Marketplace - American Public Media

Why low inflation can be dangerous

Thu, 2014-04-10 10:51
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 06:36 JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Euro cents are seen on a chessboard and the word 'inflation' as a part of a advertisement on October 12, 2010 in Berlin.

Right now our inflation rate is around 1 percent. But some at the Fed say that's way too low.

The hope is to see inflation go up. But why on earth would we want to increase inflation?  

"A little bit is good, but not too much. It's like a lot of things in life -- good in moderation," says Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at Wharton. "Higher inflation is a bad thing, but mild inflation, statistically has been associated with very good economic times."

Siegel says during times of inflation, the dollar decreases in value. So the $100 you borrowed back in the day was worth more then, than your $100 payment today -- which means less financial burdens for consumers and more cash to spend.

And that's one reason the Fed wants to see inflation go up -- just a little bit. 

"It's not so high as to be hurting a lot of people, but it's at a level which would probably create a lot of jobs," says Gary Thayer, chief macro strategist at Wells Fargo Advisers. Thayer says the benefit of job creation would probably outweigh a slightly higher inflation rate.

Marketplace Morning Report for Friday, April 11, 2014by Sally HershipsPodcast Title Why low inflation can be dangerousStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

Ukraine not on the agenda as IMF gathers

Thu, 2014-04-10 10:46
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 06:20 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaks during a media briefing at the IMF Headquarters, on April 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Director Lagarde spoke about their agenda for the 2014 Spring Meetings that are taking place now and will end on Sunday.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are set to open their annual spring meetings. It will be a busy weekend for finance ministers and economists who are visiting Washington from all over the world. Dozens of panels and speeches are on the agenda, but none are about Ukraine, a country the IMF has offered billions of dollars.

According to Ken Rogoff, former IMF chief economist, right now, “the geopolitics overrides what the finance ministers and the central bankers think.”

But at a gathering of policymakers from close to 200 countries, it is bound to come up.

“I think it’s going to be talked about behind closed doors,” says Barry Eichengreen, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  

Marketplace Morning Report for Friday, April 11, 2014by David GuraPodcast Title Ukraine not on the agenda as IMF gathersStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

What Family Dollar says about the economy

Thu, 2014-04-10 10:10
Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 16:47 Ryotaro takao/ Flikr

Family Dollar exterior in Honeoye Falls, NY.

The retail chain Family Dollar said Thursday it's going to close more than 300 stores. Shrinking sales and falling profits are the proximate causes. There is a line of thinking that says, "If a discount store like Family Dollar is reporting bad news like this, maybe that's good news for the broader economy."  

Discount stores tend to do well during a downturn, when once higher-income consumers “trade down” for cheaper options, the argument goes, so perhaps the fact that discount stores are showing signs of struggle means those customers are trading back up, in response to a recovering economy.  

And it is true that Family Dollar has thrived during many economic shocks.  In fact, there’s a chart Family Dollar management recently trotted out at a retail industry conference that highlights this phenomenon -- a timeline of shocks to the American economy, events like the 9/11 terror attacks and the housing meltdown. After each of these events, you see a  steep incline on the graph, denoting earnings increases for Family Dollar. 

Family Dollar

But just because Family Dollar is floundering now doesn’t mean the larger economy is thriving. Higher-income customers may be leaving family dollar now that their economic fortunes seem to be brightening in the economic recovery.  But the story is complicated by the fact that low-income households still face high unemployment rates, and less money to spend in the wake of recent cuts to government assistance programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

Family Dollar

Marketplace for Thursday April 10, 2014by Krissy ClarkPodcast Title What Family Dollar says about the economyStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

Don't mess with French workers' 35 hour work week

Thu, 2014-04-10 09:57

From France, home of the 35 hour work week, this item: French tech sector employees  have just struck a new collective bargaining agreement, under the terms of which they are guaranteed that after-hours emails -- as in the kind we all check on our phones while at a soccer game -- will not impinge on that aforesaid 35 hour week.

Workers now have the unimpeded right to unplug at quitting time.

To this story, one can only say, zut alors, sacre bleu and 'How do I get me some of that action'?

PODCAST: From bailout to IPO

Thu, 2014-04-10 07:16

Ally Financial is trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, under the ticker symbol ALLY. The company, you might remember, had to be bailed out by the government in 2008, as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP, to the tune of $17.2 billion. The stock sale puts the government a step closer to sloughing off what remains of the financial crisis bailouts.

With Ukraine refusing to pay its gas bills to Russia's Gazprom and Europe looking for alternative energy sources, Russia -- it seems -- is on the outs. But now Putin is turning his attention eastward, towards China, and may be finding a friend. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss Russia's balancing act and why the country might try to disrupt Ukraine's upcoming elections.

Teenagers are now spending as much, if not more, on food as on clothing, according to Piper Jaffray’s semi-annual report on teen spending, out this week. And teenager's new favorite place to spend money? Starbucks.

 

 

In U.K., a case for re-opening coal mines?

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:59

Thirty years ago, the country that started the Industrial Revolution - and fueled it with coal - scaled back its coal mining industry. The UK announced  it was closing many of its deep mines. Today only three remain, and two of those are facing closure.

But have the Brits blundered? Is there a case for  the UK re-opening its deep coal mines… and digging a little deeper?

Bob Fitzpatrick  certainly believes so. But then, he would. He’s one of  the UK’s  few remaining deep pit coal miners. 

“The coal’s here and you can get it,” says Fitzpatrick, who works at the Hatfield coal mine in Yorkshire, in the north of England. “If the mines are mined properly and managed properly they are viable.”

Then there’s the issue of energy security. The UK may have shut down most of its mines, but it still  generates 40 percent of its electricity from coal, importing the bulk of it from the U.S., Colombia and Russia.

The Russians supply the largest amount of that imported coal, and after the annexation of Crimea, that  has got some people worried. “The gas supplies and the coal supplies from Russia are now pretty doubtful,” says local Yorkshire politician Jane Hamilton. “President Putin has got his own agenda. I think we should be very careful and look to re-opening mines, because we don’t know where our energy is going to come from.”  

The case for UK coal  began to look even better last week. Geologists revealed that the country could have vast reserves of the fuel, as much as 20 trillion tons of it, lying under the sea bed off its eastern coast -- enough to keep the lights on in the UK for centuries. But the  problem with deep pit mining, let alone with burrowing under the sea for coal, is that it is horrendously expensive. And, says importer Nigel Yaxley, it’s now much cheaper for the Brits to bring in foreign coal. “At the moment prices are depressed, partly because of surplus coal in the U.S. thrown up by the shale gas revolution," he says, "and partly because of the slowdown in growth in China.”

The future of British coal seems to depend on much higher world prices and much improved technology  making it easier to mine, and cleaner to burn. The case for UK coal? Not yet proven.   

Why the Ally IPO is good news for taxpayers

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:57

Ally Financial is trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, under the ticker symbol ALLY. The company, you might remember, had to be bailed out by the government in 2008, as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP, to the tune of $17.2 billion.

The government sold 95 million shares in the company through the initial public offering, raising about $2.4 billion dollars.  Add that to the $15.3 billion Ally had already paid back, and U.S. taxpayers have made about half a billion dollars more than they invested in the company.

The stock sale puts the government a step closer to sloughing off what remains of the financial crisis bailouts.

According to the New York Times:

The firm, once General Motors’ financing arm, is the government’s last remaining holding from its enormous bailouts of the financial and auto industries.

The U.S. Department of Treasury said the Ally stock sale brings its total returns on TARP investments to $438.3 billion.  The government has handed out about $423.4 billion.  With a little math, we’re talking taxpayer profit from TARP in the neighborhood of $15 billion.

 

 

But, we're not in the clear yet.  TARP will likely still cost taxpayers. This, from the U.S. Treasury:

"Treasury's latest quarterly estimate of TARP's lifetime cost as reflected in the February 2014 Monthly Report to Congress, developed in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, is $39.02 billion, which is largely attributable to our efforts to help struggling homeowners deal with the housing crisis. Unlike TARP's investment programs, the funds committed for TARP's housing programs were not intended to be recovered." 

 

Teens now spending as much on food as clothes

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:46

Teenagers are now spending as much, if not more, on food as on clothing, according to Piper Jaffray’s semi-annual report on teen spending, out this week. And teenage's new favorite place to spend money? Starbucks

“Food of course is the one category that isn’t e-commerce-able,” says senior research analyst Stephanie Wissink of Piper Jaffray. “When they indicate they’re spending more on food that most likely means they’re also frequenting food locations more regularly.”

Wissink says it’s a misconception that teens want to be alone with their phones. Looks like they want to be together – with their phones – in places like Starbucks.

"Starbucks probably has the most widely-used app at the point of sale system," says Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy. "So when people are making purchases, their app is used for one in every five purchases at this point."

Why automakers are getting into healthcare

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:44

A new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers highlights growing opportunity in the healthcare sector. 

In fact, the report lays out that almost half of the Fortune 50 companies – firms that previously did not have anything to do with healthcare – are getting into the game.

“The money is starting to move differently,” says the report’s author, Ceci Connolly, the head of the Health Research Institute at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "More and more of us are having to spend our own dollars, and make our own health care decisions."

Because of the Affordable Care Act, millions more Americans have health insurance, technology is changing, and we have seen “the rise of the consumer.”

The report highlight's Ford's work on a system that would help drivers with chronic conditions.

"These sorts of pushes toward more consumer-directed health care might be a good thing," says Zack Cooper, a health policy professor at Yale. He says access to data and access to information means we're not as reliant on experts.

Can Russia be isolated? Not if China has anything to do with it.

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:16

With Ukraine refusing to pay its gas bills to Russia's Gazprom and Europe looking for alternative energy sources, Russia -- it seems -- is on the outs. But now Putin is turning his attention eastward, towards China, and may be finding a friend. 

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss Russia's balancing act and why the country might try to disrupt Ukraine's upcoming elections.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview. 

Sharp decline in Chinese trade surprise economists

Thu, 2014-04-10 01:12

Speaking at the Bo’ao forum for Asia, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reassured attendees that China’s economy “has had a smooth start this year, and our overall performance is good.”

 As Li said this, key economic data was released from China showing exports from the world’s second biggest economy had slipped 6.6% in March from a year ago. Imports were down more than 11%.

Both numbers were worse than forecasters predicted. Part of the reason is that a year ago, many Chinese exporters were overstating the value of their shipments in order to bypass China’s strict currency controls. That allowed them to bring more dollars into China with the hopes that the Yuan would appreciate. This year, China’s central bank has pushed down the value of the Yuan, so there’s no longer an incentive for exporters to fake the numbers.

The 11% decline in imports, however, surprised a lot of economists. The month of March is always an important one for China, because it’s the first month after the Chinese New Year, which tends to skew numbers a bit because of the inactivity of the markets.

A decline in imports is a sign that China’s economy is still in slowdown mode. Premier Li acknowledged as much during his speech today. “These problems are not only the result of a complex international environment, but also objective reflections of prominent conflicts that lie deep inside China’s economy, as well as the fact that China’s growth rate is shifting gear,” said Li.

 

 

The U.S. needs more energy grids

Thu, 2014-04-10 01:00

The U.S. Senate Energy Committee is meeting to consider the reliability and security of the U.S. electric grid. It's a question that bears asking, considering the entire U.S. runs on just three, large-scale power grids (East coast, West coast and Texas. Go figure). As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. 

At least David Newman, a physics professor at the University of Alaska, thinks so. His research explores how smaller power grids could help avoid massive outages like the 2003 Northeast blackout. Though, he certainly understands the appeal of having a larger grid:

"As you increase the size of the network, you’re increasing the number of places that you can be getting the energy to, and so you make it -- in a sense -- more efficient. But our work showed that it’s actually also potentially a bad thing because what it does is that it allows larger and larger failures of the system."

Newman acknowledges that there's no way to get rid of system failures completely, but with massive outages potentially costing billions of dollars, it's at least worth exploring what size network optimally combines efficiency and security.

What M&M's have to do with dog food

Wed, 2014-04-09 15:51

M & M’s, Snickers, Twix and Milky Way. They’re all made by Mars. In fact, most of us know Mars as one of the world’s biggest chocolate makers.

What you may not know is that Mars makes a lot more than chocolate. The company owns products such as instant rice, coffee, holistic remedies -- and even pet food.

In fact, if you feed your dog or cat Pedigree or Whiskas, or even “gourmet filets” made by the high-end Cesar brand, you are buying Mars products. And now, Mars will own even more of the names in the pet food aisle.

Procter & Gamble on Wednesday agreed to sell their Iams, Eukanuba and Natura pet food brands to Mars for $2.9 billion in cash. The deal is limited to markets in North America, Latin America and a few other countries.

“The deal reinforces our leadership in pet nutrition and veterinary science,” Todd Lachman, global president for Mars Petcare, said in a statement.

Who knew Mars was a leader in “pet nutrition and veterinary science”?

Here are five brands you might also be surprised to know that Mars owns: 

1. Uncle Ben's Rice

 (Source: YouTube

2. CocoaVia 

www.cocoavia.com 

3. Cesar

(Source: YouTube)

 4. Altoids 

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

5. Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape

(Source:YouTube)

The heartache of Heartbleed

Wed, 2014-04-09 15:00

There is plenty of panic to go around surrounding the announcement of a major security flaw in OpenSSL, the open-sourced version of the security connection used by most web servers to encrypt information between users, sites, and companies. Here's some basic info on "Heartbleed," and what you need to know:

1. What the heck is SSL? And should I worry whenever that lock appears in my browser? Or when I see ‘https://’?

SSL stands for “Secure Sockets Layer.” It refers to the connection between your computer and the company hosting whatever website you are currently browsing. Take a banking website, for example. Ideally, you’d want that connection to be secure against hackers being able to see the information being transmitted back and forth -- In this case, sensitive information like your social security number or your credit card numbers. Companies that have a SSL connection will encrypt any information transferred between your computer and the company.

That’s why you see the lock in the upper left-hand corner of your browser. Companies with an SSL connection have paid for an SSL Certificate, and notify their users via the lock icon. Additionally, the “s” in “https://” is another signifier of an SSL connection, and stands for “secure.”

For more information, check out this video.

In theory, this is how it should work: encryption of information on an SSL should guard against anyone gaining access and decrypting that information. Except when it doesn’t. As security experts discovered, a flaw in the open-sourced version of SSL has been a vulnerability for about two years, and could allow a hacker to get access to private information as well as the key to decryption. It’s especially problematic when considering that about 2/3 of the web-serves use OpenSSL. Cue terrifying nickname: the “Heartbleed” bug.

 2. I’ve heard I shouldn’t change my passwords yet. Why not?

In simple terms, if a site is compromised, changing your password won’t do much until the company that runs the site installs a patch. A better strategy is to wait until sites have a chance to fix their “Heartbleed” woes, and then change your password. Otherwise you might simply be giving a hacker your new password.

3. Which sites are affected by “Heartbleed”?

You can look at a list of sites here, or check for yourself here.

 

*UPDATE: While changing your password on a website that isn't yet secure could be dangerous, many companies are now saying they have patched or updated OpenSSL flaws in their system and that users should update login information. Mashable has a good running list of sites and their status.

Roses are red, violets are blue

Wed, 2014-04-09 13:44

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's what's coming up April 10:

  • In Washington, a look at the nation's balance sheet. The Treasury Department issues its monthly statement for March.
  • Drone delivery is just one of the topics at the fourth annual PostalVision 2020 Conference getting underway in the nation's capital.
  • Golfers tee off in Augusta, Georgia during the first round of the Masters Tournament.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" was first published on April 10th, 1925.
  • And think eloquent thoughts. April is National Poetry Month.

Comcast says it needs to get bigger to compete

Wed, 2014-04-09 13:38

Before a Senate hearing on Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company dropped a lengthy memo to the Federal Communications Commission, summed up in a blog post. In part, it argued that the merger would be good for competition in broadband, since Comcast’s rivals— including telecoms like Verizon and AT&T— are so big

Which is a different question from whether they offer broadband services that actually compete with Comcast. Andy Hargreaves, a Pacific Crest Securities analyst who looks at both TV and tech, thinks Comcast already dominates, with other companies unable to consistently offer similar speeds.

He estimates that the merged company would have the best-quality service in about 70 percent of the U.S. market. He thinks that’s a problem -- it gives the company power to keep jacking up prices.  “They are exceptionally good at raising rates,” he says.

However, he doubts these questions will sink the deal. Merging the companies, he says, doesn’t actually make it much harder for a real competitor to emerge.

“It’s already near impossible,” he says. “So raising the bar from really, really, really, really, really, high to really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY high is not that big a deal.”

David Balto, an anti-trust lawyer and a former Federal Trade Commission official, thinks the merger will likely be approved. Comcast and Time Warner haven't been competing with each other before the merger in existing markets, so consumers aren’t losing choices.

“You may not like the competitive environment,” he says, “but there are scores of mergers that the FTC and the Justice Department have approved because they could not find a loss of competition.”

Goldman Sachs considers shutting down its 'dark pool'

Wed, 2014-04-09 13:10

Goldman Sachs executives have reportedly been toying with the idea of shutting down their dark pool, known as Sigma X.

"Dark pools" are to stock exchanges what private pools are to the Y. They are places for people to trade stocks in private, and many banks have them.

Privacy and Savings

There are benefits to having a dark pool, to be sure. Customers can trade more cheaply as they don’t pay exchange fees like they would on, say, the NYSE.  For institutional investors, privacy can be critically important as well. For example, an institutional investor making a supersized buy order in the open would be noticed by sellers, who would raise the price before the order was even complete.  

“Essentially, large institutional investors like this as a way of minimizing price impact and reducing trading costs,” says Craig Pirrong at the University of Houston. 

Suspicion and Negative PR

However, there is also a great deal of suspicion over dark pools at the moment, as the flipside of privacy is decreased transparency. “There’s a considerable deal of regulatory uncertainty and legal uncertainty,” Pirrong says.

“Almost all dark pools work by taking prices from exchanges and filling orders based on those exchanges,” explains Larry Harris of the USC Marshall School of Business. So is it fair that a dark pool can use exchange prices, but not contribute to formation of those prices? Harris says: “And even worse, as the orders are taken away from those exchanges, the quality of the prices depreciates.”

Customers may see a conflict of interest as well.  

“It might be better if people weren’t worried that I was only going to my dark pool because it was my dark pool,” says Joe Gawronsky, president of Rosenblatt Securities. It’s a bit of a PR problem. 

A Liability Issue

Running a private stock exchange is no small feat. When participants’ expectations aren’t aligned with reality, or when prices in the pool become disconnected from prices on exchanges, it can be a serious liability for the entity running the pool.

“Particularly when there’s a fast moving, volatile market and the timeliness of the prices may be, for whatever reason, not appropriately reflective of the prices that were prevailing at the time,” says Andrew Karolyi, professor of finance at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell.  This happened to Goldman in 2011, and the bank sent checks to cover traders who lost out as a result.

Alternatives

Gawronsky says firms like Goldman have alternatives. “There are other methods to get price improvement and hide your order other than using your own dark pool,” he says. 

There are other entities’ dark pools, of course. There’s also IEX, an alternative trading platform designed to address what its founders argue are flaws in the structure of the U.S. equity market. Goldman has supported IEX precisely because of its commitment to transparency and market moderating effect.  

Finally, for those concerned with anonymity, Gawronsky points out that Goldman and other large banks offer algorithmic trading. These are computer-based trading mechanisms that can be used to disguise movements -- breaking up a large trade into smaller trades throughout the day, for example.   

When all is said and done: “I’m not sure it will materially affect Goldman’s revenues,” Gawronsky says.  “You could argue they don’t have that much to lose, and what do they gain? Potentially a PR win and something that customers may applaud.”

Peeps year-round: Harbinger of apocalypse

Wed, 2014-04-09 13:10

I've been away, which is maybe how I missed this, but you know peeps? Those marshmallow bird things you get around easter?   The companies that makes them -- Just Born -- says starting May 1, they'll be available all year round.   "We're making every day into a holiday," a company official said.   Allow me to exercise the Marketplace host's prerogative, and declare it this week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us.        

Peeps year-round: Harbinger of apocalypse.

Wed, 2014-04-09 13:10
I've been away, which is maybe how I missed this, but you know peeps? Those marshmallow bird things you get around easter?   The companies that makes them -- Just Born -- says starting May 1, they'll be available all year round.   "We're making every day into a holiday," a company official said.   Allow me to exercise the Marketplace host's prerogative, and declare it this week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us.        

What's your type?

Wed, 2014-04-09 10:04
Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 16:55 http://helvetica-the-perfume.myshopify.com/

Someone loved Helvetica so much, they made it into a perfume.

The break-up of a graphic design duo has resulted in a lawsuit of $20 million – over fonts. Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler worked together for 15 years to create some of the most famous and ubiquitous fonts around– used by GQ, Martha Stewart, the New York Jets and Saturday Night Live. They won awards for their typefaces - before the relationship turned sour. So now we want to know: How much do you care about fonts? Take our survey! (function(){var qs,js,q,s,d=document,gi=d.getElementById,ce=d.createElement,gt=d.getElementsByTagName,id='typef_orm',b='https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/share.typeform.com/';if(!gi.call(d,id)){js=ce.call(d,'script');js.id=id;js.src=b+'widget.js';q=gt.call(d,'script')[0];q.parentNode.insertBefore(js,q)}})()Marketplace for Thursday April 10, 2014by Sally HershipsPodcast Title What's your type?Story Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

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