02/14/2012 07:43 am ET

Seven And A Half Things To Know: $4 Gasoline, Big Apple, Bad Valentine's Gifts

I've got two tickets to paradise and seven and a half things you need to know today. Here they are:

Thing One: Moody's European Blues: With all the focus on Greece lately, busy American readers may have forgotten there are other countries in Europe, too, and that some of these countries may have their own spot of debt bother. Moody's last night offered a gentle reminder, cutting the debt ratings on Italy, Portugal and Spain, while also warning that France and the United Kingdom could lose their coveted AAA ratings. As for Greece, it is still not entirely assured of getting its latest round of financing from the ECB, IMF and European Commission, even after passing new austerity measures over the weekend. "The next three weeks will be hellish," said a Greek official. Still, the euro and European stocks are higher this morning after a reading of German investor confidence came in higher than expected. Guten tag!

Thing Two: Retail Therapy: The U.S. economy is largely driven by trips to the Apple store and the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, so this morning's Commerce Department report on January retail sales is kind of a big deal. Economists, on average, think sales rose 0.8 percent last month, up from a wafer-thin 0.1 percent in December, according to The weak December sales were hopefully a one-off, Briefing writes; if that weakness bled into January, it could take some of the air out of the recent surge in investor confidence about the economy. Separately, the National Federation of Independent Business also releases its small-business confidence index this morning.

Thing Three: GOP Payroll Tax Pivot: One hopeful sign for the economy, at least, is that House Republicans have abruptly given up their fight against extending a payroll tax-cut without offsetting budget cuts, report Luke Johnson and Michael McAuliff of The Huffington Post. Still up in the air is a debate over extending unemployment benefits and avoiding cuts in Medicare reimbursements. But the failure to extend the payroll tax cut, which expires at the end of this month, would have raised taxes immediately for millions of Americans. You don't have to be Karl Rove to know that's political poison. This reversal came on a day when everybody was distracted by President Obama's politically charged budget proposal for fiscal 2013.

Thing Four: Four-Handle On Gas: Consumers might need all the help they can get: Gasoline might soon hit $4 a gallon, reports ABC News, due in part to tensions in the Middle East. "Historically, $4 a gallon has been the upper limit of what consumers have been willing to pay," writes Alan Farnham.

Thing Five: Big Apple: Apple shares on Monday topped $500 for the first time, while questions grow about its cash stockpile and labor conditions at some of its manufacturing plants. The New York Times writes that Apple has hired an independent investigator to inspect Foxconn factories, but the Times also reports that critics question the independence of that investigator. Reuters, meanwhile, estimates that Apple might have $100 billion in cash now and wonders why it's being so slow to dole some of that out to shareholders.

Thing Six: Google Gets OK: Apple is also not without competition, and that may get a little stiffer. Regulators in the U.S. approved Google's $12.5 billion bid to buy Motorola Mobility, a deal that gives it 17,000 new mobile-phone patents, Bloomberg writes.

Thing Seven: Japan's Surprise Easing: The Bank of Japan has shocked financial markets this morning by announcing plans to make financial conditions even easier in that country, which set the gold standard for hopeless fights against deflationary spirals and is apparently still in the game. The BOJ will buy financial assets and set an inflation target -- much as the Federal Reserve has done recently -- in an effort to bolster the economy and keep prices from falling further. The 213th time will surely be the charm. This was a stunner because Japan's economy didn't seem to be all that badly off, but the BOJ might have been trying to offset the yen-strengthening effects of the Fed's own policy easing measures.

Thing Seven And A Half: Unhappy Valentine's Day: Today is Valentine's Day! Time to do your part for the economy and for love by buying your spouse/partner/imaginary friend some chocolates and flowers and stuff. Or maybe you might want to get creative and buy something unique? Probably not, as it is dangerously easy to buy some really terrible Valentine's Day gifts, as The Huffington Post and The Stir remind us.