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Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 saw record 99 disasters for U.S. $35 billion in Insured Losses

This year will go down as the second costliest in the U.S. in terms of insured losses from natural disasters, the Insurance Information Institute said Friday. And it will set the record for number of federal major disaster declarations: 99 issued throughout 2011, up from the previous record of 81 in 2010.
"Catastrophes striking the United States in the first nine months of 2011 caused $32.6 billion in direct insured losses, nearly double the $18.6 billion in catastrophe-caused direct insured losses insurers generally incur over the first nine months of any given year," III President Robert Hartwig
"The $32.6 billion figure doesn’t even include the significant insured losses which arose after the pre-Halloween snowstorm, which caused enormous damage to multiple states along the Atlantic seaboard," he added. "Coupled with other events in 2011’s fourth quarter, direct insured losses could exceed $35 billion this year."
Total losses, including those not insured, are likely far in excess of $75 billion, the institute said.


Arab Parliament urges end to Syria monitors' mission

An advisory body to the Arab League has called for the organisation's observers to be withdrawn from Syria because of the ongoing crackdown on protests.

The speaker of the Arab Parliament said the monitors had to leave "considering the continued killing of innocent civilians by the Syrian regime".

There has been no let-up in the violence since the observers started their work on Tuesday.

Their mission is to monitor a peace plan drawn up by the Arab League.

The Speaker of the Arab Parliament, Salem al-Diqbassi, said in a statement that the continuing repression "in the presence of Arab monitors has roused the anger of Arab people and negates the purpose of sending a fact-finding mission".

"This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League," Mr Diqbassi added.

The parliament is an 88-member advisory committee of delegates from member states. Its recommendations are non-binding and it operates separately from the league.'Nothing frightening'

Correspondents say many demonstrators are becoming frustrated at the league's inability to stop the violence.

About 60 monitors are in the country to verify the implementation of the Arab League plan, which calls for an end to all fighting, the withdrawal of troops from the streets and the release of political prisoners.

Although some tanks have reportedly pulled back, snipers have been visible during demonstrations and rallies.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, a network of anti-government groups inside Syria, said at least six people had died in various parts of Syria on Sunday.

More than 150 people have been killed since the monitors arrived in the country, according to activists. The UN says puts the number of deaths in the 10-month uprising at 5,000.

There has also been criticism of the head of the monitoring team, Sudanese Gen Mustafa al-Dabi - who is regarded by some as biased towards the Syrian government.

On Saturday he appeared to contradict one of his officials who was quoted as saying during a visit to the southern city of Deraa that he and other monitors had seen government snipers "with our own eyes".

All foreigners to go through biometric scanning

All foreigners entering the country will undergo biometric scanning starting in the new year to combat terrorism and prevent threats to national security, said immigration officials.

According to the Korea Immigration Service on Monday, foreigners aged 17 or older will undergo fingerprint and facial scanning upon entering the county starting Jan. 1.

The program started scanning those from countries deemed high-risk by the KIS in September 2010, and has since expanded to include all foreigners choosing long-term stay here.

However, the program excludes minors, diplomatic officials and other foreign government officials. Registered foreigners currently in the country will also be exempt.

Biometric scanning will be conducted in 11 different languages including English, Chinese and Japanese.

The process potentially could double the amount of time that it takes to pass through immigration.

At the immigration desk, foreigners entering the country for the first time will have both index fingers and their faces scanned as part of the Justice Ministry’s Biometric Identification System.

According to the KIS, foreigners who refuse the scan may be denied entry.

The Ministry of Justice believes expanding the system will help prevent suspected terrorists and those with criminal backgrounds from entering, effectively reducing the number of crimes committed by foreigners here.

However, according to KIS officials, the data collected will be analyzed against a domestic database of registered foreigners. The official added that they have yet to strike an agreement with any international criminal investigation database. The lack of a database raises concerns that the new system may only help filter out foreigners who have prior records within Korea.

According to the KIS, even international databases that the Justice Ministry makes use of do not have accurate records on fingerprints or facial recognition scans as of yet.

Other countries that require such biometric scans upon entry include the U.S. and Japan, while European Union countries require scans during the visa application process.

The ministry has denied entry for 1,262 foreigners entering the country since the program started till now, mainly for what officials called “identification laundering.” Of them, 576 Chinese were denied entry mostly for switching identification information after being deported earlier.

Korea Herald

Goodbye US constitution...Obama signs military law

HONOLULU: After objecting to provisions of a military spending bill that would have forced him to try terrorism suspects in military courts and impose strict sanctions on Iran's oil exports, the US President, Barack Obama, has signed it.

He said although he did not support all of it, changes made by Congress after negotiations with the White House had satisfied most of his concerns and had given him enough latitude to manage foreign policy in keeping with administration policy.

''The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,'' Mr Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on holiday.

''I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.''

The bill authorises $US662 billion in military spending this year. It is a smaller amount than the Pentagon had asked for, but it does not impose the radical cuts the military faces in coming years.

The White House had said the legislation could lead to an improper military role in overseeing detention and court proceedings, and could infringe on the President's authority in dealing with terrorism suspects. But it said Mr Obama could interpret the statute in a way that would preserve his authority.

The President, for example, said he would never authorise the indefinite military detention of US citizens, saying that ''doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation''.

He also said he would reject a ''rigid across-the-board requirement'' that suspects be tried in military courts rather than civilian courts.

Congress dropped a provision in the House version of the bill that would have banned using civilian courts to prosecute those suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda. It also dropped language that would have enacted new authorisation to use military force against al-Qaeda and its allies.

Mr Obama's signature is likely to settle, at least for now, the battle between the White House and Congress over executive authority in the treatment of detainees.

The White House also wrestled with Congress over requirements that the US sanction foreign financial companies that purchase Iranian oil, including through Iran's central bank.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/obama-signs-bill-on-defence-spending-20120101-1ph7x.html#ixzz1iJIrUNeY

Japan shaken by 7.0 offshore quake

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck under the sea south of Japan on Sunday, shaking buildings in the capital but causing no apparent damage or tsunami.Earthquakes are a fact of life in countries that border the 'Ring of Fire' in the Pacific Ocean. CBC

The quake struck near the uninhabited island of Torishima in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 kilometres south of Tokyo, and its epicentre was about 370 kilometres below the sea, the Meterological Agency said. It did not generate a tsunami.

Buildings in the Tokyo area shook, but no damage or injuries were reported. Express trains in northern and central Japan were suspended temporarily for safety checks but later resumed.

No abnormalities were reported at power plants, including the crippled nuclear power plant in northeast Japan hit by the March earthquake and tsunami, public broadcaster NHK reported.

A massive earthquake and tsunami March 11 left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing. Japan, which lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, is one of the world's most seismically active countries.
CBC News

30 Statistics That Show That The Middle Class Is Dying Right In Front Of Our Eyes As We Enter 2012

Once upon a time, the United States had the largest and most vibrant middle class that the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, that is rapidly changing. The statistics that you are about to read prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the U.S. middle class is dying right in front of our eyes as we enter 2012. The decline of the middle class is not something that has happened all of a sudden. Rather, there has been a relentless grinding down of the middle class over the last several decades. Millions of our jobs have been shipped overseas, the rate of inflation has far outpaced the rate that our wages have grown, and overwhelming debt has choked the financial life out of millions of American families. Every single day, more Americans fall out of the middle class and into poverty. In fact, more Americans fell into poverty last year than has ever been recorded before. The number of middle class jobs and middle class neighborhoods continues to decline at a staggering pace. As I have written about previously, America as a whole is getting pooreras a nation, and as this happens wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated at the very top of the income scale. This is not how capitalism is supposed to work, and it is not good for America.

Today I went over to Safeway and I was absolutely appalled at the prices. I honestly don't know how most families make it these days. I ended up paying over 140 dollars for about two-thirds of a cart of food. That was after I "saved" 67 dollars on sale items.

When the cost of the basic things that we need - housing, food, gas, electricity - go up faster than our incomes do, that means that we are getting poorer.

Sadly, if you look at the long-term numbers, some very clear negative trends emerge....

-The number of good jobs continues to decrease.

-The rate of inflation continues to outpace the rate that our wages are going up.

-American consumers are going into almost unbelievable amounts of debt.

-The number of Americans that are considered to be "poor" continues to grow.

-The number of Americans that are forced to turn to the government for financial assistance continues to go up.

After you read the information below, it should become abundantly clear that the U.S. middle class is in a whole heap of trouble.

The following are 30 statistics that show that the middle class is dying right in front of our eyes as we enter 2012....

#1 Today, only 55.3 percent of all Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 have jobs.

#2 In the United States today, there are 240 million working age people. Only about 140 million of them are working.

#3 According to CareerBuilder, only 23 percent of American companies plan to hire more employees in 2012.

#4 Since the year 2000, the United States has lost 10% of its middle class jobs. In the year 2000 there were about 72 million middle class jobs in the United States but today there are only about 65 million middle class jobs.

#5 According to the New York Times, approximately 100 million Americans are either living in poverty or in "the fretful zone just above it".

#6 According to that same article in the New York Times, 34 percent of all elderly Americans are living in poverty or "near poverty", and 39 percent of all children in America are living in poverty or "near poverty".

#7 In 1984, the median net worth of households led by someone 65 or older was 10 times larger than the median net worth of households led by someone 35 or younger. Today, the median net worth of households led by someone 65 or older is 47 times larger than the median net worth of households led by someone 35 or younger.

#8 Since the year 2000, incomes for U.S. households led by someone between the ages of 25 and 34 have fallen by about 12 percent after you adjust for inflation.

#9 The total value of household real estate in the U.S. has declined from $22.7 trillion in 2006 to $16.2 trillion today. Most of that wealth has been lost by the middle class.

#10 Many formerly great manufacturing cities are turning into ghost towns. Since 1950, the population of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has declined by more than 50 percent. In Dayton, Ohio 18.9 percent of all houses now stand empty.

#11 Since 1971, consumer debt in the United States has increased by a whopping 1700%.

#12 The number of pages of federal tax rules and regulations has increased by18,000% since 1913. The wealthy know how to avoid taxes, but most of those in the middle class do not.

#13 The number of Americans that fell into poverty (2.6 million) set a new all-time record last year and extreme poverty (6.7%) is at the highest level ever measured in the United States.

#14 According to one study, between 1969 and 2009 the median wages earned by American men between the ages of 30 and 50 dropped by 27 percent after you account for inflation.

#15 According to U.S. Representative Betty Sutton, America has lost an average of 15 manufacturing facilities a day over the last 10 years. During 2010 it got even worse. Last year, an average of 23 manufacturing facilities a day shut down in the United States.

#16 Back in 1980, less than 30% of all jobs in the United States were low income jobs. Today, more than 40% of all jobs in the United States are low income jobs.

#17 Most Americans are scratching and clawing and doing whatever they can to make a living these days. Half of all American workers now earn $505 or less per week.

#18 Food prices continue to rise at a very brisk pace. The price of beef is up 9.8% over the past year, the price of eggs is up 10.2% over the past year and the price of potatoes is up 12% over the past year.

#19 Electricity bills in the United States have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation for five years in a row.

#20 The average American household will have spent a staggering $4,155 on gasoline by the end of 2011.

#21 If inflation was measured the exact same way that it was measured back in 1980, the rate of inflation in the United States would be well over 10 percent.

#22 If the number of Americans considered to be "looking for work" was the same today as it was back in 2007, the "official" unemployment rate put out by the U.S. government would be up to 11 percent.

#23 According to the Student Loan Debt Clock, total student loan debt in the United States will surpass the 1 trillion dollar mark at some point in 2012. Most of that debt is owed by members of the middle class.

#24 Incredibly, more than one out of every seven Americans is on food stamps and one out of every four American children is on food stamps at this point.

#25 Since Barack Obama took office, the number of Americans on food stamps has increased by 14.3 million.

#26 In 2010, 42 percent of all single mothers in the United States were on food stamps.

#27 In 1970, 65 percent of all Americans lived in "middle class neighborhoods". By 2007, only 44 percent of all Americans lived in "middle class neighborhoods".

#28 According to a recent report produced by Pew Charitable Trusts, approximately one out of every three Americans that grew up in a middle class household has slipped down the income ladder.

#29 In the United States today, the wealthiest one percent of all Americans have a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

#30 The poorest 50 percent of all Americans now collectively own just 2.5%of all the wealth in the United States.

Sadly, this article could have been much, much longer. There are so many other statistics about the middle class that could have been included.

For even more insane economic numbers that show just how dramatically the U.S. economy is declining, just check out this article: "50 Economic Numbers From 2011 That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe".

What is even more frightening is that this is about as good as things are going to get.

We have already had "the economic recovery", such as it was.

Now we are heading for another major financial crisis. Just like back in 2008, the entire world is going to feel the pain.

But we never recovered from the last financial crisis. We are like a boxer that is not ready to handle another blow.

And who is going to get hurt the most? It will be those at the bottom of the food chain of course. Tens of millions of Americans that are living in poverty will experience a massive amount of pain, and millions more Americans will fall out of the middle class and will join them.

If you have a good job, do your best to hang on to it. If you don't have a job, do your best to get one while you still can. Jobs will become very precious in the years ahead.

But also try to do what you can to become less dependent on the system. Almost anyone can find ways to make some extra money on the side. Yes, it will likely cut into your television time. If someday you were to lose your job you don't want to be left with zero income.

Right now, the U.S. economy is slowly dying and as time goes by the number of middle class Americans it will be able to support will continue to decrease.

Yes, it is like a perverse game of musical chairs, but this is where we are at.

I encourage all of you to think about how you plan to make it through the collapse that is ahead.

Sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is going to be okay is not going to help anyone.

But if we all start planning for the storm that is ahead, and if we get others around us to wake up as well, that is going to do a great deal of good in the long run.

Economic Collapse

Spain says deficit bigger than expected, hikes taxes

(Reuters) - Spain's new government said on Friday that this year's budget deficit would be much larger than expected and announced a slew of surprise tax hikes and wage freezes that could drag the country back to the centre of the euro zone debt crisis.

In its first decrees since sweeping to victory in November, the centre-right government said the public deficit for 2011 would come in at 8 percent of gross domestic product, well above an official target of 6 percent.

It announced initial public spending cuts of 8.9 billion euros ($11.5 billion) and tax hikes aimed at bringing in an additional 6 billion euros a year to tackle the shortfall.

"This is just the beginning ... We're facing an extraordinary and unexpected situation, forcing us to take extraordinary and unexpected measures," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said.

Spain has been under market scrutiny over its ability to control its public finances, and Madrid has seen risk premiums soar to record highs on contagion fears as the euro zone debt crisis spread.

Ten days ago the Treasury said the central government budget deficit was on course to meet a full-year target of 4.8 percent of GDP, which analysts said would push Spain's overall public deficit above its 6 percent target for the year.

But the scale of the overshoot took some economists by surprise and led them to forecast a deeper recession, ending the year on a downbeat note for the euro zone as a whole.

"This is a strong shock. I didn't expect this kind of deficit increase. How can we achieve the objective using personal income taxes and capital taxes? This means making the recession much worse," economist at Barcelona ESADE university Robert Tornabell.

While Italy's debt mountain has been the biggest concern in financial markets in recent months, Spain had been seen as faring somewhat better. Measures taken by the previous Socialist government, while costing it the election, have kept the markets from pushing Spanish yields to unsustainable levels.

But as recession looms across the euro zone, the new government faces a rocky few years. After Friday's initial round of tax hikes and spending cuts, it plans to unveil a final 2012 budget by the end of March.

The Socialists cut the budget shortfall from 11.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, and the conservatives must take up the baton and bring the deficit down to 4.4 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013.

If the final 2011 deficit hits the 8 percent mark, as the conservatives say, the government will need to make total savings worth more than 35 billion euros in 2012 to meet the official target.


Spain's economy, the fourth-largest in the euro zone, is likely to have shrunk as much as 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said this week, and many economists expect output to keep shrinking in early 2012.

The collapse of the property market after the 2007 global credit crunch and shrinking consumer confidence have hit the economic cornerstones of construction and services, leaving Spain struggling to grow since emerging from recession in 2010.

Now, the euro zone debt crisis and fear of economic slump across the bloc has hit Spanish export growth, the only element of the economy to promote growth through 2011.

The tax hikes announced by the conservatives on Friday, which they have always said would be counterproductive to a struggling economy, will be aimed at the country's wealthiest.

The government froze civil servants wages, but also pledged to help the country's poorest by raising pensions and holding electricity tariffs steady for small consumers.

Beyond deficit reduction, the new government said it would concentrate its first few measures on the broken labor market, which has left Spain with an unemployment rate more than double the European Union average, and the banking system.

Spain has rapidly lost competitiveness since the birth of the single currency bloc as wages have followed a higher-than-average inflation rate, a situation the conservatives have pledged to changed through labor reform.

Spanish wages have risen by 20.8 percent in 2003-2008 compared to just 9.7 percent in Germany according to data from the IESE business school.

The government is in talks with unions and employers' representatives to produce a reform plan in the first two weeks of January.

Meanwhile, the banking system has been badly hit by the burst property bubble and new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said the banks must be forced to announce losses on the housing market in a new step in the ongoing restructuring plan.

But some economists say that while Spain must reform and cut costs, its future depends on decisions by euro zone leaders on creating a viable backstop for troubled regional economies.

"There is very little that the Rajoy government can do on its own to bring down Spain's borrowing costs significantly, not least as its fiscal policies are going to depress growth further. The real challenge in Spain is to get the economy moving," said Spiro Sovereign Strategy's Nicholas Spiro.

Euro will lose a country in 2012 as breakup begins, CEBR says

LONDON — At least one country will pull out of the euro area this year as the breakup of the single currency begins, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

“It now looks as though 2012 will be the year when the euro starts to break up,” the London-based CEBR said in a statement today. “It is not a done deal yet — we are only forecasting a 60 percent probability — but our forecast is that by the end of the year at least one country (and probably more) will leave.”

CEBR said the likelihood of a euro breakup in the next decade has increased to 99 percent.

European leaders return to work this week seeking to buy time for the Spanish and Italian governments to wrest control over their debt and rescue the euro from fragmentation in its 10th anniversary year.

Ten years after euro bank notes replaced national currencies on Jan. 1, 2002, the euro has for the first time recorded two consecutive annual losses against the U.S. dollar while plunging to a record low against the yen. That raises the pressure on leaders as they struggle to hold the monetary union together in the face of credit downgrades, European Union splits and a looming recession that might compound rising debt.

The crisis may force “most of the French and German banking systems” to seek bailouts to compensate for writedowns on their holdings of sovereign debt, CEBR said. “They might even be nationalized as well. Many other European banks will go back into crisis.”

The euro was trading at $1.2946 at 1:26 p.m. in Brussels, down 0.1 percent on the day.

Financial Post

Government reveals 'alarming' pension shortfall

Ministers yesterday said they were "alarmed" by the figures and warned that millions of British workers facing a "poorer future" when they retire.

The new analysis by the Department for Work and Pensions found that the number of working-age people saving into a private pension fell from 46 per cent in 2000 to 38 per cent last year.

The fall was most dramatic in people under the age of 40, while men are less likely to have saved for their retirement than women.

An estimated 11.6 million people currently have private pensions, meaning that millions fewer people are saving for one than a decade ago.

Steve Webb, the Pensions minister, said: “With fewer people saving into a pension, lower annuity rates and an average of 23 years in retirement, many people could face a poorer future in their later lives.”

He said that the “alarming” figures underscore why the Government’s pension reforms will be "vital”.

From next year, companies will be forced to start automatically enrolling their staff in workplace pension schemes. This will give millions of people access to a pension for the first time.

The proportion of men saving for their retirement has fallen from 52 per cent to 39 per cent over the last decade. Among people aged between 20 and 39, pension provision fell from 43 per cent to 31 per cent.

Mr Webb said: “We simply must put a stop this trend and get people saving. Automatic enrolment, beginning for the largest employers later this year, will get millions of people saving, many for the first time.”

The Department for Work and Pensions found that the highest pension provision in the UK is in the South East, where 43 per cent of people are saving into a private retirement fund, and Scotland, where 42 per cent are.

The lowest pension participation is in Northern Ireland, London and West Midlands, where around a third of people save into a pension.

Experts have warned that the “golden age” of pensions is over, and that millions of Britons will be left with measly retirement pots.

Joanne Segars, chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF), which represents the UK’s pensions industry, said earlier this month that the UK “simply isn’t salting enough away for its old age”.

Mark Hyde Harrison, the NAPF’s chairman, recently said that the pension industry has declined markedly.

He argued that defined contribution pension schemes, into which about five million Britons save, were structured in an "inefficient and wasteful" way.

Mr Hyde Harrison said: “The collective view is that our golden age of pensions is gone, and we are on course for potential failure.

The Government recently announced changes to the pensions system to make it easier for people who have moved house or job to be “re-united” with small workplace pension pots that they might have lost trace of.

Mr Webb said that around £3 billion of unclaimed pensions are sitting in UK pension schemes.

The Telegraph