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U.S. corporations park billions overseas

Tue, 2014-08-26 02:00

In the spring of 2014, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tried to buy British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca for $116 billion. In May, the bid was rejected. U.K. politicos objected on economic nationalism grounds, while some AstraZeneca investors considered the offer too low. Under U.K. takeover rules, Pfizer can make another run at AstraZeneca starting on August 26.

Even if Pfizer doesn’t succeed in acquiring AstraZeneca, Pfizer CEO Ian Read has said he is "aggressively" seeking other acquisitions — Ireland-based Actavis is said to be a possible target. If Pfizer were able to become a foreign-based company, and shift its domicile to the U.K. or Ireland, it would be able to bring home as much as $30 billion in international profits without being subject to the 35 percent U.S. corporate tax rate on that money, says Martin Sullivan, chief economist at TaxAnalysts.com. (Sullivan points out that Pfizer would likely pay a lower tax rate in actuality.)

“Part of the allure is to get into lower-tax countries,” says Sullivan. "Like the U.K., with 21 percent, and Ireland, with 12.5 percent.”

Major American companies — including GE, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Google, Cisco, Microsoft and Apple — are estimated to have nearly $2 trillion parked outside the U.S.; profits from international operations and investments. They use the money to buy foreign companies and factories.

Or, it just sits in the bank, says Brad McMillan, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial.

“You can make an argument that shareholders would be better off if the money was brought home, taxes were paid, and it was distributed, or put to use in the business," says McMillan.

McMillan says companies could pay higher dividends to shareholders, or build new factories in the U.S. But he says that’s unlikely, until U.S. corporate tax rates come down. And he thinks that is a political long-shot, at least until the 2016 presidential election.

How too much corn spells trouble far beyond the fields

Tue, 2014-08-26 01:00

We are awash in corn.

Why?

Last year was a record corn production year and this year is shaping up to be just as good. Let's explain why this acreage of corn crops can be problematic. 

What do we do with all the corn we produce in general? And what about the surplus?

Most of it is being used as always: to make corn-based products, to make animal feed and to make ethanol. But the surplus that isn't being used for those things is being piled up in grain elevators, or stored in long tubes on the ground. Farmers and buyers are having problems finding enough trucks and freight cars to get the grain around the country. All this corn is literally clogging up the system, and prices are plummeting. Corn prices have fallen by more than 20 percent over the last year, to a four-year low.

Isn't it a good thing when cereal prices fall?

In some ways, this is great news. It will be cheaper to feed chickens, pigs and cows, and of course the price of any corn-based products will fall all as well. We'll be able to stockpile corn for the future, in case 2015 is a bad production year. We may even be able to help other, needier, countries with our surplus.

I can feel a "but" coming...

Yep: cheap corn is good news for buyers, but bad news for sellers. Farmers who hadn't pre-sold their grain are now finding they can't get much money for their product. And many were already suffering because corn prices were already depressed by last year's bumper crop.

Add in the fact that land is getting more expensive, China is buying less, there are fewer animals in the U.S. to feed, there's a cap on ethanol production, and the cost of seed and fertilizer are holding steady, and you can see that farmers are being squeezed.

It's not just farmers, right?

Right. There are all sorts of businesses associated with farmers that are affected. Heavy equipment manufacturers are in a particular pickle. Between 2010 and 2013, grain was scarce, so farmers were able to charge a lot for their crop. They made a lot of money and spent a lot of it on farming equipment. Which means that a) they've got pretty new gear and don't need to buy replacement stuff and b) with times tight, they're not going to want to splash out on a new tractor or whatever.

What are the equipment manufacturers doing?

They're cutting back operations and laying people off. John Deere reckons it will have to let as many as 1,000 workers go. It is seeing weakness in Europe and South America, as well as in the U.S.

How bad is this going to be for the economy?

For the economy overall, not too bad.

Farmers have had a good few years, so the pressure on them this year won't kill them. Some farms may go out of business, but not many. Equipment manufacturers are used to the cyclical nature of the farming business, so they won't go under either.

But people are going to lose their jobs, and whether they work on farms or in equipment firms, those jobs tend to be in places where other work is scarce. So, a lot of individuals will likely be suffering this coming winter.

Forget the Whopper. How about doughnuts and coffee?

Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

The fast food industry is not the easiest place to be right now, even for a [Burger] King. The chain is talking about a merger with Tim Hortons, a coffee and doughnut staple in Canada. So, how does it help one fast-food chain to acquire... another one?

“The market is incredibly competitive,” says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President with Technomic, a food industry research and consultancy based in Chicago. He says growth is very low – just about 3 to 3.5 percent. Inflation for the industry is also expected to be about 3.5 percent, thanks to rising costs of commodities like beef. So, it’s almost a wash.

“We don’t see any real growth for the restaurant industry as a whole,” Tristano says.

Low-income customers haven’t seen much if any wage growth, so they’re holding onto their cash. Higher income customers have been wooed by higher-end places like Chipotle and Panera – “fast casuals” as Morningstar’s senior restaurant analyst RJ Hottovy calls them. “That’s the sweet spot in the industry,” and it is not a spot occupied by Burger King.

But if Burger King can’t immediately control its customers’ spending, it can control its own, and that has been one area of focus ever since the fast food chain was bought and taken by Brazilian private equity firm 3g in 2010.

“They have been cutting costs to free up resources. And they’ve been running the business less like a restaurant, and more like a financial company,” says Tristano.

Whereas at one point 10 percent of Burger King’s restaurants were actually owned and operated by Burger King, the company washed its hands of all of them, and now leaves the operation of its locations (and the exposure that comes with direct ownership from labor costs to maintenance budgets) to franchisees, says Charles Pinson-Rose, director at Standard and Poor's. “It’s all royalty revenue, and it allows the company to improve cash flows.”

The chain has aggressively tried to keep up with McDonalds on menu items, revamping its menu several times. It has expanded successfully in Brazil, China, and Russia. Pinson-Rose echoes an oft-heard sentiment in summing up the King’s reign of late: “Overall they’ve largely been successful, but the reality is it’s a very difficult environment for food service in the United States.”

Ironically, that’s exactly where acquiring Canadian firm Tim Hortons could help Burger King. Tim Hortons is successful in one of the few arenas that seem to be looking up for fast food: coffee.

“Starbucks continues to do very well with strong profit margins, you see McDonalds make coffee a key priority, and I think this partnership strengthens Burger King’s coffee offering as well,” Hottovy says.

“The push out of Starbucks is to push its own packaged coffee, and Tim Hortons has the same kind of aspirations,” says Hottovy. Partnering with Burger King could help Hortons and Burger King both on that front.

Of course, the tax benefits and easier access to cash abroad that Burger King would get by reincorporating in Canada... well, that can’t hurt.

High school will keep starting too early. Here's why.

Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined a chorus that’s been growing louder for years: The school day should start later for teenagers because they aren’t wired to go to bed early — and they need their sleep.

The AAP says this is a public-health issue: Sleep-deprived teenagers are more likely to crash cars, get depressed, and become obese. Also, they may not do as well in school. 

However, early start times aren't going away quickly, and probably won't, because of the costs.

That's surprising because, from the outside, the economics of a later start-time seem pretty good. A 2011 study from the Brookings Institution looked at three ways school districts could improve just by getting better organized. Starting school later for teens was number one.    

"Among all the things schools could do to increase student performance, this is one of the less expensive ones," says Brian Jacob, an economics and public-policy professor at the University of Michigan, one of the study's co-authors. "This is not like hiring extra teachers to reduce class size, or building a big new expensive building."

School boards often hear objections about disruptions at the other end of the school day: Kids getting home really late from sports practice or chess club. Or not being able to work after-school jobs.

The big issue — the expensive issue — is transportation, says Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Amundson is a former member of the school board in Fairfax County Virginia, which is ground zero for debates on school start times.

The debate started there when Amundson was serving, back in the 1990s; buses were the sticking point.

"How school districts make school buses pay is, you basically use the equipment as much as you can," Amundson says.

Meaning, the district runs each bus multiple times every morning. High school students typically get picked up on the first run, which can happen before sunrise for part of the year. 

Asked why little kids, who tend to be early risers, couldn't start early, Amundson laughs. "Oh, no, that was a non-starter," she says. "There were exactly zero of us who were prepared to have five year-olds on the street in the dark."

She says later start times probably work better for smaller districts, with fewer buses to run.  Fairfax County’s School Board is scheduled to vote on a later-start proposal in October.

What happens when Miley Cyrus blesses your cause

Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

Heather Carmichael, executive director of My Friend’s Place,  a nonprofit that supports homeless youth in Hollywood, says thanks to Miley Cyrus' promotion at MTV's Video Music Awards Sunday,  $70,000 in donations had come in as of Monday morning.

“Today’s been a little bit of a whirlwind – it actually started last night,” she said.

Carmichael notes that My Friend’s Place is privately funded. "So coming into this opportunity is really out of the ordinary... ever so extraordinary," she says. "It’s a rare day that we will be able to raise that amount of money in that short period of time."

The money, says Carmichael,  could go to anything from providing more food to longer hours to adding more staff. But Jeff Shuck, CEO of Plenty, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits raise money through peer-to-peer fundraising, says a nonprofit should take a moment to stop and think about the money.

“It’s an aberration, it’s a windfall, it’s not something that can be easily replicated,” he says.

One trap, says Shuck, is for nonprofits is to make long-term decisions like hiring new staff based on a one-time shot of income that isn't sustainable. Instead, he says, organizations should think about saving and improving infrastructure.

"Annoying purchases that you would not otherwise want to spend money on," he says. “We can’t change the world unless we can turn the lights on. We can’t make a difference to other people in our lives unless we have desks and paper and computers.”

As for the strategy of using a celebrity to raise money, says Trevor Neilson, president of G2 Investment Group and co-founder ofGlobal Philanthropy Group, a consultancy for nonprofits - and a friend who advised Cyrus on how to promote My Friend’s Place - “really, it comes down to a combination of both raising awareness, but also raising funds."

"Any celebrity-oriented philanthropic campaign that doesn’t actually raise money to create real change in the world, isn’t really a success," he says. "It’s fine to raise awareness but if you don’t raise awareness and don’t create real world change, you’re not really helping these kids."

British Embassy marks White House burning with cake

Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

The British burned down the White House 200 years ago yesterday.

It was a big moment in the War of 1812, which you know all too well if you listen to public radio regularly.

The British Embassy marked the anniversary yesterday. While "celebrated" wouldn't be the right word... there was cake! A big cake in the shape of the White House.

And, this being 2014 and all, the British Embassy even tweeted a picture of it:

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time! pic.twitter.com/QIDBQTBmmL

— British Embassy (@UKinUSA) August 24, 2014

Plenty of people seemed to take umbrage at that including a spokesperson for the State Department.

The special relationship, she tweeted back, is #ItsComplicated.

Commemorating 200 years of peace between the US & UK pic.twitter.com/5fEKRKxBFU

— British Embassy (@UKinUSA) August 24, 2014

What it's like to Doodle for Google

Mon, 2014-08-25 11:35

When Google's co-founders went to the Burning Man music festival back in August of 1998, they changed the Google logo on their homepage while they were gone.

They put a little Burning Man stick figure behind one of the "o"s in Google. It was the first Google Doodle.

Today, Google has a whole team of employees who design Doodles commemorating birthdays, big events, anniversaries, and more.

Sophia Foster-Dimino, an illustrator and Google Doodler based in San Francisco, told host David Gura about the process.

"For the first several years that doodles were sort of an operation, we did doodles that were more freebies, like Leonardo DaVinci or Einstein, people that everyone has heard of," says Foster-Dimino. "As time has gone on, we have sort of wanted to broaden our reach. We know that in the course of history, certain people aren’t as well remembered as they should be. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to dig a little deeper, try and find people that have maybe fallen out of the spotlight and let them share the stage with these other famous individuals that we celebrate."

Sophia Foster-Dimino

Sophia Foster-Dimino

Sophia Foster-Dimino

Her latest doodle commemorates Althea Gibson’s 87th birthday. Gibson was the first African-American athlete of either gender to cross the color line of international tennis. Foster-Dimino says she didn’t know who Gibson was when she was assigned to create the doodle. So, she researched by reading Gibson’s autobiography and watching videos of her playing tennis at Wimbledon and at the U.S Nationals.

A Doodle in its early concept stages.

"It’s really a good idea to immerse yourself in the source material and try to pick out the things that will be recognizable to those who are already fans to the person and intriguing to those who are not familiar with them," says Foster-Dimino.

Foster-Dimino says she wanted to illustrate Gibson’s talent and strengths on the field.

A rejected Doodle idea.

"Although the option was on the table, to just do a simple portrait, we really wanted to show her grace and elegance on the field, which captivate anyone watching her play, which was why I pitched my boss to do an animation," says Foster-Dimino.

On @Marketplace tonight, I'll talk to @hellophia about @GoogleDoodles. (She drew today's #AltheaGibson Doodle.) http://t.co/lq3Dcdi6NR

— David Gura (@davidgura) August 25, 2014

The story of John Sperling, University of Phoenix founder

Mon, 2014-08-25 10:26

John G. Sperling died this week at the age of 93. If you haven't heard of him, you probably have heard of the school he founded, the for-profit University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix has served over 1 million people since its founding, and taught hundreds of thousands of students at once through online programs and locations spread across the U.S. Since it was founded in 1978, the school has sought to help working adults complete their degree, though it's faced criticism over how much debt students take on, and how few of them graduate.

Sperling did a fair amount of bootstrap-pulling himself. He left behind a humble, abusive upbringing to become a merchant marine before eventually getting his own formal education. Only after a career as a professor, in his 50s, did Sperling branch out into for-profit education and start on the road to becoming a billionaire. He ran the company until just two years ago.  

Emily Hanford is the education correspondent for American Radio Works who had the last interview with Sperling nearly two years ago. He spent part of their conversation defending his school:

"Traditional education has slammed the door. Where in the hell are you going to educate these people? Well, it's going to be places like the University of Phoenix, or they aren't going to be educated, period," Sperling said.

Here are some facts Hanford learned about Sperling:

He was highly critical of elite higher education, even though he was himself a product of that system. Starting in community college, Sperling transferred to Reed College in Oregon and went on to receive two doctorates: one from UC Berkeley and one from the University of Cambridge. His downtown Phoenix office held the complete works of Emily Dickinson.

Of his fellow undergraduates at Reed, he said, "I loathed them... because of their privilege." In his words, they were always saying: "'I got where I did because of all the hard work,' and I thought, 'You stupid son of a bitch, you don't know how privileged you are.'"

He was politically liberal, and at one point identified as a socialist. He was passionate about union organizing and led a faculty strike in 1968.

Even so, Sperling ultimately had no qualms about making money. Starting with just eight students in 1976, the University of Phoenix initially catered to older adults finishing bachelor's careers by paying out of pocket. Now, 90 percent of its income stream comes from the federal government in the form of student loan funds.

Hanford's documentary is called "The Rise of Phoenix".

Is it time to rename the Common Core?

Mon, 2014-08-25 09:31

Marketing professionals know that the key to improving lousy sales or a bad image is sometimes as simple as a new name or snazzier packaging– "rebranding,” as it’s known in the biz.

But what about an unpopular public policy, like, say, the Common Core?  Experts think the Obama-backed education standards for reading, writing and math may be in line for a do-over.

Two recent opinion polls showed that public support for the standards, which have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia, is slipping. But just how much can depend on how you talk about it: Use the name, and support drops.  

When the education-policy journal Education Next, for instance, asked people two very similar questions about the Common Core,  but didn’t use the name “Common Core”  in one of them, support for the standards jumped from 53 to 69 percent.

Partisan differences, which have turned the Core into a political punching bag, also disappeared. While only 43 percent of Republicans said they support the standards when asked about the “Common Core,” 68 percent said they support them when the name was removed from the question—on par with the percent of Democrats who supported the standards.

“Most Americans and most educators agree with the concept of more rigorous college and career ready standards,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday, a strong proponent of the standards. “Where we started losing public support for Common Core is that the term ‘Common Core’ has become polarized.”

SOUND FAMILIAR?

Obamacare had a similar problem.  People liked a lot of the components, like the ability to keep a child on your insurance policy until he or she is 26 and no longer allowing pre-existing conditions to disqualify someone from being insured.

A November 2013 poll showed that slightly more people approved of the health care reform law when it was referred to by its official name, the Affordable Care Act, than when it was referred to as “Obamacare.”

As with Obamacare, opposition to the Common Core standards may stem, in part, from misconceptions about what exactly they comprise. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in March 2013 found that 40 percent of people had an unfavorable view of the health care law. The same proportion of people believed—incorrectly—that the law allowed a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care.

Similarly, about 70 percent of the respondents in the Education Next poll thought, wrongly, that the Common Core would allow the federal government to collect detailed data on individual students’ test scores.

Half of respondents held the misconception that the Common Core was a federal program that all states were required to adopt. More than one-third thought that states using the Common Core couldn’t choose their own textbooks or class materials.

“A lot of folks see the common core as federal overreach,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped devise the standards. “Clearly we have to get our message out that these are just standards and they aren’t telling teachers what to teach.”

So would changing the name really make a difference?

“The name is the name. I don’t think that’s what will necessarily do it,” Minnich said.

But Holliday, who is also the current president of the CCSSO, said he thinks changing the name is inevitable.

“I think the name is probably going to have to be changed in the future,” he said.

So what’s his proposal for a new, improved Common Core brand?

“We should change it to ‘College and Career Ready Standards,’” he said. “Who doesn’t agree that a kid ought to graduate from high school ready for college and career?”

Not exactly snappy.  But in this case, a boring brand might be better than an unpopular one.

Want to learn cybersecurity? Head to Def Con.

Mon, 2014-08-25 08:37

I wanted to talk to people who are learning how to become cybersecurity professionals. With all the security break-ins that we've seen recently, I thought they would be easy to find. At a Silicon Valley university, maybe? Or in a Bay Area tech school?

Nope! In the end I had to go to Vegas, of all places, to a hacker conference called Def Con.

I watched Google’s Parisa Tabriz take the stage. She asked the audience to help the search giant find bugs: “You can make anywhere between $100 and  $150,000 for a security bug, and you can also get a job!”

Tabriz, the engineering manager for the security team that protects Google Chrome, was speaking to the right audience. Def Con is a group of people learning to become cybersecurity specialists via computer system break-ins. In other words, they were learning to hack.

There’s even a kid’s track at Def Con called r00tz Asylum.  One participant - "Cryptina," 12 - wouldn't give me her real name “for privacy reasons."

I asked her: Would you hack for Google?

“Yeah, I've definitely considered it,” Cryptina said. “I've always wanted to be a computer scientist or a forensic scientist.”

“You can call it a recruiting trip,” Tabriz said when I caught up with her later. She meant it to come off tongue-in-cheek, she was mostly there to teach kids hacking.

She said, there is truth to the joke, though. Google does have a program that pays hackers to report security bugs.

“We run a couple of vulnerability award programs at Google, and there are a lot of kids who are underage and find bugs or contribute to this code,” Tabriz said.

Tabriz has hired one of those kids. He started submitting bugs when he was around 12 and she kept track of him. She says it doesn't happen very often at Google, but that it happens at all illustrates the severe shortage of cybersecurity experts in tech.

Nico Sell, a co-founder of r00tz Asylum, says you can see it in the competition for talent.

“It’s really amazing because nowadays you could get a job without a high school degree for six figures if you know how to hack,” Sell said.  

Sell says there are a couple of reasons for this shortage in cybersecurity.

Mobile computing, apps and the Internet of Things has given rise to criminal hackers, who can now break into almost every part of our lives. At the same time, universities are failing to train cybersecurity professionals, which is why so many people go to Def Con.

“Something that my parents get a little upset about me saying...the education that I received at Def Con is way more valuable than my Ivy league education, by 10 times,” Sell said.

Companies that are looking for cybersecurity talent say, in part, it’s because the basic curriculum for computer engineering degrees was set about 50 years ago. It teaches students to build systems instead of breaking into them.

Two universities, Cleveland State University and nearby Case Western University, are trying to change that paradigm. At Case Western, professors like Swarup Bhunia have started teaching students how to break into computer systems.

“It’s basically an approach of 'hacking for credit,'” Bhania said.

Bhunia says the curriculum is controversial. Hacking can be illegal, and lots of universities aren’t comfortable teaching it. He said the debate boils down to this: “Is it ethical to teach hacking to our students?”

Lots of schools have decided it isn’t ethical, and so they teach the theory behind hacking instead. Bhunia says unless students learn how to hack themselves, it’s nearly impossible for them to figure out how to defend vulnerable systems.  

“They take these theoretical courses and go to these companies... they’re not capable of understanding the different security vulnerabilities,” Bhunia said. “And they’re also not capable of coming up with solutions.”

Bhunia hopes Case Western’s program will convince universities that teaching hacking is vital to any cybersecurity program.

Until universities make that change, people who want to work in cybersecurity are relying on hackathons and conferences like Def Con to learn the real-world skills they need to keep us safe.

Sony recovers from cyber-attack

Mon, 2014-08-25 07:00

Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) is back online as of Monday after being crippled by a cyber-attack over the weekend. A Twitter user called Lizard Squad openly gloated about the attack, and even tweeted a bomb scare at an American Airlines flight carrying a top Sony executive. Though this weekend’s events were particularly bizarre, this isn’t the first time hackers have overwhelmed Sony’s defenses.

The PlayStation Network is what allows people to play games against each other online - someone flooded it with artificially high traffic and overwhelmed it. Sony says the personal information of its millions of PSN users was not compromised during this weekend’s attack, known as a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack.

It’s kind of like “you and I and 20 of our best friends all calling the pizza joint, every second. So nobody can ever call and order a pizza,” says Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor with the data protection firm Sophos.

Lizard Squad, which has been referred to as a hacker/vandal collective, implied it was trying to pressure Sony into spending more money to improve its PlayStation Network.

Sony, yet another large company, but they aren't spending the waves of cash they obtain on their customers' PSN service. End the greed.

— Lizard Squad (@LizardSquad) August 24, 2014

In 2011, Sony’s PlayStation Network suffered a big security breach, during which account information was accessed. The denial of service attack that accompanied that attack was likely a smokescreen, says Wisniewski.

“It’s believed in 2011 that was used as a cover, to confuse the Sony security staff while other people infiltrated the network to steal sensitive information about their customers,” he says.

Sony recently agreed to a multi-million dollar preliminary court settlement to address claims arising from that breach.

This weekend’s DDoS attack was followed by a beyond-digital threat. Lizard Squad tweeted that an American Airlines flight carrying Sony’s online entertainment president John Smedley could also have explosives on-board.

.@AmericanAir We have been receiving reports that @j_smedley's plane #362 from DFW to SAN has explosives on-board, please look into this.

— Lizard Squad (@LizardSquad) August 24, 2014

The flight was diverted. Sony says the FBI is investigating. 

   

PODCAST: Nadella's vision for Microsoft

Mon, 2014-08-25 03:00

First up, Sony's Playstation gaming network is back functioning to its usual standards today after being crippled for a time by a major cyber attack this weekend. And that's just one part of a strange business of entertainment story today. Plus, microsoft is expected to unveil a new version of its Windows operating system. The last one, Windows 8, was nice enough but did not take the world by storm. But since then, Microsoft has gotten a new CEO: Satya Nadella. Windows 9 could say a lot about his vision for the company. Also, Japan has resumed exporting rice grown in the Fukushimia region for the first time since the nuclear power disaster in 2011. A shipment of 650 pounds of rice sold out at a big supermarket in Singapore.  That local success could help reopen markets beyond Singapore for struggling Japanese farmers.

How the sharing industry gets insurance

Mon, 2014-08-25 02:00

Sharing may sound utopian. But the sharing industry has a dark side and its name is insurance.

“Probably one of the hardest things we had to do in order to start our company was to get the insurance,” says Seth Peterson, co-founder and CEO of AllYouCanArcade.com, an arcade game rental business. Peterson says he had to call more than 100 insurance agents before he found one willing to work with him.

“Eventually what I did was I started to get my insurance license," he says, "because I thought if no one is going to underwrite this, I’ll underwrite this myself.”

Peterson says the brokers he talked to were okay with the arcade game part of his business: “Then we would say, 'Well, actually, though, we have these independent contractors who work for us, who fill demand across the entire United States.' And that was the point where they just freaked out.”

While she didn't freak out, Ashley Hunter, an insurance broker specializing in risky markets with HM Risk Group, does admit to a certain amount of surprise, confusion and doubt when she received the first inquiry from a potential client about the cost of a policy for his car sharing company.

"I literally looked at him and started laughing and said, 'No one is going to insure this,'” she says. "There’s too many variables. I don’t know who’s using the vehicles. I don’t know when these cars are going to be used. What happens if someone is sharing the car and then it gets stolen? Who’s responsible?”

In the end, Hunter says, she was able to find a policy that worked for the car sharing service, as well as others. Now, she says the sharing industry is a niche she specializes in, as well as other, equally risky to insure industries - like fertility. But she notes that calculating rates for policies and deductibles for businesses like these can be complicated.

Just imagine a possible scenario, says Ted Devine, CEO of Insureon, an online broker specializing in small businesses, many of which share. “You’re an independent programmer; you run into your Uber car; you forget your laptop," he says.

If you work for a big company, says Devine, and leave your laptop in a taxi from a sharing service, or at a co-working space, ready your  lawyers, because everyone could get sued. Of the category of risk dealing with cyber data, like the recent Target breach, Devine says: "the sharing economy puts that on steroids.”

Rob Auston, founder of Outdoors.io -- think Airbnb-like site, but for skis, tents, backpacks and other outdoor gear -- says as a young sharing company, he found himself in a Catch-22. Insurers wouldn't provide him with a policy until he had established a solid customer base. But at the same time, it was tricky to find customers willing to rent out their gear without insurance.

"I spent a ton of time talking to insurance companies who just didn't understand our business," he says. "I made the decision to stop wasting time on it and just build the business."

Though he wasn't happy about it, Auston and his partners decided to provide up to $500 of coverage for clients' gear out of their own pockets. He says that now that he has a more fully fleshed out operating business, he's been able to find an insurance broker who is willing to provide coverage and he hopes to have damage and liability coverage in place later this year.

“Sharing sounds so good,” says Christie Alderman, vice president for Chubb Personal Insurance. “Our parents taught us to share when we were toddlers, right? But in this case sharing has some challenges."

Alderman says consumers need to read the fine print on their insurance policies. Especially if they're engaging in paid sharing on either side of the equation. For them, she has this message:  "If you want to share, beware."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Insureon. The text has been corrected.

It's still summer, but gas prices haven't spiked

Mon, 2014-08-25 02:00

It’s peak driving season, yet increased demand is not pushing up gas prices. The national average sits at $3.44 a gallon, a six-week low. How does that happen?

Well, first, consider global prices. The international Brent price of crude is at a soft $102 per barrel.

That may sound odd, given global instability in the Middle East and Ukraine. Despite geopolitical events, though, oil continues to flow from those places. 

“There will be no sanctions against Russian oil or gas exports,” says consultant Bob McNally at the Rapidan Group. “So that initial fear we saw in March and May has kind of come out of the market.”

Elsewhere, there have been supply hiccups. The International Energy Agency reports disruptions in Iraq and Libya. Those shortfalls have been made up, however, by increased North American output.

U.S. production, now 8.5 million barrels per day, is at its highest since 1987.

“We’ve had this dramatic increase in crude oil production because of new technology,” says economist Tancred Lidderdale of the federal Energy Information Agency. “And that’s helped offset supply disruptions across the world.”  

Of course, calm markets always precede something. AAA notes hurricane season is approaching, which is always a risk for Gulf coast refineries.

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It’s peak driving season, yet increased demand is not pushing up gas prices.

 

The national average currently sits at $3.44 a gallon. That’s a six-week low. As to why, consider global prices. The international Brent price of crude is at a soft $102 per barrel.

 

Which may sound odd, given global instability in the Middle East and Ukraine. Despite geopolitical events, though, oil continues to flow from those places.

 

“There will be no sanctions against Russian oil or gas exports,” says consultant Bob McNally at the Rapidan Group. “So that initial fear we saw in March and May has kind of come out of the market.”

 

Elsewhere, there have been supply hiccups. The International Energy Agency reports disruptions in Iraq and Libya. Those shortfalls have been made up, however, by increased North American output. U.S. production, now 8.5 million barrels per day, is at its highest since 1987.

 

“We’ve had this dramatic increase in crude oil production because of new technology,” says economist Tancred Lidderdale of the federal Energy Information Agency. “And that’s helped offset supply disruptions across the world.”  

 

Of course, calm markets always precede something. AAA notes hurricane season is approaching, which is always a risk for Gulf coast refineries.

  

Inversions can hit small investors with a big tax bill

Mon, 2014-08-25 02:00

Ninety-five-year old Lois Powers of Okoboji, Iowa, owns about $40,000 worth of Medtronic stock.

“I’ve been buying it all through the years,” she says.

Now, Medtronic is considering an inversion. Currently, it’s a pharmaceutical and medical device company.

It plans to buy Covidien, a surgical supply firm based in Dublin. Ireland has a lower corporate tax rate than the U.S., meaning Medtronic’s taxes would go down, but Lois Powers’s would spike up.

“It’ll be thousands,” she says.

That’s because Powers will get stock in the new company created by Medtronic’s merger with Covidien. To the IRS, it’ll look like Powers sold her old Medtronic stock. 

She’ll have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference between what she originally paid for the stock, and on what it’s worth at the time of the merger.

But the profit’s all on paper. She didn't make a bundle of cash.

Steven Davidoff Solomon is a professor of law at University of California, Berkeley. 

He says, for example, “Let’s say you bought the stock at $10 a share and now it’s at $40 a share. The IRS will look at that as $30 in profit and they’re going to tax that at the capital gains rate.”

Depending on your tax bracket, that rate can reach nearly 24 percent. 

Why is the IRS doing this to shareholders? Believe it or not, it’s part of a 1994 law intended to discourage inversions. 

Robert Willens is an independent tax adviser in New York.  

He says the thinking was: “You know, no one will ever want to invert if we create this penalty, but it just hasn’t worked out that way.” 

That’s partly because corporations reimburse executives for any capital gains taxes they pay. Little guy investors aren’t reimbursed, of course. But they don’t protest. 

Willens says many don’t realize they’re paying higher taxes in inversions because they hold mutual funds, which tally up your capital gains for the year without breaking it out stock by stock. 

And individual investors may be thinking the stock price will eventually go up because of the inversion.

“Once it’s all said and  done, we’ll be happy that we bore this short term penalty for the greater payoff that comes later,” Willens says.

But Lois Powers, our 95-year-old  Medtronic shareholder, is skeptical.

“I don’t know that exactly," she says. "And furthermore, I probably don’t have that much time.”

Powers says she planned to pass the Medtronic stock on to her heirs so she wouldn’t have to pay tax on it.

“This is money that I have put away for my elder years and for my estate when it’s passed onto my children,” she says.

Now, Powers says, that money will take a hit. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What will Windows 9 say about Microsoft's new CEO?

Mon, 2014-08-25 02:00

Next month, Microsoft is expected to unveil a new version of its Windows operating system. Since it released Windows 8, Microsoft has gotten a new CEO, Satya Nadella, and the next iteration of Windows could say a lot about his vision for the company.

Microsoft’s customers – especially its corporate customers – didn’t exactly embrace Windows 8.

“If anything, the operating system tended to get in the way more than help you get your work done,” says Al Gillen, a tech analyst with IDC. Windows 8 was designed for touchscreens, but many users still rely on PCs with keyboards.

According to Brendan Barnicle, with Pacific Crest Securities, while the next version of Windows is sure to look different, in a way, that is beside the point.

“You know, I think the biggest difference is going to be around distribution, where we start to see something that is genuinely a cloud-based version,” he says.

Microsoft’s new CEO has adopted a “Cloud First” strategy, and he has also made some personnel changes since he started. Morningstar analyst Norman Young says Nadella has remade the company’s engineering department, and that is reflected in the timing of this release.

“Usually, development times for operating systems for Microsoft took multiple years,” he notes.

Analysts say Microsoft is moving toward introducing a new version of its operating system annually.

What will Windows 9 look like? A collection of the rumors.

The rumor mill is full of tidbits about what exactly Windows 9 will look like. As for Marketplace, we hope it'll look something like this:

But we digress. The real Windows 9, a complete update of the operating system, will attempt to have more unification across devices (confirmed), and much less Jeff Bridges (unconfirmed).

Here are some of the more prominent rumored features of Windows 9:

It will be a lot less "charm"-ing: Windows is reportedly removing the "charms bar" completely from the desktop version for computers and laptops.

Virtual desktops: There are also reports that the the newest version will feature virtual interfaces so users don't gunk up their main window while running multiple apps.

Speaking of desktops...Microsoft is allegedly removing the desktop for mobile versions of the OS.

And move over Siri: Cortana, Microsoft's version of Siri, is rumored to be up and running for computers and tablets as part of the new OS.

You can expect all this and more...on September 30th (allegedly).

But remember, until the actual release of Microsoft 9, these are all just rumors.

Let's all hope that the new system will mark the return of a familiar friend:

 

Pandora near parity on gender stats

Mon, 2014-08-25 01:30

Pandora, the music streaming company, has entered the continuing debate over demographic diversity in the tech industry with a release of its own numbers. While the company has a similar racial profile to its tech peers, it has a remarkably high representation of women.

The statistics, just under 51% for men and 49% for women, are a marked departure from the breakdowns of other companies. Even so, the technical and leadership roles are still overwhelmingly male.

It is not clear what Pandora is doing differently -- It, along with other companies, has been reluctant to talk in closer detail on the issue because diversity is considered such a sensitive subject.

Adrienne LaFrance, technology reporter at The Atlantic, adds that even if companies address issues with hiring, retention rates pose another major challenge; from support groups to the possibility of flexible working hours. 

Click the media player above to hear Adrienne LaFrance in conversation with Marketplace Tech guest host Noel King.

The Tale of the City Service Station

Mon, 2014-08-25 01:00

Before there was Exxon, there was ESSO. Before there was CITGO, there were Cities Service stations. That brand is long gone, but this summer marks the return of something you might call “City Service.” Sick and tired of high local fuel prices, a town in Kentucky in recent weeks opened up its own gas station. It is a filling station owned by the town of Somerset. 

The mayor, in what’s been described as a Republican stronghold, says residents have been complaining for years that gas prices in Somerset tend to run higher than in surrounding areas, and spike when vacationers come in for boating and fishing on a nearby lake. Somerset already owned a 60,000 gallon gasoline storage facility. Jazzing up the place to take cash and credit cards required a modest investment of  $75,000. Somerset also lucked into having an independent wholesaler in the neighborhood that is willing to supply the gas to the town little station.

The city is charging per gallon based on an average regional price. The mayor is quoted saying the idea isn’t necessarily to sell gas, but to help bring gas prices down. The strategy appears to be working in the early weeks of the venture. Local drivers are delighted, but private sector gasoline sellers are not. Some say it smacks of socialism, even communism, and see the idea as an assault on the free market.

I looked around for some precedents and they are interesting. Some cities have long had municipal public utilities. The power company in San Francisco is owned by the city and county, for instance. In North Dakota, there has been a state-owned bank that for 95 years has been serving as a kind of mini-Federal Reserve for the region to target cheaper loans to projects deemed in the public interest, like nurturing local entrepreneurs.

There are precedents in the retail sector as well. The town of Kotzebue, Alaska owns its own liquor store. In Minnesota, 207 municipalities own their own booze emporiums. 

More typically however, the response to high prices or other perceived market failures has not been ownership of the retail outlet by a municipality. Instead, the solution is more often local citizens banding together. Heating fuel co-ops are common, in which locals pool resources to get a better price on oil by buying in bulk. In Powell, Wyoming, there is even a department store called Powell Mercantile owned by a group of 500 local shareholders. The store is popular enough to have become a tourist destination. 

Foot Locker profits jump, thanks to basketball and Nike

Fri, 2014-08-22 13:21

Today, Foot Locker reported its fiscal second quarter profits jumped 39 percent. And ‘jumped’ is the operative word, because those figures have a lot to do with basketball shoes and Nike.

Foot Locker’s net income for the quarter was $92 million. Equity analyst Sam Poser with Sterne, Agee & Leach says the company is doing a lot of things right.

Plus, he says, “athletic shoes are on fire. Basketball shoes specifically.”

Nike, he says, controls 95 percent of the basketball shoe business. The buzz largely surrounds its marquee names: Air Jordan. Kobe. LeBron. Kevin Durant.

The buzz persists, says Morningstar equity analyst Paul Swinand, because athletic companies and especially Nike, “do a fantastic job of limiting who gets what colors, what sizes and how many pairs.”

He says Foot Locker is a valuable partner to Nike, so it gets the most popular styles … in moderation.

“That ensures that supply is not quite meeting demand,” he says. “And it means that if the shoes are popular, they’re gonna be a little bit rare.”

Swinand says the two companies need each other … but Foot Locker might need Nike a little bit more.

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