Global trade talks slide toward failure

HONG KONG — Global trade talks slid closer to failure Saturday over the issue of protec-tion for poor farmers. The EU’s chief negotiator said the talks were “going backwards” — an ominous development that could damage the credibility of the World Trade Organization itself.

Delegates from the WTO’s 149 member nations tried to hash out a draft agreement on Saturday that likely will be their last chance to reach compromises on a slew of thorny issues. But so far, the negotiations have been virtually fruitless.

South Korean protesters — the most militant of the 10,000 who have come to Hong Kong hoping to block a WTO agreement — shaved their heads, threw eggs and spray painted graffiti on the U.S. Consulate General building and briefly scuffled with police on Friday.

Ameritrade borrowing money to pay execs

OMAHA, Neb. — More than a third of the nearly $2 billion on-line brokerage Ameritrade Holding Corp. plans to borrow to pay for its latest acquisition will go directly to the company’s board and top executives in dividends.

Yet despite the increase in borrowing needed to help pay the $6 per share special dividend — offered to encourage shareholders to approve the deal — analysts said this week that Ameritrade’s acquisition of competitor TD Waterhouse Group Inc.’s U.S. retail securities business is still a good deal.

Ameritrade expects to lead the online brokerage industry in trades after the acquisition with an average of 239,000 trades a day, building on its roughly 25 percent share of the active investor market. Charles Schwab Corp. reported an average 194,000 trades a day and E-Trade Financial Corp. had 125,000 a day.

Trade deficit shows slight improvement

WASHINGTON — America’s deficit in the broadest measure of international trade showed a slight improvement in the July-September quarter although it was still at the third highest level in history.

The Commerce Department reported that the deficit in the U.S. current account totaled $195.8 billion in the third quarter. That was down 1 percent from the deficit in the April-June quarter of $197.8 billion, which had been a 0.4 percent improvement from the record deficit of $198.7 billion set in the first three months of the year.

The third quarter figure was below the $205 billion imbalance that had been forecast. Analysts said payments by foreign insurance firms to settle damage claims stemming from hurricanes Katrina and Rita accounted for most of the improvement.

Judge refuses to place gag order in Enron case

HOUSTON — A judge Friday refused to muzzle out-of-court statements related to the fraud and conspiracy case against Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling after Lay’s speech Tuesday lam-basting government tactics in pursuing him.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake denied prosecutors’ request for a gag order at a hearing Friday that was scheduled before Lay spoke Tuesday to Houston business and academic leaders. Lay, Skilling and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey are scheduled for trial Jan. 17.

Black’s fraud trial to start in March 2007

CHICAGO — A judge set a March 2007 starting date for Conrad Black’s fraud and racketeering trial after the former newspaper tycoon pleaded not guilty Friday to new charges in connection with the alleged plundering of more than $84 million from Hollinger International Inc., the company he once controlled.

Black, who was charged a day earlier on counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering and wire fraud, refused to discuss the expanded case against him following his second arraignment in two weeks. He offered a terse “It’ll be an interesting trial” before returning home to Toronto.

If convicted on all counts, the former press baron faces a maximum sentence of 95 years in prison, $7 million in fines and forfeiture of more than $92 million that U.S. government prosecutors allege was obtained fraudulently.

Dow, S &P, Nasdaq fall slightly

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 6.08, or 0.06 percent, to 10,875.59. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 3.62, or 0.28 percent, to 1,267.32. The Nasdaq composite index lost 8.15, or 0.36 percent, to 2,252.48.

Light sweet crude for January delivery declined $1.93 to settle at $58.06 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That is the lowest close for the front-month contract since Nov. 30, when futures settled at $57.33. February Brent crude on London’s ICE Futures exchange fell 78 cents to $58.62 a barrel. Heating oil futures declined by 5.53 cents to $1.7320 a gallon, while gasoline futures dropped by 4.79 cents to $1.5689 a gallon. Natural gas fell 14.8 cents to $13.633 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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