National / International News
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) continues to cut the price of oil in part because there's so much of it being produced in the Middle East and North Africa, and also here in North America. More on that. And Google's taken another step today in its quest to take over world commerce. The search engine giant is expanding its Google Express delivery service this week, and introducing a new fee. And as we discover, it's all about competing with Amazon. Plus, they are a city's permanent residents, yet many of them are forgotten; often ignored. We're talking about statues. But there's a British non-profit that says statues have stories to tell, and they're working to give these figures...a voice.
When J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup announce earnings Tuesday, many analysts will be looking for profits in a traditionally less-than-exciting place: credit cards.
Unlike a few years ago, consumers are being smart with their cards, which means low delinquency rates, and they’re also starting to feel comfortable enough with the state of the economy to spend a bit more.
Credit cards look pretty good compared with mortgages or other low-interest bank products, says Jim Sinegal, who covers banks and credit card companies for Morningstar. They generally charge rates of “12 percent plus, up to 20 percent in some cases," he says.
He says banks also like the steady income from merchants each time people use their cards.
Overall, the economy is stronger and the industry is reaping the rewards of tighter lending standards.
“That made for really good results in the way of losses,” he explains. “Banks aren’t losing much money at all because of those two factors.”
Ironically, the industry may also be benefitting from regulation. The CARD Act of 2009 sought to limit certain fees and simply interest rates.
“Obviously, the card industry did feel it had increased costs as a result of the regulation,” says Andrew Davidson, a senior vice president with Mintel Comperemedia. “They, I think, in the long term, benefit from this better consumer behavior in terms of paying back their bills.”
Davidson says card issuers are feeling confident enough to again pitch cards to mid- and sub-prime borrowers.
But Madeline Aufseeser, a senior analyst with Aite Group, cautions that credit cards are also a very competitive business.
“It’s bullish compared to where we’ve been over the last couple of years,” she says, though she notes that recent security breaches could be costly. “But in the credit card business, it’s a very tight rope that we walk on balance between expense and revenue. It’s a low margin business.”
With an aquiline nose, deerstalker hat, meerschaum pipe and haughty air, he cuts a familiar figure.
Sherlock Homes is instantly recognizable, but on his plinth outside Baker Street subway station in London, the statue of the famous fictional detective is often ignored. Most people pass him by with barely a second glance.
Colette Hiller, a U.S.-born resident of London, is determined to change that.
"Too many people walk through this city without paying attention to the public art," says Hiller. "They bury their faces in their phones and miss so much that’s around them."
As part of a group called Sing London, which tries to promote the enjoyment of public spaces, Hiller came up with the idea of "Talking Statues."
"You use your smart phone to scan a barcode which we have placed on or near a statue," Hiller explains. "You then get a call from Sherlock Holmes, or Peter Pan, or Queen Victoria and they tell you something about themselves."
This is what Sherlock Holmes has to say:
The dour-looking statue of Victoria on Blackfriars Bridge offers this insight into her private life: the famously prudish monarch confides that it wasn’t for love of children that she had nine babies.
"I thought they were all terribly ugly when they were born. And I hated breastfeeding. I loved Albert, though," says the queen in her recorded message, voiced by British TV actress Prunella Scales.
Sing London has programmed 35 statues to tell their own tales. There are statues of statesmen, artists, engineers and even animals.
"Hello and meow. Good of you to call by," purrs Hodge, the cat that belonged to Samuel Johnson. The cat’s statue sits outside the great lexicographer’s former home in Gough Square off Fleet Street.
Talk isn’t cheap. Each talking statue cost $15,000 in actors’ and writers’ fees, a sum raised partially from corporate sponsorship and partially from the British Arts Council. Hiller is now seeking funding to take her idea across the Atlantic; first to Chicago and then, she hopes, to many other U.S. cities.
"There’s a whole range of American cities that are absolutely full of fantastic statues. New York, Boston, Baltimore, Seattle," she says. "And every statue is just waiting for the gift of voice."
Photos courtesy of Sing London and Stephen Beard
"Break the chain of transmission" is the phrase mathematical epidemiologist Gerardo Chowell keeps turning over in his head—which makes sense when you consider that every person with Ebola generates as many as two new cases.
“So you can start to visualize in your mind how quickly this virus can spread in the population,” he says.
Chowell, who has been tracking transmission since this summer, says in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the growth rate is exponential.
The way to get in front of that awful math, says the World Health Organization’s Dan Epstein, involves a financial kind of math.
“For a United Nations-wide response, we need about $978 million,” he says.
Epstein says that money would cover 3 million protective suits, 1,000 ambulances and new health centers. But to contain this outbreak, says Epstein, what is needed is courage.
“We really need more people. People to treat Ebola patients. People to bury the ones who have died safely,” he says.
Epstein says at least 750 more doctors are needed. That, and the aid, are the numbers needed to make the outbreak math more manageable.
Italy lags behind other EU states in guaranteeing equal rights for homosexuals. Gay couples have no legal recognition or adoption rights, and a bill that would make homophobia a crime has stalled.
The generation now coming of age is spending — and giving — differently. New York-based Charity:Water gets it, and it's been a boon to its cause.
At Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, a weed-whacker sends a spray of grass clippings into the air, as the ground crew weaves in between black and grey tombstones packed so tightly they almost touch.
Manager Michael Ciamaga stumbled into a summer job here in the late '90s, when plots were selling for $2,800. A few years ago, they’d climbed to $16,000.
“People come in [and say] ‘I’ll give you $30,000 if you give us a grave,’” he says. “You could give us $1 million, we don’t have nothing to sell you.”
Washington Cemetery is sold out, though not all of its plots are occupied yet. It has already squeezed out every single possible plot – shrinking the parking lot, tearing up roads, even offering up a small lawn in front of the office.
“It’s an odd business setup, you know,” Ciamaga shrugs, surveying a stretch of newer glossy-black graves etched with portraits of the deceased.
State laws require that many cemeteries put a certain amount of their proceeds from the sale of plots into an endowment to support it once it’s sold out – much like a 401(k). But while a retirement plan has to support a person for a few decades, this money is supposed to fund the cemeteries forever.
“Forever is a pretty big promise,” says John Llewellyn, the chairman of the board of the Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Association and author of a book called, “A Cemetery Should Be Forever.”
Llewellyn worries that many cemeteries won’t be able to keep that promise.
“Not all cemeteries put aside enough money,” he says. “Some are not required by state law to put aside money. In other instances, the state sets certain minimums are that inadequate.”
Just like people need to sock away as much as possible in their prime earning years, Llewellyn thinks cemeteries, many of which are non-profits, should be saving more. He says the best time from cemeteries is two or three generations into its life, when the high start-up costs of land, roads, and irrigation systems are behind it and revenue from sales starts really flowing.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx already houses 300,000 people and there’s space for tens of thousands more on its rolling hills.
“We are going to cater to every case, whether it be an individual on social security or somebody that’s a multi-millionaire,” says Woodlawn’s executive director David Ison. “We have to have pricing structures to fit all needs.”
Options range from cremation to a private mausoleum available for $4.6 million.
Density is key, says Ison. On a little less than an acre of new space, Woodlawn be able to fit 2,500 new people, a mix of burials and cremations.
By expanding, Woodlawn gives itself more inventory – more time in this middle, lucrative selling phase.
Back in Brooklyn, Washington Cemetery looks at a lot different from the Bronx. It’s under a subway line in a much more urban area, but it’s still popular with local residents.
“I couldn’t, like, emphasize enough to you how people desperately want to be buried here,” says Michael Ciamaga.
He’s hoping a new section the cemetery’s opening will help it emerge from its forced retirement.
“With the Staten Island section that we’re opening, we’ll be good for, you know, anywhere from 10 to 15 years,” he explains. “After that, I have no idea.”
It’s relatively rare, but cemeteries can fail. On average, eight cemeteries have been abandoned in New York State each year since 2001, according to the state’s Division of Cemeteries. They generally become the responsibility of the town, though they may also be taken over by another cemetery.
Ciamaga says if Washington runs out of money, they’ll close the office, cut the maintenance staff, and maybe just keep on a gravedigger until all its “reservations” have been filled.
Whoever said "there’s plenty of room for everyone on the Internet" was wrong - at least if you’re looking for advertisement space for your political campaign.
"There’s a finite amount of inventory on premium video sites like on YouTube or Hulu," says New York Times reporter Ashley Parker.
There are two types of online video ads, and they are priced differently. Skip-able ads give you the option to skip the ad onto the music video or clip that you went on the Internet to watch in the first place. But these are also usually… skipped.
"Those ads do not sell out, but they are sold via an auction system," says Parker. "Closer to Election Day more people are demanding them, so the price goes up."
The other type of ad is called “reserved by ads.” These are normally 15 to 30 seconds long.
"Those are more expensive, often, but they can be reserved in advance which is a big advantage for campaigns that think ahead," says Parker.
The IMF recently claimed that there’s a 40 percent chance of a triple dip recession in the eurozone, and a 30 percent chance of deflation. This grim picture has not been improved by developments in the currency bloc’s biggest economy – Germany.
There’s a political tornado brewing in that country that could blow the euro off course and reignite the debt crisis. Germany’s newest political party – Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) - which wants to pull out of the single currency - is on the rise.
“I think we are becoming a real force in German politics, ” says party worker Friedrich Hilse. “ We have broken through into the European parliament, we have won seats in three regional assemblies, and we’re likely to get into the Bundestag (the German parliament) at the next election.”
But the party has the support of only 7 percent of the electorate. How much of a threat to the euro does the AfD really pose?
"The rise of the AfD is unusual because it seems to break the German consensus," says Pavel Swidlicki, an analyst with the Open Europe think tank in London. “This is the consensus across all political parties – that European integration is the best way forward.”
That does not mean Germany is anywhere close to ditching the euro. Far from it: The country would suffer huge political as well as financial damage if it pulled the plug on monetary union.
But the rise of a euro-skeptic party in the eurozone’s most powerful economy could weaken the single currency and trigger another wave of market unrest. The German government may now be less willing to bailout heavily-indebted member states like Greece or Italy.
“Berlin could dig in its heels much more to try to appeal to those voters that it lost to its new party... and that of course would make the coordination of eurozone-wide policies even harder than it is anyway,” says Dr. Moritz Kraemer of the Standard and Poor’s credit rating agency in Frankfurt . Kraemer claims that the German government – goaded by the AfD – is likely to be even more critical of any special measures by the European Central Bank to stave off deflation. This could mean that if the ECB embarks on U.S. Fed- style money printing, its effectiveness would be undermined.
J.C. Penney's new President and CEO, Marvin Ellison, moves to the legendary retailer from Home Depot. He'll be the third CEO in less than four years and he’s got a tough job in front of him: Making J.C. Penney relevant again.
But before we get into J.C. Penney’s future, it’s worth remembering its past. Once upon a time, department stores were where you went for a bargain, says Ira Kalb, a marketing professor at UCS’s business school.
“I know that when I was in high school, my friends went there to buy underwear,” Kalb says. “So they went to J.C. Penney to buy things [that] were not fashionable items but items where they could save money.”
J.C. Penney still fills that niche and still has a loyal following of mostly older, female bargain hunters, Kalb says. So what's the problem? Well, the world of bargain retailing has radically changed since Penney’s heyday.
“Now there’s a lot of competition at that low-end,” Kalb says.
He says JC Penney needs to re-brand itself because Wal-Mart and Target now dominate that market.
Finding a niche to attract new low-to-middle-income consumers is difficult, says Richard Church, of Discern Investment Analytics.
“The obvious challenge is how do you retain a customer in a slower growth economic world,” he says.
Consumers are buying more online and they’re shifting their spending to gadgets from clothes. While Church admires the new CEO, he’s skeptical about whether Ellison can bring sexy back to Penney’s.
“Anybody who says that Penney needs to be sexy, I believe is not looking at the picture correctly,” says Gilford Securities retail analyst Bernie Sosnick. Penney’s went searching for sexy and it nearly destroyed the company, he says. Now, after a rough couple of years, it’s rediscovering its identity and getting its footing again.