Egypt to replace finance and interior ministers: agency

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s finance and interior ministers are to be replaced in a partial cabinet reshuffle that was promised by President Mohamed Mursi last month in an attempt to assuage public anger at an economic crisis, the state news agency MENA reported on Saturday.

Middle East News Agency has learned that the new ministers will include General Mohamed Ibrahim for the Interior Ministry and … Al-Mursi Al-Sayed Hegazy for the Finance Ministry,” MENA said.

It said a total of 10 new ministers would take the oath of office on Sunday.

(Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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Iran building software to control networking sites

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s police chief says the Islamic Republic is developing new software to control social networking sites.

Gen. Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam was quoted in Iranian newspapers Saturday as saying the new software will prevent Iranians from being exposed to malicious content online while allowing users to enjoy the benefits of the Internet. He did not say when the software would be introduced.

Moghadam also did not specify which social networking sites would be affected, but both Facebook and Twitter are popular in Iran.

Iranians currently have access to most of the Internet, although authorities block some sites affiliated with the opposition, as well as those that are seen as promoting dissent or considered morally corrupt.

Iran created a government agency last year to oversee Internet usage in the country.

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"Cliff" concerns give way to earnings focus

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns, like earnings, as fourth-quarter reports get under way next week.

Financial results, which begin after the market closes on Tuesday with aluminum company Alcoa , are expected to be only slightly better than the third-quarter's lackluster results. As a warning sign, analyst current estimates are down sharply from what they were in October.

That could set stocks up for more volatility following a week of sharp gains that put the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> on Friday at the highest close since December 31, 2007. The index also registered its biggest weekly percentage gain in more than a year.

Based on a Reuters analysis, Europe ranks among the chief concerns cited by companies that warned on fourth-quarter results. Uncertainty about the region and its weak economic outlook were cited by more than half of the 25 largest S&P 500 companies that issued warnings.

In the most recent earnings conference calls, macroeconomic worries were cited by 10 companies while the U.S. "fiscal cliff" was cited by at least nine as reasons for their earnings warnings.

"The number of things that could go wrong isn't so high, but the magnitude of how wrong they could go is what's worrisome," said Kurt Winters, senior portfolio manager for Whitebox Mutual Funds in Minneapolis.

Negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for the fourth quarter was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001, according to Thomson Reuters data.

U.S. lawmakers narrowly averted the "fiscal cliff" by coming to a last-minute agreement on a bill to avoid steep tax hikes this weeks -- driving the rally in stocks -- but the battle over further spending cuts is expected to resume in two months.

Investors also have seen a revival of worries about Europe's sovereign debt problems, with Moody's in November downgrading France's credit rating and debt crises looming for Spain and other countries.

"You have a recession in Europe as a base case. Europe is still the biggest trading partner with a lot of U.S. companies, and it's still a big chunk of global capital spending," said Adam Parker, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley in New York.

Among companies citing worries about Europe was eBay , whose chief financial officer, Bob Swan, spoke of "macro pressures from Europe" in the company's October earnings conference call.


One of the biggest worries voiced about earnings has been whether companies will be able to continue to boost profit growth despite relatively weak revenue growth.

S&P 500 revenue fell 0.8 percent in the third quarter for the first decline since the third quarter of 2009, Thomson Reuters data showed. Earnings growth for the quarter was a paltry 0.1 percent after briefly dipping into negative territory.

On top of that, just 40 percent of S&P 500 companies beat revenue expectations in the third quarter, while 64.2 percent beat earnings estimates, the Thomson Reuters data showed.

For the fourth quarter, estimates are slightly better but are well off estimates for the quarter from just a few months earlier. S&P 500 earnings are expected to have risen 2.8 percent while revenue is expected to have gone up 1.9 percent.

Back in October, earnings growth for the fourth quarter was forecast up 9.9 percent.

In spite of the cautious outlooks, some analysts still see a good chance for earnings beats this reporting period.

"The thinking is you need top line growth for earnings to continue to expand, and we've seen the market defy that," said Mike Jackson, founder of Denver-based investment firm T3 Equity Labs.

Based on his analysis, energy, industrials and consumer discretionary are the S&P sectors most likely to beat earnings expectations in the upcoming season, while consumer staples, materials and utilities are the least likely to beat, Jackson said.

Sounding a positive note on Friday, drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co said it expects profit in 2013 to increase by more than Wall Street had been forecasting, primarily due to cost controls and improved productivity.

(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Saban: Alabama players must put aside 'clutter'

MIAMI (AP) — Two days after team leaders held a players-only meeting, Alabama coach Nick Saban says the Crimson Tide's performance in Monday's BCS championship against Notre Dame will show a lot about whether his players have put aside the "clutter" that comes with their success.

"You fight against human nature a little bit," Saban said Saturday at media day for the title game.

In the past, Saban has taken issue with the phrase "defending champions." He delivered a message of moving on to his players two days after winning last season's BCS title.

He said the gist was: "You guys are not the national champions."

"Other than making you a target," he said, "it doesn't do anything for you."

Alabama is still the target.

Tide players held the meeting because they wanted their teammates to get more focused in practice. Two freshmen linebackers — who aren't part of the playing rotation — were sent home Friday for curfew violations.

No. 2 Alabama is favored by more than a touchdown, which is OK with Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly.

"Somebody's got to be an underdog," Kelly said during his turn at the podium. "Alabama's got the belt; they deserve to have the belt, and we've got to try to take it from them."

The Tide is seeking its third national title in four years. No. 1 Notre Dame has its own impressive collection but none since 1988.

Kelly hopes to reach that same level Saban has achieved, ensuring that this isn't a one-time opportunity.

"Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model," he said. "I concede to that. It's where we want to be. We want to be back here next year.

"There's been some commentators that talk about, 'Is Notre Dame for real?' Well, for me, we're for real because we're here. We've won all our games."

Kelly said he gets the vibe that his team is ready for Monday night. He says he doesn't want the "outside, perceived pressure to weigh heavily" on players.

Alabama players have been here and done this, including the hype and sometimes off-the-wall questions of what amounts to a downsized version of the Super Bowl media day.

"I mean, I think it's the media that makes the game so much bigger," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said "Me personally, I think it's just another game.

"Yeah, you're playing for a national championship, but it's another football game. You know, the field is still 53 yards wide, 100 yards long. Still got to put the ball in the end zone to win the game. I don't really pay too much attention to the title of the game, I guess."

In other words, the label "BCS championship" is just more clutter.

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Storm over Depardieu's 'pathetic' move


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed Russian citizenship on actor Gérard Depardieu

  • For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted, with many in France disgusted by his move

  • Depardieu more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit, says Agnes Poirier

  • Majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving him, she adds

Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France, Italy. Follow her on Twitter.

Paris (CNN) -- Since the revelation on the front page of daily newspaper Libération, on December 11, with a particularly vicious editorial talking about France's national treasure as a "former genius actor," Gérard Depardieu's departure to Belgium, where he bought a property just a mile from the French border, has deeply divided and saddened France. Even more so since, as we have learnt this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed the actor Russian citizenship.

Back in mid-December, the French media operated along political lines: the left-wing press such as Libération couldn't find strong enough words to describe Depardieu's "desertion" while right-wing publications such as Le Figaro, slightly uneasy at the news, preferred to focus on President François Hollande's punishing taxes which allegedly drove throngs of millionaires to seek tax asylum in more fiscally lenient countries such as Belgium or Britain. Le Figaro stopped short of passing moral judgement though. Others like satirical weekly Charlie hebdo, preferred irony. Its cover featured a cartoon of the rather rotund-looking Depardieu in front of a Belgian flag with the headline: "Can Belgium take the world's entire load of cholesterol?" Ouch.

Quickly though, it became quite clear that Depardieu was not treated in the same way as other famous French tax exiles. French actor Alain Delon is a Swiss resident as is crooner-rocker Johnny Halliday, and many other French stars and sportsmen ensure they reside for under six months in France in order to escape being taxed here on their income and capital. Their move has hardly ever been commented on. And they certainly never had to suffer the same infamy.

Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier

For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted. It started with the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and many members of his government, showing their disdain, and talking of Depardieu's "pathetic move." In response the outraged actor penned an open letter to the French PM in which he threatened to give back his French passport.

The backlash was not over. Fellow thespian Phillipe Torreton fired the first salvo against Depardieu in an open letter published in Libération, insulting both Depardieu's protruding physique and lack of patriotism: "So you're leaving the ship France in the middle of a storm? What did you expect, Gérard? You thought we would approve? You expected a medal, an academy award from the economy ministry? (...)We'll get by without you." French actress Catherine Deneuve felt she had to step in to defend Depardieu. In another open letter published by Libération, she evoked the darkest hours of the French revolution. Before flying to Rome to celebrate the New Year, Depardieu gave an interview to Le Monde in which he seemed to be joking about having asked Putin for Russian citizenship. Except, it wasn't a joke.

In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit. He has been Cyrano, he has been Danton; he, better than most, on screen and off, stands for what it means to be French: passionate, sensitive, theatrical, and grandiose. Ambiguous too, and weak in front of temptations and pleasures.

In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit
Hugh Miles

For more than two weeks now, #Depardieu has been trending on French Twitter. Surveys have showed France's dilemma: half the French people understand him but there are as many who think that paying one's taxes is a national duty. In other words, a majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving the man.

Putin's move in granting the actor Russian citizenship has exacerbated things. And first of all, it is a blow to Hollande who, it was revealed, had a phone conversation with Depardieu on New Year's Day. The Elysées Palace refused to communicate on the men's exchange. A friend of the actor declared that Depardieu complained about being so reviled by the press and that he was leaving, no matter what.

If, in their hearts, the French don't quite believe Depardieu might one day settle in Moscow and abandon them, they feel deeply saddened by the whole saga. However, with France's former sex symbol Brigitte Bardot declaring that she too might ask Putin for Russian citizenship to protest against the fate of zoo elephants in Lyon, it looks as if the French may prefer to laugh the whole thing off. Proof of this: the last trend on French Twitter is #IWantRussianCitizenship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.

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Boyz II Men to Vegas for extended gig at the Mirage

(Reuters) – One-time boy band Boyz II Men is Vegas-bound for an extended stay at the Mirage hotel and casino, the group said on Friday.

The Grammy-award winning R&B trio will begin performances on March 1, with 78 shows slated through December 2013.

“We’ve been dreaming of this day since we performed an extended holiday show two years ago in Las Vegas,” said founding member Nathan Morris in a statement, adding “we can’t wait to take the stage in March and be a part of the Las Vegas community.”

Formed in 1990 and known for hits including “I’ll Make Love To You” and “End of the Road,” the group includes tenors Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman, in addition to baritone Morris.

With more than 60 million albums sold, it is reportedly the best-selling R&B group of all time.

(Reporting by Chris Michaud, editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler)

Music News Headlines – Yahoo! News

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UK service sector activity falls

Activity in the UK’s services sector fell for the first time in two years in December, a survey has suggested, raising fears of yet another recession.

The PMI services index from Markit/CIPS fell to 48.9 in December, down from 50.2 in November. Any score below 50 indicates the sector is shrinking.

Markit blamed the surprise contraction on a fall in new business.

It said the numbers suggested the UK economy shrank by 0.2% in the final three months of 2012.

The UK emerged from a double dip recession last summer with growth of 1% in the three months to September.

“The first fall in service sector activity for two years raises the likelihood that the UK economy is sliding back into recession,” said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.

The last time the index was below 50 was in December 2010, when it stood at 49.7.

A slight reduction in incoming new business was cited as the main factor behind the fall, with a reluctance among business to commit to new spending, and budgets reportedly being tightened.

Confidence among purchasing managers remained at an 11-month low.

Mr Williamson said the data suggested that “underlying demand remains very weak and that activity may continue to fall in the new year”.

‘Continuing uncertainty’

The services sector is seen as a good indicator of the health of the wider economy as it accounts for about three-quarters of the UK’s GDP.

Chief strategist at Mint Partners, Bill Blain, says the decline was a surprise to economists

The estimate of a 0.2% fall in GDP for the final quarter is worse than predicted by other forecasters.

Separate purchasing managers’ indexes (PMIs) released earlier in the week indicated that the manufacturing sector had expanded last month, but that the construction sector had continued to contract.

“The underlying trend is one of continuing uncertainty,” said David Noble, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply.

“Businesses are holding back on investment, leading to falls in employment and increased levels of spare capacity. At the same time, costs are increasing and businesses are unable to pass these on because of competitive pressures.”

In December, the government’s Office for Budget Responsibility said it expected the economy to have shrunk by 0.1% in 2012 as a whole.

Bill Blain, chief strategist at brokerage firm Mint Partners, told the BBC the services sector data had come as a surprise, but warned against being too pessimistic.

“It has caught people out,” he told the BBC. ” [But] it’s just as likely that we will see [the sector] recover quite quickly… especially in areas like financial services.”

BBC News – Business

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Do You Know Your Ag-IQ? PA Preferred Launches Agri-cational Campaign

HARRISBURG, PA–(Marketwire – Jan 4, 2013) – Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s largest industry, yet few appreciate the full impact of locally-produced goods on our financial and nutritional well-being. With the 97th annual PA Farm Show opening in Harrisburg this weekend, PA Preferred® launched an “Agri-cational” campaign for all Pennsylvanian’s visiting the PA Preferred booth at the Farm Show or joining the online conversation.

How much home-grown know-how do you have about the Keystone State? Take the pop quiz below to find your Pennsylvania Ag-IQ.

1. Which type of PA fall produce was the key ingredient in Abe Lincoln’s favorite pie?

a. Apples
b. Lemons
c. Pumpkins

2. Which of the following items can you find in your fridge and as alternative energy source in PA?

a. Beer
b. Chocolate
c. Soy

3. Vitamin D can be found by increasing your sun exposure. But which PA-produce item can provide you vitamin D without the sunburn?

a. Broccoli
b. Mushrooms
c. Strawberries

4. Which of the following foods does not have its own museum in PA?

a. Chocolate
b. Cheesesteaks
c. Mushrooms

5. The capital of PA is Harrisburg. PA is also home to a number of agricultural “capitals.” Which of the following is not one of them?

a. Black cherries
b. Christmas trees
c. Bananas

6. Of the total amount produced in PA, which of the following products could fill 20,000 bathtubs?

a. Wine
b. Cider
c. Root beer

7. Until the 1850s, nearly every PA family had its own:

a. Pig
b. Cow
c. Turkey

8. Which of these animals is not part of the name of a PA-produced beer?

a. Fish
b. Fox
c. Frog

9. Pennsylvania could pay for the 2012 Presidential election campaigns with its total sales of:

a. Meat products
b. Forest exports
c. Mushroom production

10. This popular munchies helped PA to earn its reputation as “Snack Food Capital of the World”:

a. Pretzels
b. Popcorn
c. Pita chips

How did you do? Here’s a guide to accessing your Ag-IQ?
Answers: 1) a 2) c 3) b 4) b 5) c 6) a 7) b 8) c 9) a 10) a

7-10 correct: Outstanding! Share your knowledge with fellow Pennsylvanian’s!
4-6 correct: Well on your way! Check out the PA Preferred Facebook page to learn even more!
1-3 correct: Good start. Keep learning about what local food and products make the PA difference!

About PA Preferred
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s PA Preferred® program is the official branding program of agricultural products grown or made in the Commonwealth. It was designed to help consumers clearly identify products produced in Pennsylvania and make it easier for them to support our agricultural industry. From fresh fruits and vegetables to farmers’ markets, plant nurseries, fiber mills, restaurants, hardwood products, wineries, and Christmas trees, PA Preferred represents the diversity of the Keystone state’s agriculture.

Marketwire News Archive – Yahoo! Finance

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Wall Street mixed following jobs, ISM data reports

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks firmed on Friday after a jobs report showed the pace of hiring met expectations by easing slightly in December, but gave indications of momentum in the labor market recovery.

The market also reacted modestly to data from the Institute for Supply Management, which showed the U.S. service sector grew at its fastest pace in 10 months in December, boosted by a rise in new orders.

"The jobs number today was somewhat benign, it was pretty close to what estimates were, so there wasn't much to draw out volatility from that report," said Gordon Charlop, managing director at Rosenblatt Securities in New York.

"I get the sense we're just sort of going to digest the events of earlier this week," he said, referring to the "fiscal cliff" deal in Washington that averted a possible recession.

The S&P saw its largest gain in over a year to start 2013 on Wednesday, following the agreement struck late Tuesday.

The Labor Department said payrolls outside the farming sector grew 155,000 last month, slightly below November's level. Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to healthcare.

Shares of Apple Inc dropped 2.9 percent to $526.20, continuing its downward path of recent months and pressuring the Nasdaq.

Adding to concerns about the iPhone maker's ability to produce more innovative products going forward, rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd is expected to widen its lead over Apple in global smartphone sales this year with 35 percent growth, propped up by a broad product lineup, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 3.99 points, or 0.03 percent, at 13,395.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> gained 2.38 points, or 0.16 percent, at 1,461.75. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 3.47 points, or 0.11 percent, at 3,097.10.

New orders received by U.S. factories were flat in November, missing expectations as demand for aircraft sank sharply, although a gauge of business spending plans gave a positive sign for the economy.

The lackluster economic growth indicated by the jobs data did not make a dent in the still-high U.S. unemployment rate, but it calmed fears about the possibility of the U.S. Federal Reserve ending its highly stimulative monetary policy.

Concerns about the endurance of the Fed's stimulus program prompted investors to pull back from the market Thursday after a two-day rally.

Minutes from the Fed's December policy meeting, released Thursday, showed Fed officials were increasingly worried about the risks of asset purchases to financial markets, though they looked set to continue with the open-ended stimulus program for now.

Some policymakers thought asset buying should be slowed or stopped before the end of 2013 while others highlighted the need for further stimulus. The Fed's policy of easy credit has helped push the S&P 500 to a 13.4 percent gain in 2012. Ending that policy would remove an incentive for investors to purchase riskier assets like stocks.

The S&P Energy sector index <.gspe> rose again, up 0.7 percent, led by a 3.5 percent gain in shares of Chesapeake Energy .

Eli Lilly and Co stock rose 3.9 percent to $51.68 after the pharmaceuticals maker said it expects its 2013 earnings to increase to $3.75 to $3.90 per share excluding items from $3.30 to $3.40 per share in 2012.

Shares of Mosaic Co gained 2.6 percent to $58.25 on the fertilizer producer's announcement that its quarterly operating profit fell 30 percent as international distributors delayed buying potash and phosphate to avert the price risk associated with the company's negotiations with China and India.

(Additional reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

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Chiefs, GM Pioli part ways after 4 seasons in KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Scott Pioli is out as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, who have been negotiating the past two days with Andy Reid to become their next coach.

Pioli and the team "mutually parted ways," the Chiefs said in a statement Friday. The decision came after four tumultuous seasons marked by poor draft choices, ineffective free-agent moves, failed coaching hires and a growing fan rebellion.

"I truly apologize for not getting the job done," Pioli said.

The Chiefs fired coach Romeo Crennel on Monday after finishing 2-14, matching the worst record in their 53-year history. Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said other changes could be made, and indicated that Pioli's future could be determined by their next coach.

A person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press the team is nearing a deal with Reid, who was fired after 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing. It is believed that Reid would prefer to work with his own general manager.

"After several productive conversations, we made the difficult decision to part ways with Scott Pioli and allow him to pursue other opportunities," Hunt said in a statement Friday.

"This was a difficult decision for Scott as well," Hunt said. "He has a great deal of appreciation for the history of this franchise, for our players, coaches and employees, and especially our great fans."

Kansas City will have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and with five players voted to the Pro Bowl, there are certainly pieces in place for the Chiefs to make rapid improvement.

But most of those Pro Bowl players were drafted by Pioli's predecessor, Carl Peterson. The former Patriots executive struggled to find impact talent, particularly at quarterback, while cycling through coaches and fostering a climate of dread within the entire organization.

Numerous longtime staff members were fired upon Pioli's arrival, and his inability to connect with fans resulted in unrest unlike anything the franchise has known. Some of them even paid for banners to be towed behind planes before home games asking that he be fired.

Those fans finally got their wish.

The biggest reason ultimately wasn't the banners and posters, but by the performance of the Chiefs. And that was a reflection of the roster Pioli assembled, one that looked good on paper but not on the field.

Things were no better away from the field, either.

On Dec. 1, linebacker Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his 3-month-old daughter, Kasandra Perkins, at a home not far from Arrowhead Stadium. He then drove to the team's practice facility and was confronted by Pioli, Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.

After thanking the three of them for giving him a chance in the NFL, Belcher turned around in the parking lot, kneeled down and shot himself in the head.

Pioli hasn't spoken publicly since then but issued a statement Friday in which he thanked the organization for giving him an opportunity to be its GM.

"The bottom line is that I did not accomplish all of what I set out to do," Pioli said. "To the Hunt family — to the great fans of the Kansas City Chiefs — to the players, all employees and alumni, I truly apologize for not getting the job done."

Pioli often spoke of putting together "the right 53," but he routinely failed to do so.

His biggest move upon being hired was trading for Patriots backup Matt Cassel and then giving him a $63 million, six-year deal. Cassel went to the Pro Bowl in 2010, when the Chiefs won a surprising AFC West title, but he struggled so mightily that he was benched this season.

Many of Pioli's moves in free agency also backfired.

Tight end Kevin Boss sustained a season-ending head injury in Week 2, running back Peyton Hillis was a shadow of his former self, right tackle Eric Winston got into a messy situation by calling out Chiefs fans during an early season loss, and cornerback Stanford Routt was cut under mysterious circumstances despite signing an $18 million, three-year contract.

One of his biggest shortcomings was in the draft.

He wasted the third overall pick in 2009 on defensive end Tyson Jackson, who has struggled to become an every-down player. The only other player who has made a contribution from Pioli's first draft has been kicker Ryan Succop, their seventh-round selection.

Pioli fared better in 2010, when he nabbed Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry in the first round, but the past two years have been a disappointment. Wide receiver Jon Baldwin, his first-round pick in 2011, has barely made an impact, and defensive tackle Dontari Poe — the 11th overall pick last April — failed to make the kind of impression the Chiefs had hoped.

Pioli didn't fare much better when it came to coaches.

He fired Herm Edwards soon after he was hired and chose Todd Haley as the replacement, but their relationship was strained from the start. Haley was fired last December and Crennel made the interim coach, and then Pioli made the move permanent a few weeks after the season ended.

While beloved and respected by his players, Crennel struggled in his second stint as a head coach, and was dismissed after a 2-14 finish — only the third time in team history the Chiefs failed to win at least three games in a season.


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Myanmar: Evolution, not revolution

Tourists walk around the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in April. The tourism industry is set for expansion.


  • Myanmar is undergoing incremental change, welcomed by all, says Parag Khanna

  • But he says people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much

  • Myanmar has survived succession of natural and man-made ravages, Khanna adds

  • With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations

Editor's note: Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. His books include "The Second World," "How to Run the World," and "Hybrid Reality."

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Call it a case for evolution instead of revolution. While the Arab world continues in the throes of violence and uncertainty, Myanmar is undergoing incremental change -- and almost everyone seems to want it that way.

The government is lightening up: holding elections, freeing political prisoners, abolishing censorship, legalizing protests, opening to investment and tourists and welcoming back exiles. But the people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much. Still, the consensus is clear: Change in Myanmar is "irreversible."

Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi and the power of unity

As the British Raj's jungle frontier, Burma was a key Asian battleground resisting the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II. As with many post-colonial countries, the euphoria of independence and democracy in 1948 gave way in just over a decade to the 1962 coup in which General Ne Win nationalized the economy and abolished most institutions except the army.

Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna

Non-alignment gave way to isolationism. Like Syria or Uzbekistan, Myanmar became an ancient Silk Road passageway that almost voluntarily choked itself off, choosing the unique path of a Buddhist state conducting genocide, slavery, and human trafficking.

Watch: Myanmar in grip of economic revolution

The military junta began its increasingly cozy rapproachment with Deng Xiaoping's China in the 1970s, just as China was opening to the world, and used cash from its Golden Triangle drug-running operations to pay for Chinese weapons.

Mass protests, crackdowns and another coup in 1988 led to a rebranding of the junta as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the country's official renaming as the Union of Myanmar.

Terrorized, starving and homeless: Myanmar's Rohingya still forgotten

The 1990 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the seats, were annulled by the SLORC, which continued to rule until 2011 when it was formally disbanded. Most international sanctions on Myanmar have now been lifted.

Read more: Myanmar: Is now a good time to go?

In just the past few years, Myanmar has survived a succession of natural and man-made ravages, from the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (led by Buddhist monks but more widely supported in protest against rising fuel prices and economic mismanagement), to Cyclone Nargis (which killed an estimated 200,000 people in 2008) to civil wars between the government's army and ethnic groups such as the Kachin in the north and Shan and Karen in the east, and communal violence between the Muslim Rohingya (ethnic Bengalis) and Buddhist Rakhine in the west.

There are still approximately 150,000 Karen refugees in Thailand (and over 300,000 total refugees on the Thai-Burmese border) and more than 100,000 displaced Rohinya living in camps in Sittwe. So difficult is holding Myanmar together that even Aung San Suu Kyi, who helps lead the national reconciliation process, ironically advocated the use of the army (which kept her under house arrest for almost two decades) to pacify the rebellions.

Though sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine underscores the Myanmar's tenuous search for national unity, the genuine efforts at religious pluralism are reminiscent of neighboring India: Every religion is officially recognized, and days are given off for observance. Surrounding Yangon's downtown City Hall is not only the giant Sule Pagoda but also a mosque, synagogue, church and Jain temple. The roundabout is therefore a symbol of the country's diversity -- but also the place where protesters flock when the government doesn't live up to promises.

Q&A: What's behind sectarian violence in Myanmar?

Scarred from decades of oppressive and ideological rule and still beset by conflict, it is therefore against all odds that Myanmar would become the most talked about frontier market of the moment, a top Christmas holiday destination and a case study in democratic transitions. Myanmar's political scene is now a vibrant but cacophonous discourse involving the still-powerful army; upstart parliament; repatriated civilian advisers; flourishing civil society, including human rights groups, ambitious business community, the Buddhist religious community, and a feisty media (especially online).

The parliament is pushing for accountability in telecom and energy contracts, and its speaker, Shwe Mann, is already maneuvering to challenge the chairman of his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- current president Thein Sein -- in the 2015 elections.

In the meantime, however, the establishment in Yangon and the new capital of Napyidaw need to focus much more on building capacity. Thein Sein, who traded in his uniform for indigenous attire in 2011, has reshuffled the Cabinet to make room for functional experts in the energy and economic portfolios. He's even spearheaded an anti-corruption drive, admitting recently that Myanmar's "governance falls well below international standards." By many accounts he is also very open to advice on investment and other reforms.

He will need it, as Myanmar faces crucial tests of its international credibility in the coming years. In 2013, Myanmar will play host to the World Economic Forum (WEF) as well as the Southeast Asian Games. In 2014 it will chair the ASEAN regional group, and in 2015 it is expected to enter a new ASEAN Free Trade Area.

The military's power is still pervasive, placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Indonesia, where military influence has been rolled back, and Pakistan, where the military still dominates. On the streets, it's often difficult to know who is in charge.

One numerological fetish led to the driving side being unilaterally changed, making Myanmar the rare place where the steering wheel is (mostly) on the right, and cars drive (mostly) on the right. At least a dozen official and private newspapers (though private daily papers are not allowed yet) are on offer from meandering street hawkers, while you inch through Yangon's increasingly dense daily traffic jams.

At this time of year, visitors to Burma enjoy crisp, smoky morning air and dry, starry nights. Yangon is undergoing a construction boom, with faded colonial embassies turned into bustling banks, the national independence column being refurbished and redesigned with a park, and tycoons building columned mansions near downtown -- and seeking Buddhist blessings by pledging lavish donations for the construction of even more monasteries and pagodas.

By 2020, the population of Yangon could easily double from the current 5 million, at which point it may look like a mix of Calcutta and Kuala Lumpur.

Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant and noted historian of modern Burma, now wears several hats related to ethnic reconciliation, foreign donor trust funds and urban conservation. He says that as foreign aid flows grow from trickles into a flood, they have to be systematically focused on sustainable employment creation and infrastructure. USAID has pledged to spend more than $150 million in Myanmar in the next three years.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against China's commercial and strategic encroachment
Parag Khanna

Outside of Yangon, the pace of Burmese society slows to a timeless pace -- as do Internet connections. On village roads, cycle rickshaws and monks with parasols amble by fruit vendors and car part stalls. Whether at the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan or Mandalay Hill in that city, locals enjoy watching sunrises and sunsets as much as tourists.

Traveling around Myanmar, one observes the paradox of a country that has massive potential yet still needs just about everything. Yangon's vegetable market is a maze of tented alleys overflowing with cabbage, pineapples, eggplant and flowers, but they are still transported by wheelbarrows and bicycles. Ox-drawn ploughs still power farming in much of the country, meaning agricultural output of rice, beans and other staples could grow immensely through mechanization.

Similarly, the British-era light-rail loop circling Yangon takes about three hours to ride once around, with no linking bus services into downtown. But with cars already clogging the city, a major transport overhaul is essential. The communications sector actually needs to be re-invented. At present, the country's Internet and mobile phone penetration are only just growing; both are still governed by India's 1886 Telegraph Act. Mobile penetration is only 3 million but could easily grow to 30 million (half the population) within the next couple of years, as the price of SIM cards come down (so far from $2,000 to about $200), and foreign telecoms are allowed in to provide data coverage.

With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations, in addition to the players who have been making inroads for years such as China, Thailand and Singapore. The paradox, however, is that Myanmar lacks the infrastructure (physical and institutional) to absorb all the investor interest.

Major nations have thus focused on special economic zones that they themselves effectively run. The way Japan has moved into Myanmar, one would think that its World War II imperialism has been forgotten. After their major bet on the Thilawa special economic zone south of Yangon, Japanese contractors have plans to deepen the Yangon River's estuary so that cargo ships can sail directly up to the city's shores and offload more containers of cars that are already being briskly snapped up at busy dealerships.

Besides natural gas and agriculture, everyone agrees that tourism will comprise an ever-larger share of the country's GDP. Especially with much of the country off-limits to foreigners due to security restrictions and the military's economic operations, tourists already clog all existing suitable hotels in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, meaning a massive upgrade is needed in the hospitality sector.

Annual tourist visits are climbing 25% annually to an estimated 400,000 for 2012. Daily flights arrive packed from around the region, with longer-haul routes beginning from as far afield as Istanbul and Doha.

Still, Myanmar is a traveler's dream come true. In Bagan, you can walk or take a sunrise jog around countless pagodas that feel like they haven't been touched in 800 years -- some actually haven't. There is also the sacred and enchanting Golden Rock; the pristine beaches of Ngwe Saung, which rival the best of Thailand and the Philippines; the temperate climate of Inle Lake; the Himalayan foothills near Putao in far northern Kachin state where one can trek; the rich dynastic history of Mandalay; and the languorous Irrawaddy River cruises that harken to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."

Yangon has a pleasant charm and gentle energy, with vast gardens and riverside walks, the grandeur of centuries-old monuments such as the Shwedegon Pagoda, a fast-growing cultural scene of art galleries and music performances, and a melting pot population of all Myanmar's tribes as well as industrious overseas Indians and Chinese, who make up 5% of the nation's population.

Mandalay in particular is where one feels the depth of China's demographic penetration into Myanmar, owing not only to recent decades of commercial expansion from gems trading to real estate but also centuries of seasonal migrations across the rugged natural border with Yunnan province. Some have begun to call the Shan region "Yunnan South."

The combination of the Saffron Revolution, civil strife, sanctions, its economic lag behind the rest of ASEAN, and the status of becoming a captive resource supplier to China all played crucial roles in Myanmar's opening. China has traditionally been a kingmaker in isolated and sanctioned countries and well-placed to capitalize on the infrastructural and extractive needs of emerging economies as well.

For China, Myanmar represents a crucial artery to evade the "Malacca trap" represented by its dependence on shipping transit through the Straits of Malacca. In 2011 China was still far and away the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, bringing in $5 billion (of a total of $9 billion) across their 2,000-kilometer (1250-mile)-long border. The massive ongoing investments include 63 hydropower projects, a 2,400-kilometer (1500-mile) Sittwe-to-Kunming oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal and a proposed gas pipeline to China's Yunnan beginning at Myanmar's Ramree Island -- not to mention an entire military outfitted with Chinese tanks, helicopters, boats and planes.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against its commercial and strategic encroachment. Even well-kept generals are fundamentally Burmese nationalists and awoke to the predicament of total economic and strategic dependence on China. The government has taken major steps to correct this excessive tilt, suspending a major hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone and re-evaluating Wanbao Mining company's giant copper mine concession near Monywa.

Myanmar is now deftly playing the same multi-alignment game mastered by countries such as Kazakhstan in trying to escape the Soviet-Russian sphere of influence: courting all sides and gaining whatever one can from multiple great powers and neighbors while giving up as little autonomy as possible.

India sees Myanmar as the crucial gateway for its "Look East" policy and is offering substantial investments in oil and gas as well as port construction and information technology; Europe has become a larger investor, especially Great Britain; Russia is being courted as a new arms supplier; Japan is viewing Myanmar as its new Thailand for automobile production; and of course, U.S. President Barack Obama visited in December, paving the way not only for greater U.S. investment but even for Myanmar to potentially participate in the Cobra Gold military exercises held annually with America's regional allies.

Obama was not only the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar but also the first to call it by that name, conceding ground in a long-running dispute. The administration hopes that North Korea, Asia's still frozen outcast, will learn the lessons from Myanmar's steady but determined opening.

But countries that are playing multi-alignment don't have to thaw domestically -- witness Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. Myanmar is simultaneously undergoing political liberalization and international rehabilitation -- a tricky and laudable feat for sure but not one North Korea is likely to emulate entirely. What the two do have in common, however, is the growing realization that having China as a neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.

During my visit to the "Genius Language School," where university students go for professional English tutoring, I asked the assembled round table whether they were happy that Obama came to visit and whether they considered America a friend. All giggled and chanted: "Yes."

Then I asked, "Are you afraid of China?" And the answer came in immediate, resounding unison: "Yes!"

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Actor Dempsey: Coffee chain bid appears successful

SEATTLE (AP) — Actor Patrick Dempsey said it appears his bid to buy a small coffee chain has prevailed in a bankruptcy auction that included Starbucks Corp.

Late Thursday night, Dempsey announced that his company, Global Baristas LLC, made the winning bid for Tully’s Coffee. He noted in a KOMO-TV interview that a bankruptcy judge will have the final say on Jan. 11. Still, Dempsey tweeted “We got it! Thank you Seattle!”

Dempsey’s company will pay $ 9,150,000 for Tully’s and complete the purchase later this month after the court hearing, he said in a statement.

“I’m thrilled that we won and I’m even more excited about saving Tully’s Coffee and its hundreds of jobs,” he said. “Tully’s is a great company with committed employees, and with its base in Seattle, one of the world’s greatest cities, I’m confident we will be able to successfully build the brand and help grow the economy. “

Tully’s Coffee has 47 company-owned locations in Washington and California. The company, with more than 500 employees, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October.

Dempsey, who gained the nickname “McDreamy” on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” set in a fictional Seattle hospital, has said he wants to rescue the chain.

Seattle has been very good to me over my career, and I am honored to have the privilege to own Tully’s and work closely with the company’s employees,” he said in his statement.

After Thursday’s auction, Starbucks spokesman Zack Hutson confirmed his company participated and “is currently in a back-up position” for some of Tully’s assets. The final certification of the winning bid won’t occur until the Jan. 11 bankruptcy court hearing, Hutson said.

“We have to wait until next week to make sure everything — I believe the 11th — to make sure it’s all finalized,” Dempsey told KOMO-TV.

The Starbucks spokesman said his company made an offer for 13 of Tully’s company-owned stores in the Puget Sound region plus 12 outlets at Boeing Co. sites. Hutson said another bidder made an offer for all other assets — and is in a back-up position for those.

Also in the running was Baristas Coffee, which operates a chain of drive-thru espresso stands featuring female employees in skimpy outfits.

Both Starbucks and Tully’s are based in Seattle.

The auction process was not public.

Entertainment News Headlines – Yahoo! News

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The Millionaire Tax Is Becoming a Headache for France

François Hollande’s promise of a 75 percent income tax rate on millionaires was a winner on the campaign trail, with polls showing that six in ten voters supported it. But now that Hollande is President of France, the plan has caused so many headaches that even some leftists are saying it should be scrapped.
At a Jan. 3 press briefing, Hollande’s spokeswoman said the government would modify and reintroduce the levy, which was struck down by France’s constitutional court on Dec. 29. “The tax remains a part of the government’s aim of reviving France with justice,” spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said. A revised tax would take effect in 2014, a year later than the original plan, she said.

Addressing the court’s objections would be relatively easy. The judges said the levy was inequitable because it applied to individual rather than household incomes — so that, say, a couple with a combined income over 1 million euros ($ 1.32 million) could escape the tax, while a single-breadwinner household earning the same amount would have to pay it. Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac has said the government could apply it to all households, raising the threshold to 2 million euros for those with more than one income.

Politically, though, resuscitating the tax may be more trouble than it’s worth. It has already sparked an outcry among entrepreneurs and other wealthy French, including the actor Gérard Depardieu who said last month he was giving up his French citizenship and moving to Belgium. President Vladimir Putin fanned the flames on Jan. 3 by saying he would grant Russian citizenship to Depardieu; a spokesman for the actor declined to comment. “The psychological impact on the attractiveness of the French economy has been quite negative,” Philippe Gudin, a Paris-based analyst at Barclays Capital, said in a research note.

And while the tax is forecast to raise 210 million euros in revenues, it could lead to revenue losses if highly-compensated jobs disappear from France. Eric Chaney, the Paris-based chief economist at insurance group Axa, says major French companies and private-equity firms are increasingly shifting their recruitment to London and elsewhere. “We can’t bring high-level managers to France,” he told Bloomberg News. “They work in an international market.”

Hollande, speaking in Paris on Jan. 2, said he had instructed the government to “re-work” the millionaire tax, “without changing its objective.” The revised measure would be presented as part of the 2014 budget law voted on next fall, government officials have said.

But the prospect of a debate dragging on for months — giving affluent French more time to ponder leaving the country — could create still more problems. There’s a precedent for this situation: Hollande’s conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, quietly shelved a carbon tax on automotive and household fuel, after French courts ruled it was unfair to apply the tax to individuals but not to companies.

Even some on Hollande’s left are saying the millionaire tax should be left to die.  “There’s not much use sticking with it,” Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg, head of the Radical Left party, said in a statement after the court ruling. The tax “has been wrongly perceived as a sanction against professional success,” although the original measure would have applied to only 1,500 individual taxpayers, he said. “We should cut short this controversy.”

With reporting by Alan Katz and Greg Viscusi of Bloomberg News — Top News

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News Summary: 30-year mortgage rate at 3.34 pct.

RATES REMAIN LOW: Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages moved closer to their record lows this week, offering more incentive for consumers to buy homes and helping sustain a housing recovery.

THE NUMBERS: Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate on the 30-year loan rate slipped to 3.34 percent from 3.35 percent last week. That’s near the 3.31 percent rate reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971. The average for the 15-year fixed mortgage ticked down to 2.64 percent from 2.65 percent. The record low is 2.63 percent.

HOUSING RECOVERY: Lower mortgage rates are a key reason why the housing market began to come back last year and many economists predict the recovery will strengthen in 2013.

Yahoo! Finance – Personal Finance | Loans

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Wall Street rises after post-cliff deal rally

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged up on Thursday, adding to Wall Street's biggest single-day rally in a year on Wednesday after a deal in Washington to avert the "fiscal cliff."

Investors were more wary than in the previous sessions as they turned their focus to upcoming battles in Congress, including likely bitter fights over spending cuts and raising the federal debt ceiling.

"I would be cautious of big moves going forward. There are still some clouds over the horizon, with the fiscal issue of the government. We don't know how they're going to pan out, but in all likelihood there's not going to be a calamity," said Jeff Meyerson, head of trading at Sunrise Securities in New York.

Wednesday's rally began 2013 with Wall Street's best performance in over a year after the House of Representatives passed a measure to avert the fiscal cliff, which could have caused a recession.

The S&P Energy index <.gspe> rose the most of the major sector indexes, at 0.52 percent, led in part by CONSOL Energy , which said it expects to sell more non-core assets in 2013. CONSOL was up 3.5 percent to $32.09.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 6.30 points, or 0.05 percent, at 13,418.85. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 2.05 points, or 0.14 percent, at 1,464.47. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 5.12 points, or 0.16 percent, at 3,117.39.

Retailers were mixed on Thursday after releasing December sales reports in an uncertain economy.

Shares in U.S. retailer Costco Wholesale Corp rose 1.4 percent to $102.88 after the company reported a better-than-expected 9 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year, primarily boosted by an additional sales day in the reporting period.

Gap Inc stock rose nearly 2 percent to $31.99 following news that the retailer will buy women's fashion boutique Intermix Inc for $130 million to enter the luxury clothes market, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Family Dollar Stores Inc stock dropped 11.7 percent to $56.52 on the company's report of lower-than-expected quarterly profit as its emphasis on selling more everyday items like cigarettes and soft drinks put pressure on margins.

Hiring data did not boost equity prices despite showing U.S. private employers added more jobs than expected in December.

"The report now sets the stage, as we expect a strong non-farm payroll reading on Friday," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co in New York

The government's broader monthly payrolls report, due on Friday, is expected to show the economy created 150,000 jobs compared with 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll. The U.S. unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.7 percent.

Another report on Thursday showed that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, but year-end holidays likely distorted the picture of labor market conditions.

(Additional reporting by Angela Moon, Editing by Bernadette Baum and Kenneth Barry)

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NHL, union to resume talks in hopes to save season

NEW YORK (AP) — After a long night of talks, the NHL and the union are to return to negotiations — but not just yet.

The sides were supposed to meet at the league office Thursday at 10 a.m. EST. That, however, did not happen.

The Players Association said it was updating its members on negotiations and no time had been set for bargaining to resume.

Both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have moved closer to one another while swapping proposals, but key issues remain — pensions and salary cap, among them.

The lockout is in its 110th day. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that the league told the union a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19.

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Why U.S. lives under the shadow of 'W'

Julian Zelizer says former President George W. Bush's key tax and homeland security policies survive in the age of Obama


  • Julian Zelizer: For all the criticism Bush got, two key policies have survived

  • He says fiscal cliff pact perpetuates nearly all of Bush's tax cuts

  • Obama administration has largely followed Bush's homeland security policy, he says

  • Zelizer: By squeezing revenues, Bush tax cuts will put pressure on spending

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Somewhere in Texas, former President George W. Bush is smiling.

Although some Democrats are pleased that taxes will now go up on the wealthiest Americans, the recent deal to avert the fiscal cliff entrenches, rather than dismantles, one of Bush's signature legacies -- income tax cuts. Ninety-nine percent of American households were protected from tax increases, aside from the expiration of the reduced rate for the payroll tax.

Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer

In the final deal, Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to preserve most of the Bush tax cuts, including exemptions on the estate tax.

When Bush started his term in 2001, many of his critics dismissed him as a lightweight, the son of a former president who won office as result of his family's political fortune and a controversial decision by the Supreme Court on the 2000 election.

But what has become clear in hindsight, regardless of what one thinks of Bush and his politics, is that his administration left behind a record that has had a huge impact on American politics, a record that will not easily be dismantled by future presidents.

The twin pillars of Bush's record were counterterrorism policies and tax cuts. During his first term, it became clear that Obama would not dismantle most of the homeland security apparatus put into place by his predecessor. Despite a campaign in 2008 that focused on flaws with the nation's response to 9/11, Obama has kept most of the counterterrorism program intact.

Opinion: The real issue is runaway spending

In some cases, the administration continues to aggressively use tactics his supporters once decried, such as relying on renditions to detain terrorist suspects who are overseas, as The Washington Post reported this week. In other areas, the administration has expanded the war on terrorism, including the broader use of drone strikes to kill terrorists.

Now come taxes and spending.

With regard to the Bush tax cuts, Obama had promised to overturn a policy that he saw as regressive. Although he always said that he would protect the middle class from tax increases, Obama criticized Bush for pushing through Congress policies that bled the federal government of needed revenue and benefited the wealthy.

In 2010, Obama agreed to temporarily extend all the tax cuts. Though many Democrats were furious, Obama concluded that he had little political chance to overturn them and he seemed to agree with Republicans that reversing them would hurt an economy limping along after a terrible recession.

Opinion: Time to toot horn for George H.W. Bush

With the fiscal cliff deal, Obama could certainly claim more victories than in 2010. Taxes for the wealthiest Americans will go up. Congress also agreed to extend unemployment compensation and continue higher payments to Medicare providers.

But beneath all the sound and fury is the fact that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, for most Americans, are now a permanent part of the legislative landscape. (In addition, middle class Americans will breathe a sigh of relief that Congress has permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have hit many of them with a provision once designed to make sure that the wealthy paid their fair share.)

As Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp remarked, "After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent." Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new legislation will increase the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

The tax cuts have significant consequences on all of American policy.

Opinion: Christie drops bomb on GOP leaders

Most important, the fact that a Democratic president has now legitimated the moves of a Republican administration gives a bipartisan imprimatur to the legitimacy of the current tax rates.

Although some Republicans signed on to raising taxes for the first time in two decades, the fact is that Democrats have agreed to tax rates which, compared to much of the 20th century, are extraordinarily low. Public perception of a new status quo makes it harder for presidents to ever raise taxes on most Americans to satisfy the revenue needs for the federal government.

At the same time, the continuation of reduced taxes keeps the federal government in a fiscal straitjacket. As a result, politicians are left to focus on finding the money to pay for existing programs or making cuts wherever possible.

New innovations in federal policy that require substantial revenue are just about impossible. To be sure, there have been significant exceptions, such as the Affordable Care Act. But overall, bold policy departures that require significant amounts of general revenue are harder to come by than in the 1930s or 1960s.

Republicans thus succeed with what some have called the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting government by taking away its resources. Since the long-term deficit only becomes worse, Republicans will continue to have ample opportunity to pressure Democrats into accepting spending cuts and keep them on the defense with regards to new government programs.

Politics: Are the days of Congress 'going big' over?

With his income tax cuts enshrined, Bush can rest comfortably that much of the policy world he designed will remain intact and continue to define American politics. Obama has struggled to work within the world that Bush created, and with this legislation, even with his victories, he has demonstrated that the possibilities for change have been much more limited than he imagined when he ran in 2008 or even in 2012.

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Putin gives tax exile Depardieu Russian citizenship

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has granted citizenship to Gerard Depardieu, the French movie star who is quitting his homeland to avoid a tax hike on the rich, the Kremlin said on Thursday.

The “Cyrano de Bergerac” actor bought a house across the border in Belgium last year to avoid a new tax rate for millionaires in France planned by Socialist President Francois Hollande but said he could also seek tax exile elsewhere.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Depardieu had applied for citizenship after Putin told reporters last month the actor would be welcome in Russia. “The citizenship could not have been granted to him without (such an) appeal,” Peskov added.

Russia has a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, compared to the 75 percent on income over 1 million euros ($ 1.32 million) that Hollande wants to impose in France.

Asked, whether Depardieu had plans to move to Russia, Peskov said it was up to him and was “absolutely not mandatory”. Putin did not speak to Depardieu before taking the decision, he added.

Depardieu’s publicist Francois Hassan Guerrar told Reuters he did not want to comment on the Russian announcement.

Depardieu, 63, had told friends he was considering three options to escape France’s new tax regime: settling in Belgium, relocating to Montenegro, where he has a business, or moving to Russia, French daily Le Monde reported in December.

Depardieu has also said he plans to hand in his French passport and social security card.

“Putin has already sent me a passport,” Le Monde quoted the actor as jokingly saying in December.


Depardieu is well-known in Russia where he has appeared in many advertising campaigns. He worked in the country in 2011 on a film about the eccentric Russian monk Grigory Rasputin.

In 2012 he was one of several Western celebrities invited to celebrate the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader.

Muscovites said they would welcome Depardieu. “He is a normal guy, he is fond of drinking too, I suppose, the Russian way, so let him come here,” said resident Lev Nikolaevich.

Putin has in the past touted good relations with France, which he visited in the summer, but the two nations have disagreed sharply on Syria and Putin is a frequent critic of the West. He had a tense summit with the EU last month and wants the bloc to move faster toward visa-free travel.

Russia does not require people to hand in their foreign passports once they acquire a Russian one. Many Russians have citizenship of other countries and travel without problems.

Depardieu could also request Belgian nationality but has not yet made such a request, said Georges Dallemagne, head of Belgium’s parliamentary committee that oversees naturalizations.

“As a Russian he could certainly remain in Belgium, he would possibly need the necessary visas but for a short period he could stay here,” said Dallemagne.

“He would need to request a residency permit for longer stays but as a Russian he should be able to get that. It depends on certain factors,” Dallemagne added.

France’s Constitutional Council last month blocked the planned 75 percent tax rate due to the way it would be applied – but Hollande plans to propose redrafted legislation which will “still ask more of those who have the most”.

(Writing by Megan Davies; Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, Nikolai Isayev and Alexander Fedorov in Moscow, Catherine Bremer in Paris and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Belgium; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Canada says “significant risks” remain in U.S. after fiscal deal

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada‘s finance minister on Wednesday welcomed the U.S. “fiscal cliff” agreement, but warned that significant risks remain and urged more action to put the U.S. fiscal situation on a sustainable path.

“Canada welcomes the agreement reached between the president and the Congress that protects the U.S. economy in the short term,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in a statement.

“That said, there remain a number of significant risks to the U.S. economic outlook. It is my hope that leaders in the United States continue to work together to develop future action that will put the U.S. fiscal position on a sustainable path,” he said.

(Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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What the “Fiscal Cliff” Bill Means to Taxpayers

The Senate passed a deal to address the so-called “fiscal cliff” 90 minutes after the midnight deadline by a vote of 89 to 8. The bill then moved to the House of Representatives, which passed the measure 257-167 late Tuesday night.

In addition to the tax changes, the Senate and House agreed to a two-month delay in addressing $ 110 billion in government spending cuts (aka the “sequester”), which were due to go into effect Jan. 2. Some government agencies had already made arrangements to comply with the cuts, not knowing whether or not a deal would occur.

The plan would raise roughly $ 600 billion in taxes over 10 years, far less than the more than $ 2 trillion in revenue initially discussed by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

According to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, the Congressional Budget Office scoring of the bill projects a $ 329 billion increase in deficit in 2013; $ 3.9 trillion over 10 years.

Whose taxes are going up?

All wage-earners: For the past two tax years, 160 million American employees’ contributions to the Social Security program was 4.2 percent, down from 6.2 percent (this comes on the FICA line item of a paystub) on earnings up to $ 110,100 in 2012 and on earnings up to $ 113,700 in 2013. Despite legislative back-slapping about “preventing tax increases for the middle class”, the average U.S. household that earns $ 50,000, will pay an extra $ 1,000 in taxes in 2013. For an individual earning the maximum 2013 cap of $ 113,700 or more, the increase would be $ 2,274, or nearly $ 200 per month.

Just before midnight, the Internal Revenue Service issued new withholding tables for 2013 reflecting the expiration of the 2001-3 tax cuts and the two-percentage point Social Security tax cut, but the IRS noted that the tables might change given pending legislation.

  • Annual income up to $ 113,700

  • Cost to individuals: 2 percent of income to a maximum of $ 2,274

  • Average HH cost (50K/yr): $ 1,000

  • When will impact be felt?: Up to 4 weeks after bill is passed

Wealthy earners: Individuals who earn more than $ 400,000 and couples who make more than $ 450,000 will see tax rates increase from 35 to 39.6 percent. Those income levels are up from Mr. Obama’s levels of $ 200,000 and $ 250,000 and down from Boehner’s $ 1,000,000 proposed threshold. Capital gains and dividends will rise to 20 percent from the current 15 percent for the same income thresholds. In addition to the capital gain and dividend rates, health care reform will levy a new surtax of 3.8 percent on capital gains for wealthy Americans, pushing up the top capital gains rate to 23.8 percent.

The Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) and the itemized deduction limit are set at $ 250,000 for singles and $ 300,000 for joint filers. These rules are meant to reduce or eliminate the value of personal exemptions for taxpayers earning more than the income threshold. The effect of the reinstatement of the limits amounts would increase taxes by just over 1 percent to the top tax rate as well as on capital gains rates.

  • What’s wealthy? The bill does not say whether the $ 400K/$ 450,000 threshold refers to adjusted gross income (AGI) or taxable income. AGI doesn’t include subtractions for itemized deductions, while taxable income does.

  • Marginal tax bracket: Rises to 39.6% from 35%

  • Capital gains rate and dividend tax rate: Rises to 20% from 15%

  • Total capital gains and dividend rate for 2013, including ACA sur-tax: 23.8%

  • PEP/Itemized deduction limits: $ 250,000 for singles and $ 300,000 for joint filers

What’s extended?

Long-term unemployment benefits: At the beginning of the Great Recession, Congress enacted a temporary supplement to state-based unemployment insurance programs, which usually pay benefits for 6 months. The measure will be extended for one year, preserving benefits for 2 million Americans who were at risk for losing benefits at year-end.

Tax credits for low to middle wage earners: Among these provisions are the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Obama Opportunity Tax Credit (college tuition credits), deductions for $ 250 of teachers’ classroom expenses; allowance of taxpayers to choose paying state sales taxes in lieu of state income taxes; a conservation donation benefit; and the direct charitable contribution of up to $ 100,000 of IRA assets for people 70 1/2 and older will all be extended for five more years.

Of these credits, the following are seen as the most valuable to low to middle wage earners:

– The Child Tax Credit is up to $ 1,000 for each qualifying child who was under the age of 17 at the end of 2012. This credit can be claimed in addition to the credit for child and dependent care expenses, but phases out for married couples who earn over $ 110,000 and single filers who earn more than $ 75,000. (Details are in IRS Publication 972.)

– The Child and Dependent Care Credit
is available if you pay someone to care for your dependent who is under age 13, so that you can work or look for a job. The credit is 20 to 35 percent of your child-care expenses up to $ 6,000 — the size of your credit depends on your income. This credit will be reduced significantly next year. (Details are in IRS Publication 503.)

– The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable credit for married couples filing jointly with 2012 earned income under $ 50,270 and singles who made less than $ 45,060. The more children you have, the more money you receive. Your income and family size determine the amount of the credit, but the maximum credit is $ 5,891 this year. The income thresholds for this credit have increased over the past decade, and the maximum credit has increased since the recession. Next year, both phaseout limits and credit amounts will revert back to lower levels. (Details are in IRS Publication 596.)

– The American Opportunity Tax Credit was set to expire at the end of 2010, but was then extended for an additional two years through December 2012 by the Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2010. The new credit makes the Hope Credit for higher education expenses available to a broader range of taxpayers, including many with higher incomes and those who owe no tax. It also adds required course materials to the list of qualifying expenses and allows the credit to be claimed for four post-secondary education years instead of two. The full maximum annual credit of $ 2,500 per student is available to individuals, whose modified adjusted gross income is $ 80,000 or less, or $ 160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT):
AMT was created in 1969 to ensure that wealthy taxpayers pay at least some minimum amount of federal income tax, regardless of deductions, credits or exemptions. In essence, it is a flat tax with two brackets, 26 percent and 28 percent. Under the new deal, Congress has finally created a permanent inflation “patch” that would allow millions to escape AMT. Without the patch, the AMT would have hit 31 million taxpayers this year, reaching deeply into the middle class.

Certain business tax credits: There would be a one year extension of Research and Experimentation Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit and an extension of the 50 percent bonus depreciation rules, applicable to a wide variety of property and equipment, excluding real estate.

Medicare payments to doctors: Congress agreed to a one year extension of current Medicare reimbursement rates, shielding participating doctors from a potential 27 percent cut in reimbursements.

Even with a deal in place to avoid the cliff, however, the political debate over deficit-reduction is certain to continue. The U.S. Treasury Department notified Congress that the country hit its legal borrowing limit of $ 16.39 trillion — the so-called “debt ceiling” — on the last day of 2012. That could set the stage for a replay of the 2011 political brouhaha over government borrowing that, in putting off the toughest decisions on fiscal policy, led the U.S. to the edge of the fiscal cliff.

Yahoo! Finance – Personal Finance | Taxes

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