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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France's Theaux wins men's downhill in Norway

KVITFJELL, Norway (AP) — Adrien Theaux of France earned his second career World Cup victory Saturday by narrowly beating home favorite Aksel Lund Svindal in a downhill.

Theaux raced down the steep 1.64-mile course in 1 minute, 29.10 seconds to edge Svindal by 0.19 seconds. Klaus Kroell of Austria was 0.50 seconds back in third. The Frenchman's only previous win came in March 2011 in Switzerland.

Svindal's second-place finish meant he made up some ground on overall World Cup leader Marcel Hirscher and now trails the Austrian by 129 points. The Norwegian also extended his lead over Kroell in the downhill standings.

Saturday's race had been threatened by strong winds over Scandinavia but the gusts did not arrive in time for the race and the downhill went on as planned.

The downhill is followed by a super-G on Sunday.

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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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Obama presses Congress for deal to end cuts

WASHINGTON -- Just hours after across-the-board spending cuts officially took effect, President Barack Obama pressed Congress on Saturday to work with him on a compromise to halt a fiscal crisis he said was starting to “inflict pain” on communities across the United States.

Obama and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders failed on Friday to avoid the deep spending reductions known as the “sequester,” which automatically kicked in overnight in the latest sign of dysfunction in a divided Washington.

If left in place without legislative remedy, government agencies will have to hack a total of $85 billion from their budgets between Saturday and Oct. 1, cuts that over time could cause economic harm, slash jobs and curb military readiness.

“These cuts are not smart,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. “They will hurt our economy and cost us jobs. And Congress can turn them off at any time - as soon as both sides are willing to compromise.”

Obama signed an order on Friday night that started putting the cuts into effect.

At the heart of Washington's persistent fiscal showdowns is disagreement over how to slash the budget deficit and the $16 trillion national debt, bloated over the years by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and government stimulus for the ailing economy.

The Democratic president wants to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes - what he calls a “balanced approach.” But Republicans do not want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” at the New Year.

“The discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem,” John Boehner, the Republican House of Representatives speaker, said on leaving the talks between Obama and congressional leaders on Friday.

As Obama and his aides have done for weeks, the president in his radio address offered a litany of hardships he said would flow from the sequester, saying, “Severe budget cuts … have already started to inflict pain on communities across the country.”

“Beginning this week, businesses that work with the military will have to lay folks off. Communities near military bases will take a serious blow. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve their country - Border Patrol agents, FBI agents, civilians who work for the Defense Department - will see their wages cut and their hours reduced,” he said.

“The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage,” he said. “Economists estimate they could eventually cost us more than 750,000 jobs and slow our economy by over one-half of one percent.” Despite that, financial markets shrugged off the stalemate on Friday.


While Obama has put the blame for the cuts on Republicans' intransigence and their determination to protect tax breaks for the wealthy, Republicans insist he is responsible for the fiscal predicament. They also accuse him of exaggerating the expected impact.

Obama appealed for Republicans to work with Democrats on a deal, saying Americans were weary of seeing Washington “careen from one manufactured crisis to another.” But he offered no new ideas to resolve the situation, and there was no immediate sign of any negotiations planned over the weekend.

“There's a caucus of common sense (in Congress),” Obama said. “And I'm going to keep reaching out to them to fix this for good.”

One reason for the inaction in Washington is that both parties still hope the other will either be blamed by voters for the cuts or cave in before the worst effects predicted by Democrats come into effect.


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Stock futures begin March lower as sequester looms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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‘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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Syria war is everybody's problem

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

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Washington stares down start of sequester cuts

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

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

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

That has proved elusive so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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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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