Wall Street Week Ahead: Cliff may be a fear, but debt ceiling much scarier

(Reuters) - Investors fearing a stock market plunge - if the United States tumbles off the "fiscal cliff" next week - may want to relax.

But they should be scared if a few weeks later, Washington fails to reach a deal to increase the nation's debt ceiling because that raises the threat of a default, another credit downgrade and a panic in the financial markets.

Market strategists say that while falling off the cliff for any lengthy period - which would lead to automatic tax hikes and stiff cuts in government spending - would badly hurt both consumer and business confidence, it would take some time for the U.S. economy to slide into recession. In the meantime, there would be plenty of chances for lawmakers to make amends by reversing some of the effects.

That has been reflected in a U.S. stock market that has still not shown signs of melting down. Instead, it has drifted lower and become more volatile.

In some ways, that has let Washington off the hook. In the past, a plunge in stock prices forced the hand of Congress, such as in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008.

"If this thing continues for a bit longer and the result is you get a U.S. debt downgrade ... the risk is not that you lose two-and-a-half percent, the risk is that you lose ten and a half," said Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equity strategist at UBS Equity Research, in New York.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said this week that the United States will technically reach its debt limit at the end of the year.


The White House has said it will not negotiate the debt ceiling as in 2011, when the fight over what was once a procedural matter preceded the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. But it may be forced into such a battle again. A repeat of that war is most worrisome for markets.

Markets posted several days of sharp losses in the period surrounding the debt ceiling fight in 2011. Even after a bill to increase the ceiling passed, stocks plunged in what was seen as a vote of "no confidence" in Washington's ability to function, considering how close lawmakers came to a default.

Credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's lowered the U.S. sovereign rating to double-A-plus, citing Washington's legislative problems as one reason for the downgrade from triple-A status. The benchmark S&P 500 dropped 16 percent in a four-week period ending August 21, 2011.

"I think there will be a tremendous fight between Democrats and Republicans about the debt ceiling," said Jon Najarian, a co-founder of online brokerage TradeMonster.com, in Chicago.

"I think that is the biggest risk to the downside in January for the market and the U.S. economy."

There are some signs in the options market that investors are starting to eye the January period with more wariness. The CBOE Volatility Index, or the VIX, the market's preferred indicator of anxiety, has remained at relatively low levels throughout this process, though on Thursday it edged above 20 for the first time since July.

More notable is the action in VIX futures markets, which shows a sharper increase in expected volatility in January than in later-dated contracts. January VIX futures are up nearly 23 percent in the last seven trading days, compared with a 13 percent increase in March futures and an 8 percent increase in May futures. That's a sign of increasing near-term worry among market participants.

The CBOE Volatility Index closed on Friday at 22.72, gaining nearly 17 percent to end at its highest level since June as details emerged of a meeting on Friday afternoon of President Barack Obama with Senate and House leaders from both parties where the president offered proposals similar to those already rejected by Republicans. Stocks slid in late trading and equity futures continued that slide after cash markets closed.

"I was stunned Obama didn't have another plan, and that's absolutely why we sold off," said Mike Shea, a managing partner and trader at Direct Access Partners LLC, in New York.

Obama offered hope for a last-minute agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff after a meeting with congressional leaders, although he scolded Congress for leaving the problem unresolved until the 11th hour.

"The hour for immediate action is here," he told reporters at a White House briefing. "I'm modestly optimistic that an agreement can be achieved."

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to convene on Sunday and continue working through the New Year's Day holiday. Obama has proposed maintaining current tax rates for all but the highest earners.

Consumers don't appear at all traumatized by the fiscal cliff talks, as yet. Helping to bolster consumer confidence has been a continued recovery in the housing market and growth in the labor market, albeit slow.

The latest take on employment will be out next Friday, when the U.S. Labor Department's non-farm payrolls report is expected to show jobs growth of 145,000 for December, in line with recent growth.

Consumers will see their paychecks affected if lawmakers cannot broker a deal and tax rates rise, but the effect on spending is likely to be gradual.


Options strategists have noted an increase in positions to guard against weakness in defense stocks such as General Dynamics because those stocks would be affected by spending cuts set for that sector. Notably, though, the PHLX Defense Index is less than 1 percent away from an all-time high reached on December 20.

This underscores the view taken by most investors and strategists: One way or another, Washington will come to an agreement to offset some effects of the cliff. The result will not be entirely satisfying, but it will be enough to satisfy investors.

"Expectations are pretty low at this point, and yet the equity market hasn't reacted," said Carmine Grigoli, chief U.S. investment strategist at Mizuho Securities USA, in New York. "You're not going to see the markets react to anything with more than a 5 (percent) to 7 percent correction."

Save for a brief 3.6 percent drop in equity futures late on Thursday evening last week after House Speaker John Boehner had to cancel a scheduled vote on a tax-hike bill due to lack of Republican support, markets have not shown the same kind of volatility as in 2008 or 2011.

A gradual decline remains possible, Golub said, if business and consumer confidence continues to take a hit on the back of fiscal cliff worries. The Conference Board's measure of consumer confidence fell sharply in December, a drop blamed in part on the fiscal issues.

"If Congress came out and said that everything is off the table, yeah, that would be a short-term shock to the market, but that's not likely," said Richard Weiss, a Mountain View, California-based senior money manager at American Century Investments.

"Things will be resolved, just maybe not on a good time table. All else being equal, we see any further decline as a buying opportunity."

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: david.gaffen(at)thomsonreuters.com)

(Reporting by Edward Krudy and Ryan Vlastelica in New York and Doris Frankel in Chicago; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Martin Howell, Steve Orlofsky and Jan Paschal)

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Michigan State edges TCU 17-16 in BWW Bowl

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Dan Conroy kicked a 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left, Le'Veon Bell ran for 145 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, and Michigan State rallied to beat Texas Christian 17-16 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday night.

Michigan State (7-6) labored through the first half before going on the longest drive in the school's bowl history, a 90-yard march capped by freshman Connor Cook's 15-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Burbridge in the third quarter. The Spartans recovered a muffed punt by TCU's Skye Dawson at the 4-yard line midway through the fourth quarter and Bell scored two plays later by racing around left end for a 14-13 lead.

TCU (7-6) rallied to set up Jaden Overkrom for a 53-yard field goal with 2:42 left, but left Conroy too much time for his second straight postseason game-winner after beating Georgia with a 28-yard kick in the third overtime of last year's Outback Bowl.

Trevone Boykin threw for 201 yards on 13-of-29 passing with an interception for the Horned Frogs.

TCU and Michigan State came to the desert with an awful lot of similarities.

The Horned Frogs opened their first season in the Big 12 with four straight wins before losing four of their final six games. Michigan State started 4-2, then lost four of six down the stretch.

Michigan State had the nation's fourth-best defense and was 10th in scoring defense during the regular season. TCU was 18th in total defense and 10th against the run.

Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell was up-and-down in his first season as Kirk Cousins' replacement, throwing 13 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Boykin took over after four games for Casey Pachall, who was suspended and later left the team, and threw for 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

The biggest difference between the teams was Bell.

The junior was third nationally with 137.3 yards rushing per game and had 1,648 on the season, second-most in Michigan State history and 242 fewer than TCU had as a team.

Early on, the Horned Frogs gave him nowhere to go.

Filling holes inside and stringing plays out toward the sidelines, TCU stuffed the 237-pound junior on nearly every touch, holding him to 38 yards on 11 carries in the first half.

Of course, it didn't seem to matter what Michigan State did. The Spartans had 29 yards on 12 plays in the first quarter and weren't a whole lot better in the second, with Maxwell throwing two near-interceptions on consecutive passes and an ill-advised trick play that probably should have resulted in a turnover, too.

Michigan State had three first downs and 76 total yards in the first half.

The Spartans still seemed to be stuck in the ruts in the third quarter before grinding out a 14-play scoring drive led by Cook, who replaced Maxwell for the second time in the game. They had their biggest play on a floating pass from Bell to fullback TyQuan Hammock (29 yards), then Cook threw his first career touchdown pass, a 15-yarder to Burbridge on a crossing route that cut TCU's lead to 13-7.

TCU didn't exactly have its way with Michigan State's defense, but did enough to put together three first-half scoring drives.

The Frogs started gashing the Spartans for decent-sized chunks with their option midway through the first quarter, setting up Matthew Tucker's 4-yard touchdown on an end-around.

Boykin had an impressive off-the-back-foot throw to freshman Kolby Listenbee for 59 yards on the last play of the first quarter and nearly had a 19-yard touchdown pass to open the second, but LaDarius Brown was bumped and dropped the ball in the end zone. Oberkrom followed with a 47-yard field goal and added another from 31 yards after Boykin hit Josh Boyce on a 61-yard pass to put TCU up 13-0 at halftime.

The Frogs couldn't keep it up in the second half.

TCU had 30 yards of offense in the third quarter and continued to labor in the fourth before its last-ditch drive ended in the closing seconds.

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Dealer Pleads Guilty to Smuggling in Largest International Dino Case Ever

A fossil dealer’s guilty plea has set the stage for what is most likely the largest dinosaur fossil repatriation in history, according to an attorney representing the President of Mongolia, the country that will receive most of the fossils that federal officials are seizing from fossil dealer and preparer Eric Prokopi.

On Thursday (Dec. 27) Prokopi pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to smuggling fossils and agreed to forfeit a small menagerie of dinosaurs to federal officials. All but one of the dinosaurs in question came from Mongolia, where law makes fossils state property, and among them is a high-profile skeleton that received a $ 1.05 million bid at auction.

“We have looked into this, and we can’t find any instance anywhere when one country has returned to another a lot of dinosaurs this large and this significant that have been looted or smuggled,” said Robert Painter, attorney for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.

The outcome has set precedent in other ways, according to observers and others who are involved in the case. In particular, some believe it will send a message to those involved in the black market for fossils, particularly those taken from Mongolia, which have been widely available for sale.

A long list of dinosaurs

In May, Prokopi put his 8-foot-tall and 24-foot-long (2.4 meters by 7.3 meters) Tarbosaurus bataar specimen up for auction. President Elbegdorj and several paleontologists objected, saying the dinosaur was almost certainly pilfered from Mongolia. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney became involved and sought legal possession of the dinosaur with the intent of returning it to Mongolia and later arresting Prokopi. [See Images of the Smuggled Tarbosaurus Skeleton]

In a plea deal, Prokopi pleaded guilty to three felony counts and agreed to give up his claim on this dinosaur, plus fossils from two other Tarbosaurus bataars, which are Asian relatives of the infamous T. rex; one Saurolophus or duck-billed dinosaur; and two birdlike Oviraptors. In September, federal officials seized another Saurolophus that Prokopi had sold to California-based gallery and auction houseI.M. Chait. A small four-winged Microraptor from China was taken by federal officials before this case began. One of the Tarbosaurus fossils is believed to be in Great Britain.

“We are pleased that we can now begin the process of returning these prehistoric fossils to their countries of origin,” Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

Prokopi’s prospects

After pleading guilty to charges of smuggling, making false statements on customs forms and dealing in fossils he knew to be illegal, Prokopi faces a maximum of 17 years in prison and a substantial fine. However, his defense attorney Georges Lederman said he believes it is highly unlikely Prokopi will receive anything close to the maximum sentence.

“We are confident that the sentence imposed will be a fair and reasonable one and will take into account all the proactive measures my client has made,” Lederman said, noting that Prokopi has cooperated with investigators and, as part of his plea deal, will continue to do so.

The outcome of the case disappointed David Herskowitz, an independent natural history consultant. While employed by auction house Heritage Auctions, Herskowitz arranged for the sale of Prokopi’s Tarbosaurus.

“I know Eric, and I know he is not a criminal,” Herskowitz said. “I don’t believe he knowingly broke any laws, and I believe the only reason why he had to cop a plea was financial and the pressures [of being involved in a court case].”

Prokopi spent a year preparing the Tarbosaurus fossils, which were once rough fossils that made up about 75 percent of a skeleton, to create a complete, mounted specimen with the intent of selling it at auction, Herskowitz said. But the $ 1 million sale was never completed.

Since releasing a statement in June, in which he described himself as “just a guy in Gainesville, Florida trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler,” Prokopi has been silent.

At roughly the same time federal officials seized the Tarbosaurus bataar, fossils of probable Mongolian origin were easily found in auction catalogs and on eBay. Herskowitz noted that he has seen Mongolian fossils for sale during the 20 years he has been working in the field.

“Mongolia never stepped forward to do anything about the buying and selling of Mongolian fossils, and that was the reason why everyone felt it was legal and OK,” Herskowitz said.

A legal question

With the deal still fresh, not everyone agrees about its legal implications. An important issue in the case was the relationship between Mongolian law — which Prokopi’s civil attorneys said did not clearly make fossils state property — and U.S. law. This is important because prosecutors were basing the claim that the fossils were stolen on Mongolian law, however, Prokopi was being prosecuted under U.S. law.

From Herskowitz’s perspective, the plea deal doesn’t resolve this issue, but the ambiguity will likely change the market.

 “I would believe that no one should be selling Mongolian fossils until this whole thing is resolved,” he said.

Ricardo St. Hilaire, an attorney who practices cultural law, disagreed, saying that the deal created a foundation for using Mongolian law on cultural property to invoke U.S. law on stolen property.

“This conviction should signal to those of us in the legal community and to anybody in the collecting community that Mongolian law has served as the basis to trigger the National Stolen Property Act,” St. Hilaire said. Prokopi pleaded guilty to one count of violating this law. [Faux Real: A Gallery of Art Forgeries]

The case and its outcome signal the willingness of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney to pursue cultural property cases, said St. Hilaire, who has been following the case and writing about it on his blog.

Robert Painter, attorney for the Mongolian President, put the significance in more blunt terms: “Smugglers like Eric Prokopi used to think they could do this with impunity. Now they realize this is very serious.”

The Mongolian reaction

Mongolian officials have announced plans to establish a temporary facility in the central square of the capital Ulaanbataar to display the dinosaurs once they return, Painter said.

“President Elbegdorj and Mongolians are so grateful for what the U.S. government has done, there is just a tremendous amount of excitement,” he said.

The dinosaur’s saga from auction block to courtroom has captured Mongolians’ attention: A Mongolian media company, shuud.mn, named the dinosaur’s story the top event of the year, said Bolorsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist who has advocated for the return the dinosaur.

“It is not only on the news, just talking to the people in Mongolia, they really want to know what is going on with the whole case,” Minjin said.

Mongolian officials are investigating the illicit trade within their own borders as well, Painter said.

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Stories for 2013: Syria to 'post-Gangnam'

Among the few virtual certainties of 2013 is the ongoing anguish of Syria and the decline of its president, Bashar al-Assad.


  • Look for more unrest amid power transitions in the Middle East

  • Disputes and economic worries will keep China, Japan, North Korea in the news

  • Europe's economy will stay on a rough road, but the outlook for it is brighter

  • Events are likely to draw attention to cyber warfare and climate change

(CNN) -- Forecasting the major international stories for the year ahead is a time-honored pastime, but the world has a habit of springing surprises. In late 1988, no one was predicting Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the eve of 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan were unimaginable. So with that substantial disclaimer, let's peer into the misty looking glass for 2013.

More turmoil for Syria and its neighbors

If anything can be guaranteed, it is that Syria's gradual and brutal disintegration will continue, sending aftershocks far beyond its borders. Most analysts do not believe that President Bashar al-Assad can hang on for another year. The more capable units of the Syrian armed forces are overstretched; large tracts of north and eastern Syria are beyond the regime's control; the economy is in dire straits; and the war is getting closer to the heart of the capital with every passing week. Russian support for al-Assad, once insistent, is now lukewarm.

Amid the battle, a refugee crisis of epic proportions threatens to become a catastrophe as winter sets in. The United Nations refugee agency says more than 4 million Syrians are in desperate need, most of them in squalid camps on Syria's borders, where tents are no match for the cold and torrential rain. Inside Syria, diseases like tuberculosis are spreading, according to aid agencies, and there is a danger that hunger will become malnutrition in places like Aleppo.

The question is whether the conflict will culminate Tripoli-style, with Damascus overrun by rebel units; or whether a political solution can be found that involves al-Assad's departure and a broadly based transitional government taking his place. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has not been explicit about al-Assad's exit as part of the transition, but during his most recent visit to Damascus, he hinted that it has to be.

2012: The year in pictures


























"Syria and the Syrian people need, want and look forward to real change. And the meaning of this is clear to all," he said.

The international community still seems as far as ever from meaningful military intervention, even as limited as a no fly-zone. Nor is there any sign of concerted diplomacy to push all sides in Syria toward the sort of deal that ended the war in Bosnia. In those days, the United States and Russia were able to find common ground. In Syria, they have yet to do so, and regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran also have irons in the fire.

Failing an unlikely breakthrough that would bring the regime and its opponents to a Syrian version of the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war, the greatest risk is that a desperate regime may turn to its chemical weapons, troublesome friends (Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey) and seek to export unrest to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

The Syrian regime has already hinted that it can retaliate against Turkey's support for the rebels -- not by lobbing Scud missiles into Turkey, but by playing the "Kurdish" card. That might involve direct support for the PKK or space for its Syrian ally, the Democratic Union Party. By some estimates, Syrians make up one-third of the PKK's fighting strength.

To the Turkish government, the idea that Syria's Kurds might carve out an autonomous zone and get cozy with Iraq's Kurds is a nightmare in the making. Nearly 800 people have been killed in Turkey since the PKK stepped up its attacks in mid-2011, but with three different sets of elections in Turkey in 2013, a historic bargain between Ankara and the Kurds that make up 18% of Turkey's population looks far from likely.

Many commentators expect Lebanon to become more volatile in 2013 because it duplicates so many of the dynamics at work in Syria. The assassination in October of Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan -- as he investigated a pro-Syrian politician accused of obtaining explosives from the Syrian regime -- was an ominous portent.

Victory for the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria would tilt the fragile sectarian balance next door, threatening confrontation between Lebanon's Sunnis and Hezbollah. The emergence of militant Salafist groups like al-Nusra in Syria is already playing into the hands of militants in Lebanon.

Iraq, too, is not immune from Syria's turmoil. Sunni tribes in Anbar and Ramadi provinces would be heartened should Assad be replaced by their brethren across the border. It would give them leverage in an ever more tense relationship with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The poor health of one of the few conciliators in Iraqi politics, President Jalal Talabani, and renewed disputes between Iraq's Kurds and the government over boundaries in the oil-rich north, augur for a troublesome 2013 in Iraq.

More worries about Iran's nuclear program

Syria's predicament will probably feature throughout 2013, as will the behavior of its only friend in the region: Iran. Intelligence sources say Iran continues to supply the Assad regime with money, weapons and expertise; and military officers who defected from the Syrian army say Iranian technicians work in Syria's chemical weapons program. Al-Assad's continued viability is important for Iran, as his only Arab ally. They also share sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, with its vast supply of rockets and even some ballistic missiles, might be a valuable proxy in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Speaking of which, there are likely to be several more episodes in the behind-closed-doors drama of negotiations on Iran's nuclear sites. Russia is trying to arrange the next round for January. But in public, at least, Iran maintains it has every right to continue enriching uranium for civilian purposes, such as helping in the treatment of more than 1 million Iranians with cancer.

Iran "will not suspend 20% uranium enrichment because of the demands of others," Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said this month.

International experts say the amount of 20% enriched uranium (estimated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November at 297 pounds) is more than needed for civilian purposes, and the installation of hundreds more centrifuges could cut the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. The question is whether Iran will agree to intrusive inspections that would reassure the international community -- and Israel specifically -- that it can't and won't develop a nuclear weapon.

This raises another question: Will it take bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks -- and the prospect of an end to the crippling sanctions regime -- to find a breakthrough? And will Iran's own presidential election in June change the equation?

For now, Israel appears to be prepared to give negotiation (and sanctions) time to bring Iran to the table. For now.

Egypt to deal with new power, economic troubles

Given the turmoil swirling through the Middle East, Israel could probably do without trying to bomb Iran's nuclear program into submission. Besides Syria and Lebanon, it is already grappling with a very different Egypt, where a once-jailed Islamist leader is now president and Salafist/jihadi groups, especially in undergoverned areas like Sinai, have a lease on life unimaginable in the Mubarak era.

The U.S. has an awkward relationship with President Mohamed Morsy, needing his help in mediating with Hamas in Gaza but concerned that his accumulation of power is fast weakening democracy and by his bouts of anti-Western rhetoric. (He has demanded the release from a U.S. jail of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of involvement in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.)

The approval of the constitution removes one uncertainty, even if the opposition National Salvation Front says it cements Islamist power. But as much as the result, the turnout -- about one-third of eligible voters -- indicates that Egyptians are tired of turmoil, and more concerned about a deepening economic crisis.

Morsy imposed and then scrapped new taxes, and the long-expected $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund is still not agreed on. Egypt's foreign reserves were down to $15 billion by the end of the year, enough to cover less than three months of imports. Tourism revenues are one-third of what they were before street protests erupted early in 2011. Egypt's crisis in 2013 may be more about its economy than its politics.

Libya threatens to spawn more unrest in North Africa

Libya's revolution, if not as seismic as anything Syria may produce, is still reverberating far and wide. As Moammar Gadhafi's rule crumbled, his regime's weapons found their way into an arms bazaar, turning up in Mali and Sinai, even being intercepted off the Lebanese coast.

The Libyan government, such as it is, seems no closer to stamping its authority on the country, with Islamist brigades holding sway in the east, tribal unrest in the Sahara and militias engaged in turf wars. The danger is that Libya, a vast country where civic institutions were stifled for four decades, will become the incubator for a new generation of jihadists, able to spread their influence throughout the Sahel. They will have plenty of room and very little in the way of opposition from security forces.

The emergence of the Islamist group Ansar Dine in Mali is just one example. In this traditionally moderate Muslim country, Ansar's fighters and Tuareg rebels have ejected government forces from an area of northern Mali the size of Spain and begun implementing Sharia law, amputations and floggings included. Foreign fighters have begun arriving to join the latest front in global jihad; and terrorism analysts are seeing signs that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria are beginning to work together.

There are plans for an international force to help Mali's depleted military take back the north, but one European envoy said it was unlikely to materialize before (wait for it) ... September 2013. Some terrorism analysts see North Africa as becoming the next destination of choice for international jihad, as brigades and camps sprout across a vast area of desert.

A bumpy troop transition for Afghanistan

The U.S. and its allies want to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another haven for terror groups. As the troop drawdown gathers pace, 2013 will be a critical year in standing up Afghan security forces (the numbers are there, their competence unproven), improving civil institutions and working toward a post-Karzai succession.

In November, the International Crisis Group said the outlook was far from assuring.

"Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections (in Afghanistan in 2014) could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out," the group said.

Critics have also voiced concerns that the publicly announced date of 2014 for withdrawing combat forces only lets the Taliban know how long they must hold out before taking on the Kabul government.

U.S. officials insist the word is "transitioning" rather than "withdrawal," but the shape and role of any military presence in 2014 and beyond are yet to be settled. Let's just say the United States continues to build up and integrate its special operations forces.

The other part of the puzzle is whether the 'good' Taliban can be coaxed into negotiations, and whether Pakistan, which has considerable influence over the Taliban leadership, will play honest broker.

Private meetings in Paris before Christmas that involved Taliban envoys and Afghan officials ended with positive vibes, with the Taliban suggesting they were open to working with other political groups and would not resist girls' education. There was also renewed discussion about opening a Taliban office in Qatar, but we've been here before. The Taliban are riven by internal dissent and may be talking the talk while allowing facts on the ground to work to their advantage.

Where will North Korea turn its focus?

On the subject of nuclear states that the U.S.-wishes-were-not, the succession in North Korea has provided no sign that the regime is ready to restrain its ambitious program to test nuclear devices and the means to deliver them.

Back in May 2012, Peter Brookes of the American Foreign Policy Council said that "North Korea is a wild card -- and a dangerous one at that." He predicted that the inexperienced Kim Jong Un would want to appear "large and in charge," for internal and external consumption. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range ballistic missile -- one that South Korean scientists later said had the range to reach the U.S. West Coast. Unlike the failure of the previous missile launch in 2009, it managed to put a satellite into orbit.

The last two such launches have been followed by nuclear weapons tests -- in 2006 and 2009. Recent satellite images of the weapons test site analyzed by the group 38 North show continued activity there.

So the decision becomes a political one. Does Kim continue to appear "large and in charge" by ordering another test? Or have the extensive reshuffles and demotions of the past year already consolidated his position, allowing him to focus on the country's dire economic situation?

China-Japan island dispute to simmer

It's been a while since East Asia has thrown up multiple security challenges, but suddenly North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are not the only concern in the region. There's growing rancor between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which may be aggravated by the return to power in Japan of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.

Abe has long been concerned that Japan is vulnerable to China's growing power and its willingness to project that power. Throughout 2012, Japan and China were locked in a war of words over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, with fishing and Coast Guard boats deployed to support claims of sovereignty.

In the days before Japanese went to the polls, Beijing also sent a surveillance plane over the area, marking the first time since 1958, according to Japanese officials, that Bejing had intruded into "Japanese airspace." Japan scrambled F-15 jets in response.

The islands are uninhabited, but the seas around them may be rich in oil and gas. There is also a Falklands factor at play here. Not giving in to the other side is a matter of national pride. There's plenty of history between China and Japan -- not much of it good.

As China has built up its ability to project military power, Japan's navy has also expanded. Even a low-level incident could lead to an escalation. And as the islands are currently administered by Japan, the U.S. would have an obligation to help the Japanese defend them.

Few analysts expect conflict to erupt, and both sides have plenty to lose. For Japan, China is a critical market, but Japanese investment there has fallen sharply in the past year. Just one in a raft of problems for Abe. His prescription for dragging Japan out of its fourth recession since 2000 is a vast stimulus program to fund construction and other public works and a looser monetary policy.

The trouble is that Japan's debt is already about 240% of its GDP, a much higher ratio than even Greece. And Japan's banks hold a huge amount of that debt. Add a shrinking and aging population, and at some point the markets might decide that the yield on Japan's 10-year sovereign bond ought to be higher than the current 0.77%.

Economic uncertainty in U.S., growth in China

So the world's third-largest economy may not help much in reviving global growth, which in 2012 was an anemic 2.2%, according to United Nations data. The parts of Europe not mired in recession hover close to it, and growth in India and Brazil has weakened. Which leaves the U.S. and China.

At the time of writing, the White House and congressional leadership are still peering over the fiscal cliff. Should they lose their footing, the Congressional Budget Office expects the arbitrary spending cuts and tax increases to be triggered will push the economy into recession and send unemployment above 9%.

A stopgap measure, rather than a long-term foundation for reducing the federal deficit, looks politically more likely. But to companies looking for predictable economic policy, it may not be enough to unlock billions in investment. Why spend heavily if there's a recession around the corner, or if another fight looms over raising the federal debt ceiling?

In September, Moody's said it would downgrade the U.S. sovereign rating from its "AAA" rating without "specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term." In other words, it wants action beyond kicking the proverbial can.

Should the cliff be dodged, most forecasts see the U.S. economy expanding by about 2% in 2013. That's not enough to make up for stagnation elsewhere, so a great deal depends on China avoiding the proverbial hard landing.

Until now, Chinese growth has been powered by exports and infrastructure spending, but there are signs that China's maturing middle class is also becoming an economic force to be reckoned with. Consultants PwC expect retail sales in China to increase by 10.5% next year -- with China overtaking the U.S. as the world's largest retail market by 2016.

Europe's economic outlook a little better

No one expects Europe to become an economic powerhouse in 2013, but at least the horizon looks a little less dark than it did a year ago. The "PIGS' " (Portugal, Ireland/Italy, Greece, Spain) borrowing costs have eased; there is at least rhetorical progress toward a new economic and fiscal union; and the European Central Bank has talked tough on defending the Eurozone.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, fended off the dragons with the declaration in July that "Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough."

Draghi has promised the bank has unlimited liquidity to buy sovereign debt, as long as governments (most likely Spain) submit to reforms designed to balance their budgets. But in 2013, the markets will want more than brave talk, including real progress toward banking and fiscal union that will leave behind what Draghi likes to call Europe's "fairy world" of unsustainable debt and collapsing banks. Nothing can be done without the say-so of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, renowned for a step-by-step approach that's likely to be even more cautious in a year when she faces re-election.

Elections in Italy in February may be more important -- pitching technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti against the maverick he replaced, 76-year old Silvio Berlusconi. After the collapse of Berlusconi's coalition 13 months ago, Monti reined in spending, raised the retirement age and raised taxes to bring Italy back from the brink of insolvency. Now he will lead a coalition of centrist parties into the election. But polls suggest that Italians are tired of Monti's austerity program, and Berlusconi plans a populist campaign against the man he calls "Germano-centric."

The other tripwire in Europe may be Greece. More cuts in spending -- required to qualify for an EU/IMF bailout -- are likely to deepen an already savage recession, threatening more social unrest and the future of a fragile coalition. A 'Grexit' from the eurozone is still possible, and that's according to the Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras.

Expect to see more evidence of climate change

Hurricane Sandy, which struck the U.S. East Coast in November, was the latest indicator of changing and more severe weather patterns. Even if not repeated in 2013, extreme weather is beginning to have an effect -- on where people live, on politicians and on the insurance industry.

After Sandy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that after "the last few years, I don't think anyone can sit back anymore and say, 'Well, I'm shocked at that weather pattern.' " The storm of the century has become the storm of every decade or so, said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton.

"Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges," he and colleagues wrote in Nature.

In the U.S., government exposure to storm-related losses in coastal states has risen more than 15-fold since 1990, to $885 billion in 2011, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The Munich RE insurance group says North America has seen higher losses from extreme weather than any other part of the world in recent decades.

"A main loss driver is the concentration of people and assets on the coast combined with high and possibly growing vulnerabilities," it says.

Risk Management Solutions, which models catastrophic risks, recently updated its scenarios, anticipating an increase of 40% in insurance losses on the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Southeast over the next five years, and 25% to 30% for the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Those calculations were done before Sandy.

Inland, eyes will be trained on the heavens for signs of rain -- after the worst drought in 50 years across the Midwest. Climatologists say that extended periods of drought -- from the U.S. Midwest to Ukraine -- may be "the new normal." Jennifer Francis at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University has shown that a warmer Arctic tends to slow the jet stream, causing it to meander and, in turn, prolong weather patterns. It's called Arctic amplification, and it is probably aggravating drought in the Northwest United States and leading to warmer summers in the Northern Hemisphere, where 2012 was the hottest year on record.

It is a double-edged sword: Warmer temperatures may make it possible to begin cultivating in places like Siberia, but drier weather in traditional breadbaskets would be very disruptive. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that stocks of key cereals have tightened, contributing to volatile world markets. Poor weather in Argentina, the world's second-largest exporter of corn, may compound the problem.

More cyber warfare

What will be the 2013 equivalents of Flame, Gauss and Shamoon? They were some of the most damaging computer viruses of 2012. The size and versatility of Flame was unlike nothing seen before, according to anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab.

Gauss stole online banking information in the Middle East. Then came Shamoon, a virus that wiped the hard drives of about 30,000 computers at the Saudi oil company Aramco, making them useless. The Saudi government declared it an attack on the country's economy; debate continues on whether it was state-sponsored.

Kaspersky predicts that in 2013, we will see "new examples of cyber-warfare operations, increasing targeted attacks on businesses and new, sophisticated mobile threats."

Computer security firm McAfee also expects more malware to be developed to attack mobile devices and apps in 2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is more concerned about highly sophisticated attacks on infrastructure that "could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11."

"We know that foreign cyber actors are probing America's critical infrastructure networks. They are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants and those that guide transportation throughout this country," he said in October.

Intellectual property can be stolen, bought or demanded as a quid pro quo for market access. The U.S. intelligence community believes China or Chinese interests are employing all three methods in an effort to close the technology gap.

In the waning days of 2012, the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States said "there is likely a coordinated strategy among one or more foreign governments or companies to acquire U.S. companies involved in research, development, or production of critical technologies."

It did not name the country in its unclassified report but separately noted a growing number of attempts by Chinese entities to buy U.S. companies.

Who will be soccer's next 'perfect machine'?

There's room for two less serious challenges in 2013. One is whether any football team, in Spain or beyond, can beat Barcelona and its inspirational goal machine Lionel Messi, who demolished a record that had stood since 1972 for the number of goals scored in a calendar year. (Before Glasgow Celtic fans start complaining, let's acknowledge their famous win against the Spanish champions in November.)

Despite the ill health of club coach Tito Vilanova, "Barca" sits imperiously at the top of La Liga in Spain and is the favorite to win the world's most prestigious club trophy, the European Champions League, in 2013. AC Milan is its next opponent in a match-up that pits two of Europe's most storied clubs against each other. But as Milan sporting director Umberto Gandini acknowledges, "We face a perfect machine."

Will Gangnam give it up to something sillier?

Finally, can something -- anything -- displace Gangnam Style as the most watched video in YouTube's short history? As of 2:16 p.m. ET on December 26, it had garnered 1,054,969,395 views and an even more alarming 6,351,871 "likes."

Perhaps in 2013 the YouTube audience will be entranced by squirrels playing table tennis, an octopus that spins plates or Cistercian nuns dancing the Macarena. Or maybe Gangnam will get to 2 billion with a duet with Justin Bieber.

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Congressional leaders scramble to find 'fiscal cliff' compromise

WASHINGTON — The momentary optimism that Washington could resolve the stalemate over New Year's Day tax hikes turned quickly Saturday to the backroom number crunching needed to broker what remained a difficult deal.

Top congressional leaders and their aides holed up inside the Capitol, swapping potential scenarios that might yield enough votes to pass legislation to prevent a tax increase on all but the wealthiest Americans.

The work being done off the Senate floor, in the offices of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) involves such tricky math that even if the political will exists to craft a compromise, partisanship may still prevent one. How to deal with income and estate taxes, as well as extended long-term unemployment benefits, remain among the stickiest issues.

"We've been in discussions all day, and they continue. And we'll let you know as soon as we have some news to make," McConnell said Saturday night as he left the Capitol. "We've been trading paper all day and talks continue into the evening."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) stopped by the negotiations in the morning as a light snow dusted the city, but by midday tourists milling about the Capitol were snapping photos of the empty corridor outside his office. The Democratic leaders, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), did not come to the Capitol but remained involved in the talks.

President Obama, who received updates at the White House, used his weekly address to put pressure on congressional leaders. "We just can't afford a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy," he said. "The economy is growing, but keeping it that way means that the folks you sent to Washington have to do their jobs."

Congress will convene for a rare Sunday afternoon session, with the Senate opening at 1 p.m. and the House at 2 p.m. Votes could come as soon as Sunday but most likely would be pushed to Monday as talks continue. Both parties will meet behind closed doors Sunday afternoon to consider their options.

If no agreement is reached, Obama reminded Republicans, he'll call for a vote on a proposal that would block the tax hike on income of less than $250,000 and would extend the unemployment insurance that expired Saturday for 2 million out-of-work people.

Obama's threat capitalizes on a key advantage in the tax-and-spend battle: Without a compromise, taxes will go up on everyone Tuesday, when the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire. Republicans who oppose his bare-bones bill would be in the awkward position of protecting the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class.

"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities — as long as these leaders allow it to come to a vote," Obama said. "If they still want to vote no, and let this tax hike hit the middle class, that's their prerogative — but they should let everyone vote. That's the way this is supposed to work."

Republicans face the prospect of voting for a tax increase for the first time in two decades, a potential milestone that has deeply divided the party. Still, they suggested Saturday that they could stomach raising income tax rates if the income threshold was higher than Obama has proposed — $500,000 might be acceptable, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal negotiations.

The GOP also wants to preserve the current estate tax rate, which is 35% on estates valued at more than $5 million. Most Democrats want the estate taxes set at 45% on those above $3.5 million; if no action is taken, the rate will revert to 55% on estates valued at more than $1 million.

The combination of income and estate tax rates may lead to a deal that could win Republican support, but it could also prove to be a deal killer for Democrats.

With Republicans divided, particularly in the House, Boehner is expected to bring at most barely half of his majority to any deal. Pelosi's support will be vital to pass the measure; she may have to muster about 100 votes.

A White House official stressed that whatever deal the Senate leaders broker will have to win approval from the House Democratic leader, who has shown her ability to deliver — or withhold — Democratic votes.

The deal may also draw support if it contains other must-pass year-end provisions, including a tweak to prevent middle-class households from being hit with the alternative minimum tax and an adjustment to ensure doctors treating Medicare patients do not take a pay cut.

The scene playing out on Saturday was a repeat of the cycle of brinkmanship and crisis that has characterized divided Washington for the last two years.

The optimism expressed by political leaders after Friday's White House meeting of Obama and congressional leaders appeared to be less about a major breakthrough or newfound comity than the hard reality that time was running short.

Congress has proved time and again that it works best — and perhaps only — under deadline pressure. With tax rates set to expire Dec. 31, just hours remained to approve a deal.

Despite the tight timeline, many senators left town, even if just for the day. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) posted a photo on his Twitter account of himself with the Oreo mascot at a college football bowl game in San Francisco.

Others stayed behind. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) tweeted that he was touring the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "Back at it tomorrow," he added.

Yet even with political momentum, the deep divisions within parties were still evident, particularly as Republicans confronted a debate over their party's bedrock principles.

Influential anti-tax activist Grover Norquist encouraged Republicans to move on to the next battles, as Congress will be asked within months to raise the nation's debt limit. Republicans see that as the next point of leverage in their fights with Obama to reduce federal spending, including on Social Security and Medicare.

Any deal being crafted this weekend is not expected to resolve those issues or alter the automatic federal spending cuts coming on Jan. 2, all but ensuring that 2013 will see a return of divisive tax and spending arguments.




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Body of India rape victim arrives home in New Delhi

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The body of a woman whose gang rape provoked protests and rare national debate about violence against women in India arrived back in New Delhi early on Sunday.

The unidentified 23-year-old medical student died from her injuries on Saturday, prompting promises of action from a government that has struggled to respond to public outrage.

She had suffered brain injuries and massive internal damage in the attack on December 16, and died in hospital in Singapore where she had been taken for treatment.

She and a male friend had been returning home from the cinema, media reports say, when six men on a bus beat them with metal rods and repeatedly raped the woman. The friend survived.

Six suspects were charged with murder after her death.

A Reuters correspondent saw family members who had been with her in Singapore take her body back to their Delhi home in an ambulance with a police escort.

Ruling party leader Sonia Gandhi was seen arriving at the airport when the plane landed and Prime Minister Mannmohan Singh's convoy was also there, the witness said.

The body was later taken to a crematorium and cremated, news channels reported. Media were kept away but a Reuters witness saw the woman's family, New Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, and the junior home minister, R P N Singh, coming out of the crematorium.

The outcry over the attack caught the government off-guard. It took a week for Singh to make a statement, infuriating many protesters.


Issues such as rape, dowry-related deaths and female infanticide rarely enter mainstream political discourse in India.

Analysts say the death of the woman dubbed "Amanat", an Urdu word meaning "treasure", by some Indian media could change that, although it is too early to say whether the protesters calling for government action to better safeguard women can sustain their momentum through to national elections due in 2014.

Protesters have staged peaceful demonstrations in the capital New Delhi and in cities across India in the last few days to keep the pressure on Singh's government to get tougher on crime against women. Last weekend, protesters fought pitched battles with police.

Authorities, worried about the reaction to the news of her death on Saturday, deployed thousands of policemen, closed 10 metro stations and banned vehicles from some main roads in central New Delhi.

Most sex crimes in India go unreported, many offenders go unpunished, and the wheels of justice turn slowly, according to social activists, who say that successive governments have done little to ensure the safety of women.

Commentators and sociologists say the rape has tapped into a deep well of frustration many Indians feel over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership on social issues.

New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures. Government data show the number of reported rape cases in India rose by nearly 17 percent between 2007 and 2011.

For a link to the poll, click

(Additional reporting by Devidutta Tripathy; Writing by Louise Ireland; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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Wall Street ends sour week with fifth straight decline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks fell for a fifth straight day on Friday, dropping 1 percent and marking the S&P 500's longest losing streak in three months as the federal government edged closer to the "fiscal cliff" with no solution in sight.

President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders met at the White House to work on a solution for the draconian debt-reduction measures set to take effect beginning next week. Stocks, which have been influenced by little else than the flood of fiscal cliff headlines from Washington in recent days, extended losses going into the close with the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500 each losing 1 percent, after reports that Obama would not offer a new plan to Republicans. The Dow closed below 13,000 for the first time since December 4.

"I was stunned Obama didn't have another plan, and that's absolutely why we sold off," said Mike Shea, managing partner at Direct Access Partners LLC in New York. "He's going to force the House to come to him with something different. I think that's a surprise. The entire market is disappointed in a lack of leadership in Washington."

In a sign of investor anxiety, the CBOE Volatility Index <.vix>, known as the VIX, jumped 16.69 percent to 22.72, closing at its highest level since June. Wall Street's favorite fear barometer has risen for five straight weeks, surging more than 40 percent over that time.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 158.20 points, or 1.21 percent, to 12,938.11 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 15.67 points, or 1.11 percent, to 1,402.43. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 25.59 points, or 0.86 percent, to end at 2,960.31.

For the week, the Dow fell 1.9 percent. The S&P 500 also lost 1.9 percent for the week, marking its worst weekly performance since mid-November. The Nasdaq finished the week down 2 percent. In contrast, the VIX jumped 22 percent for the week.

Pessimism continued after the market closed, with stock futures indicating even steeper losses. S&P 500 futures dropped 26.7 points, or 1.9 percent, eclipsing the decline seen in the regular session.

All 10 S&P 500 sectors fell during Friday's regular trading, with most posting declines of 1 percent, but energy and material shares were among the weakest of the day, with both groups closely tied to the pace of growth.

An S&P energy sector index <.gspe> slid 1.8 percent, with Exxon Mobil down 2 percent at $85.10, and Chevron Corp off 1.9 percent at $106.45. The S&P material sector index <.gspm> fell 1.3 percent, with U.S. Steel Corp down 2.6 percent at $23.03.

Decliners outnumbered advancers by a ratio of slightly more than 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, while on the Nasdaq, two stocks fell for every one that rose.

"We've been whipsawing around on low volume and rumors that come out on the cliff," said Eric Green, senior portfolio manager at Penn Capital Management in Philadelphia, who helps oversee $7 billion in assets.

With time running short, lawmakers may opt to allow the higher taxes and across-the-board federal spending cuts to go into effect and attempt to pass a retroactive fix soon after the new year. Standard & Poor's said an impasse on the cliff wouldn't affect the sovereign credit rating of the United States.

"We're not as concerned with January 1 as the market seems to be," said Richard Weiss, senior money manager at American Century Investments, in Mountain View, California. "Things will be resolved, just maybe not on a good timetable, and any deal can easily be retroactive."

Trading volume was light throughout the holiday-shortened week, with just 4.46 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT on Friday, below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares. On Monday, the U.S. stock market closed early for Christmas Eve, and the market was shut on Tuesday for Christmas. Many senior traders were absent this week for the holidays.

Highlighting Wall Street's sensitivity to developments in Washington, stocks tumbled more than 1 percent on Thursday after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned that a deal was unlikely before the deadline. But late in the day, stocks nearly bounced back when the House said it would hold an unusual Sunday session to work on a fiscal solution.

Positive economic data failed to alter the market's mood.

The National Association of Realtors said contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes rose in November to their highest level in 2-1/2 years, while a report from the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago showed business activity in the U.S. Midwest expanded in December.

"Economic reports have been very favorable, and once Congress comes to a resolution, the market should resume an upward trend, based on the data," said Weiss, who helps oversee about $125 billion in assets. "All else being equal, we see any further decline as a buying opportunity."

Barnes & Noble Inc rose 4.3 percent to $14.97 after the top U.S. bookstore chain said British publisher Pearson Plc had agreed to make a strategic investment in its Nook Media subsidiary. But Barnes & Noble also said its Nook business will not meet its previous projection for fiscal year 2013.

Shares of magicJack VocalTec Ltd jumped 10.3 percent to $17.95 after the company gave a strong fourth-quarter outlook and named Gerald Vento president and chief executive, effective January 1.

The U.S.-listed shares of Canadian drugmaker Aeterna Zentaris Inc surged 13.8 percent to $2.47 after the company said it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on a special protocol assessment by the FDA for a Phase 3 registration trial in endometrial cancer with AEZS-108 treatment.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Clippers beat Jazz 116-114 for 16th straight win

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Chris Paul could hardly be heard over Jay-Z's pounding music as his Los Angeles Clippers teammates sang along in the visitors' locker room.

And why not?

The Clippers had just pulled off a 19-point comeback for their 16th straight victory — in a venue where they had often struggled.

Paul did most of the damage, leading the Clippers (24-6) with 29 points, including the final seven, as Los Angeles squeaked out a 116-114 win Friday night over the Utah Jazz.

The Clippers' winning streak is the longest in the NBA since Boston won 19 games in a row from Nov. 15 to Dec. 23, 2008.

The last time the franchise won three straight in Salt Lake City was 1979-81 when they were the San Diego Clippers.

"This one is a great win for us because we kind of needed a challenge," said Blake Griffin, who added 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Clippers. "(We had) to prove not only to everybody else but to ourselves that we can still win close games like this and win a game down 19 in the third quarter."

In the opposing locker room, the Jazz were lamenting another one that got away — the second loss at home to the Clippers during their franchise-record streak. Utah dropped the first by one on Dec. 3 after leading by 14.

On Friday, ex-Clipper Randy Foye put up a 3-pointer at the buzzer that was contested by Matt Barnes, but no foul was called. Foye finished with a season-high 28 points for Utah.

Foye did his best not to say anything about the officiating.

"I felt as though I pump-faked," Foye said. "He knew that I wanted to shoot the 3 and I felt the contact. He made me go straight up and shoot the ball straight down. It was just a tough play."

Paul was tough down the stretch, hitting the clinching free throws after getting fouled by Al Jefferson with 3.4 seconds left.

"When (DeAndre Jordan) came to give me the ball screen, I wasn't worried about (Gordon) Hayward, I was just worried about Al Jefferson," Paul said. "I could tell (Jefferson) was going to try and blitz me. Anytime two guys try and trap me, I'm always going to attack the slower guy. If they wouldn't have called the foul, I was right around Al anyway."

Paul sank both free throws this time, after missing one with 18 seconds left that allowed Jefferson to grab the rebound, draw a foul and sink two free throws at the other end to tie it at 114.

Paul made sure he hit both the next time.

"Man, I couldn't wait to get to the line. I couldn't wait to get to the line," Paul said. "I was mad at myself for missing that last one. I couldn't wait to get to the line to redeem myself."

Just like the first game this season against the Clippers, Utah had the upper hand early.

The Jazz used a 36-point second quarter to turn a seven-point deficit into a 58-48 halftime lead. Utah reserves did most of the damage.

Alec Burks and Earl Watson pushed the pace, big men Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors provided a presence inside and Hayward found ways to score.

Kanter's block of Ronny Turiaf ignited the crowd.

Hayward's 3-pointer tied it at 34 with 7:04 left in the second and he scored 10 straight for the Jazz, who forced eight turnovers in the quarter and held the Clippers to 37.5 percent shooting.

Foye, who kept Utah close in the first with a 13-point quarter on 4-of-5 shooting, gave the Jazz their biggest lead of the half, 54-41, with two more free throws.

The Jazz led 74-55 with 8:08 left in the third on a pair of free throws by Paul Millsap. But the Clippers outscored Utah 29-14 the rest of the quarter to pull to 88-84 going into the fourth.

Paul provided the offense in the third with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

"At the beginning of the third quarter, they made another run at us but then we got a little bit of a rhythm and then started guarding. We started getting some stops and getting out in the open court," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.

"Give Utah credit but our guys battled back tonight. They found a way to win and that's what it's all about. We stayed together, we weathered the storm when we had to and gave ourselves a chance and we were fortunate to make enough plays."

The loss dropped Utah below .500 at 15-16. The Jazz have lost six of their last eight.

Jefferson added 22 points for Utah. Hayward had 17 off the bench.

The Clippers had six players in double figures. DeAndre Jordan had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

"It's all tough," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "On our home court, we had a lead, we gave up the lead but we continued to fight. We made some mistakes but fought our way through it and had a chance to win the ballgame at the end. Unfortunately they got a lot of free throws."

The teams combined for 81 free throw attempts, with Utah making 37 of 40 and the Clippers 33 of 41.

Points in the paint were identical and rebounds were close (36-35 Jazz), but the Clippers had a four-point edge on second-chance points.

That was enough.

NOTES: An unidentified Jazz employee was disciplined and had his access to the team Twitter account discontinued after what team officials deemed an inappropriate tweet regarding the firing of Nets coach Avery Johnson and Brooklyn's interest in Phil Jackson. The tweet said Jackson only wants "great players," an apparent reference to ex-Jazz point guard Deron Williams, who had criticized Johnson's offense. ... Jazz point guard Mo Williams still has swelling in his sprained right thumb and remains out indefinitely. ... The Clippers got a scare late in the first quarter when Lamar Odom came up limping. He returned in the second and finished with 12 points. ... The Clippers failed to register a blocked shot despite coming into the game averaging 6.52.

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NASA Unveils E-books on Hubble, Webb Space Telescopes

NASA has just released two free e-books about the Hubble Space Telescope and its not-yet-launched successor, with interactive features that let readers watch a galaxy collision or manipulate a telescope model between pages, agency officials say.

The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 and has a mission lifetime through at least 2013. The space-based observatory has supplied some of the most dazzling visible-light images of distant cosmic objects, which are featured in “Hubble Space Telescope: Discoveries.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, which will be almost three times the size of Hubble, has been designed to work best at infrared wavelengths in order to study the very distant universe, looking for the first stars and galaxies that ever emerged. The e-book, “Webb Space Telescope: Science Guide,” explains the technology behind the mission, which is slated to launch in 2018.

“These new e-books from NASA will allow people to discover Hubble and Webb in a whole new way — both the science and the technology behind building them,” Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist on the Webb telescope project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement. “They collect all of the amazing resources about these two observatories in an excellent product that I think people will really enjoy.”

The e-books are available at the Apple iBookstore or can be downloaded as a PDF here: http://hubblesite.org/ibooks/

Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebookand Google+.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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2013: Energy issues on front burner

From left, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon promote what Sheril Kirshenbaum says will be a controversial film.


  • Public attitudes shifted on key energy issues in 2012

  • Sheril Kirshenbaum says controversy has grown over natural gas fracking boom

  • She says climate change, renewable energy are likely to be on agenda for 2013

  • Kirshenbaum: A turbulent year has increased public interest in energy issues

Editor's note: Sheril Kirshenbaum is an author and director of The University of Texas at Austin's Energy Poll.

(CNN) -- After a year of tumultuous weather and global change, it should not be surprising that 2012 proved to be a transformative period for public opinion on energy.

Changing attitudes on the most hotly debated topics matter a great deal because they set the course for future policy decisions. Taking a closer look at trends over the past 12 months hints at what to expect in several key areas of the U.S. energy landscape in 2013.

Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum

Natural gas boom -- and controversy

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," has been around for more than half a century, but recently expanded rapidly because of advances in horizontal drilling deep underground.

Despite this proliferation of new wells, 59% of Americans say they are unfamiliar with the term, down from 63% in March, according to the latest findings from the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Poll.

CNN Opinion contributors weigh in on what to expect in 2013. What do you think the year holds in store? Let us know @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

Although the majority still does not seem to know much about fracking, a deluge of media attention to this controversial extraction technology has likely raised its profile significantly since last year.

However, increased awareness is not synonymous with public approval. Among those familiar with hydraulic fracturing, support decreased from 48% to 41% over six months. Similarly, a December poll by Bloomberg reported that 66% of Americans would like greater government oversight of the process, up from 56% in September.

When Matt Damon's new film "Promised Land" debuts in January, expect public recognition and heated debate over hydraulic fracturing to rise further.

Climate change gets real

When Gov. Mitt Romney quipped, "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans" at the 2012 Republican National Convention, his audience burst into laughter. During the debates that followed, neither party's nominee mentioned climate change once as a policy priority.

Weeks later, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeastern United States, flooding many parts of New York City, New Jersey and other regions along the Atlantic Coast. Both candidates immediately canceled campaign events in the wake of the storm and Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Obama, citing his commitment to tackling climate change. After a summer of record-breaking drought followed by this single powerful hurricane in a major metropolitan area, attitudes shifted.

In March, 65% of Americans surveyed said they thought that climate change was occurring. By September, after the summer drought, that number reached 73%, with the greatest gains among Republicans and independent voters. Earlier this month, The Associated Press-GfK poll followed up, reporting that after Sandy, 78% of Americans now say global temperatures are rising.

Because weather can influence opinions on climate change, it's possible that a wet and stormy winter -- ironically, also exacerbated by climate change -- could push attitudes in the other direction. Regardless, in 2013 expect to hear less argument about whether the Earth is warming and a more serious policy discussion by elected officials across levels of government about how we might mitigate the effects of rising seas, changing ocean acidity, agricultural uncertainty and extreme weather events.

Renewables gain ground

Renewable energy technologies have been available for decades, but 2012 may have been the tipping point for their wider adoption. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who say they are likely to buy hybrid or electric vehicles or use "smart" electric meters within the next five years. Most notably, between September 2011 and September 2012, the percentage of Americans who say they are likely to install solar panels at home increased from 21% to 28%.

These trends may reflect changing attitudes on climate, media attention to energy during the election cycle, rising gas prices or cheaper, widely advertised new alternatives. Most likely, it's a combination of all these.

What's clear is that we are now on the cusp of a renewables revolution with greater options and cost-saving technologies than ever. They are finally becoming more affordable, reliable and practical, with solar power at the helm. Still, it's important to note that as we ring in 2013, China, not the United States, has taken the lead on renewables.

The big picture

Polls tell the story of how attitudes are shifting, but short of having a crystal ball, there is no way to unequivocally predict what major world events will influence our nation's energy future. For example, another nuclear disaster or offshore oil spill could play an enormous role in shaping the next generation of energy priorities.

What can we count on in 2013?

In the past year, the percentage of Americans saying they consider themselves knowledgeable on how energy is produced, delivered and used has increased from 24% to 33%. More are likely to seek added information about reducing their own energy use and a higher percentage rate energy issues as important to them.

Amid economic uncertainty, volatile prices and global unrest, Americans are paying closer attention to the energy decisions that affect us all.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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Chicago marks 500 homicides

Chicago police investigate the scene of a fatal shooting in the 1000 block of North Lavergne on Chicago's West Side. (Chris Sweda/ Chicago Tribune)

On the surface, Nathaniel Jackson fit the profile of the vast majority of Chicago's homicide victims in 2012 — he had a lengthy arrest record and alleged gang ties.

But when Jackson was shot and killed Thursday night, just months after getting out of prison, he also earned the unfortunate distinction of being the 500th homicide victim in Chicago this year, a grim milestone the city reached for the first time in four years.

While Chicago had almost twice as many slayings 20 years ago as it did this year, the number 500 is a largely symbolic threshold, a reminder of the year's escalated violence and a numerical bar the city had not reached since 513 were killed in 2008.

By mid-November the city already had tallied the most homicides in four years. As of Friday, Chicago had an estimated 17 percent increase in homicides over 2011, and an 11 percent increase in shootings, according to police.

The city's rising homicide tally has been a thorny issue for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy for much of the year.

"It was a milestone on those days when we had zero murders and zero shootings. Those are milestones. This is a negative one, something that we never wanted," McCarthy told the Tribune Thursday afternoon, hours before Jackson, 40, was killed. "But in perspective, there's no such thing as an acceptable murder number. Even if we cut it down to 300 next year, it's still … unacceptable."

The department went back and forth Friday over whether Jackson was the 500th homicide victim so far this year, at first confirming it and then denying it, saying a homicide last week had been reclassified as a death investigation, therefore making Jackson the 499th homicide. But by late afternoon, the department once again confirmed there had been 500 homicides.

"The city has seen its 500th homicide for 2012, a tragic number that is reflective of the gang violence and proliferation of illegal guns that have plagued some of our neighborhoods," McCarthy said in a statement. "Every homicide in Chicago is unacceptable to me and the hardworking men and women of the Chicago Police Department, who, this year, achieved a record drop in overall crime throughout our city."

Chicago's homicide rate also remains a major issue for Emanuel heading into the new year. Beyond the very real human cost, there's a perception problem for the city.

The homicide rate in Chicago far exceeds the rates in New York City and Los Angeles. While the homicide rate in LA has remained relatively flat and New York's has gone down — homicides there have fallen by more than 20 percent this year — Emanuel, known for carefully trying to craft the narrative of his tenure as mayor, has seen Chicago's violence attract national attention.

The mayor was on vacation Friday with his family but issued a statement to the Tribune:

"Chicago has reached an unfortunate and tragic milestone, which not only marks a needless loss of life but serves as a reminder of the damage that illegal guns and conflicts between gangs cause in our neighborhoods," Emanuel said, adding that his efforts to lengthen the public school day and provide before- and after-school programs for youths were part of the eventual solution.

Emanuel last week also noted that overall crime in Chicago was down about 8.5 percent for the year.

This previous winter was particularly violent. In the first three months of 2012, when the city experienced unseasonable warmth, homicides ran about 60 percent ahead of the 2011 rate. As the year went on, the increase in killings leveled out but still remained higher than in previous years.

In his statement Friday, McCarthy lauded the overall drop in crime in the city and said department efforts resulted in less violence in the latter part of 2012.

"CPD has put the right people in the right places to accomplish our long-term goal of reducing crime and ensuring that our streets and our neighborhoods belong to the residents of this city," McCarthy said in his statement. "Since the gang violence reduction strategy was adopted, we have seen drastic reductions in shootings and homicides that spiked early in the year."

Some within the department feel the disbanding of two specialized units that swooped into "hot spots" to reduce violent crime had a negative impact on this year's rate. After McCarthy was installed last year as the city's top cop, he eliminated those strike forces to move those officers to beat patrols, in the hope they would have more meaningful and positive interactions with the community. The department now uses cops who work all over the city to fulfill the same function as the strike forces, but these "area teams" comprise fewer officers.

McCarthy has blamed the proliferation of guns on Chicago's streets and the splintering of large street gangs into small factions as reasons for the homicide spike.

In October, the Tribune reported that 1 in 4 homicide victims this year were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples, the city's largest street gang, and one also riddled with internal conflict.

Jackson, who authorities described as being affiliated with the Four Corner Hustlers street gang, falls into a category shared by more than 80 percent of Chicago's 2012 homicide victims: those with criminal histories.

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Indian gang rape victim dies; New Delhi braces for protests

NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - An Indian woman whose gang rape in New Delhi triggered violent protests died of her injuries on Saturday in a Singapore hospital, bringing a security lockdown in Delhi and recognition from India's prime minister that social change is needed.

Bracing for a new wave of protests, Indian authorities closed 10 metro stations and banned vehicles from some main roads in the heart of New Delhi, where demonstrators have converged since the attack to demand improved women's rights. About 100 people staged a peaceful protest on Saturday morning.

The 23-year-old medical student, severely beaten, raped and thrown out of a moving bus in New Delhi two weeks ago, had been flown to Singapore in a critical condition by the Indian government on Thursday for specialist treatment.

The attack has sparked an intense national debate for the first time about the treatment of women and attitudes towards sex crimes in a country where most rapes go unreported, many offenders go unpunished, and the wheels of justice turn slowly, according to social activists.

"We are very sad to report that the patient passed away peacefully at 4:45 a.m. on Dec 29, 2012 (2045 GMT Friday). Her family and officials from the High Commission (embassy) of India were by her side," Mount Elizabeth Hospital Chief Executive Officer Kelvin Loh said in a statement.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was deeply saddened by the death and described the emotions associated with her case as "perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change.

"It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channelize these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action," Singh said in a statement.

Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, said the woman's death was a "shameful moment for me not just as a chief minister but also as a citizen of this country".

The woman, who has not been identified, and a male friend were returning home from the cinema by bus on the evening of December 16 when, media reports say, six men on the bus beat them with metal rods and repeatedly raped the woman. media said a rod was used in the rape, causing internal injuries. Both were thrown from the bus. The male friend survived the attack.

The public outcry over the attack has caught the government off-guard. It took a week for Singh to make a public statement on the attack, infuriating many protesters who saw it as a sign of a government insensitive to the plight of women.

The prime minister, a stiff 80-year-old technocrat who speaks in a low monotone, has struggled to channel the popular outrage in his public statements and convince critics that his eight-year-old government would now take concrete steps to improve the safety of women.

Protesters, mostly young middle class students, fought pitched battles with police around the capital last weekend. Police used batons, water cannon and teargas to quell the protests, and sealed off the main protest sites.


T.C.A. Raghavan, the Indian high commissioner to Singapore, told reporters hours after the woman's death that a chartered aircraft would fly her body back to India on Saturday, along with members of her family. The woman's body had earlier been put into a van at the hospital and driven away.

Indian media had also accused the government of sending her to Singapore to minimize any backlash in the event of her death but Raghavan said it had been a medical decision intended to ensure she got the best treatment.

"She was unconscious throughout," Raghavan said of her time in Singapore. "She died because of the severe nature of the injuries."

Some Indian medical experts had questioned the decision to fly the woman to Singapore, calling it a risky maneuver given the severity of her injuries. They had said she was already receiving the best possible care in India.

On Friday, the Singapore hospital had said the woman's condition had taken a turn for the worse and she had suffered "significant brain injury". She had already undergone three abdominal operations before arriving in Singapore.

The suspects in the rape - five men aged between 20 and 40, and a juvenile - were arrested within hours of the attack and are in custody. Media reports say they are likely to be formally charged with murder next week.

Many Indians have called for the death penalty for those responsible.

Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told Times Now television on Saturday the government was committed to ensuring "the severest possible punishment to all the accused at the earliest".

"It will not go in vain. We will give maximum punishment to the culprits. Not only to this, but in future also. This one incident has given a greater lesson" Shinde said.

He said earlier the government was considering the death penalty for rape in very rare cases. Murder carries the death penalty.

The case has received blanket coverage on cable television news channels. Some Indian media have called the woman "Amanat", an Urdu word meaning "treasure".

Commentators and sociologists say the rape tapped into a deep well of frustration many Indians feel over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership.

Many protesters have complained that Singh's government has done little to curb the abuse of women in the country of 1.2 billion. A global poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June found that India was the worst place to be a woman because of high rates of infanticide, child marriage and slavery.

New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures. Government data show the number of reported rape cases in the country rose by nearly 17 percent between 2007 and 2011.

(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Diksha Madhok in New Delhi; Kevin Lim, Saeed Azhar, Edgar Su and Sanjeev Miglani in Singapore; Editing by Ron Popeski, Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel)

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