Wednesday, July 25, 2012

U.S. Sees Food Prices Rising From Severe Drought

The worst drought in the United States in nearly a half-century is expected to drive up the price of milk, beef and pork next year, the government said Wednesday, as consumers bear some of the brunt of the sweltering heat that is driving up the cost of feed corn. Poultry prices are expected to rise more immediately, the government said in a report. It estimated that consumer price indexes for chicken and turkey would rise 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent later this year. “The poultry category is the smallest animal category, and we expect to see more of an effect this year because they grow the fastest and will be first to be impacted by higher feed prices,” said Richard Volpe, an economist with the Department of Agriculture. Figures released Wednesday by the department showed the largest percentage increase next year in its price indexes is expected for beef, a rise of 4 percent to 5 percent. The price of dairy products will increase 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent and eggs by 3 percent to 4 percent. Pork is expected to rise 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent. The data is the first government estimate of how much prices could rise next year because of the drought that has gripped most of the country this summer, producing a lower-than-expected yield in corn, soybeans and several other commodity crops. Corn is now selling at about $8 a bushel — up 50 percent from where it was priced at just a month ago. Soybeans are at a record price of almost $17 a bushel, up from $13, just two months ago. Food prices over all rise about 1 percent for every 50 percent increase in corn prices, because corn is used in dozens of products, according to the Agriculture Department. Corn can be found in everything from soft drinks to baby food, but nearly half of the crop is used to feed livestock. “These are very corn-intensive operations,” said Bruce A. Babcock, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University, referring to raising livestock. “So customers will see an increase in the prices they pay for beef and dairy as the price of feed rises because of a drop in production.” According to the government, 88 percent of the corn crop this year is now affected by the drought and 77 percent of the crop for soybeans, used in animal feed and some dairy alternatives, is affected. The Agriculture Department slashed its estimate for what was supposed to be the largest corn harvest on record. The government cut its corn yield forecast to 146 bushels an acre for the year, the lowest corn yield since 2003; the outlook last month was for 166 bushels. The soybean yield is projected to be 40 bushels per acre, down from an estimate of 43.9 last month. The most recent crop progress report shows that just 26 percent of the nation’s corn crop is rated either in good or excellent condition. About 45 percent of the crop is rated very poor or poor. Soybean conditions remain slightly better. About 31 percent of the soybean crop is rated good to excellent, while 35 percent is rated very poor or poor. Because of the dry weather, cattle farmers in a number of states have already started selling off or culling cattle because the drought has ruined grass for grazing and the price for corn for feed has skyrocketed. Daniel R. Glickman, the agriculture secretary for former President Clinton, said that as farmers started culling or selling their herds, meat prices could fall because of a glut of beef on the market. “So in the short term, that’s good for customers,” Mr. Glickman said. But the prices of beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and dairy are expected to rise significantly later in the year, most likely around November, agriculture economists say. Ken Colombini, a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association, a Washington trade group, said that not all of the rise in food prices could be attributed to a rise in corn prices. “A drop in corn production is a factor, but animals are under other stresses related to the drought as well,” Mr. Colombini said. Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the United Fresh Produce Association, said fruit and vegetable producers, for the most part, were not being affected by the drought. “Most of these operations are irrigated and the water is highly regulated so we are not having issues with our crops,” Mr. Gilmer said. Despite the drought, many agriculture economists expect the farm economy to remain strong, mainly because most farmers participate in the federal crop insurance program. Under the program farmers can obtain policies that cover drops in prices or yields. In 2011, 265.7 million acres of crops were insured, with payouts of $10.8 billion because of weather related damage in Texas, Kansas and a few other states. For a few lucky farmers, there could be an upside to the drought, Mr. Babcock said. “By collecting insurance but selling the remaining crops at the now-record prices, they could see a larger increase in revenue then they did last year,” he said.

Obama widens his lead in polls.
According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama has widened his lead over rival Mitt Romney. He’s now six points ahead (49 to 43 percent nationwide), up from a three-point lead (47 to 44 percent) last month. In the key swing states, Mr. Obama’s doing even better. NBC/WSJ has him leading by eight points in the top 12 battlegrounds. This is good news for the president. So why does it feel as if he’s in a tougher spot than he’s been in for much of the campaign? Well, the poll shows Obama’s negatives are up, as are Mr. Romney’s – a result of the attack ads that both sides have been running. Even there, however, the numbers look worse for Romney, who, the poll points out, would be the only modern nominee to have a “net negative” favorability rating (meaning more people view him unfavorably than favorably). No, the really scary poll number for Obama is this one: Only 27 percent of voters think the economy will improve over the next year. That’s down eight points from last month. And that level of economic pessimism is very dangerous for an incumbent. In fact, it seems almost incredible – the political equivalent of defying gravity – for Obama to have gained ground in the horse race even as Americans’ views on the economy have grown increasingly, alarmingly, sour. The question is whether Obama can continue to defy gravity like this all the way to November. Given the strikingly strong levels of dislike for Romney – who trails Obama by 20 points on likability in the poll – the president may still be able to stay on top. But we can’t imagine it will continue to be this easy. In coming weeks, Obama will have to deal with yet another jobs report that’s likely to be less than inspiring – and this time, he may not be able to turn the media focus onto Romney’s business record and taxes as an alternate story line. And the Obama campaign is clearly still worried about fallout from the president's "you didn't build that" gaffe – as evidenced by the fact that they’ve released a new ad directly addressing it. (Note: When the president has to say in a commercial, “Of course Americans build their own businesses,” that’s not a good sign.) Obama’s also going to be competing more and more with the “veepstakes” frenzy, as speculation about Romney’s running mate mounts, giving the Romney campaign plenty of free – and probably mostly positive – media. And who knows what sort of “October (or September or August) surprise” may lie ahead to complicate things further for the president. A few other interesting tidbits from the NBC/WSJ poll: Obama is getting more blame than Romney for running a negative campaign – with 22 percent saying he is, versus 12 percent saying Romney is (though 34 percent fault both candidates). It looks as if Romney has made some progress when it comes to one aspect of his image – “flip-flopping.” Last fall, Obama held a 14-point lead over Romney on “being consistent and standing up for his beliefs.” Today, that lead has shrunk to just two points (Romney has gained ground and the president has lost it). The percentage of voters who regard Obama’s health-care law as a “good idea” has reached its highest point yet, at 40 percent (though that still trails those who regard it as a “bad idea,” at 44 percent). Thirty-one percent now feel “strongly” that it was a good idea, up from 25 percent last month.

Polio eradication: Previously prohibited areas to receive vaccines

The Express Tribune
The political administration of Khyber Agency has trained 45 khasadars to assist the polio campaign and provide vaccination at transit points. Agency surgeon Dr Azam Khan told The Express Tribune that special training was being imparted to the forces, which will be sent to Landi Kotal and Jamrud tehsils to vaccinate children. “The officers will inoculate children at various checkpoints. In particular, people arriving from Bara tehsil and Tirrah Valley due to security problems will be given drops, so that no child is left without vaccination,” Khan said. He added that the political agent has hired 30 volunteers, on a salary of Rs10,000 per month to reach those areas which are inaccessible to polio teams.“Bara is most at risk of polio and if we find any opportunity to send our teams there, we will do so.” “We have deployed teams of 10 people at Torkham border and vaccinated around 32,000 children below the age of five last month,” he said. On July 16, the polio drive in Bara tehsil had to be deferred putting 111,556 children at risk. Meanwhile, the political agent of South Waziristan, Shahidullah Khan, told journalists that the campaign is going on successfully in Mehsud areas, where no one has refused to vaccinate their children so far. He added that the polio campaign in Wana and adjacent areas has not been launched as yet, but a 20-member team comprising local religious clerics and tribal elders has been formed to negotiate with the Taliban. The campaign will commence when negotiations succeed. Earlier, the Mullah Nazir-led Taliban outfit had issued a decree against polio vaccination in Wana and warned that until drone attacks continue in tribal areas, vaccination will not be allowed.

NATO supply trucks surge at Torkham border
The flow of trucks supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan has surged at Torkham border crossing in recent days, officials said Wednesday, despite attack and protests. Few containers had trickled across the border since Islamabad reopened the routes three weeks ago, but officials at Torkham, in Pakistan's northwestern tribal district of Khyber, said more than 100 had crossed in the last two days. Islamabad closed its land routes to NATO convoys in November following botched US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, but reopened them on July 3 after Washington said sorry for the deaths. "More than a 100 trucks have crossed Torkham border in the past two days, a total of 140 have so far crossed into Afghanistan," Obaidullah Khan, a customs official at Torkham, told AFP. Before the blockade, around 150 trucks crossed into Afghanistan each day at Torkham -- the closest border crossing to Kabul -- and officials say the flow will rise to up to 300 a day. News of the increase came a day after gunmen attacked NATO supply trucks near a market in Jamrud town in Khyber, killing a driver. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's attack but militants have threatened to attack NATO trucks and kill their drivers. Mohammad Miraj, a senior administrative official at Torkham, confirmed the increase and added that security has been tightened because of the recent attack and the increased flow of trucks.

Pakistan stocks end up; rupee weakens; o/n rates unchanged

Pakistan’s main stock market closed up on Wednesday after the country’s Supreme Court adjourned a case that could threaten the country’s prime minister with disqualification, analysts said. The Karachi Stock Exchange benchmark 100-share index gained 52.61 points, or 0.36 per cent, to close at 14,564.68 points on volume of 43.49 million shares. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has been ordered to re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. Failing to do so could see him lose office, further discrediting the government. “There was a fear that the prime minister may face the same prosecution as his predecessor for not re-opening the cases in Switzerland, which would have increased instability. That not happening was a positive factor,” said Atif Zafar, a research analyst at the JS Global financial services company. The Supreme Court on Wednesday adjourned proceedings until August 8. Ashraf’s predecessor Yusuf Raza Gilani was disqualified last month by the Supreme Court for failing to re-open the cases. In the currency market, the rupee weakened to close at 94.58/63 to the dollar, compared with 94.43/49 on Tuesday. Overnight rates in the money market remained unchanged at 11.90 per cent.

SC order on Swiss letter 'unconstitutional'

Declining to implement Supreme Court's (SC) December 16, 2009 judgement on the NRO case, the government on Tuesday said the premier is not authorised to write letter to Swiss authorities to re-open cases against President Asif Zardari without the advice of the federal cabinet. Submitting its reply, the federation through Attorney General (AG) Irfan Qadir in the NRO judgement implementation case requested the court to recall its subsequent orders passed on June 26 and July 12, directing the prime minister to implement Para 178 of the judgement. Meanwhile, the SC returned the reply of the federation with declaration that it was inadmissible under Order X Rule 2 of the Supreme Court Rules 1980. The SC registrar's office however, said that the only remedy available was to file review under Order XXVI of SC Rules 1980 if so desired. A five-member bench, led by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, is taking up NRO judgement implementation case today (Wednesday). A law expert said that the government had not finalised its strategy on whether it would file a review petition or challenge the registrar office's objections before the bench today. He said that the government would oppose the formation of the commission into writing a letter to the Swiss authorities. After the disqualification of former premier Yousaf Raza Gilani, a number of top jurists have suggested the SC to use its option of judicial commission regarding the implementation of court's December 16, 2009 judgement, because taking action against the country's chief executive again and again would severely damage Pakistan's image internationally. While filing reply, the AG pleaded that the subsequent orders of the court on June 26 and July 12 were not in accordance with law, rules and the constitution of Pakistan and required re-consideration/hearing for the purpose of rendering complete justice. The federation contended that the incumbent PM had not reviewed any advice from the cabinet related to implementing Para 178 of the NRO judgement, so he was not obliged constitutionally to implement the order of the court. The federation also said in its reply that the premier could comply with the court orders on the judgement (Para 178) if he was advised to write the letter to the Swiss authorities by the federal cabinet. The federation said further that implementation of Para 178 of the NRO judgement was therefore one of the collective responsibility of the federal cabinet under Rule 6 of the Rules of Business and Clause 6 of Article 91 of the constitution. "The prime minister cannot comply with Para 178 except on the advice of the cabinet, which is mandatory required to be referred to the cabinet for discussion or advice under Rule 16," the AG said. "The resultant effect of the said orders is tantamount to clear-cut violation of Article 248(2) of the constitution and the PM by virtue of his oath is bound to preserve and to protect the constitution", he also contended. He said that there was no occasion for the seven-member bench to have called the former PM thrice in the court during hearings of the case and that too was an utter disregard of the constitution and the law. "The prime minister cannot be asked by means of the aforesaid orders for implementation of an un-implementable direction given by the Supreme Court," the federation concluded.

Pakistan refuses to reopen presidential graft case

Pakistan's government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that it will not reopen an old corruption case against the president, defying a judicial order that has brought down one prime minister and threatens his replacement. The crisis has roiled Pakistan's political system for months, distracting attention from what many Pakistanis believe are more pressing problems, such as the country's ailing economy and fight against the Taliban. The dispute centers on a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the late 1990s in Swiss court, a time when he became known as "Mr. 10 percent" for his reputation of demanding kickbacks on government contracts. The Pakistani Supreme Court has demanded the government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case. The government has refused, saying Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. The court convicted former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt and ousted him from office in June for refusing to write the letter. The ruling Pakistan People's Party rallied support to elect a new premier, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and has remained defiant. Pakistan's attorney general, Irfan Qadir, appeared before the court Wednesday and told the judges that Ashraf also refused to reopen the case because of the president's immunity. "Your order is not implementable," said Qadir. He accused the lead judge, Asif Saeed Khosa, of being biased against the president and said he should recuse himself from the proceedings — a demand rejected by Khosa. Many government supporters have accused the Supreme Court of relentlessly pursuing the case because of bad blood between Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Khosa demanded the new prime minister write the letter to the Swiss, but also seemed to soften the court's stance, saying the judges would respect the president's immunity if the government obeyed their order. He also gave the government more time to come up with a solution. Wednesday was the initial deadline for the government to say whether it would fulfill the court's order, but Khosa adjourned the hearing until Aug. 8. The judge's somewhat softer stance could be a reaction to criticism of the court for threatening to bring down the first civilian government poised to finish its five-year term in the country's history. Past governments were toppled by direct or indirect intervention by the country's powerful army, often with help of the judiciary. The current government's term ends in early 2013. It's unclear whether the judge's comments will alter the government's stance. Zardari has said in the past that his government would never write the letter. "I will make a genuine and serious effort to solve this issue," said Qadir. The case against Zardari relates to kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in Swiss court in 2003. Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after the Pakistani parliament passed an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated. The bill was decried by many in Pakistan, who saw it as an attempt to subvert the law. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case. Also Wednesday, militants coming from Afghanistan armed with assault rifles attacked a paramilitary checkpoint in northwest Pakistan, wounding two soldiers, officials said. The attack occurred in Dalasa village in the Kurram tribal area, said Rasheed Khan, a local government official. At least 20 militants were involved in the attack, Pakistani military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The militants escaped across the border after the attack, and the Pakistani army fired artillery in retaliation, said Khan. The Afghan government said Sunday that four civilians died when hundreds of shells and rockets fired from Pakistan hit homes along frontier areas where insurgents have staged cross-border attacks. The government did not openly blame the Pakistani military for the artillery barrage, but they have done so in the past. Both countries criticize each other for not doing enough to stop cross-border attacks by militants.