With record highs in sight, stocks face roadblocks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If Wall Street needs to climb a wall of worry, it will have plenty of opportunity next week.

Major U.S. stock indexes will make another attempt at reaching all-time records, but the fitful pace that has dominated trading is likely to continue. Next Friday's unemployment report and the hefty spending cuts that look like they about to take effect will be at the forefront.

The importance of whether equities can reach and sustain those highs is more than Wall Street's usual fixation on numbers with psychological significance. Breaking through to uncharted territory is seen as a test of investors' faith in the rally.

"It's very significant," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama.

"The thinking is, there's just not enough there for an extended bull run," he said. "If we do break through (record highs), then maybe the charts and price action are telling us there's something better ahead."

Flare-ups in the euro zone's sovereign debt crisis and next Friday's report on the U.S. labor market could jostle the market, though U.S. job indicators have generally been trending in a positive direction.

Small- and mid-cap stocks hit lifetime highs in February. Now the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> and the S&P 500 <.spx> are racing each other to the top. The Dow, made up of 30 stocks, is about 75 points - less than 1 percent - away from its record close of 14,164.53, which it hit on October 9, 2007. The broader S&P is still 3 percent away from its closing high of 1,565.15, also reached on October 9, 2007.

The advantage may be in the Dow's court. So far in 2013, it has gained 7.5 percent, beating the S&P 500 by about 1 percent.


The Dow's relative strength owes much to its unique make-up and calculation, as well as to investors' recent preference for buying value stocks likely to generate steady reliable gains, rather than growth stocks.

But the more defensive stance illustrates how stock buyers are getting concerned about this year's rally. While investors don't want to miss out on gains, they're picking up companies that are less likely to decline as much as high-flying names - if a market correction comes.

The Russell Value Index <.rav> is up 7.6 percent for the year so far, outpacing the Russell Growth Index's <.rag> 5.7 percent rise. Within the realm of the S&P 500, the consumer staples sector led the market in February, gaining 3.1 percent.

There is some concern that growth-oriented names are being eclipsed by defensive bets, said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati.

"This isn't a be-all and end-all sell signal by any means, but we would feel much more comfortable if some of the more aggressive areas, like technology and small caps, would start to gain some leadership here," Detrick said.

Signs that investors are becoming concerned about the rally's pace is evident in the options market, where the ratio of put activity to call activity has recently shifted in favor of puts, which represent expectations for a stock to fall.

"We are seeing some put hedging in the financials, building up for the past month," said Henry Schwartz, president of options analytics firm Trade Alert in New York.

The put-to-call ratio representing an aggregate of about 562 financial stocks is 1:1, when normally, calls should be outnumbering puts.

Investors have no shortage of reasons to crave the relative safety of blue chips and defensive stocks. Although markets have mostly looked past uncertainty over Washington's plans to cut the deficit, fiscal policy negotiations still pose a risk to equities.

The $85 billion in spending cuts set to begin on Friday is expected to slow economic growth this year if policymakers do not reach a new deal. Markets so far have held firm despite the wrangling in Washington, but tangible economic effects could pinch stock prices going forward.

The International Monetary Fund warned that full implementation of the cuts would probably take at least 0.5 percentage point off U.S. growth this year.


Investors will also take in a round of economic data at a time when concerns are percolating that the market is being pushed up less by fundamentals and more by loose monetary policy around the world.

The main economic event will be Friday's non-farm payrolls report for February. The U.S. economy is expected to have added 160,000 jobs last month, only a tad higher than in January, in a sign the labor market is healing at a slow pace. The U.S. unemployment rate is forecast to hold steady at 7.9 percent.

While lackluster data has been a catalyst in the past for stock market gains as investors bet it would ensure continued stimulus from the Federal Reserve, that sentiment may be wearing thin.

Markets stumbled last week following worries that the Fed might wind down its quantitative easing program sooner than expected.

"It shows the underpinning of the market is being driven at this point by monetary policy," Hellwig said.

With investors questioning what is behind the rally, it will make a run to record highs even more significant, Hellwig added.

"There's smart people that are in the bull camp and the bear camp and the muddle-through camp," Hellwig said. "The fact that you can statistically, using historical evidence, make a case for going higher, lower, or staying the same makes this number very important this time around."

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Comments or questions on this column can be emailed to: leah.schnurr(at)thomsonreuters.com)

(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Additional reporting by Doris Frankel in Chicago; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


  • The president and the nation have shifted perspectives on same-sex marriage

  • Supreme Court ruling on California's same-sex marriage ban a critical test

  • Growing public support for gay marriage give proponents hope for change

Washington (CNN) -- The nation's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has happened in slow and painstaking moves, eventually building into a momentum that is sweeping even the most unlikely of converts.

Even though he said in 2008 that he could only support civil unions for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama nonetheless enjoyed strong support among the gay community. He disappointed many with his conspicuously subdued first-term response to the same-sex marriage debate.

Last year, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support, the president then said his position had evolved and he, too, supported same-sex marriage.

So it was no small matter when on Thursday the Obama administration formally expressed its support of same-sex marriage in a court brief weighing in on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex weddings. The administration's effort was matched by at least 100 high-profile Republicans — some of whom in elections past depended on gay marriage as a wedge issue guaranteed to rally the base — who signed onto a brief supporting gay couples to legally wed.

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

Then there are the polls that show that an increasing number of Americans now support same-sex marriage. These polls show that nearly half of the nation's Catholics and white, mainstream Protestants and more than half of the nation's women, liberals and political moderates all support same-sex marriage.

According to Pew Research Center polling, 48% of Americans support same-sex marriage with 43% opposed. Back in 2001, 57% opposed same-sex marriage while 35% supported it.

In last year's presidential election, same-sex marriage scarcely raised a ripple. That sea change is not lost on the president.

"The same evolution I've gone through is the same evolution the country as a whole has gone through," Obama told reporters on Friday.

Craig Rimmerman, professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges says there is history at work here and the administration is wise to get on the right side.

"There is no doubt that President Obama's shifting position on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage more broadly is due to his desire to situate himself on the right side of history with respect to the fight over same-sex marriage," said Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."

"I also think that broader changes in public opinion showing greater support for same-sex marriage, especially among young people, but in the country at large as well, has created a cultural context for Obama to alter his views."

For years, Obama had frustrated many in the gay community by not offering full-throated support of same-sex marriage. However, the president's revelation last year that conversations with his daughters and friends led him to change his mind gave many in that community hope.

Last year, the Obama administration criticized a measure in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage and made civil unions illegal. The president took the same position on a similar Minnesota proposal.

Obama administration officials point to what they see as the administration's biggest accomplishment in the gay rights cause: repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving in the forces.

Then there was the president's inaugural address which placed the gay community's struggle for equality alongside similar civil rights fights by women and African-Americans.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," Obama said in his address after being sworn in.

In offering its support and asserting in the brief that "prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the Obama administration is setting up a high stakes political and constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over a fast-evolving and contentious issue.

The justices will hear California's Proposition 8 case in March. That case and another appeal over the federal Defense of Marriage Act will produce blockbuster rulings from the justices in coming months.

Beyond the legal wranglings there is a strong social and historic component, one that has helped open the way for the administration to push what could prove to be a social issue that defines Obama's second term legacy, Rimmerman said.

The nation is redefining itself on this issue, as well.

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

The changes are due, in part, to generational shifts. Younger people show a higher level of support than their older peers, according to Pew polling "Millennials are almost twice as likely as the Silent Generation to support same-sex marriage."

"As people have grown up with people having the right to marry the generational momentum has been very, very strong," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization.

That is not to say that there isn't still opposition.

Pew polling found that most Republicans and conservatives remain opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2001, 21% of Republicans were supportive; in 2012 that number nudged slightly to 25%.

Conservative groups expressed dismay at the administration's same-sex marriage support.

"President Obama, who was against same-sex 'marriage' before he was for it, and his administration, which said the Defense of Marriage Act was constitutional before they said it was unconstitutional, has now flip-flopped again on the issue of same-sex 'marriage,' putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.

But there are signs of movement even among some high profile Republican leaders

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

The Republican-penned friend of the court brief, which is designed to influence conservative justices on the high court, includes a number of top officials from the George W. Bush administration, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

It is also at odds with the Republican Party's platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Still, with White House and high-profile Republican support, legal and legislative victories in a number of states and polls that show an increasing number of Americans support same sex-marriage, proponents feel that the winds of history are with them.

"What we've seen is accelerating and irrefutable momentum as Americans have come to understand who gay people are and why marriage matters," Wolfson said. "We now have a solid national majority and growing support across every demographic. We have leaders across the spectrum, including Republicans, all saying it's time to end marriage discrimination."

CNN's Peter Hamby, Ashley Killough and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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Redflex execs out as scandal grows in red light camera firm

The president, chief financial officer and top lawyer for Chicago's red light camera company resigned this week amid an escalating corruption scandal that has cost Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. its lucrative, decadelong relationship with the city.

The resignations came as Redflex said it was winding down a company-funded probe into allegations of an improper relationship between the company and the former city transportation manager who oversaw its contract until 2011, a relationship first disclosed by the Tribune in October. A longtime friend of that city manager was hired by Redflex for a high-paid consulting deal.

The company recently acknowledged it improperly paid for thousands of dollars in trips for the former city official, the latest in a series of controversial revelations that have shaken Redflex from its Phoenix headquarters to Australia, the home of parent company Redflex Holdings Ltd.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration banned the company from competing for the upcoming speed camera contract and went further last month by announcing that Redflex would lose its red light contract when it expires in June. The Chicago program, with more than 380 cameras, has been the company's largest in North America and is worth about 13 percent of worldwide revenue for Redflex Holdings. Since 2003 it has generated about $100 million for Redflex and more than $300 million in ticket revenue for the city.

In an email addressed to all company employees, Redflex Holdings CEO and President Robert T. DeVincenzi announced the resignations of three top executives in Phoenix: Karen Finley, the company's longtime president and chief executive officer; Andrejs Bunkse, the general counsel; and Sean Nolen, the chief financial officer. Their exits follow those of the chairman of the board of Redflex Holdings, another Australian board member and the company's top sales executive who Redflex has blamed for much of its Chicago problems.

"Today's announcement of executive changes follows the conclusion of our investigation in Chicago and marks the dividing line between the past and where this company is headed," said DeVincenzi, who took over as CEO of the Phoenix company. "This day, and each day going forward, we intend to be a constructive force in our industry, promoting high ethical standards and serving the public interest."

The company also held town hall meetings in Arizona to unveil reforms, including new requirements to put all company employees through anti-bribery and anti-corruption training, hiring a new director of compliance to ensure that employees adhere to company policies and establishing a 24-hour whistle-blower hotline.

The resignations and a second consecutive halt to public trading of the company's stock are the latest in a string of events that followed Tribune reports last year regarding 2-year-old internal allegations of corruption in the Chicago contract that the company previously said were investigated and discounted.

The scandal now enveloping the company centers on its relationship to former Chicago transportation official John Bills, who retired in 2011 after overseeing the company's contract since it began in 2003.

A whistle-blower letter obtained by the Tribune said Bills received lavish vacations directly on the expense report of a company executive and raised questions about improper ties between Bills and a Redflex consultant who received more than $570,000 in company commissions.

Bills and the consultant, a longtime friend, have denied wrongdoing.

The company told the Tribune in October that its investigation into the 2010 letter found only one instance of an inadvertent expenditure for Bills, a two-day hotel stay at the Arizona Biltmore expensed by the executive. Redflex lawyer Bunkse told the newspaper that the company responded by sending the executive to "anti-bribery" training and overhauling company expense procedures.

But after additional Tribune reports, the company hired a former Chicago inspector general, David Hoffman, to conduct another investigation. Hoffman made an interim report of his findings to company board members this month. That report prompted the company officials to acknowledge a much deeper involvement with Bills, including thousands of dollars for trips to the Super Bowl and White Sox spring training over many years.

The chairman of the company's Australian board of directors resigned, trading on company stock was temporarily suspended and the company acknowledged that it is sharing information with law enforcement.

Trading was halted again this week pending more details about the company's latest actions.


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Kerry to stress need for Egyptian consensus for IMF deal: U.S. official

CAIRO (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry plans to stress the importance of Egypt reaching an IMF agreement and achieving political consensus for painful economic reforms, a U.S. official said on Saturday.

Speaking shortly before Kerry arrived in Cairo for a two-day visit, the official said if Egypt could agree on a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF, this would bring in other funds from the United States, European Union and Arab countries.

However, the official said Kerry believed Egypt needed to increase tax revenues and reduce energy subsidies, measures that are likely to prove highly unpopular with Egyptians who are struggling during the country's economic crisis.

"His basic message is it's very important to the new Egypt for there to be a firm economic foundation," the official told reporters as Kerry flew to Cairo.

"In order for there to be agreement on doing the kinds of economic reforms that would be required under an IMF deal there has to be a basic political ... agreement among all of the various players in Egypt," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Egypt said on Thursday it would invite a team from the International Monetary Fund to reopen talks the loan - which was agreed in principle last November but put on hold at Cairo's request during street violence the following month - and the Investment Minister Ashraf al-Araby expressed hope that a deal could be done by the end of April.

Egypt's foreign currency reserves have fallen to not much more than a third of their level before the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak as the nation's crisis deepens.

However, the hopes for political consensus between the ruling Islamists and opposition parties seem slim. Liberal and leftist opposition parties have announced a boycott of parliamentary elections, scheduled for April to June, over a new constitution produced by an Islamist-dominated assembly and over other grievances.

Nevertheless, Kerry will stress the need for agreement on reform across the political spectrum on reforms that are likely to be unpopular and winning approval in the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament.

"What they need to do is ... things like increasing tax revenues, reducing energy subsidies, making clear what the approval process will be to the Shura council for an IMF agreement, that kind of thing," said the official.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, editing by Marwa Awad and David Stamp)

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Stock futures begin March lower as sequester looms

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures were lower on Friday, indicating a weak start to the month of March, as investors looked ahead to U.S. government budget cuts that were widely expected to take effect at the end of the day.

Equities have been on a tear lately, rising for four straight months to approach five-year highs while the Dow climbed to within striking distance of an all-time high. Any declines have been shallow or short-lived, with investors jumping in to buy on any dip.

The gains have come on the back of strong corporate earnings and an accommodative Federal Reserve. In that environment, many investors have shrugged off the potential impact of the sequester, $85 billion in spending cuts across federal government agencies that economists expect will shave half a percentage point off U.S. economic growth.

"Conditions are ripe for anxiety and fear to return to the market, especially given how high we've risen, and the sequester that could be a catalyst that reignites fear in the market," said James Dailey, portfolio manager of TEAM Asset Strategy Fund in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Dailey said that if the market drops below lows hit earlier this week, "that could be the start of a pullback that takes us down as much as 10 percent."

The spending cuts will take effect just before midnight Friday unless there is a last-minute deal, which is considered unlikely.

The International Monetary Fund said that if the cuts take effect, it would have to reevaluate its growth forecasts for the U.S. and the global economy.

Cyclical companies like banks and materials stocks, which are closely tied to the pace of economic growth, are likely to be among the hardest hit in the short term. Bank of America fell 1.2 percent to $11.10 in premarket trading while Chevron Corp slid 0.6 percent to $116.43.

S&P 500 futures fell 7.6 points and were below fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures slid 58 points and Nasdaq 100 futures lost 12.75 points.

For the week, the Dow is up 0.4 percent while both the S&P and Nasdaq are down less than 0.1 percent. Both the Dow and S&P climbed more than 1 percent in February, slimmer gains than in January as equities grappled with uncertainties in Europe and Federal Reserve policy.

Economic data on tap for Friday includes the final Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan sentiment index, which is seen holding steady at 76.3. Personal income and spending data will also be released, along with January construction spending, which is seen rising 0.4 percent. The Institute for Supply Management's February manufacturing index is expected to dip to 52.5 from 53.1 in the previous month.

Overseas, China's factory growth cooled to multi-month lows in February as domestic demand dipped, and euro zone manufacturing activity appeared no closer to recovery last month, as a dire performance in France offset a return to growth in Germany.

"The weakness in overseas data is increasingly drawing people's attention, and as that gets worse the market will continue to struggle," Dailey said.

Groupon Inc gained 4.2 percent to $4.72 in premarket trading a day after the online coupon company fired its chief executive officer in the wake of weak quarterly results.

Gap Inc reported fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations and boosted its dividend by 20 percent, while Salesforce.com Inc posted sales that beat consensus forecasts, sending shares up 4.6 percent to $177 before the bell.

U.S. stocks ended flat on Thursday, giving up modest gains late in the session. The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, hit a record intraday high earlier in the session.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Syria war is everybody's problem

Syrians search for survivors and bodies after the Syrian regime attacked the city of Aleppo with missiles on February 23.


  • Frida Ghitis: We are standing by as Syria rips itself apart, thinking it's not our problem

  • Beyond the tragedy in human terms, she says, the war damages global stability

  • Ghitis: Syria getting more and more radical, jeopardizing forces of democracy

  • Ghitis: Peace counts on moderates, whom we must back with diplomacy, training arms

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Last week, a huge explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. The victims of the blast in a busy downtown street were mostly civilians, including schoolchildren. Each side in the Syrian civil war blamed the other.

In the northern city of Aleppo, about 58 people -- 36 of them children -- died in a missile attack last week. Washington condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad; the world looked at the awful images and moved on.

Syria is ripping itself to pieces. The extent of human suffering is beyond comprehension. That alone should be reason enough to encourage a determined effort to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. But if humanitarian reasons were not enough, the international community -- including the U.S. and its allies -- should weigh the potential implications of allowing this calamity to continue.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

We've all heard the argument: It's not our problem. We're not the world's policeman. We would only make it worse.

This is not a plea to send American or European troops to fight in this conflict. Nobody wants that.

But before we allow this mostly hands-off approach to continue, we would do well to consider the potential toll of continuing with a failed policy, one that has focused in vain over the past two years searching for a diplomatic solution.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just announced that the U.S. will provide an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition. He has hinted that President Obama, after rejecting suggestions from the CIA and previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm Syrian rebels, might be ready to change course. And not a day too soon.

The war is taking longer than anyone expected. The longer it lasts, the more Syria is radicalized and the region is destabilized.

If you think the Syrian war is the concern of Syrians alone, think about other countries that have torn themselves apart over a long time. Consider Lebanon, Afghanistan or Somalia; each with unique circumstances, but with one thing in common: Their wars created enormous suffering at home, and the destructiveness eventually spilled beyond their borders. All of those wars triggered lengthy, costly refugee crises. They all spawned international terrorism and eventually direct international -- including U.S. -- intervention.

The uprising against al-Assad started two years ago in the spirit of what was then referred to -- without a hint of irony -- as the Arab Spring. Young Syrians marched, chanting for freedom and democracy. The ideals of equality, rule of law and human rights wafted in the air.

Al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire. Syrians started dying by the hundreds each day. Gradually the nonviolent protesters started fighting back. Members of the Syrian army started defecting.

The opposition's Free Syrian Army came together. Factions within the Syrian opposition took up arms and the political contest became a brutal civil war. The death toll has climbed to as many as 90,000, according to Kerry. About 2 million people have left their homes, and the killing continues with no end in sight.

In fairness to Washington, Europe and the rest of the international community, there were never easy choices in this war. Opposition leaders bickered, and their clashing views scared away would-be supporters. Western nations rejected the idea of arming the opposition, saying Syria already has too many weapons. They were also concerned about who would control the weaponry, including an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, after al-Assad's fall.

These are all legitimate concerns. But inaction is producing the worst possible outcome.

The moderates, whose views most closely align with the West, are losing out to the better-armed Islamists and, especially, to the extremists. Moderates are losing the ideological debate and the battle for the future character of a Syria after al-Assad.

Radical Islamist groups have taken the lead. Young people are losing faith in moderation, lured by disciplined, devout extremists. Reporters on the ground have seen young democracy advocates turn into fervent supporters of dangerous groups such as the Nusra Front, which has scored impressive victories.

The U.S. State Department recently listed the Nusra Front, which has close ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and a strong anti-Western ideology, as a terrorist organization.

Meantime, countries bordering Syria are experiencing repercussions. And these are likely to become more dangerous.

Jordan, an important American ally, is struggling with a flood of refugees, as many as 10,000 each week since the start of the year. The government estimates 380,000 Syrians are in Jordan, a country whose government is under pressure from its own restive population and still dealing with huge refugee populations from other wars.

Turkey is also burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees and occasional Syrian fire. Israel has warned about chemical weapons transfers from al-Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon and may have already fired on a Syrian convoy attempting the move.

Lebanon, always perched precariously on the edge of crisis, lives with growing fears that Syria's war will enter its borders. Despite denials, there is evidence that Lebanon's Hezbollah, a close ally of al-Assad and of Iran, has joined the fighting on the side of the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if it doesn't leave Syria.

The possible outcomes in Syria include the emergence of a failed state, stirring unrest throughout the region. If al-Assad wins, Syria will become an even more repressive country.

Al-Assad's survival would fortify Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Western forces. If the extremists inside the opposition win, Syria could see factional fighting for many years, followed by anti-democratic, anti-Western policies.

The only good outcome is victory for the opposition's moderate forces. They may not be easy to identify with complete certainty. But to the extent that it is possible, these forces need Western support.

They need training, funding, careful arming and strong political and diplomatic backing. The people of Syria should know that support for human rights, democracy and pluralism will lead toward a peaceful, prosperous future.

Democratic nations should not avert their eyes from the killings in Syria which are, after all, a warning to the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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Washington stares down start of sequester cuts

NEW YORK, March 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. government hurtled today toward making deep spending cuts that threaten to hinder the nation's economic recovery, after Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan.

The $85 billion in across-the-board “sequestration” cuts were expected to cause airport delays, disrupt public services and result in lower pay or layoffs for millions of government workers.

Locked in during a bout of deficit-reduction fever in 2011, the time-released cuts can only be halted by agreement between Republican lawmakers and the White House.

That has proved elusive so far.

Both sides still hope the other will either be blamed by voters for the cuts or cave in before the worst effects - like air traffic chaos or furloughs for tens of thousands of federal employees - start to bite in the coming weeks.

Barring any breakthroughs in the next few hours, the cuts will begin to come into force at some time before midnight on Friday night. The full brunt of the belt tightening, known in Washington as “sequestration,” will take effect over seven months so it is not clear if there will be an immediate disruption to public services.

President Barack Obama meets top leaders of Congress at the White House at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) to explore ways to avoid the unprecedented, across-the-board cuts totaling $85 billion.

But expectations were low for a deal when the Democratic president huddles with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats insist tax increases be part of a solution to ending the automatic cuts, an idea Republicans reject.

“We should work together to reduce our deficit in a balanced way - by making smart spending cuts and closing special interest tax loopholes,” Obama said on Thursday.

Congress can stop the cuts at any time after they start on Friday if the parties agree to that. In the absence of any deal at all, the Pentagon will be forced to slice 13 percent of its budget between now and Sept. 30. Most non-defense programs, from NASA space exploration to federally backed education and law enforcement, face a 9 percent reduction.

The International Monetary Fund warns that the cutbacks could knock at least 0.5 percentage point off U.S. economic growth this year and slow the global economy.

The prospect of weaker growth and a jump in unemployment caused by the cuts was being seen by some in the markets as making it more likely the U.S. Federal Reserve will need to maintain its ultra lose monetary policy for longer.

“The market is of the view that if there's a fiscal tightening which causes a significant negative impact on economic prospects and the labor market, then the Fed will have to respond,” said Ian Stannard, head of European FX strategy at Morgan Stanley.

Financial markets have also had a long time to assess the potential impact of the cuts on growth and believe it is not tantamount to a recession trigger.

“There is no immediate and visible impact to the economy so markets are not seeing it as a tail risk,” said Ayako Sera, a market economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank in Tokyo.


If the cuts were to stay in place through September, the administration predicts significant air travel delays due to layoffs of airport security workers and air traffic controllers.

Some Pentagon weapons production could grind to a halt and the budget cuts would ripple through the sprawling defense contracting industry.

Meat inspections could get hung up, medical research projects on cancer and Alzheimer's disease canceled or curtailed and thousands of teachers laid off.

Instead of these indiscriminate cuts, Obama and Democrats in Congress urge a mix of targeted spending cuts and tax increases on the rich to help tame the growth of a $16.6 trillion national debt.

Republicans instead want to cut the cost of huge social safety nets, including Social Security and Medicare, that are becoming more expensive in a country with an aging population.

Meantime, Obama is edging closer to having to enforce the meat-axe approach.

By midnight, he is required to issue an order to federal agencies to reduce their budgets and the White House budget office must send a report to Congress detailing the spending cuts. In coming days, federal agencies are likely to issue 30-day notices to workers who will be laid off.


The question now appears to be how long the budget cuts will be allowed to happen. If budget cuts last only a few weeks, it is plausible they could have a marginal impact on growth and on employment. This is because some budget cuts won't translate into immediate spending cuts.

The Defense Department, for example, will probably not begin furloughing some 800,000 civilian workers until late April, after which these workers will work one day less per week. Budget cuts for capital spending could also be delayed.

The CBO estimates that only about half of the $85 billion in budget cuts planned from March through September would translate into lower spending during that period.

Once the furloughs and other spending cuts take hold, though, workers will feel the pinch, especially the 2.8 million people employed by the federal government.

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Stock futures tick higher ahead of GDP, jobless data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures edged higher on Thursday as investors were reluctant to make big bets following a sharp two-day rally and ahead of a rash of data.

Analysts said a pullback may be in store a day after major equity indexes posted their biggest daily advance since early January. Over the past two sessions, the S&P 500 has gained 1.9 percent, rising back above the closely watched level of 1,500.

Wall Street has largely resisted expectations it would undergo a correction, with the Dow Jones industrial average within striking distance of an all-time high. Recent gains were fueled by strong data and comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that showed continued support for the Fed's economic stimulus policy.

Revised gross domestic product data is expected to show that the U.S. economy grew 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter, rather than contracted 0.1 percent, as initially estimated. The data is due at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT), as are weekly jobless claims, which are seen dipping by 2,000 to 360,000 in the latest week.

"A rise in GDP is clearly part of the market's expectation at this point, and if it disappoints, there's a real risk to the downside," said Oliver Purshe, president of Gary Goldberg Financial Services in Suffern, New York.

Purshe noted that on February 18, about 80 percent of S&P 500 components were above their 50-day moving averages, a rate that has since dwindled to 60 percent.

"Market breadth has narrowed, and which suggests that a correction of as much as 5 to 6 percent is very likely."

While markets suffered steep losses earlier this week on concerns over European debt, they have since recovered and are little changed on the week.

Investors will also be keeping an eye on the debate in Washington over sequestration - U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on spending and taxes. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders arranged to hold last-ditch talks to prevent the cuts, but expectations were low that any deal would be produced.

"Investors have come to the realization that sequestration isn't the end of the world and that it will eventually be fixed," Pursche said. "But going into March the risk is that the economy slows down and disappoints investors."

S&P 500 futures rose 1.2 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures added 10 points and Nasdaq 100 futures rose 4.75 points.

For the month of February, the S&P 500 is up 1.2 percent, the Dow is up 1.6 percent and the Nasdaq is up 0.6 percent.

J.C. Penney Co Inc shares slumped 15 percent to $18.01 in premarket trading a day after it reported a steep drop in sales, prompting the department store to overhaul its pricing strategy. Groupon Inc also slumped on weak revenue, with the stock off 26 percent at $4.41 before the bell.

Sears Holding Corp rose 3.2 percent to $49 in premarket trading after it reported earnings and sales that beat expectations.

Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple Inc , acknowledged widespread disappointment Wednesday in the performance of the tech titan's stock, which is down 16.5 percent so far this year, but urged investors to take a long-term view on the company.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent have beaten profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

U.S. stocks rallied on Wednesday, lifted by positive comments from U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Adding to the positive tone in markets were data showing robust pending home sales and a proxy for business spending plans that was stronger than expected.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Knicks overcome Curry's 54 to beat Warriors

NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Curry rose for another jumper, and by then even the Knicks probably figured it would go in.

Curry had hardly missed in a scintillating second half of the NBA's most electric performance this season, the crowd cheering even before the ball left his hands.

This time, Raymond Felton jumped with him, making the play New York needed to finally withstand Curry.

Felton's blocked shot led to J.R. Smith's tiebreaking basket with 1:10 left, and the Knicks overcame Curry's NBA season-high 54 points to beat the Golden State Warriors 109-105 on Wednesday night.

Curry was 18 of 28 from the field, finishing one shy of the NBA record with 11 3-pointers in 13 attempts, in a performance that had the crowd hanging on his every shot. But the Knicks and Felton finally stopped him with 1:28 to play and the score tied at 105.

"My main thing is to keep playing. Like I said, once a guy gets it going like that, there's nothing I can really do. I've still got to stay in my mindset, still play my game, and I was still able to come up with some big plays at the end," Felton said. "We all came up with some big plays to get that win."

Carmelo Anthony followed Smith's basket with another one and the Knicks hung on to spoil former Knicks star and Warriors coach Mark Jackson's homecoming.

Anthony finished with 35 points and Smith had 26.

"We made the defensive stops we needed to make down the stretch," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.

Playing all 48 minutes, Curry finished with seven assists and six rebounds while passing his previous career best of 42 points, and Kevin Durant's 52-point performance that had been the best in the NBA this season.

"I felt good all night. Obviously played the whole game, so was just trying to keep my legs underneath me on the offensive end, and you know, just stick to the game on the defensive end," Curry said. "Once I started seeing that 3-ball go down in transition, all sorts of spots on the floor, I knew it was going to be a good night."

But he had little help without All-Star forward David Lee, who was suspended one game for his role in an altercation Tuesday night in Indiana.

Tyson Chandler had 16 points and a career-best 28 rebounds for the Knicks, who won their second straight after a season-high, four-game losing streak. Amare Stoudemire had 14 points and Anthony added eight assists on the day the Knicks learned they could be without reserve forward Rasheed Wallace for the rest of the season because he needs surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot.

Strutting all over the court whenever one of his 3s swished easily through the nets, Curry easily blew past the 38 points he scored Tuesday in Indiana, which had been his best of the season. That was spoiled when he was fined $35,000 for his role in the skirmish, which was essentially getting thrown to the ground by Roy Hibbert when he tried to intervene.

This performance — the most points by an NBA player in a loss since Kobe Bryant had 58 in a loss to Charlotte on Dec. 29, 2006 — was spoiled along with Jackson's trip back to his old home because of a few mistakes down the stretch.

Curry threw away a pass on the break with 3:13 left, and Jarrett Jack was called for a travel following Smith's go-ahead basket.

Plus, Klay Thompson finished 3 of 13 from the field, missing two straight from deep in the final minute.

Jackson, who grew up in Brooklyn and starred at St. John's before being drafted by the Knicks in 1987, didn't get a chance to coach here last season as an NBA rookie on the bench because of the lockout. He brought his wife, Desiree, to a road game for the first time this season, had his mother in the stands, and got a chance to see people he remembered from playing here years earlier.

He said he hadn't gotten to look ahead much to the game because of the schedule, but clearly enjoyed being back in Madison Square Garden once the day did arrive.

"This is a special place and it was part of my dreams as a kid," he said.

His night turned into Curry's, fans cheering even before the ball left his hand in the second half.

"We were short-handed and we needed a performance like that to have a chance," Jackson said. "He put on a clinic. Knocked down shots. Made plays. Carried us. Led us in rebounding. He did it all. I've seen a lot of great performances in this building and his goes up there. I've seen a lot. I've seen a lot, but that shooting performance was a thing of beauty."

The Knicks, who hadn't played since Sunday, looked ready to blow the Warriors out early, taking a 25-11 lead that the Warriors trimmed to 27-18 at the end of the first period before surging ahead behind Curry.

He scored 12 straight Golden State points, cutting it to 35-34 with his third 3-pointer of the second quarter. He followed Richard Jefferson's 3 with another one, giving the Warriors a 40-37 advantage. The Knicks recovered and went back ahead by nine late in the period before Curry answered with six consecutive points, and New York's lead was 58-55 at the break.

"He's a special young player with a very unique talent," Chandler said. "We ran everything at him. He just got hot. There was some shots that he couldn't have seen the rim."

Curry's drive gave the Warriors a two-point lead three minutes into the third quarter, but he didn't score again until hitting a turnaround 3 from 27 feet with 5 seconds left in the period, giving him 38 points again and cutting New York's lead to 84-81.

Already without Andrew Bogut because of a back injury, the Warriors had little size without Lee. Their lineup at one point in the second quarter had nobody taller than 6-foot-9 and Chandler simply climbed over them all night.

He came in leading the league with 4.4 offensive rebounds per game, and grabbed 13 boards in the first quarter alone.

Notes: Chandler was also the last NBA player to grab 13 rebounds in one quarter, hauling in 14 in the third quarter for Dallas on Dec. 1, 2010. ... Wallace, who hasn't played since December, will have surgery this week and the expected recovery time is eight weeks. Woodson said he didn't plan to waive the 38-year-old forward and create a roster spot, instead hoping he could be able to play in the postseason. ... Kenyon Martin, signed last week in part because of the uncertainty around Wallace, made his Knicks debut and was scoreless in 5 first-half minutes.


Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

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Taiwan ebullient over Ang Lee's Oscar


  • Ang Lee's name beamed on building in Taiwan after Oscar win

  • Lee, born in Taiwan, won award for best director for "Life of Pi"

  • Lee's win created excitement in Taiwan and China, both claimed him as their own

  • Ryan: "In some ways it feels like 'Linsanity' all over again"

Editor's note: Andrew Ryan is a host and producer at Radio Taiwan International, a government-owned station that broadcasts in several languages and countries. He first came to Taiwan in 1996 as a Fulbright scholar and has spent the last 16 years as a translator and observer of politics and culture.

Taipei (CNN) -- It's not every territory in the world that puts an Oscar-winning director's name up in lights on a towering building. But that's just the sort of thing that happens in Taiwan -- and it did on Monday night after Ang Lee picked up his second "Best Director" Oscar, this time for "Life of Pi."

The moment wasn't just celebrated in grand statements, but in small scenes played out in front of televisions across Taiwan when his name was announced.

I was at a TV station in Taipei that was broadcasting live coverage of the Oscars, working with a team of translators that was creating the subtitles for the rebroadcast. When Lee's name was announced the office erupted in applause. Down the hallway, more cheering could be heard.

READ: Oscar winners: Analysis of who won

I couldn't help but think back to the Athens Games in 2004, when Chen Shih-hsin won Taiwan's first ever Olympic gold medal (under the team name "Chinese Taipei"). Even veteran news anchors shed tears when the young taekwondo star defeated her Cuban rival.

It would be reductive to suggest that these displays of patriotism are simply the response of a small country that just doesn't crank out that many Oscar winners or Olympic golds. It also speaks of a place that has been largely marginalized in the international community.

Today, Taiwan has just 23 official diplomatic allies -- mostly other marginalized nations, in Central America and Africa. That's because China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory more than 60 years after the Chinese Nationalists retreated to the island at the end of a Civil War against the Communists. The Nationalists -- or Kuomintang -- are now the ruling party in a democratic Taiwan, which is officially called the Republic of China (ROC) -- not to be confused with the People's Republic of China on the Mainland.

Having lost its seat at the United Nations to the PRC in 1971, the ROC found itself with a diminished voice in the international community. It turned to manufacturing and technology in the 1980s, spurring on what is now referred to as an "economic miracle." Today, with its economy struggling to move past the global economic downturn, Taiwan has added the arts, sports, and even baking to its repertoire.

READ: Oscars 2013: Hollywood gets political

What's striking about Lee's win is that it's not just people in Taiwan who were quick to claim him as one of their own. In China, the state-run Xinhua news agency referred to him as "Chinese-American." While Taiwanese media latched onto the portion of Lee's acceptance speech when he thanked Taiwan and the central city of Taichung where much of the movie was filmed, Xinhua's main story included Lee's line of thanks to the 3,000 people who worked on the film for "believing this story and sharing this incredible journey with me."

In some ways it feels like "Linsanity" all over again, when Taiwan and China both claimed basketball star Jeremy Lin as their own, leaving the international media struggling to chart the dangerous waters of identity politics to correctly describe him.

VIEW: Photos from the red carpet

A very small voice at the fringe of the discussion wonders why it's important for people to know that Lin's paternal grandmother lives in Taiwan and referred to him as "a real Taiwanese," or that Lee grew up in Tainan and still loves to visit his favorite noodle shop there. Others in Taiwan question why a nation's confidence should be based on its success in the international community.

When Ang Lee's name was announced, the office erupted in applause. Down the hallway, more cheering could be heard.
Andrew Ryan

With China looming to the north, now the world's second biggest economy and wielding an influence that's verging on "superpower" status, the metaphor of Jonah and the whale comes to mind. The Taiwanese electorate is sharply divided on how it feels about the way ties with China have warmed ever since President Ma Ying-jeou first took office in 2008. The benefits are obvious, considering China is Taiwan's largest trade partner, but some worry that it could lead to a loss in autonomy.

INTERACTIVE: Oscars by numbers

The Ma administration has been mindful of the nationalistic rhetoric of the opposition, and although the president was born in Hong Kong, he has referred to himself in the past as "Taiwanese as well as Chinese." Ma was also quick to congratulate Lee following the Oscars, and to urge others to follow in the director's footsteps and "work hard at promoting Taiwan to the world."

Lee is just one name on a growing list of national heroes that both the government and the private sector have celebrated in recent years for putting Taiwan on the map: people like fashion designer Jason Wu, who moved to Canada from Taiwan and has created garments for U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama; master baker Wu Pao-chun, who beat the French patissiers at their own competition -- Les Masters de la Boulangerie in 2010; Yani Tseng, the world's number one female golfer; and even the humble vegetable seller-turned-philanthropist Chen Shu-chu, who was selected by Time Magazine as one of its heroes of 2010.

So what are people saying when they embrace these heroes as Taiwanese? They are saying "Taiwan may be small and diplomatically isolated, but it deserves to have a voice in the international community." While Lee may not speak about politics and no longer creates movies about Taiwan, he does have a voice and people do listen. And that's worth spreading in lights across the world's second-tallest building.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Ryan.

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