National / International News

Taking the retail sales number too seriously

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 12:02

The Commerce Department released monthly sales data for the month of April. The number is $434 billion, which means sales are up one tenth of a percent from March. But what does 0.1 percent really represent?

Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says the uptick from the previous month's data -- sales for March were about three times as much -- could be explained by spring. Because who wants to shop in bad weather?  

But interpreting a tiny number like the April over March sales increase isn't so easy, or even useful.

“I don’t know that a small trend like that would really say anything major about consumers,” Morris Towns says. “I think it gets tricky when you start looking at small differences from month to month rather than bigger trends.”

Like, year over year. She says comparing monthly numbers can be like finding a picture of Elvis in our toast -- we could be searching for non-existent patterns. And then trying to explain them away with weather, job numbers or holidays. 

"So when you look from month to month," she says "we’re looking for patterns that a lot of times aren’t necessarily patterns, they’re just kind of blips, or small shifts, but don’t really represent a change in consumer attitudes or comfort level with their income or economic status."

Barbara Kahn, director of the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School, says that's why many retailers, like JCPenney and Macy's, have stopped reporting their own month-to -month same-store sales.

“It used to be, I don’t know, how many stores reported? Maybe 20 to 30? It’s down to very, very few stores report now, precisely for that reason, because it doesn’t give a clear picture.”

But Kahn notes, the month to month data can be useful. “One of the reasons it’s been looked at so much in the last three, four, five years was to see the signs of the economy. Because retail sales was a very good indicator of whether or not we’re fully out of the recession, and if the economy is rebounding.”

 Kahn says, if you look at April’s sales compared to last year – the numbers are better. The Commerce Department says they're up by 4 percent.

Fannie and Freddie are easing up. Carefully.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:56

The new head of the government agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac laid out a new game plan Tuesday -- a change in direction, designed to get banks to lend more. The way it works now, Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages from banks and guarantee them. But Fannie and Freddie make banks buy them back if there’s a problem, even if it’s just a minor paperwork glitch. 

Now, Fannie and Freddie will ease up. Carefully.

“Since any stumbles along the way could have ripple effects in the $10 trillion housing finance market, there’s a lot at stake in getting this right," says Mel Watt, the new director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

If Watt gets it right, analysts say banks will be more willing to lend to first time or low-income homebuyers. That's because they won’t be so worried about having to buy their loans back. Will Watt’s plan be enough to rev up the housing market, which has been limping along in second gear?

“Well I think it’s going to stop us from going in reverse,” says Tim Rood, a former executive at Fannie Mae, now chairman of the Collingwood Group. 

But if the housing market speeds up too fast, will it overheat? Not a chance, says Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. 

“We’re still nowhere near the speed limit," he says. "If the speed limit is 65, we’re still going along at 45, but it’s better than 30 or wherever we were at before." 

Cecala says, even with Watt’s changes, banks will still be cautious.

In North Dakota, making ribs for roughnecks

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:52

North Dakota's the land of opportunity for people looking for jobs in the oil and gas industry.

The fracking boom has transformed the western part of the state -- often overwhelming the small towns that dot the prairie. Todd Melby's been keeping track of the comings and goings of workers in the oil field.

Recently, he talked to a Razorback who moved there to make ribs for roughnecks, a guy named Oscar Everetts. You can take Oscar out of Arkansas, but you can't take Arkansas out of.... You know how it goes.

Todd Melby's series, "Black Gold Boom," is an initiative of Prairie Public and the Association for Independents in Radio.

State Spots In Preschool Declining, Report Finds

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:52

Despite much hype, there were fewer seats for 4-year-olds in 2012-2013, leading to a decline in enrollment for the first time since researchers began examining the issue in 2002.

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Google vs. the 'Right to be Forgotten'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:49

If you’ve ever Googled yourself and discovered some not-so-flattering photos from, say, the 2001 office Christmas party, or a break-up poem you published in the college online magazine, you’ll likely find this of interest: Today the European Union’s highest court ruled that individuals can ask Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any other major search engine to remove links that come up when their name is searched.

It's the so-called "right to be forgotten."

The European court said because search results have such a major impact on people’s lives, people should have the right to have certain material removed.

"You talked about your credit report, this is your Google report," says Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land. "On a personal basis, that’s a big impact for some people. There are cases where many people would be sympathetic to the idea that there’s something unflattering about them that’s also old or perhaps outdated."

One of the plaintiffs in the EU case is a surgeon, who requested the removal of a 1991 article, about an operation he’d performed that had gone badly. "There are a number of gray areas here that pit the right of the individuals to control his or her reputation against the public’s right to know," says Greg Sterling, an analyst with Opus Research in San Francisco.

What about this country? Can Americans expect to request the removal of bad haircuts and DUIs?

"No, not at all," says Sterling. "In the U.S., the First Amendment would prevent such an outcome. They [the EU] see any data associated with an individual as personal, private information and the view in the U.S. is more skewed toward making that information not the property of an individual, but something that can be utilized by other parties."

Search engine companies would not have to comply with every request, and it's so far unclear how exactly the ruling will play out.

Google told Marketplace that it was disappointed in the decision, but needed time to analyze the implications.

Sherwood sacked as Tottenham manager

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:39
Tim Sherwood's five-month reign as Tottenham Hotspur manager ends after they finish sixth in the Premier League.

UN Syria envoy Brahimi stepping down

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:24
UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is stepping down, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announces, admitting no breakthrough in three years of conflict.

International Aviation Agency Says Aircraft Tracking Is A Priority

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:18

Following the disappearance of a Malaysian jetliner, the International Civil Aviation Organization took a step toward defining an international standard for global monitoring of aircraft.

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Gatland selection warning for exiles

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:16
Wales coach Warren Gatland says he might consider not selecting players based in England in future.

VIDEO: Astronaut says goodbye to robot companion

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 11:12
Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata says goodbye to his humanoid robot companion, Kirobo, as he wraps up his mission aboard the International Space Station.

Australian Government Plans To Slash Budget, Raise Taxes

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:53

Health, education and foreign aid would all take a hit under the proposal, but defense would see an increase and small- to medium-sized businesses would get a tax cut.

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Iraq Debates Law That Would Allow Men To Marry 9-Year-Old Girls

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:48

The Iraqi Cabinet has approved the measure and sent it to Parliament for a vote. Opponents say it would be a major setback for a country that has mostly secular laws.

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Man held over Claudia Lawrence case

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:37
A 59-year-old man from York is arrested on suspicion of murdering chef Claudia Lawrence, who has been missing since 2009.

How Sega broke Nintendo's monopoly on video games

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:34

Chances are, if you've ever played a video game in your life, you've heard of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, or both.

Before they started appearing in video games together, though, their parent companies were a whole lot less friendly, sparking what is now widely known as the "console wars."

In the early '90s, Nintendo was a video game giant, holding 90 percent of the market. Sega, meanwhile, was fighting other companies for the other 10 percent. 

"And they got absolutely whooped," says Blake Harris, author of the book "Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation". "Things weren't going well until [then-CEO of Sega] Tom Kalinske* took over, and a certain blue hedgehog began to change their fortunes."

That certain blue hedgehog was part of Sega's strategy to knock Nintendo down a peg or two.

"To take down Nintendo, they really wanted to create a Mario-killer," Harris said. "So they held an internal mascot contest, and the selection that won was this hedgehog that was called Mr. Needlemouse originally."

And, for a few years, it worked. Sega went from holding just five percent of the domestic video game market to 55 percent at one point. Mr. Needlemouse, later rechristened as Sonic the Hedgehog, is still as pervasive as ever. Sega, on the other hand, not so much.

"As much as we remember Sega as successful on this big battle against Nintendo in America, Sega in Japan never surpassed 25 percent," he said. "I think there was enmity, jealousy, and spite at times, which led to Sega cutting off the nose to spite the face. And that spite really led to Sega's downfall."

*CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, Tom Kalinske's last name was misspelled. The text has been corrected

Court to probe UK Iraq abuse claims

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:33
An initial investigation into claims that UK forces abused Iraqi detainees is to be opened by the International Criminal Court.

US beats France for wine drinking

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:23
The US overtakes France to become the world's biggest market for wine, according to figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

Games ticket 'fiasco' website closed

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:22
The organisers of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow close the ticket website and phoneline until technical problems can be resolved.

'Troops killed' in Ukraine ambush

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:14
Seven Ukrainian soldiers and one pro-Russian insurgent have reportedly been killed in an ambush in the eastern Donetsk region, reports say.

Kenya bans buses with tinted windows

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:09
Kenya's police chief David Kimaiyo orders the seizure of commuter buses with tinted windows in an attempt to prevent attacks by militants Islamists.

Court battle over Bob Marley songs

BBC - Tue, 2014-05-13 10:06
The High Court in London begins hearing arguments in a copyright dispute over 13 songs by late Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, including No Woman, No Cry.
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