National News

U.S. rice growers want to get in on Cuba

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-02 02:00

The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana, Cuba — so said President Barack Obama Tuesday, a significant step showing that efforts to normalize relations with Cuba are ticking along. However, the embargo still stands and only Congress can lift it. Should that happen, many U.S. exporters will stand to benefit, including American rice farmers.

Ray Stoesser grows about 4,000 to 5,000 acres of rice on his Texas farm and would very much like to see some of it head to Cuba.

“We as farmers, we analyze what the market is, what people want to buy and we grow it,” he says. “Right now, we don’t have enough buyers and that’s why the rice price slipped so much.”

Rice prices have dropped significantly this year, but Stoesser thinks if the U.S. could sell to Cuba, the increased demand would help prices recover. Cuba was a major importer of rice before the embargo.

But Louisiana grower Fred Zaunbrecher says margins are so slim right now, growers aren’t investing in new equipment or planning for new potential customers.

“We really can’t bank on it or grow a crop on it or make financial decisions on it until it’s actually opened and our markets are responding to that demand,” says Zaunbrecher.

However, should Congress decide to lift the embargo, the rice industry will be ready, says Terry Harris with Riceland Foods, a large rice miller and marketer.

“We have the abilities, we have the infrastructure,” he says. “We could ship rice to [Cuba] starting next week.”

Bubble wrap just doesn't burst like it used to

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-02 01:49
223,000

That's how many U.S. jobs were added in June, with the unemployment rate declining to 5.3 percent, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as the New York Times reports, economists have pointed out that the unemployment rate fell for the wrong reason: people exiting the workforce.

$1.9 billion

That's how much Puerto Rico paid back Wednesday of its $72 billion in debts, narrowly avoiding default. Puerto Rico makes up a small part of the bond market but it's an attractive place for investors, and some are getting worried that the market as a whole could take a hit if the country becomes "America's Greece" and fails to pay back what it owes.

$20 billion

That's the sales taken in for ... wait for it ... bubble wrap in 2013. But Sealed Air Corp., the original seller of the packing material, has lately seen its sales deflate (pun-intended). That's why it's starting to sell a revamped version of the product that comes in flat rolls and is inflated by the buyer with a specialized pump. But we'll let the Wall Street Journal burst your bubble on this one: the new wrap doesn't pop like it used to.

$2

That's what a monthly subscription to Apple Music costs in India, a fifth of the U.S. price, and it's not the only country where subscriptions are slashed. Quartz points out other local and international music services already enjoy a foothold in these emerging markets. For example Rdio costs a mere $0.60 in India. Apple is uncharacteristically bringing prices down to stay competitive, betraying its latecomer status in the streaming business.

$45 million

That's how much Hillary Clinton has raised in her first quarter as an official presidential candidate, breaking the fundraising record sent by President Barack Obama last cycle. Bloomberg notes her dominance could be short lived, as other campaigns and super PACs haven't disclosed their donations yet.

Georgia Leads A Push To Help Ex-Prisoners Get Jobs

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-02 00:58

Federal grant money is flowing to skills training programs for ex-offenders. But aid will be successful only if employers are willing to hire them. That's where state re-entry programs show promise.

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Sunnis Flee The Islamic State, But Still Fall Under Suspicion

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-02 00:57

The Islamic State is a Sunni Muslim group. Yet many Sunnis have abandoned their homes and fled areas where ISIS has taken over in Iraq. But that doesn't mean Shiites welcome them with open arms.

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Labor Department To Release Jobless Data Ahead Of Holiday Weekend

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 22:14

Economists surveyed by Reuters are predicting that employers added about 230,000 jobs to their payrolls. That's less than the month before but still a pretty strong showing.

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POTUS Weighs In: No Peas In Guacamole

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 15:28

The online debate began after the New York Times published a guacamole recipe that includes fresh peas.

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Cities In California Conserved A Lot Of Water In May

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 14:18

Felicia Marcus of the State Water Board said, "We need all Californians to step up — and keep it up — as if we don't know when it will rain and snow again, because we don't."

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A Dose Of Culinary Medicine Sends Med Students To The Kitchen

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 14:05

Aspiring doctors at the University of Chicago are learning how to teach patients about healthy eating. Nutrition advocates say this kind of training is critical to fighting obesity and diabetes.

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Donna Karan leaves behind a fashion legacy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 14:04

Over the last two decades, Donna Karan International has been one of the biggest brands in the fashion industry. Founder and chief designer Donna Karan announced on Tuesday that she was leaving her namesake company to focus on other projects.

Fashion journalist Kate Betts says that Karan has left a clear impact in the world of fashion.

“She designed for women in a way that was very sensuous and much more feminine than previous looks for women,” Betts says.  “It was a revelation for many professional women.”

Karan was later able to spin off this success into DKNY, which Betts says was the first line in what’s come to be known as the contemporary market.

“She covered a lot of different areas of the fashion market with that one line, and it was a huge hit,” Betts says.

The fact that she was such a trailblazer in this field may have played into her desire to step down when her company was at its peak.

“I think it’s kind of ironic that she created that contemporary market, and now that’s the market that’s taking over for the higher end. And you could argue that that’s one of the reasons that she’s kind of leaving her brand,” Betts says.

Karan will still remain as an adviser to her company.

Senators Call For VA To Explain Why It Couldn't Find Mustard-Gassed Veterans

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 13:28

A dozen senators have also called on the Veterans Administration to say why some of the WWII-era troops who were found by an NPR Investigation were denied benefits.

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The Obamacare sales pitch

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:59

It’s been almost a week since the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling that further cements the Affordable Care Act as the law of the land, and Wednesday President Barack Obama flew to Nashville, Tennessee, to talk about health care.

While some consider this a bit of a victory lap, the president’s choice of Tennessee suggests it’s much more of an overture.

For those of you not keeping score at home, just 29 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, the healthcare program primarily for low-income and disabled people.

The president wants that list to grow.

So how do you convince GOP governors and conservative lawmakers in the wake of the King vs. Burwell decision to do something they’ve sworn to oppose? For years, the Obama administration has made a financial argument.

“When I worked on the Council of Economic Advisers, we did a report and basically demonstrated again and again and again that states would win economically,” says Mark Duggan, now an economist at Stanford University.

That report is from 2009. Since then, study after study has echoed similar themes that go something like this: if Washington picks up nearly the entire tab for expansion, states will see new jobs, budget savings and economic prosperity. With many states still holding out, that argument hasn’t worked on everyone, obviously.

(Courtesy Kaiser Family Foundation) 

But until recently those reports have been a bunch of words. Now, the Urban Institute’s Stan Dorn says there are actual results that may grab the budget hawks’ attention.

“Every state that has looked comprehensively at both costs and benefits has found that the state budget is better off than it would have been without expansion,” he says.

Take Arkansas and Kentucky, says Dorn. They’ve expanded Medicaid and stopped spending money elsewhere.

“On mental health programs, Kentucky is saving $21 million this year; Arkansas is saving $7 million this year. On uncompensated care to hospitals. Kentucky is saving $12 million; Arkansas is saving $17 million,” says Dorn.

This is more than pointy heads in Washington running numbers. Even GOP presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says “expanding Medicaid was the right decision for New Jersey.”

While the math may be convincing to some, Stanford’s Lanhee Chen doubts it moves many conservative statehouse types who think Medicaid is a broken program.

“The difficulty is Medicaid expenses continue to increase. So some state lawmakers have a legitimate concern around maybe not what the next five years look like, but what the next 10 or 15 years look like,” he says.

Chen believes the path to expand Medicaid is more about politics than economics. His advice to the president: give states more flexibility in designing their own programs and you’ll see states bite.

Checking in with the secretary of commerce

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:57

From the Export-Import Bank to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, a lot has been happening in the commerce world. We sat down with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker to discuss the latest commerce news.

The Export-Import bank officially closed Tuesday — a move Pritzker wants reversed. 

“We need to re-establish and reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. This is a critical tool to keep U.S. businesses competitive in the global economy," Pritzker says.   

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has also been making news. The Obama administration has been criticized for being too secretive about the TPP.

“I actually disagree that we’re being secretive." Pritzker says. "Certainly members of Congress have access to the negotiating language. And you know, I’ve been in business for 27 years before I took this job, and it’s not possible to negotiate by committee. Nor is it possible to negotiate where you put everything out for public opinion. I don’t care what deal you’re trying to do, and let alone a deal that requires approval of 12 countries.” 

When Pritzker talks to CEOs around the country about the trade deal she says, “They’re saying, ‘We need these trade agreements. And we need these trade agreements because we need access to these markets on a fair and level playing field, and right now we don’t have that.’ ”

Ultimately, Pritzker says passing the TPP will open up U.S. companies to bigger markets and will allow for bigger profits.

“It’s companies of all sizes that really want to see these trade agreements, because they recognize 95 percent of the world’s customers are outside of the United States. While they service the U.S. population, they also want to be able to take advantage of the really dynamic growth that’s going on in Asia.”

Click on the audio player above to hear more.

Athens on the edge

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:54

Greece failed to repay the International Monetary Fund $1.8 billion on Tuesday, becoming the first developed nation to miss an IMF loan deadline. It’s not an official default yet, nor is Greece officially bankrupt, but the missed payment compounds an already fraught financial situation: banks are closed until Monday, ATM withdrawals are severely restricted and other debt payments are coming due.

Eurozone finance ministers have refused to discuss a third bailout until after the Greek referendum Sunday. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras surprised the European community when he announced that Greeks would vote on the bailout package, whose terms he says are unacceptable. A “no” vote would be a clear message to end austerity, Tsipras says.

So how did Greece rack up $360 billion in debt with no way to pay it? Here are a few explanations: 

And then there’s the human face of the crisis. From sole breadwinners to sandwich-makers to pharmacists, Greeks are struggling to keep afloat. They tell their own stories to Marketplace’s Stephen Beard.

Justice Department Investigating Airlines For Possible Price Collusion

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:42

The department says it is looking into "possible unlawful coordination" by several major carriers.

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Macy's is the latest brand to dump Trump

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:41

Macy’s Wednesday says it’s phasing out its Donald Trump line of clothing and accessories. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants being drug dealers and rapists are, the company says, “inconsistent with Macy’s values.”

Still, the split comes with costs.

“There are orders being made,” says Matt Delzell of the Marketing Arm agency. “There’s current inventory in the stores. The shelf space, all of those things need to be replaced. That takes time. That takes money.”

Still, the costs are far lower than the price of staying with Trump.

And Macy’s likely built in an out long ago. Ever since O.J. Simpson’s brand went toxic for Hertz, companies have planned for these debacles.

“Companies routinely have clauses that say if there’s anything that is inconsistent with the morals or image of the organization, they have a right to remove a line or terminate a relationship,” says marketing professor Larry Chiagouris of the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York.

How costly is this split? The Trump line is not vital to Macy’s; it’s not Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger, analysts say.

“If I may call him the Don,” says analyst Paul Swinand at Morningstar, “he’s a little bit old at this point. I would say his shelf life is getting a little limited.”

In fact, several analysts think Macy’s may have already wanted to dump Trump. He’s now running for president, and a high negative rating doesn’t sell many paisley ties.

It’s not clear how quickly the Trump line will disappear from Macy’s. The Donald J. Trump money-sign cufflinks were still available at $45 each.

U.S. investors could take a hit on Puerto Rican bonds

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:40

The tiny island of Puerto Rico, the U.S territory in the Caribbean, is being called “America’s Greece” by some.

Like Greece, Puerto Rico has more debt than it can pay back, upwards of $70 billion, and now it’s asking its creditors for a restructuring of that debt.

Unlike Greece, Puerto Rico isn’t talking about abandoning the dollar, but U.S. investors do stand to take a sizeable hit if the territory defaults on its loan obligations.

Puerto Rico has been an enticing place to park an investment for a long time, due to its so-called “triple tax exempt” status, meaning that income on Puerto Rican bonds can’t be taxed at the federal, state or municipal level.

That makes it a popular choice for everyone from hedge and mutual funds to individual investors. But does that mean Puerto Rico is our Greece?

“It might be a larger exposure, but it's not necessarily a more dangerous exposure,” says Brian Jacobsen, a portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo.  Jacobsen notes the overall stake in Puerto Rican bonds is still just a drop in the total municipal bond bucket.

“It’s just really not enough to make a dent for the investing public as a whole. Puerto Rico has $72 billion in debts but the municipal bond market is about $3.7 trillion,” Jacobsen says.

But others says even a partial default may still cause a ripple effect felt by the larger bond market, an effect we might start seeing after the Fourth of July holiday.

“That’s when investors will come back and look at the value of their mutual funds after reading the headlines and start to have concerns,” says Tom Doe, president of Municipal Market Analytics.

Doe adds that even a small decrease in returns might be enough to set off a bank run of sorts, as investors rush to sell off Puerto Rican bonds.

“Prices decline, interest rates rise and the real unintended loser in this are other states and municipalities who are trying to borrow debt for infrastructure needs,” he says.

The island's state-run utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is negotiating with creditors to potentially restructure its nearly $9 billion debt load.

According to data released by Morningstar, mutual funds operated by Franklin Resources and OppenheimerFunds and have the highest exposure to Puerto Rican debt.

As of April, Oppenheimer held $4.6 billion in Puerto Rican securities, about 17 percent of its assets.  Franklin held $2.3 billion, roughly a 3 percent allocation to Puerto Rico.

Nationwide Crime Spike Has Law Enforcement Retooling Their Approach

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:39

Violent crime has ticked up in certain metro areas. Police are scrambling to hold the line while at the same time trying not to appear overzealous.

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Ford and Chrysler sales kicked into gear for June

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:35

Two of the Big Three American automakers — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford Motor Co. — are reporting nice gains in their June sales, according to numbers out Wednesday. A stronger job market and easy access to credit are spurring many Americans to trade up from the older cars in their garages.

But that’s not the only reason carmakers are happy these days. A booming housing market is also a factor: contractors are breaking ground on more homes, which means they’re buying more trucks.

“The beneficiaries of that business are typically the Detroit Three. They make the bulk of trucks — the most popular ones,” says Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader. “Those are vehicles that contribute greatly to the bottom lines of those companies.”

She adds that strong demand means dealers are driving hard bargains and keeping prices up. Better deals can be found for those shopping for cars, rather than trucks and SUVs.

Who's Behind A String Of Bombings In Ukraine's Black Sea 'Pearl'?

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:27

Local journalists and volunteers in Odessa are working to make sense of dozens of recent bombings — and prevent future attacks. They say that Russians have infiltrated the security services.

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Militants Stage Series Of Deadly Attacks In Egypt's Sinai Peninsula

NPR News - Wed, 2015-07-01 12:23

The early morning attacks on checkpoints were later claimed by the Sinai affiliate of the self-described Islamic State.

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