Monday, February 28, 2011

Ponzi Schemes, TARP, & 'The Other Guys' Movie (Video)

This weekend I finally got around to watching Adam McKay's latest film 'The Other Guys' featuring Will Ferrell and Mark Whalberg. Little did I know that comedy held a mini-seminar on the financial chicanery that's fattened Wall Streeters' and CEOs' bonus checks in recent years while impoverishing the American taxpayer.
The movie may be a silly farce about New York cops who stumble upon a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme that threatens to defraud billions from city workers. But buried in the comedy is a serious point about what really constitutes grand theft these days. In essence, Adam McKay used the film's end credits to a point to lambaste corporate business, bonus packages and the TARP ponzi scheme.

The closing PowerPoint-like presentation is full of fun infographics and serious statistics outlining just how much Wall Street and corporate leaders have enriched themselves at the expense of American taxpayers. Check it out:

As pointed out by moviefone blog, it's a fascinating sequence, both from a design perspective and from the unlikely prospect of seeing a major corporation (in this case, Sony) release a mass-entertainment movie that also wants to educate moviegoers about the legalized wealth-grab that's benefiting major corporations -- and seems to essentially equate the T.A.R.P. Bailout with little more than a massive ponzi scheme.

The figures cited in the sequence, for example, note the following:

- that the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) bailout cost every person in America enough to take a trip around the world

- that after the bailout, some $1.2 billion in taxpayer money went to pay the bonuses of just 73 AIG execs, while Goldman Sachs got a huge tax break that saw its tax rate drop from 34 percent to 1 percent

- that the average CEO earned about eight times the salary of his average employee a century ago, but earns more than 300 times his average employee's wages now

- that the typical American 401(k) retirement account has lost nearly half its value over the last five years

- that New York cops may earn a maximum pension of about $48,000, while the average retiring CEO reaps benefits of about $83.6 million.

Qatar: OPEC can fill any void left by Libyan oil production

OPEC members and oil producers outside the group can compensate for any halt in crude shipments from Libya, Qatari Oil Minister Mohammed Saleh Al Sada said, after prices surged last week to a two-year high.

“We think there is no shortage of supply,” Al Sada told reporters in Doha today. “OPEC and others outside OPEC can make up for the loss of Libyan production.”

Concern that political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East would disrupt supplies drove the price of crude to $103.41 a barrel last week, the highest level since September 2008. Libya holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa.
Al Sada’s comments followed those of a Saudi Arabian oil official, who said on Feb. 24 there was no reason for oil prices to rise because Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries wouldn’t allow shortages to exist. Qatar and Libya are among the 12 members of OPEC, which pumps about 40 percent of the world’s oil. Saudi Arabia is the group’s largest and most influential member.

The Saudi official, who declined to be identified by name, said in a telephone interview that some African oil going to Asian markets can be redirected to Europe, while extra Saudi oil can go to Asia to replace Nigerian or Angolan supplies there.

Violent clashes between opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and forces loyal to him have reduced the North African nation’s oil output by at least 850,000 barrels a day from 1.6 million before the conflict, according to a statement on the website of the International Energy Agency on Feb. 25. The Paris-based IEA advises industrialized, oil-consuming nations.
Libyan Fields Shut

“Almost all international oil companies operating in Libya have reported partial or full shut-in of output,” the IEA statement said. These companies account for about 72 percent of the North African country’s output. The status of oil fields operated by the National Oil Corp., which accounts for the remaining 28 percent of production, was “still unclear,” the agency said.

Crude oil for April delivery climbed 60 cents, or 0.6 percent, to settle at $97.88 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 25, the most recent day of trading. U.S. oil rose to $103.41 on Feb. 24, the highest intraday price since Sept. 29, 2008.

North Sea Brent crude, the European benchmark, for April settlement rose 78 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $112.14 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange, the highest close since Aug. 29, 2008. Brent rose 9.4 percent last week.

Willow Smith “21st Century Girl” (Audio)

by Sara Post image for Willow Smith “21st Century Girl” (Audio)
10-year old Willow Smith, exploded when she released her debut single Whip my Hair back in the fall. Now, she’s back with a brand new single and ready to go our on tour with Justin Bieber.

Willow unveiled “21st Centruy Girl” this morning while on with Ryan Seacrest. “Gimme an inch I promise I’ll take a mile, dangerous beauty I’ll face it with a smile, I’m on a mission with no restriction…don’t second guess myself, I’m born to be wild,” the lyrics begin. 21st is no doubt going to be a huge club dance hit.

Willow will perform her brand new single live on the Oprah Winfrey show, for the first time on Tuesday, March 1st. Here’s the audio, what do you think?

Ryan Mallett Outshines Cam Newton At NFL Scouting Combine

The Dallas Cowboys have already been a part of the “Cam Newton Show” during the NFL Scouting Combine as they conducted a 15-minute interview with him yesterday. Newton has been a lightning rod for controversy this past year, but that didn’t stop the Cowboys from sitting down with him. Newton isn’t the only controversial quarterback that Dallas plans on talking to this week.

According to reports, Cowboys officials have said that the team plans on talking with Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett has the strongest arm in this year’s draft, but he has seen his stock plummet do to severe character concerns and rumors of heavy drug use.

During passing drills at the combine, Mallett showcased his cannon arm and made some beautiful throws all over the field. All the while, Cam Newton failed to entertain and put up an iconic stink job of a performance. Newton was all over the place with his deep balls and again failed to take the blame. Instead of owning up to his poor outing, he blamed the slower, small school receivers. The funniest part is, the “slow, small school receivers” put up the fastest times among receivers.

There is no word as to how serious the Cowboys interest is in either of the quarterbacks, but if they would decide to take one of these two, I would hope they go with Mallett. Not only does Mallett have the better arm, but he could also fall to the Cowboys in the second round giving Dallas more value out of the pick.
Here are ESPN John Clayton’s observations from the combine workouts today. First up, Cam Newton:
Overall, Newton completed 11 of his 21 throws after helping out receivers in the across-the-field pass-catching drills.
Newton is a great arm thrower, not using much leg power to put velocity behind his throws. He can throw 50-to-60 yards with an easy arm motion. There is no throw he can’t make.
Newton was two-for-three on deep post-corner routes, his best throws of the day. The post-corner routes were the last passes of the workout. He took a little off his first throw to get a completion and was a little long with throw number two. No. 3 was perfect
His most consistent throws were the 17-yard “turn-ins” to his left and 12-yard “turn ins” to his right, completing five of six of those throws.
What’s clear is he needs to work on his footwork on passes to his left. Like a lot of young quarterbacks, Newton tended to overstride and not be accurate on passes to his left. The longer the pass, the less accurate he was. He was one-for-three on short “out” passes to his left, rebounded with his leftside “turn-in” passes and missed all three of his “go” routes down the left sidelines.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of his performance was overthrowing receivers on three passes to his right on short “out” passes to the sideline.
Here’s what he saw from Mallett:
What was evident — as expected — was his strong arm, an arm that sometimes was almost too strong. Mallett’s first throw on a short route was so strong and hard it caused Mallett to step back and almost hit himself with his hand as if he was mad at himself for throwing a 5-yard route with such velocity. After that, he settled down and had a great day.
Mallett elected not to run but instead to throw, emphasizing his strengths as a quarterback. On deep seam routes in the middle of the field, Mallett was flawless, arching the ball with perfect touch and hitting receivers in stride.
On out routes to the sideline, Mallett delivered his best fastball and was perfectly accurate. The ball exploded into receivers’ hands.
His slant route throws were perfect although some of the throws are so hard and fast they will challenge the hands of receivers.
He was particularly impressive on his post corners on the right, going four-for-four. If there was a weakness, it was his 17-yard turn-ins to his left. His first pass was high. His second one was a little off, but by the third throw he was perfect.
Mallett has excellent deep touch on his throws. His challenge is making sure he can be accurate on his intermediate throws.
How interested would you be in Dallas taking a quarterback in the first or second round? Better yet, would you rather have Newton or Mallett? Sound off in the comment section!

AUTHOR: Josh Sanchez

Jeff Gordon Wins In Phoenix!

By Wyatt Earp | February 28, 2011
Whoo hoo! And after a 66-race win drought, Gordon’s Phoenix has risen.
Jeff Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight laps left and stretched his lead from there at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, ending his winless streak at 66 races.
Gordon, who started 20th, was knocked into the wall by Edwards, had to pull behind another car to shake a piece of debris from his grill and avoided a massive wreck that led to a 14-minute red flag. He still managed to lead the most laps and was able to pull alongside then bump Busch out of the way late to win for the first time since April 2009 at Texas.
The win, his 83rd, ties him for 5th all-time with Cale Yarborough. Bam! Gordon’s my favorite driver, and it’s damned nice to see him in Victory Lane again.
As far as the NASCAR Fantasy League goes, the results are below the fold:

Yeah, that’s right. The 10-year old and the 7-year old are still in first place. As Ricky Bobby would say, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”

YEMEN PROTESTS: Yemen ‘to declare unity government’

Aljazeera -  28 February 2011
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, is to announce a government of national unity “within the next 24 hours”, government sources have told Al Jazeera.

The move comes as thousands more protesters joined demonstrations against Saleh’s 32-year rule on Monday.

Hashem Ahelbarra, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Yemen, said: “It’s a last ditch effort to try and appease the mounting tension here in the capital and across the country.

“Al Jazeera understands that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has had a crucial meeting with the clerics of Yemen in the presidential palace and he told them that within 24 hours from now he will announce a national unity government.

“He reportedly said that even if the opposition decides not to join him in this government, he will contact independent personalities and invite them to join this national unity government that would lay down the groundwork for dramatic constitutional reforms.”

The opposition appeared likely to reject any offer from Saleh.

“The opposition decided to stand with the people’s demand for the fall of the regime, and there is no going back from that,” Mohammed al-Sabry, a spokesman for Yemen’s umbrella opposition coalition, was reported by the Reuters news agency as saying.

Protests against Saleh, a US ally in its fight against al-Qaeda, have spread across the impoverished Arabian Peninsula in the last month.

In the northern cities of Ibb and Hudeida on Monday, thousands of protesters gathered, while at least 10,000 took to the streets in Taiz, 200km south of the capital.

Elsewhere, in the south, three soldiers and a policeman died in skirmishes.

Shadi Hamid, from the Brookings Doha Centre, told Al Jazeera that Yemen was a “powder keg”, and that Saleh’s stalled response to the protesters’ demands had done little to help the situation.

“It really seems that the protesters have the momentum. This is the problem – when regimes wait, and they don’t really initiate real democratic reform, the demands of the protesters become more and more,” he said.

“Now we’re really at a stalemate. The protesters are very clear, they want Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, [and] Ali Abdullah Saleh does not want to resign.”

Could This Video Lead To Arab-Israeli Peace?

Well, maybe with the Libyans and others in the Middle East who, according to The New York Times, have embraced this Israeli spoof of Muammar Gaddafi:

A satirical YouTube clip mocking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s megalomania is fast becoming a popular token of the Libya uprising across Middle East. And in an added affront to Colonel Qaddafi, it was created by an Israeli living in Tel Aviv.
Noy Alooshe, 31, an Israeli journalist, musician and Internet buff, said he saw Colonel Qaddafi’s televised speech last Tuesday in which the Libyan leader vowed to hunt down protesters “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway,” and immediately identified it as a “classic hit.”
I think he's chanting "Toga Toga" but apparently not, it's Zenga-Zenga which means "alleyway" mocking Gadaffi's speech.

Farrakhan: Mideast uprisings will come to US

Minister Louis Farrakhan
By Becky Schlikerman

Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan predicted on Sunday that America faces imminent uprisings that mirror those in the Middle East.

“What you are looking at in Tunisia, in Egypt … Libya, in Bahrain … what you see happening there … you’d better prepare because it will be coming to your door,” Farrakhan said in a booming voice, thousands of followers cheering in his wake.

Farrakhan also called on President Barack Obama to allow protesters to march, urging the president not to attack innocent people when they do.

The controversial minster spoke to a packed house at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont as part of the 81st annual celebration of Saviours’ Day, which marks the birth of the faith’s founder, W. Fard Muhammad.

Full article here

'the Saviours' Day convention'

Special Report: U.S. cables detail Saudi royal welfare program (Reuters)

LONDON (Reuters) – When Saudi King Abdullah arrived home last week, he came bearing gifts: handouts worth $37 billion, apparently intended to placate Saudis of modest means and insulate the world’s biggest oil exporter from the wave of protest sweeping the Arab world.

But some of the biggest handouts over the past two decades have gone to his own extended family, according to unpublished American diplomatic cables dating back to 1996.

The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, provide remarkable insight into how much the vast royal welfare program has cost the country — not just financially but in terms of undermining social cohesion.

Besides the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives, the cables detail various money-making schemes some royals have used to finance their lavish lifestyles over the years. Among them: siphoning off money from “off-budget” programs controlled by senior princes, sponsoring expatriate workers who then pay a small monthly fee to their royal patron and, simply, “borrowing from the banks, and not paying them back.”
As long ago as 1996, U.S. officials noted that such unrestrained behavior could fuel a backlash against the Saudi elite. In the assessment of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh in a cable from that year, “of the priority issues the country faces, getting a grip on royal family excesses is at the top.”

A 2007 cable showed that King Abdullah has made changes since taking the throne six years ago, but recent turmoil in the Middle East underlines the deep-seated resentment about economic disparities and corruption in the region.

A Saudi government spokesman contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

The November 1996 cable — entitled “Saudi Royal Wealth: Where do they get all that money?” — provides an extraordinarily detailed picture of how the royal patronage system works. It’s the sort of overview that would have been useful required reading for years in the U.S. State department.

It begins with a line that could come from a fairytale: “Saudi princes and princesses, of whom there are thousands, are known for the stories of their fabulous wealth — and tendency to squander it.”

The most common mechanism for distributing Saudi Arabia’s wealth to the royal family is the formal, budgeted system of monthly stipends that members of the Al Saud family receive, according to the cable. Managed by the Ministry of Finance’s “Office of Decisions and Rules,” which acts like a kind of welfare office for Saudi royalty, the royal stipends in the mid-1990s ran from about $800 a month for “the lowliest member of the most remote branch of the family” to $200,000-$270,000 a month for one of the surviving sons of Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.

Grandchildren received around $27,000 a month, “according to one contact familiar with the stipends” system, the cable says. Great-grandchildren received about $13,000 and great-great- grandchildren $8,000 a month.

“Bonus payments are available for marriage and palace building,” according to the cable, which estimates that the system cost the country, which had an annual budget of $40 billion at the time, some $2 billion a year.
“The stipends also provide a substantial incentive for royals to procreate since the stipends begin at birth.”
After a visit to the Office of Decisions and Rules, which was in an old building in Riyadh’s banking district, the U.S. embassy’s economics officer described a place “bustling with servants picking up cash for their masters.” The office distributed the monthly stipends — not just to royals but to “other families and individuals granted monthly stipends in perpetuity.” It also fulfilled “financial promises made by senior princes.”
The head of the office at the time, Abdul-Aziz al-Shubayli, told the economics officer that an important part of his job “at least in today’s more fiscally disciplined environment, is to play the role of bad cop.” He “rudely grilled a nearly blind old man about why an eye operation promised by a prince and confirmed by royal Diwan note had to be conducted overseas and not for free in one of the first-class eye hospitals in the kingdom.” After finally signing off on a trip, Shubayli noted that he himself had been in the United States twice for medical treatment, once for a chronic ulcer and once for carpal tunnel syndrome. “He chuckled, suggesting that both were probably job-induced.”


But the stipend system was clearly not enough for many royals, who used a range of other ways to make money, “not counting business activities.”

“By far the largest is likely royal skimming from the approximately $10 billion in annual off-budget spending controlled by a few key princes,” the 1996 cable states. Two of those projects — the Two Holy Mosques Project and the Ministry of Defense’s Strategic Storage Project — are “highly secretive, subject to no Ministry of Finance oversight or controls, transacted through the National Commercial Bank, and widely believed to be a source of substantial revenues” for the then-King and a few of his full brothers, according to the authors of the cable.

In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador at the time, one Saudi prince, alluding to the off-budget programs, “lamented the travesty that revenues from ‘one million barrels of oil per day’ go entirely to ‘five or six princes,’” according to the cable, which quoted the prince.

Then there was the apparently common practice for royals to borrow money from commercial banks and simply not repay their loans. As a result, the 12 commercial banks in the country were “generally leary of lending to royals.”

The managing director of another bank in the kingdom told the ambassador that he divided royals into four tiers, according to the cable. The top tier was the most senior princes who, perhaps because they were so wealthy, never asked for loans. The second tier included senior princes who regularly asked for loans. “The bank insists that such loans be 100 percent collateralized by deposits in other accounts at the bank,” the cable reports. The third tier included thousands of princes the bank refused to lend to. The fourth tier, “not really royals, are what this banker calls the ‘hangers on’.”

Another popular money-making scheme saw some “greedy princes” expropriate land from commoners. “Generally, the intent is to resell quickly at huge markup to the government for an upcoming project.” By the mid-1990s, a government program to grant land to commoners had dwindled. “Against this backdrop, royal land scams increasingly have become a point of public contention.”

The cable cites a banker who claimed to have a copy of “written instructions” from one powerful royal that ordered local authorities in the Mecca area to transfer to his name a “Waqf” — religious endowment — of a small parcel of land that had been in the hands of one family for centuries. “The banker noted that it was the brazenness of the letter … that was particularly egregious.”

Another senior royal was famous for “throwing fences up around vast stretches of government land.”
The confiscation of land extends to businesses as well, the cable notes. A prominent and wealthy Saudi businessman told the embassy that one reason rich Saudis keep so much money outside the country was to lessen the risk of ‘royal expropriation.’”

Finally, royals kept the money flowing by sponsoring the residence permits of foreign workers and then requiring them to pay a monthly “fee” of between $30 and $150. “It is common for a prince to sponsor a hundred or more foreigners,” the 1996 cable says.

The U.S. diplomats behind the cable note wryly that despite all the money that has been given to Saudi royals over the years there is not “a significant number of super-rich princes … In the end,” the cable states, Saudi’s “royals still seem more adept at squandering than accumulating wealth.”

But the authors of the cable also warned that all that money and excess was undermining the legitimacy of the ruling family. By 1996, there was “broad sentiment that royal greed has gone beyond the bounds of reason”. Still, as long as the “royal family views this country as ‘Al Saud Inc.’ ever increasing numbers of princes and princesses will see it as their birthright to receive lavish dividend payments, and dip into the till from time to time, by sheer virtue of company ownership.”

In the years that followed that remarkable assessment of Saudi royalty, there were some official efforts toward reform — driven in the late 1990s and early 2000s in particular by an oil price between $10-20 a barrel. But the real push for reform began in 2005, when King Abdullah succeeded to the throne, and even then change came slowly.

By February 2007, according to a second cable entitled “Crown Prince Sultan backs the King in family disputes”, the reforms were beginning to bite. “By far the most widespread source of discontent in the ruling family is the King’s curtailment of their privileges,” the cable says. “King Abdullah has reportedly told his brothers that he is over 80 years old and does not wish to approach his judgment day with the ‘burden of corruption on my shoulder.’”

The King, the cable states, had disconnected the cellphone service for “thousands of princes and princesses.” Year-round government-paid hotel suites in Jeddah had been canceled, as was the right of royals to request unlimited free tickets from the state airline. “We have a first-hand account that a wife of Interior minister Prince Naif attempted to board a Saudia flight with 12 companions, all expecting to travel for free,” the authors of the cables write, only to be told “to her outrage” that the new rules meant she could only take two free guests.

Others were also angered by the rules. Prince Mishal bin Majid bin Abdulaziz had taken to driving between Jeddah and Riyadh “to show his annoyance” at the reforms, according to the cable.
Abdullah had also reigned in the practice of issuing “block visas” to foreign workers “and thus cut the income of many junior princes” as well as dramatically reducing “the practice of transferring public lands to favored individuals.”

The U.S. cable reports that all those reforms had fueled tensions within the ruling family to the point where Interior Minister Prince Naif and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman had “sought to openly confront the King over reducing royal entitlements.”

But according to “well established sources with first hand access to this information,” Crown Prince Sultan stood by Abdullah and told his brothers “that challenging the King was a ‘red line’ that he would not cross.” Sultan, the cable says, has also followed the King’s lead and turned down requests for land transfers.
The cable comments that Sultan, longtime defense minister and now also Crown Prince, seemed to value family unity and stability above all.

(Editing by Jim Impoco, Claudia Parsons and Sara Ledwith)

Rebel Libyan army in east ready to help Tripoli

Gaddafi losing vast tracts of Libya to rebels.

A general in eastern Libya who has mutinied against Muammar Gaddafi rule said his forces stood ready to help rebels fighting in Tripoli if called on to do so, but he rejected any need for foreign assistance.

The Libyan leader lost control on the east swiftly after the eruption of protests against his rule on Feb. 15. Rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi have created a national council and have pledged to support those still fighting Gaddafi’s rule.

“Our brothers in Tripoli say: `We are fine so far, we do not need help’. If they ask for help we are ready to move,” said General Ahmed el-Gatrani, one of most senior figures in the army in Benghazi which no longer swears allegiance to Gaddafi.

Residents of Benghazi say that hundreds of people from the city have already headed to Tripoli to support the effort to seize control of the capital from Gaddafi. Gatrani indicated the army would only move if called on by rebel commanders there.

The extent to which rebel army units engage with hardline Gaddafi loyalists is a key factor in how long conflict may last.

“In Tripoli they (Gaddafi loyalists) still control one unit but it will be with the people soon,” he told Reuters, without giving a source for his information. “All orders he gives to the air force, they are refusing his instructions.

“He only has a couple of units in the areas he still controls and the rest are with us. Tripoli is being held hostage,” he said, adding that Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town which lies roughly between Benghazi and Tripoli, was also falling.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the United States was “reaching out” to Libyan opposition groups seeking to oust Gaddafi. Although not responding directly to Clinton’s remarks, the general said: “We don’t need foreign help as we moved on our own, on orders from no one outside.”

The east has been largely calm since it shook off Gaddafi’s rule, despite some looting and a collapse of law and order in the initial aftermath. Libyans in the region have organised committees to help restore order and run basic services.

Gatrani said there was still the odd incident of violence in the east but these were not very significant. He blamed them on “mercenaries and foreigners fighting the people” in areas such al-Bayda, north of Benghazi.
He also said his forces would aim to protect key oil areas, such as el-Brega and Ras Lanuf where there are crude and product terminals, as fighting continued closer to Tripoli and in the capital itself. Libya relies on oil exports for its earnings.

“The areas of Ras Lanuf and Brega are safe areas for oil. Any fighting would be dangerous there. We aim to ensure that, when Tripoli falls, the situation is going to be fine in these areas,” he said. “We try to avoid any clashes in these areas.”

(Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; editing by Alastair Macdonald)

Pranab to present Union budget today

New Delhi, Monday 28 February 2011: Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is set to present the budget for 2011-12 in the Lok Sabha on Monday amid expectations that he is likely to give tax concessions to the salaried class and offer incentives to farmers.

Mukerjee, who is presenting the third consecutive budget of UPA II, is likely to focus on dealing effectively with inflation, price rise, increasing investments in infrastructure and agriculture.

Keeping an eye on the upcoming elections in five states, the Finance Minister is also likely to announce a slew of measures aimed at curbing spiraling prices of essential commodities.

Inflation has remained above the comfort level for most part of the current fiscal and will be another focus area for Mukherjee. The overall inflation at 8.23% is higher than the comfort level of the Reserve Bank at 5-6%. Food inflation had also touched at a high of 18.23% in December, but moderated to 11.49 % in mid-February.

With people’s expectations from the budget running high there is a possibility of the Finance minister giving tax concessions to the salaried class by raising the income tax exemption limit to Rs 1.80 lakh from the current Rs 1.60 lakh per annum.

The Finance Ministry is already committed to raising the exemption limit to Rs 2 lakh per annum in the Direct Taxes Code (DTC) which is to be implemented from April 2012.

Industry is strongly pleading for the continuation of the stimulus package, experts point out that some steps may be announced to roll them back partially. Increase in social sector spending is bound to get further impetus with expectations of 9% growth in the new fiscal.

Industry fears that Mukherjee may roll back some of the stimulus to fight inflation. Moreover, the Economic Survey had also projected the economy is recovering fast and is expected to return to the pre-crisis growth rate of 9% in 2011-12. Stimulus package provided by the government at the time financial meltdown helped India grew by 6.8% in 200809, and by 8% in 2009-10.

Expanding financial inclusion, dealing effectively with corporate frauds and corruption, unearthing black money increasing productivity, production in agriculture , providing farmers with incentives for using better technology and combating the effects of climate change are some other important areas likely to figure in the budget.

Mukherjee may also consider raising the limit for investment in tax-free infrastructure bonds to give a boost to the fund-starved sector. Investments up to Rs 20,000 in infrastructure bonds enjoy tax exemption now.
Experts said with fiscal deficit projected to come down sharply to 4.8%, the Finance Minister would have some leeway to provide these tax concessions. The Economic Survey 2010-11 presented in Parliament projected fiscal deficit at 4.8%, down from the budget estimate of 5.5% for the current fiscal.

With five states — Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal– heading for polls, it is unlikely that Mukherjee would completely roll back the stimulus and come out with harsh measures to increase government revenues and bring down fiscal deficit, experts said.

Earlier, on tax rationalisation, Mukherjee had said, “The sustained growth has been possible due to rationalisation of tax structure, improvement in tax administration and persistent efforts of the employees of Income Tax department.”

The economy grew by 8.9% in the first half of 2010-11. However, the tax incentives and higher public expenditure also pushed up the fiscal deficit to 6.3 per cent in 2009-10. In the Budget 2010-11, Mukherjee had estimated fiscal deficit to be Rs 3,81,408 crore.

Even as there could be some decline in government revenue due to higher exemption limits, Mukherjee would pin hopes on increased economic activity with a high growth rate of 9% to bring in money to Centre`s kitty.

Mexico nabs 2 more suspects in US agent slaying

Written by OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ   
Monday, 28 February 2011 05:13
Soldiers escort Julian Zapata Espinosa, aka
MEXICO CITY (AP) 2/27/2011 10:03 PM

Mexican authorities on Sunday arrested two alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel they say are linked to the killing of a U.S. immigration agent, including a boss of the man suspected of carrying out the attack.
Mexican marines arrested Sergio Mora, an alleged regional leader of the Zetas, in the northern city of Saltillo, along with five other suspects, the navy said in a brief statement.

Mora is boss of Julian Zapata Espinoza, who was arrested Wednesday and is accused of fatally shooting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and wounding fellow agent Victor Avila in the Feb. 15 attack, the navy said. The statement gave no other details.

Also Sunday, Mexican federal agents arrested Luis Rojo, known as "Red Bear," an alleged member of the Zetas also linked to the killing of the ICE agent, the Safety Department said in a statement.

Federal police arrested Rojo, 27, in the northern state of San Luis Potosi, where the attack on the agents took place on a highway linking Mexico City to the northern city of Monterrey.

Rojo has links to Jesus Rejon, a lieutenant in the Zetas drug cartel who has also been mentioned as a suspect, the department said.

Neither official statement specified how the suspects were involved in the attack on the U.S. agents, other than saying that Mora is a gang chief who gave orders to Zapata Espinoza and that Rojo was suspected of handling the cartel's finances in the region.

Federal agents and soldiers raided seven homes in the state of San Luis Potosi and four in the border city of Nuevo Laredo as part of the investigation into the attack against Zapata and Avila, the department said.
Zapata and Avila, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, were attacked as they returned to Mexico City from a meeting with other U.S. personnel in the city of San Luis Potosi, capital of the state by the same name.
San Luis Potosi is at the center of a power struggle between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel. It is also on the route north used by migrants seeking to reach the United States. Officials say cartels have begun recruiting some migrants to work for the gangs.

Following the attack, some U.S. officials maintained it was an intentional ambush of the agents and said the gunmen made comments before they fired indicating they knew who their targets were.

The two agents were in a Chevrolet Suburban. Mexico's drug cartels frequently set up roadblocks and ambushes to steal large SUVs and pickups.

When soldiers arrested Zapata Espinoza — known by the nickname "El Piolin," or Tweety Bird, apparently because of his short stature — he allegedly told authorities that he and a group of gunmen from the Zetas mistook the ICE agents' SUV for one used by a rival gang. Along with Zapata Espinoza, soldiers arrested another Mexican man and a Honduran man who allegedly took part in the attack.

Passengers At 3 U.S. Airports Exposed To Measles Bacteria

Washington (SmartAboutHealth) – It has been confirmed that passengers at 3 major U.S. airports have been exposed to bacteria from the measles disease.

The Airports that were impacted include the Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado, as well as the Albuquerque International Airport in New Mexico.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that a woman infected with the measles traveled from Europe through these three different airports.

Health officials from all 3 states have went out of their way to try and contact every single passenger that was on a plane with this woman.

The fear is that the measles could rapidly spread if one of the passengers was infected.
The woman arrived Tuesday evening at the Denver airport and from there arrived at the other airports, while infected.

People who were passengers with her and have been contacted have been asked to stay out of work if they have any of the symptoms of measles include coughing, sneezing, etc.

The viral disease is highly-contagious and can remain in the air for up to two hours.

City releases list of possible teacher layoffs by school

City officials released a list Sunday showing how many teachers each of New York City’s public schools could lose to layoffs this year if the state’s current seniority law does not change.

The release comes at the same time that the state legislature is considering a bill that would end the current “last in, first out” layoff policy, which requires districts to dismiss teachers based on seniority. The list shows how Mayor Bloomberg’s planned-for 4,675 potential layoffs would be distributed across its nearly 1,600 schools and the city’s different neighborhoods. The list was first reported by the New York Times.

No teachers who work in special education, bilingual special education, English as a second language, or speech improvement would be laid off. Math and science teachers would also be less affected than their colleagues who teach other subjects. About 3 percent of math teachers would be laid off, whereas 9 percent of social studies teachers would lose their jobs.

More than half of the school employees who would be laid off under this plan are elementary school teachers. The layoffs carried out under this plan would also disproportionately affect newer schools. Of the 20 schools that would lose the greatest percentage of their teachers, all of them were opened between 2007 and 2010.
While most schools would lose at least one teacher to layoffs, about 320 would not have any teachers laid off.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew denounced the city’s decision to release the list.
“This is more fear-mongering from Mayor Bloomberg and it is clearly the mayor’s strategy to create a panic among parents, teachers and communities,” he said. “Not only is this fear-mongering irresponsible, with a $3 billion budget surplus he doesn’t need to do layoffs at all.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said the list reveals how hard some schools with many newly hired teachers will be hit.

“This arbitrary standard means that some schools will lose up to half of their teachers, just because they have chosen to hire teachers new to the profession,” Ravitz said. “There is a better way to do this — we can change the law and keep the best teachers for our kids.”

Schools with the greatest percentage of possible layoffs:
  1. Columbia Secondary School: 14 of 20 teachers
  2. Brighter Choice Community School: 5 of 8 teachers
  3. Spruce Street School: 3 of 6 teachers
  4. High School for Excellence and Innovation: 6 of 12 teachers
  5. Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship: 8 of 16 teachers
  6. Brooklyn Brownstone School: 5 of 10 teachers
  7. The Academy of Talented Scholars: 7 of 14 teachers
  8. P.S. Q290: 3 of 6 teachers
  9. Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability: 2 of 4 teachers
  10. Cornerstone Academy for Social Action: 17 of 36 teachers
  11. East Fordham Academy for the Arts: 7 of 15 teachers
  12. Khalil Gibran International Academy: 4 of 9 teachers
  13. Young Leaders Elementary School: 10 of 23 teachers
  14. Esperanza Preparatory Academy: 11 of 26 teachers
  15. KAPPA International High School: 13 of 31 teachers
Schools with the greatest number of possible layoffs:
  1. New Rikers Island School: 21 of 69 teachers
  2. Sunset Park High School: 20 of 51 teachers
  3. P.S. 157 Grove Hill: 20 of 58 teachers
  4. P.S. 86 Kingsbridge Heights: 20 of 119 teachers
  5. New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math: 19 of 95 teachers
  6. Cornerstone Academy for Social Action: 17 of 36 teachers
  7. P.S. 1 Courtlandt School: 17 of 53 teachers
  8. P.S. 58 School of Heroes: 17 of 66 teachers
  9. Pioneer Academy: 16 of 41 teachers
  10. P.S. 139 Alexine A. Fenty: 16 of 71 teachers
  11. P.S. 85 Great Expectations: 16 of 101 teachers
  12. P.S. K134: 15 of 40 teachers
  13. P.S. 239: 15 of 66 teachers
  14. P.S. 176 Ovington: 15 of 73 teachers
  15. P.S. 70 Max Schoenfeld: 15 of 94 teachers

Oman: Protesters demand jobs and political reforms

Omani protesters demanding jobs, oil wealth distribution and political reforms have blocked roads to a main port in the north of the sultanate.

Protests began on Sunday 27 February and have since escalated. It is being reported that at least six people have died but there are no official records at this time. Selling pressure increased as investors become weary of the protests.

The protests prompted Sultan Qaboos to promise jobs for 50,000 citizens and unemployment benefits, it also forced the Oman’s index to fall to a two-year low.

Links to: Al Jazeera English, The Times of Oman

Posted by :: Laila Rodriguez 

Walker unmoved by protests, won't back down on collective bargaining

By David

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said Sunday that thousands of demonstrators had not caused him to reconsider his plan to strip unions of collective bargaining rights.

NBC's David Gregory asked Walker why he refused a proposal by unions to accept his demand that they contribute more to pension and health care benefits if he dropped the proposal to end collective bargaining rights.

"If the unions, who it seems to me have been clear in saying that they would agree to those extra contributions, if they did that, and you say you're concerned about the budget shortfall, why not accept that?" Gregory wondered.

"But my point is, they can't," Walker replied. "There are 1,000-plus municipalities, more than 424 school districts, 72 counties, I know, I used to be a county executive for eight years. I know that collective bargaining has to be done in every jurisdiction. They can't guarantee that."

"Governor, if you're really serious about the state being broke, you have a deal that you could take, to get the contributions you need to solve the problem at hand. Why not separate that out from your views about collective bargaining?" Gregory pressed.

"But, David, my point is repeatedly, as a former local government official, I know that collective bargaining has a cost and when I'm cutting more than $1 billion from aid to local governments, in this next two-year budget, I need to do what no other governor is doing across the country."

The Republican governor repeated his threat that if 14 Democrats in the state Senate didn't return to vote on the bill, he would be forced to layoff workers.

"If we don't get these changes and the Senate Democrats don't come back, we'll be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that's unacceptable," he said.

Frank Buckles: Last Living US WWI Vet Dead At 110

Frank Buckles picture
Frank Buckles picture
Frank Buckles, who served in the US Army during WWI has died. Buckles was 110 years old, and the last living American survivor of WWI. Buckles had been an ambulance driver during the war. He passed away in Virginia.

Grading Christie on the Budget: An ‘A’ for Politics, an ‘Incomplete’ for Leadership

By Richard A. Lee

Governor Chris Christie gets an A in politics for the state budget he introduced on February 22, but in terms of demonstrating leadership, the Governor's grade is an incomplete.

Chief executives, whether they are governors, presidents or mayors, have a responsibility to present their legislative bodies with budget proposals that are full and complete. The state budget and its components should stand on their own when they go to the Legislature. Legislators then can accept, reject and alter line items before sending the document back to the Governor for action.

This is not the scenario Governor Christie laid out this year. Instead of presenting the Legislature with a full and complete budget, he is engaging in a game of “Let's Make A Deal.”

For example, the Governor said the budget will make it possible for the state to double property tax rebates, but only if the Legislature agrees to increase the amount of money state employees pay for health benefits.

Likewise, Christie said he would make an immediate $500 million contribution to the state pension fund, but only if the Legislature approves controversial changes to the pension system, such as rolling back a nine percent increase in pension benefits that was enacted in 2001, raising the retirement age for state workers from 62 to 65, and requiring that they pay more into the system.

Neither of these challenges will be easy lifts for legislators. It's a bit like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy he will get her back home to Kansas, but only if she manages to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

This is precisely why – from a purely political perspective – Christie's budget proposal is a thing of beauty. Although Democrats hold majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, the Republican governor has backed them into a very tight corner.

If Democrats move forward on either of Christie's challenges, they will anger their base, which includes state employee labor unions and their members, as well as labor groups in general. Without their usual support from labor unions and their members, Democrats could suffer at the polls in November when all 120 seats in the state Legislature are up for election.

On the other hand, if Democrats decide not to act on the Governor's challenges, they become the scapegoats for the state's failures to reduce property taxes and make a badly needed payment to New Jersey’s underfunded pension system.

Inaction by the Democratic Legislature also would provide Christie and Republican candidates with effective talking points for the fall campaign. I can almost hear the Governor out on the campaign trail telling voters something along the lines of: “I wanted to lower your property taxes and start shoring up the pension fund. I did my part, but the Democrats in the Legislature refused to do theirs. That's why we need you to elect candidates A, B and C in this district.”

At this point, the best thing Democrats have going for themselves is time. The June 30 budget deadline still is four months away. That gives them plenty of time to craft a strategy to back themselves out of the corner the Governor has painted them into.

Christie may not be expecting Democrats to meet his challenges, much like the wizard never expected Dorothy to bring back the wicked witch’s broomstick. In the movie, Dorothy and her friends also discovered that the wizard was not really a wizard at all. He was just a man whose strong words and admonitions were more rhetoric than reality. I am sure there are some who would say that is an apt description of our Governor, and that there also others who would disagree vehemently with that characterization.

Whether Democrats or Republicans score more political points from this year’s budget process remains to be seen. It will be several more months before we know which party fares better. After all, balancing a state budget is not as easy as closing your eyes, tapping your heels together three times, and making a wish that comes true.

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Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter.

NJ Gaming Industries to be Focus of March 31 Forum

(NEWARK) - New Jersey’s gaming industries will be the focus of a March 31 forum sponsored by Rutgers University’s School of Public Affairs and Administration and the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.
The forum, The Gaming Industry in New Jersey: The Present and the Future, will take place at Rutgers’ Newark Campus in the Paul Robeson Campus Center - Multi-Purpose Room, 350 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Experts from the casino and horseracing industries will discuss the status of gaming in New Jersey, the bills recently signed into law by Governor Christie, and options for the future, including sports betting and slot machines at the Meadowlands Racetrack. Speakers will include:

Jon Hanson, chairman of the N.J. Gaming, Sports and Entertainment Advisory Commission
State Senator Raymond Lesniak
Thomas Carver, former Chairman, of the N.J. Casino Reinvestment Development Authority
Jeffrey Gural, chairman of Newmark Knight Frank and American Racing Entertainment
Karyn Malinowski, director of Rutgers Equine Science Center
Suzette Parmley, business reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer
James Simpson, proprietor of Hanover Shoe Farms
Chris Woronka, a vice president and senior research analyst for Deutsche Bank Securities.

The Hall Institute has been following developments in the state’s gaming industries since July when a special commission appointed by Governor Christie issued a report containing a widespread series of recommendations. Several studies and reports are posted in a special Future of NJ Gaming section on the Hall website.

The Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration is a recognized educational leader in preparing managers and professionals for the government and nonprofit sectors. The school’s most recent conference, Strategies for Ending Homelessness & Creating Affordable Housing, attracted an audience of 250.
The March 31 gaming forum will begin at 9 a.m. The program is free and open to the public, but registration at is required. To obtain additional information, email
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For more information:
Richard Lee
646-515-9290 (mobile)