National / International News
Fedor Berezin doesn’t look like a warlord. He seems out of place among the beefy, thuggish rebels of eastern Ukraine, but he's their second-in-command.
“He really does look like the stereotypical sci-fi nerd. He’s this guy in glasses and he’s very soft spoken,” says Russian-born commentater Cathy Young. “Berezin is a sci-fi writer. So we have this really fascinating phenomenon of a sci-fi writer playing real war games.”
What makes Berezin’s presence among the violent, pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine even more extraordinary is that he wrote about the conflict four or five years before it happened. And apart from the plasma guns , the exoskeleton suits and the mechanized monsters, Berezin’s lurid sci-fi version of the war has proved prophetic.
“He wrote about eastern Ukraine becoming a battleground between East and West in a way that is eerily similar to what’s going on today,” says Young, who was the first western-based writer to spot a curious literary trend.
Over the past decade there has been a string of Russian and Ukrainian futuristic thrillers harping on a similar theme: noble Russians staunchly resisting the evil encroachment of the West.
Some pro-western Ukrainian politicians have even argued that the Kremlin may be behind this literary outpouring, encouraging a flood of books that make the idea of a war against western Ukraine acceptable.
Sounds far fetched? Oxford University lecturer James Sherr – one of the UK’s leading authorities on Ukraine - says there could be something in this claim.
“This about getting your people and others to adopt a certain narrative. The Russians are past masters at it.” says Sherr. “What people of Putin’s background - security and intelligence – understand is that to achieve your aims in war or peace, you have link all the different dimensions of activity into one narrative.”
Western science fiction buffs are not entirely surprised either, at both the alleged use of sci- fi as a political tool and at the genre’s predictive power. Author and critic Graham Sleight points out that in the past, sci-fi has foreshadowed a number of military innovations and developments.
“In 1903, HG Wells published a story called 'The Land Ironclads', which anticipated the armoured tanks first used in WW1 a decade or more later,” says Sleight. “And one of the founding fathers of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein, wrote a couple of stories in 1940, not only anticipating a world with nuclear weapons but also a nuclear arms race.”
And we would perhaps be wise to note: Berezin has also written a series of novels in which the United States and Russia go to war…. over possession of the Moon.
The Obama Administration wants to strengthen American business investment in Africa. Today, U.S. companies pledged some $14 billion in new business investment. That was in addition to commitments from the U.S. government, the World Bank and other private groups.
The major push in this bid? Power (the electric kind). After all, six of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. But Ben Leo, a senior fellow with the Center for Global Development, says 600 million people in Africa lack any electricity. That’s a market opportunity, but it’s also a headwind for economic and business growth.
“That’s why every single African leader has affordable electricity at the top of their political and economic agenda,” he says.
That’s also why the private equity firm Blackstone just announced it has teamed up with African billionaire Aliko Dangote to invest $5 billion in energy infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Carlyle Group is also getting involved in energy infrastructure.
Aubrey Hruby, a visiting fellow at The Atlantic Council, says other business obstacles remain. Say you want to open a KFC.
“It doesn’t take a genius to know they want to do business in Nigeria or in Lagos,” a huge city will millions of people, she says. The problem is finding good business data.
“The question is on what block? On what corner? And how do you decide that based on traffic patterns, available disposable income, those kind of metrics?” she asks.
Still, Witney Schneidman, senior international advisor for Africa with Covington & Burling LLP, says U.S. businesses have already invested about $31 billion in Africa. Trade goes both ways, he says.
You can walk into a range of clothing stores in the U.S., like “Lands’ End, Old Navy, and you’ll see shirts that say ‘Made in Lesotho.’ You’ll see pants that say ‘Made in Mauritius.’ You’ll see t-shirts that say ‘Made in Kenya,’” he says.
The evidence? Wal-Mart is doing business in Africa. Procter & Gamble is making diapers there. Even China is looking to Africa for cheaper labor.
GM Financial, the unit of General Motors in charge of auto financing, has received a subpoena in a federal investigation of subprime car loans.
The company disclosed the request in a recent regulatory filing. GM said it’s complying and that it believes the request is focused on the subprime auto-finance industry in general, not GM in particular.
While some of these auto loans can look similar to the subprime mortgages that led to the financial crisis, the scale is different, says Lawrence White, an economics professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.
“The magnitudes are nowhere near in subprime auto what they were in subprime mortgage lending,” he says. “So it’s highly unlikely that there will be any significant macro-economic consequences."
But that doesn’t mean lenders and investors won’t feel some pain if the loans go wrong, White says. The set of borrowers who were impacted most by the mortgage crisis are the ones at risk again, says Chris Kukla, senior vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending.
“It’s also the same practices,” he says. “Loans that were being made at higher interest rates, generally to people who had lower credit scores [with] terms and conditions to them that just made them unaffordable.”
Just like a foreclosure, having a car repossessed can devastate a household.
“Access to an automobile is extraordinarily critical to low-income families and working families," says Stuart Rossman, director of litigation at the National Consumer Law Center. “They are reliant on it for their job, they’re reliant upon it for their education.”
Take away access to a car for enough people, he says, and you could have a serious economic problem on your hands.
On July 28, 2014, General Motors Financial Company, Inc. (the “Company”) was served with a subpoena by the U.S. Department of Justice directing it to produce certain documents relating to its and its subsidiaries’ and affiliates’ origination and securitization of subprime automobile loan contracts since 2007 in connection with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in contemplation of a civil proceeding for potential violations of Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. Among other matters, the subpoena requests information relating to the underwriting criteria used to originate these automobile loan contracts and the representations and warranties relating to those underwriting criteria that were made in connection with the securitization of the automobile loan contracts.
Media company Gannett announced Tuesday it plans to split in two.
Its newspaper and publishing arm – including USA Today – will split off to become one company, retaining the name Gannett. Its broadcast and digital arm, which has yet to be named, will become its own company. That company also, and not coincidentally, just bought up Cars.com.
It’s the latest example of a decade-old scramble to figure out what to do with newspapers.
In some ways, Gannett is spinning off its publishing side, but you could also say it’s ditching it.
“They’re doing it for the simple reason that newspapers are in a downward spiral that’s irreversible,” says Porter Bibb, managing partner at Media Tech Capital Partners.
The idea is that newspapers drag down earnings, stock prices, and even investment from the broadcast and digital side of the company. Those companies could excel, ostensibly without needing to subsidize their ailing brother.
“The latest number showed that while 70 percent of [Gannett’s] revenues were coming from newspapers, already 60 percent of profits were coming from broadcast,” says Ken Doctor, media analyst at Newsonomics.
Even though digital ad spending for newspapers is expected to increase 4.3 percent this year to $3.64 billion, traditional print newspaper ad spending is expected to drop 4 percent to $16.73 billion. That brings the total ad spending down 2.6 percent from last year, according to eMarketer.
The decline of newspapers is intimately tied to why the broadcast and digital side of Gannett will buy Cars.com. Auto advertising used to be the hand that fed newspapers. Now that hand is feeding someone else.
“Print media’s lost billions in ad revenue in the last decade, and a large part of that is from auto dealerships who have shifted spending from print classifieds over to digital,” says Mike Hudson, an analyst with eMarketer.
The broadcast and digital side of Gannett followed the money and it's leaving publishing and newspapers behind in what has become a popular strategy. Time Warner spun out Time Inc. and News Corp split off from 21st Century Fox.
It’s not necessarily leaving print behind to die, just to fend for itself.
“Essentially, the theory goes if you spin off the print piece, the print can have the freedom to focus on the business of print itself,” says Hudson.
There are often crossovers – relationships between TV and print remain. In Gannett’s case, the print company would very likely continue to provide news services to the broadcast side.
But to the extent these spinoffs are independent, they are also vulnerable.
“The companies are left as standalone companies, that means they operate now without a safety net,” Doctor says.
So far the print spinoffs aren’t looking great, either.
“All these publishing companies are still negative on revenue year over year, and for most of them they haven’t grown revenue for seven years really since the recession,” Doctor says. “So we don’t know about the long-term impact of it.”
The broadcast companies appear to be doing better in terms of earnings and stock prices, but that doesn't prove spinning off is a good strategy. Broadcasters have their own battles to fight – think about cable TV and its battles with Aereo and Netflix.
So while the spinoff is a popular move, it’s also a new and unproven one.
Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace
A report today from two bank regulators, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, basically said that "too big to fail" thing.
It was an update on how banks are faring in putting together their living wills, as mandated by the Dodd-Frank law. Basically, it explains how they would handle failure without involving the government.
It's not looking so good. In the words of Thomas Hoenig, the second in command at the FDIC:
"Despite the thousands of pages of material these firms submitted, the plans provide no credible or clear path through bankruptcy that doesn't require unrealistic assumptions and direct or indirect public support."
In other words: Wall Street's totally still going to hose us.
From its base in south central Russia, the relatively small group has reportedly collected passwords along with user names and email addresses.
The White House says U.S. exports to Africa have jumped 40 percent in five years. But the administration says growth can be even faster. "I want Africans buying more American products," Obama said.
There’s this pretty amazing YouTube video featuring Rafael Dumon at Lake Garda, Italy. Dumon attempts a self-proclaimed world’s first: using a wingsuit to jump off a mountain, gliding onto the lake far below.
“I’m not going to be using my chute, and I will end up skimming on the lake. And instead of bouncing, I will hope to kind of glide in at a trajectory, similar to a plane,” Dumon says.
Believe it or not, he does it, capturing the feat with a GoPro camera:
But what if something had gone wrong? Could GoPro be held liable? After all, the company has its own YouTube channel for users to share extreme videos.
“Well, I would say that they’re certainly at risk for a lawsuit, but not necessarily at risk for losing a lawsuit,” says Jim Underwood, a law professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
He says for GoPro to lose, the plaintiffs would actually need to prove there was something wrong with the camera that caused the accident.
Underwood says another possible lawsuit would be for a plaintiff to blame the risky behavior on the company’s marketing, "and that they failed to provide adequate warnings of those dangers.”
But in the same breath, he says the courts have ruled that when the danger is clear, there’s no need to spell out it.
“In fact, that’s why these videos are so popular - because the danger is so obvious and sometimes shocking,” Underwood says.
Even though it may be difficult for GoPro to lose one of these lawsuits, the company wants would-be investors to know they could be sued.
On page 34 of GoPro’s IPO filing with the Securitites and Exchange Commission under a section entitled “risk,” the company writes:
“Consumers use our cameras and accessories to self-capture their participation in a wide variety of physical activities, including extreme sports, which in many cases carry the risk of significant injury. We may be subject to claims if consumers are injured while using our products.”
GoPro may have reason to be concerned. The workout app Strava, which lets cyclists and runners compete virtually, has been criticized -- and even sued -- for encouraging dangerous biking in busy cities.
“Trial lawyers will never miss an opportunity to try to open a new avenue for litigation. Certainly the world of apps is one of those," says Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute.
He says unless laws start to change, the way litigation works in this country -- lawyers are actually encouraged to file a lawsuit against everything and everyone involved in an accident. Even a GoPro camera.
"I'm just thrilled for the opportunity to coach these unbelievable athletes," WNBA star Becky Hammon says at a news conference announcing her hire by San Antonio.
President Obama capped the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in downtown Washington, D.C., with a speech to the collected leaders and business people at the conference.
Instead of buying Time Warner for a reported $80 billion, Twenty-First Century Fox will buy back $6 billion worth of shares of its own stock.
Should the public know how much money Wal-Mart, or that convenience store down the street, takes in through the federal food stamp program? Or does that amount to a retail trade secret? Those are the questions at the heart of a request for public comment announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program.
Here’s the background: Last year we spent $76 billion tax payer dollars on the food stamp program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP). That money goes to about 47 million low-income Americans, who use it to buy food at more than 250,000 retail stores across the country.
But, as I have reported here before, exactly which stores and which companies benefit most from those food stamp dollars is something the federal government has never disclosed. Officials have long argued they are required by law to keep the information secret, in order to protect retailers.
A few years ago the Argus Leader, a newspaper in South Dakota, sued the USDA, arguing the public has a right to see this data. The issue is still tied up in court. Last spring, when I interviewed Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon about the issue in March, he told me that in his opinion, greater transparency would be a good thing.
“I think personally it’s in the interest of the American public,” he said. “These are public benefits that are moving through the economy.”
Yet when I asked him if he would push his agency to disclose the information he said he needed to “talk to the lawyers.”
Judging from the USDA’s announcement Monday, the lawyers have been consulted.
In the press release announcing the agency’s request for public input, Concannon said: “Our goal is to provide more transparency so that people can have access to basic information about the amount of SNAP benefits that individual grocery stores and retailers are redeeming. We hope that this public comment period will be informative as to how we can do that in the most thoughtful and appropriate way possible."
The USDA will take public comment until Sept. 8. As for what kind of comments might come in over the next month, we have some clues already.
When I asked Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar last spring about how much revenue his company took in from food stamps, he told me it was proprietary information.
“We don’t provide our market-share data on any categories like that,” he said, pointing out that knowing how much a particular Wal-Mart in a particular location makes in food stamps could be helpful to competitors. “I think any information that a retailer shares about how they’re serving customers and how they’re going to market would be interesting to lots of other retailers.”
It’s worth pointing out that aside from being the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart likely takes in the most food stamp dollars, an estimated 18 percent last year, according to leaked comments from a company vice president at a private dinner last fall, which Walmart later confirmed. That sum would amount to $13 billion, or about 4 percent of Wal-Mart’s total U.S. sales.
Wal-Mart is also one of several retailers that have a significant number of employees who make little enough that they rely on food stamps to get by. In Ohio, up to 15 percent of Wal-Mart’s workforce uses SNAP, based on our analysis of state food stamp enrollment data.
Outside the retail community, there are voices advocating for making the data public, arguing that it could help citizens and policy makers better understand which stores profit the most from food stamps, what kinds of foods they promote and sell, and what their business practices are.
“It could be used to improve SNAP and make it more accessible to poor families,” writes Stacy Cloyd, the Senior Domestic Policy Analyst at Bread for the World Institute, an anti-hunger organization. Knowing which stores attract the most SNAP customers would “allow hunger advocates to learn from successful businesses and share best practices. It would also help them identify the highest-volume vendors so that they can offer the stores information and recommendations on how they can supply a variety of nutritious foods,” she writes.
As Jonathan Ellis, the South Dakota journalist who sued the USDA to make food stamp data public, points out: “Typically, if a business participates in a government program, you can get a copy of their contract and find out how much they’re being paid.”
That’s how it works when the government pays a construction company to build a bridge, or a defense contractor to build a fighter plane.
But that’s not how it works when the government reimburses retail companies that participate in the federal food stamp program, at least for now.
A U.S. Army major general was killed and another 15 other soldiers — including a German brigadier general — were injured when a man dressed in an Afghan military uniform opened fire on them. The attack took place in Kabul City, Afghanistan.
Federal prosecutors have formally charged the owner of an anti-aging clinic with distributing illegal steroids. Anthony Bosch surrendered to federal agents, and he has been cooperating with investigations. Last year, Major League Baseball suspended a dozen players, including Alex Rodriguez, with ties to Bosch and his clinic.