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Dec. 26, 2012 at 3:17 PM
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Markets flat Wednesday

NEW YORK, Dec. 26 (UPI) -- U.S. stock markets were flat after the Christmas break, with uncertainty over budget talks in Washington setting the mood on Wall Street Wednesday.

In early afternoon trading, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 8.83 points or 0.07 percent to 13,130.25. The Nasdaq lost 14.85 points or 0.49 percent to 2,997.75.

The Standard & Poor's 500 shed 3.79 points or 0.27 percent to 1,422.87.

The 10-year treasury note was up 4/32 to yield 1.763 percent.

Against the yen, the dollar was higher at 85.61 from Monday's 84.81. The euro rose to $1.3221 from $1.3183.

In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 index added 1.49 percent, 150.24 points, to 10,230.35.

Investors driving California land prices

FRESNO, Calif., Dec. 26 (UPI) -- California farmland is attracting outside investors who are pushing prices higher and banking on a low risk investment, market data show.

"Farmland is lower risk and probably higher returning than commercial real estate, timberland, bond funds and equity funds," the Los Angeles Times quoted Charles Allison, head of Prudential Financial Inc.'s agriculture investment portfolio.

The average price of an acre of farmland in the state reached $7,200 in 2012, a $300 gain from the average price in 2011, figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate.

The climbing prices have been supported by rising commodity prices, in part due to increased demand from China, the Times reported.

That has pushed the prices for prime cropland, such as almond and pistachio orchards in Tulare County, up as high as $15,000 to $19,000 an acre, up from $13,000 to $16,000 two years ago, the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers said.

Frank Plessmann of Agriworld Fund Inc., a hedge fund that has actively invested in farmland for a decade said he suddenly has company.

"There was no one to speak with about it, but now there are all these agricultural investment groups," he said.

The impact of higher prices on farmers includes freeing up farm capital, paradoxically, for other investments. But farmers also worry that outside speculators could drive the price of land to unsustainable levels. A farmer's relatively modest investment in farmland could tumble if speculators push prices into a bubble that bursts.

Low risk also does not mean no risk, said Professor Dan Sumner, director of the University of California Davis Agricultural Issues Center.

"I know of no one who projects farmland prices, other than hucksters who are trying to sell you some," he said. "They then only say farmland prices are sure to rise always and forever. But if that were true, why are they selling?"

Firm to open phone lines for job seekers

CHICAGO, Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago said it would be open for free call-in counseling for job seekers Thursday and Friday.

The firm said it would host its 27th annual call-in service for "anyone who is looking for a job, whether they are unemployed, wanting to switch jobs or re-entering the job market after a long absence."

Challenger, Gray & Christmas specializes in finding jobs for people who are sent to the firm by former employers. But for two days of the year for the last quarter of a century, the firm has opened its phone lines to one and all as a free service.

"Call-in is the only time that anyone can get help from the firm's professional job search coaches," the firm said in a statement.

The number for free job seeking advice is 312-422-5010. The phone-in job fair runs Dec. 27-28 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Crude oil price climbs toward $91

NEW YORK, Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Crude oil prices neared $91 per barrel Wednesday in New York.

Oil prices rose with traders concerned that lawmakers in Washington wouldn't reach a deficit-reduction agreement before the end of the year, a development that could set the economic recovery back.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, West Texas Intermediate crude oil for February delivery added $2.13 to $90.74 per barrel. Home heating oil for February added 5.04 cents to $3.0389 a gallon. Reformulated blendstock gasoline was up 6.25 cents to $2.7882 a gallon.

Natural gas prices gained 0.46 cents to $3.424 per million British thermal units.

At the pump, AAA reported a national average price for regular unleaded gasoline hit $3.247 per gallon, unchanged from Tuesday.

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