Tax on pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago up $1 to $6.67

On the eve of a $1-per-pack Cook County cigarette tax increase, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the glow of X-rays showing damaged lungs, surrounded by some of Stroger Hospital's top pulmonary specialists as she discussed how smoking shortens people's lives.

The setting and talking points made clear the message Preckwinkle wanted to convey Thursday: This is a public health problem, one she plans to fight by giving smokers an incentive to quit and teens a reason not to start.

But the county's tax increase is more than just a campaign to protect people from emphysema and lung cancer. Preckwinkle is counting on $25.6 million this year from the move to help balance the budget. The history of cigarette tax increases suggests the county will be lucky to get that much in 2013 and should expect diminishing returns in the years ahead.

Smokes are a financial well that public officials have gone to repeatedly to shore up shaky finances at the local and state level. When the county tax increase takes effect Friday, a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago will come with $6.67 tacked on by the city, county and state. That's just behind New York City's nation-leading $6.86 in taxes per pack. It will also push the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to as much as $11.

Recent cigarette tax increases have had only a short-term benefit to the government bottom line. Some people quit, while others buy cigarettes online or outside the county or state.

When the county last raised the cigarette tax — by $1 per pack in 2006 — collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, hitting $203.7 million, county records show. But by 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mayor Richard M. Daley bumped up the city of Chicago's share of the cigarette tax by 32 cents in 2005 and another 20 cents in 2006, to 68 cents per pack. He saw collections rise from $15.6 million in 2004 to $32.9 million in 2006, according to a city report. But city cigarette tax revenue fell to $28.4 million in 2007, and continued dropping to $18.7 million by 2011, records show.

At the state level, Quinn pushed through a $1-a-pack hike in June.

Before that, state lawmakers and Gov. George Ryan agreed on a 40-cent increase in 2002. Cigarette tax proceeds went up by more than $178 million in 2003, to $643.1 million, and rose to $729.2 million in 2004. The revenue then fell steadily to $549 million by 2010 before edging back up to $580 million last year, according to state records.

The county is preparing for the windfall from the $1 increase to be strong this year, then decline. County officials project that after bringing in $25.6 million for the remainder of this budget year, the increase will net about $29 million for 2014, $21 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and just $9 million in 2017.

Preckwinkle says that's OK with her.

"My hope would be that over the long run this is no longer a way in which governments look to raise money, because fewer and fewer people are smoking," she said. "So I would hope that we have the effect of reducing our revenue because more people quit."

The county could end up saving money as cigarette tax revenue falls because uninsured people with ailments related to smoking are such a heavy financial burden to the public hospital system, Preckwinkle said.

In the meantime, Preckwinkle pledged to hire more staff this year to crack down on stores selling untaxed packs and large-scale tobacco smuggling from surrounding states. "We anticipate that there may be some noncompliance, as there always is when you institute an increase like this," she said.

Preckwinkle also acknowledged that the higher tax rate will push some smokers into surrounding counties or Indiana to pick up their packs, but she predicted such cross-border runs will not last.

"While people may initially, when the prices rise, go to other states — Indiana, Wisconsin or wherever — over time that trek gets very tiresome and time-consuming, and they return to their former habits of buying their cigarettes nearby," Preckwinkle said.

But David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he thinks the cigarette taxes in Cook County are now so high compared with surrounding areas that smokers will continue to make the longer drive, and Illinois stores near jurisdictions with lower taxes will struggle even more.

"You might see people return to their old patterns if we were talking about a slight disparity, say 25 cents a pack," Vite said. "But now we're talking about a difference of nearly $3 a pack compared to Indiana, almost $30 a carton. You're going to see guys working in factories saying, 'It's my week to make a run,' heading to Indiana and coming back with $1,500 worth of cigarettes for all their co-workers."

Twitter @_johnbyrne

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Wall Street gains on Bernanke comments, S&P above 1,500

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks rose on Wednesday, with major indexes posting their best daily gains since early January, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke remained steadfast in supporting the Fed's stimulus policy and data pointed to economic improvement.

In a second day before a congressional committee, Bernanke defended the Fed's buying of bonds to keep interest rates low to boost growth. The market's jump of more than 1 percent also came on better-than-expected data on business spending plans and the housing market.

Bernanke's remarks helped the market rebound from its worst decline since November and put the S&P 500 index back above 1,500, a closely watched level that has been technical support until recently. The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> closed at a level not seen since 2007 as it again pulled within striking distance of an all-time high.

Speaking before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke downplayed signs of internal divisions at the Fed, saying the policy of quantitative easing, or QE, has the support of a "significant majority" of top central bank officials.

Bernanke removed a headwind from markets arising from concerns the Fed's quantitative easing might end earlier than anticipated. Doubts about the Fed's intentions had broken a seven-week streak of gains by stocks.

"The Fed continues to encourage risk-taking in markets, which is a powerful tool that makes the danger not being long stocks, not in being too long," said Tom Mangan, a money manager at James Investment Research Inc in Xenia, Ohio.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 176.32 points, or 1.27 percent, at 14,076.45. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 19.07 points, or 1.27 percent, at 1,516.01. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 32.61 points, or 1.04 percent, at 3,162.26.

Pending home sales jumped 4.5 percent in January, three times the rate of growth that had been expected. While orders for durable goods fell more than expected in January, non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft - a closely watched proxy for business spending plans - showed the biggest gain since December 2011.

About 74 percent of stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange closed higher while 64 percent of Nasdaq-listed shares closed up.

The S&P turned very slightly higher on the week, recovering from the index's biggest daily drop since November on Monday. That drop came on concerns over Italy's election, as well as over sequestration - U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on spending and taxes.

The index had climbed 6.3 percent for the year before pulling back on concerns about Fed policy and inconclusive elections in Italy, which rekindled fears of a new euro zone debt crisis.

"While the rally remains intact and there are reasons to be long-term bullish here, there are also reasons to not be surprised if we get a correction," said Mangan, who helps oversee $3.7 billion.

In earnings news, gained 2.6 percent to $695.91 after reporting adjusted earnings that beat expectations. TJX Cos Inc jumped 2.5 percent to $44.75 after the retail chain operator posted higher fourth-quarter results.

The S&P retail index <.spxrt> climbed 1.6 percent.

Target Corp offered a cautious outlook for consumer spending in 2013 following a weak holiday quarter. The stock dipped 1.1 percent to $63.32.

First Solar Inc plunged 14 percent to $27.04 after failing to give a full-year earnings and sales outlook, though it also swung to a quarterly profit.

Groupon Inc plunged 21 percent to $4.70 after the bell after reporting its fourth-quarter results.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

About 6.23 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, slightly below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares.

(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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Italy left on financial high-wire

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Rome on January 25, 2013.


  • Brilliant minds are still trying to figure out the financial impact of Italy's election

  • The lack of certainty is seen as a negative for Italy -- and the eurozone

  • Instability could reignite the eurozone crisis

  • But it depends on what deal will be done, and how the markets will respond

Editor's note: Louise Cooper is a financial blogger and commentator who regularly appears on television, radio and in print. She started her career at Goldman Sachs as a European equity institutional sales person and then become a financial and business journalist. She now writes CooperCity.

London (CNN) -- Brilliant minds across the financial world are still trying to work out the implications of the Italian election result.

For the time being, the best answer is that it is probably too soon to tell. After Tuesday's falls, a little stability has returned to markets, possibly because everyone is still trying to work out what to think.

Credit ratings agency Moody's has warned the election result is negative for Italy -- and also negative for other indebted eurozone states. It fears political uncertainty will continue and warns of a "deterioration in the country's economic prospects or difficulties in implementing reform," the agency said.

For the rest of the eurozone, the result risks "reigniting the euro debt crisis." Madrid must be looking to Italy with trepidation. If investors decide that Italy is looking risky again and back off from buying its debt, then Spain will be drawn into the firing line too.

Can the anti-Berlusconi save Italy?

Louise Cooper, of Cooper City

Louise Cooper, of Cooper City

Standard & Poor's stated that Italy's rating was not immediately affected by the election but I think the key part of that sentence is "not immediately."

At the same time Herman Van Rompuy's tweets give an indication of the view from Brussels: "We must respect the outcome of democratic elections in Italy," his feed noted.

Really? That's a first. The democratically elected Silvio Berlusconi was forced out when he failed to follow through with austerity after the European Central Bank helped Italy by buying its debt in autumn 2011.

"It is now up to Italian political leaders to assume responsibility, compromise and form a stable government," Van Rompuy tweeted.

Did he see the results? The newcomer and anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo refuses to do a deal and yet he is the natural kingmaker, polling at 25%.

"Nor for Italy is there a real alternative to continuing fiscal consolidations and reforms," he continued.

Economically yes, but the Italian electorate disagree. And for the time being, Italy has a democracy (of sorts).

Finally: "I am confident that Italy will remain a stable member of the eurozone."

He hopes...

The key to whether the crisis reignites is whether investors begin to back away from lending to Italy. If so, this will be the big test of the ECB's resolve to save the euro.

Read more: Euro crisis coverage

The key thing to look at is Italian bonds, because if borrowing costs rise from 4.8% for 10-year money currently to nearer 6%, then Italy will start to find it too expensive to borrow.

The trillion euro question is if the ECB will step in to help even if it cannot get the reforms and austerity it demands (because of the political situation). That is the crux of the matter. And there will be many in the city today pondering that question.

Clearly in financial markets, taking on a central bank is a dangerous thing to do. Soros may have broken the Bank of England on Black Wednesday 1992, making billions by forcing sterling out of the EMU, but that was a long time ago.

Italy avoids panic at bond auction

What we have learnt from this crisis is not to "fight the Fed" (or the ECB). Last summer, the ECB's chief Mario Draghi put a line in the sand with his "whatever it takes" (to save the euro) speech.

But as part of that commitment he stressed time and time again that any new help from the ECB comes with conditions attached. And those conditions are what have proven so unpalatable to the Italians -- austerity and reform.

So we have two implacable objects hurtling towards each other. The political mess of Italy and the electorate's dislike of austerity and reform (incumbent technocrat Mario Monti only polled 10%).

So what happens next? The status quo can continue if Italian borrowing costs do not rise from here and therefore Italy does not need ECB help.

If markets continue to believe in Draghi and Brussels that the euro is "irreversible," then investors will continue to lend to Italy. Yes, markets will be jittery and fearful, but Italy will eventually sort itself out politically.

The big advantage for Italy is although it has a lot of debt, it is not creating debt quickly (like Greece, Spain or even the UK). And as I said yesterday on my CooperCity blog, the positive outcome from all this could be that Brussels backs off from austerity, which would be a good thing.

However, the basic rule of finance is that high risk comes with high return. Soros took a huge gamble against the British central bank but it reportedly made him a billionaire overnight.

There must be a few hedge funders looking at the Italian situation with similar greed in their eyes. If he wants to save the euro, it is time for Mario Draghi to put the fear of God back into such hearts.

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Ex-convict looks to be winner in 2nd District GOP squeaker

Republican voters are suggesting the 2nd Congressional District replace one felon with another after picking ex-convict Paul McKinley as the candidate to run for the seat recently ceded by former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

While official results in the GOP special election will not be certified until next month, McKinley had a 23-vote lead over Eric Wallace, a multimedia company owner from Flossmoor, with all precincts reporting Wednesday.

McKinley, a convicted felon who served nearly 20 years in state prison for burglaries, armed robberies and aggravated battery, declared victory. Wallace, however, was not willing to concede, and he called the prospect of McKinley representing the GOP "an embarrassment."

McKinley is a frequent protester in Chicago with nearly a dozen arrests to prove it. His campaign mantra has been to rage against the machine. During candidate forums, McKinley has given passionate speeches blaming all of the district's woes on the long rule of the Democratic Party machine on the South Side and in the south suburbs.

"I was the only one in this party making the effort to rattle the saber against the machine," said McKinley, who would square off against Democrat Robin Kelly in the April 9 special election in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic. "I think that's what resonated."

As McKinley celebrated his apparent victory, the state's Republican leadership was coming to grips with the fact that its party had just nominated someone with a long rap sheet to run in a district where the last three Democratic congressmen have left office amid scandal. That includes Jackson, who pleaded guilty last week to federal charges.

Pat Brady, the state's Republican chairman, had no comment Wednesday about McKinley's prospects. Privately, Republican leaders expressed dismay and concern. Given the historic Democratic leanings of the district, no national or state financial help from Republicans is likely, they said.

Wallace, who appears to have fallen just short for the GOP nomination, still holds out hope.

"We're waiting for all of the outstanding ballots to be tallied, including provisional as well as absentee," said Wallace, who lists a doctorate in biblical studies. "With it being this close, it wouldn't make a lot of sense not to wait for those to be counted. There could be 30, 40, 50 absentee ballots out there."

But in Cook County, there were just four such ballots. In Chicago there were three outstanding absentee or mail-in ballots and 67 provisional ballots. It's unclear how many of those provisional ballots were for the Republican primary, but very few GOP ballots were pulled in the city.

"He has that right, but he sounds a lot like Mitt Romney," McKinley said of Wallace's wait, alluding to Romney's delay in conceding victory in November to President Barack Obama.

Wallace expressed disappointment in the turnout, especially the low number of votes cast in Will and Kankakee counties, where he said many Republicans chose to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary to support Debbie Halvorson, who had opposed the president's proposed assault weapons ban.

"All they did was contribute to Robin Kelly winning, and now the Republican who is in the lead — and I've gotten to know Paul and like him — but Paul is a convicted felon," Wallace said. "If he ends up winning, it's just going to be an embarrassment for the Republican Party."

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, McKinley was sentenced to concurrent three- and four-year sentences in 1978 for burglary and armed robbery in Cook County. In 1981 he was sentenced to four years for burglary, according to a prisons agency spokeswoman.

In 1985, McKinley was sentenced to five years for two counts of aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and 30 years for armed robbery. He was paroled in 1997, according to the state.

Two weeks ago, the Tribune asked the Cook County circuit court clerk's office to provide the old court records tied to those convictions. As of Wednesday, the records were not available. McKinley once again declined to discuss the convictions.

From 2003 through 2007, McKinley was arrested 11 times in the county for various offenses, most of them tied to protests. In many cases, the charges ultimately were dropped.

During a June 2005 bench trial, McKinley was found not guilty on two felony counts of threatening a public official. The case stemmed from a protest in which then-3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman accused McKinley of telling her to "take your country ass back to Mississippi. I'm going to get your country ass." McKinley insisted he was exercising his right to free speech and was acquitted, according to records.

In 2007, McKinley was sentenced to 20 hours of community service after being found guilty of disorderly conduct during a City Council meeting protest, records show. McKinley used a bullhorn to scream "profanity-laced statements" to aldermen as they were speaking, according a police report. Police arrested McKinley after he refused to stop banging on the glass window in the seating gallery overlooking the council chambers, records show.

McKinley also pleaded guilty to a June 2007 charge of criminal trespass to land. According to court records, he was asked to leave the Homan Square Foundation after his questions about the nonprofit's hiring procedures had been answered. The group advocates for the redevelopment of the West Side site that used to be Sears headquarters.

The candidate has not shied away from his arrest record during the campaign.

"I'm the ex-offender trying to save the next offender, and I believe Robin Kelly, she will become the next offender, too," McKinley said. "All of these next offenders in this district have been Democrats."

Kelly declined to be interviewed Wednesday.

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Iran upbeat on nuclear talks, West still wary

ALMATY (Reuters) - Iran was upbeat on Wednesday after talks with world powers about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its atomic ambitions.

Rapid progress was unlikely with Iran's presidential election, due in June, raising domestic political tensions, diplomats and analysts had said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first in eight months.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work but made clear that they expected no immediate breakthrough.

In an attempt to make their proposals more palatable to Iran, the six powers appeared to have softened previous demands somewhat, for example regarding their requirement that the Islamic state ship out its stockpile of higher-grade uranium.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the powers had tried to "get closer to our viewpoint", which he said was positive.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that the talks had been "useful" and that a serious engagement by Iran could lead to a comprehensive deal in a decade-old dispute that has threatened to trigger a new Middle East war.

Iran's foreign minister said in Vienna he was "very confident" an agreement could be reached and Jalili, the chief negotiator, said he believed the Almaty meeting could be a "turning point".

However, one diplomat said Iranian officials at the negotiations appeared to be suggesting that they were opening new avenues, but it was not clear if this was really the case.

Iran expert Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said: "Everyone is saying Iran was more positive and portrayed the talks as a win."

"I reckon the reason for that is that they are saving face internally while buying time with the West until after the elections," she said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6, when Western diplomats made clear they wanted to see a substantive response from Iran.

"Iran knows what it needs to do, the president has made clear his determination to implement his policy that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Kerry said.

A senior U.S. official in Almaty said, "What we care about at the end is concrete results."


Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, was watching the talks closely. It has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such aim.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said economic sanctions were failing and urged the international community to threaten Iran with military action.

Western officials said the offer presented by the six powers included an easing of a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals, and a relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products. They gave no further details.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and "constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there".

The official did not describe what was being asked of Iran as a "shutdown" of the plant as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and wants to fuel nuclear power plants so that it can export more oil.

But 20-percent purity is far higher than that needed for nuclear power, and rings alarm bells abroad because it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it produces higher-grade uranium to fuel a research reactor.

Iran's growing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium is already more than half-way to a "red line" that Israel has made clear it would consider sufficient for a bomb.

In Vienna on Wednesday, a senior U.N. nuclear agency official told diplomats in a closed-door briefing that Iran was technically ready to sharply increase this higher-grade enrichment, two Western diplomats said.

"Iran can triple 20 percent production in the blink of an eye," one of the diplomats said.

The U.S. official in Almaty said the powers' latest proposal would "significantly restrict the accumulation of near-20-percent enriched uranium in Iran, while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel" for their Tehran medical reactor.

This appeared to be a softening of a previous demand that Iran ship out its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium, which it says it needs to produce medical isotopes.

Iran has often indicated that 20-percent enrichment could be up for negotiation if it received the fuel from abroad instead.

Jalili suggested Iran could discuss the issue, although he appeared to rule out shutting down Fordow. He said the powers had not made that specific demand.

The Iranian rial, which has lost more than half its foreign exchange value in the last year as sanctions bite, rose some 2 percent on Wednesday, currency tracking websites reported.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Yeganeh Torbati in Almaty, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Marcus George in Dubai; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Wall Street rebounds on Bernanke comments, data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rebounded from their worst decline since November on Tuesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus and sales of new homes hit a 4 1/2-year high.

The S&P 500 had climbed 6 percent for the year and came within reach of all-time highs before the minutes from the Fed's January meeting were released last Wednesday. Since then, the benchmark S&P 500 has fallen 1 percent.

Bernanke, in testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee, strongly defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus program and quieted rumblings that the central bank may pull back from its stimulative policy measures, which were sparked by the release of the Fed minutes last week.

Bernanke's comments helped ease investors' concerns about a stalemate in Italy after a general election failed to give any party a parliamentary majority, posing the threat of prolonged instability and financial crisis in Europe, and sending the S&P 500 to its worst decline since November 7 in Monday's session.

Bernanke "certainly said everything the market needed to feel in order to get comfortable again," said Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Capital in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"The fear is we were going to see a rollover, and the first shot over the bow was what we saw out of Italy yesterday with the elections," Kenny said. "When it came to U.S. markets, we saw some of that bleeding stop because our focus shifted from the Italian political circus to Ben Bernanke."

Gains in homebuilders and other consumer stocks, following strong economic data, lifted the S&P 500, and a 5.7 percent jump in Home Depot to $67.56 boosted the Dow industrials. The PHLX housing sector index <.hgx> rose 3.2 percent.

Economic reports that showed strength in housing and consumer confidence also supported stocks. U.S. home prices rose more than expected in December, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index. Consumer confidence rebounded in February, jumping more than expected, and new-home sales rose to their highest in 4-1/2 years in January.

However, the central bank chairman also urged lawmakers to avoid sharp spending cuts set to go into effect on Friday, which he warned could combine with earlier tax increases to create a "significant headwind" for the economic recovery.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 115.96 points, or 0.84 percent, to 13,900.13 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 9.09 points, or 0.61 percent, to 1,496.94. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> advanced 13.40 points, or 0.43 percent, to close at 3,129.65.

Despite the bounce, the S&P 500 was unable to move back above 1,500, a closely watched level that was technical support until recently, but could now serve as a resistance point.

The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> or the VIX, a barometer of investor anxiety, dropped 11.2 percent, a day after surging 34 percent, its biggest percentage jump since August 18, 2011.

The uncertainty caused by the Italian elections continued to weigh on stocks in Europe. The FTSEurofirst-300 index of top European shares <.fteu3> closed down 1.4 percent. The benchmark Italian index <.ftmib> tumbled 4.9 percent.

Home Depot gave the biggest boost to the Dow and provided one of the biggest lifts to the S&P 500 after the world's largest home improvement chain reported adjusted earnings and sales that beat expectations.

Macy's shares gained 2.8 percent to $39.59 after the department-store chain stated it expects full-year earnings to be above analysts' forecasts because of strong holiday sales.

Volume was active with about 7.08 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, above the daily average of 6.48 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 2 to 1, while on the Nasdaq, three stocks rose for every two that fell.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Benedict: Pope aware of his flaws?

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his last Angelus Blessing to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter's Square on February 24.


  • Sister Mary Ann Walsh: Pope Benedict acknowledged that he made mistakes

  • Walsh: In firestorm over scholarly quotes about Islam, he went to great lengths to atone

  • Walsh: Similarly, he quickly reversed a decision that had angered Jews and repaired ties

  • Even his stepping down is a nod to his humanity and his love of the church, she says

Editor's note: Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Regional Community. She is a former foreign correspondent at Catholic News Service (CNS) in Rome and the editor of "John Paul II: A Light for the World," "Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on his Papacy," and "From Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI."

(CNN) -- One of the Bible's paradoxical statements comes from St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "Power is made perfect in infirmity."

The poetic statement proclaims that when we are weak, we are strong. Pope Benedict XVI's stepping down from what many consider one of the most powerful positions in the world proves it. In a position associated with infallibility -- though that refers to formal proclamations on faith and morals -- the pope declares his weakness.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Sister Mary Ann Walsh

His acceptance of frailty speaks realistically about humanity: We grow old, weaken, and eventually die. A job, even one guided by the Holy Spirit, as we Roman Catholics believe, can become too much for us.

Acceptance of human frailty has marked this papacy. We all make mistakes, but the pope makes them on a huge stage.

He was barely into his papacy, for example, when he visited Regensburg, Germany, where he once taught theology. Like many a professor, he offered a provocative statement to get the conversation going. To introduce the theme of his lecture, the pope quoted from an account of a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Muslim scholar, sometime near the end of the 14th century -- a quote that was misinterpreted by some as a condemnation of Mohammed and Islam.

Opinion: 'Gay lobby' behind pope's resignation? Not likely

Twice, the pope emphasized that he was quoting someone else's words. Unfortunately, the statement about Islam was taken as insult, not a discussion opener, and sparked rage throughout the Muslim world.

The startled pope had to explain himself. He apologized and traveled two months later to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, where he stood shoeless in prayer beside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. Later he hosted Muslim leaders at the Vatican at the start of a Catholic-Muslim forum for dialogue. It was a human moment -- a mistake, an apology and atonement -- all round.

A similar controversy erupted when he tried to bring the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the Roman Catholic fold.

In a grand gesture toward reconciliation, he lifted the excommunication of four of its bishops, unaware that one, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. This outraged many Jews. Subsequently the Vatican said the bishop had not been vetted, and in a bow to modernity said officials at least should have looked him up on the Internet.

In humble response, Benedict reiterated his condemnation of anti-Semitism and told Williamson that he must recant his Holocaust views to be fully reinstated. Again, his admission of a mistake and an effort to mend fences.

News: Scandal threatens to overshadow pope's final days

Pope Benedict XVI came from a Catholic Bavarian town. Childhood family jaunts included trips to the shrine of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Altotting. He entered the seminary at the age of 13. He became a priest, scholar and theologian. He lived his life in service to the church. Even in resigning from the papacy, he embraces the monastic life to pray for a church he has ever loved.

With hindsight, his visit to the tomb of 13th century Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine monk who resigned from the papacy eight centuries before, becomes poignant.

In 2009, on a visit to Aquila, Italy, Benedict left at Celestine's tomb the pallium, a stole-like vestment that signifies episcopal authority, that Benedict had worn for his installation as pope. The gesture takes on more meaning as the monkish Benedict steps down.

We expect the pope to be perfect. Catholics hold him to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He stands as a spiritual leader for much of the world. Statesmen visit him from around the globe. He lives among splendid architecture, in the shadow of the domed St. Peter's Basilica. All testify to an almost surreal omnipotence.

Complete coverage of the pope's resignation

In this world, however, walked a vulnerable, human person. And in a paradox of life, his most human moment -- giving up the power of office -- may prove to be his most potent, delivering a message that, as St. Paul noted many centuries ago, "Power is made perfect in infirmity."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ann Walsh.

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Winter storm: Lingering snow could mean messy commute

Tom updates Tuesday's storm. (WGN - Chicago)

The storm that struck in midmorning had socked the Chicago area with the season's biggest snowfall by Tuesday evening and was expected to drop another inch or two as it lingers through Wednesday, forecasters said.

That means the morning rush hour could be a bit messy, though it shouldn't be nearly as bad as Tuesday evening's commute was for motorists like Bob Reed, of Geneva. Speaking from a cellphone as he crawled west on Interstate 90, Reed blamed sloppy drivers more than sloppy roads.

"When it snows like this, it's like there are no traffic laws at all," Reed said. "Normally we have very aggressive drivers, but now we've got people going the wrong way down one-way streets, people jumping out of line to pass you."

The northern suburbs were hit hardest, with Gurnee in Lake County reporting 10 inches of accumulation and Beach Park, also in Lake County, reporting 9.5 inches.

By 10 p.m., 4.2 inches had fallen at O'Hare International Airport, according to the National Weather Service. That brought the official total for the season to 17.8 inches, and February's total to 14.3 inches.

Many city and suburban schools closed early and canceled sports games and practices. By 9 p.m., more than 500 departing flights had been canceled at O'Hare and Midway airports, with about the same number of arrivals also canceled, according to FlightStats, which gathers data from airports and airlines.

Cars and buses slid into ditches and crashed into each other on slick roads. The Illinois Tollway and Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation dispatched their full fleets of snowplows and salt trucks.

Snow fell at about 2 inches an hour in some northern suburbs. Any snow Wednesday or the rest of the week won't be nearly that intense, said meteorologist Casey Sullivan of the National Weather Service. Leaving early for the morning commute, however, won't be a bad idea, he said.

In a winter of sparse snowfall, some welcomed the storm with enthusiasm — particularly those who stand to profit from it. James Koch, the owner of Jimbo's Plowing Service in Tinley Park, said the snow was a gift in a winter that's been a bust for plow truck drivers.

Koch bought a new truck and plow after the record snowfall during the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard. Since then he has failed to realize the returns he expected on his investment, he said.

"It ain't like what it used to be," Koch said. "Chicago always had a good snowfall, and now we're not getting snow until January. If you don't get a big snow in December in this business, you're basically playing catch-up all year."

The snow also gave fresh life to plans for winter recreation. Gloria Morison, of Highland Park, was at a brunch Tuesday morning when she saw the first flakes fall. She said she immediately started making plans to try out a new pair of cross country skis, thinking she could go down her street before the plows came to get to the Green Bay Trail.

Chicago Transit Authority buses had a hard time navigating some roads Tuesday. A few buses got stuck near North Stockton Drive and West Dickens Avenue, police said.

"Obviously, we're advising operators to drive with caution," CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said.

With snow forecast to fall periodically Wednesday and Thursday, drivers should continue to heed that advice, said Sullivan of the weather service. Even after the storm passes there could be more in store, with unrelated lake-effect snow possible Friday, he said.

"We'll see."

Tribune reporters Ryan Haggerty and Naomi Nix contributed.

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AP source: Tom Brady gets 3-year extension

Tom Brady will be a Patriot until he is 40 years old.

Brady agreed to a three-year contract extension with New England on Monday, a person familiar with the contract told The Associated Press. The extension is worth about $27 million and will free up nearly $15 million in salary cap room for the team, which has several younger players it needs to re-sign or negotiate new deals with.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the extension has not been announced.

Sports Illustrated first reported the extension.

The 35-year-old two-time league MVP was signed through 2014, and has said he wants to play at least five more years.

A three-time Super Bowl champion, Brady will make far less in those three seasons than the going rate for star quarterbacks. Brady currently has a four-year, $72 million deal with $48 million guaranteed.

Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are the NFL's highest-paid quarterbacks, at an average of $20 million and $18 million a year, respectively.

Brady has made it clear he wants to finish his career with the Patriots, whom he led to Super Bowl wins for the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons, and losses in the big game after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. By taking less money in the extension and redoing his current contract, he's hopeful New England can surround him with the parts to win more titles.

Among the Patriots' free agents are top receiver Wes Welker and his backup, Julian Edelman; right tackle Sebastian Vollmer; cornerback Aqib Talib; and running back Danny Woodhead.

Brady has been the most successful quarterback of his era, of course, as well as one of the NFL's best leaders. His skill at running the no-huddle offense is unsurpassed, and he's easily adapted to the different offensive schemes New England has concentrated on through his 13 pro seasons.

The Patriots have gone from run-oriented in Brady's early days to a deep passing team with Randy Moss to an offense dominated by throws to tight ends, running backs and slot receivers.

Brady holds the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season with 50 in 2007, when the Patriots went 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the Giants. He has thrown for at least 28 touchdowns seven times and led the league three times.

Last season, Brady had 34 TD passes and eight interceptions as the Patriots went 12-4, leading the league with 557 points, 76 more than runner-up Denver.

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Vatican 'Gay lobby'? Probably not


  • Benedict XVI not stepping down under pressure from 'gay lobby,' Allen says

  • Allen: Benedict is a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government

  • However, he says, much of the pope's time has been spent putting out fires

Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is CNN's senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

(CNN) -- Suffice it to say that of all possible storylines to emerge, heading into the election of a new pope, sensational charges of a shadowy "gay lobby" (possibly linked to blackmail), whose occult influence may have been behind the resignation of Benedict XVI, would be right at the bottom of the Vatican's wish list.

Proof of the Vatican's irritation came with a blistering statement Saturday complaining of "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," even suggesting the media is trying to influence the papal election.

Two basic questions have to be asked about all this. First, is there really a secret dossier about a network of people inside the Vatican who are linked by their sexual orientation, as Italian newspaper reports have alleged? Second, is this really why Benedict XVI quit?

John L. Allen Jr.

John L. Allen Jr.

The best answers, respectively, are "maybe" and "probably not."

It's a matter of record that at the peak of last year's massive Vatican leaks crisis, Benedict XVI created a commission of three cardinals to investigate the leaks. They submitted an eyes-only report to the pope in mid-December, which has not been made public.

It's impossible to confirm whether that report looked into the possibility that people protecting secrets about their sex lives were involved with the leaks, but frankly, it would be surprising if it didn't.

There are certainly compelling reasons to consider the hypothesis. In 2007, a Vatican official was caught by an Italian TV network on hidden camera arranging a date through a gay-oriented chat room, and then taking the young man back to his Vatican apartment. In 2010, a papal ceremonial officer was caught on a wiretap arranging liaisons through a Nigerian member of a Vatican choir. Both episodes played out in full public view, and gave the Vatican a black eye.

Pope Benedict XVI


























In that context, it would be a little odd if the cardinals didn't at least consider the possibility that insiders leading a double life might be vulnerable to pressure to betray the pope's confidence. That would apply not just to sex, but also potential conflicts of other sorts too, such as financial interests.

Vatican officials have said Benedict may authorize giving the report to the 116 cardinals who will elect his successor, so they can factor it into their deliberations. The most immediate fallout is that the affair is likely to strengthen the conviction among many cardinals that the next pope has to lead a serious house-cleaning inside the Vatican's bureaucracy.

It seems a stretch, however, to suggest this is the real reason Benedict is leaving. For the most part, one should probably take the pope at his word, that old age and fatigue are the motives for his decision.

That said, it's hard not to suspect that the meltdowns and controversies that have dogged Benedict XVI for the last eight years are in the background of why he's so tired. In 2009, at the height of another frenzy surrounding the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, Benedict dispatched a plaintive letter to the bishops of the world, voicing hurt for the way he'd been attacked and apologizing for the Vatican's mishandling of the situation.

Even if Benedict didn't resign because of any specific crisis, including this latest one, such anguish must have taken its toll. Benedict is a teaching pope, a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government, yet an enormous share of his time and energy has been consumed trying to put out internal fires.

It's hard to know why Benedict XVI is stepping off the stage, but I doubt it is because of a "gay lobby."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.

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