The number of people who signed contracts to buy homes fell sharply in April, 7-month low …


Contracts to buy homes fall to a 7-month low
May 27, 2011, 11:11 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people who signed contracts to buy homes fell sharply in April, hitting its lowest point since fall and renewing fears that a recovery in the housing market is far off.

An index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes sank 11.6 percent last month to a reading of 81.9, the National Association of Realtors said Friday.

A reading of 100 would be considered healthy.

The last time the index reached at least 100 was in April 2010.

That was the final month when people could qualify for a home-buying tax credit of up to $8,000.

Signings are still nearly 8 percent above June’s reading of 75.9, the lowest figure since the housing bust.

Contract signings are considered a reliable indicator of the housing market’s direction. That’s because there’s usually a one- to two-month lag between a sales contract and a completed deal.

But the Realtors group has noted a larger-than-usual number of contract cancellations in recent months. Some buyers have canceled purchases after appraisals showed that the homes were worth less than the buyers’ initial bids. A sale isn’t final until a mortgage is closed.

There “appears to have been a sudden arrest in willingness to commit to a home purchase,” said Pierre Ellis, a senior economist at Decision Economics.

“April sale closings came in noticeably less strong than March contract signings — hinting at mortgage problems,” Ellis said.

The Realtors group said Friday’s report “implies a slower-than-expected market recovery in upcoming months,” in light of rising oil prices, severe weather across the Midwest and South and a rise in applications for unemployment benefits.

Some analysts noted that recent natural disasters are causing a slowdown in construction. They point to the flooding Mississippi River, which has devastated homes and farmlands and closed factories; the tornado in Joplin, Mo., which has killed at least 132 people; and a tornado outbreak in April, which caused an estimated $8 billion in damage in Alabama and six other Southern states.

The Realtors index showed that contract signings were uneven across the country: They rose 1.7 percent in the Northeast but dropped 8.9 percent in the West, 10.4 percent in the Midwest and 17.2 percent in the South.

High unemployment, tighter credit and a lingering fear that home prices have yet to hit bottom are preventing many Americans from buying homes. That’s true despite super-low mortgage rates and home prices that are falling in some areas to their lowest points in a decade.

Overhanging the entire housing sector are waves of foreclosures. They are forcing down home prices.

Economists say it could be several years before the nation’s housing market recovers. Sales of previously occupied homes fell last year to their lowest level in 13 years.

This year is shaping up to be equally bleak. The number of purchases is running at just half the pace of 1963 — even though there are 120 million more people in the United States now.

A reading of 100 indicates the average level of sales activity in 2001, when the index was created. The reading exceeded the 100 threshold from March 2003 to April 2007, before sinking as the country fell into a deep recession.

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US Treasury Bond prices rise on weaker economic data


Treasurys prices rise on weaker economic data
May 26, 2011, 4:21 p.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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NEW YORK (AP) — Investors sent government bond prices higher Thursday after reports on unemployment claims and first-quarter economic growth reinforced expectations that the economic recovery may be moderating.

The price of the 10-year Treasury note rose 62.5 cents per $100 invested in late trading. Its yield, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, fell to 3.06 percent from 3.13 percent late Wednesday.

It was the lowest level for the 10-year yield in a year. The yield is used as benchmark on a wide variety of loans for businesses and consumers including home mortgages.

The government reported that more people applied for unemployment benefits last week, the first increase in three weeks. Analysts had expected a drop.

The government also said that the U.S. economy grew at a relatively sluggish rate of 1.8 percent in the January-March quarter, due partly to a spike in gas prices above $4 a gallon. Economists had forecast an upward revision to 2.2 percent.

Traders tend to buy Treasurys when economic growth appears to be losing momentum.

The Treasury Department also auctioned off $29 billion in seven-year notes at a yield of 2.43 percent, the lowest yield of the year. Investors placed bids for 3.24 times the amount offered, higher than the previous four auctions this year.

The yield of the seven-year note was 2.36 percent late Thursday.

In other trading, the price of the 30-year bond rose $1.03 per $100 invested, while its yield fell to 4.22 percent from 4.27 percent late Wednesday. The yield on the two-year note slipped to 0.50 percent from 0.54 percent.

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G-8 leaders to marshal support for Arab nations; President Barack Obama and the other leaders will seek to marshal their combined economic might behind …


G-8 leaders to marshal support for Arab nations
May 25, 2011, 9:57 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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PARIS (AP) — Arab uprisings are pushing aside deficits and austerity as the biggest worry of the leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations this year.

President Barack Obama and the other leaders will seek to marshal their combined economic might behind the grass-roots democracy movements that have swept the Arab world — and driven away tourists and investors.

Egypt and Tunisia, where popular revolts this year overthrew authoritarian regimes, want to show G-8 leaders and international financiers that they are still sound investment destinations — which might be a tall order as the future shape and policies of their governments remains unclear.

The discussions starting Thursday in the chic Normandy resort of Deauville will see the host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, bring together the heads of wealthy nations for what one of Sarkozy’s top advisers describes as “the founding moment” of a partnership between the G-8 and the Arab countries.

That partnership may be strained, however, by tensions over how to handle Libya’s rebel movement and entrenched leader Moammar Gadhafi. NATO appears to have no exit strategy, and efforts to oust Gadhafi remain elusive.

The leaders of the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Russia will greet counterparts from Tunisia, Egypt and the head of the Arab League to hash out details of what some are calling a new “Marshall Plan” for these countries, similar to the massive U.S. aid to Europe after World War II that helped the continent rebuild and stave off communism.

The historic parallel is fitting, as Deauville is just a short drive along the English Channel from the D-Day landing beaches where the U.S. and its allies began to roll back the Third Reich in 1944.

A top Sarkozy official drew another historical analogy, saying the aid and investment to be promised to the Arab nations would resemble that which the G-8 offered to Eastern and Central European nations after the collapse of communism in 1989.

Last week President Barack Obama said the U.S. has asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at the G-8 summit that sets a path to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt.

The U.S. will forgive up to $1 billion in Egyptian debt and guarantee another $1 billion to finance infrastructure and new jobs. Obama said he will ask Congress to finance enterprise funds that will provide money for investment in both countries — a request that comes as Congress seeks to cut spending.

Tunisia, followed by Egypt, kicked off change around the Arab world, as broad-based popular movements took to the streets demanding greater rights and political representation from their authoritarian governments.

But the street demonstrations in Cairo and Tunis that thrilled and inspired the Arab world also drove away the tourists and investors on which these economies are heavily dependent.

“The first thing they will be looking for is direct financial aid,” said Said Hirsh, a Middle East economist with Capital Economics consultancy in London. “Both countries need quite a lot of money considering the hit to their economies and their revenues.”

While U.S. officials say G-8 countries will discuss their role in the process, they say it is too soon to reach a deal on dollar amounts for assistance.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a London-based institution set up in 1991 to foster transition to market economies in post-communist Europe, could be “repurposed” to focus its expertise on the southern Mediterranean region, a top official in Sarkozy’s office said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of protocol.

The heads of the World Bank and the United Nations will also be present and add their signatures to the partnership declaration. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, under house arrest in New York following his indictment for sexual assault, will be replaced for the event by the institution’s acting managing director John Lipsky.

Finding a permanent replacement for Strauss-Kahn is likely to take up a good part of the summiteers’ small talk.

Nuclear safety will be another topic, with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan scheduled to provide leaders with an update on the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The future of the Internet will also figure in the G-8 leaders’ talks. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google and other Internet executives took part in two days of debates focused broadly on the Internet’s impact on the global economy. Several of the Internet conference’s speakers will then take policy recommendations to Deauville in talks with the G-8 leaders.

Police have established one security cordon around the conference center where the leaders are meeting, and another perimeter encompassing all of Deauville. Local ports, train stations and the airport will be shut from Wednesday to Friday, and a no-fly zone enforced over the town.

The show of force may have discouraged radicals and other protesters from attempting to organize demonstrations close to the summit. Anti-G8 protesters plan symbolic demonstrations in the neighboring towns of Caen and Le Havre, but they do not plan to try to disrupt the event in Deauville itself, according to a statement circulated by radical groups online.

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, D.C., Geir Moulson in Berlin, Charmaine Noronha in Toronto, David Stringer in London and Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco contributed to this report.

Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg_Keller

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NEW YORK (AP) — Stock futures rose Tuesday, a day after fears about European debt sparked …


US stock futures edge up after steep declines
May 24, 2011, 8:44 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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NEW YORK (AP) — Stock futures rose Tuesday, a day after fears about European debt sparked steep declines in financial markets around the world.

Ahead of the opening bell, Dow Jones industrial average futures are up 39, or 0.3 percent, at 12,401. Standard & Poor’s 500 futures are up 5, or 0.4 percent, at 1,319. Nasdaq 100 futures are up 7, or 0.3, at 2,322.

The modest advance in futures trading came despite more troubling news about the state of European debt management.

Greece‘s main opposition party said it opposed the government’s new austerity measures. The announcement dashed hopes that the country might be able to repair its finances enough to get another loan package from the International Monetary Fund.

Ratings agency Moody’s warned that a Greek restructuring of its debt would constitute a default. Moody’s said such a move would hurt the credit ratings of Greece and other debt-laden European countries. The ratings agency also said it would review 14 British financial institutions for a possible downgrade.

Nonetheless, European stocks recovered Tuesday after Monday’s declines.

The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares rose 0.4 percent in midday trading. Germany’s DAX rose 0.7 percent and the CAC-40 in France was 0.2 percent higher. The euro also rose slightly against the dollar after falling to a two-month low Monday.

In economic news, the Commerce Department is expected to report at 10 a.m. Eastern on how many new homes were bought in April, offering traders a glimpse at the housing market.

Analysts expect sales to have been roughly flat, rising slightly to an annual rate of 303,000 from 300,000 in March. That is still far below the 700,000 in annual sales seen as representing a healthy market.

New homes are unappealing to budget-conscious families because their median price is nearly 31 percent higher than previously-occupied homes. That’s twice the price difference typical of a healthy economy. At their current rate, new-home sales are on track to experience a sixth straight year of declines.

The Dow fell as much as 180 points Monday before paring back some of its losses after Greece, Italy and Spain suffered weekend setbacks in their attempts to control their debt. The Dow fell 130.78 points, or 1 percent, to close at 12,381.26.The S&P 500 index lost 15.90, or 1.2 percent, to 1,317.37. The Nasdaq dropped 44.42, or 1.6 percent, to 2,758.90.

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AP-GfK Poll: Most Americans say they don’t believe Medicare has to be cut to balance the federal budget ditto …,


AP-GfK Poll: Medicare doesn’t have to be cut
May 23, 2011, 7:02 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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WASHINGTON (AP) — They’re not buying it. Most Americans say they don’t believe Medicare has to be cut to balance the federal budget, and ditto for Social Security, a new poll shows.

The Associated Press-GfK poll suggests that arguments for overhauling the massive benefit programs to pare government debt have failed to sway the public. The debate is unlikely to be resolved before next year’s elections for president and Congress.

Americans worry about the future of the retirement safety net, the poll found, and 3 out of 5 say the two programs are vital to their basic financial security as they age. That helps explain why the Republican Medicare privatization plan flopped, and why President Barack Obama’s Medicare cuts to finance his health care law contributed to Democrats losing control of the House in last year’s elections.

Medicare seems to be turning into the new third rail of politics.

“I’m pretty confident Medicare will be there, because there would be a rebellion among voters,” said Nicholas Read, 67, a retired teacher who lives near Buffalo, N.Y. “Republicans only got a hint of that this year. They got burned. They touched the hot stove.”

Combined, Social Security and Medicare account for about a third of government spending, a share that will only grow. Economic experts say the cost of retirement programs for an aging society is the most serious budget problem facing the nation. The trustees who oversee Social Security and Medicare recently warned the programs are “not sustainable” over the long run under current financing.

Nearly every solution for Social Security is politically toxic, because the choices involve cutting benefits or raising taxes. Medicare is even harder to fix because the cost of modern medicine is going up faster than the overall cost of living, outpacing economic growth as well as tax revenues.

“Medicare is an incredibly complex area,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who used to chair the Budget Committee. “It’s a matrix that is almost incomprehensible. Unlike Social Security, which has four or five moving parts, Medicare has hundreds of thousands. There is no single approach to Medicare, whereas with Social Security everyone knows where the problem is.”

That’s not what the public sees, however.

“It’s more a matter of bungling, and lack of oversight, and waste and fraud, and padding of the bureaucracy,” said Carolyn Rodgers, who lives near Memphis, Tenn., and is still working as a legal assistant at 74. “There is no reason why even Medicare, if it had been handled right, couldn’t have been solvent.”

In the poll, 54 percent said it’s possible to balance the budget without cutting spending for Medicare, and 59 percent said the same about Social Security.

Taking both programs together, 48 percent said the government could balance the budget without cutting either one. Democrats and political independents were far more likely than Republicans to say that neither program will have to be cut.

The recession cost millions their jobs and sent retirement savings accounts into a nosedive. It may also have underscored the value of government programs. Social Security kept sending monthly benefits to 55 million recipients, like clockwork; Medicare went on paying for everything from wheelchairs to heart operations.

Overall, 70 percent in the poll said Social Security is “extremely” or “very” important to their financial security in retirement, and 72 percent said so for Medicare. Sixty-two percent said that both programs are extremely or very important.

The sentiment was a lot stronger among the elderly. Eighty-four percent of those 65 or older said both programs are central to their financial security. Compare that to adults under 30, just starting out. Just under half, or 46 percent, said they believed both Social Security and Medicare would be extremely or very important to their financial security in retirement.

Old, middle-aged or just entering the workforce, most people are keenly aware of the cost of health care, and that may be helping to focus more attention on Medicare.

“Health insurance these days is very costly, and it’s not something that most people can afford to go out and buy on their own,” said Tim Messner, 38, a technology quality assurance analyst from Barberton, Ohio. “I don’t know that we could possibly plan ahead for medical insurance, but if you had to replace Social Security or investments, you at least have an idea of what you can live on.”

Numbers tell the story. As health care goes up, the value of Medicare benefits is catching up to Social Security’s. A two-earner couple with average wages retiring in 1980 would have expected to receive health care worth $132,000 through Medicare over their remaining lifetimes, and $446,000, or about three times more, in Social Security payments.

For a similar couple who retired last year, the Medicare benefit will be worth $343,000, compared to Social Security payments totaling $539,000, less than twice as much. The numbers, from economists at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, are adjusted for inflation to allow direct comparison. For low-income single retirees and some couples, the value of expected Medicare benefits already exceeds that of Social Security.

The poll found a deep current of pessimism about the future of Social Security and Medicare. As much as Americans say the programs are indispensable, only 35 percent say it’s extremely or very likely that Social Security will be there to pay benefits through their entire retirement. For Medicare, it was 36 percent.

Again, there’s a sharp difference between what the public believes and what experts say. Most experts say the programs will be there for generations to come. But they may look very different than they do today, and Americans should take note.

“Do they have a basis for worrying that these programs are going to pay them much less than they’re currently promising?” asked economist Charles Blahous. “Yes, absolutely. Do they have a basis for being concerned that the programs may have to be structurally changed in order to survive? The answer to that is yes, too.” A trustee of Social Security and Medicare, Blahous served as an economic adviser to President George W. Bush.

Republican lawmakers don’t inspire much confidence right now when it comes to dealing with retirement programs, the poll found. Democrats have the advantage as the party more trusted to do a better job handling Social Security by 52 percent to 34 percent, and Medicare by 54 percent to 33 percent. Often, but not always, major revisions have been accomplished through bipartisan compromise.

Sue DeSantis, 61, a store clerk from West Milton, Ohio, worries she won’t be able to rely on either program. Both are important to her well-being, but she thinks changes are inevitable. And she has little confidence in lawmakers.

“I don’t put my faith in politicians, and I don’t put my faith in the government,” said DeSantis. “I’m a Christian. I believe that God will take care of me. That doesn’t mean I should be foolish and not look at anything, but I don’t believe that the politicians are necessarily going to do the best for the common ordinary person like myself.”

The Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted May 5-9, 2011, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

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Associated Press Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

Poll results: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Sharp drop in new claims for unemployment: Dropped 29,000 last week …


Stock edge higher after unemployment claims fall
May 19, 2011, 10:25 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

Journal By Calvin Lee Ledsome Sr.,

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NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks opened slightly higher Thursday, extending Wednesday’s gains, after a government report showed a sharp drop in new claims for unemployment benefits. Weaker reports on home sales and economic expectations kept the gains in check.

Shares of social-networking company LinkedIn Corp. jumped 81 percent to $81.76 on their first day of trading. It is the largest U.S. Internet IPO since Google Inc.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 26 points, or 0.2 percent, at 12,586 in early trading. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 2, or 0.2 percent, to 1,343. The Nasdaq composite index added 4, or 0.1 percent, to 2,819.

The Department of Labor reported that applications for unemployment dropped 29,000 last week, more than expected, to 409,000.

Two other reports raised doubts about the strength of the housing recovery and the overall direction of U.S. growth.

The National Association of Realtors said fewer people purchased previously occupied homes in April. The number of homes sold in foreclosure also declined.

The Conference Board reported that expectations for future economic activity decreased, based on its index of leading indicators. The private research group said the index fell 0.3 percent in April, the first decline since June 2010.

In a sign that the U.S. consumer recovery remains uneven, Big Lots Inc. fell 9 percent to $34.31 after news reports that it decided not to sell itself. The Wall Street Journal said late Wednesday that the company received bids from two private-equity groups that were lower than it had hoped.

Sears Holding Corp. reported softer sales at its Kmart and Sears stores, causing a first-quarter loss of $1.58 per share, worse than analysts expected. The stock fell 3.2 percent to $73.31.

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The : Greek debt restructuring would be a “recipe for catastrophe” …


ECB official blasts ‘vested interests’ in US, UK
May 18, 2011, 10:24 a.m. EDT
Associated Press

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LAGONISI, Greece (AP) — The European Central Bank‘s chief economist said a Greek debt restructuring would be a “recipe for catastrophe” and blamed “vested interests” in Britain and the United States for fueling market pressure on the country.

As Greece announced deeper cuts, Juergen Stark said Wednesday that the struggling eurozone country’s “debt sustainability is insured” as long as it fully complies with its internationally monitored austerity program.

Asked about the markets’ hostility to Greek efforts, Stark said: “This is not the view of all market participants, to be very clear. This is a discussion triggered from London and New York. I don’t know what is behind it — vested interests, people topping their books and so on. So it’s more complicated than just (saying) what markets expect.”

Stark made the comments during a financial conference at a resort near Athens.

Greece’s Socialist government was told by the European Union this week to take urgent measures to keep its austerity program on target, as part of its commitments for the €110 billion ($156 billion) package of bailout loans it is receiving from EU countries and the International Monetary Fund.

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou heeded the latest EU warning, and confirmed that additional austerity measures worth €6 billion ($8.5 billion) for 2011 would be announced in the coming days.

Greece on Tuesday vowed to slash its bloated civil service by 150,000 people by 2015 and effectively ended government jobs for life.

Papaconstantinou insisted that the latest measures would not include more across-the-board salary and pension cuts that have sparked numerous labor protests.

In Athens, police scuffled with striking municipal workers outside parliament and used pepper spray to disperse protesters.

Greece remains frozen out of bond markets by sky-high interest rates as investors fret that the country may eventually have to restructure its debt, which is set to top 150 percent of gross domestic product this year.

Stark said the restructuring option had not been properly thought through.

“Debt restructuring would wipe out part or all capital of Greek banks,” he said. “So it would be a recipe for catastrophe.”

He urged Greece to “double its effort” on structural reforms that critics say have been stagnating and insisted that the austerity measures would be enough to bring the country back on its feet.

“Greece is solvent,” he said. “This is an important message.”

Stark’s comments underlined the split among European officials over whether Greece should consider delaying repayment of its crushing debt load. Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the eurozone finance ministers group, held the door open Tuesday to what he called a “reprofiling” of Greece debt — a voluntary extension of bond maturities.

Another top ECB official, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, backed up Stark, saying even a “soft” or voluntary stretching out of repayment would be “devastating for overall financial stability,” according to the Ansa news agency.

“Time has been wasted these past months in the search for a way out, for an easy solution, like restructuring the debt,” Bini Smaghi was quoted as saying. He said government failure to pay all its debts would have “an immediate impact on the banking system.”

Officials are concerned Greece’s troubles could harm Europe’s economic recovery by inflicting losses on banks elsewhere in Europe that hold Greek bonds.

European officials are weighing whether to give Greece another bailout. Last year’s rescue loans were aimed at giving the country breathing space so it could return to borrowing from bond markets next year.

But it remains unable to borrow from private investors as its economy deteriorates and it struggles to meet the terms of the first bailout.

International debt monitors are currently in Greece to inspect the progress of cost-cutting reforms, and again warned that Greece needed to do more work to avoid sliding off target.

“We are in a situation where if we do not get this acceleration of structural reforms, the (budget) deficit will get entrenched at where it is now, around 10 percent,” IMF monitor Poul Thomsen told the conference.

Thomsen acknowledged pain was unavoidable given the country’s massive fiscal adjustment.

“It’s impossible to deal with a deficit of 15.5 percent of GDP without having a recession,” he said. “People are dreaming if they think you can do this kind of adjustment without having a recession.”

Thomsen, dismissing skepticism from analysts, urged Greece to speed up its ambitious privatization program worth €50 billion ($71 billion) through 2015.

“Privatization makes a real difference. If the targets can be realized it would change very substantially the debt sustainability discussions,” Thomsen said.

The government announced it had chosen a series of advisers for privatization projects — included Deutsche Bank and the National Bank of Greece as advisers for the sale of the state stake in the OPAP gambling monopoly; Credit Suisse and EFG Eurobank Equities for the privatization of the state lottery tickets company, and Credit Agricole and Emporiki Bank for the sale of its stake in the horse racing company.

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Theodora Tongas in Lagonisi, Elena Becatoros in Athens, and David McHugh in Frankfurt contributed to this report.

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