production from Toyota and other major Japanese automakers tumbled in October after a territorial dispute between the two Asian powers led to boycotts of Japanese products in China.

â¿¿ GERMANY-ECONOMY â¿¿ German unemployment drops slightly in November despite the slowing economy.

â¿¿ SINGAPORE-STRIKE â¿¿ Singapore charges four Chinese immigrant workers, who organized the island's first strike in nearly three decades, with instigating labor unrest.

â¿¿ JAPAN-TRADE â¿¿ European Union foreign ministers say they have agreed to open free trade negotiations with Japan.

PERSONAL FINANCE:

SMART SPENDING-DOLLAR STORES

Ducking into a dollar store to pick up some a soda and bag of cookies might save you time and effort, but will you save you any money? A big attraction for many is that they can get in and out quickly with little hassle. When it comes to value, the picture is a lot less clear cut. By Candice Choi.

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CENTERPIECE

Mayer momentum

Investor enthusiasm for Yahoo is growing. Since Yahoo hired CEO Marissa Mayer away from Google in mid-July, the Internet company's stock price has climbed by more than 20 percent. The stock hit a 52-week high of $19.16 Tuesday, marking the first time shares have closed that high in more than two and a half years.

COMPANY SPOTLIGHT

Kohl's falls sharply

Wall Street was surprised and disappointed with a 5.6 percent decline in Kohl's revenue at stores open at least a year. Stock in the department store operator sold off on Thursday.

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