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DailyFinance.com

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street ended lower Tuesday for a third straight session as investors worried about a rise in interest rates while Apple (AAPL) shares hit their lowest in over six months.

    The iPhone-maker's shares fell 3.2 percent to $114.64, firmly below their 200-day daily moving average, a key technical level closely watched by traders. The stock was the biggest drag on the three major U.S. indexes.

    Apple has been the weak sister in the market today. But if you look at the sectors, most everything is down with the exception of materials.

    A slowdown in China and skepticism over demand for iPhones were contributing to pressure on Apple's shares, traders said.

    "Apple has been the weak sister in the market today," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist and director of asset allocation at RidgeWorth Investments in Atlanta, Georgia. "But if you look at the sectors, most everything is down with the exception of materials."

    Stocks extended losses after Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart told The Wall Street Journal that September may be the right time for Fed to lift interest rates.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 0.3 percent to end at 17,550.69 and the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 0.2 percent to 2,093.32. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 0.2 percent finish at 5,105.55.

    Eight of the 10 major S&P sectors fell, with the utilities index's 1.6 percent decline leading the losers.

    The Fed has said it needs to see a sustained economic recovery before it raises interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Soft economic data had prompted some investors to argue that the Fed might hold off on raising rates until December. After the Fed meeting last week, investors expected a rate increase in September.

    'Mixed Bag'

    "The market is getting such a mixed bag of rhetoric from the Fed, it seems like the Fed isn't sure what it's going to do," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank in Chicago.

    After the bell, shares of crafts website Etsy (ETSY) fell 9 percent and Walt Disney (DIS) lost 1.4 percent after the companies posted quarterly results that disappointed Wall Street.

    During the session, American International Group (AIG) fell 2.8 percent after the insurer's underwriting income fell in almost all of its units, while home and auto insurer Allstate (ALL) fell 10.2 percent after its profit missed expectations.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1.23 to 1. On the Nasdaq, 1,414 issues fell and 1,376 advanced for a 1.03-to-1 ratio favoring decliners. The benchmark S&P 500 index was posting 32 new 52-week highs and 26 new lows; the Nasdaq composite was recording 91 new highs and 127 new lows.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Commerce Department releases international trade data for June at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for July at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • CBS (CBS)
    • Dish Network (DISH)
    • Dominion Resources (D)
    • Fitbit (FIT)
    • Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR)
    • Marathon Oil (MRO)
    • Priceline (PCLN)
    • Prudential Financial (PRU)
    • Ralph Lauren (RL)
    • Sun Life Financial (SLF)
    • Tesla Motors (TSLA)
    • Time Warner (TWX)
    • Twenty-First Century Fox (FOX)(FOXA)
    • Voya Financial (VOYA)

     

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    Federal Building Fed
    Andrew Harnik/APKeeping too close of an eye on the Fed's moves can make some investors believe that today's market and economic conditions are substantially different from the past.


    For nine years, there's been plenty of speculation about when the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates.

    The last central bank rate increase came in June 2006. The federal funds rate, the amount creditworthy institutions pay to borrow money from one another overnight, dropped to zero in December 2008. It's hovered near zero since then.

    For the past several years, financial experts and industry professionals have encouraged investors to shuffle portfolio holdings in anticipation of rising rates. Thus far, that advice has proved to be wrong.

    Whether or not the central bank raises rates in September, as many now expect, the barrage of Fed-related investment advice isn't likely to end.

    Many advisers strive to keep clients from acting on interest-rate forecasts, which have been notoriously inaccurate. Some of these incorrect predictions come from members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, or presidents of the regional banks. Fed officials regularly appear on TV, often causing an uproar with their comments.

    It's important to keep such news in context, says Nancy Hetrick, founder of Smarter Divorce Solutions in Phoenix. Hetrick is a certified divorce financial analyst, and she manages client assets through Houston-based Clarity Financial.

    A quarter-point increase in the interest rate, Hetrick says, wouldn't put a sudden end to the economic stimulus that's intended by keeping rates low. "To talk about these increases as if they have the same impact as an increase that results from excess growth and inflation and lack of capacity is absurd," she says. "It's easy for the talking heads to make people think this could be just tragic."

    Nine years ago when the Fed began lowering rates, almost no one would have predicted they would have remained extremely low for so long, says Brad Wasserman, managing partner at Wasserman Wealth Management in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

    "I would advise against making significant portfolio changes based on someone's prediction of where interest rates will be in the future," he says.

    Bond Strategy

    In client accounts, Wasserman's firm opts for bonds with shorter maturities. This strategy can protect clients against interest-rate risk that's more typical in longer-term bonds.

    "We're proponents of buying individual bonds with staggered or different maturity lengths. We use two-, three- or four-year bonds, or maybe out to six or seven years, depending on individual circumstances. We wouldn't use all eight-year bonds, or all two-year bonds, because then you are making a bet on interest rates. We would rather have a smooth ladder to develop a portfolio of bonds," he says.

    Though Wasserman advises against changes to stock and bond portfolios based on the inevitability of rising interest rates, that's not necessarily the case with other interest-sensitive decisions.

    For example, homebuyers may be better off getting a fixed-rate mortgage today instead of two years from now, if they expect their personal situation to remain the same or improve. Likewise, it may be a mistake to prepay a fixed-rate mortgage with rates at historic lows, rather than in a few years, when money is worth more and rates are higher.

    If you look at Fed activity, rates are still very, very low. Even if the Fed raises rates, they will still be very, very low.

    One effect of the constant Fed-watching is that some investors start believing that today's market and economic conditions are dramatically different from any in the past.

    "It's human nature to think this time is different," says Bryan Rogowski, founder of Rogowski Wealth Management in Bainbridge Island, Washington. "There's nothing different this time than in many other generations. If you look at Fed activity, rates are still very, very low. Even if the Fed raises rates, they will still be very, very low."

    Rogowski says tying portfolio buying and selling to Fed moves is an exercise in market timing.

    "Many people sold fixed income several years ago, thinking that the Fed was going to raise rates at any moment, and they were wrong about that timing decision," he says. "Making timing decisions over and over is really dangerous to overall wealth. It's a gambling game, and it's not worth playing. I would rather be right about a buy-and-hold strategy and a proper allocation to fixed income and equities over a client's full-time horizon, which may be five, 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years, than any one market timing decision."

    Rogowski says individual investors are mistaken if they believe they can somehow outwit markets, considering all the information that is publicly available. "The market reacts instantaneously to any new information, which is always a surprise, no matter how much in hindsight we say we could have seen it coming," he says.

    Limiting Risk

    But when an event is widely anticipated, such as an interest-rate increase, market prices generally reflect that expectation. "So there are no actionable nuggets here to capitalize on that," Rogowski says. "We're not going to make a buck by acting on information that's in the press and publicly available, or a news release from the Federal Reserve. So we have to return to our original purpose: Achieve the highest return we can to meet our goals, with as little risk as we can take."

    Hetrick says investors who understand the emotions inherent in investing are better prepared to stay the course when confronted by rate-hike hysteria. That's where an adviser who serves as a coach and educator can help investors stay on track.

    "An adviser has an obligation to educate clients on ongoing basis, so when things like rate increases happen, the client can say, 'Oh, yeah. We talked about that a few months ago, and I understand it, so now my emotions are not going to get piqued.' It's all about our emotions, so when we hear bit of unfamiliar news, it will trigger fear," she says.

    Combating that fear requires steady reminders of why an investment strategy is in place, and why it's worth sticking to.

    "When you give people the opportunity to stay in their logical brain and not go to their emotional brain, they do just fine," she says, "But they can't do that if they have no knowledge on the logical side to apply."

     

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    kalaharimedia.com
    Summer getaways aren't cheap, but sometimes not traveling at all isn't much of an option. Thankfully, there are bargains to be had as we head into the final few weeks of the season.

    Let's go over a few last-minute vacation ideas that won't necessarily break the bank.

    1. Hit an Indoor Water Park

    One of the biggest travel trends to emerge over the past decade is the indoor water park. It began in the Wisconsin Dells, where resorts began to build massive indoor pool areas complete with water slides and lazy rivers to entertain guests in all climates. Now they can be found in most states.

    Staying at some of the more popular indoor water park resorts doesn't usually come cheap. A family of four heading out to Kalahari Resorts in the Wisconsin Dells this weekend would be paying at least $580. However, if that same family of four could hold off on that two-night stay until an early weekday getaway in September, the rate drops to as low as $280 for a stay that includes the room and access to the watery fun.

    2. Cruise Control

    Hopping on a multiday cruise may seem like a lavish diversion, but it's not as expensive as you might think. Sure, you may have to limit yourself to older Carnival (CCL) boats sailing on shorter itineraries, but you will still get decent meals, daily on-board activities, and exciting ports of call that are included in your fare.

    CruiseCheap.com has a list of last-minute bargains, and as of now that includes a four-night sailing out of Miami on the Carnival Ecstasy leaving in early September and a late August getaway leaving out of Long Beach on the Carnival Inspiration starting at just $229 a person. The rate assumes that at least two people will be traveling together. If you're willing to sail later in September, there are a few bargains to be had south of $200. There are also port charges and suggested gratuities to factor into your tab, but as long as you don't go on costly shore excursions or break the bank on spa treatments, alcoholic beverages, or casino outings that aren't included in your fare, you should be fine.

    3. Let the Internet Smoke Out a Bargain

    There's no shortage of getaway deals to be found online, but the same can also be said about travel scams. You certainly don't want to follow a link from an unsolicited email promising a beach getaway at a ridiculous price, but if you stick to legitimate deal finders, you might be surprised at how deep resorts are willing to go with discounts to fill empty rooms.

    All of the major travel portals promote great deals, but you might also want to check with markdown specialists. Groupon (GRPN) may get a bad rap from time to time, but Groupon Getaways does offer some great prepaid deals for last-minute bargains. Travelzoo (TZOO) is another bargain-seeking specialist. It pushes out the weekly Travelzoo Top 20 list, and as a publisher it vets the offers to present the ones most relevant to you. Yes, it does get paid for the referral. (How else do you think a free service makes money?) Either way, stick to legit websites to make sure that you don't wind up falling for a scam or have to sit through a timeshare hard-sell to make a marked-down getaway happen.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Estate Planning Documents You Need Right Now

    By Stacy Johnson

    What's the one document many Americans should be dying to have but often don't bother getting?

    A will.

    Any financial adviser worth his salt will insist you have one. He'll say things like, "It doesn't cost much, takes only a few minutes to prepare and will save both money and hassle for those you leave behind."

    All true. What's also true is that planning for one's demise sometimes can open a can of worms. Case in point: this reader's question.

    Stacy, I have a good problem to have, but I need some advice.

    I am a 50ish, single female with some health problems. My worth is slightly over $2 million and I'm still working. My problem is, I need to make a trust or something. I am good at saving money and working but have very little financial expertise otherwise. A family member has been helping me.

    Problem: I have two children, one in college and the other a high school grad this year. Neither would be able to manage their money if something happens to me. The college student's boyfriend would spend hers, and my son would just blow his. I would like to leave the money in a trust for them, but I don't know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages?

    Thanks, Susie

    This is a common problem, even among those not as well off as Susie. When you make a will, you're deciding who's going to get your money in the event of your death. But if you have irresponsible adult heirs, your demise could have an unintended consequence -- the death of your life savings.

    I've had personal experience with this problem. But before I tell my story and answer Susie's question, let's understand a few estate-planning basics.
    A will vs. a trust

    A will is a simple document describing, among other things, how you'd like your stuff distributed upon your death. If you don't have one, a status known as dying intestate, your possessions generally pass to your spouse, then your nearest blood relatives. If you don't have any, they'll go to the state.

    To make sure everything's on the up-and-up, distributions by most wills are overseen by a court. This process is called probate.

    A trust is different. It involves three roles:
    • The trustor -- the owner of the property, who transfers it to ...
    • The trustee -- the person who takes care of the property for the benefit of ...
    • The beneficiary -- the person or people who will eventually receive the property.
    If Susie forms a trust, she'll be the trustor. Whomever she names to take care of her money -- maybe a family member -- will be the trustee. Because her kids will ultimately get the money, they're the beneficiaries.

    There are two types of trusts. A living trust is created while the trustor is still alive. A testamentary trust is created through a will after death. Some trusts can be changed (revocable) and some can't (irrevocable).

    Why Use a Trust?

    We've already explored one reason to use a trust -- to name a trustee who will take care of the money until the beneficiaries are responsible enough to manage it. A second common use of a trust is to bypass probate, the sometimes expensive and time-consuming process of court supervision. Finally, trusts are often used to bypass estate taxes.

    Until Susie's estate reaches a certain level, currently $5.43 million, she doesn't have to worry about federal estate taxes. Whether it's worth the cost to establish a trust to bypass probate depends on the laws where she lives, as well as other factors. She should consult an estate-planning lawyer for more advice about that. But she obviously has a desire to take care of her kids.

    The Problem With the Trust Solution

    My mother died in 2004 and left her estate to my father. Before he passed away in 2009, he was facing the same problem as Susie. He wanted to leave his assets to me, my older sister and my niece. While he didn't worry about leaving a lump sum to my sister and me, he was more hesitant when it came to my niece. She was an adult but, in his opinion, not yet responsible.

    So he used a will that included a testamentary trust. Upon his death, part of his estate went to me, part to my sister and part went into a trust for my niece. My sister and I were named co-trustees, and we were given the authority to give the money to my niece whenever and however we deemed fit.

    This was a good solution for my dad. For me, my sister and niece? Not so much.

    When my father died, my sister and I stood between my niece and what she regarded as her rightful inheritance -- not a pretty picture. I won't go into detail, but you can probably imagine what it was like trying to juggle my father's wishes and an impoverished niece who wanted her inheritance.

    I could see this problem coming and begged my father not to leave my sister and me in this position. But his options were limited.

    He could have named someone less personally involved to be the trustee -- for example, a bank or other institution that provides trust services. But that introduced two new problems: First, the amount involved didn't justify the expense of a corporate trustee. More importantly, my dad wanted trustees who knew my niece and could decide when she needed money, how much she needed and when it was appropriate to give it all to her.

    He could also have simply stated in his testamentary trust the exact age at which my niece would get her inheritance. The problem with that, however, was that he couldn't know what that age would be.

    And that brings us back to Susie.

    Susie asked for the answers to seemingly simple questions: "I don't know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages?"

    I don't have the answer, Susie. If you lay out specific details, you could be making the wrong decision. If you do what my father did, you could be creating uncomfortable family gatherings.

    So what do you do? The best you can. Hopefully you'll be around long enough to get a better handle on what to do. Remember, as long as you're alive, you can change your will and the terms of the trust. But all you can do now is take a stab at the ages and stages you think best reflects the maturity of your kids. Then, relax. You've done your best.

    Got a Question You'd Like Answered?

    A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I look for questions to answer in this weekly column.

    About Me

    I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

     

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    Home Prices
    Ted S. Warren/APWith home sales starting to slow, sellers now need to try harder to fetch the best price.
    By Theresa Mears

    When you put your house on the market, it goes without saying that you want the best price when it sells.

    But many sellers shoot themselves in the foot, doing things that will torpedo their home's selling price and net them less money. Plus, there are certain home and neighborhood characteristics that all the staging in the world can't overcome, once again dragging down the price.

    In a really hot market, or in certain desirable areas, as Redfin Chief Economist Nela Richardson puts it, "any house standing upright can get a bid." But she also notes that Redfin's new Housing Demand Index shows that home sales are slowing.

    What we've seen is that the market has changed dramatically in the last two months. Prices are slowing considerably.

    "What we've seen is that the market has changed dramatically in the last two months," Richardson says. "Prices are slowing considerably."

    While inventory of homes for sale is still low and many buyers are still looking for homes, they're not willing to pay just any price. "They're making more conservative decisions," Richardson says. "What our agents are telling a lot of buyers is just wait."

    The latest Case-Shiller index found that housing price growth is slowing, with prices up 4.4 percent in May 2015 compared to a year ago. That's essentially flat compared with April's 4.3 percent annual increase, and once season adjustments were factored in, the national index showed no change from April to May.

    "Sellers are still firmly in control, but they're not getting a free pass," Richardson says.

    Here are nine factors that can keep you from getting the best price for your home.

    Overpricing. By far, the biggest mistake sellers make is to set their home price too high, thinking would-be buyers will offer a lower price and they can use that as the starting point for negotiations. "If you misprice it in the beginning, it can tend to languish, and you may end up selling it for less than you would have if you had priced it correctly to begin with," says Kevin Brown Jr., president of Praedium Real Estate Services in Pittsburgh and a regional director of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents. Houses that are overpriced tend to stay on the market longer, which makes buyers suspicious that there is something wrong with the home. "Right now, people are expecting they will receive multiple offers, and their house will sell for over asking price, no matter what," says Sabrina Booth, an agent with Redfin in Seattle. "They tend to shy away from houses that come on the market overpriced. We're seeing less competition at this time."

    Bad pictures. Nearly all home shoppers these days start their searches online, and they decide which homes they want to see based on the photos posted with the listing. Not surprisingly, blurry cellphone shots don't draw much interest. "People just skip over it," says Matt Francis, branch manager of Better Homes and Gardens Mason-McDuffie Real Estate in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The millennial buyer is not interested in what it can become."

    Difficulty showing the house. In these days of instant gratification, home shoppers want to see homes as soon as possible and at their convenience. If you make your home difficult to show, fewer prospects will see it, and it can take you longer to find a buyer. "If you don't show it, you can't sell it," Francis says.

    Messy neighbors. The proverbial neighbors with the unkempt lawn, couch on the porch and junk cars in the yard do indeed bring down property values. If your neighbors' houses and yards look bad, home shoppers are likely to put a lower value on your home. You could try to reason with these neighbors and ask them to clean up, or even do the work for them. But your success rate will vary by neighbor, and some may be opposed.

    In bad company. If the most recent sales of homes like yours in your neighborhood have been at low prices, that is likely to hurt the price of your home. That's because real estate agents and appraisers base their view of home value on the sales of comparable homes nearby.

    Bad location. If your house is next to an apartment building, a busy street, a school or otherwise is in an area that is considered less desirable, it will sell for less than a comparable home in a quieter area. In family areas, being in a bad school district also hurts home values significantly. In cities that rely heavily on mass transit, being too far from transit stops may be a detriment. If your home is near a noisy road, you may also have trouble getting full value for it.

    Compartmentalized rooms or a dark first floor. "People these days want bright, airy, open," Francis says. If your home is dark or has a lot of small rooms rather than a larger open space, that makes it less desirable and therefore likely to sell at a lower price.

    Structural defects. No amount of granite or stainless steel can compensate for structural issues such as foundation problems. Buyers are wary of homes that need these kinds of repairs because it's difficult to estimate how much they will really cost to solve.

    Dirt and grime. If your house is messy, your yard is unkempt and the windows are grimy, it isn't going to put its best foot forward. Most buyers will have a hard time getting past that initial negative first impression, and failing to clean up your home could cost you a lot of money.

     

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    Row of traditional US mail (aka post) or letter boxes, Texas, US
    Alamy
    By Karla Bowsher

    The U.S. Postal Service is trying to bridge the gap between physical mail and email.

    The struggling federal agency is testing out "Real Mail Notification," a program that offers customers a daily email about what will be in their snail mail before the mail actually reaches the physical mailbox.

    A pilot was undertaken in Northern Virginia, and a pilot in New York City is the next step, according to Postmaster General Megan Brennan.

    Brennan described the service in May when she gave the keynote speech at the National Postal Forum, the annual mailing industry trade show:

    Imagine if you got an alert every day saying what time your mail would be delivered and what's being delivered that day.

    Everyone has their daily digital routine -- we want to elevate the role of mail by being part of that daily experience.

    Among customers included in the Northern Virginia pilot, 9 out of 10 checked their mobile devices to see what would be arriving in their mail every day, Brennan said.

    Brennan contends that the mailing industry has opportunities to take advantage of today's digital and mobile technology.

    "We've become a device-oriented culture, with laptops, tablets, smartphones and now even watches providing digital and mobile experiences in every aspect of our lives. The good news is that our industry has a big role to play in that digital future."

    Would you use Real Mail Notification if it became available in your area? Share your thoughts on this program below or on our Facebook page.

    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!

     

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    ADP Employment
    Alan Diaz/APJob seekers and recruiters mix at a recent employment fair in Miami Lakes, Fla.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Private job growth slowed in July, but a surge in service-industry activity to a near-decade high suggested solid economic momentum that strengthens the case for a Federal Reserve interest rate hike this year.

    The firm domestic fundamentals were underscored by another report Wednesday showing an increase in imports of food, automobiles, industrial supplies and consumer goods in June.

    This will be interpreted as very good news for the Fed and will be seen as further confirmation of progress towards meeting its growth targets.

    "This will be interpreted as very good news for the Fed and will be seen as further confirmation of progress towards meeting its growth targets. At this point, we continue to expect the Fed to raise rates at the September meeting," said Cheng Chen, an economist at TD Securities in New York.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its service-sector index jumped to 60.3 last month, the highest reading since August 2005, from 56 in June. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the services sector, which accounts for more than a third of the U.S. economy.

    The index was buoyed by a 5.5 percent increase in the new orders gauge, which also hit its highest level since August 2005. A measure of service industry employment soared 6.9 percent to its highest reading in a decade. Fifteen services industries reported expansion last month, while mining and one other saw a contraction in production.

    The ISM survey, however, likely overstates the services sector expansion. Another survey from data firm Markit showed the sector growing moderately in July.

    Still, the services sector is helping to offset the drag on the economy from weak manufacturing.

    The jump in service sector employment in July also eased concerns Wednesday of a sharp slowdown in job growth after the ADP National Employment Report showed private employers hired only 185,000 workers last month. Economists had expected a gain of 215,000.

    The report, which is jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, came ahead of the U.S. government's more comprehensive employment report on Friday. It is, however, not considered a good predictor of nonfarm payrolls.

    Prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell, while U.S. stocks edged higher. The dollar was slightly firmer against a basket of currencies.

    'Approaching Full Employment'

    According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased 223,000 last month, matching June's job gains. Job cuts in the energy sector in the aftermath of the sharp drop in crude oil prices have take some edge off the labor market in recent months.

    "Nonetheless, even at this slower pace of growth, the labor market is fast approaching full employment," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

    The Fed has kept its short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008. A report last week showing wage growth stalled in the second quarter cast doubt that the U.S. central bank would hike rates at its September policy meeting.

    In a separate report Wednesday, the Commerce Department said the U.S. trade deficit increased 7.1 percent to $43.8 billion in June.

    But May's trade gap was revised down by $1 billion to $40.9 billion, leading economists to expect that the second-quarter gross domestic product estimate would be revised up from the 2.3 percent annual pace the government reported last week.

    May construction and factory inventory data released this week also have suggested second-quarter growth could be revised to at least a 3 percent annual rate when the government publishes its second GDP estimate later this month.

    June's trade deficit was driven by a 1.2 percent rise in imports, as domestic demand grew solidly in the second quarter. The dollar, which has gained 15 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014, is also making imports cheaper.

    Despite firming domestic demand, some of the imports likely ended up in inventories, which remained at very high levels in the second quarter. That would act as drag on third-quarter growth.

    Imports of food and automobiles were the highest on record in June. Dollar strength and sluggish global demand crimped exports, which slipped 0.1 percent in June. It was the second straight monthly drop in exports.

    Imports from the European Union surged 4 percent to a record high, leaving the trade deficit with the EU at an all-time high.

    Though exports to Mexico rose solidly, they were outpaced by a jump in imports, putting the trade deficit with that country at the highest level since May 2012. The politically sensitive U.S.-China trade deficit rose 3.3 percent to $31.5 billion.

    -Richard Leong and David Gaffen contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    men hand businessman puts credit card into ATM
    Getty Images
    By Robert McGarvey

    NEW YORK -- The numbers are chilling: ATMs on bank property are under heavy and escalating attack by organized criminals who are ever smarter and slicker. What that means is that every time you stick a debit card into an ATM slot you just may be giving your information to a crook who has inserted a "skimmer" that gathers your card data. The crook then prints out a fake card with your data. Usually PINs are also collected via tiny pinhole cameras.

    Credit reporting group FICO has reported that attacks on ATMs on bank property jumped 174 percent year on year in the first part of 2015. Attacks on non bank machines jumped 315 percent in the same period.

    Matters are so grave that leading ATM-maker NCR on July 23 issued an alert to its customers that said, "NCR is tracking an increasing frequency of card skimming attacks in both the U.S. and in Mexico."

    An NCR spokesperson said that direct losses globally due to ATM skimming is $3 billion.

    It gets worse. Until recently many skimmers were crude and attached directly on top of the ATM card slot. For them, the usual self defense prescription has been to shake the slot. If something comes off in your hand it's probably a skimmer. No more. Owen Wild, an NCR expert, said that NCR is seeing more skimmers that are inserted down into the card slot and thus are invisible on the exterior. There also is a rising incidence of cases where a criminal drills a hole into an ATM, inserts a copying device, then covers the hole with a decal. Wild said many of these devices are slick enough that they defeat some anti-skimming technologies in use on ATMs.

    By now you want to know what your liability is.

    The news is mixed. On paper you have little to no liability. The Federal Trade Commission says losses are capped at $50 if the loss is reported within two days of learning of it. The cap is $500 if reported within 60 days. More than 60 and the losses are unlimited.

    But it gets worse. Several victims of ATM fraud have told TheStreet that their bank refused to restore any monies, insisting the victim must have given the crook his card and PIN. Remember: the crook has a card with the right data and the PIN, so it looks like the accountholder is withdrawing cash. Who knows the real facts in these cases -- just don't assume all will be well with ATM theft because it isn't always.

    In just about all cases, too, there are delays -- often short, occasionally long -- in restoring money taken from an account. With a bogus credit card charge, it's put in suspense the instant it is challenged. With a debit card, real money has to be restored to the account and while that is happening, rent checks may bounce, car payments may be late and more mayhem may befall the victim. It isn't pretty.

    The best defense: don't become a victim.

    So, why is ATM skimming sharply jumping? "The ability to buy pre-assembled or programmed skimmers have turned what was once a complicated scam, into something that the average Joe could do if he's willing to pay for it," said Luis A. Chapetti, software engineer and data scientist at Barracuda. Chapetti also provided a URL where many skimmers are for sale, generally at prices of $1,000 and up.

    Snag just two or four cards and the skimmer paid for itself. The rest is gravy.

    This availability of off-the-shelf skimmers is key to the epidemic. Before a crook needed some fabrication skills and tools. No more. Ready cash buys the gear, so any klutz can become an ATM crook. It won't stop soon, either. Experts anticipate a sustained attack on ATMs, because they are where the money is.

    How can consumers protect themselves?

    "Shield the [ATM] pad from prying cameras as you enter your PIN, and regularly check your account for evidence of fraud," said Steven Weisman, a lawyer in Amherst, Massachusetts, who frequently writes about scams. The first part is crucial: cover your actions with your other hand as you enter the PIN. That probably will thwart the crook's attempt to grab the PIN and, by doing that, you have dramatically reduced -- maybe eliminated -- this card's usefulness.

    As for checking your account -- and setting up account activity alerts -- that's key to minimizing your actual losses. The sooner you notify the bank, the lower your losses generally will be.

    Do just those two things and, probably, you'll be fine -- even if the ATM crooks keep redoubling their efforts which is what some experts gloomily expect.

     

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    men hand businessman puts credit card into ATM
    Getty Images
    By Robert McGarvey

    NEW YORK -- The numbers are chilling: ATMs on bank property are under heavy and escalating attack by organized criminals who are ever smarter and slicker. What that means is that every time you stick a debit card into an ATM slot you just may be giving your information to a crook who has inserted a "skimmer" that gathers your card data. The crook then prints out a fake card with your data. Usually PINs are also collected via tiny pinhole cameras.

    Credit reporting group FICO has reported that attacks on ATMs on bank property jumped 174 percent year on year in the first part of 2015. Attacks on non bank machines jumped 315 percent in the same period.

    Matters are so grave that leading ATM-maker NCR on July 23 issued an alert to its customers that said, "NCR is tracking an increasing frequency of card skimming attacks in both the U.S. and in Mexico."

    An NCR spokesperson said that direct losses globally due to ATM skimming is $3 billion.

    It gets worse. Until recently many skimmers were crude and attached directly on top of the ATM card slot. For them, the usual self defense prescription has been to shake the slot. If something comes off in your hand it's probably a skimmer. No more. Owen Wild, an NCR expert, said that NCR is seeing more skimmers that are inserted down into the card slot and thus are invisible on the exterior. There also is a rising incidence of cases where a criminal drills a hole into an ATM, inserts a copying device, then covers the hole with a decal. Wild said many of these devices are slick enough that they defeat some anti-skimming technologies in use on ATMs.

    By now you want to know what your liability is.

    The news is mixed. On paper you have little to no liability. The Federal Trade Commission says losses are capped at $50 if the loss is reported within two days of learning of it. The cap is $500 if reported within 60 days. More than 60 and the losses are unlimited.

    But it gets worse. Several victims of ATM fraud have told TheStreet that their bank refused to restore any monies, insisting the victim must have given the crook his card and PIN. Remember: the crook has a card with the right data and the PIN, so it looks like the accountholder is withdrawing cash. Who knows the real facts in these cases -- just don't assume all will be well with ATM theft because it isn't always.

    In just about all cases, too, there are delays -- often short, occasionally long -- in restoring money taken from an account. With a bogus credit card charge, it's put in suspense the instant it is challenged. With a debit card, real money has to be restored to the account and while that is happening, rent checks may bounce, car payments may be late and more mayhem may befall the victim. It isn't pretty.

    The best defense: don't become a victim.

    So, why is ATM skimming sharply jumping? "The ability to buy pre-assembled or programmed skimmers have turned what was once a complicated scam, into something that the average Joe could do if he's willing to pay for it," said Luis A. Chapetti, software engineer and data scientist at Barracuda. Chapetti also provided a URL where many skimmers are for sale, generally at prices of $1,000 and up.

    Snag just two or four cards and the skimmer paid for itself. The rest is gravy.

    This availability of off-the-shelf skimmers is key to the epidemic. Before a crook needed some fabrication skills and tools. No more. Ready cash buys the gear, so any klutz can become an ATM crook. It won't stop soon, either. Experts anticipate a sustained attack on ATMs, because they are where the money is.

    How can consumers protect themselves?

    "Shield the [ATM] pad from prying cameras as you enter your PIN, and regularly check your account for evidence of fraud," said Steven Weisman, a lawyer in Amherst, Massachusetts, who frequently writes about scams. The first part is crucial: cover your actions with your other hand as you enter the PIN. That probably will thwart the crook's attempt to grab the PIN and, by doing that, you have dramatically reduced -- maybe eliminated -- this card's usefulness.

    As for checking your account -- and setting up account activity alerts -- that's key to minimizing your actual losses. The sooner you notify the bank, the lower your losses generally will be.

    Do just those two things and, probably, you'll be fine -- even if the ATM crooks keep redoubling their efforts which is what some experts gloomily expect.

     

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    Congress Rdp
    Susan Walsh/APSen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has fought for rules mandating disclosure of differences in pay between CEOs and workers.
    By Sarah N. Lynch

    WASHINGTON -- Companies will have to provide investors with a ratio showing how the median pay of their workforce squares with their chief executive officers' compensation, according to new rules adopted by U.S. securities regulators Wednesday.

    Under the Securities and Exchange Commission's final rules, companies will get some flexibility in how they find the median. For instance, they can exclude 5 percent of their overseas workers when arriving at the number and use statistical sampling.

    Pay ratio disclosure should provide a valuable piece of information to investors.

    In addition, only larger and mid-sized companies will need to comply, while smaller ones are exempt.

    However, those changes did not assuage corporate trade groups, which have opposed any rule and are widely expected to file a legal challenge.

    The SEC has been under mounting pressure by Democrats, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and unions such as the AFL-CIO, who support the rule and have lamented delays in its adoption.

    The measure was tucked into the 2010 Dodd-Frank law amid concerns about the growing disparity between compensation for chief executives and their corporate workers.

    "Pay ratio disclosure should provide a valuable piece of information to investors," said Democratic Commissioner Kara Stein said.

    Republicans and trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have fought back against the measure at every turn, saying it will be too expensive, could mislead investors and is not material to a company's financial statements.

    'More Harmful Than Helpful'

    The Chamber has urged the SEC to defer working on the rule at all, and it called for permitting companies to disclose the ratio in an addendum instead of formal filings in order to reduce their liability.

    "This rule is more harmful than helpful," David Hirschmann, head of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said in a statement. He said the Chamber would explore options to "clean up the mess" it believes the rule has created.

    Both SEC Republican commissioners also opposed the rule Wednesday.

    "To steal a line from Justice Scalia: This is pure applesauce," said Republican Commissioner Daniel Gallagher.

    Companies will have to start reporting the new pay ratio disclosures in the first fiscal year beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2017.

    Heather Slavin Corzo, a director at the AFL-CIO, said she was pleased that the SEC completed the rule but remained concerned about "weaknesses that could lead to loopholes," including letting companies exclude a portion of their overseas workers from the median.

     

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    A Mazda logo hangs on a sign outside the Ed Morse Mazda deal
    D. Kevin Elliott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    DETROIT -- Mazda is recalling its biggest SUV to fix suspension parts that can rust and come loose, causing a loss of steering control.

    The recall covers 206,000 CX-9 SUVs from the 2007 through 2014 model years, mainly in the U.S. and Canada.

    The company said in documents posted Wednesday by U.S. safety regulators that front ball joints can rust from water leaks and separate from the suspension. Ball joints allow the wheels to pivot when the steering wheel is turned.

    Owners will be notified by letter starting in September. Dealers will replace suspension parts on both sides.

    When parts become available, CX-9s registered in states where salt is used to clear roads in the winter will be repaired first. Those states are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

    The recall comes after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the problem in June. Mazda said Wednesday that it has no reports of crashes or injuries from the problem.

    In documents filed with NHTSA, Mazda said it first found out about the problem in May of 2012 and began investigating. It fixed the problem at the factory in January 2014 but decided not to do a recall because the ball joints didn't separate suddenly and owners would be warned by front-end noise.

    But NHTSA opened its investigation after getting 16 complaints about the problem. Mazda said it decided to do the recall because in some of the complaints, the failure happened suddenly.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- The S&P 500 and Nasdaq composite rose Wednesday following three days of losses as tech shares advanced, while the blue-chip Dow index ticked lower, weighed by Disney's largest daily drop in almost seven years.

    Gains in major tech companies Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) led the advance on the Nasdaq. Apple (AAPL) added 0.7 percent to $115.40, up for just the second session in the last 12. The S&P 500 tech sector gained 1 percent, its best daily performance in three weeks.

    There's been a sector rotation into technology because of the improvement in their earnings expectations.

    "There's been a sector rotation into technology because of the improvement in their earnings expectations," said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in Florham Park, New Jersey.

    Earnings in the technology sector of the S&P 500 are expected to have grown 5.3 percent in the second quarter, up from a 2.1 percent increase expected back on July 1, according to the most recent Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data.

    The market's advance is, however, "a modest bounce back after discernable pressure over the last trading sessions," Morganlander said. He cited deceleration in the Chinese economy as a continuing headwind for stocks, specifically commodities-related sectors.

    Disney's (DIS) shares fell to $110.53, a 9.2 percent drop and the largest for any day since Dec. 1, 2008, after it cut its profit forecast for its cable networks unit, spooking the entire industry.

    Shares of Comcast (CMCSA) fell 4.7 percent, Discovery Communications (DISCA) lost 12.1 percent and Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) fell 7 percent. Disney's shares are still up 17.3 percent year to date, compared with a gain of 2 percent on the S&P 500.

    "Disney has had such a tremendous move in the past months that a setback within the stock price should not be a surprise," said Morganlander.

    Mixed Results

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 10.22 points, or less than 0.1 percent, to 17,540.47; the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 6.52 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,099.84; and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 34.40 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,139.95.

    Despite the gains on the S&P 500, declining issues slightly outnumbered advancing ones on the New York Stock Exchange by 1,542 to 1,518. On the Nasdaq, however, 1,606 issues rose and 1,203 fell.

    Private job growth slowed in July, but a surge in services industry activity to a near-decade high suggested solid economic momentum that strengthens the case for a Federal Reserve interest rate hike this year. Friday's payrolls report is key for traders who are trying to anticipate the Fed's next move.

    First Solar (FSLR) shares jumped 16.7 percent to $51.92 a day after it reported sharply higher quarterly sales and earnings and said results for the year would top Wall Street estimates.

    Shares of Chesapeake Energy (CHK) tumbled 12.1 percent to $7.03 on worries about hefty debt and spending at the No. 2 U.S. natural gas producer.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index posted 54 new 52-week highs and 31 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 135 new highs and 107 new lows. About 7.2 billion shares changed hands on all U.S. exchanges, compared with an average 6.78 billion in the past five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    The following companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Allergan (AGN)
    • AMC Networks (AMCX)
    • Brinker International (EAT)
    • Cinemark Holdings (CNK)
    • Consolidated Edison (ED)
    • Duke Energy (DUK)
    • Dynegy (DYN)
    • Energizer Holdings, (ENR)
    • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. (HMHC)
    • HSN (HSNI)
    • Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF)
    • Manulife Financial Corp (MFC)
    • Michael Kors Holdings (KORS)
    • Mobileye (MBLY)
    • Mohawk Industries (MHK)
    • Molson Coors Brewing Co. (TAP)
    • Monster Beverage Corporation (MNST)
    • New York Times Co. (NYT)
    • Nvidia (NVDA)
    • Prestige Brand Holdings (PBH)
    • Sally Beauty Holdings (SBH)
    • Sprouts Farmers Market (SFM)
    • Viacom (VIAB)
    • Zynga (ZNGA)

     

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    Girl with debt and depression
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    Nearly half of American households carry credit card debt today, with each household owing an average debt of $15,863, according to NerdWallet -- but it's not the worst of the bad news.

    That number -- $15,863 -- is nearly twice the level of debt ($8,300) that credit card resource website CardHub says is "unsustainable." But instead of working this debt level down, consumers are growing their credit card debt levels, NerdWallet statistics show, with May figures (the latest available) clocking in at about a 2.11 percent annualized growth rate compared to April, and 3.19 percent compared to May 2014.

    None of the above sounds particularly encouraging. But one company thinks it has found a solution nonetheless.

    Introducing Payoff.com

    Billing itself as a "next generation financial services company," 6-year-old Payoff.com of Costa Mesa, California, says it's on a mission to help consumers get control of their credit card debts and pay them off for good -- "faster, easier, and cheaper" than traditional banks might prefer.

    According to S&P Capital IQ, Payoff.com is a privately held company, and its partner First Electronic Bank, which provides the funds for its loans, is similarly privately owned. Thus, neither company needs to charge high rates to keep public shareholders happy and rolling in profits.

    So What Do They Do?

    Say you're an incredibly "average" credit card holder, owing about $16,000 on several credit cards, and paying 15 percent annual interest on these cards. (Bankrate.com (RATE) subsidiary CreditCards.com confirms that rates have averaged about 15 percent over the past six months). That's right in the sweet spot for the customers Payoff is trying to help. According to the company, it offers "Payoff Loans" of anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to help consumers get out of debt.

    Payoff does this by first requiring you to fill out an online application for a loan. Be aware -- Payoff currently operates in 29 states and the District of Columbia. It doesn't, however, currently operate in: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin or Wyoming.

    Here's Your Money...

    Once you've been approved, the company deposits a loan, sufficient to pay off your credit card debt, directly to your bank account. Note that you should ask for a bit more than you owe, however, to account for the Platform Fee. (More on this in a moment).

    Use this money to pay off your cards. At this point, you owe no credit card lenders. Your only debt is to Payoff.com.

    Ideally, Payoff's loan will carry an interest rate lower than what your credit cards were charging. Examples given on the company's website suggest that a 15 percent or 20 percent variable interest rate, charged by a credit card-issuing bank, might be replaced with a fixed-rate Payoff loan of as little as 13 percent (rates can, however, range from as much as 19.65 percent to as little as 6 percent, depending largely on the duration of the loan you request).

    Now for the "Platform Fee." Essentially an origination fee covering the overhead and costs for providing you the loan, Payoff charges 2 percent to 5 percent of the loan amount up front. This Platform Fee is deducted immediately from your loan, which is why you'll want to request a total loan amount a bit more than the value of the credit card debts you plan to pay off.

    In the interests of full disclosure, Payoff incorporates this Platform Fee into the annual percentage rate on the loan it quotes you, telling you the notional APR so that you know what the interest rate would be, if the Platform Fee were spread out over the cost of the loan (instead of being paid off up front, as it is in fact). Thus, for example, Payoff would describe a loan at 6 percent actual interest as costing you 8 percent APR; a 19.65 percent interest rate would similarly be quoted at 22 percent -- so that you know the true cost of the loan you are getting.

    Crucially, though, this Platform fee is the only fee Payoff ordinarily charges for its loan. (There may be a returned payment fee if one of your payments bounces, however.) In particular, Payoff does not charge late fees, eliminating a major stumbling block to many consumers' journey out of debt.

    Details, Details

    A Payoff customer service representative contacted by phone, Lisa, warned that it's difficult to give a precise rate without knowing a customer's financial information, which requires a credit check. But even so, the company's online calculator suggests that a $16,000 loan, taken out by a customer with a merely "good" FICO score of 660 to 690, could save as much as $19,673 and pay off his or her debt 31 years faster using Payoff.com, as opposed to paying off a 15 percent interest rate on a credit card with minimum payments. The time needed to pay off a Payoff loan varies with the customer, of course. A Payoff representative named Billy noted that customers are given as many as 15 different options to choose from, offering the ability to pay either more than, the same as, or less than their former monthly credit card payments. And generally speaking, the more you pay per month, the faster you'll pay off your debt.

    Which sounds like a pretty good deal. If you happen to live in one of the 29 lucky states (and one District) that Payoff serves, it might be worth the 60 seconds it takes to fill out an application, and see if they can give you a good rate.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has a lot of credit card debt ... and he pays it off in full every month. (He doesn't imagine the credit card companies are very happy about that.) In the spirit of full disclosure: When putting together the list of states where Payoff doesn't operate, he had to use spell-check to get the spelling on "Massachusetts" just right.

    Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Mature Parents Frustrated With Adult Son Living At Home
    Getty Images
    By Carleton English

    NEW YORK -- Even an improving job market isn't enough to get millennials to move out of their childhood homes, says Goldman Sachs (GS). At least not when they're still grappling with high student debt, low starting salaries and increasing rents.

    Unemployment among 18- to 34-year-olds has dropped from a high of nearly 14 percent in 2010, just two years after the financial crisis, to 8 percent. That's almost reaching the 7 percent rate in 2007, but it hasn't enabled the generation born from 1980 to 2000 to match historical patterns in achieving one of the most basic adult milestones -- getting their own places.

    With a population of about 92 million, millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history, outnumbering even baby boomers, so their spending patterns are important for both individual companies and the economy as a whole.

    "While moving into a rental unit usually presents a lower hurdle than becoming a homeowner, young people who now have jobs but struggled in recent years might not have enough savings to cover an initial deposit or might fall short of landlords' expectations for a potential tenant's credit score, savings, or income history," David Mericle, an analyst for Goldman Sachs, wrote in the report.

    According to the Goldman report, which cites U.S. Commerce Department data, the percentage of young adults living at home grew from around 26 percent in 2006 to about 32 percent in 2012. In 2014, it started to decline, but progress toward pre-recession levels has stalled in the past six months.

    The chart below compares the percentage of young adults living at home in 2007 and in 2015, across various employment statuses. While it would make sense that the unemployed and under-employed part-time workers -- those who would like full time work but are unable to find it -- would stay at home, even the ones with the jobs they want are doing so.

    Despite gains elsewhere in the economy, what's keeping millennials at home may be summed up the most easily by the statement of Jimmy McMillan, the failed New York state gubernatorial candidate: "The rent is too damn high."

    Since 1981, the ratio of rent to income has climbed 15 percentage points for all workers and more than twice that much -- 35 percentage points -- for workers under the age of 34. A spread between younger and older workers is expected as incomes tend to rise with age while housing needs tend to flatten. (The apartment you had in your early 20s would likely be unsuitable for starting a family in your 30s, but the house you have in your 30s could reasonably fit your needs for decades.)

    However, factoring in a slow career start coupled with a high student debt burden makes the dream of renting a home improbable -- let alone the dream of owning one.

    Not helping matters is that wage growth has been slow in recent quarters and, when adjusted for inflation, salaries have largely been flat since the late 1970s. That's not lost on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

    "We have been through a period in which wages have been, in real terms, growing less rapidly than productivity," Yellen said in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee in July.

    "It is evidence of some remaining slack in the labor market, so my forecast is that we will see some pickup in wage growth. But it is important to remember that there has been increasing wage inequality in the United States over a long period of time, certainly going back to the mid- to late-70s."

     

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    Back To School Supplies At A Target Corp. Store Ahead Of The  School Year Starting
    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesYou can get your student ready without breaking your budget.
    By Karen Cordaway

    According to the National Retail Federation, the average family will spend roughly $630 on kids in kindergarten through 12th grade and $899 for college students. If you're looking to slash these costs or get more for your money, here are some tips to do so.

    1. Spend less out of the gate. If you're looking to get a head start on stretching your dollars before you even begin to shop, Shelley Hunter of Giftcards.com recommends purchasing discounted gift cards in advance and explains how it's one of the easiest ways to guarantee savings on your back-to-school expenses.

    "Consumers can slash their bill and save anywhere from 2 or 3 percent to significant double-digit discounts," she says. If you're flexible with where you shop, Hunter suggests letting the discount lead the way. Items like school supplies can be purchased at a variety of stores; look for the savings before you pick the destination.

    2. Don't compete with the pack for uniforms. If you purchase school uniforms from retail stores, consider stocking up when items are discounted. I recently bought some uniforms before the actual back-to-school rush. You can avoid crowds and shopping at other times of the year when items are harder to find or may cost more.

    My daughters prefer the skinny cut when it comes to shorts and pants over Bermuda shorts and the standard uniform pants. If you wait for "the big sale" or when everyone else is shopping, you might not get what you're looking for before the school year starts.

    Consider the same strategy for certain must-have fits, cuts, styles or coveted brands, especially for pants. While clearance can be king for steep discounts, it can be a gamble on what ends up in your wardrobe. On a recent trip to what I consider an overpriced store, my daughter made a dash for the jean area. We found jeggings and other jeans she liked. They fit her well and were on sale.

    3. Run to the deals. Mary Hoover from MissionToSave.com likes to approach back-to-school shopping as a marathon and not a sprint. She enjoys shopping the weekly advertised sales for the best back-to-school supply deals. This strategy means staying on top of the ads and shopping multiple times to get the lowest prices on each item.

    If you don't have the time or endurance to do this footwork on your own, Hoover shares her wallet-friendly finds on her site each week. She provides readers with a list of the best current deals so shoppers can mimic the same smart spending strategies. She adds that she's on the lookout all year for great back-to-school deals, including during post-season clearance sales.

    4. Work as a team. For Ashley Barnett, a contributor for MoneyUnder30.com, shopping tasks are split between the parents. She and her husband go through all of their kids' clothes first to get a sense of what is needed. Then, they plot out what to buy with a set dollar amount in mind. When they actually shop in person, they divide and conquer to get the shopping done. Each parent takes one of the children and gets what's on the list. This works well for their family and gets the shopping done in half the time.

    Linsey Knerl of 1099Mom.com explains how she and her family plan one big shopping trip about a month before school starts with the whole family. Then her husband, Samuel Knerl, later goes back to the store to fill in any gaps that they may have missed the first time around.

    They prefer in-store shopping for back to school. "When you're dealing with clothes and electronics for five kids, it's important that we can touch and feel the merchandise," she says. They also take advantage of the opportunity costs of stocking up on loss-leaders such as notebooks and socks. They can use the supplies later and shop less often, especially since they live in a rural area and get to the store less than once a week.

    5. Make a dash for secondhand. The recent NRF survey reports that the average family with college students will spend $126 to furnish dorm rooms. If you're looking to slash this expense, consider getting items secondhand.

    Doug Nordman of the TheMilitaryGuide.com explains that your back-to-school shopping is a lot cheaper when it's done at Goodwill and garage sales. Be on alert during spring cleaning and summer moving season, he suggests. People are looking to offload their stuff and that can work to your wallet's advantage.

    6. Relay your wish list to friends. You can always send out a social media search party to potentially get your furniture needs met. If you're brave enough to ask on Facebook, you might be one status update away from getting a freebie or low-cost piece from local friends or family. You can offer to pick up furniture they might be looking to ditch.

    When you're running around to find good deals on back-to-school shopping list, use the tips mentioned to spend less and get the items needed on your list.

    Karen Cordaway is a teacher and writer who currently shares money saving tips on her website, MoneySavingEnthusiast.com.

     

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    Android Security Hole Found By Researcher
    Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesFrom repairs to accessories to apps, your smartphone costs you a lot more than the monthly bill you pay.
    By U.S. News Staff

    Many smartphone apps, including budgeting and price comparison tools, can help you save money. But data plans exact a steeper monthly cost than most simple cellphone plans, and in-app purchases lead to overspending. Here are eight hidden costs associated with smartphones and tips on how to reduce them:

    1. The data plan. The monthly fee you pay for access to the Internet and streaming capabilities costs anywhere from $15 a month to as high as $80 or more, depending on your usage needs. If you use more data than your plan allows, you'll be charged "overage" fees on top of that monthly fee. To keep costs down, assess what you need from your data plan during a month of typical use, and choose the cheaper plan that will still keep you from going over the data limit -- and racking up those extra fees.

    2. Apps. Apps are what make smartphones so invaluable to busy people: You can shop, check your bank account, play games, track what friends are up to and follow social media accounts through apps. They can also come with a price, though: Many apps cost money to download, and others allow for in-app purchases. You could end up spending more money through apps just because it's so easy.

    In fact, a 2012 survey of 1,005 adults by the American Institute of CPAs found that more than half of respondents reported technology has made spending money easier. The respondents who said they use their smartphones to download songs, apps and other products spent an average $38 a month on those purchases.

    AICPA suggests giving yourself a budget for smartphone-related purchases and setting up a separate credit card, with a low limit, to keep yourself from going overboard with those spur-of-the moment purchases.

    3. Memory. While basic smartphones come with a decent amount of memory, buying extra gigabytes to store all your music, photos and other items can be as much as $100 or more. That increases the total price of the phone. Instead, you can use a free cloud-based storage system or transfer items you want to save, like photos, to your computer's hard drive.

    4. Headphones. While most smartphones come with a standard pair of headphones, like the classic white earbuds with iPhones, not everyone is happy with that basic model. Some consumers opt to buy a specialized Bluetooth headset or Beats headphones, which start around $200.

    5. Protection. To protect your phone, you'll probably want to consider buying some kind of case for it, which can range from $10 to $30 and up, depending on how fancy you want to get. Purchasing insurance for your phone is another way to guard against losses and accidents, but it's not cheap. A typical two-year insurance plan will run between $100 and $200. Many financial experts say it makes more sense to insure the phone yourself -- in other words, to pony up the cash for a replacement or repairs if necessary. In the meantime, you can reduce your risk of needing to buy a new phone prematurely by taking good care of it and using that protective case.

    6. Repairs. If your phone starts malfunctioning or needs a new screen, those repairs can come with a high price tag. According to Apple, replacing or repairing a broken iPhone 6 screen costs $109, and a replacement screen on an iPhone 6 Plus or iPhone 5 costs $129. Just another reason to buy some protective gear and to always use it.

    7. Mindless shopping. Many people play on their phones while unwinding from the day, and if you have your favorite shopping apps such as Amazon, Keep Shopping or Poshmark on your phone, then you just might make some extra purchases. Consider deleting the apps or exerting some self-control during those hours when you're most likely to buy items you don't really need.

    8. Children. If you let your children play with your phone, they can accidentally purchase items, and sometimes a lot of them. It's such a widespread issue that Apple offers a refund process for purchases made by minors without parents' knowledge. (Parents have to file all receipts and make a request for a refund through the company.) Parents should also consider strengthening their password settings and turning off in-app purchases on their phones as a preventive measure.

     

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    Senior businessman pulling facial expression and looking up, close-up
    Shutterstock

    By Louis DeNicola

    Cheapism.com has created and curated dozens of lists that share tips and tricks for saving money. But this post takes a different tack: highlighting things that probably aren't worth doing even if they save a little money. These behaviors hover right on the edge of being just too weird or downright gross.

    Eating Dog Food. There have been several exhortations in the "frugalsphere" to try eating dog food. You may wonder who takes this tip seriously, but apparently some people do, and the consenus is that dry dog food is tastier than wet. After looking at how much high-end dog food costs, making the switch might not save much money at all.

    Skipping Showers. Of course, conserving water for ecological reasons is important (do you live in California?), and everyone has those days when a shower just doesn't fit in. But keeping clean seems pretty fundamental. Those who want to pare the water bill when showering should invest in a shower head with an on/off switch. Get wet, turn off the water while lathering up, and then rinse off quickly.

    Splitting Toilet Paper Rolls. Using single-ply toilet paper isn't the best experience, but it's not necessarily disgusting. And yes, buying two-ply rolls and splitting the sheets will probably save a little money. But considering the time it takes to split and re-roll toilet paper, are all those wasted hours worth the small change? An alternative way to save on toilet paper is to install a bidet. Buy one online for about $35; installation is simple.

    Eliminating Toilet Paper Altogether. Moving beyond splitting TP rolls or using a bidet, some families have made the switch to cloth wipes, according to the EnviroMom blog. Used wipes are dropped into a bin filled with water and bleach, where they soak until laundry time. For many people, this tip is surely a step too far.

    Reusing Paper Towels. Drying and reusing paper towels or napkins is a nice way to limit waste, but there are better ways to save money. This may be a case where those cloth wipes come in handy. Use them as napkins and for cleaning up spills and then throw in the wash when it's time to do a load.

    Dumpster Diving for Food. Yes, most people know one bakery on the other side of town that throws out perfectly good day-old bread. And it's true that many supermarkets throw away food that's far from spoiled, and that some folks have few other sources of nutrition. For the most part, though, dumpster diving is kinda distasteful.

    Dumpster Diving at Cemeteries. Dumpster diving for food may be a tad gross, but dumpster diving in a cemetery to find flowers seems downright disrespectful. If the temptation to scrounge for flowers is too strong, at least go to the dumpster of a nearby big-box store.

    Toilet-Training the Cat. Actually, this is pretty cool, albeit peculiar. The YouTube training videos may seem a bit bizarre, and the basic premise is certainly way out there, but potty-training the cat will save a load of money on litter and air fresheners.

    Hoarding. Hoarding sometimes stems from the belief that when something is super-cheap it's good to stock up, or that it's worth stockpiling necessities "just in case." The upshot can be dangerous. Hoarding disorder may become serious and shouldn't be dismissed with the same lightheartedness directed at the other oddball ideas on this list. Anyone who is experiencing these tendencies, or knows someone who appears to have hoarding disorder, should consult a professional.

    Spamming Friends. Cheapism has written about how to get rebates and discounts by sharing deals and recent purchases with friends, but there's a limit. Over-sharers should cut it out now or they'll find they don't have any friends left with whom to share what's really important.

    Taking In Cast-Off Furniture. Before protesting, read on. Furnishing digs with items rescued from the sidewalk (or a garage sale) is an obvious money-saving strategy. The piece might need a quick sanding and paint job, or a little spot-clean and patch, and it will be as good as new. But for those who live in an area where bed bugs or other small pests run rampant, bringing an upholstered chair into the home is potentially gross and very costly.

    Eating a Cup Noodles Diet. This is an easy way to live off a few dollars a day, but the Cup Noodles diet provides several times the recommended daily intake of sodium. Don't be surprised if the initial savings are short-lived because one's health from excess sodium may be, too.

    Stealing Media. Stealing is just plain wrong, regardless the object of desire. At one time illegally downloading music, TV shows, and movies was the only way to get access to a wide variety of media without heading to the store. No longer. With free streaming services such as Pandora or Spotify and inexpensive options such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, it's a snap to find something to listen to or watch on the cheap. Heck, there are even deals at movie theaters for those who know where to look.

    Knitting with Dog Hair. Thanks to the website Cracked for sharing the fact that this is something people do. "Knitting with Dog Hair" is an actual book, published way back in 1997, that details the ins and outs of recycling the hairs Fido sheds into wearable (?) clothing. It may be time to find a different craft.

     

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    In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2015, job seekers attend a job fair in Sunrise, Fla. The Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits the week ending Aug. 1 on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
    Alan Diaz/AP
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Slightly more Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, but their numbers remain near historic lows in a sign that the job market is healthy.

    The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless aid rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 270,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 6,500 to 268,250. That average has fallen nearly 10 percent over the past year, close to levels last seen in 2000.

    Initial claims for unemployment insurance have been below 300,000 for 22 straight weeks, the longest such stretch since 1973.

    "Initial claims for unemployment insurance have been below 300,000 for 22 straight weeks, the longest such stretch since 1973," said Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services. "Claims are running at a pace consistent with monthly job growth of better than 200,000."

    Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Their steady decline suggests that employers are confident about the health of the economy and prospects for continued growth.

    On Friday, the government will release its July employment report. Economists expect that employers added another 225,000 jobs last month as the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.3 percent, according to data firm FactSet.

    The drop in people seeking unemployment benefits has corresponded with the solid pace of hiring.

    Employers have added an average of 221,000 jobs a month in the past three months, driving down the unemployment rate to a seven-year low of 5.3 percent. The economy has created 2.9 million jobs over the past 12 months, gains that helped boost spending on housing and autos.

    The July jobs report will influence when the Federal Reserve decides to raise interest rates from near-zero levels. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said that it may hike rates later this year, which would end an economic stimulus in place since late 2008 that was designed to boost borrowing, spending and investing in the economy.

    Many economists say that job gains at the current level should cause the Fed to raise rates in September, although other economists expect the rate increase to begin in December.

     

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    IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty Speaks At The Economic Club Of Washington
    Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images IBM CEO Ginni Rometty
    By Supantha Mukherjee

    IBM said it would buy Merge Healthcare, which provides medical images and clinical systems, in a $1 billion deal and combine it with its Watson Health analytics unit.

    Merge Healthcare shareholders will get $7.13 a share at a premium of 31.8 percent to Wednesday's close, the companies said.

    Merge Healthcare (MRGE) shares were up 29.5 percent at $7 in early trading. IBM (IBM) shares were little changed at $156.78.

    The equity portion of the offer is valued at $713.1 million, according to Reuters calculations based on 100 million Merge Healthcare shares outstanding as of June 30.

    IBM plans to combine data and images from Merge Healthcare's medical imaging management platform with Watson computing platform's image analytics.

    Cloud-based Watson computing system analyzes high volumes of data, understands complex questions posed in natural language and proposes evidence-based answers.

    The deal is IBM's third major health-related buy since launching its Watson Health unit in April.

     

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    A T-Mobile US Inc. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Alina Selyukh

    WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission has denied T-Mobile US' request for more airwaves to be set aside for smaller wireless companies like itself to bid on during a government auction next year.

    The unanimous vote Thursday by the five-member commission came after months of T-Mobile's lobbying for stricter limits for AT&T's and Verizon Communications' participation in the auction of prized low-frequency airwaves.

    Reuters previously reported that agency staff had found existing restrictions were sufficient to ensure that smaller carriers get a chance to outbid Verizon and AT&T, which dominate those low frequencies.

    The auction, tentatively slated to start in March, will be a landmark one for the U.S. wireless industry as it will give participants their first chance since 2008 to buy low-frequency airwaves, which are valued for their ability to carry heavy data over long distances and through obstacles such as buildings.

    The FCC voted last year to curb participation of carriers that held dominant slices of low-frequency airwaves in each market by reserving a piece of spectrum for bidding only by non-dominant carriers, but not to the extent T-Mobile sought.

    The vote was something of a compromise among the FCC's Democrats, who wanted to give smaller carriers a leg up while ensuring that restrictions on the big carriers wouldn't cut the proceeds of the auction, expected to be the agency's largest.

    T-Mobile Chief Executive Officer John Legere on Twitter played down the policy loss, touting the existence of the reserved spectrum in the first place.

    "Good news -- the reserve includes great quality spectrum & looks like the FCC will be monitoring closely so duopoly can't game the system," Legere tweeted, referring to the top two U.S. carriers, Verizon and AT&T.

    T-Mobile (TMUS) shares were down 1.2 percent at $40.24 in afternoon trading, while Verizon (VZ) slipped 0.6 percent and AT&T (T) fell 1.6 percent.

     

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