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DailyFinance.com

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Lewis Krauskopf

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stock indexes finished with their strongest monthly performances in four years Friday, even as they fell for the day amid a mixed bag of earnings reports.

    For October, all three major indexes posted their biggest percentage increases since October 2011, with the S&P 500 rising 8.3 percent, led by energy and materials, while a measure of volatility fell.

    On Friday, CVS Health (CVS) fell 4.8 percent to $98.78 after a disappointing profit forecast for 2016.

    The S&P 500 energy index was the best performing sector, rising 0.7 percent. Exxon (XOM) rose 0.6 percent and Chevron (CVX) 1.1 percent after better-than-expected results.

    It would be nice to have some clarity once and for all of what monetary policy is going to do over the foreseeable future.

    Investors will be looking at data over the next several weeks, including next Friday's employment report, for clues about the economy's health. The Fed signaled Wednesday a rate hike in December was still possible.

    "The market is being held a little bit hostage," said Jeff Buetow, chief investment officer at Innealta Capital in Austin. "It would be nice to have some clarity once and for all of what monetary policy is going to do over the foreseeable future."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 92.26 points, or 0.5 percent, to 17,663.54, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 10.05 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,079.36 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 20.53 points, or 0.4 percent, to 5,053.75.

    For the month, the Dow gained 8.5 percent, while the Nasdaq rose 9.4 percent.

    In a signal of a return to calm in markets, the CBOE volatility index fell 38.5 percent in October - its largest monthly percentage decline on record.

    "We're not likely to see another month like this anytime soon," said Marshall Gause, chief executive of Geneva Fund Partners in Denver. "This month was a rebound off the lows."

    For the week, the Dow inched up 0.1 percent, the S&P increased 0.2 percent, and the Nasdaq rose 0.4 percent. The S&P posted its fifth straight week of gains, its longest such streak this year.

    Winners and Losers

    The S&P health care sector index rose 3.1 percent for the week, the best weekly gain since March, spurred by strong pharmaceutical earnings.

    Shares of drugmaker AbbVie (ABBV) jumped 10.1 percent Friday to $59.55, the biggest positive driver for the S&P 500 index, after better-than-expected profit and a strong long-term outlook.

    Consumer staples slipped 1.1 percent. U.S. consumer spending barely rose in September and the University of Michigan's index on consumer sentiment came in below expectations.

    The S&P financial sector index fell 1.4 percent, with Genworth Financial (GNW) tumbling 10.3 percent to $4.68 after results.

    U.S.-listed shares of Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX) dropped 15.9 percent to $93.77, its lowest since July 2013, after cutting all ties with specialty pharmacy Philidor.

    LinkedIn (LNKD) shot up 11 percent to $240.87 while Expedia (EXPE) jumped 7.3 percent to $136.30 after results beat estimates.

    NYSE advancing issues outnumbered declining ones 1,647 to 1,404, for a 1.17-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,638 issues fell and 1,161 advanced, for a 1.41-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 18 new 52-week highs and 4 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 49 new highs and 78 lows.

    About 7.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 7.1 billion average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    -Caroline Valetkevitch and Rodrigo Campos contributed reporting from New York; Abhiram Nandakumar contributed reporting from Bangalore, India.

    What to Watch Monday:
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its manufacturing index for October, and the Commerce Department releases construction spending for September.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Allstate (ALL)
    • American International Group (AIG)
    • Avis Budget Group (CAR)
    • Clorox (CLX)
    • Dominion Resources (D)
    • Estee Lauder Cos. (EL)
    • Fitbit (FITB)
    • Loews (L)
    • Tenet Healthcare (THC)
    • Visa (V)

     

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    Target Black Friday Store Opening
    John Minchillo/AP Images for Target
    By Raechel Conover

    To buy or not to buy in November? That's the big question as the biggest shopping season of the year kicks off. Seemingly everything is on sale this month, from electronics to apparel to appliances and furniture. So, what's worth buying in November -- and when is it worth waiting?

    Electronics. If you've been waiting for the right time to buy a new TV, November is your moment. With Black Friday and the holidays fast approaching, prices on HDTVs sink to their deepest discounts this month and good deals should continue through December. Tablets, laptops, digital cameras and other consumer electronics also see bargain pricing as the gift-buying momentum picks up.

    Halloween novelties. When Halloween is over and done, retailers waste no time clearing the shelves. Now is the time to find next year's costume, often at 50 percent off. Deeply discounted Halloween decorations and candy also hit the sale rack in November. Load up for holiday baking, stocking stuffers and school snacks.

    Tools. Tool kits such as drill, wrench, and screwdriver sets make welcome gifts for DIYers, and this month kicks off the prime time to buy an assortment of practical tools. Some of the best sales of the year generally surface in the Black Friday and Cyber Monday extravaganzas and continue into December.

    Cookware. With home chefs getting a head start on holiday cooking this month, cookware deals also heat up. Be on the lookout for discounted cookware to equip your own kitchen, give as a gift or store away in anticipation of a wedding invitation.

    Home goods. If you're cleaning the house for holiday gatherings and discover your upright vacuum is on its last wheel, good news: You can save on a new one this month. The same goes for large and small appliances and furniture all through the house. Sales and discounts crop up in November, especially around Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

    Apparel. Clothing may be on a lot of wish lists, but unless it's a must-have item for someone special, wait until January for the biggest markdowns on winter clothes and shoes. Otherwise watch for enticing store coupons. Hats, gloves and winter sleepwear make good gifts and are deeply discounted in Black Friday sales.

    Wedding dress. If you've recently gotten engaged, sew up that wedding dress now. November is a slow month for bridal retailers, who typically respond with lower-than-average prices. Getting a jump on the planning maelstrom leaves plenty of time to complete the critical alterations.

    Entertainment. DVDs and Blu-ray movies make excellent stocking stuffers. With prices as low as $2 and $3 in Black Friday sales, shoppers can pick up a few and put the savings toward other items on their lists.

    Toys. Toys see some modest discounts in November, but past years have shown that the best time to buy toys is closer to Christmas. During the two weeks leading up to the big day, even deeper markdowns show up on holiday toys. Wait as long as possible on this one -- unless you're on the hunt for a hot toy that's likely to sell out.

    Collectibles. Are you angling for a "baby's first Christmas" ornament with the year prominently displayed? If so, wait until December to fork over the cash. Although dated collectibles go on sale in November, better deals pop up in December. And if you can hold out until January, the price declines will be steeper yet -- on a very limited selection, however.

    Seasonal produce. November is a big month for food. Thanksgiving tables groan under the weight of hearty repasts that incorporate seasonal produce. Apples, pears, cranberries, plums, clementines, and pumpkins round out the fall assortment of fruit (yes, pumpkins are a fruit) while broccoli, leeks, cabbage, squash, cauliflower, parsnips, celery, chestnuts, potatoes, shallots, turnips and yams make companionable in-season vegetables to buy in November.

    Meats. Turkey and other game, such as goose, pheasant, and venison, typically form the core of winter holiday meals. Despite high demand, these meats often sell for discounted prices leading up to the feast days. Buy one variety for Thanksgiving dinner and freeze a second for a December holiday spread.

    Food holidays. November plays host to a handful of notable food holidays, which may help shoppers score bargains and coupons. Keep an eye out for deals associated with National Candy Day, National Cake Day and National Chocolates Day. National Nachos Day also pops up in November and local restaurants may advertise specials.

     

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    3 Reasons You Can't Get Out of Debt

    By Cameron Huddleston

    Do you feel as if you'll be in debt forever? Join the club. One survey found that 13 percent of Americans think they'll never pay back all their loans, and another 8 percent say they won't pay off what they owe until they're in their 70's.

    Finding yourself buried in debt can be discouraging, but there's hope. We've rounded up three common reasons people can't get out of debt -- and offer advice on how to turn things around.

    Your Mortgage Is Too Big

    The American Dream can turn into a nightmare if you take on a bigger mortgage than you can afford. Today, the average homeowner's mortgage makes up 69 percent of total household debt. If your mortgage is too much of a load for you to carry, you might need to find a roommate to help cover costs, downsize to a less expensive home, or rent instead of owning until you can save enough for a big downpayment.

    If your goal is to become mortgage-free as fast as possible, adding a little extra to your monthly payment is an easy to get there. Let's say you have a 30-year, $200,000 mortgage with 25 years remaining and a 4.5 percent interest rate. By paying just $100 more a month, you'd save nearly $21,000 in interest and be out of debt almost four years early.

    Your Emergency Fund Is Too Small

    A major health expense, surprise home repair or sudden job loss could deal a blow to anyone's finances. Yet, only 38 percent of the people polled by Bankrate (RATE) have enough cash on hand to cover such emergencies. Many people said they'd have to ask a family member or friend for the money or foot the bill with a credit card. Either way, you could end up drowning in debt if you have to borrow cash every time an unexpected expense surfaces.

    That's why it's important to put away enough money to cover six months' worth of living expenses. If that sounds like a lot, you don't have to do it all at once. You can use a free service such as Digit to automatically set aside a little bit at a time. Once Digit is connected to your bank account, it analyzes your income and spending habits to determine how much you can afford to contribute to an emergency fund.

    Your Interest Rates Are Too High

    The higher your interest rates, the more you'll have to pay to wipe out your debt -- and possibly the more time it will take. Say you have a $10,000 balance on a credit card with a 15 percent annual percentage rate, which is typical these days. If you pay $225 a month, it will take 5½ years and almost $4,700 in interest to pay off your debt. But if your APR is 11.6 percent, which is the average for low-rate cards, you'd be debt-free seven months faster and save more than $1,500 in interest.

    Call you credit-card company to see if your rate can be lowered. If not, consider taking advantage of a zero percent balance transfer offer from another credit-card company. A third option is to consolidate your high-interest credit-card debt into a lower-rate personal loan.

    Take a look at seven more reasons you'll never get out of debt to learn more.

     

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    gay pride flags at the u.s....
    ShutterstockRecent studies show including diverse points of view and ways of thinking produces better decisions.
    By Joanne Cleaver

    Viewing investment decisions through an LGBT lens can pay off. An expanding body of evidence indicates that what's good for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees is also good for investors. Analysts say companies that take the high road regarding sexual orientation tend to be progressive and thoughtful about other aspects of management as well.

    The Workplace Equality index designed by Denver Investments portfolio manager John Roberts has annualized returns of 10.14 percent for the 10 years ending June 30, compared with 7.89 percent for the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC). The Workplace Equality exchange-traded fund (EQLT) includes 199 companies and tracks with the Workplace Equality index.

    Julie Goodridge, founder and CEO of Boston-based NorthStar Asset Management, says companies are leading advocates for the LGBT community because they don't want to lose top talent. While she and others say shareholder activism has yielded some gains, change is now driven primarily because it makes good business sense.

    For instance, numerous recent studies illustrate how diverse groups make better decisions, analysts say. And it's not just having "one of each" -- a woman, one person representing each major ethnic minority and a member of the LGBT community -- but including diverse points of view and ways of thinking.

    Northstar, the Workplace Equality index and the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign share a common approach to analyzing companies' commitment to LGBT employees and business partners.

    They start by examining official policies. Do the companies simply comply with the law or do they proactively champion equal rights for the LGBT community? The Human Rights Campaign's current report covers 366 businesses that earned top scores as "best places to work" for LGBT equality.

    Employers not only set a standard for the workplace, but a precedent in their communities, Goodridge says.

    This isn't an academic issue. Anti-LGBT culture and laws can collide with employees' career paths. For instance, if a rising staffer is in line for an overseas assignment, what is the obligation of the employer to craft an opportunity that fulfills employees' career goals while not putting them in an untenable or even dangerous position in a country hostile to the LGBT community?

    That's exactly the kind of dilemma where progressive companies shine, Goodridge says.

    "How are you protecting your talent globally? It's like divesting from South Africa -- it's a company's responsibility to say, 'This isn't a country we feel comfortable working in because our employees are not safe,'" she says.

    Roberts says investment managers who use an LGBT lens are well-connected with employee advocacy groups and informal networks of employees, so money managers are quick to call out lip service -- and equally quick to recognize employer innovation.

    "We'll challenge management if there's a culture disparity," he says. "We'd rather be collaborating and reaching out to company management rather than confronting them. We think it's much better to use engagement: 'Hey, we want you in our index, and here's what we think you need to do.' "

    Debra Neiman, a certified financial planner in Arlington, Massachusetts, who specializes in LGBT issues, says wading into investing from this perspective can start with shopping. Pay attention to retailers and their suppliers, and how that ecosystem supports the LGBT community (or doesn't) to see the ripple effect of economic decisions, she says.

    Often, family and friends of LGBT workers also decide to "vote their values," too. "This group has a great propensity for wanting to align its dollars with its morals," Neiman says. "It can be as simple as, 'I won't shop at a store that doesn't support my people.'"

    Neiman, who is on the advisory board of the Workplace Equality Index Fund, recommends LGBT-minded investors buy into LGBT-oriented funds rather than pursuing individual stocks. "If you want to invest in a way that companies promote inclusive workplace policies using the individual stocks, there's only so much impact you can have, depending on how much money you have," Neiman says. "But you get more bang for your buck by using a fund like the Workplace Equality Index Fund."

    One thing's for sure: There's no fund or company that occupies the sweet spot of delivering top returns while hewing to gender, sexual identity, environmental, energy, medical and human rights issues.

    Roberts recommends using "several arrows for various causes, whether those funds are targeting workplace equality or green," By layering several investing lenses, "you screen out the alpha. You have a better chance of success by focusing than with a broad-based approach."

    Here are five of the best-performing stocks​ in the EQLT ETF. Each of these were purchased in February 2014, although the number of shares held may have fluctuated, as EQLT is an equal-weight fund:

    Nike Inc. (NKE). NKE stock has delivered a 37 percent return for EQLT and is up more than 42 percent so far in 2015. Nike is a leading athletic apparel company, despite some challenges from Under Armour (UA), Adidas (ADDYY) and privately held New Balance.

    Raytheon Co. (RTN). A major defense contractor, Raytheon stock has delivered a 10.5 percent return to the ETF and is up more than 9 percent so far this year.

    Navigant Consulting (NCI). The Chicago-based consultancy is up only 6.7 percent this year, but has given EQLT a great return since the fund opened a position nearly two years ago, delivering a 13.5 percent return.

    Hartford Financial Services Group (HIG). The property and causality insurance sector isn't exciting, but the Connecticut-based insurer has delivered an eye-catching 18.5 percent return for the EQLT ETF. HIG stock is up 8.8 percent so far this year.

    Chubb Corp. (CB). Another one of the major property and casualty insurers, New Jersey-based Chubb has given EQLT a hefty 28 percent return since February 2014. CB stock is up nearly 26 percent so far this year and is challenging its 52-week high.

    Joanne Cleaver is a widely published business author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @jycleaver.

     

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  • 10/30/15--22:00: How to Fill Medicare Gaps
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    senior woman using tablet
    Getty Images
    By Kimberly Lankford

    Medicare covers the bulk of your medical expenses, but you must pay deductibles and co-payments for hospital stays and doctors' services; fees for doctors who charge more than Medicare pays; the cost of prescription drugs and other expenses, including dental; and care in a foreign country.

    You can add coverage with both a supplemental, or medigap, policy and a Part D prescription-drug policy, or with a Medicare Advantage plan. In most cases, medigap policies only fill holes in the coverage Medicare already offers; Medicare Advantage may offer extra services, such as vision or dental care. Most people choose the medigap/Part D route. With that combination, you'll typically pay higher total premiums than with Medicare Advantage but have fewer out-of-pocket costs, and you can go to any doctor or facility that is covered by Medicare. You'll also have to pick up separate dental coverage.

    Medigap policies are sold by private insurers and come in 10 standardized versions. The most popular is Plan F, for its good balance of coverage and cost. (For details, see Medicare.gov's Choosing a Medigap Policy.)

    Every medigap plan with the same letter must provide the same coverage, but the price can vary enormously by insurer -- for example, from $1,529 to $3,667 a year for a 65-year-old Colorado man who buys a Plan F policy, according to Weiss Ratings. Look at the plans with the lowest premiums.

    If you're healthy, consider going with a high-deductible version of Plan F (the only plan that offers this option). You'll pay $2,180 of Medicare-covered costs before the medigap plan pays anything, but premiums are lower, ranging from $348 to $1,075 a year for the 65-year-old man described above, according to Weiss. Another lower-cost option is Plan N, which provides coverage similar to that of Plan F but with a few more out-of-pocket expenses, including a $20 co-pay for each doctor visit and $50 for each emergency-room visit. For Plan N, the 65-year-old man would pay from $1,081 to $2,419 a year.

    You can compare prices by using the Medigap Search tool at www.medicare.gov or at most state insurance department sites (find links at www.naic.org). Or, for $99, you can get a personalized report from Weiss Medi­gap (Kiplinger readers have access to a 30-day offer of $49, ending Oct. 26, at weissmedigap.com/kiplinger).

    Choose your medigap policy carefully. In most states, insurers can reject you or charge more because of your health if more than six months has passed since you signed up for Part B.

    You'll also need to get a Part D drug policy, which costs $33 a month, on average.

    Medicare Advantage. These plans provide both medical and drug coverage through a private insurer. They tend to have lower premiums than medigap/Part D but also higher co-pays and more restrictions. The average cost is $38 a month above the cost of Part B, although some plans charge no premium beyond that of Part B.

    As for coverage, the plan can't offer less than would be available through Medicare. You'll be restricted to a network of doctors and facilities and may have much higher costs (or no coverage at all) if you go out of network. You may also need a referral to see a specialist.

    Look for plans that include your key doctors in the network, and compare the out-of-pocket costs for your usual medical care and prescription drugs (for cost estimates, use Medicare.gov's Medicare Plan Finder tool). Also look at star ratings, which rank plans according to customer service (five is the highest rating). For best values based on typical costs for people in good, fair and poor health, go to www.medicarenewswatch.com.

    You can switch Medicare Advantage policies during open enrollment (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, 2015, for 2016) or anytime for a five-star policy.

    Open Enrollment Is Under Way

     

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    Hackers Grab 40 Million Accounts From Target Stores
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    By Ellen Chang

    As the holiday shopping season commences, stores will ramp up offers for shoppers to obtain their credit cards. Retail store credit cards are often very alluring with lucrative discounts on purchases, but the hidden costs can outweigh the benefits.

    Retail credit cards often carry high interest rates, which can quickly rise toward 30 percent. While the offers are tempting for consumers to chase special discounts, the higher interest rates pose a risk and can undo any savings if the balance isn't paid off quickly enough, said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization.

    "Some stores are offering deeper discounts for those using store-branded credit cards," he said. "The days of needing a different card for each store are long gone. Many bank-issued cards have fixed interest rates which are much lower than retail credit offers."

    High Interest Rates Increase Debt Levels

    Many shoppers are faced with carrying a balance each month because of other existing debt, and store-branded credit cards charge a hefty average interest rate of 23.43 percent making this an uneconomical option, according to a new report by CreditCards.com, the Austin, Texas-based credit card comparison company. The report examined the retail credit card terms and condition agreements of 64 cards from 42 different retailers.There are two stores in particular to steer clear of because their credit cards charge the highest APRs: Zales at 28.99 percent and Staples at 27.99 percent.

    By contrast, the national average for all credit cards remains at 15 percent, much lower than the cards from retailers.

    Two-thirds of store credit cards charge all cardholders an APR of 19.99 percent or higher. "If you carry a balance regularly, retail credit cards just aren't for you," said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "Even with potential rewards and discounts, the math just doesn't work in your favor when interest rates are that high, so your best move is to shop around for lower cost options."

    Depending on your credit score, there are 16 retail cards with the lowest possible APR that is under 16 percent. Even those rates remain very high, and interest charges can add hundreds if not thousands of dollars to the balance, extending the amount of time it takes consumers to pay off the debt. Some retail credit cards such as Sears pose an even greater problem, because the interest rates remain the same for all customers, treating those with exceptional credit scores exactly the same as those who are below average, McClary said.

    Sears offers three cards, and two of them, the Sears and Sears MasterCard cards, offer a whopping APR of 25.24 percent. Only the store's Home Improvement account offers 14.4 percent or 18.4 percent based on creditworthiness.

    If you are still shocked by the Sears interest rate, you won't find lower rates at JCPenney, which uses Synchrony Bank as its lender. The company's financing terms are not any better with an interest rate of 26.99 percent.

    "The thing about those interest rates is not the fact that they are so high, it's that they are the same for everyone," McClary said. "Those with excellent credit have no incentive to apply if they are going to be treated the same as someone at the other end of the spectrum."

    How Payment Amounts Are Affected

    When a consumer has a $1,000 balance on the average retail credit card and sticks to making only the minimum payments, it would take 72 months to pay off the balance while incurring $833 in interest fees, said Schulz.

    The expense of the interest alone drops to $370 with the national average APR of 15 percent for all credit cards. The payoff time also drops to 54 months. When the average low-interest APR of 11.62 percent is applied to the $1,000 balance, the interest falls to $257 and the payoff time shrinks to 50 months.

    Paying Your Bills on Time

    While consumers should stick to a strategy of always paying their bills on time, the consequences for people who are drawn in by introductory rates is even greater. Failing to even pay one month's bill on time could mean the tantalizing zero percent is revoked, said Schulz.

    "I don't think most people realize that," he said. "Even if you're only in month one or two of a 15-month zero percent introductory offer, that offer can be pulled out from under you if you're late with a payment. That's a big deal and can cost a consumer a lot of money."

    While consumers remain lured to the discounts, these reductions and rewards only really pay off if your balance is paid off each month, Schulz said.

    "The truth is that these discounts and rewards can be a really great deal," he said. "After all, it doesn't make much sense to get a 20 percent discount if you're still going to end up paying 25 percent interest on that purchase." Store cards aren't a bad option for people who are rebuilding their credit or just starting their credit history, Schulz said.

    Consumers who have good credit, but are looking for a new card, should opt for a general-purpose rewards card, such as the Citi Double Cash card or the Capital One Venture Rewards card.

    "If you are interested in a store card, don't be pressured into making a quick decision," he said. "If after reading the fine print it still sounds like a good offer, apply next time you're in that store. Chances are that all of those perks you liked will still be there."

     

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    Best Of The Month
    Getty Images
    By Simon Constable

    New York -- If food prices start taking a bigger bite out of your wallet in the near future, you can blame it on Mother Nature.

    A confluence of events including strange weather from El Nino, activity on the solar surface and the effects of a U.S. drought years ago are reducing agricultural output, which may drive up grocery store prices for individual consumers and supply costs for dining chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and coffee shops like Starbucks (SBUX).

    The current El Nino weather system, which periodically forms off the Pacific coast of South America and alters weather patterns throughout the world, is projected to be the strongest in decades, according to AccuWeather.

    Already, El Nino is causing drought in Asia, most notably in Vietnam, which is the second-biggest coffee producer in the world behind Brazil. Vietnam grows robusta beans and while their taste isn't typically as appealing as that of arabica beans, what happens in the robusta market matters.

    "If robusta production is down, then it will drive up the price of arabica as well," says Nicholas Gentile, managing partner at New York-based commodity trading adviser Nick Jen Capital Management. It's possible that any production shortfall from drought in Asia could be made up by more output in South America, he added.

    If all goes well, the rains will come to Asia in time, but if they don't, then expect coffee prices to rise.
    If you want milk with your coffee, then things look even bleaker because that's likely to be more expensive as well.

    Milk prices have already jumped in New Zealand and in the first six months of 2016, U.S. prices will catch up, Shawn Hackett wrote in a recent edition of The Hackett Money Flow Commodity Report. The problem is that due to a drought years ago, the price of milking cows is high while current American milk prices are low, which gives diary farmers little incentive to add cows to their herd.

    Finally, the number of spots on the sun has started its periodic cycle of decline this year, which will likely lead to lower crop yields and hence higher prices for grains such as wheat and corn. The phenomenon is discussed in detail in a 1976 USDA report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that examined data from 1866 to 1973.

    The number of sunspots fluctuates in a fairly predictable cycle that tends to last around 10 to 11 years. NASA actually counts the spots and makes projections about how many there will be in future years. While the mechanism isn't understood, there does appear to be a high correlation between spot count and global temperatures, with fewer spots being associated with cooler weather.

    NASA projects that the sunspot count is entering its cyclical decline and doing so from a fairly low peak. That doesn't augur well for crop yields next year.

    "Lower-than-average yields are associated with low sunspot activity," according to the Agriculture Department paper, "Do Sunspot Cycles Affect Crop Yields?" by Virden L. Harrison. The report singles out corn, wheat and rice as particular examples of the phenomenon.

    The effect, however it occurs, can be large, although it does vary by crop and the location within the U.S. Declines in average yield of 10 percent during low sunspot years were not uncommon in the study period.

    "The bottom line is that the great U.S. crop production miracle of the last two years will not repeat in 2016," Hackett wrote in a recent report.

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

     

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    Business Man
    Getty ImagesWhile 401(k)s may make you skittish, remember that you must find a way to take care of your 80-year-old self down the road.
    By Christine Giordano

    To some, few things are scarier than investing in a 401(k) or IRA.

    Generation Y has already lived through two bear markets and had their job prospects shaped by the Great Recession, and Generation X watched helplessly as their stock investments plummeted by 40 percent during that recession.

    And among people 55 and older, nearly 29 percent don't have retirement savings or a traditional pension plan, and many rely on Social Security, according to 2015 analysis from the Government Accountability Office.

    But calculations show that those who start saving $2,000 a year at age 35 with an average annual return of 8 percent may only amass around $245,000 by retirement -- an amount that likely won't go too far 30 years from now, considering how prices rise.

    "Pension systems are few and far between in the public sector. We are not sure what the Social Security system will look like in the future. The ability to successfully retire will solely be based on the financial decisions you made during your working years," says Brian White, a financial adviser at Mandell, White & Associates in Melville, New York.

    Putting aside money for retirement is so important that Illinois is creating a savings program that requires companies with at least 25 employees to automatically transfer a set amount from employees' pay to a Roth IRA unless a worker opts out.

    Regardless of your skittishness, you need to find a way to take care of your 80-year-old self someday. Here are a few considerations that can chase your investment fears away.

    Regard the pain of loss as inevitable, but temporary, before a rebound. Some people remember pain more than profit. Investors may have gotten nervous when the average employee retirement account shrank from $91,864 in 2010 to $87,668 in 2011. But they may have missed it when balances plumped up to $119,804 in 2013 -- an increase of more than 30 percent from 2010, according to numbers from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. In those years, the median Roth IRA grew more than 51 percent, and traditional IRAs grew 28 percent.

    "We are going to have bear markets, and you are going to lose money at some points; It's just a question of whether you have the stoicism and education to know the pain is temporary. You have to be ready to withstand it if you're going to reap the benefits in the long term," says Jesse Mackey, chief investment officer of 4Thought Financial Group, based in Syosset, New York.

    If you hate risk, you can reduce it. Generally, the younger you are, the more your portfolio can take risks and the more stocks you can be invested in, as opposed to bonds and cash. The theory is that you won't need your retirement fund while you're in your 20s, 30s and 40s, and the stocks carry the highest rate of return despite being more volatile.

    As you get older, you should change the ratio to maybe only 50 percent stocks, Mackey says. And, in case of a crash, you need to have the time to allow your investments to rebound, "You should expect to have to hold a portfolio for 10 years-plus."

    But let's say you want to put aside money for a college fund without the risk. Consider investing in bonds that will mature when you need them to, Mackey says. "You can take a portion of a portfolio to do this. You can use individual bonds that are laddered to when you want them to mature."

    Diversify not just by asset type, but also by method of investment. Different approaches work for different markets. In down markets, more active approaches tend to excel. Liability-driven investing, typically used by very large institutions like banks, insurance companies or public pension funds, transfers risk by finding assets to offset it. Selective or concentrated investing, used in private equity funds, focuses on the stocks they hold. Index funds should be a large piece of any investor's portfolio, but they tend to do best in bull markets, with asset prices rising and relatively low investor anxiety in the marketplace, Mackey says.

    "Consider including an opportunistic or tactical element within your broader strategically allocated portfolio that will potentially be able to defend against or capitalize on volatility and market slides. This will require professional assistance or the purchase of a specialist fund," he says.

    Take the free money. If you've got a 401(k) with an employer matching a percentage, consider it free money. "At a minimum, you should take advantage of the full match. For example, if your company provides a dollar-for-dollar match up to the first 4 percent, you should contribute at least 4 percent," White says.

    Let's say you're making $40,000 and your employer offers you a match of 4 percent of your salary. That would likely amount to $1,600 in free money by the end of the year.

    It's a no-brainer, yet leaving money on the table is more common than it seems, with Americans likely leaving $24 billion in unclaimed company-match dollars each year, according to a 2015 research report by the workplace financial advisory services firm Financial Engines. Overall, one out of four employees doesn't avail themselves of matching funds, with the typical employee leaving $1,336 of potential "free money" on the table each year, according to the report.

    Think of compounding interest like a windfall. Compounding interest, which means you will earn interest on your interest, accrues much faster than stuffing money in your mattress. "Start with a penny and double it every day; in 28 days, you will have $1 million. So even saving a small amount every paycheck will make a big difference over time," White says.

    The younger you are, the more time your money has to compound before you retire. One example of this is if your relatives placed $100 in a trust fund for you in 1927, at the average rate of return of the stock market. Seventy years later, that money would grow to $263,000, according to economic writer Stephen Moore.

    Online investment calculator tools can tell you how much you will need to put away each month to likely reach your retirement target. If you start saving $2,000 per year at age 25 at an 8 percent annualized return, you'd have $560,000 -- more than double what you'd have if you start saving 10 years later.

    Of course, you should always check out the fees associated with the funds, because a fee of 1 percent can quickly chip away at a 3 percent return. You also want to see how well your fund performed by checking out its performance and ratings. And consider fund managers who have been around two or more years.

    Get started as soon as you can. After all, what could be scarier than waking up one morning with less than 10 years until retirement, and with no retirement savings?

    Christine Giordano is a freelance business journalist with a passion to help consumers make educated decisions. Also a columnist for Newsday, you can follow her on Twitter@chrisgiordano.

     

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    Can't Seem to Save? You're Not Following These Simple Rules

    By Krystal Steinmetz

    Wouldn't it be nice to have an extra $1,000 in your bank account at this time next year?

    You can, with a little planning and some changes in your money habits, CNN Money says. If saving $1,000 seems impossible, break it down and think of it as socking away $84 each month for a year. It seems more doable now, right?

    "There are opportunities in most people's budgets and lifestyles to find that type of savings," Dave Abate, a certified financial planner with Strategic Wealth Partners in Ohio, told CNN Money.

    So quit dreaming about what you could do with an extra $1,000 and make that dream into a reality in the next 12 months by following these five simple money moves:
    1. Slash your bills: Review your monthly bills to see what exactly you're being charged for. Kelsa Dickey, founder of financial coaching firm Fiscal Fitness, told CNN Money that many people are paying more for services, including phone, Internet, cable and utilities, than they really need. For example, if you're not using anywhere near the data cap on your smartphone plan, you might want to think of downgrading to a lesser plan. If you're only using your landline phone to call your cellphone when you misplace it, canceling your landline could save you big bucks and you probably won't even notice it's gone.
    2. Dine in, not out: This probably comes as no surprise to you, but eating out can be a big drain on your monthly budget. Cutting back on just a few restaurant dinners a month could help you reach your $84 a month savings goals, CNN Money said.
    3. Savvy shopping: "Taking small steps in your shopping habits like using coupons, buying generic and limiting impulse buys can add up to $84 a month, if not more," CNN Money said. Money experts recommend writing a shopping list and sticking to it when you get to the store. It can also pay off to measure the cost of an item against what you earn. For example: "If you are buying $50 shoes and make $10 an hour, ask yourself if they are worth the five hours of work," said Jean Wilczynsk, investment adviser at Exencial Wealth Advisors in Connecticut.
    4. Cash in on employee perks: You could be leaving money on the table by not taking advantage of potential benefits and discounts you could be eligible for through your employer. For instance, some companies subsidize cellphone bills and gym memberships.
    5. Check your insurance needs: Many Americans are overinsured. Afterall, "as your life circumstances change, so do your insurance needs," CNN Money explains. Do your homework and talk with your insurance agent about your car insurance, life insurance and health insurance. You could save yourself some significant cash.
    For more money-saving tips, check out 18 Ways to Save $100 This Week.

    What do you think about the money experts' tips to save $1,000? Share your comments 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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    By Christine Cauthen

    Ah, retirement. That second honeymoon you'll spend lounging around with your main squeeze. Which is who, exactly?

    While about 60 percent of men want to hang with their wives during retirement, only 43 percent of wives agree, according to a survey from Fidelity and the Stanford Center on Longevity.

    Instead, 70 percent of women cite quality time with grandkids as a big motivator to retire. The survey draws on responses from those ages 55 and up -- and as workers get older, turns out the idea of spending retirement with a spouse loses more of its luster.

    Could that be encouraging some employees to stick it out at the office well past 70?

    Another thought-provoking survey finding is that about half of Americans plan to stop working on a specific date -- no matter how much they've saved up for retirement.

    They've got big plans that involve, well, not really needing to plan anything. Almost 75 percent of respondents expressed that the No. 1 reason for retiring was to have freedom and flexibility, even to simply relax at home.

    And if they do take on a side gig or two, 61 percent say it's because they enjoy doing the work and want to feel valued.

    Or, just maybe, it's a welcome break from spouse overload. Right, retired wives?

    If you're looking to get on the same page as your significant other, here are some tips for talking retirement dreams -- and finances.

     

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    A Dollar Thrifty Car Rental center.
    Alamy
    By Kimberly Lankford

    Q. I'm going to rent a car when traveling for Thanksgiving. I understand that my credit card will provide rental car insurance. How does this coverage work? --E.S., Hanover, Pennsylvania
    .

    A. Your own auto insurance policy most likely covers rental car damage and liability, up to the same limits as for your own vehicle, and that insurance kicks in first. But your credit card can fill in the gaps, such as the deductible. The coverage varies by card issuer and requires certain steps.

    All Visa, Discover and American Express cards and some MasterCards, provide rental car coverage. To qualify, you must reserve the rental car with the same credit card you use to pay for it. You must also decline the rental company's supplemental insurance and collision damage waiver.

    The card company may limit coverage to 15 or 31 days, and it may not cover cars rented in certain countries, according to Card Hub, which provides credit card rates and other information. Most card companies don't cover trucks, and American Express doesn't cover some full-size SUVs, such as Chevy Suburbans and Tahoes, GMC Yukons and Ford Expeditions.

     

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    E. Coli Closes All Washington, Oregon Chipotles

    By DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP

    SEATTLE -- Health officials expect the number of people sickened by an E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants in Washington state and Oregon to grow while they investigate the cause of the infection.

    As of Friday, three people in the Portland area and 19 people in western Washington had become sick from E. coli. Seventeen of them had eaten at a Chipotle restaurant during the past few weeks.

    Eight people have been hospitalized but no deaths have been reported.

    We actually would expect there might be a jump in cases on Monday.

    After people started hearing about the outbreak, more people will probably go to the doctor and join the list of potential cases, said Marisa D'Angeli, medical epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health.

    "We actually would expect there might be a jump in cases on Monday," she said.

    D'Angeli encouraged anyone who has been sick with intestinal symptoms and has eaten at Chipotle since mid-October, to go see their doctor and get tested. She also said anyone with bloody diarrhea should go to the doctor whether they have eaten at Chipotle or not.

    "We're very early in the investigation," D'Angeli said. It's possible their investigation will find that the E. coli came from a fresh food product delivered to Chipotle restaurants and other places.

    Everyone who comes forward helps in providing extra clues that could help identify the source of the infection, she said.

    The investigation started with talking to everyone diagnosed with E. coli and finding out what they ate and where. Test samples from those individuals will go to state labs in Washington and Oregon.

    Then samples of food from the restaurants will be tested at a U.S. Food and Drug Administration laboratory to see if bacteria from the food matches the human cases.

    Cross-Contamination

    The source of the E. coli was most likely a fresh food product, D'Angeli said, because it probably could not be traced to one sick individual or one instance of cross-contamination of food since the cases are connected with so many restaurants.

    D'Angeli noted that Chipotle has been cooperative and voluntarily shut down all its restaurants in the two states.

    The reopening of the 43 Chipotle restaurants in Oregon and Washington will be dictated by the investigation, said company spokesman Chris Arnold. "Right now, that is the priority," he said.

    The company hasn't made plans to close any other restaurants in other states as there is no evidence of a link to other restaurants, Arnold added.

    Before U.S. markets opened Monday, shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) tumbled more than 5 percent to levels not seen in about three months.

    People have reported symptoms of infection in Clackamas and Washington counties in Oregon, and Clark, King, Skagit and Cowlitz counties in Washington.

    There are hundreds of E. coli and similar bacteria strains in the intestines of humans. Most are harmless, but a few can cause serious problems.

    Symptoms of E. coli infection include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting. Health officials say the best defense against the bacterial illness is to thoroughly wash hands with soap and water.

     

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    Paul Sakuma/APA Tesla Model S outside the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.
    From the country's leading video game publisher putting out its latest combat title to a once-promising 3-D printing pioneer posting what should be another quarter of disappointing results, here are some of the things that will help shape the week that lies ahead on Wall Street.

    Monday -- Lone Star

    Texas Roadhouse (TXRH) kicks off the new trading week with its latest quarterly results. Casual steakhouses were all the rage two decades ago, but most of the players have either gone private, closed down or been acquired as part of larger operators.

    Texas Roadhouse is one of the few remaining standalone players. Wall Street sees top- and bottom-line growth in the low double digits.

    Tuesday -- The Electric Slide

    Tesla Motors (TSLA) checks in with fresh financials Tuesday. The coolest maker of plug-in electric vehicles -- if not the coolest car maker, period -- has seen its stock start to give back some of its heady gains.

    The stock has surrendered roughly a quarter of its value since peaking last summer. It didn't help that Consumer Reports -- the magazine that called its Model S the best car it ever tested -- shifted into reverse on its initial recommendation after assessing enough data to gauge the car's reliability.

    Tesla should update the market on its Model X crossover SUV and its progress toward autonomous self-driving cars.

    Wednesday -- Printing Pressed

    3-D printing was all the rage a couple of years ago, but the once high-flying stocks have been taking a dive since last year. The printers are too expensive, slow and limited in mainstream applications. 3D Systems (DDD) is one of the key players -- and it reports Wednesday.

    The stock has taken a beating. It has shed two-thirds of its value this year, and that was after losing nearly two-thirds of its value in 2014. As cheap as the stock may seem, Wall Street isn't ringing a dinner bell. JPMorgan (JPM) lowered its price target on the shares just last week.

    Thursday -- There's No Free Lunch, But There Is a Free Breakfast

    Yum Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell will be giving away free A.M. Crunchwraps all morning after a clever promotion. It teamed up with Major League Baseball during the first game of the World Series. If anyone would steal a base, customers would be able to "steal" a free breakfast wrap.

    Stolen bases are common, so it was really just a matter of time before Lorenzo Cain would steal one. The promo will take place Thursday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. It should make drive-through lines longer at Taco Bell, but it's ultimately a great way to promote its breakfast offerings.

    Friday -- Game On

    Activision Blizzard (ATVI) has been busy cranking out video games. The country's largest video game publisher recently released "Guitar Hero Live," breathing new life into a franchise that it had seemingly left for dead five years earlier. On Friday it releases "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3," the latest installment in its best-selling franchise.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Activision Blizzard and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Texas Roadhouse. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and click here to check out our free report for one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Visa to Buy Visa Europe in $18.2B Deal

    By KEN SWEET

    NEW YORK -- Payment processing giant Visa announced plans Monday to buy its sister company, Visa Europe, in a deal that could be worth more than $23 billion and would consolidate all of Visa's operations worldwide.

    The deal would make the world's largest payment processing company even larger. The two companies have more than 2.9 billion cards issued on its combined network, processing roughly 88 billion individual transactions a year.

    "We are very excited about unifying Visa into a single global company with unmatched scale, technology and services," said Charles Scharf, Visa's chief executive officer, in a prepared statement.

    Under the terms of the transaction, Visa will pay 11.5 billion euros ($12.66 billion) in cash plus stock valued at about $5.5 billion. Visa Europe investors also could earn an additional payment valued at nearly $5.2 billion if certain revenue targets are met four years after the deal is closed, which is expected in mid-2016.

    Visa plans to pay for the transaction through the issuance of $15 billion to $16 billion in new debt. Visa and Visa Europe operated under one banner for years, but had to separate when Visa started its conversion from a cooperative owned by the banks into a publicly traded company. Visa Europe became independent of Visa in 2004 but Visa always continued to have a hand in the fate of Visa Europe through an option to buy Visa Europe under certain conditions. Visa became a publicly traded company in 2008.

    The deal will finally give Visa meaningful exposure to Europe, which was considered a competitive disadvantage to its rival MasterCard (MA), which owns its European operations. But the combined company is likely to face more regulatory scrutiny as the payment processing industry becomes even further consolidated under the banners of Visa, MasterCard and, to a much lesser extent, American Express (AXP).

    Visa's announcement of a deal came as the company reported its fiscal fourth quarter and full year results that mostly met Wall Street's expectations.

    The company reported net income of $1.51 billion for the period ending Sept. 30, up from $1.07 billion in the same period a year ago. On a per-share basis, Visa earned 62 cents per A-class common share, versus 43 cents per A-class common share a year earlier

    Global payment volume on Visa's network, a key measure of the company's business, rose 12 percent to $1.265 trillion in the quarter, when adjusted for currency fluctuations. Like MasterCard, Visa takes a small percentage of each debit or credit card transaction processed on its network as a fee. Credit and debit card volume in the U.S., Visa's biggest single market, rose roughly 10 percent from a year earlier.

    For the full year, Visa earned $6.33 billion compared with $5.44 billion in the same period a year earlier on $13.88 billion in operating revenue. Earnings were $2.58 a share versus $2.16 a share in 2014.

    Visa Inc. (V) shares fell $2.76, or 3.5 percent, to $74.83 in morning trading.

     

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    Couple shopping for wine together
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    Lifestyle Creep. It doesn't sound like something you want in your life, but a lot of millennials have it. Unfortunately, it's not something you can buy a cream for. Lifestyle creep is a purely financial phenomenon and it's highly contagious. What's more, it typically flares up when your life is at its best.

    Lifestyle creep is a simple idea. People who are used to living a frugal life by necessity often start earning more money as they progress in their careers. In other cases, they earn the same amount, but their regular expenses are reduced. In either case, there's an excess of income and many people aren't prepared for how to deal with it.

    So what happens? People start splurging a little bit more. Items and experiences that used to be luxuries gradually become daily necessities. Life starts getting more exciting ... and more expensive. Traditionally, this phenomenon has been seen in older adults who are entering the prime of their career earnings, just a few years before retirement. They start living it up. But because retirement funds are supposed to be sufficient to sustain a lifestyle without other income, lifestyle creep has a way of creating a situation that's far too pricey for retirement.

    These days, lifestyle creep isn't limited to oldsters. Millennials are showing all the signs. It all started back in the financial crisis of 2008, just when many millennials were coming of age. Jobs were in short supply, wages were stagnant and many young people thought they would never attain any kind of financial security. The situation hasn't changed for some, but many millennials are finally hitting their financial stride.

    And they're spending a lot more in celebration. Millennials buy more clothes than other generations. They also spend more on electronics, cars, travel and other major purchases. This is often in response to newfound financial means. Maybe you can relate. Spending money is fun, but if your lifestyle is increasing faster than your savings and investments, you've got to take a closer look at what is happening.

    Living beneath your means is the most important concept for fighting off lifestyle creep. Living beneath your means is all about living well, but not extravagantly. Now that you've gotten to a place in life where you have money for the first time, you've got to create a lifestyle budget that stays the same, no matter how much your income increases. Here are some specific things that you should be doing with extra money:
    1. Max out your IRA and 401(k). If you max out these tax protected investment accounts, you'll be very rich by the time you retire. If you don't, you're leaving money on the table. These investments will have more impact on your future than just about any luxury good you can name. Have a good time, but take full advantage of these opportunities if you possibly can.
    2. Take advantage of automatic savings opportunities. Your bank will be able to auto-draft money from your accounts in creative ways. Cloud-based budgeting solutions also typically offer this. Create ways to effortlessly skim off the top of your earnings. You'll save a lot of money this way, which can be spent on necessities, squirreled away or invested as described above.
    3. Budget, you slackard! If you don't know where your daily income is being spent, it's likely that it's being wasted. There are endless Web resources that facilitate accurate budgeting, but I use a plain ol' spreadsheet. Look at every dollar you bring in, then track where it goes. There will be some surprises if you observe your spending for a month. Figure out what you have available for daily needs, savings and investment -- and stick to it.
    4. Trim the fat. Once a month, take a quick glance at everything you pay regularly: insurance, entertainment, subscriptions, etc. Try to find a cheaper alternative, cancel something you no longer use or try to negotiate a better deal. This way, you'll constantly be finding ways to make your life work for less.
    There are lots of other ways I use to keep lifestyle creep from creeping off with my money. Learning to cook my own food, selling my car in favor of a bicycle and buying a house whose mortgage was much lower than I used to spend on rent have all been helpful. These may work for you or they may not. The point is, you've got to be invested in the cost of your lifestyle. Keep an eye out for lifestyle creep, allocate extra money for sensible purposes, and you should be just fine.

     

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    Ford Explorer
    M. Spencer Green/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. manufacturing activity in October hit a 2½-year low, but a rise in new orders offered hope for a sector buffeted by a strong dollar and relentless spending cuts by energy companies.

    Other data released Monday showed construction spending rose in September, indicating the economy remained on firmer ground despite signs of consumer spending cooling.

    Given that manufacturing accounts for only 12 percent of the economy, analysts said it was unlikely to influence the U.S. Federal Reserve's decision whether to raise interest rates this year.

    We do not expect the manufacturing data will cause the Fed to push the first rate hike back into 2016.

    "We are marginally encouraged by a pickup in the new orders, but export orders continue to contract. We do not expect the manufacturing data will cause the Fed to push the first rate hike back into 2016," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its national manufacturing index slipped to 50.1 this month, the lowest level since May 2013, from a reading of 50.2 in September. The index is barely hanging above the 50 mark, the dividing line between expansion and contraction.

    Manufacturers continued to cite the dollar's strength and low oil prices as headwinds. The new orders sub-index rose to 52.9 last month from 50.1 in September, but export orders continued to contract. There were modest improvements in supplier deliveries and backlog orders.

    In addition, there was a decrease in the share of customers who believed inventories were too high, and the stock of unsold goods at factories also fell. Efforts by businesses to reduce an inventory overhang have weighed on factory activity.

    The employment index contracted in October for the first time in six months, hitting its lowest level since August 2009, suggesting more weakness in factory payrolls.

    "Overall, we view the ISM report as consistent with our view that the manufacturing sector is moving past the worst of the slump reported early on this year, but that conditions will likely remain soft as we see continued negative effects from the stronger dollar," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

    That upbeat assessment was evident in a separate report from data firm Markit showing a pickup in factory activity last month.

    U.S. stocks rose on the data, while prices of U.S. government debt fell. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies after two members of the European Central Bank's governing council made remarks that lowered expectations the ECB would increase its bond-purchase program next month.

    Dollar Bites

    Seven manufacturing industries, including furniture and fabricated metal products, reported growth in October. Nine industries, including apparel, primary metals, petroleum and coal products, electrical equipment, appliances and components, machinery and transportation equipment, reported contraction.

    The dollar has gained 16.8 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014, squeezing the profits of multinational companies like Procter & Gamble (PG) and 3M (MMM).

    At the same time, a plunge in oil prices has pressured revenues for oil field companies like Schlumberger (SLM) and diversified manufacturer Caterpillar (CAT).

    In a separate report, the Commerce Department said construction spending advanced 0.6 percent to its highest level since March 2008, after increasing 0.7 percent in August.

    Construction spending has increased every month this year.

    Data last week suggested consumer spending lost momentum at the end of the third quarter, with consumption in September posting its smallest increase in eight months.

    In September, construction spending was boosted by a 0.6 percent rise in private construction spending, which hit its highest level since January 2008.

    Spending on private residential construction jumped 1.9 percent in September, also reaching the highest level since January 2008, reflecting gains in home building and renovations.

    "These numbers bode well for residential investment in the fourth quarter," said Gregory Daco, head of U.S. macroeconomics at Oxford Economics in New York.

    "We expect that gradually firming wage growth, continued employment gains, and very solid consumer confidence will strengthen housing demand and lead to stronger housing activity in the coming months."

    Investment on private non-residential construction projects, however, fell 0.7 percent. Public construction outlays gained 0.7 percent, with spending on state and local government projects increasing 0.9 percent. Federal government outlays declined 1 percent.

     

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    Plenty of stocks go up and down in any given week. The gainers inspire us to keep investing. The decliners keep greed in check while reminding us about the risks of the equity markets.

    Let's go over some of last week's best and worst performers.

    LifeLock (LOCK) -- Up 45 percent last week

    The biggest winner on the New York Stock Exchange was LifeLock, moving higher after announcing solid growth in its latest quarter and a welcome settlement. The identity theft monitoring service provider reached a deal with the Federal Trade Commission and representatives of a class of consumers to settle accusations relating to its past marketing practices.

    LifeLock also managed to close with more revenue and a higher subscriber count than it had three months earlier. That stretches the sequential growth streak on both of those metrics to an impressive 42 quarters.

    Regis (RGS) -- Up 28 percent last week

    The hair salon operator and franchisor of Supercuts, MasterCuts and other retail brands didn't see its stock get snipped after posting healthy quarterly results. Regis posted better-than-expected bottom-line results, something that it hadn't done in more than a year.

    Regis also delivered positive same-store sales during the quarter. That may not seem like such a big deal -- most of us need to get a hair cut -- but Regis actually posted negative comps for all of fiscal 2014 as well as fiscal 2015. It's a step in the right direction.

    LendingTree (TREE) -- Up 24 percent last week

    Another stock moving higher on encouraging financials was LendingTree. The online loan marketplace operator came through with record revenue and earnings. Most of LendingTree's growth came from its non-mortgage products, making LendingTree rely less on the cyclical whims of home loans.

    Macrocure (MCUR) -- Down 61 percent last week

    The market's biggest loser last week was Macrocure, a biotech targeting wounds. It got tripped up when its lead candidate failed to meet a late-stage clinical trial. Macrocure had a lot riding on CureXcell as a treatment for diabetic foot ulcers, but the test wasn't successful.

    Rent-A-Center (RCII) -- Down 28 percent last week

    We're not renting furniture, appliances, and other furnishings from Rent-A-Center the way we used to. The rental chain posted another decline in quarterly revenue at its namesake stores. It's faring better with its tech-centric Acceptance Now concept, but the retailer's still struggling.

    Renta-A-Center also issued disappointing guidance, suggesting that things aren't going to get any better during the holiday quarter. KeyBanc went on to downgrade the stock.

    GrubHub (GRUB) -- Down 23 percent last week

    Another company following the same steps as Rent-A-Center in posting disappointing quarterly results and making matters worse with weak guidance was GrubHub. The restaurant delivery specialist was a hot IPO when it went public at $26 last year, but now it's trading below its initial price tag.

    The concern here is that this is becoming a cutthroat niche. A lot of big and small players are starting to spring up, and they're offering great deals to get noticed. It's taking a toll on GrubHub. We know that because operating expenses are growing a lot faster than sales. That's enough to give investors a bout of indigestion.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of LifeLock. The Motley Fool recommends LifeLock. 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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    Financial Markets Wall Street Hewlett Packard Enterprise
    Richard Drew/APHewlett Packard and New York Stock Exchange officials gather to ring the opening bell Monday, the first day of trading for Hewlett Packard Enterprise following its separation from Hewlett-Packard Co.
    By Lewis Krauskopf

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks added to their recent run with gains across all sectors on Monday, led by increases in the beaten-down energy group and the acquisition-driven health care industry.

    The gains on the first trading day of the month followed the best monthly performance of the major indexes in four years in October. The Nasdaq 100 closed Monday at its highest level in more than 15 years.

    Data on Monday showed U.S. manufacturing activity in October sank to a 2½-year low, but a rise in new orders offered encouragement. Elsewhere, factory activity in Germany beat economist estimates, and manufacturing in Central and Eastern Europe kept up a robust pace in October.

    "The fact that we have got sturdy numbers from outside the U.S. accompanied by a relatively decent ... [U.S. manufacturing] report, I think that cocktail was supportive of risk assets getting a boost," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 165.22 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,828.76, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 24.69 points, or 1.2 percent, to 2,104.05 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 73.40 points, or 1.5 percent, to 5,127.15.

    The S&P, which is up nearly 13 percent since hitting its lowest level for the year in August, broke through the 2,100 barrier, bringing it nearer to its all-time closing high of 2,130.82 in May.

    "The upward trend that was put in place last week has continued to gain steam," said Michael James, managing director of equity trading at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles. "I don't necessarily think there's a specific catalyst for it today. Risk appetite has clearly increased."

    As the U.S. earnings seasons winds down, investors are looking to economic data, including this Friday's employment report, for clues as to whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates when it meets in December.

    Movers and Shakers

    The S&P energy index rose 2.4 percent. Oil majors Exxon and Chevron were two of the three biggest drivers of positive performance for the Dow after both companies posted better-than-expected results on Friday. Chevron (CVX) gained 4.5 percent to $94.96 and Exxon (XOM) finished up 3.1 percent at $85.28.

    The S&P health care index increased 2 percent. Pfizer rose 3.7 percent, and AbbVie (ABBV) jumped 6.4 percent, providing the biggest boost to the sector.

    Dyax (DYAX) soared 28.4 percent to $35.35 after British drugmaker Shire said it would buy the company for about $5.9 billion. The Nasdaq biotechnology index closed up 3.8 percent.

    U.S.-listed shares of Valeant (VRX) rose 7.1 percent at $100.47 after short-seller Citron Research said it wouldn't be releasing new allegations against the Canadian drugmaker.

    The S&P financial sector gained 1.6 percent, led by increases from the big banks. Visa (V) fell 3 percent to $75.22 after offering to buy its former subsidiary Visa Europe for as much as $23.3 billion. The stock was the biggest drag on the Dow and the S&P 500.

    Hewlett-Packard started trading after its split. HP (HPQ) jumped 13 percent to $13.83, while Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) slipped 1.6 percent to $14.49.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,525 to 569, for a 4.44-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 2,217 issues rose and 628 fell for a 3.53-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 25 new 52-week highs and four new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 76 new highs and 44 new lows.

    -With additional reporting by Sinead Carew in New York and Abhiram Nandakumar in Bangalore, India.

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • Automakers release vehicle sales for October.
    • The Commerce Department releases factory orders for September at 10 a.m. Eastern time.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Activision Blizzard (ATVI)
    • Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM)
    • Cablevision Systems (CVC)
    • CBS (CBS)
    • Discovery Communications (DISCA)
    • Hyatt Hotels (H)
    • Kellogg (K)
    • Sprint (S)
    • Tesla Motors (TSLA)
    • UBS (UBS)

     

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    House sitting on pile of dollar bills
    Getty ImagesIf you're thinking about taking out a second mortgage, here's what you should consider.
    By Geoff Williams

    If you don't know what a second mortgage is, or only have a vague understanding, there's probably a good reason. You likely don't want to know. After all, paying for a first mortgage can be bad enough. Hearing the term "second mortgage" is enough to make anyone's eyes glaze over.

    But it's a financial strategy that's helped many a homeowner. So if you've ever wondered what you need to know about a second mortgage, consider this your crash course.

    What it is. It's a second mortgage on your existing home. (Yes, theoretically, if someone refers to a second mortgage, they could be talking about another mortgage on house No. 2, like a cottage at the lake. Lucky them.)

    If you take out a second mortgage on your home, you're borrowing money using your house's equity as collateral.

    There are two types of second mortgages: a home equity loan, which usually lasts 15 to 30 years, just like your first mortgage, and a home equity line of credit, which allows homeowners to use a line of credit based on their home's equity. But those 15- and 30-year second mortgages are becoming very rare.

    You'll most likely take out a home equity line of credit, says Heather McRae, a senior loan officer at Chicago Financial Services, a mortgage lender in Chicago.

    "Those two terms, 'home equity line of credit' and 'home equity loan,' are used interchangeably," she says. "Obtaining a second mortgage as a fixed-rate, closed-ended loan is difficult to find these days. What I mean by closed-ended is that it functions like an installment loan rather than a credit card."

    An auto loan is a good example of a closed-end loan, McRae adds. "If you pay according to the schedule, the car is paid off within a defined period of time," she says. "Home equity loans do not function like this, per se."

    "Most home equity loans have a 30-year amortization period but are interest only for the first 10 years, which means the minimum payment required is just the interest," McRae continues. "You can pay extra to pay down the balance, and you can run the balance up again just like a credit card. After 10 years go by, the existing loan balance is amortized over a 20-year period, and it turns into a closed-ended loan. No more running up the balance if you need access to cash."

    Why people take on second mortgages. Well, they need money, and they need a lot of it.

    "The primary advantage of a second mortgage is that it allows you access to money you may not otherwise be able to obtain," says Arvin Sahakian, a co-founder of BeSmartee.com, a search engine for mortgages.

    And it's a loan with a low interest rate.

    "The best thing about doing this is the interest rate," says Jennifer Fredericks, a College Station, Texas-based real estate agent for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Preferred Living. "It's lower than it is for credit cards, and it's lower than it is for student loans."

    "If you are using the money to improve your home or pay off higher interest rate loans, it makes perfect sense to choose this type of financing and improve your overall financial picture," Sahakian says.

    There are other reasons homeowners commonly take out a second mortgage -- to pay off major medical bills that insurance wouldn't cover, to pay a kid's college tuition or to start a business. Whether a second mortgage is right for any of these purposes depends on the individual's views on debt and risk, especially when it comes to doing something like starting your own business, which, of course, could work out very well or go very badly.

    The dangers. Not only can a business go bust, which is bad news if you're stuck paying off a second mortgage that funded a failed company, any number of things could go wrong that could mean you aren't only struggling to pay off your first mortgage and other bills -- you're now having trouble making payments on your second mortgage.

    Even with a stable, reliable income, the danger of a second mortgage is that the interest rate on these loans is usually variable, McRae says.

    "Currently, interest rates on these types of loans are alluring, but they will fluctuate with market conditions. Most second mortgage rates are tied to the prime interest rate," she says. "When you hear in the news that the Fed will meet to consider a rate increase, if and when that happens, the interest rate on the second mortgage will increase."

    McRae adds that the Fed meets eight times a year to decide whether to change interest rates, "which means the rate on the line of credit could change eight out of 12 months of the year."

    It might seem crazy to think about after all these years of low interest rates, but what goes down does sometimes go up, even way up, and you could easily wind up with a loan that has a high interest rate.

    There's another potential problem, Fredericks says. "If the market were to change dramatically, and home values were to drop, you might be negative in your house as far as equity goes," she says.

    If you're thinking about getting a second mortgage. Fredericks recommends talking to a reputable loan officer and getting his or her opinion. But whatever you do, don't borrow too much, she cautions.

    "In California, a few years back, they were letting individuals borrow 125 percent of their loan, but when the market got bad, a lot of homes were foreclosed on," Fredericks says. "One of the reasons that Texas had less foreclosures during this period is because people were only allowed to borrow 80 percent of their equity. So, the moral of the story here is that, even if your state allows you to borrow more than 80 percent, you wouldn't want to go higher than that because you need to have a cushion in your value."

    Second mortgages can be great if you use them properly, says Greg Cook, a mortgage originator based in Temecula, California, who runs a website for new homebuyers, FirstTimeHomeBuyersNetwork.com.

    "A second mortgage is new debt that has to be repaid," Cook says. "Too often a consumer will use the proceeds to take on new additional debt. For example, a down payment on a car, toy hauler or to fund a dream vacation. Now it's debt upon debt."

    So don't do that. Bottom line: You take out a second mortgage if you can solve a financial problem. You don't take one out to create a new one.

    Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to U.S. News. He is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away," about the great flood of 1913, "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race," about the infamous Bunion Derby of 1928 and "Living Well with Bad Credit." You can follow him on Twitter@geoffw.

     

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    401k concept word in bird nest
    AlamyHaving company contributions in your 401(k) account doesn't mean you will get to keep them if you leave the job.
    By Emily Brandon

    The fastest way to increase your retirement savings is to get 401(k) contributions from an employer. Company 401(k) contributions will grow your account balance far faster than you could on your own. But 401(k) contributions vary considerably by employer, and the match can be difficult to get for people who only stay at a company for a year or two. Here's how to tell if your employer is providing a generous 401(k) match.

    What percentage is matched? The most obvious way to evaluate a 401(k) match is by the percentage of your contributions the company matches. A 401(k) match worth 50 cents for each dollar you save is a 50 percent return on your investment. A dollar-for-dollar 401(k) match effectively doubles your money. Some employers have more complicated match formulas such as dollar-for-dollar for the first 3 percent of pay and then 50 cents per dollar on the next 2 percent of pay. A few companies even set up their matches to vary by age, job tenure or other variables chosen by the company. Often the employer stops matching your contributions once you save a specific percentage of your pay in the account, such as 6 percent of your salary.

    How much do you need to save to get the match? Some employers contribute to 401(k) accounts on behalf of employees without requiring them to save anything at all. Other companies require workers to save a specific amount in order to get the match. Savings requirements can make it difficult for people who can only afford to save a limited amount to take full advantage of the 401(k) match. For example, if your employer matches 50 cents of each dollar saved for retirement up to 6 percent of pay, but you can only afford to save 3 percent of your pay, you will miss out on half of the 401(k) match you could have gotten. Many new employees are automatically enrolled in 401(k) plans, typically at 3 percent of pay. Sticking with the default savings rate could cause you to miss out of part of your employer match.

    Is there a match cap? Some employers set a maximum amount of money they will contribute to a 401(k) for a single employee. For example, an employer might stop providing a match once you hit $2,000 in employer matching funds in a single year.

    How soon does the match start? Most 401(k) plans begin providing a 401(k) match as soon as you start saving in the plan. However, some companies have waiting periods of up to a year before they will match employee contributions to the 401(k) plan.

    When do you get to keep the match? You don't get to keep company contributions to your 401(k)account until you are vested in the plan. Some employers immediately vest workers in the 401(k) plan, while others require a specific number of years of service with the company, such as two or three years, before you get to keep any of the 401(k) match if you leave the job. In this case, people who switch jobs within a year or two won't get to keep any of the 401(k) match. Other employers allow you to keep a percentage of the employer contributions based on your years of service. For example, if you become 20 percent vested in the 401(k) plan for each year of service and you leave the job after two years you will get to keep 40 percent of the company contributions to your 401(k) plan. You always get to keep your own contributions to the retirement account.

    Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at ebrandon@usnews.com.

     

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