National News

A 'Weird Wednesday' Christmas for the economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 13:16

For anyone who has been scrambling through the malls this week doing last-minute shopping, it may have been hard to tell, but retail activity has actually been a bit slow.

ShopperTrak reports that there were 21 percent fewer people shopping during the week that ended Sunday, compared to last year, and that sales were down 3 percent (not including online sales).

Part of the reason might be the calendar.

“I think this is one of the most stressful Christmas weeks,” says Golden Gate University consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. "Because the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are shorter, plus Christmas is falling on a Wednesday, so that means that people are in massive time-crunch.”

Yarrow says many Americans only get Christmas Day off as a holiday. Most employers don’t give the day after Christmas as a gift, and many employees can’t afford to take extra time as vacation, or don’t have the time accrued to take by year’s-end.

Yarrow points out — this happens about every seven years. “So it’s like the arrival of the locusts — not the best year in terms of both enjoyment of the holidays, and also productivity at work.”

Patty Edwards is experiencing this first-hand. She’ll be driving the crowded freeways around Seattle to spend Christmas at her step-daughter’s home, and then turning around to head home again. “As much as I love everyone in the family,” says Edwards, “I am dreading the fact that I have to get up the next morning and be at work because I have meetings.”

Edwards is managing director for investments and a consumer-economy expert at U.S. Bank. She says retailers dread the calendar this year, too.

“We know that the most ideal time for Christmas to land is on a Monday, because you have the entire weekend to shop, and then you can just relax and the retailers get what they want,” she says, adding that Christmas on Wednesday is the worst timing for retailers. That’s because people had to shop, and work, on Monday and Tuesday.

Although, Edwards also thinks the post-Christmas retail situation may be better this year compard to last. “Online sales for those folks who got gift cards will probably be higher on December 26, because it is a Thursday.” Edwards says just like on Cyber-Monday, people will be shopping from their desks, instead of working.

Next week will also be a productivity-mess at work, when New Years Day falls on a Wednesday.

At least on December 26, when people do go back to work or out sale-shopping, one stresser will be removed — the ubiquitous Christmas music at the mall.

Snowstorm Leave Parts Of Midwest, Northeast And Canada Powerless

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 12:54

A snow and ice storm contributed to the deaths of 14 people and knocked out power from Michigan to Maine and into Canada. One utility is calling it the worst Christmas week outage in its history. Repairs are underway as more snow is forecast for the affected areas.

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Returns help retailers play for keeps

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 12:16

Tracey Poston loves the ease and convenience of shopping online at her favorite stores like J. Crew and Ann Taylor.  She also really likes being able to return what she doesn't want for free. Like many people who purchase shoes and clothing from online retailers, Poston is often unsure which size to order. 

“I’ll tend to order in multiple sizes and see which one fits me best,” Poston says. 

Whatever doesn’t work gets sent back. She even has a system for her fiance who hates shopping.

“What I’ll tend to do is order him five or six items, have him try them on at home, and then whatever he doesn’t like, I’ll take it back,” Poston said.

Dana Vickers Shelley turned to online shopping after moving to Alabama.

“I love the real-life shopping experience, but given where I live, I don’t have access to the kinds of stores and merchandise I really like,” says Shelley, who frequently finds herself returning shoes that don't fit. 

Online shopping is becoming more like traditional shopping, with customers trying on multiple items, keeping only what they like, then shipping back the rest on the retailer's dime. Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, says, for e-retailers, frequent returns are a part of business. 

“I don’t see how you can operate in a world where people can’t go through the different products and try them on,” Argenti said. “Unless there’s some new technology that allows us to really get the size and color right.”

Because they're absorbing the cost of the returns, retailers are keen to cut down on the number. Some are turning to customer data to determine what is being returned and why. Often, it’s a simple matter of size.

“There’s no consistency anymore in what a 2 is or what a 10.5 is,” said Bill Adler, CEO of True Fit Corp., which partners with retailers like Nordstrom and Macy's, and uses customer-created profiles to help predict which items will fit, and which won’t. 

Retailers say data allows them to make a stronger pitch to potential customers, identifying who is a likely buyer and who is likely to buy, then return.

“Everybody returns stuff once in a while,” said Omer Artun, CEO of the software service AgilOne. What you’re trying to detect is someone that does this very often.” AgilOne allows retailers to track what customers are browsing on the website, what items they’re clicking on, what colors and styles they’ve explored, and what they’ve purchased.

Modcloth, an online retailer that sells clothes, shoes and accessories for women, lets customers to interact with one another, comparing how different sizes flatter their shapes, and consulting with a Modcloth stylist for advice on what works and what doesn’t.

Scott Casciato, Vice President of Service for Modcloth, says the company, which has a free return policy, views returns as an integral part of the retail experience. Sometimes, though, a high volume of returns on a particular product is evidence that it just doesn’t belong on the virtual shelves.

“If we’re just seeing a product that continues to be returned, and is not really a hit, yeah, we’ll make different buying decisions based on that, for sure,” Casciato says.

NAFTA Opened Continent For Some Canadian Companies

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 12:04

A generation after Mexico, Canada and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, cross-border business is flowing. Some Canadians were fearful of their southern neighbors, but Bombardier Aerospace, with plants now in the U.S. and Mexico, illustrates one way NAFTA changed business.

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'The Prince of Risk' and financial thrillers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 11:42

Author Christopher Reich is a master of what's called the "financial thriller": Books that focus on the economy and the financial markets as important characters. Reich's latest is "The Prince of Risk," where main character Bobby Astor, a successful hedge-fund manager, is the son of the chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange.

The Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) or the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may not be the most exciting topic to read about, but you might change your mind when Astor's father is murdered -- along with the Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Fed -- after Astor places a billion-dollar bet on the market. 

Interview Highlights:

On why Reich wrote the novel:

“I love this world of stratospheric high-finance where you know bets are not for millions, but for billions of dollars, and so much can hang in the balance on one decision on which way the market will turn.”

On what’s changed from when the Reich used to be a stock broker and the present age:

“When I first got my MBA and became a stock-broker and then worked in mergers and acquisitions, most of the trading was done or large portion by the simple consumer. Now it's really dominated, and I'm talking about trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), NASDAQ and exchanges all over the world by hedge-funds, private-equity firms and institutional investors. Us simple consumers who have hundred or two hundred shares of IBM, we're kind of on the side really just having to watch without much influence on which way the market is gonna go.”

On why the author modeled the novel after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India:

“…five years ago 15 attackers, hardly trained at all with machine guns [and] poor cell phones, went in, landed by boat and basically paralyzed a sixteen-million person city, the city of Mumbai, brought it to an economic standstill for three days and sadly killed about 200 people, burned down a hotel. But it took only 16 people to wreak untold billions of dollars of economic havoc. And I explored this and say how can this happen in a city like New York … "The Prince of Risk" is looking at what might happen if a foreign government threw investments in our financial system in private-equity firms and hedge-funds was able to manipulate events to their advantage and it's very very scary. We are very vulnerable.”

Scam artists target hopeful immigrants

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 11:00

There are optimists who believe the door is open for Congress to tackle immigration policy. The Senate has passed a bill, the House ... not so much, but when immigration is in the news, scam artists see an opportunity. 

They'll tell immigrants they can help them get green cards -- even when these swindlers know full well many of their prospective "clients" aren't eligible.

When Karan moved from India to the United States 11 years ago, Karan could not believe his luck. A U.S. tech firm had sponsored him for a visa, and he was going to live in San Francisco.

But when he arrived, he got some unfortunate news. The company had folded -- and that meant Karan's H1B visa was no longer valid. "Because I was not working for the company, I was probably illegal from day one," Karan says. 

For most of the next decade, Karan lived here illegally. He moved to New York and did odd jobs to get by, but what he wanted was a work permit so he could apply for other tech positions.

An acquaintance told Karan he knew someone who could help. "He told me, 'Oh, this guy is good and he can help you get these papers.'" Karan went to see the attorney recommended, Earl David, who promised Karan a work permit and a green card for $20,000. 

The fact that David was demanding so much actually re-assured Karan. "That was the reason we fell for them," Karan says. "They were charging so much money we thought they were the right persons to go to." 

Karan's confidence in David only grew after the lawyer got him a work permit, as promised.

Turns out, though, that the whole thing was a scam. David was filing phony documents with the authorities, and even creating shell companies that allegedly hired his immigrant clients. 

After a while, Earl David stopped returning Karan's calls. And so Karan went to see another attorney, Allen Kaye. "I tried to warn him that even though he got a work permit the case was going to crash and burn," Kaye says.  

Kaye was right. Karan received a letter telling him he was in deportation proceedings. "When we saw that letter it was like there was no ground beneath my feet. It was a weird feeling," Karan says.

Kaye helped Karan find an attorney who won him a temporary reprieve from deportation, but Karan's wife is now at risk of being thrown out of the country. 

Kaye says that while immigration fraud is always a problem, it tends to peak when immigration reform is in the news -- like the effort in Congress to change immigration law for the first time in decades.

Nothing has passed yet, but that hasn't stopped frauds. Reid Trautz, who works at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says scam artists target people who have low information but high hopes -- like immigrants.

The Federal Trade Commission operates a database where immigrants can report fraud. That's where Michael Waller works, the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the commission. He urges immigrants who have been victims to come forward.

"I can't emphasize enough that the most important thing people can do to help stop this fraud is to file complaints," Waller says. "Law enforcement needs those complaints in order to identify targets."

The problem is, the victims are mostly undocumented -- and as lawyer Allen Kaye points out, they're scared.

"They are afraid of what is going to happen to them," Kaye says. "Are they going to get deported, are they going to get turned in, are they going to get locked up?"

Authorities did eventually find enough people to testify against Earl David, but not until he scammed more than 25,000 immigrants. David pleaded guilty to fraud, and this spring he was sentenced to five years in prison.

In Christmas Message, Snowden Tells Britons 'Privacy Matters'

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 10:59

In a short addressed televised on Britain's Channel 4, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said, "A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all."

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Diabetes Gene Common In Latinos Has Ancient Roots

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 10:03

Scientists have found a gene that helps to explain why Mexicans are prone to Type 2 diabetes. The disease gene, like many others we humans carry, dates back to the time when humans and Neanderthals had sex thousands of years ago.

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Leaving Syria's war zone to start a new life

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 09:46

The Syrian Civil War has been going on for more than two years now. Most of the 2 million refugees cross the border into Lebanon, where they try to find space in cities and refugee camps that are already crowded. 

Lebanon has asked the international community for help.

Germany says it'll host 5,000 refugees for two years, but leaving a war zone to start a new life in one of Europe's richest countries isn't the easiest transition.

Friedland is a sprawling refugee complex in central German.  That’s where the Syrian refugees spend their first two weeks getting acclimated. There, they start with a crash course in all things German. 

27 year old Hassan Othman is there with part of his nine-member family. The Othmans flew from Lebanon to Germany only a few days ago. "It is like a dream come true! We are in Germany, finally," Othman says.

The Othmans' road to Germany was a long one. They left Syria more than a year ago and moved to Beirut, Lebanon hoping to find work and quiet place to live, but that didn't last long.

"After a few months we heard explosives and bombs and everything happened," he says. "They said it's going to happen [again] just like what happened in Syria." They decided to try to move again, this time to Germany.

After a series of interviews with embassy and UN officials, their names were added to the list of the initial 5,000 Syrians taking part in a new program.

Heinrich Hoernschemeyer is head of the Friedland refugee center. He says the program serves those who meet special criteria. The refugees coming to Germany will mostly be made up of families, those who are ill or handicapped, and those with special skills or education to help rebuild Syria post-crisis, "So the group is very young. The number of children is very high, and we have relatively few single travelers," Hoernschemeyer says.

At Friedland, German officials provide the Syrians with two-year work permits and register them for social services. Then after a few weeks, regional representatives pick up the refugees and drive them to their new homes scattered across Germany.

Hoernschemeyer says this is when the initial excitement fades, "When the reality of their situation hits them over weeks and months, then they become more cautious and the excitement of their first days slows down."

Most refugees have no idea what to expect. Housing varies depending on the city, as does the attitude of their neighbors. Some Germans are supportive of the program and post signs welcoming the Syrians. While others have protested against the refugees, most recently in a working class neighborhood of Berlin.

Hassan's mother Jamina is staying positive. She wants to enroll her two youngest children in school and create stability for her family. "It's gonna be difficult from the beginning but step by step we will get used to it," Jamina Othman says.

Hassan is already thinking about finding a job. He used to work at a big hotel but now dreams of life as an airport employee.

His one big concern is that all of his certificates and diplomas are back in Syria. "I came here with nothing and I only have the knowledge and I know what to work and what to do," Hassan says. 

And he hopes that will be enough to build a new life in Germany.

Calif. Law To Help Domestic Abuse Victims Escape Violence

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 08:48

A new California law taking effect in 2014 will make it easier for abuse survivors to break their leases. Victims will no longer need to get a court order or police report and instead can give landlords a simple form as proof they have been abused.

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PODCAST: Big data meets big sickness

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 08:47

The flu season is upon us, and if last year is any guide, it could be a bad one. Last year was one of the worst in recent history. For companies in the business of  helping people through their aches, pains, fevers, runny noses, and the rest, there is money to be made. But first you’ve got to find those people. To do that, companies are watching us

In this time of giving, roughly 25 percent of us choose to donate before the end of the year. And there’s a benefit to charitable giving beyond the warm and fuzzy holiday spirit -- such donations can shave a bit off the year’s tax bill.

Egypt Declares Muslim Brotherhood A Terrorist Group

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 08:25

Members of the Brotherhood have waged near-daily protests since the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi in a military coup. The designation gives authorities more power in cracking down on the group.

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Alan Turing gets a long overdue pardon

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 08:21

If you know anything about the history of computer science, you've probably heard the name Alan Turing. He's called the father of computer science for formalizing ideas like the algorithm and computation. The famous mathematician also played a key role in helping the Allied Forces use code breaking against the Nazis during World War II, which is why it may come as a surprise that a few years later he was convicted of homosexuality by the British government and died at the age of 41. This week, Turing got a royal pardon. Danny Shaw, home affairs correspondent for the BBC, tells Marketplace Tech the story. Click the audio player above to listen.

'Cool Tools,' a 'Whole Earth Catalog' for today

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 08:03

The idea of turning a blog into a book is nothing new, but Kevin Kelly, author and former editor of Wired magazine, has gone all out for his new book, "Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possiblities." It's based on the idea of an old catalog, called the Whole Earth Catalog. It’s big, colorful, and it features scannable QR codes attached to many of the nearly 1500 descriptive entries so that you can buy an object you like with a click of the smartphone. Kelly tells Marketplace Tech about the spirit of "Cool Tools," which comes from a hacker history that started in the 1960s. 

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