By John Kell Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- The December unemployment rate, set to be released next Friday, is expected to ease to 9.7% from 9.8% in November, according to The Wall Street Journal's Economic Forecasting Survey. Auto makers and retailers will report their U.S. sales results for December next week, with both industries expected to benefit from consumers growing confidence. However, auto makers' sales continue to be down from pre-recession levels, and retailers remain concerned about higher fuel and cotton prices in 2011. The tech industry is scheduled next week to meet at International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The event is used to show off the latest devices the companies hope to sell throughout the rest of the year. December Unemployment Rate Expected To Fall To 9.7% A number of key economic reports are due next week, including December's unemployment rate and hourly earnings figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits slid last week to the lowest level in nearly two and a half years, indicating that labor-market conditions continue to improve. The data for December is considered a strong indicator of whether U.S. economic growth will pick up steam in 2011. Auto Makers Expected To Post Strong U.S. Sales For December Auto makers are expected to post higher U.S. sales for the month of December, as the industry continues to benefit from improved sales of trucks and other large vehicles, a trend that has continued for months. Car-shopping website Edmunds.com predicted five of the six top auto makers will report higher sales from a year ago, with only Toyota Motor Corp. (TM, 7203.TO) forecast to post weaker results, a trend that has continued after a recall in early 2010. U.S. Retail Sales Likely To Be Strong For December U.S. retailers will next week report sales results for December, a month many expect will be positive as consumers regain confidence in the economy. According to MasterCard SpendingPulse, U.S. retail sales, excluding automobiles, grew 5.5% between Nov. 5 and Dec. 24 compared with a year ago. Retailers' results were hurt by a calendar shift that resulted in Christmas falling on a Saturday, while blizzards in the Northeast likely postponed some post-Christmas sales. Companies To Show Off Devices At Tech Event In Las Vegas The International Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech industry's biggest and most important gatherings, kicks off next week in Las Vegas. The event is used by companies to show off the devices, gadgets and gizmos they hope to sell throughout the rest of the year. Major participants this year include Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Intel Corp. (INTC) and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (005930.SE, SSNHY). Manufacturers including Motorola Inc. (MOT), Dell Inc. (DELL) and Acer Inc. (2353.TW) are expected to unveil new tablet computers they hope will provide competition for Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPad, which ignited consumer interest in the nascent product category. Analysts expect tablet sales to boom over the next four years, offering new streams of revenue and a new avenue of growth. Other areas to watch include telecommunications and televisions. AT&T Inc. (T) and Verizon Wireless are expected to give updates on planned network upgrades to increase speed and reliability to support the fast-growing number of smartphones flooding their networks. The television industry is also expected to discuss its plans for 3D TV sales, which are said to have been disappointing during the recent holiday shopping season. Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network To Debut On Saturday Media mogul Oprah Winfrey's cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, is set to air in about 85 million homes on Saturday, replacing cable channel Discovery Health. OWN--a 50-50 venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications Inc. (DISCA) is launching at least 22 original series next year as it aims to double its predecessor's target audience in prime-time by the end of its first year on the air. Earnings Results Due From Mosaic, Constellation Brands Corporate quarterly earnings results are expected next week from fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. (MOS) on Tuesday, and winemaker Constellation Brands Inc. (STZ) and seed maker Monsanto Co. (MON) on Thursday. The trio are expected to report improved results from a year ago, according to analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. Mosaic has recently benefited from higher commodity prices, although higher costs are a concern for 2011, while Monsanto is projected to swing to a quarterly profit. Constellation Brands, which last week agreed to sell a controlling stake in its struggling Australian and U.K. operations, has said more consumers are trading up to higher-priced wines as the industry offers substantial discounts and promotions in that price bracket. U.S. Congress Session Begins; GOP To Assume Control Of House The U.S. government will enter a vastly different political landscape on Monday, as the 112th U.S. Congress is set to meet in the District of Columbia. The Republican Party gained the majority in the House of Representatives, while the Democratic Party maintained a majority in the Senate, although the number of seats it will hold in the upper house was reduced. One of the first proposals facing the government will be President Barack Obama's budget plan for fiscal 2012, due for release in mid-February. A battle over spending is expected, as Republicans hope to reduce domestic federal spending to the levels of 2008, while White House officials have said cuts of that magnitude would hurt the economic recovery. Outsourcing Firm Patni Board Likely To Meet On Bid Patni Computer Systems Ltd's (532517.BY) board is likely to meet early next week to consider a joint bid by Apax Partners LLP and iGate Corp. (IGTE) to buy a controlling stake in the information technology outsourcing company, according to three people familiar with the matter. The deal, if it proceeds, would be one of the largest mergers in India's technology space in recent years. NFL Regular Season Ends Sunday; Playoff Seeds To Be Set The National Football League's 32 teams play their final games of the regular season on Sunday, games that will finalize the playoff picture for the top 12 teams. Meanwhile, talk of a possible lockout in 2011 looms as NFL owners and the players' union work to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. -By John Kell, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2480; [email protected] -Ian Sherr and Dow Jones Newswires staff contributed to this article.