Thank you, Janet Yellen. After the Federal Reserve chair reassured markets that rates won’t rise anytime soon, the industrial average notched its biggest day since 2011, gaining 421 points or 2.4 percent. That added to Wednesday’s 287-point tally to give the Dow its best two-day rally since late 2008. Investors are relieved that the central bank will be “patient in beginning to normalize” interest rates that have stuck at near zero since 2006. Besides, rising rates signal something else: an improving economy.
The Presidential Daily Brief
American officials say they’ve “found linkage” between the Sony Pictures hackers and North Korea’s government. That comes in the wake of a second Hollywood feature being shelved after Sony canceled the wide release of The Interview over threats of violence against moviegoers. New Regency is pulling the plug on a paranoid thriller called Pyongyang, starring Steve Carell. In his third anniversary as Supreme Leader, it seems Kim Jong-un is demonstrating that he can be more intimidating than his old man.
The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations was a long time coming. It took 18 months of secret talks in Canada, a Hollywood-style spy swap and a key phone call from Pope Francis to pull everything off. North Korea remains the last, true Cold War holdout. Meanwhile Miami might seem ideal for a Cuban consulate, but the mayor wants no part of that. Many in Florida’s Cuban Diaspora feel betrayed. And no one’s talking about Guantanamo.
We’re all living longer. A study of international mortality from 1990 to 2013 published in The Lancet journal attributes the added time to health care advances. Neonatal deaths, for example, have plummeted by more than 40 percent, although threats still loom – HIV/AIDS deaths have soared by more than 200 percent. India, soon the world’s most populous country, added almost a decade to women’s life spans. But if you want to live longest, move to tiny Andorra, where the life expectancy hits 81. Skiing in the Pyrenees, anyone?
Acting on state health authorities’ negative assessment of hydraulic fracturing to extract fossil fuel, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced Wednesday that it was banning the practice in the Empire State. “The potential risks are too great, in fact not even fully known,” the state’s health commissioner, providing the impetus to leave one of America’s largest natural gas deposits untouched. The energy industry is fighting the ban, saying it will cost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
It seems the ultimate penalty is “slipping into irrelevance” in the United States. A new report shows that in 2014, death sentences were at the lowest levels in decades. Thirty-five convicts were killed in just seven states, and 72 were sentenced to die. Botched procedures, legal challenges and the difficulty of obtaining lethal injection drugs have all made it harder for governments to kill those guilty of crimes deemed especially heinous. Execution is still favored by 59 percent of Americans, but support is declining.
Try as he might, Vladimir Putin can’t keep the home fires and Ukraine burning at the same time. In the face of sudden economic turmoil, he seems open to limiting the war, saying to European leaders that he wants a cease-fire — maybe even a real one. That could ease sanctions on Russia, lessening its financial pain. But new U.S. penalties may still surface, and Putin is notoriously erratic. He’ll soon find out just how generous Europe’s leaders are feeling as they meet today in Brussels.
The Band-Aid is coming off ever so slowly. America’s central bank signaled Wednesday that it’s ready to raise short-term interest rates from near zero for the first time since 2006. The increase could come mid-2015, but Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the bank would be “patient,” underscoring its balancing act of propping up the stubborn economy while guarding against bubbles. Cautious investors finally cheered, boosting the Dow 287 points in its best day of the year, before Asian markets followed suit.
“It’s time for a new approach,” says President Obama. More than 50 years after America cut ties with Cuba, the president has made an executive decision to normalize relations. Both countries are releasing spies as diplomatic gestures ahead of establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana. But some Cuban Americans — with their swing-state voting bloc — call it capitulation that won’t help the Cuban people. To fully lift the embargo, a GOP-run Congress will have decide that the Cold War is finally over.
Major winter storm to hit Midwest and East on Christmas Eve. (Accuweather)
India launches rocket capable of manned missions. (DW)
Colombian FARC rebels call unilateral cease-fire. (Reuters)
Six indicted in W. Virginia river contamination case. (LA Times)
Swiss National Bank sets deposit interest rate below zero. (FT) sub
Stephen Colbert performs his final ‘Report’ (USA Today)
They can’t take it back. Yesterday a South Carolina appeals judge vacated a 70-year-old murder conviction against George Stinney Jr., 14, who was found guilty of beating two white girls to death in 1944. It took an all-white jury only 10 minutes to decide his fate, but his sister says he was tending cows at the time of the murders. Stinney was the youngest person executed in America since the 1800s, and so small he had to sit on a phone book in the electric chair.
Retaliation against truth-digging journalists was just the beginning. Then drivers were implicated in passenger rapes, first in India, and now in Boston. The ride-sharing app is pledging better screening, but critics accuse it and other service startups of making “money in a moral vacuum.” Uber’s success, they allege, is built on “wealth inequality” that provides cheap — and sometimes questionable — labor. Some charge that the Web phenom is really a digital-age robber baron.
Life, or something like it. That’s what NASA’s Curiosity rover is seeing. On the same day it discovered methane — a gas that contains carbon, the building block of life — it also found carbon-based organic molecules in a rock. Don’t call Stockholm yet, though, because other non-living chemical reactions can produce methane. But the presence of the gas indicates the existence of heat and water, and that suggests, more than ever, that Martians might not be so sci-fi.
Hip trend or relic? Record sales increased 49 percent in 2014, with Americans snapping up eight million LPs. But any vinyl that’s not vintage came from just 15 remaining record-pressing factories and was made from material, polyvinyl chloride, produced by one firm. They can’t keep up with demand, so records may be stuck accounting for just two percent of U.S. music sales. Entrepreneurs, wary of fads, aren’t eager to pump venture capital into a business that was already dying when Jim Morrison was alive.
“This is about a pattern of poor behavior,” said the San Francisco 49ers’ general manager. One might think he was addressing a problem larger than Ray McDonald, who was released by the team after San Jose police searched the defensive lineman’s house. They’re investigating an alleged sexual assault from Monday, adding to pressure that’s mounted since McDonald’s August domestic violence arrest. No charges have been filed in either case, but when it comes to off-field brutality, the NFL isn’t playing anymore.