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DailyFinance.com

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    Netflix Inc. Illustrations Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    There's a lot of streaming going on at Netflix (NFLX) these days. It's serving up roughly 4 billion hours of content a month to its video-hungry audience that now stands at 65.5 million subscribers worldwide.

    The same can't be said about its original mail-order business. Sending DVD and Blu-ray discs in signature red envelope mailers peaked when Netflix was servicing roughly 20 million accounts five years ago, but it's been slipping ever since. Netflix disc plans are down now to just 5.3 million subscribers, just 8 percent of its streaming base.

    This doesn't mean that Netflix will stop mailing out discs anytime soon. Let's go over a few reasons that the leading premium streaming video platform will keep mailing out DVDs and Blu-rays to its thinning audience.

    1. DVDs by mail remain very profitable. Netflix may have seen demand for discs decline -- its subscriber base has fallen to 5.3 million from 6.3 million during the past year alone -- but its DVD-by-mail business was still good for a contribution profit of $77.9 million in its latest quarter. That may be a lot less than the $340 million contribution profit it generated during the same three months from its domestic streaming platform, but it's still higher than streaming on a per-subscriber basis.

    It may be a shrinking base, but it's not broken. It's still making money, and there's no reason to close that down.

    2. Discs are a gateway drug. A lot of people are still renting physical media. Outerwall's (OUTR) Redbox lets TV buffs rent out 146 million discs during the second quarter. As pervasive as Netflix may be, just a third of the homes in the U.S. are currently subscribers.

    As for the rest of the country, some have tried it and moved on. Some just don't have the broadband capacity to stream effectively. However, for those still relying on their DVD players for entertainment, offering this platform is a good way to attract homes that will eventually migrate to the larger streaming service.

    3. There are still plenty of voids in streaming. As massive as Netflix's digital catalog gets -- and it grows along with its subscriber base -- it will never have every single DVD release on its streaming service. Studios want too much for newer releases, and rival services have exclusive streaming rights on other magnetic content.

    That's where DVDs come in. Until Netflix decides to follow the lead of smaller rivals by offering newer releases on a pay-per-stream basis -- and the company appears to have no interest in doing exactly that -- there will continue to be holes in its programming. Netflix can always point to its DVD library for content it doesn't have available to stream.

    4. Netflix has made big investments in its fulfillment centers. Netflix isn't actively promoting its DVD offering, but it did make a big investment to make its mail-order business more sustainable. Cutting down on the number of distribution centers -- to 33 from a peak of 50 -- has helped cut costs, but the real investment came in automation.

    Netflix originally had people slicing open returned envelopes, checking the discs, and repackaging them for their next journey. Now a machine is able to process five times the volume. This is an investment in innovation and technology that will continue to keep the business profitable even as more customers let it go.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    US-COMPANY-COSTCO
    Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
    Almost nobody likes contending with the hassle and stress of buying a car from a traditional dealership. Unfortunately, given the many legal restrictions on auto sales, there's often little alternative for a car buyer.

    But one option has been growing exponentially popular lately. It's from a source that few would expect to "move metal." But it's been selling a lot of cars, doing so by sticking to its traditional strength of selling goods at attractive prices.

    Believe it or not, this big success on the auto-dealing scene is Costco Wholesale (COST). Let's open the hood and see what would-be car buyers are getting from the retail giant these days.

    An Affinity for Autos

    Although Costco has become a big-time vehicle seller, don't expect to see Fords (F) or Hondas (HMC) crowding the aisles of its stores.

    That's because -- due to those many burdensome legal restrictions -- the big retailer isn't a dealership, and thus is barred from selling vehicles directly. Instead it offers a buying service, Costco Auto Program, for its members.

    This service is managed by an outside specialist company, Affinity Auto Group. Affinity is essentially a middleman between buyers and sellers.

    Costco, with its roughly 80 million members, represents a potentially huge group of purchasers. As a result, the retailer can require that the over 3,000 dealers it transacts with in Affinity's network promise to beat the prices of other sellers.

    Costco, it seems, trusts auto dealers as much as you or I do -- i.e., barely at all. So it manages a network of mystery shoppers to make sure Affinity's sellers follow through on their beat-the-price commitment to the retailer.

    For these reasons, shoppers who do their car buying at Costco can save significant dough. A recent Bloomberg report on the subject cited one example of a 2015 Toyota (TM) Highlander. A Costco customer buying through the service paid around $39,000 for the car, $4,000 or so below the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

    It's not only the low price that attracts buyers to Costco's virtual car lot. Another advantage of purchasing services like the retailer's is that the price is final. In other words, ideally there's no haggling and no negotiating over the number.

    Convenience at a Cost

    Costco built its retail empire by delivering lower prices on a dizzying range of goods. Since the car business operates with opaque pricing and often tricky sales methods, the retailer must have sensed an opportunity to disrupt this traditional but consumer-unfriendly business model.

    Costco's done a fine job growing car sales since launching the service in 1989. In 2014, through its service it sold nearly 400,000 of them. This made it the country's No. 2 vehicle sales point, behind Auto Nation (AN), with 533,000 cars sold.

    That's impressive. But it seems not every one of its methods is customer-friendly. Some users haven't experienced that low-price/no-hassle ideal through the service.

    On the shebuyscars.com blog, for example, several people vented about their experiences in the comments section of a blog post devoted to Costco's auto sales.

    More than one complained that the dealerships found by the service engaged in shady practices. These included forcing customers into disadvantageous financing arrangements and adding unanticipated charges to the final invoice.

    It wasn't only the dealerships that were the target of the complaints. A few said that Costco passed their data along -- without their knowledge -- to certain dealerships.

    Subsequent to that, one reported getting "harassing phone calls and emails on a regular basis from the aggressive dealer reps." Another complained that a selected dealership "immediately started calling us."

    "Really, Costco?" wrote another. "Is that how you should treat your customers' personal data?"

    Driven to Buy

    At the end of the day, thanks to the many often-ridiculous legal protections afforded them -- guaranteed exclusivity within a given radius, to name but one of many -- there's really no way of fully escaping the nation's car dealers.

    But those Costco complaints aside, the numbers from the retailer's service are growing for a good reason -- consumers are going the extra mile to cut dealerships out of the process as much as they can.

    So it's worthwhile for a would-be buyer to investigate car-buying programs. Costco's is big and powerful, but it's not the only one on the lot. TrueCar (TRUE) is a buying service that has carved out a big slice of the market, while specialty organizations such as AAA operate similar offerings.

    Services like the Costco Auto Program have become a big part of the vehicle sales landscape, and as such might be the source of your next ride. See you on the road!

    Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman bought the family Honda at a dealership and thinks he could have done better. The Motley Fool recommends Costco Wholesale, Ford and TrueCar and owns shares of Costco Wholesale. 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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  • 08/11/15--22:00: 7 Great Back-to-School Sales
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    Back to School Shopping At Wal-Mart
    Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lori McDaniel

    If the smell of pencils, crayons and paper brings back fond memories of time spent in a classroom, odds are you will enjoy hitting the back-to-school sales. Whether you're buying your own supplies or helping to fulfill a child's list of required items for school, below are some stores that will have everything you need at a great price. To maximize your savings, don't forget to take advantage of tax-free holiday sales, which are offered in 18 states this year.

    Walmart. Walmart has a little bit of everything for those going back to school or college. You'll find clothing, accessories, uniforms, electronics and even computers. However, the best part of back-to-school shopping at Walmart is hitting the supplies aisle. Walmart's Rollback prices on everything from three-ring binders to scientific calculators and dry erase markers make the already-low prices an exceptional deal.

    The store also has a handy online school supplies list tool into which you can type your school's name, ZIP code and state, and the tool will pull a list of suggested products to fulfill required items on the list. Shop online and you'll get free shipping on orders more than $35.

    JCPenney. College-bound students should check out JCPenney's dorm shopping checklist to make sure they are fully prepared for dorm life. Then, they can check items off the list by shopping JCPenny's back-to-school sale, which includes as much as 50 percent off items such as XL twin bedding sets with sheets, shower caddies, closet organizers and more.

    Though it may not be the first place that comes to mind for a back-to-school haircut, through Aug. 31 JCPenney is offering something for the little ones: a $10 haircut for kids in grades kindergarten through sixth grade at the in-house salon.

    Speaking of $10, when you purchase $75 in JCPenney e-gift cards through Aug. 15, you'll earn a $10 off $10 coupon, redeemable in stores and online Aug. 16 through Sept. 7.

    Lands' End. New for 2015, Lands' End's backpack guide takes the guesswork out of choosing the right pack for your child. Categorized by age range, bag style, collection, child's height, color and price range, choosing the right bag has never been so easy. Not only are the bags available in a ton of different colors, but they are made of high-quality materials and are outfitted with reinforced straps and other comfort features. Look for coupons to save on your next order and get free shipping when you spend at least $50 online.

    Macy's. For a wide selection of back-to-school apparel, check out Macy's. You'll find clothing to outfit everyone in your family, from preschoolers to college-bound students (and even something for yourself). Macy's also has a wide assortment of accessories and shoes, which makes it a convenient stop. Save as much as 20 percent off your next order with an online coupon.

    Calendar.com. To keep track of the school year and all the events and activities it brings, you'll find great solutions at Calendars.com. Get wall and desk calendars, as well as school organizers and planners to keep everything in order. Best of all, the company is offering 20 percent off any order through Aug. 31, as well as free shipping on orders of at least $30 with an online coupon.

    Lenovo. College students know going to college without some type of computer is less than ideal, and also that budgeting for them can present a challenge. Fortunately, Lenovo has some great tax-free holiday weekend deals, as well as a sale for 15 percent off various ThinkPad laptops - plus free shipping! Save as much as 80 percent on laptops when you shop the clearance section.

    Office Depot. If you're looking to get ink cartridges, school supplies or even something for your home office, Office Depot is offering a great sale, as well as $10 off orders over $50. Through Sept. 26, you can save up to $200 on select HP printers, and all ink and toner will ship for free (no minimum purchase required). Plus, when you spend $150 or more, you'll get a free $20 gift card.

    While shopping, don't forget to look into a store's price-match or price-adjusting policy, and ask if you can reap additional savings by using online or in-store coupons. Here's to finding a great deal for everything on your back-to-school shopping list!

    Lori McDaniel is the senior content manager at Offers.com. She's a wife and mother of two who can't seem to shake her taste for the finer things in life, which means she always is on the hunt for a great deal.

     

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    Putting golden egg in nest
    Getty Images
    By Sarah Morgan

    Most of us have occasionally daydreamed about early retirement. Have you gone a step further, crunching some numbers to figure out how much money you would need and cutting back on your spending so you can max out your savings rate?

    How would early retirement actually work? How would you structure your investments to throw off income for 40 or 50 years? Here are five tips from financial advisers on how to prepare your portfolio for a long retirement:

    1. Be ready to take some risk. If your money needs to last 40 or 50 years, it will have to keep growing after you retire. That means you will need to continue investing somewhat aggressively. The exact balance of stocks versus lower-risk investments will depend on your age and risk tolerance, but investment professionals recommend keeping a minimum of 50 percent of your portfolio in stocks, and some advise 70 or 80 percent. "The younger you are, the more investment risk you have to take, regardless of what the situation is," says Michael Kresh, CFP, the chief investment officer of Creative Wealth Management. A risk questionnaire, such as the one by investment firm SigFig, can help you determine what portion of your portfolio should be in stocks, given your investment horizon and risk tolerance.

    2. Keep some cash on hand. For younger retirees, financial planners recommend keeping about two years' worth of living expenses in cash or short-term instruments like money market accounts or CDs. "You don't want to get in a position where you're selling into a down market just to maintain your standard of living," Kresh says. Sitting on some cash will allow you to sell chunks of stocks when the market is strong, not when you have to pay the cable bill.

    As for the balance of your portfolio -- whatever isn't in stocks or cash -- the pros recommend shorter-term bonds for now, because interest rates are so low. "Even though the rate is not fair to savers, it's still something to get a safe return and hedge the risk of the equity side of your portfolio," says Mickey Cargile, the president of Cargile Investment Management.

    3. Don't overspend. The general rule of thumb for someone living off an investment portfolio is to keep withdrawals to 4 percent a year. Some experts now say that even that is too high, but it is still a reasonable place to start, Cargile says. "Some years it's going to erode your principal some, and some years it's going to grow much more," he says. "If you can withdraw less early on, that's great," Cargile adds. In those early years in particular, you still want your total portfolio to be growing faster than you are spending it.

    4. Watch out for friends with investment ideas. This is a common trap for people who are successful early in life, Kresh says: A friend or family member approaches them with a supposedly can't-miss investment or business idea, and, overconfident because of that early success, they put too much money behind a risky venture. "You think because you've been successful early that you can understand other businesses that you have not been involved in," Kresh says. Even a large nest egg won't last a lifetime if you start throwing money at ill-advised schemes.

    5. Find something to do. Investment managers say that being emotionally prepared for retirement is a challenge for their clients at any age -- and one that often takes people by surprise. "I think as human beings we weren't meant to sit around and watch Jeopardy for 30 years," Cargile says. Idleness may appeal now, when you are stuck in an office, but people who work with retirees say the ones who enjoy their retirement find a purpose for all that free time. "You need to have something to get up for," says Roger Streit, a certified financial planner with Key Financial Solutions. Volunteering for an organization or cause you are passionate about is one good option, Streit says. "I think it definitely helps to have a cause, to be involved in giving back," he says.

    Retiring at 40 may be nothing more than a pipe dream for most of us, but even those of us who don't plan to retire early should plan for a long retirement. If you stop working at the traditional retirement age of 65, investment managers say you should plan to make your money last about 30 years. That may mean you will need to work, or work part-time, longer -- or take some of the tips we just shared.

    Sarah Morgan is a contributing writer at SigFig. Nearly a million people use SigFig to track, improve and manage over $300 billion in investments.

     

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    Kraft Heinz Layoffs
    Toby Talbot/AP
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- Kraft Heinz says it is cutting about 2,500 jobs as part of its plan to slash costs after the food companies combined.

    Spokesman Michael Mullen says affected workers are in the U.S. and Canada and were to be notified in person. About 700 of the cuts were coming in Northfield, Illinois, where Kraft had been headquartered.

    The company wouldn't specify where other cuts were taking place but said that all the jobs were salaried. It said none of the job cuts involved factory workers.

    The Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) said it had a total of around 46,600 employees before the cuts. That included about 1,900 in Northfield.

    The job cuts aren't surprising, given the reputation of the company's management on Wall Street.

    The combination of Pittsburgh-based Heinz and Kraft earlier this year was engineered by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) and Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, which has become known for its tight cost controls.

    Bernardo Hees -- a 3G partner -- is CEO of the merged Kraft Heinz.

    Hees had already overseen cost-cutting at Heinz since the ketchup maker was taken over in 2013 in a prior partnership between 3G and Berkshire. That means the cuts announced Wednesday mostly affect people on the Kraft side of the business.

    Together, the two U.S. food giants own brands including Jell-O, Heinz baked beans and Velveeta that are facing sales challenges amid changing tastes. Their combination was nevertheless seen as attractive because of the opportunity to combine functions like manufacturing and distribution.

    Executives say they expect to save $1.5 billion in annual costs by 2017.

    In a statement, Mullen said Wednesday the job cuts are part of the company's process of integrating the two businesses and "designing our new organization."

    "This new structure eliminates duplication to enable faster decision-making, increased accountability and accelerated growth," Mullen said. He said the savings will free up money to be invested back into the company's products.

    Affected employees, who worked in jobs such as sales, marketing and finance, will be given severance benefits of at least six months, Mullen said.

    Already, Kraft Heinz had been belt-tightening in recent weeks.

    In a memo to employees dated July 13, Hees outlined a variety of "provisional measures" the company was taking to avoid unnecessary spending. That included instructing workers to print on both sides of paper, reuse office supplies like binders and file folders, and turn off computers before leaving the office.

    Corporate donations to charities also had to be approved, as did memberships in industry associations, the memo said.

    At its office in Northfield, the company also stopped providing free Kraft snacks like Jell-O.

     

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    Job Openings
    Alan Diaz/AP
    By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. employers filled more of their available jobs in June, evidence that steady if modest economic growth is putting more Americans to work.

    The Labor Department said Wednesday that total hiring rose 2.3 percent to 5.18 million in June, the most in six months and second-highest total since the recession ended in June 2009.

    Employers posted fewer job openings, but that figure has risen strongly in the past year. And more people quit their jobs, which is a good sign because many people quit when they have new jobs lined up, typically at higher pay. More hiring, quitting and healthy levels of job openings could pressure companies to lift wages.

    Hiring and quits "remain at levels consistent with a pickup in wage growth over the medium-term," said Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Credit Suisse (CS). "Indeed, this is a key reason to believe recent weakness in average hourly earnings ... may be temporary."

    Job gains have been strong for the past two years but sluggish pay increases remain a weak spot in the economy.

    Average hourly pay rose just 2.1 percent in July compared with a year earlier, the government said last week. That is far below the 3.5 percent to 4 percent gains that usually occur in a healthy economy.

    The number of available jobs fell 2 percent in June to 5.25 million, down from a 15-year high of 5.36 million in May. Still, openings have soared 11 percent in the past year. The rise is a sign that companies are confident that demand for their goods and services will pick up and that they need more workers to meet that demand.

    Yet hiring has increased at a slower pace, rising just 7.4 percent in the past year. That has been a source of frustration for many job-seekers, who are facing increasingly long periods after they apply for jobs before companies make offers.

    According to Glassdoor, a jobs and recruiting website, the average length of time for an interview process to result in a filled job increased from 12.6 days in 2010 to 22.9 days last year.

    Extended Interview Times

    The increased use of background checks, skills tests and more extensive interviews have combined to lengthen the hiring process, according to Glassdoor research released in June. The increase in high-skill jobs involving information technology in recent years has also extended interview times. Those jobs take longer to fill than lower-skill positions.

    The pickup in hiring in June, however, suggests that companies may be filling jobs a bit more quickly. A new Glassdoor report released Wednesday found that even as hiring times have lengthened, job-seekers who land interviews are more likely to receive job offers. The report found that 68 percent of interviews resulted in a job offer in 2014, up from 56 percent in 2009.

    Separately, the number of Americans quitting their jobs inched up 0.6 percent to 2.75 million. That is below the seven-year high of 2.78 million reached in January.

    The government said in last week's monthly employment report that employers added a solid 215,000 jobs in July. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.3 percent.

    Those figures are a net total: Jobs gained minus jobs lost. The data reported Wednesday, in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, are more detailed. They calculate total hires, as well as quits and layoffs. Wednesday's JOLTS data contain figures for June, a month behind last week's jobs report.

     

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    Inexpensive (or Free!) Campsites
    With a little pre-planning, your next tent situation, doesn't have to be a tense situation for your wallet. It's easy, and all you need to do is go online.

    At ReserveAmerica.com you can compare different campground fees to find the right deal for you. The site also offers free guides for nearby attractions to help you save time along with your money.

    Also, if you think nightly fees can go take a hike, check out FreeCampgrounds.com. Keep in mind, though, that most have few amenities, so things like electricity or bathroom facilities are not guaranteed.

    Heading out on a camping trip? Remember that doing a little research online can take your budget a long way on your next great outdoor adventure.

    View Poll


     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rebounded in afternoon trading Wednesday to end little changed as energy shares and Apple rebounded, offsetting continued concerns about a slowdown in China.

    Investors picked up shares of energy companies, which have been hit hard by the China concerns along with other commodities in recent weeks, as oil prices bounced back. The S&P energy index rose 1.9 percent, the S&P 500's biggest positive.

    Apple (AAPL), for which China is a key market, also reversed course after falling more than 3 percent earlier to its lowest since January. It ended up 1.5 percent at $115.24 and was the biggest positive factor for all three major indexes.

    Stocks had been down sharply early in the session after the yuan hit a four-year low, falling for a second day after Chinese authorities devalued the currency. The move has exacerbated worries about the outlook for China's economy and its impact on the rest of the world.

    The Dow moved nearly 300 points from its low of the day to its high before closing flat.

    The S&P 500 briefly slipped into negative territory for the year during the session, and traded below its 200-day moving average, before bouncing back. The S&P 500 ended above that technical support level and up for the year so far.

    "China is a huge wild card both in terms of the rate at which it's slowing but also how the leadership is handling it," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama.

    "The reversal today is bullish ... at least in the short term."

    Among sectors, financial shares declined the most, with the S&P financial index down 0.8 percent. China's currency move has created more uncertainty over how soon the Federal Reserve may raise interest rates, analysts said.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 0.33 points to 17,402.51, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 1.98 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,086.05 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 7.60 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,044.39.

    The CBOE Volatility index, a measure of the premium traders are willing to pay for protection against a drop in the S&P 500, also reversed course. It jumped as much as 18.7 percent to 16.28, its highest in a month, before ending down 0.7 percent.

    Huge Implications

    New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley said the yuan devaluation has huge implications for demand in the rest of the world and commodity prices, but it is too early to judge what is happening with Chinese currency policy.

    Alibaba (BABA) was down 5.1 percent at $73.38 after hitting an all-time low of $71.03 after revenue growth slowed at China's biggest e-commerce company. Yahoo (YHOO), which has a 15-percent stake in Alibaba, fell 4.3 percent to $34.49.

    Macy's (M) fell 5.1 percent to $64.11 after it also reported weak quarterly sales.

    NYSE decliners outnumbered advancers 1,553 to 1,524, for a 1.02-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,564 issues fell and 1,229 advanced for a 1.27-to-1 ratio.

    The S&P 500 posted 10 new 52-week highs and 19 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 30 new highs and 120 lows. About 8.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 7.0 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting from Bangalore.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Commerce Department releases retail sales data for July, and the Labor Department releases import and export prices as well as weekly jobless claims.
    • At 10 a.m., the Commerce Department releases business inventories for June, and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Advance Auto Parts (AAP)
    • Applied Materials (AMAT)
    • Coty (COTY)
    • King Digital Entertainment (KING)
    • Kohl's (KSS)
    • Nordstrom (JWN)
    • Tribune Media (TRCO)

     

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    GOP 2016 Trump
    Carlos Osorio/APRepublican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a GOP fundraising event in Birch Run, Mich.

    I wouldn't bet on a Donald Trump presidency. Still, it's interesting to see where Trump's wealth would stack up compared to the wealth of historical Presidents. As the election season revs us, there's a lot of yammering about money in politics. People are concerned about the price candidates are paid for speeches, the vast contributions made by corporations, and the net worth of some of our more colorful candidates.

    Yes, Donald Trump is certainly high on the hog, compared to the rest of the candidates in the race for the Republican nomination. Experts peg Trump's net worth $4 billion, but "The Donald" himself claims it's more than $10 billion. Whichever the case, the only historical candidate who can claim this level of fortune is Ross Perot, who ran in 1992 and 1996.

    Whatever Trump is worth, the rest of the candidates simply aren't in his league. The second wealthiest candidate is Carly Fiorina, with a net worth of about $80 million. Hillary Clinton is a distant third, at about $15 million. At the low end of the scale, we have Democrat Bernie Sanders, with a mere $500,000.

    The media tends to attach moral value to wealth and poverty. Depending on who you talk to, Trump is an embodiment of the American Dream or a bloviating oligarch. Whatever the reality, a President Donald Trump (startling as the thought may be) would be the wealthiest president in U.S. history. But he wouldn't be the wealthiest by the margin you might be imagining. Certain heads of state, recent and from long ago, have trailed not so far behind Trump in terms of personal wealth.

    Early U.S. Presidents

    Our earliest presidents were usually men of property. In fact, it wasn't until 1853, when Franklin Pierce took office, that the United States had a head of state who wouldn't at least be a millionaire today. Leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned sprawling estates, had slaves and purchased vast acreage to farm and develop as they pleased. Adjusted for inflation, Washington's wealth and assets would total more than half a billion dollars today, making him our second wealthiest president. Behind him are Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, each worth $212 million, $125 million and $119 million, respectively.

    Later Presidents

    Most of the presidents who served from the 1860s to the late 1920s were among the nation's poorest. Lincoln would have been middle class today, as would have Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Calvin Coolidge. So who was the poorest president of all time? It's not truly known, but Harry Truman probably finds the bottom of our list.

    Who Was the Wealthiest?

    Without question, John F. Kennedy was the wealthiest U.S. president ever to serve, with a net worth of up to $1 billion. By some figures, George Washington may have had more in terms of property. But no other president could touch JFK's monetary wealth, though, Trump, were he elected, would top them both.

    It's also interesting to note that Trump, should he be nominated and win, would also be the first U.S. president to hold office having never been a lawyer, elected official or member of the military.

    People at all sides of the political spectrum are scoffing at Trump's chances at even receiving the Republican nomination. But don't overlook the influence that dollars like his can have in a race like this. It's not inconceivable that the list of wealthiest presidents may one day have a new No. 1.

     

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    Consumer Confidence
    David Goldman/AP
    By Simon Constable

    NEW YORK -- The surge in the greenback has some stock investors screaming foul, but they shouldn't be. Instead, they should embrace the strength.

    It is true that the trade-weighted value of the U.S. dollar has climbed more than 21 percent in the last 13 months, according to recent data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve. It's also true that the rally is taking its toll on the earnings reports of some multinational companies -- their foreign revenues take a hit when translated back into dollars.

    Still, there is plenty to feel great about. Here are 10 reasons to smile:

    1. It makes imports cheaper. A dollar will now buy at least 21 percent more imported stuff. That means retailers can buy more knickknacks for the same money and either lower prices to their customers or increase profit margins. Possibly they can do both. Keep a close eye on stocks of retailers that depend on so-called discretionary spending (items or services you don't have to purchase.) The Vanguard Consumer Discretionary (VCR) exchange-traded fund holds a basket of such stocks.

    2. It's good for the housing industry. The raw materials for building homes, like copper and lumber, are both traded in dollars. It takes around 400 pounds of copper (for the electrical circuits) and thousands of feet of lumber to make a standard single-family home. A stronger dollar makes these essential materials cheaper. Lumber and copper prices have both slumped recently and the dip should help homebuilders hold down costs. Watch the SPDR S&P Homebuilders (XHB) ETF, which holds a basket of homebuilding companies.

    3. It makes oil cheaper. As with copper and lumber, crude oil is priced in dollars. When the dollar is strong, you get more oil for your money. Eventually, as we have seen, the lower price filters through to lower gasoline prices; for many people, that is like getting a tax cut. It also means people can spend more of their money at retailers, if they choose.

    4. It keeps a lid on inflation. By its very definition, inflation is the declining spending power of the dollar. So when the dollar is strong, we have the opposite -- if the greenback isn't declining then we have less inflation.

    5. It keeps the dollar at the top of the currency food chain. What central bank wants to hold a currency that is quickly dwindling in value? The fact that the dollar is strong makes it worth holding. That is actually more important than many people realize. Since the end of World War II, the greenback has been the bedrock of the world financial system. This allows the U.S. government to borrow at lower interest rates than it would otherwise be able to, because the dollar and dollar-denominated Treasury securities are a big portion of holdings by foreign countries.

    6. It should keep the cost of borrowing lower. Lower than it would have been otherwise, that is. Clearly the Federal Reserve has indicated it will raise the cost of borrowing money sooner or later. But still, with inflation under control and the greenback at the top of the food chain, the pressure to continue raising rates will be less than otherwise.

    7. It makes foreign holidays cheaper. If you wanted to go on a romantic trip to Paris, now might be the time. The dollar will now buy you more luxurious dinners than previously.

    8. It's great for domestic manufacturers. Companies that primarily sell to U.S. customers won't be harmed by lower foreign revenues, but could be helped by lower costs of dollar denominated materials such as steel. Think about the enormous benefits to machine tool manufacturers supplying bigger multinationals.

    9. It makes investing overseas a better value. If you have a billion dollars in the bank burning a hole in your corporate pocket, it will now buy you a bigger company overseas. As I have written previously, M&A activity and stock market gains tend to move in tandem. Who knows, maybe we'll see a cross border merger boom.

    10. It might boost the world economy. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. economy has been the locomotive that has pulled the rest of the world along. There has been talk of so-called decoupling with the idea the other economies might be able to grow without the U.S. pulling. Unfortunately, it hasn't really played out that way. Now that the U.S. is growing, albeit slowly, maybe it can help pull Europe and other stagnating economies like Japan along. That will happen by Americans importing lots of things from overseas. Investors might want to take a look at the Vanguard European Stock Index (VEURX) mutual fund, which invests in European securities.

     

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    Financial advisor talking to couple on sofa
    Getty Images

    "Widen the moat, build enduring competitive advantage, delight your customers, and relentlessly fight costs."
    -- Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

    "Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability."
    -- Anne M. Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox

    "Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that."
    -- Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines

    CEOs know: Happy employees are the key to happy customers. But which financial services companies do the best job of keeping their employees happy -- so that they can turn around and make you happy?

    J.D. Power, the powerhouse of customer satisfaction and product quality surveys, recently conducted two surveys that shed some light on this employer-employee-customer dynamic, and they've come up with some surprising findings that might be important to your financial portfolio.

    Happy Customers

    Three months ago, J.D. Power published the results of a survey of customer satisfaction at 18 different "full service" investment advisers. Six companies stood out from the pack, scoring at or above the industry average and winning five "power circles" worth of endorsement from J.D. Power:
    • Edward Jones and Fidelity Investments tied for first place, with each scoring 812 points out of 1,000 on J.D. Power's "overall investor satisfaction index."
    • Charles Schwab (SCHW) and Wells Fargo (WFC) tied for second place, with 810 points each.
    • Raymond James (RJF) also scored above the "industry average" of 807 points, with 809.
    • And Ameriprise Financial (AMP) tied the industry average.
    Further down the rankings, no investment advisers won four "power circles" from J.D., but four received three circles, and eight companies received subpar two-circle ratings.

    Happy Employees

    Now here's where things gets interesting. One of those last eight laggards was Morgan Stanley (MS) Wealth Management. And as (bad) luck would have it, Morgan Stanley also featured in a later J.D. Power survey of employee advisers' satisfaction with their employer firms.

    And when we say "featured," what we mean is "landed in last place." In this survey of investment advisers' satisfaction with their employers, Morgan Stanley was the only company, out of seven reviewed, to receive a below-average two-circle score from J.D. Power.

    It seems no one's very happy at Morgan Stanley these days -- not its customers, and not its employees, either.

    In contrast, four of the top-ranked firms on the "investor satisfaction" survey also ranked above average on the employee adviser satisfaction survey -- Edward Jones again topped the survey, followed by Raymond James and Charles Schwab. Wells Fargo also scored above average (if only just barely). Fidelity and Ameriprise weren't rated in the employee adviser survey.

    What It Means to You

    If you like doing business with people who like their jobs -- and really, don't we all? -- then the obvious choice based on these two survey findings is Edward Jones. Whatever you think of investment advisers in general, the top-ranked shop in two separate surveys can't be all bad.

    Raymond James and Charles Schwab also receive generally high marks, and should make for decent choices as well.

    In contrast, one shop you might want to cross right off your list of potential investment advisers is Morgan Stanley. They don't score highly among their existing clients. Their employees don't seem especially thrilled to be there. Judging from the data, it's hard to imagine you'll feel any better about the experience, either.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no financial (or other) relationship with any of the companies discussed above. He does his investing solo ... but if truth be told, he isn't always "five-circles satisfied" with his own performance, either.

    The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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    SeaWorld-Killer Whale Environment
    Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
    SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) hasn't been very popular since the "Blackfish" documentary stirred up the masses against the operator of marine-life theme parks two years ago. Attendance, revenue and profits have fallen sharply.

    It wasn't a surprise to see SeaWorld make the Final Four in Consumerist's annual "Worst Company in America" award last year. It's not an easy company to vocally support, but you probably don't hate SeaWorld as much as you used to. Let's go over a few of the reasons the public may be warming up to SeaWorld these days.

    1. It's battling 'Blackfish' with white fish. There are two sides to every story and that goes for documentaries that often cherry-pick what they present to back up their claim. There was always another side to "Blackfish," but it fell largely on deaf ears as incensed viewers assumed that the assertions were irrefutable.

    SeaWorld has tried to combat many of the claims raised in the 2013 documentary that it feels are dubious. The ads and even the #AskSeaWorld hashtag campaign have backfired, but the theme park operator continues to try to balance out the narrative. Last month it pointed to a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy by the Oxford University Press, concluding that there is no material difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and wild killer whales. "Blackfish" argued that whales in captivity lived much shorter lives.

    2. The new CEO deserves a chance. SeaWorld hired an outsider to run the company in April. Joel Manby seems to be everything that critics argue SeaWorld is missing. He was CEO at the parent company of Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, two of the more popular family-run amusement parks in the country. He's on the record as being compassionate: He starred in an "Undercover Boss" episode, and he has even written a book -- "Love Works" -- on how treating employees with respect is the most effective way to manage.

    Earlier this month he announced that he will detail his new vision for SeaWorld come November. It probably won't include releasing orcas into the wild, but anything that can soften the public's perception of SeaWorld can only help at this point.

    3. Attendance is starting to move in the right direction. SeaWorld's latest quarter seemed to be a disaster on the surface. Revenue, attendance and earnings all went the wrong way. However, the stock still moved higher on the news. The market didn't misread the report. Sometimes you just have to dig beneath the headlines.

    Yes, attendance did decline during the second quarter, off by 1.6 percent since the prior year's second quarter. However, that also included the Easter holiday shifting from April last year to March of this year, something that inflated the first quarter's turnstile clicks at the expense of the second. Add both quarters up and SeaWorld greeted 9.7 million guests at its parks through the first six months of 2015, 0.7 percent of last year. After two years of 4 percent declines in attendance, the crowds are starting to come back.

    SeaWorld has had to discount admissions and folks aren't spending as much as they used to once inside the park, but attendance itself is trending higher in 2015 for the first time since the year before "Blackfish" came out.

    4. There's more to SeaWorld than SeaWorld. SeaWorld runs the three namesake parks, but it's also the company behind the two Busch Gardens attractions and several water parks that have managed to hold up better in terms of attendance.

    That helps, but it also helps that the three SeaWorld parks are actually evolving. SeaWorld is already in the process of expanding its killer whale habitat in San Diego, a $300 million project that will double the size of the tank and offer better viewing experiences that don't necessarily rely on a signature show.

    SeaWorld is also adding more rides. It plans to open Mako at SeaWorld Orlando next year, a coaster that will be the tallest, longest and fastest ride in Orlando. Adding more thrill rides and family-friendly attractions will help it lean less on the marine life performances that are at the core of activist objections.

    SeaWorld Entertainment won't change overnight, but it's taking steps to win back public perception as it repositions its offering as a theme park operator.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. 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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    3221 WEB DEBT AFTER DEATH

    By Stacy Johnson

    If you die with money and possessions, everything is distributed based on your will. But what happens when you die in debt?

    Here's this week's question:

    Dear Stacy,
    I'm a single woman with no kids who is actively and aggressively trying to pay off my debt. I have a few health issues and worry sometimes about leaving this life without being debt free. My credit cards (from my stupid 20s) are paid off, and I'm now working on paying off my car loan, student loans and my mortgage. What happens if I pass away with debt? My father is still living, as well as my three siblings. Do they get stuck with my debt? I have a life insurance policy; it's not very big. Does that go towards paying my funeral expenses or my debt?
    Thanks in advance,
    Zepher

    Life can be complicated. And as it turns out, death isn't so simple, either -- at least not when it comes to settling your debts.

    When You Die, Your Estate Is Born

    When you die, your family may inherit your Beanie Baby collection, but they don't inherit your debt.

    What essentially happens is that the instant you shuffle off this mortal coil, a new entity is simultaneously born: your estate. "Estate" is just a fancy word for your assets, or stuff you owned, and your liabilities, or stuff you owed. If your assets exceed your liabilities, your estate has a positive net worth. If they don't, it doesn't.

    Let's explore how this all works by looking at a few common debts and methods of ownership.

    Debts In Your Name Alone

    You might think your credit card company knows everything about you. But when you die, your bank doesn't automatically get a memo. It just notices your bill is overdue and eventually passes it along to the collections department.

    When you're gone and your estate is born, it becomes the responsible party for your debts. The person serving as your surrogate, known as a personal representative or executor, gathers your assets, sells your stuff, pays your bills and distributes anything remaining to your heirs. If your estate owes more than it owns and there's not enough to pay the bills, unsecured lenders, like credit card companies, just have to suck it up.

    When I notified my father's bank that he'd died, shortly after expressing their condolences, they began calling, writing and otherwise requesting the full payment of his credit card balance. They also implied I should pay it, since I was his nearest living relative.

    This is not uncommon, but it is despicable. My father's estate was responsible for his debts, not me. You're less likely to run into something similar these days, because the FTC has since issued guidelines for debt collection from decedents' friends and relatives. Here's what they say:

    ... family members typically are not obligated to pay the debts of a deceased relative from their own assets. What's more, family members -- and all consumers -- are protected by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt.

    In short, if an unsecured debt is in the deceased person's name only, the debt isn't passed on to heirs and family members. It's owed only by the estate. If you die broke, or there isn't enough money left over for all the creditors, they lose and you win. Except, that is, for the part about being dead.

    Joint Accounts

    Now the bad news. As CreditCards.com explains:

    One situation in which someone else could end up shouldering your credit bill: If you share the account. If a spouse, family member, or business partner signed the card application as a joint account holder, then that person could be liable for the balance on that card, along with (or instead of) the estate.

    The same goes for married couples who have joint bank accounts -- and joint debt. Your surviving spouse might be legally responsible for the debt, even if you're the one who rang it up. If the debt is in your name alone, however -- in other words, you're married but applied for the debt completely on your own -- your spouse may not be liable for it. Unless, that is, you live in a community property state.

    These states make it possible for your debts to pass on to your spouse:
    • Alaska
    • Arizona
    • California
    • Idaho
    • Louisiana
    • Nevada
    • New Mexico
    • Texas
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin
    Here's how the Law & Daily Life blog explains it:

    Such "community property" is liable for debts incurred by either or both spouses during the marriage (regardless of personal liability). Should a spouse pass away, creditors in such states may have options, both inside and outside of probate, to try to attempt to recover for the debt.

    That doesn't necessarily mean your spouse will get stuck with the bill, but it makes it a bigger possibility.

    Secured Debt

    You also need to watch out for secured debts -- loans that are secured by an asset such as a house or car. You might think you're doing a family member a favor by leaving them your car, but if there's a loan on it, that loan may go with the car. The same is true with a house.

    So if you're planning to leave someone an asset with a loan attached, the nice thing to do would be to also leave them enough money to pay off the loan. If that's not possible, then they may have to sell the asset to satisfy the lien, because it's not going to be wiped out in the event of your death.

    Co-Signed Accounts

    What happens if you co-sign a debt for someone who dies? Unfortunately, in many cases you could be paying the bill. A co-signer agrees to pay the debt if the original borrower can't. So whatever the reason, if the primary borrower doesn't pay, the co-signer may have to. This isn't always true: For example, federal student loans are typically discharged by death, but private student loans may not be. If they're cosigned, the co-signer may be on the hook. If they weren't co-signed, the estate will be liable. You can read more about student loans after death at credit.com.

    What You Should Do While You're Still Alive

    No matter how old you are or how much you have, if you're an adult, you should have a will. A will is simply a list of instructions that lets those you leave behind know what you wanted done with your body and your stuff. It will be read by a judge in a process known as probate, and providing your wishes are legal (no, you can't have yourself stuffed and propped on your favorite bar stool) it will be followed.

    Getting a will doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. (See our story, Estate-Planning Documents You Need Right Now.) And it's important, even if you think you don't own enough to make it necessary. Because without a will, everything you have is going to your nearest relative -- do you really want your mom to inherit your vintage Penthouse collection? -- and that person will also be responsible for settling your debts and taking care of all the loose ends you leave behind.

    A will offers you the opportunity to put your possessions into the hands of those you'd like to have them, and could save your family a lot of hassle. If you don't have one, get one.

    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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    social security document dloct up
    Alamy
    By Kelly Holland

    You would think sharing information about Social Security benefits would be simple. After all, the system is pretty straightforward: You contribute while you work, and after you retire you collect until you die. But when it comes to Social Security, simple is not even in the same room.

    The Social Security statement people now receive is one example. It provides clear data points, like projected benefits at age 62, 66 and 70. But even so, it is the subject of intense scrutiny as experts sort out how details of its format and content affect when people file for benefits.

    For example, people who wait to claim their benefit at age 70, instead of when they are first eligible at age 62, can see their check increase some 76 percent. For many, that's the optimal plan. But few people do this, and experts suspect the content and form of the Social Security statement could be one reason why.

    "A lot of the information is buried in a table. A good designer could really design the presentation of information and could make the gist of the information presented in a much more clear way," said Steven Sass, a research economist at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

    The first thing the statement should make clear is there are two separate decisions: When do you retire and when do you start claiming Social Security?

    John Shoven, director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, takes issue with what he views as the conflation of retirement and Social Security claiming on the statement.

    "Sometimes they use the word 'retirement' as if that's the same as collecting Social Security," he said. "The first thing the statement should make clear is there are two separate decisions: When do you retire and when do you start claiming Social Security?"

    Shoven has studied the optimal time to claim Social Security benefits, and he believes that for almost everyone, it pays to wait as long as possible. As a result, how the Social Security statement frames the pros and cons of different claiming choices "makes a lot of difference," he said.

    "If you tell somebody 'if you delay it will take you 12 or 14 years before you break even, they may choose not to delay. If you frame it saying how much higher the monthly benefit would be or what the expected rate of return would be for somebody like you, you get a different answer," Shoven said.

    Others argue that by presenting benefits information as just static numbers can lead people to alter their behavior in ways that can harm their retirement finances. Philip Armour, an associate economist and professor at Pardee Rand Graduate School, has compared how people behaved when they received their first Social Security statement to what they did on receipt of their second. The statements include a person's projected benefit, assuming they continue earning at current levels.

    On average, people cut their work hours by 119 hours a year after receiving their first statement, apparently assuming their benefit was locked in, Armour found. Reductions were most prevalent among older, educated workers who were working relatively long hours. People not working or working part time were more likely to increase their hours, but work hours declined for recipients overall.

    Benefits aren't locked in, however, and workers can keep adding to (or reducing them) as long as they continue in the labor force. When workers received their second statement, Armour found that some of the behavior changes reversed.

    Armour believes an online tool that would let people try out different scenarios would lead to smarter working and claiming behavior. He said: "At the the very least, if it's going to stay a paper document, have a 'well, if you earn 50 percent more from now forward what will happen to your benefits' and 'if you earn 50 percent less what would your benefits be?' "

    Ben Stump, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said "the best age to start retirement benefits is a personal decision for every individual, based on a number of considerations including present and future financial circumstances, current health and life expectancy. There is not a single 'best age' for everyone, so Social Security provides many tools to help people make an informed decision about when to apply for benefits." he said, "We are continually working to improve the services we provide." The Social Security Administration's website provides retirement estimators,calculators and benefit planners along with a section for frequently asked questions.

    Researchers have found that the Social Security statement does have a noticeable effect on participants -- but only to a point. Giovanni Mastrobuoni, director of research students in the economics department at the University of Essex, studied the effect of receiving Social Security statements and found that they did increase knowledge of benefits. However, he concluded the benefits statement had "no impact" on retirement behavior.

    Return on Investment

    Experts also argue for framing Social Security choices differently.

    For example, Armour pointed out defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, send regular statements showing the rate of return on the various investment choices beneficiaries have. A Social Security statement presenting the benefit of delayed claiming as a rate of return might make more people compare the two and realize that the return on waiting to claim Security exceeds the return on other low-risk investments, he said.

    "If they could provide a number that's more comparable" to 401(k) plan investments like bond funds, "I think that would make it clearer that for some people there are definitely incentives to delaying claiming until after full retirement age," he said.

    Sass thinks the statement would encourage later claiming if it focused less on full retirement age, typically 66, and more on benefits at age 70. Say "that if you claim at 66 you will get a third more than at 62 and if you claim at 70 you get 76 percent more," he recommended. "When you tell people that, people are shocked and surprised. They really get the understanding that delay is powerful. When you center on full retirement age, you get 25 percent less, 35 percent more -- a moderate number doesn't really grab you by the lapels," he said.

    Retirement security revolves around three issues, according to Sass: how long you work, how much you save (and thereby move to a more sustainable standard of living), and how you deal with your home. In Sass' view, a revised Social Security statement could encourage to work longer, and if it did, it would make a significant difference in retirement savings for most people.

    "When to retire is not really seen as a key decision in your retirement finances," he said. "There is nothing you can do with saving and investing that would move the needle like working longer."

    This is the third part of a week-long CNBC.com series on the state of Social Security on its 80th anniversary.


    Get Your Due from Social Security

     

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    Economy Fed Rate Hike
    Susan Walsh/AP
    By Megan Cassella

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Reserve will probably raise interest rates twice this year, with the first increase in almost a decade coming as early as next month, according to a Reuters poll of economists published Thursday.

    The survey gave a median 55 percent chance that the U.S. central bank would raise its short-term lending rate twice this year. Economists put a 60 percent probability on a September rate hike and an 85 percent chance that it would move by year-end.

    If the [Federal Open Market Committee] acts in September, there is a good possibility that it will in December as well.

    "If the [Federal Open Market Committee] acts in September, there is a good possibility that it will in December as well," said economist Terry Sheehan of Stone & McCarthy in Princeton, New Jersey.

    The case for a September monetary policy move was bolstered by solid job gains and a rebound in wages in July. In addition, economic growth accelerated in the second quarter after bad weather constrained it at the start of the year.

    After China's surprise devaluation of the yuan, U.S. financial markets have slightly pushed rate hike expectations to December. The Fed, currently targeting a range of zero to 0.25 percent, hasn't raised interest rates since 2006.

    The midpoint of the range of federal funds rate expectations in the survey came to 0.375 percent by the end of September and 0.625 percent at the turn of the year, unchanged from a July poll.

    Even if the Fed raises interest rates twice this year, the tightening process would still be gradual, economists said, citing a strong dollar.

    'Strong Dollar'

    "Their credibility requires a rate increase this year," said Georgia State University professor emeritus Donald Ratajczak. "The strong dollar suggests that a very slow pace is needed until currency values stabilize."

    Average hourly earnings are expected to rise slightly beginning in 2016, according to the poll.

    The economists forecast wage growth averaging 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016 and 0.6 percent in the second. They had previously expected 0.3 percent for both periods.

    The more than 80 participating economists saw little impact on the economy from the anticipated slight tightening in monetary policy.

    The growth estimate for 2015 was unchanged at an average of 2.3 percent. The survey showed growth accelerating to 2.7 percent next year, little changed from the July poll.

    "Monetary policy will still be very accommodative even after the first couple of Fed rate hikes," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Raising rates will be a sign that the Fed believes the recovery has made substantial progress and will continue to improve."

    Inflation forecasts were little changed from the July survey.

    -Lucia Mutikani contributed reporting; Polling by Aara Ramesh and Kailash Bathija.

     

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    Retail Sales
    Danny Johnson/APShoppers check out at a Walmart Supercenter store in Springdale, Ark.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales rebounded in July as households boosted purchases of automobiles and a range of other goods, suggesting solid momentum in the economy early in the third quarter.

    The upbeat report Thursday from the Commerce Department should strengthen expectations of a Federal Reserve interest rate hike as early as next month. Although another report showed a rise in new applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend pointed firmly to a tightening jobs market.

    The strong retail sales report should go a long way in supporting September rate hike odds...

    "The strong retail sales report should go a long way in supporting September rate hike odds as the upcoming Fed decision continues to hinge crucially on the tone of domestic economic momentum," said Cheng Chen, an economist at TD Securities in New York.

    Retail sales increased 0.6 percent last month, broadly in line with economists' expectations. June's retail sales were revised up to show them unchanged instead of the previously reported 0.3 percent drop.

    Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose 0.3 percent after a revised 0.2 percent gain in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

    Core retail sales were previously reported to have slipped 0.1 percent in June.

    U.S. stocks were trading lower after the data, while the dollar rose against a basket of currencies. Prices for U.S. government debt fell.

    The retail sales report added to July's fairly upbeat employment and small business confidence reports in suggesting the economy was growing at a steady clip at the start of the third quarter. GDP expanded at a 2.3 percent annual pace in the April-June quarter.

    Second-Quarter Growth Likely Much Stronger

    But June data on factory inventories and imports as well as upward revisions to May construction spending figures have left economists expecting that the advance second-quarter GDP growth figure could be raised to at least a 3 percent pace.

    The upward revisions to June core retail sales also boosted the second-quarter growth estimate. A second report from the Commerce Department showing a 0.8 percent jump in business inventories in June also suggested that growth in the last quarter was stronger than initially estimated.

    The government will publish its second GDP growth estimate later this month. Given the steadily firming economy, many economists expect the Fed will raise its short-term lending rate in September for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Financial markets, however, have shifted their rate hike expectations toward December following China's devaluation of its currency this week.

    In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 274,000 for the week ended Aug. 8.

    Though claims have risen for three straight weeks, they have for 23 consecutive weeks remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a firming jobs markets.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 1,750 to 266,250 last week, the lowest level since April 2000. The tightening labor market is steadily lifting household income, which is supporting consumer spending.

    "We view today's retail sales report as consistent with our premise that rising employment levels support the expectation of healthy consumer spending in the second half of the year," said Anthony Karydakis, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.

    Retail sales last month rose in most categories, with receipts at auto dealerships increasing 1.4 percent after falling 1.5 percent in June. There were also increases in sales at clothing, building materials and garden equipment, furniture and online retailers, as well as at restaurants and bars.

    Receipts at sporting goods and hobby stores rose 0.9 percent, but sales at electronics and appliance stores fell 1.2 percent.

     

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    April 12, 2012 - Minneapolis, MN - Minnesota, U.S. - Natedogs owner Nate Beck in front of the Fulton Brewing Company on March 12
    AlamyA food vendor outside Fulton Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. The brewery is teaming with Wheaties to produce "HefeWheaties."
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- These Wheaties may not be so good with milk.

    Wheaties says it is partnering with a craft brewery to create a limited-edition beer. The 16-ounce cans will only be available in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market starting Aug. 26, according to Wheaties parent company General Mills (GIS).

    It's not exactly clear what makes it Wheaties beer, besides being made from wheat.

    We're not saying it's a breakfast beer, but we're not saying it's not.

    General Mills says the beer will be called HefeWheaties in a nod to a Germany style of beer called hefeweizen, which is typically made with more than 50 percent malted wheat.

    "We're not saying it's a breakfast beer, but we're not saying it's not," said Ryan Petz, president of Fulton Brewery, the Minneapolis-based brewery that is making the beer.

    Petz said the beer is also intended to tie his company to heritage of Minneapolis, which is also home to General Mills' headquarters. Fulton will consider making the beer more widely available depending on how people react to the initial run, he said.

    Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman, said the company left the development of the beer to Fulton. He declined to say whether the company plans to tap an athlete or celebrity to endorse the beer.

    The companies declined to disclose the financial terms of their agreement.

     

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    Water Pollution
    Joe Raymond/APThe BP Refinery in Whiting, Ind., shown here September 2007.
    By Robert Gibbons

    NEW YORK -- Retail gasoline prices in Midwest states have jumped as much as 33 cents in a week and could top $3 a gallon as soon as next week as the impact of an unexpected shutdown of a key unit at the region's biggest refinery shows up at the pump, motorist advocacy group AAA said Thursday.

    While national prices for regular gasoline have been flat this week and prices in Texas have fallen nearly 5 cents, the average price at the pump in Ohio rose 33 cents and drivers in Illinois are paying nearly 19 cents more with most of the rise occurring Wednesday, AAA data shows.

    The worst may not be over as oil traders struggle to bring supply to the region, which has been caught short of fuel after the unexpected shutdown of 60 percent of BP's Whiting, Indiana, refinery last weekend.

    We expect to see higher prices in the next few days ... and they could reach $3 a gallon by next week.

    It may take a month or longer to repair the 240,000-barrel-per-day crude distillation unit after leaks in its piping were discovered, sources said. The refinery accounts for over 6 percent of the Midwest's refining capacity.

    "We expect to see higher prices in the next few days ... and they could reach $3 a gallon by next week," said Michael Green, manager at AAA public relations in Washington.

    In addition to Illinois and Ohio, Green noted higher prices in Michigan and Indiana.

    While lower than last month as well as prices above $3 a year ago, the spike at the end of the summer driving season will be an unwelcome surprise to region's motorists.

    The Illinois average regular gasoline price was $2.78 a gallon, according to AAA's daily report Thursday, 13 cents lower than a month ago and 78 cents below last year.

    "While that does soften the blow of the rising prices you can see how consumers, looking at how crude prices are dropping, feel frustrated at the higher prices for gasoline," Green said.

    In the Chicago wholesale market Wednesday, regular gasoline jumped to 75 cents above the U.S. RBOB gasoline futures benchmark, the second-highest level in the past decade, according to Reuters data. That differential to the benchmark was at 2.50 cents below futures on Friday.

    Chicago and metro area retail prices pushed above $3 on Wednesday.

    BP's Whiting refinery, the nation's sixth-largest, can process over 19 million gallons of fuel a day, or enough to run 430,000 cars and 10,000 tractors, according to BP's website.

     

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    Shop Like a Pro During Labor Day Sales
    We all know Labor Day has great deals, but in reality, some sales aren't as good as you might think. Before you head out to the stores, here are a few tips that can help you save the most.

    First, remember with all sales that timing is everything. While experts advise checking out sales early, you won't actually find the best deals until Monday. This is when holiday promotions are ending and retailers are most desperate to offload sale merchandise.

    Next, knowing what time to shop is one thing, but knowing what deals to shop for is another. Grills, patio furniture and umbrellas will often see the biggest discounts, sometimes with sales up to 60 percent off. You can also find great deals on mattresses. At some retailers, you can actually find sales starting as low as $300!

    Lastly, there are some sales you should try to avoid. Electronics are one thing to stay away from -- better sales for these items usually start on Black Friday. Also, hold off on buying any fall apparel like sweaters or light jackets. Those items will see a bigger price drop in late autumn.

    So, as we head into Labor Day Weekend, remember these tips to work the most out of sales. You'll see that with a little know-how, you can save on Labor Day without overworking your budget.

    View Poll

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks finished flat Thursday as a drop in energy shares offset a rebound in retail sales and stronger-than-expected Cisco results.

    The S&P energy index dropped 1.4 percent, leading the decline in the S&P 500, as U.S. crude oil prices slid to a six-and-a-half year low.

    The S&P consumer discretionary index rose 0.6 percent, the most among the major 10 S&P sectors, but it had been up more earlier.

    U.S. retail sales rose in July, while the trend of weekly jobless claims pointed to a tightening job market. The data supported the view the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates as early as next month, offsetting speculation in the previous two sessions that the Fed could wait until December to raise rates after China devalued its currency.

    "The market is still adjusting to the Chinese devaluation. Obviously, that's created a lot of uncertainty and people are not sure how this is going to play out," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    Cisco Systems (CSCO) jumped 2.9 percent to $28.70, giving the biggest boost to the Nasdaq and the S&P 500.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 5.74 points to 17,408.25, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 2.66 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,083.39 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 10.83 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,033.56.

    The S&P financial index rose 0.3 percent, after falling in the previous two sessions.

    In corporate news, retailers posted mixed quarterly results.

    Coty (COTY) rose 2.9 percent to $28.70 after its sales beat estimates for the first time in five quarters, while Kohl's (KSS) fell 8.8 percent to $56.11 after its same-store sales missed expectations.

    News Corp. (NWSA) rose 7.6 percent to $15.19 after the Wall Street Journal owner's profit topped estimates, helped by cost cuts at its news business, including Dow Jones.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting from Bangalore.

    What to watch Friday:
    • J.C. Penney (JCP) reports quarterly financial results before U.S. markets open.
    • The Labor Department releases the Producer Price Index for July at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases industrial production for July at 9:15 a.m.

     

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