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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Lakers beat Knicks 100-94 to get to .500

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pieces of the puzzle that have been the Lakers' confounding season so far are starting to fall into place.

Kobe Bryant engineered a second-half comeback, the defense stepped up, and Los Angeles beat the New York Knicks 100-94 on Tuesday, extending its winning streak to five games.

"We're .500," a smiling Dwight Howard said. "We did it on Christmas, too. I knew this day would come."

Bryant scored 34 points in his NBA-record 15th Christmas Day game and Metta World Peace added 20 points and seven rebounds while defending Carmelo Anthony, whose 34 points led the Knicks. Anthony said he hyperextended his left knee, but expects to play on Wednesday in Phoenix.

Bryant, the league's leading scorer, has topped 30 or more points in nine straight games.

"If you're going to play on Christmas, it's always better to win. Makes it all worthwhile," said Bryant, who would soon hop a flight to Denver, getting there ahead of the Nuggets, who played the Clippers in the other half of the holiday doubleheader at Staples Center.

The Lakers improved to 14-14 — 9-9 under new coach Mike D'Antoni — and upped their holiday record to 21-18, including 13-9 at home. They returned to .500 for the first time since they were 8-8 on Nov. 30.

"It's so early in the season to have turned a corner," Bryant said. "We have everybody in the lineup and we're starting to see how we want to play."

The Knicks controlled most of the game behind Anthony and J.R. Smith, who had 24 points. But they struggled offensively in the fourth, when Anthony was limited to seven points and Smith had five as the Lakers' defense clamped down. World Peace fouled out with 1:58 to play and the Lakers ahead by four.

World Peace credited his defense on Anthony to "old-school basketball."

"I'm back in shape and it's a little tough to guard me," he said.

Steve Nash said: "This is what he's been doing all year. He gets his hands on a lot of balls, pounds on the other team's best guy. You can't win without that type of effort."

Smith's 3-pointer pulled New York to 96-94. After Pau Gasol made one of two free throws, Smith missed another 3 that would have tied the game at 97 with 32 seconds left.

"We missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of little chippers around the basket, shots that we normally make," Anthony said. "There were some plays that we thought should have went our way down the stretch, but for the most part, we fought. I'll take this effort any night. If we continue to play with this effort, we'll win a lot of games."

With Bryant double-teamed, Nash passed to Gasol, who dunked with 12 seconds to go, punctuating a win that sent Lakers fans, frustrated by the team's struggles and coaching change, home happy. The Lakers avenged a 116-107 loss in New York on Dec. 13.

A smiling Howard called Gasol's driving slam "a submarine dunk because he was very low to the ground."

Gasol responded, "I don't dunk as often as I used to so it felt good. I took it right down the lane and finished strong."

Nash had 16 points, 11 assists and six rebounds in his second game in nearly two months. He missed 24 straight games while recovering from a small fracture in his lower left leg. Howard had 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Gasol had 13 points and eight rebounds.

"It was an important win for us as we were a little bit desperate," Nash said. "We've gone through a lot since Mike Brown — new coach, new offense. It's been a difficult transition."

Bryant had eight of the Lakers' first 10 points to open the fourth during a run that provided their first lead since the opening quarter in a game matching the two teams that have played the most on Christmas Day.

They took the lead for good on Bryant's basket with 7:38 remaining. Anthony and Tyson Chandler were in foul trouble in the fourth, with Chandler fouling out late.

"They just were a little bit more aggressive," Anthony said. "Kobe got it going and Steve Nash hit some big shots down the stretch. When you have a guy like Nash doing that, it's kind of tough. Those guys know how to play. They've been waiting for Steve Nash to get back, so it's just a matter of then sticking it out until he did."

The Knicks opened the third on a 15-5 run, with Anthony setting up on the perimeter and hitting two 3-pointers as part of his 10 points that stretched their lead to 61-53. His jumper provided the Knicks' largest lead of the game, 69-60.

Bryant and Nash ignited the quiet atmosphere by leading a 17-9 run that drew the Lakers to 78-77 going into the fourth. They combined to score 15 points, although Bryant missed two free throws to end the third that would have given the Lakers their first lead since early in the game.

The Knicks' earlier roll dissolved in missed shots and a technical on Chandler for arguing a call.

"We were more determined, fought for everything," Nash said about the second half.

World Peace scored 16 points in the second quarter, including eight in a row, when the Lakers played catch-up most of the way. His 3-pointer gave the Lakers their first lead of the period with 1:10 remaining. Smith tied it up with a free throw before Nash's jumper sent the Lakers into halftime leading 51-49.

"We're playing really well together," World Peace said. "Kobe is really playing excellent now. He's still being aggressive on the offensive end, but he's giving everybody a chance to be aggressive. Pau is making strong, aggressive moves."

Bryant scored the Lakers' final nine points of the first quarter to give them a 25-23 lead. D'Antoni's plan of having Darius Morris guard Anthony didn't last long after he scored five of the Knicks' first seven points.

"I thought he'd get warmed up before he started firing," World Peace said.

NOTES: Bryant surpassed Oscar Robertson as the league's all-time Christmas Day scorer with 383 points. Robertson had 377. ... Knicks F/C Amare Stoudemire shot some before the game. He's been out all season after left knee surgery. "I'm not quite there yet, but I'm making progress," he said. "I've just got to stay patient and stay ready. We've been doing extremely intense work, as far as cardio." ... Knicks C Marcus Camby had four points and four rebounds in 8 minutes. He's been sidelined by a sore left foot and barely played this season. ... Asked about Bryant as an MVP candidate, D'Antoni said, "You can't put anybody MVP if you're below .500." ... In their only other Christmas Day meeting in 1963, the Lakers beat the Knicks 134-126 behind 47 points by Jerry West and 27 from Elgin Baylor. ... Nash said the gift bags in their lockers with the tag, "From Kobe Merry Xmas 2012" contained headphones. "Can't ever have enough," he said. ... The Lakers were all in white, while the Knicks were all in orange down to their socks in a color similar to Syracuse. ... Among the celebs holidaying at Staples Center were Rihanna and Chris Brown, Adam Levine, Samuel L. Jackson, George Lopez and Richard Lewis. Vanessa Bryant and her two young daughters sat courtside opposite the Lakers bench.

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Ice Seals Get Endangered Species Protection

Six groups of seals threatened by shrinking sea ice are gaining new protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced late last week.

NOAA will list as threatened two distinct bearded seal populations — one in the Beringia region, which includes Alaska, and one in the Okhotsk region of Russia’s far east — and three subspecies of ringed seals (Arctic, Okhotsk and Baltic). Another ringed seal subspecies found only in Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia will be listed as endangered. A fifth subspecies of ringed seal, the Saimaa in Finland, is already listed as endangered under the ESA.

Forecasts predict that sea ice will be substantially reduced within this century, and there is potential for the spring and summer ice edge to retreat to deep waters of the Arctic Ocean basin. Bearded seals live on sea ice during critical months for breeding, whelping, nursing and molting. Ringed seals also use sea ice for molting and they build snow caves on top of sea ice to shield their pups from freezing temperatures and predators.

“Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline,” Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska region, said in a statement.

NOAA officials said the decision will not result in any immediate restrictions on human activities, though their next step is to evaluate potential protected habitats for Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia bearded seals (those that live in U.S. waters), which already has oil and gas companies in Alaska miffed. In a statement, Kara Moriarty, executive director for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, criticized the decision for being “based on how climate change might affect these species 100 years from now, despite their populations currently being healthy and abundant.” The group is concerned that potential habitats could raise costs and cause delays with oil and gas development, the Alaska Dispatch reported.

NOAA officials said the new listings were based on the best available science, including climate models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The agency also pledged that any future habitat designation will fully consider the economic impact and will aim to avoid unnecessary burdens and costs on states, tribes, localities and the private sector.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters warned that while the mid-winter snowfall rate is expected to increase slightly by the end of the century, Arctic sea ice is expected to start forming later in the season. This means that heavy snow falling earlier in the winter will drop into the ocean instead of piling up on the ice, the researchers said.

Drawing on 10 different climate models, the researchers predicted that the area of the Arctic that gets 8-inch accumulations of snow will drop by almost 70 percent during the 21st century. This would significantly reduce the area where Arctic ringed seals can build sufficient caves. Earlier snowmelts and increased rainfall will also threaten to dissolve the seals’ caves before the pups are ready to venture outside on their own, the researchers 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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Belinelli scores 17 off bench in Bulls' 87-77 win

Marco Belinelli said he has repeated himself 100 times about how his love of basketball obviously means he would love to play as much as possible.

He got what he wanted Saturday night.

Despite returning to the bench as Richard Hamilton returned from injury to the starting lineup, Belinelli's playing time wasn't diminished much as he scored a game-high 17 points in 33 minutes in the Bulls' 87-77 victory over the Wizards before a crowd of 22,447 at the United Center.

"I think what's more important is confidence in myself," he said. "The first couple of weeks of the season I didn't have much. Now it's different."

The Bulls' belief in Belinelli is better than that. On a night when they shot only 39.1 percent as a team, his 7 of 16 marksmanship was essential.

"I thought Marco was terrific," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He has been playing well for a long time. He hit big shots and made big plays."

The Bulls needed a lift after losing back-to-back games. But they still struggled against the Wizards, the NBA's worst team with a 4-24 overall record, 1-13 record on the road.

The Wizards, playing without injured leading scorer Jordan Crawford, shot only 36.5 percent but kept the Bulls within reach most of the game. They led by eight points in the first quarter and trailed only 79-76 with 5 minutes, 19 seconds remaining.

After that, Belinelli hit a 3-pointer and the Bulls locked in defensively, holding the Wizards without a field goal.

"Right now, we're not playing our best basketball, but we just found a way," Joakim Noah said. "It was a good win for us."

Hamilton played after missing 12 games with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, finishing with nine points in almost 15 minutes.

"I thought he had a pretty good rhythm going," Thibodeau said. "That was a big plus."

Deng also returned from a right ankle injury that he sustained in the Christmas loss to the Rockets. He scored 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting.

The Bulls consider the victory a step forward after losing back-to-back games to the Rockets and Hawks. "The win was huge," Deng said.

Deng sat much of the fourth quarter, but Thibodeau said that was because he liked the lineup he at the time and not because of Deng's injury.

"It's good," Deng said of his ankle. "I'm glad I'm back on the court."

Belinelli's role going forward is undetermined, Thibodeau said. But it's clear he values Hamilton, a 14-year veteran, returning to the court.

"I am not sure yet," Thibodeau said of Belinelli's role. "We are going to go back and forth. 'Rip' was good today, taking everything into consideration. We need his minutes, we need his shots, and we need his points."


Twitter @sryantribune

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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 scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter to beat the Utah Jazz 116-114 on Friday night, stretching their winning streak to 16 games.

Ex-Clipper Randy Foye's 3-pointer at the buzzer was contested by Matt Barnes, but no foul was called. Foye finished with a season-high 28 points for Utah.

Paul scored the Clippers' final seven points, most from the free throw line, as Los Angeles extended the NBA's longest winning streak this season.

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 with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the third. He added nine points in the fourth and led six Clippers in double figures. Blake Griffin added 22 points and 13 rebounds, and DeAndre Jordan had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

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

The Jazz were handed their first home loss this season on Dec. 3 when the Clippers beat them 105-104. Utah led by as many as 14 in that one before Paul came on strong down the stretch.

This time, Caron Butler's four-point play tied it at 90 with 9:09 remaining.

The Jazz built another five-point lead thanks to a three-point play by Derrick Favors. Los Angeles went on a 7-0 run to surge ahead 109-106, but Jefferson scored four straight to put Utah up 110-109.

Paul made five of six free throws down the stretch, and his 17-footer with 23 seconds left gave the Clippers a 113-110 lead.

Foye countered with two free throws and Jefferson tied it at 114 from the line after grabbing Paul's lone miss in the fourth and getting fouled.

Jefferson, however, was called for a foul of his own as Paul cut inside on a pick. Paul's free throws sealed it with 3.4 seconds left.

The Jazz certainly made the Clippers work for this one. Utah used a 36-point second quarter to turn a seven-point deficit into a 58-48 halftime lead. Jazz reserves did most of the damage.

Alec Burks and Earl Watson pushed the pace, big men Enes Kanter and Favors established their presence inside and Hayward found ways to score after missing his first few shots.

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 points 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.

Los Angeles led by as many as eight points in the first as Griffin hit four of his first five shots.

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.

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Full Moon Tonight: Facts About 2012′s Last Lunar Show

The final full moon of the year rises tonight to cap a year of amazing lunar sky shows. While the bright moon will easily outshine other celestial objects, there is more than meets the eye to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

The December full moon is also called the “long-night’s moon” since it is the closest full moon to the northern winter solstice (when the nights are longest). And indeed tonight’s full moon will be visible for the longest amount of time. 

From New York for instance, moonrise on Thursday (Dec. 27) occurred at 4:17 p.m. EST and the moon sets at 7:12 a.m. this morning. So the full moon will indeed be in the sky for a long time: 14 hours and 55 minutes.

Moon-watching myth

Contrary to popular belief, the full moon not the best time to observe the moon with binoculars or a telescope.

Normally, even with just small optical power we can see a wealth of detail on its surface. But during the full moon phase, the moon appears flat and one-dimensional, as well as dazzlingly bright to the eye.

It is only later in the weekend and into next week that the moon’s best features will stand out. As the moon wanes to its gibbous phase, and then to last quarter, those lunar features close to the terminator —the variable line between the sunlit and darkened portions of the moon — will appear to stand out in sharp, clear relief. [Amazing Moon Photos of 2012]

The moon will arrive at last quarter phase on Friday, Jan. 4 at 11:58 p.m. EST, when its disk will be exactly 50 percent illuminated.

How bright, the full moon?

How does the moon’s brightness compare at that moment with when it’s full? Most people may believe the moon is half as bright, but in reality astronomers say that the last quarter moon is only 1/11th as bright as full. This is because the moon is not a smooth sphere, but has a myriad of craters, mountains and valleys which cast long, distinct shadows across the lunar landscape. 

Interestingly, a first quarter moon is actually slightly brighter than a last quarter moon, because at first quarter the illuminated half of the moon displays less of the dark surface features known as the “maria” (pronounced m?r-r?a) popularly referred to as lunar “seas.”

And believe or not, it isn’t until just 2.4 days before or after full that the moon actually becomes half as bright as full! 

Lunar cycles

Here are some interesting lunar calendar facts that the famed Belgian astronomical calculator Jean Meeus has compiled concerning the phases of the moon:

All are cyclical, the most noteworthy being the so-called Metonic Cycle that was independently discovered by the Greek astronomer Meton (born about 460 B.C.). This is a 19-year cycle, after which time the phases of the moon are repeated on the same days of the year, or approximately so. 

Take, for instance, Friday’s full moon. Nineteen years from now, in 2031, there’ll be another full moon on Dec.28. 

Another moon cycle fact: After 2 years, the preceding lunar phase occurs on or very nearly the same calendar date. So in 2014, it will be the first quarter moon that occurs on Dec. 28.

After 8 years, the same lunar phases repeat, but occurring one or two days later in the year. Ancient Greek astronomers called this 8-year cycle the “octaeteris.” Indeed, in 2020, a full moon occurs on Dec. 29.

Finally, in our Gregorian Calendar, 372 years provides an excellent long period cycle for the recurrence of a particular phase on a given date. Therefore, we know with absolute certainty that the same full moon that shines down on us on Dec. 28 of 2012 will also be shining on Dec. 28 in the year 2384.

So mark your lunar calendars and enjoy tonight’s lunar display!

If you snap an amazing photo of the year’s final full moon on Friday and would like to share it with SPACE.com for a potential story or gallery, submit photos and comments, including your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at: [email protected]

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New YorkTimes and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & 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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

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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India gang rape victim dies in Singapore hospital

SINGAPORE/NEW DELHI (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.

The Indian capital braced for a new wave of protests, closing metro stations and banning vehicles from the city centre district where young activists had converged to demand improved women's rights. The news came in the early hours of the morning in India and there were no signs of protests as morning broke.

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.

"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 in a statement 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."

Delhi's Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, expressed revulsion.

"It is a shameful moment for me not just as a chief minister but also as a citizen of this country," she said.

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. The reports say a rod was used in the rape, causing internal injuries. Both were thrown from the bus. The male friend survived the attack.

Singh's government has been battling criticism that it was tone-deaf to the outcry that followed the attack and was heavy handed in its response to the protests in the Indian capital.

Most rapes and other sex crimes in India go unreported and offenders are rarely punished, women's rights activists say. But the brutality of the December 16 assault sparked public outrage and calls for better policing and harsher punishment for rapists.


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 loaded into a van at the hospital and driven away.

In New Delhi, the Joint Commissioner of Traffic Police, Satyendra Garg, told NDTV news channel that residents and commuters were advised to avoid the city centre.

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

Talking to reporters earlier on Saturday, Raghavan declined to comment on Indian media reports accusing the government of sending her to Singapore to minimize the possible backlash in the event of her death.

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

But Dr B.D. Athani, medical superintendent of the New Delhi hospital where she had initially been treated, told Indian television the intention was to give the victim the best chance of surviving in what he described as "an extreme case".

"Her condition was very critical from day one. We had managed what best we could do at our end ... she had to be shifted to a centre with much better facilities."

On Friday, the Singapore hospital had said the woman's condition had taken a turn for the worse. It said 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.

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 on social and economic issues.

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 Devidutta Tripathy in New Delhi; Saeed Azhar, Edgar Su and Sanjeev Miglani in Singapore; Editing by Michael Roddy, Ron Popeski and Mark Bendeich)

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