With record highs in sight, stocks face roadblocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heat win 13th straight, top Grizzlies 98-91

MIAMI (AP) — For a while, it looked as though a pair of long streaks were in jeopardy.

That is, until LeBron James finally got going — at the perfect time.

Dwyane Wade scored 22 points and set up James for a critical 3-pointer in the final half-minute, and the Heat extended their winning streak to 13 games by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 98-91 on Friday night.

"I thought this was one of our better wins of the season," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It was tough. We had to work for everything. We had to find a different way to win, deal with frustration ... and then make some plays down the stretch."

On a night when he shot just 4 for 14, James finished two rebounds shy of a triple-double, with 18 points and 10 assists. Shane Battier scored 14, Chris Bosh added 13 and Ray Allen had 10 for Miami, which snapped Memphis' eight-game winning streak.

"He's the best player in the world," Bosh said. "But we have the best supporting cast."

Down the stretch, James — who had 14 points, four rebounds and four assists in the fourth quarter alone — was simply too much. After managing only four points in the first three quarters, James still wound up reaching double digits for the 475th straight regular-season game.

"He made the big shot and that's all that matters," said Memphis' Marc Gasol, who led all scorers with 24.

Gasol tied the game with a pair of free throws with 2:44 left, before the Heat scored the next five. Bosh had a three-point play, and Wade took off in transition for a slam that put Miami up 90-85.

Gasol scored the next four, but Memphis got no closer. James calmly hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining to seal the win.

"I'm always confident in my next shot," James said. "D-Wade gave me a great pass and I was able to knock it down."

The Grizzlies got 14 points from Zach Randolph, who said he was bothered throughout after turning his left ankle on the game's first possession. Mike Conley added 14 for Memphis, which got 10 from Quincy Pondexter.

"I have no problem with the game," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "We were right there. They just made a few more plays than we did down the stretch."

For the Heat, this week was filled with attention for things like pregame dunking exhibitions and their version of a "Harlem Shake" video — which generated more than 5 million views on YouTube in about 24 hours of being posted.

Then came a basketball game, the likes of which had not been seen in the NBA for almost 20 years.

According to STATS LLC, the most recent time before Friday that there was a game between two teams that were carrying at least 12- and eight-game winning streaks was Dec. 3, 1993, when Atlanta (which had won nine straight) beat Houston (which had won 15 straight).

In fact, the Heat-Grizzlies game was just the eighth in NBA history pitting two teams with active winning streaks of at least eight in a row.

Want more significance? Spoelstra and Hollins were announced earlier in the day as the Eastern and Western Conference coaches of the month, respectively. And news came just before tipoff that James was picked yet again as the East's player of the month, making him 4 for 4 in that department this season.

"Just a residual of team success," Spoelstra said.

Added Hollins: "I'm the head coach and I get the credit and I get the blame, but those guys have been playing extremely well ... coming together with all the turmoil and all the chaos that we've had."

So of course, in a game between the NBA's two hottest teams, the start was ice cold. The teams combined to miss 23 of their first 32 shots.

And for James, things were downright frigid.

After the best shooting month of his career — the three-time MVP made 64 percent of his shots in February, the best month of any NBA player with 200 attempts since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shot 65 percent in March 1983 — James' run in March started in a decidedly different manner.

James made a 3-pointer on his first attempt of the night, then missed his next eight tries.

"You won't see that happening too many times," Wade said. "It was great that on a night where he didn't have it going offensively, he had trust in his guys and didn't force up 20-odd shots. He played to pass and he still was aggressive. We'll take it. We'll take it, him getting those numbers and us getting the win."

NOTES: Battier has at least one 3-pointer in 14 straight games, the fourth-best such streak of his career. ... Miami is at New York on Sunday, facing a Knicks team that has already beaten the Heat twice — by 20 points each time. "Our guys will look forward to playing this game," Spoelstra said.

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‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night

Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).

Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.

William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.

“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.

Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”

The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.

The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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Redflex execs out as scandal grows in red light camera firm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night

Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).

Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.

William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.

“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.

Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”

The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.

The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Identity politics after Lee's Oscar win


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ: Oscar winners: Analysis of who won

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

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

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

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

READ: Oscars 2013: Hollywood gets political

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

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

VIEW: Photos from the red carpet

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

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

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

INTERACTIVE: Oscars by numbers

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

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

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

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

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Tax on pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago up $1 to $6.67

On the eve of a $1-per-pack Cook County cigarette tax increase, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the glow of X-rays showing damaged lungs, surrounded by some of Stroger Hospital's top pulmonary specialists as she discussed how smoking shortens people's lives.

The setting and talking points made clear the message Preckwinkle wanted to convey Thursday: This is a public health problem, one she plans to fight by giving smokers an incentive to quit and teens a reason not to start.

But the county's tax increase is more than just a campaign to protect people from emphysema and lung cancer. Preckwinkle is counting on $25.6 million this year from the move to help balance the budget. The history of cigarette tax increases suggests the county will be lucky to get that much in 2013 and should expect diminishing returns in the years ahead.

Smokes are a financial well that public officials have gone to repeatedly to shore up shaky finances at the local and state level. When the county tax increase takes effect Friday, a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago will come with $6.67 tacked on by the city, county and state. That's just behind New York City's nation-leading $6.86 in taxes per pack. It will also push the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to as much as $11.

Recent cigarette tax increases have had only a short-term benefit to the government bottom line. Some people quit, while others buy cigarettes online or outside the county or state.

When the county last raised the cigarette tax — by $1 per pack in 2006 — collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, hitting $203.7 million, county records show. But by 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mayor Richard M. Daley bumped up the city of Chicago's share of the cigarette tax by 32 cents in 2005 and another 20 cents in 2006, to 68 cents per pack. He saw collections rise from $15.6 million in 2004 to $32.9 million in 2006, according to a city report. But city cigarette tax revenue fell to $28.4 million in 2007, and continued dropping to $18.7 million by 2011, records show.

At the state level, Quinn pushed through a $1-a-pack hike in June.

Before that, state lawmakers and Gov. George Ryan agreed on a 40-cent increase in 2002. Cigarette tax proceeds went up by more than $178 million in 2003, to $643.1 million, and rose to $729.2 million in 2004. The revenue then fell steadily to $549 million by 2010 before edging back up to $580 million last year, according to state records.

The county is preparing for the windfall from the $1 increase to be strong this year, then decline. County officials project that after bringing in $25.6 million for the remainder of this budget year, the increase will net about $29 million for 2014, $21 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and just $9 million in 2017.

Preckwinkle says that's OK with her.

"My hope would be that over the long run this is no longer a way in which governments look to raise money, because fewer and fewer people are smoking," she said. "So I would hope that we have the effect of reducing our revenue because more people quit."

The county could end up saving money as cigarette tax revenue falls because uninsured people with ailments related to smoking are such a heavy financial burden to the public hospital system, Preckwinkle said.

In the meantime, Preckwinkle pledged to hire more staff this year to crack down on stores selling untaxed packs and large-scale tobacco smuggling from surrounding states. "We anticipate that there may be some noncompliance, as there always is when you institute an increase like this," she said.

Preckwinkle also acknowledged that the higher tax rate will push some smokers into surrounding counties or Indiana to pick up their packs, but she predicted such cross-border runs will not last.

"While people may initially, when the prices rise, go to other states — Indiana, Wisconsin or wherever — over time that trek gets very tiresome and time-consuming, and they return to their former habits of buying their cigarettes nearby," Preckwinkle said.

But David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he thinks the cigarette taxes in Cook County are now so high compared with surrounding areas that smokers will continue to make the longer drive, and Illinois stores near jurisdictions with lower taxes will struggle even more.

"You might see people return to their old patterns if we were talking about a slight disparity, say 25 cents a pack," Vite said. "But now we're talking about a difference of nearly $3 a pack compared to Indiana, almost $30 a carton. You're going to see guys working in factories saying, 'It's my week to make a run,' heading to Indiana and coming back with $1,500 worth of cigarettes for all their co-workers."


Twitter @_johnbyrne

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Stock index futures point to slightly higher open

LONDON (Reuters) - Stock index futures pointed to a slightly higher open on Wall Street on Thursday.

Futures for the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones rose 0.2 percent, while contracts on the Nasdaq 100 were up 0.1 percent at 0852 GMT.

European shares also rose as investors took heart from fresh signs that central banks would continue steps to support the world's economy.

Revised U.S. GDP data at 1330 GMT is expected to show the U.S. economy grew by 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter, rather than a 0.1 percent contraction as initially estimated.

Weekly new jobless claims figures, due at the same time, are seen slowing to 360,000 from 362,000 in the previous seven days.

February's Chicago PMI, due out at 1445 GMT, is expected to come in at 54.3, from 55.6 last month.

Liberty Media Corp , which holds a large stake in Barnes & Noble, said on Wednesday it had the power to block a sale of Barnes & Nobles' retail stores and it is waiting to see whether the bookseller's chairman Leonard Riggio will make an offer.

J.C. Penney Co Inc on Wednesday reported its sharpest sales drop since announcing a grand transformation plan 13 months ago, sending shares in the department store operator's shares down 14.5 percent in after hours trading.

Groupon Inc lost a quarter of its market value in after hours trading on Wednesday after the company revealed it began to take a smaller cut of revenue on daily deals during the holidays, sacrificing revenue and profits to attract and keep merchants.

Business software provider Salesforce.com and clothes retailer Gap are due to report results after the market close.

U.S. authorities investigating possible insider trading in ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co are studying a derivatives bet that was routed through London, the New York Times reported, citing two people briefed on the matter.

Bond insurer MBIA Inc said there was a significant risk that its structured finance insurance unit would be put into liquidation or rehabilitation by its New York regulator if it was unable to settle its claims with Bank of America .

Generic drugmaker Mylan Inc said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd for $1.6 billion to expand its presence in the fast-growing injectable drugs market.

The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it has won a $1 billion tax shelter case against Dow Chemical Co that involved a Swiss partnership, Wall Street financial giant Goldman Sachs and international law firm King & Spalding.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 176.32 points, or 1.27 percent, at 14,076.45 on Wednesday. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 19.07 points, or 1.27 percent, at 1,516.01. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 32.61 points, or 1.04 percent, at 3,162.26.

(Reporting by Francesco Canepa; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Knicks overcome Curry's 54 to beat Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony finished with 35 points and Smith had 26.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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