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5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE SOCHI OLYMPICS

Thursday, 06 February 2014 07:28 Published in Sports

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Fast five, Thursday edition: Things you'll want to know about the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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SECURITY: It's foremost on many minds as Olympic competition begins and thousands stream into the Black Sea resort city. The Russian government says it's doing all it can to ensure safety, and on Thursday a deputy prime minister went even further. "We can guarantee the safety of the people as well as any other government hosting a mass event," said Dmitry Kozak.

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TOOTHPASTE: It's the latest item to fall under scrutiny after the U.S. Homeland Security Department warned airlines flying to Russia that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives on board hidden in toothpaste tubes. The threat was passed onto airlines that have direct flights to Russia, including some that originate in the United States, a law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press.

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SNOWBOARDING: It begins, but without marquee name Shaun White, the world's most famous snowboarder. He pulled out of slopestyle, a new Olympic event, to concentrate on the halfpipe, where he'll have a chance to win his third straight title next week. After practice slopestyle runs, White said: "The potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on."

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WORLD LEADERS: It's a record, says the Sochi Olympics' chief organizer: Sixty-five heads of state and government and international organizations will be attending Russia's first Winter Games. Dmitry Chernyshenko says that's more than any other Winter Olympics and three times the number of leaders who attended the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Here's who you won't see, though: President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck.

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OPENING APPROACHES: Friday night's opening ceremony will showcase Russia to the world on its own terms — a storyline intended to impress the many nations in attendance and allow President Vladimir Putin to put forth the message he's been trumpeting for months now: that his country has successfully combined its storied history with modern innovation and is ready for anything. The intended audience is as much Russians as it is the rest of the world.

HAGEL ORDERS URGENT PUSH FOR ETHICS CRACKDOWN

Thursday, 06 February 2014 07:27 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants military leaders to inject more urgency into ensuring "moral character and moral courage" in a force suffering a rash of ethical lapses.

Hagel has been worried by a string of scandals that has produced a wave of unwelcome publicity for the military. But in light of new disclosures this week, including the announcement of alleged cheating among senior sailors in the nuclear Navy, Hagel on Wednesday demanded a fuller accounting of the depth of the problem.

Last month the Air Force revealed it was investigating widespread cheating on proficiency tests among nuclear missile launch officers in Montana, and numerous senior officers in all branches of the armed forces have been caught in embarrassing episodes of personal misbehavior, inside and outside the nuclear force. The Air Force also is pursuing a drug use investigation, and a massive bribery case in California has ensnared six Navy officers so far.

At the same time, hundreds of soldiers and others are under criminal investigation in what the Army describes as a widespread scheme to take fraudulent payments and kickbacks from a National Guard recruiting program.

The steady drumbeat of one military ethics scandal after another has caused many to conclude that the misbehavior reflects more than routine lapses.

"He definitely sees this as a growing problem," Hagel's chief spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, told a Pentagon news conference Wednesday after Hagel met privately with the top uniformed and civilian officials of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

"And he's concerned about the depth of it," Kirby said. "I don't think he could stand here and tell you that he has — that anybody has — the full grasp here, and that's what worries (Hagel) is that maybe he doesn't have the full grasp of the depth of the issue, and he wants to better understand it."

Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, had launched an effort to crack down on ethics failures more than a year ago, and the matter has been a top priority for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, for even longer.

Kirby said Hagel has come to realize that he needs to investigate as well.

"We don't fully know right now what we're grappling with here and how deep and serious it is," Kirby said. "And I think, you know, for a leader at his level with the responsibilities that he carries every day, not knowing something like that is something to be concerned about. And he wants to know more."

Hagel believes that the vast majority of military members are "brave, upright and honest," and he is encouraged by efforts already underway to curb misconduct, including sexual assaults, Kirby said.

But Hagel told the service leaders Wednesday that he "also believes there must be more urgency behind these efforts" and that all Pentagon leaders must "put renewed emphasis on developing moral character and moral courage in our force."

Kirby was asked whether Hagel believes ethics lapses are a symptom of overuse of the military for the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He believes that that is a factor that should be looked at," the spokesman said.

A significant portion of the concern about military misbehavior is aimed at two segments of the nuclear force: the Air Force's land-based nuclear missile corps and the Navy's training program for operators of nuclear reactors used as propulsion systems for submarines and aircraft carriers. Neither of those fields was directly involved in significant ways in either of the wars since 2001.

The Navy announced on Tuesday that it opened an investigation into cheating allegations against about 30 senior sailors representing about one-fifth of its instructors at a school for naval nuclear power reactor operators based in Charleston, S.C.

Unlike an Air Force cheating probe that has implicated nearly 100 officers responsible for land-based nuclear missiles that stand ready for short-notice launch, those implicated in the Navy investigation have no responsibility for nuclear weapons.

The Navy said its implicated sailors are accused of having cheated on written tests they must pass to be certified as instructors at the nuclear propulsion school. A number of them are alleged to have transmitted test information to other instructors from their home computers, which if verified would be a violation of restrictions on the use and transmission of classified information.

The matter was being probed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Separately, Kirby announced that the Pentagon has picked two retired officers to lead an independent review of personnel problems inside the Air Force and Navy nuclear forces. They are Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, and John Harvey, a retired Navy admiral and nuclear-trained surface warfare officer.

FEARS OF SLOWDOWN SHARPEN FOCUS ON US JOBS REPORT

Thursday, 06 February 2014 07:26 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fears of an economic slowdown are heightening anticipation of what Friday's U.S. jobs report for January might reveal.

Stock markets have sunk after signs of weaker growth in the United States, Europe and China. Turmoil in developing countries has further spooked investors. The upheaval has renewed doubts about the Federal Reserve's next steps.

Evidence of healthy U.S. job growth would help soothe those jitters. It would suggest that the world's biggest economy is still expanding solidly enough to support global growth.

"The best antidote right now for all these problems is a robust U.S. economy," said Carl Riccadonna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. "The whole world is watching, even more so than usual."

Yet anyone looking to Friday's report for a clear picture of the U.S. economy's health might be disappointed. Unseasonably cold winter weather could distort January's hiring figures. Revised estimates of job growth last year and the size of the U.S. population might further skew the data.

Another complication: A cutoff of extended unemployment benefits in December might have caused an artificial drop in January's unemployment rate and perhaps a misleading snapshot of the job market's health.

"Just when we need it most, the employment report may fall short," Riccadonna said.

All the anxiety marks a reversal from a few weeks ago, when most analysts were feeling hopeful about the global economy. U.S. growth came in at a sturdy 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of last year. The Dow Jones industrial average finished 2013 at a record high. Europe's economy was slowly emerging from a long recession. Japan was finally perking up after two decades of stagnation.

Yet in just the past few weeks has come a barrage of dispiriting economic news. U.S. hiring slowed sharply in December. Employers added just 74,000 jobs, barely a third of the average gain in the previous four months.

On Monday, an industry survey found that manufacturing grew much more slowly in January than in December. A measure of new orders in the report plummeted to the lowest level in a year. That report contributed to a dizzying 326-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Also Monday, automakers said sales slipped 3 percent in January. And last week, the government said orders to U.S. factories fell in December. So did signed contracts to buy homes, according to the National Association of Realtors.

A gauge of China's manufacturing fell to a six-month low in January. And a report Wednesday said retail sales in the 18 European countries that use the euro fell in December by the most in 2½ years.

For all that, most economists remain relatively optimistic about U.S. growth. They attribute the recent weakness in the United States in part to unseasonably cold weather, which disrupted trucking and shipping. The weather might have lowered hiring in December by up to 50,000 jobs, according to several economists' estimates. Few Americans want to test-drive cars or search for a new home in poor weather.

"I think the US economy is still doing just fine," said Bob Baur, chief global economist at Principal Global Investors. "Maybe people are overreacting a bit."

Baur still thinks U.S. growth will come in at nearly a 3 percent pace this year. That would be the best showing since 2005.

Growth at that level would also be enough for the Fed to continue winding down its monthly bond purchase program, Baur said. The Fed is buying $65 billion in bonds this month to try to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing and spending. It has pared those purchases from $85 billion in December. Fed officials have said they will likely end the purchases by year's end if the economy improves further.

Some positive signs have emerged. A survey of service sector companies, including retailers, banks and restaurants, found that they grew faster in January than in December. The service companies, which represent about 90 percent of all private firms, also stepped up hiring, the survey found.

And payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that businesses added 175,000 jobs in January. That's roughly in line with the average monthly gains of the past two years. It suggests that hiring could have rebounded a bit from December's disappointing result. Still, ADP's figure was also lower than the 227,000 jobs it said were added in December.

Yet ADP's figures cover only businesses and frequently diverge from the government's more comprehensive count.

Another unknown is the effect of the expiration of emergency unemployment benefits on Dec. 28. Benefits for about 1.4 million unemployed were cut off. Many of those people might have given up on their job searches in January. They had been required to look for work to receive benefits.

People out of work aren't counted as unemployed unless they're actively seeking work. If many people stopped looking for a job last month after their benefits ran out, the number of unemployed would fall. And so would the unemployment rate.

There's no way to know how all these different trends will affect Friday's report.

"We view this month's (jobs) results as pretty much of a crapshoot," said Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Inc., a forecasting firm.

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