It's a scene that likely will stay etched in our minds as long as we live: dozens of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad chipping away at a statue of Saddam Hussein with a single sledgehammer. Unable to make much progress on the reinforced base, U.S. Marines lent their assistance. A tank recovery vehicle and a chain did the trick, bringing down the huge figure.

As the concrete and steel fell, so did the reign of Hussein. The fighting has not yet ended, but the dictator has finally lost his grip on the country he ruled for 24 years.

Traders and investors, perhaps returning much of their attention to the U.S. economy, sent the markets about 1% lower today.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

News Gets Hughes

Rupert Murdoch will soon be able to consummate his three-year love affair with Hughes Electronics(NYSE: GMH).

According to published reports today, Murdoch's News Corp.(NYSE: NWS) reached a deal with Hughes daddy General Motors(NYSE: GM) to buy 20% of the shares GM owns. News will purchase an additional 15% of the company from public shareholders.

For this 35% controlling stake in Hughes, News is paying around $6.6 billion. That's significantly less than the $25 billion it ponied up more than two years ago to buy the whole company.

GM rejected the offer at the time, but probably wishes now it hadn't. Hughes' stock has dropped substantially over the last three years, forever leaving GM with fewer and fewer options to shed it at a decent price after regulators shut down EchoStar's(Nasdaq: DISH) $18 billion bid.

GM hoped other serious suitors would try to win Hughes' heart, but it never happened. SBC Communications(NYSE: SBC) was interested, but that didn't work out. Liberty Media(NYSE: L), News Corp.'s biggest shareholder, considered bidding, but in the end, chose to buy more stock in News to help bolster its offer.

Murdoch, at long last, wins DirecTV, adding satellite operations here in America to News' overseas satellite business. His plans to strengthen it in the face of fierce cable competition are unknown as of right now.

It's a different landscape now than what existed when he first showed interest in the satellite broadcaster. With years of watching and waiting under his belt, though, Murdoch undoubtedly has mapped out his plans for DirecTV with great clarity. We'll see if it was worth his time and money.

Discussion Board of the Day: AOL Time Warner

Should AOL sell its three Atlanta teams, or is an entertainment giant right to have ownership in content? What would you sell if you were AOL Time Warner? All this and more -- in the AOL Time Warner discussion board. Only on

New SEC Chief on Track?

With the war in Iraq eclipsing most other news, investors may ask, "Whatever happened to corporate governance reform? Will the Securities and Exchange Commission do its part to restore our trust in the public markets?"

That's the test for new SEC Chairman William Donaldson, who took over eight weeks ago. Yesterday, he told the Senate Appropriations Commerce Committee his intention to carry out market reform.

The Committee's questions covered the SEC's stances on hedge funds, expensing stock options, revamping corporate boards, and implementing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. .

The high points:

Hedge funds. Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) asked the SEC chairman about this unregulated universe of investment pools catering to higher net worth individuals. Donaldson voiced concern about the "retail invasion" of hedge funds, today more open to not just the rich, but said he felt the SEC lacked enough information right now to know how to proceed. A round table, scheduled for next month, is expected to help the SEC focus on what role it needs to play.

Stock options and boards. Ranking minority member Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) was the populist, speaking in favor of expensing stock options and against excessive executive compensation. Donaldson said, "Let me say unequivocally that I believe stock options are an expense" and that this "needs to be reflected." He expressed concern over how to value stock options when granted, given that they may be worth a lot or expire worthless. But he backed the Financial Accounting Standards Board's commitment to come up with a formula. He said, "People are going to see your desires [for stock option expensing] happen."

When asked about changing the composition of boards of directors, Hollings said that when he looked into Dun & Bradstreet in the early 1960s, boards were composed of "drinking buddies." He reminisced that he regularly attended a series of South Carolina Sunday brunches filled with the same people who were on the boards of everything.

Hollings said that today it looked to him that the CEO had a three-year term to "get the stock up, take the money, and run." Donaldson responded that he sees a need for a new professional cadre of directors -- both young people, better trained in new efforts by business and law schools and the NYSE, and older people not previously given the chance. These directors should expect more responsibility and to spend more time at their jobs. This will mean serving on fewer boards and, where they do serve, hiring corporate officers who understand the enhanced role of today's board.

Risks from Sarbanes-Oxley? The committee quizzed the SEC chief whether there was anything that ought to be fixed with Sarbanes-Oxley. Donaldson said that the SEC was working hard to do its job of making the law work by writing and implementing regulations. (Aside: Students of government know that the executive can only legally carry out laws by writing rules subject to public notice and comment.) His major concern about the law's effect was that top corporate managers will spend so much effort complying with the letter of the law that they might "lose sight of running an entrepreneurial company." The gist was that no matter how many rules are spelled out, companies will need to adopt and follow corporate codes of ethics.

Duh money. The proposed $814 million budget is a record and 17% above last year's $716 million, which was the largest percentage increase ever for the nation's chief market regulator. Prospects? The committee chairman closed the hearing with a promising "the check's in the mail." Must have been music to the new chief's ears.

While for now the Senate committee appears prepared to give the polite and deferential Donaldson what he wants, all honeymoons end eventually. Then we'll see whether the move to reform will rival that of the new SEC in the 1930s or the era will end not with a bang but a whimper.

Quote of Note

"Thank you very much for having me here today. I'll be happy to take a few questions from the audience." -- SEC Chairman William Donaldson

Frequent Flier Fears

Are you an airline miles pack rat? It may be time to start cashing in your chits.

Consumer Reports ' travel team researched the frequent flier programs of 11 U.S. airlines and Air Canada. Its May issue has all the rules and restrictions in the ever-changing world of free miles. Airline bankruptcies, blackout dates, tighter rules, increased mileage requirements, and shifting partners may put your precious miles in jeopardy.

The good news is that most miles last longer -- indefinitely in many cases -- than they did in the past when they expired after three years. Mileage earning opportunities have also increased. You can rack up miles from non-airline partners such as rental car companies, hotels, florists -- yes, florists -- and credit cards.

According to the magazine, travelers earn roughly 40% of their miles from non-flight activity. If you book your ticket online, you can get double miles credit from Southwest (until June 6). And look for an upcoming mileage alliance from Delta, Continental, and Northwest.

The pub offers five common-sense keys to making sure you can cash in:

1. Focus, focus, focus. Don't spread your miles thin by spreading your travel across multiple carriers. Choose one or two airlines for your earning power.

2. Be that flexible, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler you tell your shrink and Sig. O that you are. You're more likely to land an award -- even a cheaper one -- by being able to travel on weekdays. For example, just 20,000 miles can earn you a domestic ticket through U.S. Airways if you travel off-peak. And just 40,000 miles will carry you to Europe.

3. On the other hand, it pays to plan ahead. Some award seats are available as much as 331 days in advance. Then again, you never know if your airline will be around that long. The good news is that carriers have relaxed their cancellation policies. (For the latest, see Consumer Reports' special report -- no mileage redemption required for access.)

4. Free is as free does. You may have to use double your miles to get the seat you want in some programs. Again, travel flexibility is key for those who want to use the lowest-cost award tickets.

5. Brace yourself for the cattle car. Consumer Reports says it's getting harder -- and more costly -- to use award miles to upgrade your ticket. If you buy a full-fare ticket on United, you'll need 16,000 miles to move up a few rows. For restricted tickets on American and United, expect to part with 30,000 miles. Call ahead, and remember to stretch your calves before boarding.

Refinance and Save

Does saving potentially hundreds of dollars per month on your mortgage sound good to you? Mortgage rates remain historically low, so now might be the time to refinance and save yourself some dough. Our Home Center can help.

Quick Takes

DaimlerChrysler (NYSE: DCX) Chairman Jurgen Schrempp said the U.S. auto market has been "extremely difficult and competitive during the first three months of the year." Speaking at a shareholders' meeting in Berlin, Schrempp also admitted higher consumer incentives, such as zero-percent financing, have had a negative impact on profits.

Defense contractor Boeing(NYSE: BA) beat out rival Airbus SAS for a $2.25 billion contract from All Nippon Airways. The deal calls for Boeing to deliver 45 737 jetliners to the Japanese airline beginning in 2005.

It's a glum day at Stanley Works(NYSE: SWK) headquarters in Connecticut. The toolmaker warned of lower first-quarter profits and said it would close down four manufacturing plants and five warehouses. About 1,000 jobs -- or 7% of the total workforce -- will be eliminated.

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) said heavy spending on the "aggressive launch" of rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira is largely responsible for a 6% drop in first-quarter earnings. The health-care company still hit estimates, however, and reaffirmed guidance for the second quarter and all of 2003.

In local news, Mid-County High School teacher Harlie Wilson announced the results of his latest research. "It has become clear to me," said the statistics expert, "that three-fourths of all Americans make up 75% of the U.S. population."

And Finally...

Today on

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim