National News

Railroads profit from energy boom

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 04:00

The railroad business has been heating up, thanks in part to the energy boom underway in parts of the United States. Now there’s word that Canadian Pacific Railway approached U.S. rail company CSX Corporation about a merger. CSX reportedly declined.  

Together the two companies would have a market value of about $62 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the proposed merger. Combined they have more than 35,000 miles of track across much of Canada and the U.S.

The offer comes as the railroad business is experiencing a resurgence, fueled partly by an increase in crude oil production in states like North Dakota and Texas. Major railroads operating in the U.S. made more than $2 billion hauling crude last year, according to the Journal. Meanwhile, bumper crops of grain in the Midwest and Canada and an improving economy have increased other kinds of rail traffic.

“The railroads are suffering right now from basically too much traffic that they’re having a little difficulty handling," says Steve Ditmeyer, who teaches railway management at Michigan State University. “It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem that they have.”

All the extra traffic has caused delays for Amtrak, the passenger rail service, and for farmers trying to get their products to market.  

French Economist Jean Tirole Wins Nobel Prize For Economics

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-13 03:28

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says Tirole's work on market power and regulation provides a framework for how governments can deal with and regulate mergers and monopolies.

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Daniel Tiger: Won't You Be His Neighbor?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-13 03:03

The PBS program Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood is bringing the legacy of Fred Rogers to a new generation of children.

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LED Lights Are A 'Transformative Technology' In The Developing World

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-13 03:03

This year's Nobel Prize in physics went to scientists who invented the blue light-emitting diode. Paired with solar power, the energy-efficient LED is bringing affordable light to places off the grid.

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PODCAST: Controlling the panic over Ebola

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 03:00

First up, more on what materials the Centers for Disease Control is telling hospitals in the midst of panic over the Ebola virus. Plus, a look at a supposed merger proposed by the Canadian Pacific Railway with CSX Corporation. And more on spacecraft Rosetta which could collect data that could tell us how to mine asteroids.

A new financial innovation in the housing market

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Financial innovation in the housing market is back.

The last year saw the creation of something called "REO-to-rental securities" or "rental-backed securities." It's enough to give you subprime crisis flashbacks. But in fact, it's a very different species of financial instrument. 

It does start with a house, much like that of Jess Joslin. "It's a two-story brick house with a two garage," she says. 

Joslin rents from American Homes 4 Rent, one of the largest players in the emerging market of single family rentals owned by big investors. "From what I understand, almost all their houses look like this," Joslin says. "They’re really nice."

The largest investors have purchased nearly 200,000 houses in the last several years. The purchasing peaked in 2012, and has focused on places where the subprime mortgage crisis hit hardest. 

"You’re seeing it in Phoenix, in Las Vegas, in Atlanta," says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

In many of these markets, housing prices fell by more than a third, and the plan was to buy low with cash from investors, and then reap the profits from high rents. But in many of these markets, housing prices have appreciated, while rents have remained more stagnant. "Rents haven't gone up all that much," says Goodman. "And they haven't gone up nearly as much as home prices."

This change has meant that the buy-to-rent strategy generates less return for every dollar. To make up for it, in the last year, these investors have looked for ways to put other people's dollars to work. 

Enter securitization. 

Do we call them rental-backed securities? 

"They're viewed as a hybrid," says Doug Bendt, director of research for mortgage-backed securities at Deutsche Bank. 

His bank pioneered this new financial instrument as a way of giving investors more leverage. "'Necessity is the mother of invention,' as the saying goes," he says.

Think of it as a really big loan to a really big landlord, chopped into little pieces and sold to bondholders. The landlord—like American Homes 4 Rent—gets some cash for the rising home prices, and lower borrowing costs going forward. "Just kinda like a homeowner refinancing," says Bendt. 

The bondholders get a check every month, thanks to thousands of rental payments from people like Jess Joslin.

And if some of the thousands of Joslins stop paying their rent? The landlord can kick them out of their homes and find new tenants, or sell the whole house. That, and a much smaller scale and more conservative approach, are why analysts like Goodman and Bendt see the rental-backed security as far more benign than the infamous toxic assets that led to the last housing crisis. 

"I think people think, ‘Oh this is a repeat of the excesses of the past!’ But in reality, it’s very, very different than the past," says Goodman. "It’s sort of a begin to creep back to normalcy."

A normalcy where more people are renting, and more of their landlords are multi-billion-dollar companies.

The lingering effect of last year's tough winter

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

The U.S. Energy Department says heating costs are likely to be less this winter, thanks to relatively mild temperatures and a drop in oil prices. 

The bad news in the forecast is the slight uptick in natural gas prices, which have gone up on average about 6 percent, the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration  says. 

But thanks to milder temperatures anticipated for this winter, officials still predict less consumption of heating fuels and a drop in overall costs for households. 

Last year's severe weather and unusually cold temperatures are still having an impact, though. They are the cause of the higher natural gas prices, says Steve Piper, a natural gas analyst with SNL Financial. 

“With the widespread cold weather, we drew down storage levels of natural gas to extremely low, critical levels,” Piper says. 

While storage levels have recovered, they are still about 10.5 percent below the five-year average. The slight shortage has raised prices and is likely to continue to do so, Piper says. 

"The gas utilities are going to be in the market actively procuring gas, to prevent a repeat of last winter’s events. And that’s going to bid up the price somewhat,” he says.  

But even though more than half of the nation’s homes depend on natural gas for heat, officials still forecast less total spending on heat, because of the milder temperatures. 

"We expect a relatively mild start to the winter, especially November and into December,” says Dan Leonard, a senior meteorologist with weather forecaster WSI, which operates The Weather Channel. 

Leonard says while temperatures will get frostier in February, the expected mild start to winter will reduce the amount of heating needed. But the savings for households will not be uniform. 

The EIA says households using natural gas — which already spend the least on winter heating — will save an average of $31 this winter. That affects more than half the households in almost every region of the country except the South.

Homes using electricity, which is a majority of homes in the South, will save an average of $17. The small proportion of homes using propane, many of which are in the Midwest, will save an average of $652. And heating oil households, almost all of which are in the Northeast and account for more than a quarter of homes in that region, will save an average of $362. 

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is preparing an updated forecast for winter, which the EIA cautioned could affect its forecast of heating costs.

An argument for a federal robotics commission

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Private companies, academic institutions, and governments are dabbling more and more with the idea that our future will be full of robots capable of completing all sorts of tasks. But does it necessarily mean that we need a Federal Robotics Commission?

Ryan Calo, Assistant Law Professor at the University of Washington and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, joined us to talk about his vision for a commission compromised of technologists, engineers, and scientists:

“I don’t know that we need a Federal Robotics Commission exactly as I’ve described it, but what we do need is to start thinking more systematically about robotics law and policy.”

Professor Calo brought up one example: The Department of Transportation was recently asked by Congress to investigate whether the sudden acceleration problem in Toyota vehicles was a software glitch. The DOT didn’t have the experts needed in-house to figure out the problem, so they hired people at NASA to look into it.

Ultimately, this is the argument for having a Federal Robotics Commission—To have a group of experts who understand the issues technology can bring about and properly advise different agencies and states about how to proceed with different policies.

For more information, check out "The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission" by Ryan Calo.

Primary care staff anxious over Ebola preparedness

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Ebola is increasingly on the minds of doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers around the country and the Centers for Disease Control reports a significant spike in clinical staff seeking out the agency’s guidance over the last week.

Dr. Linda Girgis, who runs her own practice in New Jersey, says she runs through ‘what if’ scenarios in her head these days.

“For example, if I have a patient who walks in to see me in the evening, the health department is closed so we really don’t have anybody to call at that time to know what to do with that patient,” she says.

Beyond that, Girgis worries EMTs who would transport that patient aren’t sure what to do, either.

“A lot of us don’t feel that we are prepared to take the precautions to contain the infection,” she says.

Various arms of the federal government have stepped up outreach efforts since the first patient was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.

Wednesday, the CDC hosted a Twitter chat. The Monday before, Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, penned a letter addressed to “All U.S. Healthcare Professionals.”

Lurie, who herself is a primary care doctor, outlined three steps to prevent the spread of Ebola.

An Open Letter to All U.S. Healthcare Professionals Dear Colleague,

As a frontline healthcare provider, you play an essential role in protecting the health and well-being of our nation. In light of the recent presentation of an Ebola-positive patient in Texas, we wanted to remind all healthcare professionals that simple steps can be taken to prevent the spread of this disease. You can contribute to our country’s response by being ready to detect a potentially infected patient; protect yourself, your colleagues, and other patients from exposure; and respond with appropriate patient care. Specifically, you should be ready to:

  • Detect: Ask All Patients with Non-Specific Complaints About Recent Travel
    A travel history should be taken as early as possible in your encounter with all patients. Although the signs and symptoms of Ebola are nonspecific (e.g., fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.), Ebola can be virtually eliminated from your differential by ruling out travel to the affected area.
  • Protect: Use Good Infection Control Practices
    Consistent and correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE), frequent hand washing, and proper decontamination of surfaces and equipment are key to reducing or eliminating the transmission of Ebola and other communicable diseases (e.g., HIV, influenza, hepatitis, and Enterovirus-D68).
  • Respond: Have a Plan
    All healthcare workers should know what to do when encountering a suspected Ebola patient. It is critical to know who to notify and to make that notification immediately. Remember, Ebola is a nationally notifiable disease and must be reported to local, state, and federal public health authorities.    

    The CDC website has many important resources for clinicians to learn more about Ebola.
    In addition, the CDC Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is always available at 770-488-7100 or eocreport@cdc.gov.

    In the last decade, our nation has made great strides in healthcare system and public health emergency preparedness. As a result of our efforts, we are confident in our collective ability to control the spread of Ebola domestically. Thank you for your continued partnership and dedication to national health security.

    Best regards,

    Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H.
    RADM, U.S. Public Health Service
    Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response 

The letter included CDC emergency operation contacts.

“It takes the whole healthcare community to protect health. Everybody involved has to recognize it’s my problem, not somebody else’s problem,” she says.

Lurie understands it often takes a while for something to sink in. That’s why she says she's ready to repeat herself for as long as it takes.

What is the CDC sending out to doctors?

The CDC is sending doctors handouts like this checklist for evaluating patients for Ebola and the flowchart below on how to evaluate a returned traveler.

 

Three charts that show why your heating bill will fall

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-13 01:30

The Department of Energy is predicting lower heating costs this winter. Some homes could see a nearly 40 percent drop in their heating bill. There are a couple forces behind this, and the federal Energy Information Administration has a wealth of data. Here's what you need to know, boiled down to three charts.

The Polar Vortex took our natural gas 

Natural gas is used to heat 57 percent of homes. Prices are on the rise after last winter's bitter temperatures depleted supply. Even if this winter is 10 percent warmer than expected, the EIA projects supply still won't have recovered to prior levels in 2015.

This winter will be much warmer

Last winter hiked up natural gas prices, and electricity followed, but the EIA is predicting demand will fall faster, especially when compared to last year's bitter polar vortex conditions. Heating days — a national measure of demand, waited by population — are expected to fall sharply for winter 2014-2015, following a decades-long trend.

That means lower bills for (almost) everyone

Even if this winter is 10 percent colder than predicted, the EIA says propane and heating oil users will see drops in their bills. As it's forecast now, demand will outpace higher prices and mean discounts across the board.

Of course, needs vary across the country, the energy department has an interactive tool that lets you explore spending state-by-state.

On Front Lines Against Ebola, Training A Matter Of Life Or Death

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 23:25

At least 7,000 health care workers are needed to staff new Ebola treatment centers in Liberia alone. Those doctors, nurses and hygienists must learn how to protect themselves — and how not to panic.

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Florida Governor's Race: Familiar Faces, Big Money, Brutal Ads

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 23:24

Incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott is facing off with former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — who's now running as a Democrat. The race is close, expensive and nasty, with a deluge of attack ads.

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Friction Can Save Your Sandwich, And Other Tips For Better Bites

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 23:24

Many sandwiches lack structural integrity due to "the sliced cucumber conundrum," says Dan Pashman, author of Eat More Better. He has fixes for it and other kitchen woes — like sad-looking leftovers.

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Liberian Singers Use The Power Of Music To Raise Ebola Awareness

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 12:54

Early on in the epidemic, the government and aid agencies commissioned songs that just ended up terrifying people. But the newer songs on the radio are catchy and danceable — as well as informative.

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'Protocol Breach' Cited In Second Case Of Ebola In Dallas

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 12:54

Texas health officials have confirmed preliminary tests show a health care worker — who was in contact with the man who died last week of Ebola in Dallas — has been diagnosed with the disease.

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To Cut Student Debt, Florida College Cuts Off Some Student Borrowing

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 12:54

One of Florida's largest community colleges is trying to reduce the amount of debt its students take on. As part of a federal experiment, it has barred them from taking out any unsubsidized loans.

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Striking Mosaic Found In Greek Tomb Dates From 4th Century B.C.

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 12:37

Dating from the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., the mosaic covers a space of nearly 15 feet by 10 feet. It features two horses, a man and the god Hermes, in colorful detail.

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Seattle Swaps Columbus Day For 'Indigenous Peoples' Day'

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 10:55

The city is the latest to honor Native Americans instead of Christopher Columbus. But not everyone is happy about the change.

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Weekend Brunch: AIG and women in sports

Marketplace - American Public Media - Sun, 2014-10-12 09:35

ESPN The Magazine's Mina Kimes and Shane Ferro from Business Insider look back on the week's news.

This weekend's reading list:

Dealbook/New York Times: AIG Bailout, Revisionists' Version

ESPN: Lawsuits show MLB's gender problem

Quartz: Memo to Warren Buffett: Actually, women are better than men at managing money

Slippery When Coated: Helping Medical Devices Resist Blood Clots

NPR News - Sun, 2014-10-12 09:03

When blood flows over an artificial surface, whether it's an implanted pacemaker or tubing for a dialysis machine, there's an increased risk that a dangerous clot will form.

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