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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dust Storm Hits Phoenix, downs power lines: Third time since early July


A giant wall of dust rolls through the central Phoenix area early Thursday evening, Aug. 18, 2011. The dust storm, the third this summer, swept through the area turning the sky brown, creating dangerous driving conditions and delaying some airline flights. (AP Photo/Chris Havlik)
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Dust storm envelops Phoenix, downs power lines
August 18, 2011
Associated Press
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PHOENIX (AP) -- A giant wall of dust rolled through the Phoenix area on Thursday for the third time since early July - turning the sky brown, creating dangerous driving conditions and delaying some airline flights.
The dust storm, also known as a haboob in Arabic and around Arizona, swept through Pinal County and headed northeast, reaching Phoenix at about 6 p.m.
Some incoming and departing flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were temporarily delayed because of the storm, according to airport officials who couldn't immediately provide exact numbers. Take-offs and landing began again at about 6:50 p.m.
National Weather Service meteorologists said a powerful thunderstorm packing winds of up to 60 mph hit Pinal County and pushed the dust storm toward Arizona's most populous county. There were several reports of downed poles and Salt River Project officials said 3,500 of its customers were without electricity, mostly in the Queen Creek area southeast of Phoenix.
There were no immediate reports of any weather-related auto accidents.
It was the third major dust storm to hit the Phoenix metro area since last month. A haboob on July 5 brought a mile-high wall of dust that halted airline flights, knocked out power for 10,000 people and covered everything in its path with a thick sheet of dust. Another dust storm hit July 18 reaching heights of 3,000 to 4,000 feet, delaying flights and cutting off power for more than 2,000 people in the Phoenix metro area.
Weather officials say haboobs only happen in Arizona, the Sahara desert and parts of the Middle East because of dry conditions and large amounts of sand.
Pollution levels skyrocket during dust storms and create even more breathing problems for people with asthma and other similar conditions.

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Justice Department Claims Investigation of S.&P. Ratings Began Before Downgrade

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U.S. Inquiry Is Said to Focus on S.&P. Ratings

 nytimes.com
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The Justice Department is investigating whether the nation’s largest credit ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, improperly rated dozens of mortgage securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis, according to two people interviewed by the government and another briefed on such interviews.

The investigation began before Standard & Poor’s cut the United States’ AAA credit rating this month, but it is likely to add fuel to the political firestorm that has surrounded that action. Lawmakers and some administration officials have since questioned the agency’s secretive process, its credibility and the competence of its analysts, claiming to have found an error in its debt calculations.

In the mortgage inquiry, the Justice Department has been asking about instances in which the company’s analysts wanted to award lower ratings on mortgage bonds but may have been overruled by other S.& P. business managers, according to the people with knowledge of the interviews. If the government finds enough evidence to support such a case, which is likely to be a civil case, it could undercut S.& P.’s longstanding claim that its analysts act independently from business concerns.

It is unclear if the Justice Department investigation involves the other two ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, or only S.& P.

During the boom years, S.& P. and other ratings agencies reaped record profits as they bestowed their highest ratings on bundles of troubled mortgage loans, which made the mortgages appear less risky and thus more valuable. They failed to anticipate the deterioration that would come in the housing market and devastate the financial system.

Since the crisis, the agencies’ business practices and models have been criticized from many corners, including in Congressional hearings and reports that have raised questions about whether independent analysis was corrupted by the drive for profits.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has also been investigating possible wrongdoing at S.& P., according to a person interviewed on that matter, and may be looking at the other two major agencies, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings.

Ed Sweeney, a spokesman for S.& P., said in an e-mail: “S.& P. has received several requests from different government agencies over the last few years. We continue to cooperate with these requests. We do not prevent such agencies from speaking with current or former employees.” S.& P. is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies, which is under pressure from some investors and has been considering whether to spin off businesses or make other strategic changes this summer.

The people with knowledge of the investigation said it had picked up steam early this summer, well before the debt rating issue reached a high pitch in Washington. Now members of Congress are investigating why S.& P. removed the nation’s AAA rating, which is highly important to financial markets.


Representatives of the Justice Department and the S.E.C. declined to comment, as is customary for those departments, on whether they are investigating the ratings agencies.

Even though the Justice Department has the power to bring criminal charges, witnesses who have been interviewed have been told by investigators that they are pursuing a civil case.

The government has brought relatively few cases against large financial concerns for their roles in the housing blowup, and it has closed investigations into Washington Mutual and Countrywide, among others, without taking action.

The cases that have been brought are mainly civil matters. In the spring, the Justice Department filed a civil suit against Deutsche Bank and one of its units, which the government said had misrepresented the quality of mortgage loans to obtain government insurance on them. Another common thread — in that case and several others — is that no bank executives were named.

Despite the public scrutiny and outcry over the ratings agencies’ failures in the financial crisis, many investors still rely heavily on ratings from the three main agencies for their purchases of sovereign and corporate debt, as well as other complex financial products.

Companies and some countries — but not the United States — pay the agencies to receive a rating, the financial market’s version of a seal of approval. For decades, the government issued rules that banks, mutual funds and others could rely on a AAA stamp for investing decisions — which bolstered the agencies’ power.

A successful case or settlement against a giant like S.& P. could accelerate the shift away from the traditional ratings system. The financial reform overhaul known as Dodd-Frank sought to decrease the emphasis on ratings in the way banks and mutual funds invest their assets. But bank regulators have been slow to spell out how that would work. A government case that showed problems beyond ineptitude might spur greater reforms, financial historians said. 
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Missouri Teacher-Student 'Facebook Law' Confusing to Educators

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Teachers aren't the enemy, but they're not 'friends' either    
By David Baugher, special to the Beacon
stlbeacon.org
August 18, 2011 
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Pamela used to have a Facebook account.
But that ended not long ago when she deactivated it due to worries over recent action in the far away halls of state government in Jefferson City.
"This is part of the problem I have with the law," said the St. Louis area teacher. "There is too much gray area. There is too much room for interpretation, and it's not clear cut. A lot of districts are desperately flailing and trying to find out what do they mean by this or that."
The impetus for Pamela, who did not want her real name used, to leave the world's largest social networking site is the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, or SB 54, which was passed unanimously by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this year.
The main thrust of the measure, which was generally supported by state educational groups, concerned protecting children from potential predators in the schools. But one provision of the new law has drawn fire and provoked confusion among some who say it goes too far. The legislation bans teachers from using a nonwork-related internet site to gain "exclusive access" with current or former students who are age 18 or younger and have not graduated. It also mandates that districts draw up policies regarding teachers' use of social media and electronic communications such as texting. That the section affects educators' involvement with Facebook and similar sites is clear but the extent to which it does so remains a matter of some debate.
The intent
Though Pamela dumped her Facebook page, observers agree that teachers are not prohibited from using social media. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't even banned from friending their students while online -- at least not at the state level. The issue, said state Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, is the term "exclusive access." The Chesterfield Republican said online communications are still possible between teacher and student. They simply have to take place in the public domain or when a third party is copied on the exchange.
"Districts seem to think it's very reasonable and it's not too restrictive at all," she said. "In fact, many districts already have a policy like this. Most of them I've found are more restrictive than this and they've been operating on it for a while because they are recognizing the potential problems involved with these new ways of communication."
The idea is to prevent what Cunningham refers to as "hidden communication," conversations between teachers and students over electronic media that falls beyond the eyes of parents and administrators. She said the bill doesn't cover anything more than one-on-one messages in chats and emails with minors.
"If it's on the wall or in chats going on that everyone can see, obviously that's not hidden to just the two people," she said.
Cunningham said there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation about the bill that has stirred unnecessary concern. Use of the term "former student" has even provoked fears that educators are prohibited from friending their ex-pupils even after they are adults.
In fact, the bill specifies that the phrase does not cover those over 18.
"I've even gotten calls from colleges and I say, 'You're not impacted by this bill at all,'" Cunningham said. "If you've graduated from high school, you're not impacted."
Cunningham said she felt the provision was necessary after hearing of instances around the state where she said teachers have gotten into private exchanges with students over mundane classroom issues that evolved into something more troubling.
"The ones that I have seen that have developed into an inappropriate relationship have started oftentimes appropriately," she said.
DeeAnn Aull, assistant executive director of the Missouri branch of the National Education Association, said her organization originally opposed Cunningham's effort several years ago, though not over the electronic communications provision, which wasn't even in the bill at the time. Since then, however, Aull said the senator has worked to incorporate NEA suggestions into the legislation and the group had testified in favor of it.
"In general, we supported the bill, which was about protecting children," she said. "There probably were some things we would have liked to have seen left to local control and board policy in the bill as it reads now and we will work on those changes in the future."
Cunningham said she'd been in regular contact with NEA and among those changes will be a provision that exempts teachers who have children from their own household in their classroom from the exclusive access limitation. She said that such fixes to minor oversights are not unusual in new laws.
She said she's gotten calls from teachers both in support and opposition.
Aull agreed. She said that NEA has heard from educators over the bill as well.
"You could certainly say there was concern as well as lack of understanding as well as quite a bit of misunderstanding about what the bill does and doesn't do," she said. "We want to seek clarity both for the teachers and their ability to correspond with students and their families."
According to a FAQ on the bill issued by Missouri NEA, the law does not prohibit teachers from friending students online, but individual district policies may do so. The NEA FAQ notes that the organization "strongly recommends" not friending students.
The extent
Still, what is and is not covered by the law is still a matter of some confusion. Email is one gray area. Cunningham said it is covered as a form of "exclusive access" and should be copied to a third party.
But Susan Goldammer, a staff attorney with the Missouri School Boards' Association, said she doesn't see that in the wording.
"Perhaps it is good advice if you are going to email a student to 'cc' another person on it, but that is not explicitly spelled out in the statute as it exists right now," she said.
The MSBA, which counts about 80 percent of the state's 522 districts as members, has been deluged with calls seeking guidance on the new law, particularly since districts are now required to produce a policy on the topic. The organization hopes to have a sample text available by September.
Though the law goes on the books later this month, the provisions requiring policies won't take effect until January.
MSBA favored the law but took no specific position on the social networking piece.
Goldammer said that while MSBA is revising its guidelines due to the act's passage, it already had a policy in place which in some respects goes further than the state law.
"Many districts have adopted our standard policy which we changed in the last year to address maintaining professional boundaries," she said. "When it comes to social media, we did have a prohibition against staff members friending students on Facebook."
Staffers were also prohibited from distributing personal emails or phone numbers to students. Work email accounts, which can be accessed by administrators, are a different matter.
"We didn't specifically address district-provided communication tools but then again, districts have the ability to monitor those tools much easier," she said.
While Goldammer doesn't think emails are covered, she notes the waters remain murky.
"That's my interpretation," she said. "I think if you call six different lawyers you are going to get six different interpretations of this particular statute.
To her, it's a reflection of how complex the whole issue can be.
"It's incredibly difficult, and I don't even know if I would encourage a law trying to grasp all of the nuances of appropriate communications," she said.
Appropriate vs. Inappropriate
Some educators are supporters of the law's provisions. Marge, another local teacher who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said she knows several teachers who friend their students.
"They use it to keep in contact with recent graduates or former students in various fashions," she said. "Myself, I think it's dangerous. It's too easy to get into a very bad situation even resulting from an innocent conversation or another friend posting something you are not expecting."
Marge said she is very active on Facebook but never friends students. One reason is that it can bring teachers too far into the personal lives of their pupils. But the reverse is also true as pictures of teachers in informal settings can be on such sites.
"If a student or former student happens to be a friend, then they have access to those photographs that they have no business seeing of the educational professionals they work with every day," she said.
She echoed Cunningham saying she knows of educators who have found themselves in awkward discussions.
"I've seen very good people get into interesting conversations that they are not necessarily clear on how they got into that conversation," she said. "That's why it's very important to keep your personal and professional lives as separate entities."
By contrast, Pamela said she disagreed with the communications aspect of the law, saying it was vague and unclear. For instance, she said that her understanding was that recent policy from her district included not friending former students even if they were no longer minors.
Teachers, she said, are not the enemy.
"If a district is going to hire me to teach these kids every single day, then there is an implied trust with that," she said. "I think it boils down to having faith in your teachers and trusting that we are going to do what's right. Most of us do what's right."
Still, she said she understood the intent of the law, agreed with other parts of it and, like Marge, had a strict policy of not friending minor pupils herself.
"Facebook is a valuable tool for communication with students, but in my opinion there has to be a line somewhere," she said.
District policies
Some districts like Webster Groves already have policies regarding social media. Based on the MSBA policy, the Webster guidelines prohibit knowingly granting students "access to any portion of the member's personal social networking website or webpage that is not accessible to the general public."
Given the privacy settings most people employ on Facebook that means teachers may not friend students.
Steve Beatty, chief information officer for the Rockwood School District, said that the district does have guidelines on appropriate use of electronic communications but does not specifically address social networking. They are presently developing a new policy dealing with a committee of parents, students and administrators.
"In talking to the districts, I think we're all in the same boat trying to make sure that we do what's appropriate," he said. "We're all working on it."
Beth Cross, communications director for the Lindbergh School District, said her district didn't have a formal policy on social media use but was in the process of doing presentations to teachers on the topic when the new law came to light.
She said that Lindbergh encourages the use of Facebook by teachers but only through the use of public classroom pages.
"We've found that teachers find it to be a valuable tool because that's where their kids are, especially in high school," she said.
The district neither encouraged nor prohibited teachers and students friending one another on social media, she said.
As with the other districts, a formal policy is now being being drawn up.
"Our message is not 'Stop using Facebook,'" she said. "Our message is use it and use it well, but we want to make sure you are protected and following these regulations that have been put in on the state level."
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that no one is suggesting students to stop talking to those at the front of their classroom.
"The last thing anybody wants to do is cut off legitimate uses of electronic communications, particularly to this generation that is so wired in," Goldammer said.


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St. Clair Man Arrested for Bomb Threat to Patients First Facility: Franklin County Missouri

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St. Clair Man Arrested for Making Terrorist Threat

 August 18, 2011
 www.emissourian.com
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A St. Clair area man was arrested on Wednesday and charged on Thursday with making a terrorist threat after he phoned in a bomb threat to the local Patients First facility, 1101 Caldwell Drive, on Wednesday morning.
Kevin L. Hogue was arrested and charged with the Class D felony. He is being housed at the Franklin County Jail. Bond was set at $35,000.

The event unfolded beginning at 11:50 a.m. Wednesday. No one was injured.

Officials say Hogue allegedly called Patients First and threatened to blow up the building with a fertilizer bomb. 13 employees and eight patients were in the building at the time.
Management locked down the facility and called 911. St. Clair Police notified the Sheriff’s Office and asked deputies to respond to Hogue’s residence. Authorities say Hogue admitted to making the threat because he was upset about losing his Medicaid benefits. No bomb making materials were found in his home. Hogue is being held in the Franklin County Jail on a cash bond of $35,000.

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GOLD SURGES OVER $1800, New Record Close

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Gold ends at record $1,822 on growth fears

Metal tops $1,800 an ounce as slowdown concerns grip markets

Aug. 18, 2011
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Aug. 18, 2011
By Claudia Assis, MarketWatch
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Gold futures on Thursday settled at a record $1,822 an ounce as fears of a global economic slowdown gripped markets and the day’s macroeconomic reports gave such worries even more weight.
Gold for December delivery GC1Z +1.88%  added $28.20, or 1.6%, to end at $1,822 an ounce on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Nervous markets look to Fed meet

Capital market volatility may have declined, but worries about global growth are still driving stock indexes sharply lower ahead of the Fed's annual get-together in Wyoming next week.
It traded as high as $1,829.70 an ounce, an intraday record for the metal, based on the Nymex’s preliminary tally.
“There’s so much talk about a double dip” for the U.S. economy, said James Cordier, a portfolio manager with Optionsellers.com in Florida.
Investors who had tried to make it a go for stocks are now “piling into gold“ as equities have had a second swoon, he said.
“It seems as though (gold) is the last safety net available,” Cordier said.
Gold had settled at a then-record $1,793.80 an ounce Wednesday. So far this month, gold has gained more than 10%, with yearly gains surpassing 26%. Read more about Wednesday's action in gold.
U.S. stocks slumped Thursday, and oil futures settled down nearly 6%.
Earlier, investors grappled with news that initial jobless claims in the week ending Aug. 13 rose 9,000 to 408,000, according to the Labor Department. The increase was larger than analysts had expected, with the consensus forecast around a rise to 400,000. Read more about jobless claims.
The other macroeconomic data points of the day added to the uglier outlook for the U.S. economy, giving more fodder to talks of a recession.
The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s business outlook survey fell to negative 30.7 in August from 3.2 in July -- the lowest reading since March 2009. Read more about the Philly Fed’s factory index.
The cost of living in the U.S. climbed in July, mostly thanks to energy prices, as the consumer price index rose 0.5%, its biggest gain since March. See more about retail prices rising.
Gold is often thought as the ultimate storer of wealth, and thrives in times when inflation is more of a concern.
Sales of existing homes fell 3.5% in July to an eight-month low. Read more about the day’s housing data. 

 
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Police Powers Versus Health and Safety Ordinances in Franklin County Missouri


New Federal Cold Medication Law (above)
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County Commission Says Pseudoephedrine Restriction Stands Up for Cops, Kids

August 18, 2011
By Evin Fritschle, Missourian Staff Writer
www.emissourian.com  
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A Villa Ridge man continued his open challenge of the county’s recently enacted ordinance restricting pseudoephedrine purchases without a prescription this week, and commissioners continued to defend their decision.
Art LeBeau said commission Order 11-216, which went into effect Aug. 13, cited statutes that only empowered counties to make laws regarding possession and manufacture of pseudoephedrine, but not the sale of it.
“No where in the order is it stated where, how or what statute to promulgate said order is cited or any other statutory authority,” LeBeau said. “Thus the germane question is by what authority is Order 11-216 based upon. Obviously there is none.”
He said the other portions of the order are superfluous because the order itself is not lawful.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said the county was not doing anything new with its restrictions, citing Ripley County’s similar ordinance earlier this year and the numerous cities in the county that have similar provisions.
“One man, even though he is the attorney general, made an opinion going beyond simply that the drugs have to be displayed behind the county. The thing is questionable, but no one has challenged it,” Griesheimer said of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s opinion.
Koster issued an opinion saying such ordinances are legal.
“There is an ambiguity in the law,” Griesheimer said. “I understand where you’re coming from, and I would never go out on a limb and do something like this on an every day issue.”
He and the other commissioners, Ann Schroeder and Terry Wilson, all vocally expressed their support for the ordinance, even if it does some day put the county in a legal bind.
“There is a lot at stake in our communities,” Schroeder said.
Wilson said the commission is aware of the risks of a legal challenge.

Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner, head of the county’s narcotics task force said,  “What it all means is that under police powers, we can’t issue citations, but as a matter of public health risk and health concern, both for the victims in the labs as well as those who may live nearby, move into a home which previously had a lab not properly mitigated and even the motoring public, we can restrict it,” he said.

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$2.5 million Ripped Off By Scam Artists in Missouri This Year So Far

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Missourians lose nearly $2.5 million to scam artists so far this year



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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In the first six months of 2011, Missouri consumers have been scammed out of nearly $2.5 million, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said his office received more than 38,000 consumer inquiries in the first half of the year, resulting in $2,498,032 in restitution being paid out to victims of scam artists.
The attorney general said Missourians who have been financially wronged are encouraged to file complaints with his office’s consumer protection hotline at 800-292-8222 or online at www.ago.mo.gov.

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Recession Threatens Wall Street: disappointing economic news sends dow -400

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Here we go again: Stocks plunge on economic fear

 Associated Press 
August 18, 2011
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More signs of economic weakness triggered a global sell-off in stocks Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 400 points in a return to the wild swings in the market last week.
In the United States, there were reports that more people joined the unemployment line last week than a week earlier, gasoline prices contributed to higher inflation and manufacturing slowed in the mid-Atlantic.
In Europe, bank stocks slid on worries about the region's debt problems. In Asia, Japan's exports fell for the fifth straight month.
The U.S. and European economies are "dangerously close to recession," Morgan Stanley economists wrote in a report. "It won't take much in the form of additional shocks to tip the balance."
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 409 points, or 3.6 percent, to 11,001 at noon. The Dow was down by as much as 528 points about a half-hour into trading.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 46 points, or 3.9 percent, to 1,147. The Nasdaq composite fell 105, or 4.2 percent, to 2,406.
Last week was one of the wildest in Wall Street history. The Dow moved more than 400 points on four straight days for the first time.
But stocks had been relatively stable this week because investors were calmed by strong earnings reports. The Dow had fallen 76 points Tuesday and risen four points Wednesday _ the first time this month that the average rose or fell by less than 100 points on two straight days.
That ended Thursday. And with stocks down big, money flooded into U.S. Treasurys and gold, both considered safer investments.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note briefly fell below 2 percent for the first time, before recovering to 2.07 percent. Low yields show that investors are willing to accept a lower return on their money in exchange for safety. Demand for government debt has stayed high, and yields low, even after Standard & Poor's stripped the United States of its top credit rating.
Gold rose $26.30 per ounce to $1,820.30 after earlier climbing to a record of $1,829.70. That's up from $1,400 at the start of the year and more than double the price several years ago. The price of gold has set one record after another, with some investors looking for stability and others simply looking to cash in.
The Morgan Stanley economists cut their forecast for growth in developed economies this year to 1.5 percent from 1.9 percent. Over the past 20 years, growth for developed economies has been closer to 2.3 percent.
Among the disappointing U.S. economic news:
_ 408,000 people applied for unemployment benefits last week, up from 399,000 the week before and the most in four weeks.
_ Inflation at the consumer level rose 0.5 percent in July, the highest since March. It had fallen 0.2 percent in June.
_ Manufacturing has sharply weakened in the Philadelphia region, according to a report from the Federal Reserve. Manufacturing had been one of the economy's strongest industries since the recession ended in 2009, but its growth has slowed this year.
_ The National Association of Realtors said the number of people who bought previously occupied homes dropped in July for the third time in four months.
The fresh signs of economic weakness underscore the challenge for the Federal Reserve as it tries to help the economy with prices rising and the job market weak, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank.
"Every time the economy got the sniffles, we had the Federal Reserve standing by with tissues," Ablin said. "This time around, I think the box is empty, and we're going to have to go through this alone. I think we can do it. It's just not something we're accustomed to."
The Fed has already said it will keep short-term interest rates super-low into 2013. But the risk of further stoking inflation may keep it from taking additional steps, such as an additional round of massive bond-buying.
In the meantime, worries about European debt hang over the markets. A default by any country would hurt the European banks that hold European government bonds, plus American banks that have loans to their European counterparts.
"Europe is the big question in the market, and nobody really knows what happens from here," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James.
On Thursday, stocks in industries that depend on a growing economy fell the most. Industrial stocks in the S&P 500 fell 5.4 percent, technology stocks 5.1 percent and financial stocks 4.6 percent.
Crude oil fell $4.11 per barrel to $83.47 on worries that a weaker global economy will mean less demand. Falling prices for crude oil should work their way to the gas pump, though, and bring household budgets at least some relief.
Asian markets started Thursday's drop. Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 1.3 percent. South Korea's Kospi stock index fell 1.7 percent, and India's Sensex index fell 2.2 percent.
The declines extended to Europe. In London, the FTSE 100 index fell 4.5 percent after a report showed that growth in British retail sales slowed more than economists expected last month. Germany's DAX index fell 6.5 percent.
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AP Business Writer David K. Randall contributed to this report.


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