A week's worth

The next three days will produce a drumbeat of reports on economic indicators that will go far in determining whether the Federal Reserve raises interest rates when its governors meet Dec. 13. Due out Tuesday are retail sales figures for October (which a MarketWatch survey of economists predicts will show a 0.6 percent drop), and the producer price index (which analysts expect to be essentially flat). Data on consumer prices for October to be released Wednesday, is also expected to be flat. For the year, analysts say the consumer price index will remain in the 4 percent range - high enough to keep the pressure on for another short-term interest rate hike. Thursday, October data on industrial production and housing starts are due, with the former predicted to show a gain in the vicinity of 0.9 percent and the latter slowing as rising mortgage rates serve as a drag on construction.

Got your broker on speed dial? If you haven't invested lately, maybe it's time you did. In its latest weekly newsletter, The Outlook, Standard & Poor's says, "There is no question that the fourth quarter is usually the best period for stocks."Since World War II, the S&P 500 has averaged gains of 4.3 percent in the final three months of the year, and 2005 appears to be no exception - so far. The 80 percent of companies in the S&P 500 that have posted their September-quarter earnings so far will average a gain of 12.3 percent over the same period a year ago.

That king of capitalism, the USA, must be the world leaderwhen it comes to companies that have their act together, organizationally speaking, right? Wrong. According to research by the management consultant Booz Allen Hamilton, the US trails every European country - and even China - in the ability of corporations to turn key decisions into action. And the larger the enterprise, the less "healthy" it tends to be. By this measure, one of the unhealthier industries is ... healthcare. So if the US ranks low, do the ruthlessly efficient Japanese rank high? No, they're lower still. Switzerland is the leader, with 64 percent of its companies judged to be healthy. In the US, it's 33 percent.

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