National News

Give! (And keep track of your donations!)

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 07:50

In this time of giving, roughly 25 percent of us choose to donate before the end of the year. And there’s a benefit to charitable giving beyond the warm and fuzzy holiday spirit -- such donations can shave a bit off the year’s tax bill.

But keeping careful track of your donations is crucial. In order to do this more effectively, Marketplace Money host Carmen Wong-Ulrich offers one bit of advice:

“When you give to charities, many now use online payment systems,” Wong-Ulrich says. “So if you can use a credit or a debit card, it enables you to probably tag your charitable giving. So at the end of the year you can just log in to your account, and you can pull up what you’ve given for the whole year so you don’t miss any of those deductions.”

Click on the above audio player to hear more tax-friendly money moves you can make before the year’s end.

Pope's Christmas Wish: A Better World

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 07:25

In his first Christmas message since being elected pontiff in March, Pope Francis prayed for peace in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. He also spoke about everyday people, especially those struggling for a better life.

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U.S. Embassy In Kabul Hit By Indirect Fire

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 07:17

Officials are investigating after two rockets hit an open area at the embassy Wednesday morning. There were no injuries.

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Need a last-minute gift? How about $13,000 in chocolate?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 07:15

The National Retail Federation says 92 million Americans took advantage of Black Friday sales this season. But there's another group of holiday spenders who aren't watching their pennies quite so closely.  Those customers expect the best … and are willing to pay for it.  And, of course, there are businesses that cater to these wealthy customers. 

Clay Storseth owns a business called "The Christmas Decorator."  He decks the halls of private homes, mansions and five-star hotels throughout Los Angeles. Clay counts Michael Jackson among his past clients.

These are discerning, high-end customers.

"Mostly people who just call me and say, 'We'd like to do this and this and this,' and then they don't really ask me how much it costs. And I go do it, and then I bill them -- and they pay me."

For 20 years, Clay's been buying the best trees from Lyra Marble, the owner of "Mr. Greentrees".

"He spends a lot of time here looking through the trees, over and over and over again to find just the right one," says Marble.

Lyra is particular, too. She hand-picks her inventory in Oregon and Washington, keeps them moist twice a day and even humidifies the tent. They're a specialty tree lot and describes it as "the spa for Christmas Trees." And that comes with spa-like prices.

One of her 14-foot noble fir trees can set you back $2,000.

So, what would you pay to have someone decorate your mansion? Depending on what you're doing, Clay says it can cost $3,000 … or way more.

"If you're doing something on a really really big scale and we're doing garlands on every window and putting nine Christmas trees inside your home… Yeah. It would be a lot," Storseth says.

Despite the expense, Clay is booked solid with more than 40 clients this year.

In Brentwood, Calif., Compartes Chocolates, a family shop which has been in business since 1950, say they have almost more customers than they can handle this time of year. They hand-make beautiful chocolate truffles with exotic flavors like Wasabi Ginger and Peanut Honey Sea Salt.

Owner and chocolatier, Jonathan Grahm, says that he expects and plans on these three weeks as do-or-die for his business. Being in Brentwood, Grahm describes his customers as "the cream-of-the-crop elite people" – people who can afford to order almost $13,000 of chocolate to complete their holiday gift list.

One customer, he says, "walked in and ordered 80 of the 80 piece boxes – people call it the biggest chocolate box that you've ever seen in your life. It's $160. In the past, I may have sold 10 in a year — and this person came in and ordered 80 of them, so that's ... 6,400 pieces handmade just for one client's order."

The holiday season is everything to these business owners. They're exhausted, but their clients are happy and they're doing pretty well for themselves. For Clay – the Christmas Decorator – these few months of hard work will support him and his partner for the rest of the year.

"I still act and I still do Shakespeare, but I get to do Christmas and it keeps me in theater and my apartment in New York and my house in Los Angeles," he says. "So, I'm lucky."

Do I have the flu? (And why Big Data loves when you ask that)

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 06:40

The flu season is upon us, and if last year is any guide, it could be a bad one. Last year was one of the worst in recent history. .

For companies in the business of  helping people through their aches, pains, fevers, runny noses, and the rest, there is money to be made. But first you’ve got to find those people. To do that, companies are watching us. 

By one count, cases of the flu have doubled over the last week.

“We saw particularly sharp increases across some of the Gulf States in the south, like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia,” says Josh Gray with AthenaResearch, an arm of AthenaHealth.

AthenaHealth monitors how often the 16,000 physicians in its network diagnose patients with the flu. When there’s a spike, Gray blogs about it. 

For companies like Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson knowing that lots of people are coughing and sneezing in Georgia is gold.

“We’re seeing this more and more,” says Harvard epidemiologist John Brownstein, who also develops those public health surveillance systems for infectious disease. “We are seeing lots of companies using public health surveillance data as a tool to target marketing of their products.”

With the market for over-the-counter cold and flu remedies worth nearly $6 billion, companies are also mining data from Twitter and Facebook to track the sick.

AthenaHealth’s Gray says the idea is to get the right product to consumers at the right time.

“There is more data than ever before and it’s becoming easier and cheaper to analyze it to much more sophisticated level,” he says.

Gray says companies who can make sense of all this information -- and act quickly -- are going to profit.

Could Ford's aluminum F-150 reshape truck market?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 06:06

Ford is thinking about making some changes to its biggest moneymaker: F-Series pickup trucks. Ford plans to unveil a truck made out of aluminum, not steel, Bloomberg reports.

According to Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with, transitioning to aluminum has its challenges.

“Attaching it, you can’t just use normal welds, like you do on steel,” she explains. “Aluminum has some issues around the noise that you hear; so, you have to add deadening materials.”

That means there would have to be changes to the assembly line. Ford would do this, Krebs says, because aluminum is a lot lighter than steel, and that would make it easier to hit new fuel standards that are scheduled to take effect in 2016.

“I think this is a threat for steel makers,” says Andrew Lane, an equity analyst with Morningstar who covers metals companies. “Particularly those that are highly leveraged to the automotive markets.”

But steelmakers know they have the edge on price.

“There is a significant cost difference between steel and aluminum,” says Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific.

Sullivan says using aluminum would affect Ford’s profit margins on the F-Series, but steelmakers know any transition like this would take time. Ford makes hundreds of thousands of F-Series trucks every year, and these changes couldn’t happen quickly.

A Christmas Day movie about sleaze on Wall Street

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 05:36

This Christmas Day will be a day to celebrate obscene wealth, moral decay and massive corruption on Wall Street. At least, according to Hollywood.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ opens on big screens on December 25 -- just under the wire for Oscar consideration. The black comedy stars Leonardo DiCaprio as penny-stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who went from filthy-rich to federal prison for stock fraud in the 1990s, and then wrote a memoir of the same name about it.

It’s not hard to guess from the tone of the movie trailers which stereotypes ‘The Wolf” will trade in, as one character tells Belfort to “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.”  

For people in high finance, ‘The Wolf’ will be yet another reminder that Wall Street equals ‘corruption’ and ‘excess’ in the popular culture.

That’s OK, says Max Wolff. He’s a strategist and economist at ZTWealth in Manhattan.

“It jacks up people’s sense of self-importance and influence,” says Wolff. He plans to see the movie, and says his friends in finance will too. He thinks they’ll take solace in the fact that the movie is set way back in the 1990s -- not in the 2000s, of recent bubble-bust-bailout memory.

After the movie, he says, “they’ll talk endlessly to each other about how unrealistic it is, and that will be part of a bonding exercise in the industry."

Simon Rosenfeld, senior vice president at Meridian Capital Group in New York, briefly sold stocks off a script early in his career. That’s what the unscrupulous boiler-room brokers working for Jordan Belfort are depicted as doing in 'The Wolf of Wall Street," though Rosenfeld says he was never asked to do anything illegal.

Rosenfeld soon switched from stock-broking to the commercial mortgage business -- which he says would be zero-percent interesting to watch on the silver screen.

“They’re not going to choose to make a movie out of the boring mundane daily activities of what goes on in the mostly-legal world in this industry,” Rosenfeld says.

He’s also looking forward to seeing the new Scorsese flick. He says he doesn’t mind when Hollywood depicts a few colorful crooks plying their trade on Wall Street.

To compete for students, colleges roll out the amenities

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2013-12-25 05:29

This story starts with Tempur-Pedic mattresses, those high-end memory foam jobs. Every bed in the University of Kentucky’s Central Hall has one.

“I think of my old mattress as sort of a bad dream, and my new mattress as a sort of fantasy dream,” says Tolu Odukoya, a sophomore biology major at UK.

Last year he lived in one of the oldest dorms on the Lexington campus, in a tiny room with bunk beds. The communal bathroom was down the hall. Now he’s in a $25 million complex that opened in August, built and managed by a private developer.

Sophomore Noell Conley lives there, too. She shows off the hotel-like room she shares with a roommate.

“As you walk in, to the right you see our granite countertops with two sinks, one for each of the residents,” she says.

A partial wall separates the beds. Rather than trek down the hall to shower, they share a bathroom with the room next door.

“That’s really nice compared to community bathrooms that I lived in last year,” Conley says.

To be fair, granite countertops last longer. Tempur-Pedic is a local company -- and gave a big discount. The amenities include classrooms and study space that are part of the dorm. Many of the residents are in the university’s Honors program. But do student really need Apple TV in the lounges, or a smartphone app that lets them check their laundry status from afar?

“Demand has been very high,” says the university’s Penny Cox, who is overseeing the construction of several new residence halls on campus. Before Central Hall’s debut in August, the average dorm was almost half a century old, she says. That made it harder to recruit.

“If you visit places like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama,” Cox says, “and you compare what we had with what they have available to offer, we were very far behind.”

Today colleges are competing for a more discerning consumer. Students grew up with fewer siblings, in larger homes, Cox says. They expect more privacy than previous generations -- and more comforts.

“These days we seem to be bringing kids up to expect a lot of material plenty,” says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book “Generation Me.”

Those students could be in for some disappointment when they graduate, she says.

“When some of these students have all these luxuries and then they get an entry-level job and they can’t afford the enormous flat screen and the granite countertops,” Twenge says, “then that’s going to be a rude awakening.”

Some on campus also worry about the divide between students who can afford such luxuries and those who can’t. The so-called premium dorms cost about $1,000 more per semester. Freshman Josh Johnson, who grew up in a low-income family and lives in one of the university’s 1960s-era buildings, says the traditional dorm is good enough for him.

“I wouldn’t pay more just to live in a luxury dorm,” he says. “It seems like I could just pay the flat rate and get the dorm I’m in. It’s perfectly fine.”

In the near future students who want to live on campus won’t have a choice. Eventually the university plans to upgrade all of its residence halls.

For An Injured Vet, A True Homecoming On The Horizon

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 04:06

Since returning from Iraq, Jerral Hancock, a single father of two, has been living in a poorly constructed mobile home with doors and hallways too narrow for his wheelchair. When a group of high school students found out, they decided to do something about it.

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When Is Cinnamon Spice Not So Nice? The Great Danish Debate

NPR News - Wed, 2013-12-25 03:00

Cinnamon swirls are beloved in Denmark, but recent testing by the Danish government found many of these rolls had more of the spice than allowed by European health guidelines. Now bakers may have to change their time-tested recipes. Too much cinnamon? Yes, there is such a thing.

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