Marketplace - American Public Media

Burning Money

Fri, 2015-03-13 09:33

What happens to money after it becomes too old and worn to be useable?

Until just a few years ago, most of it was sent to landfills. Now, as part of a recycling initiative at the Federal Reserve, hundreds of tons of shredded bills are burned each year to generate electricity.

Officials at the Federal Reserve in Los Angeles said that the program — which has increased the percentage of recycled cash from 30 percent to more than 90 percent since 2010 — has multiple benefits for the region.

“We’re able to divert the shredded currency away from landfills, we have done so at lesser cost to the Fed, and the County of Los Angeles now has an additional source of fuel,” says Deborah Awai, a group vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Deep within the Federal Reserve’s cash-processing facility in Los Angeles on a recent Monday morning, employees were loading bundles of currency into sorting machines that determine whether a bill is still fit enough to stay in circulation, is too old and worn, or is counterfeit.

The Los Angeles branch received 3.1 billion notes of currency in 2014. Good bills are set aside to await their return to circulation. Counterfeit ones are sent to the Secret Service. Lousy notes are shredded.

Nationwide, about 5,000 tons of currency are shredded annually. The shredded currency is recycled in various ways, including composting and manufacturing. About one-third is burned to generate electricity.

The Los Angeles branch burns more currency than any of the other 27 cash processing facilities in the nation.

The conversion occurs at the refuse-to-energy facility in the City of Commerce near Los Angeles. Five days a week, trucks back into the plant’s warehouse and dump garbage into an enormous pit inside.

Matt Eaton, a division engineer with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, said that the facility receives about 100,000 tons of waste from various sources each year. The heat generates enough electricity from its steam turbines to provide power for 20,000 homes.

The approximately 535 tons of shredded money from the Los Angeles cash-processing branch only constitutes a minuscule percentage of the total waste the facility receives. Still, Eaton estimated that energy provided by the burned cash is enough to power 100 homes.

The money is also valuable because it acts as kindling for messier garbage.

“It does burn really well, and it helps support the combustion of some waste we get in that may be wetter or doesn’t burn as easily,” Eaton said.

He said the fact that the cash was recently worth millions of dollars doesn’t phase employees when it arrives.

“It’s treated like any other source of waste. People don’t come out running when we see the currency. If it wasn’t shredded, maybe, but because it’s shredded, no. It’s like any other waste,” Eaton said.

Fun Fact Friday: Uber might be ruining our economy

Fri, 2015-03-13 09:29

Kai sat down with Linette Lopez of Business Insider and Sudeep Reddy from the Wall Street Journal for a look at the week that was. Here's what else we learned listening to Marketplace this week: 

Fun Fact: There are rules to duplicating dollar bills, even on movie sets.

In preparing for the climax of the film Rush Hour 2, a prop maker discovered the legal implications in creating a billion dollars in fake money. In fact, there's a law that states, when duplicating dollar bills, they must be either 75 percent smaller than or 150 percent larger than the size of a real bill. The tricky business behind fake Hollywood money

Fun Fact: Millennials and women are responsible for our shift towards fresher foods.

Gone are the days of Chef Boyardee and Ramen noodles. Sales of some of the top brands at General Mills, Kraft, and the Campbell Soup Company have been slumping. Food analysts claim the change in consumption habits is due to recession-born millennials and mothers concerned about the additives and preservatives perverting their children's foods.  Why sales of packaged or processed foods are declining

Fun Fact: The Social Security "Death Master File" features more than six million people born before 1901 as still alive.

A recent audit by the Inspector General revealed the inefficient record keeping. This is problematic for many federal agencies that rely on this file for paying out refunds and pensions. The cost of inefficient Social Security record keeping

Fun Fact: The U.S. economy includes some 2.8 million temp workers -- a number much larger when you include people working in the "gig economy."

The gig economy, or “Uberification” of the labor force, in which companies hire locals to complete a quick task at hand, has in fact made it frighteningly easy for companies to offload jobs that would otherwise go to full-time staff. It's created a loophole for labor regulations that some feel is creating a speedy race to the bottom. Is the Uber economy bad for workers?

Fun Fact: We created this quiz to find out which Apple Watch is right for you. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage this week to unveil updates of existing products and show off new products, most notably the Apple Watch, which ranges in price from $349 to more than a whopping $10,000. We created a quiz so you could determine which watch is right for you. Is it time for the Apple Watch?        

It's pi day ... with a twist

Fri, 2015-03-13 08:51

This is either incredibly geeky, incredibly cool or more likely a combination of the two.

Saturday is, as you've no doubt heard, "Pi Day." March 14th, 3/14, 3 ... 1 ... 4. Pi: 3.14

It is also 2015, which makes it 3/14/15. 3.1415 is Pi to the fourth decimal.

Here comes the cool part (and if you've read this far, thank you).

Saturday at 9:26 am, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is going to announce its admissions decisions. That's 3/14/15, 9:26.

Pi to the 7th decimal?3.1415926.

Pretty cool. 

Despite headwinds, tobacco industry is still thriving

Fri, 2015-03-13 08:45

When you’re in the tobacco business, controversy is all part of the game. And it’s been rough sledding for the industry this week.

First came the Institute of Medicine report pushing to increase the tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21. Today, a group of public health experts writing in the British medical journal "The Lancet" called for a tobacco-free world by 2040.

At this point, you could quickly stack up the public health arguments like matchsticks to condemn the $100 billion U.S. tobacco industry.

Every year, 500,000 Americans die as a result of smoking. Nine million are sick from their smoking. And then, Stanford professor Tom Glynn says the CDC estimates we’re spending $300 billion a year dealing with the fallout from smoking.

“When someone goes into a store and buys a pack of cigarettes, it costs the American taxpayer about $10 every time in lost wages, lost productivity and healthcare,” he says.

And market data shows fewer people are smoking – just 18% of adults. And those who do smoke are smoking less. That said, University of Michigan economist Ken Warner says profits are strong, companies have cut costs, and they have expanded into things like e-cigarettes.

“We need to be aware that the industry has been thriving throughout this tough period, and they’re thriving now,” he says.

But Warner says there may be a chink in the industry’s armor, he says he’s seeing manufacturers do something he hasn’t seen before: They’re raising prices.

“With an addictive product, you want to pick a price that is not only going to keep your smokers smoking, but in particular is going to encourage kids to smoke. So if I’m right about this, they are probably taking the view that the cigarette market is not going to be a terribly strong one a few decades down the line here,” he says.

Capitol Securities Management analyst Steve Marascia says he’s not ready to bet against big tobacco. 

“It’s a smart cat with nine lives, and it’s a product people still which people want,” he says.

Teach For America is getting fewer applicants

Fri, 2015-03-13 08:43

Recruiting teachers to work in low-income communities is not as easy as it used to be. 

Teach For America reports that it has received 44,100 applications this year for its program of training professionals and college graduates, and placing them in two-year teaching commitments at schools. The education non-profit says that less than 15 percent of those applicants will be chosen for its highly-selective program. 

Those numbers sound impressive until you consider Teach For America's recent past. The group's applicant pool ballooned tenfold in the last 15 years to a peak of 57,266 applicants in 2013. It has since declined 23 percent. 

The organization attributes its recruiting challenges to an improving job market, and more competition for college graduates and professionals. 

"We are looking for the same kinds of young leaders... that many of the top corporations and best places to work are looking for," says Massie Ritsch, a spokesperson for Teach For America. 

But the headwinds Teach For America is facing are not from an improving economy alone.

Sara Mead, a consultant with Bellweather Education Partners who helped author an internal study for Teach For America, says while the economy is by far the top reason, Teach For America also is battling negative perceptions. 

Some of the non-profit group's alumni have advocated for things like standardized testing and other educational reforms that Mead describes as "polarizing."

"Some of the critics of those changes have really focused on Teach For America in a negative way," Mead says. 

There are anecdotal reports that some professors have dissuaded their students from applying to Teach For America and that some recruiters have faced negative responses on campuses, says Mead. 

"We are definitely having to answer harder questions and more questions," says Ritsch. 

But those questions aren't about Teach For America alone. They are also about the teaching profession, as a whole. 

"Millenials tend to have a pretty poor perception of the teaching profession," says Tamara Hiler with the education think tank Third Way, who conducted a survey of college undergraduates. "They want to be entering careers that are going to be seen as sort of opening doors for them and a lot of times they see teaching as actually closing doors." 

Los Angeles is definitely ready for some football

Fri, 2015-03-13 08:43
$521,294,275

That's how much the city of Chicago shelled out for expenses related to police misconduct from 2004-2014. About a fourth of that is tied up in attorney's fees, both for the plaintiffs and the police, who have been historically unwilling to settle.

2038

The year the gender wage gap would close in Florida if it continues to narrow at the current rate, according to an analysis from the Institute for Women's Policy Research reported by the Washington Post. Florida would be the first state to close the gap. The last? Wyoming in 2159.

12/24/1994

The last time Los Angeles hosted its own pro-football home game, the Atlantic's CityLab reported. LA is the largest city without a professional football franchise by a significant margin, and no less than 15 teams have been rumored or out-and-out threatened to move there since then.

Seven

"Mad Men" wraps up its seven-season run this spring, with the last batch up episodes starting in April. The Hollywood Reporter has an exhaustive oral history of the show, which propelled AMC from a minor movie channel into a prestige drama juggernaut. It's a great weekend long read.

Five

The number of flavors available for the powdered alcohol product "palcohol." The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the freeze-dried product on Thursday, which comes in vodka, rum, cosmopolitan, margarita and lemon drop flavors.

PODCAST: The annual dance with default

Fri, 2015-03-13 07:35

First up: After a rally Thursday, the stocks were trending down in the first hours of trading Friday. We check in with Christopher Lowe from FTN Financial to talk falling wholesale prices, raising oil production and reading the Fed's tea leaves. Then, the federal government will begin its almost-annual dance with default on Sunday: the debt ceiling is back. Finally, on the second anniversary of Pope Francis' election, we look at how the Pope has reformed the Church's finances and the work he has yet to do on the Vatican Bank.

Silicon Tally: SXSW Edition

Fri, 2015-03-13 04:53

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Will Hurley, also known as Whurley, CEO of Honest Dollar.

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Two Profiles of China's Economy

Fri, 2015-03-13 02:32

It’s 3:00 a.m. in the most populated city of the world’s most populated country. Most of Shanghai’s 24 million inhabitants are fast asleep, but it’s rush hour inside the city’s largest wholesale fish market.

The Tongchuan Road market supplies the metropolis with one of its most popular staple foods. Vendors wearing rubber boots rush through miles of twisting, cramped corridors covered with a thick film of fish guts. It’s a slimy, lively labyrinth that’s difficult to navigate, not unlike finding one’s way into China’s elusive middle class.

Zhang Wenquan knows this all too well. The tall,  muscular 47-year old kicks off his sneaker. He pulls on a pair of camouflaged rubber boots before entering the sprawling market, oblivious to the calls from competing vendors. Zhang grew up in the impoverished countryside of Anhui province. When he turned 17, he came to Shanghai to work on an assembly line. He met his wife at the factory, and they now sell fish at a small neighborhood market. Zhang wakes up at midnight each day to buy his merchandise here.

And “buy” might not be the right term, constant haggling is more like it.

“How much?” Zhang asks a vendor as he plunges his strong hands into a box of live shrimp.

“Fifty,” the woman barks back.

“Fifty? Yesterday you sold them for 48! These are too small!” Zhang says.

He repeats this with every vendor: Too small, too expensive, too ugly – at one stall he takes one look at a tank of fish and declares: “They’re all dead.”

“Buying fish is tougher than raising children,” Zhang says. “By this afternoon, everything I just bought will be dead and worthless.”

His children, on the other hand, could someday be the family’s ticket into China’s middle class. “I’m not working this hard so that my daughters end up working as fish sellers like me,” Zhang says. “They’ve got to go to good colleges and find good jobs with good salaries.”

Zhang has twin daughters, a stroke of luck in a country with a one-child policy. But that’s where he sees his luck ending. His girls are 16, they were born in Shanghai and call the city home. Yet, Zhang and his wife had to send the girls to the countryside last year so that they could finish their schooling.  “They can’t legally attend high school in Shanghai because they don’t have Shanghai Hukou,” he explains.

Hukou means ‘household registration’. If you don’t have Hukou for Shanghai – in other words if you’re not registered to live there – then you’re not eligible for social benefits like health insurance, a pension, or even a high school education for your children. You have to return to where your family originally came from to qualify for those benefits.

China’s modern Hukou system has its roots in the country’s old communist-style command economy. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong revived the ancient household registration system in 1958 as a mechanism to restrict peasants from swarming into the country’s largest cities. After the economic reforms of the 1980s, the system was relaxed to allow migrants to move to the city, but strict rules remain governing where their children can attend school and take college entrance exams.

Hukou supporters say controlling China’s massive population has helped prevent the creation of slums around its biggest cities that are common sights in the developing world.

The Zhang family Hukou belongs to his wife’s ancestral village in the countryside of Jiangsu province, and that’s why the couple has been without their daughters for more than a year.

At 6:00 a.m., Zhang arrives to his stall at a wet market in the Xujiahui neighborhood of central Shanghai. He’s dropped off the fresh fish, and his wife, Shi Huiqun, takes over the work so that he can go home and sleep. The 42-year-old tells me business is tougher than it’s ever been: “Competition here is fierce," she says with a sigh. "We used to be able to save money, but now we’re paying for our daughters to attend school back in my hometown, so we’re close to breaking even.”

Shi and Zhang own an apartment in Shanghai, a house in the countryside, a foreign car, and they make around the equivalent of $15,000 a year – three times more than the average urban family makes in China. Yet when I ask her if she considers herself middle class, Shi shakes her head. “I don’t think small business owners like us belong to the middle class. We don’t make that much money. What is the middle class, anyway?” she asks.

“I don’t know if anybody knows what the middle class is in China,” says James McGregor, Asia Chairman of APCO and author of the book, "One Billion Customers."

McGregor says the first wave of China’s middle class were the 400 million people who grew up in China’s largest cities and are now – on paper – upper class. They became wealthy on China’s real estate boom and they now drink Starbucks, own iPhones, and drive imported luxury cars.  “Maybe the middle class is China’s next wave of migrant workers who are getting legal registration in the cities and getting city services and becoming the next consumers,” says McGregor. “Actually, if you look at studies of the future of Chinese economy, that group of people, if you can get 10 million of them a year and they can become consumers, you can have 6 percent growth in China for 20 years.”

And that’s why China’s government has launched an urbanization campaign with the goal of moving a 250,000 rural Chinese to the cities over the next decade. Government propaganda posters throughout the country advertise “The Chinese Dream,” the guiding principle of president Xi Jinping’s government.

Back at the market, I ask Shi if she’s pursuing the Chinese Dream.  

“What’s the Chinese Dream? Is that something from TV? I haven’t heard about it,” says Shi, embarrassed.

Instead, I ask her, “What’s your dream?”

“Originally, I dreamt that my girls could finish their schooling here in Shanghai,” Shi tells me, “but that dream never came true.”

Nearly half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents are in the same conundrum as Zhang and Shi: According to Shanghai’s municipal statistics bureau, nearly ten million children can’t attend Shanghai schools because they don’t possess city Hukou. Nationwide, it adds up to nearly a third of China’s urban population: A quarter of a billion Chinese lack legal rights to social welfare and high school for their children in the cities where they reside.

China’s leaders have vowed to reform the Hukou system, but so far, meaningful change hasn’t taken place. Meanwhile, migrants continue to move into the country’s largest cities.

Today, though, Shi Huiqun is heading in the opposite direction. She’s driving two hours north of Shanghai to her rural hometown to visit her twin daughters. Shi has rented a bare, unfurnished apartment for them located next door to their private middle school. The 16 year-olds have had to repeat the 9th grade, because the curriculum in their new school is a year ahead of that of their former middle school in Shanghai.

When their mother arrives, the twins are studying their textbooks side-by-side. Their grandmother, who can’t read or write, stands guard behind them, making sure they complete their homework.  Zhang Ming studies physics while Zhang Yue reads her English homework out loud. “Our own planet, the Earth is becoming more and more crowded and polluted because of the rapid increase of p ... population,” she says in broken English with help from her sister.

The two are identical twins, they wear identical jackets and identical hairstyles – it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. Throughout our conversation, though, their mother recites their differences to me: Zhang Ming is ranked 4th in class, Zhang Yue is 15th; Zhang Ming’s eyesight is worse; Zhang Yue is quieter; Zhang Ming is temperamental; Zhang Yue is lazier. The girls nod in unison.

Shi’s daughters tell me school here is much more demanding than in Shanghai. They’re in class from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., and they attend half days on Sundays.

“I’d prefer to be in Shanghai,” says Zhang Yue. “I feel like a foreigner here. I think China should allow children to attend school where they grew up. We consider ourselves Shanghainese, but according to our Hukou, we’re not.”

Despite what their Hukou says, the family has come a long way. Shi accompanies me to the farm she grew up on down the road from the school – a couple acres of crops, pigs, chicken, and sheep. “I grew up here in a house with a dirt floor,” Shi tells me.

Life is better now, but not for everyone. Hukou laws have forced parents throughout China to leave their children behind – they’re called ‘left-behind children,’ and there are an estimated 60 million of them, nearly as much as the entire population of the UK. Shi isn’t too worried about her daughters because she and her husband are just a two-hour drive away. But for most left-behind children, that’s not the case. With their parents in another part of China, many of them drop out of school, all but removing an entire population of Chinese from the dream of making it into the middle class.

But the story of the Chinese economy is also about the expansion of wealth and the business leaders who have paved their path to prosperity. How did a poor communist country transform itself into having the second most billionaires in the world, after the United States, in just over a generation? 

The Hurun Report is an annual survey of China's wealthy. Hurun identified 400 billionaires in China, but there are another 800 yet to be profiled. The report estimates that one in seven people in Shanghai and Guangdong are millionaires – and it's even higher in Beijing, where it's one out of six.

It's an extraordinary change from a centrally-planned economy where everyone was at least nominally equal. Hurun estimates that more than half of millionaires started their own businesses. Of the rest, 10 percent made their fortunes from the stock market, 15 percent from real estate, and 20 percent are highly-paid executives.

Of the super-rich – those with $16 million or more – the number of entrepreneurs stands out even more. Some 80 percent of the super-rich own their own firms and 15 percent made their money from real estate.

To put this in context, the self-employed make up only about 6 percent of the Chinese workforce. That's much lower than in developing countries such as India, where it's 82 percent.

The reason is because the market was only opened up to private enterprises in the past two decades when private firms were legally recognized and private contracts honored after the dramatic downsizing of the state-owned firms that have dominated since 1949. And those who took the plunge early on to start their own firms, such as Wang Jianlin, are among the richest people in China. 

Sixty-year-old Wang Jianlin is the biggest property tycoon in China. His company, Wanda, is the largest listed real estate company in China. His company has built housing complexes, entertainment and shopping centers.

His firm catered to the middle class, taking advantage of the developing consumer market in China.  

"Wanda is always trying to reinvent itself," says Wang Jianlin. "We are constantly changing our business model, for example, we started with residential property, then we turned to business centers. Now, we are tapping into culture, finance, and even e-business."

He believes that most Chinese companies are not reaching their potential.

“Currently, most Chinese companies are imitating. Innovative companies — be it technological innovation or business model innovation — are still lacking,” he says. “Chinese companies are still learning. I think it might take up to 10 years, or at least eight years, before Chinese companies can stop imitating their Western counterparts and become genuinely innovative.”

His desire for innovation has made his company invest in film production. The Wanda Studios in China will be the world's largest film and television studios in the world when it opens in 2017.

"We don't want to become another Disney," he says. "For one reason, Disney is too old. It already has an 80 year history. I don't want to be like that. I want to create a brand new Wanda Style entertainment project."

Wang Jianlin built his business anticipating the needs of the emerging middle class. But China is still a poor country – on par with Peru in terms of Gross Domestic Product per person – and there are still strict governing how ordinary people live their lives.

Taxpayers say they plan to spend refunds responsibly

Thu, 2015-03-12 14:20

Forthwith, some tax-time number-crunching.

The average 2014 federal tax refund is $3,120, according to IRS data as of February 20, and 83 percent of taxpayers – more than 40 million people – are getting them.

A recent survey of by Bankrate.com finds that, of those who anticipate a refund, more would pay down debt and less would splurge on vacations or shopping than in years past.

Bankrate.com tax analyst Kay Bell says the survey shows taxpayers "are doing some pretty responsible things with these funds."

"Whether it's because they are finally recovering from the recession and finally getting a job, or getting a little more money from employers," Bell says, "I think people have realized the need to be more prepared."

Bell acknowledges Bankrate’s survey doesn't follow up to ascertain whether respondents follow through on their pre-refund financial plans.

“Like the IRS, we trust what they say,” she says.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow at Golden Gate University, author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind," is not convinced that a majority of taxpayers will act as responsibly as they intend.

“In surveys, people answer according to what they hope they’ll do, as much as what they actually will do,” Yarrow says. In her own consumer-survey research, she finds that many people’s plans to use a tax refund to pay off debt, save, or invest, are aspirational.

"After the fact, this is what I hear: 'I’ve spent some of it on clothing,’ or ‘I’ve spent it on an evening out, it felt like a windfall.’"

Yarrow says some taxpayers use excessive withholding from their paychecks combined with an anticipated refund, as a strategy to pay for holiday gifts and entertainment. They spend it up on credit during the holidays, then pay off as much of that debt as they can once their tax refund arrives.

Some more key stats from Bankrate's survey:

  • 38 percent of taxpayers prefer to receive a big refund. Typically, this means allowing the IRS to withhold more money than is likely necessary from one’s paycheck.
  • 43 percent of millennials would accept higher taxes in exchange for free college tuition for all students. A fifth of other adults would agree to that.
  • 22 percent of Americans would accept higher taxes to provide free health care to all who need it.

The tricky practice of pricing parking

Thu, 2015-03-12 13:06

On a freezing cold day, Zhan Guo stood on a Manhattan street corner. Every available parking space on the surrounding blocks was taken. Turning to the cars driving past, Guo estimated one out of every three was circling the blocks, looking for a place to park.

“Why are they searching? Because [street-parking rates] are too cheap,” Guo says.

Guo researches parking at the Wagner School of Public Policy at New York University, and says studies show that on average, one-third of cars in a downtown area at any given time are looking for parking.

Metered parking in much of Manhattan costs $3.50 an hour, while other blocks require only that cars be moved for twice-weekly street cleaning. That means many people would rather search for street parking than pay for a private garage.

“If you’re a reasonable person, you’re willing to spend maybe thirty minutes searching around, instead of $20 right now into a garage,” he says.

Tell someone the price of their parking meter is too cheap and most people will probably disagree, probably pretty strongly, says Rachel Weinberger with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.

Weinberger says the average meter rate nationwide is $1.15. Accounting for inflation, that’s actually roughly about on par with the country’s first meters.

“The first parking meters were installed in the '30s, really at the behest of a merchant who felt like his employees were parking in front on his store and he couldn’t get them to move,” she says. “So he petitioned the city council to put meters in on his block.”

But if the price of parking hasn’t changed much in real terms, demand for it has. Weinberger says raising prices is difficult, as the process in many cities is more political than scientific.

“We sort of lost the will to change the prices,” she says. “It’s particularly humorous to me that someone might be going out to dinner for say $200, and yet they’re loathe to pay $6, let’s say it’s two hours, on top of your $200 dinner bill.”

However, in recent years, some cities, like Seattle, Pasadena and San Francisco have started to use systems that do try to take demand into account when setting the price of parking.

“So every six or eight weeks we adjust the rates up or down by 25 cents an hour or 50 cents an hour,” says Lauren Mattern, the manager of parking policy and technology at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

San Francisco recently finished a pilot program to test its new pricing strategy. The city nudges the rates up or down until sensors in the parking spots indicate that at any given time, there’s about one open space per block. Rates were also adjusted based on the day of the week or time of day.

“Then there is a ceiling and a floor to that, so we can go as low as 25 cents an hour or as high as $6 an hour,” she says. 

In one neighborhood, she says that meant increasing rates on a busy street, and dropping them on a nearby quieter one.

“Basically by adjusting rates, we’re able to draw some of the demand away from the busier street and give people a bargain for parking on the less popular street,” she explains. “So you’re able to price shop for parking in that neighborhood for the first time.”

Mattern says on the whole, the average price of parking in the pilot neighborhoods actually dropped, and no more circling, looking for a spot.

Startup mattress companies disrupt a stiff business

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:53

There’s a new set of companies getting into the mattress game, and they’re disrupting the traditional model of lying on bed after bed to compare. Kyle Stock explores the mattress industry and the newcomers that are changing things up in his piece, “New Startups Aren’t Keeping Big Mattresses Up At Night,” for Bloomberg Business.

In the scope of consumer products, the humble mattress is becoming simpler by the day. A mattress doesn’t need to get faster or smaller or lighter. It doesn’t have to charge more quickly or use less energy. And though bedding now involves complicated chemical formulas rather than horsehair and reeds, it is still primarily a puzzle of textiles.

But a mattress store was still plenty baffling to Jeff Holt, a professional photographer who recently moved to Charleston, S.C., with his girlfriend and her weary, taco-like mattress. They lay on bed after bed, lent a skeptical ear to a dogged salesman, and eventually grew tired—and not from the cushy products.

“It was like going to a restaurant with 200 options on the menu,” Holt said. “All it does is confuse you. And everything about it feels like a car dealership.”

 

As young companies grow, the future of the industry is uncertain. However, even with the new craft mattress companies starting up, industry giants are doing just fine. Last year, the three biggest public companies, Tempur-Sealy, Select Comfort, and Mattress Firm, saw sales jump 21 percent.

Unpredictable weather is remaking the ski industry

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:42

There is something depressing about a closed ski slope in winter. The trails are bare and grassy. The chairlifts just hang there, waving a little in the breeze. It's like walking into an empty restaurant on a Friday night. That's been the mood in Tahoe for much of this winter.

In the middle of February, I took a trip to the Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. It is a smaller ski area in Tahoe frequented by locals. Unlike the bigger resorts, Homewood sells lift tickets for under 50 dollars, and it isn't filled with restaurants and retail stores. The base of the mountain starts right at the lake, a relatively low elevation that gives it beautiful views but not much snow.

Like many of the smaller resorts in the area, Homewood has been forced to shut down twice this season because of warm, dry conditions. General manager Kevin Mitchell says it has been challenging to keep employees and customers engaged. Looking around at the muddy trails, it's not hard to see why.

Professor Daniel Scott studies tourism and climate change at the University of Waterloo. He says increasingly unpredictable weather favors companies with deeper pockets. They have resources to invest in ways that will mitigate the financial impact of unfavorable conditions — like snow-making machines and resort attractions aside from skiing and snowboarding.

"The problem with mom and pop resorts," says Scott, " is if you have two or three bad years in a row, your financial reserves are gone. You can't make a go of it anymore."

Scott says larger corporations are more climate resilient. They have capital reserves to ride out bad years, and they can diversify geographically. He says big resort chains are now buying ski areas across the country so they can cash in wherever the snow falls. Scott puts it this way: increased variable weather is hastening the trend toward consolidation in the ski industry.

It is already happening up in Lake Tahoe. Five ski areas there are now owned by either Powdr Corporation or Vail Resorts, both industry giants. And in the last few years, the private equity firm KSL Partners has merged two iconic Tahoe resorts — Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Some of the bigger resorts in Tahoe seem to be handling these bad seasons better than others. Squaw Valley is a much larger and higher elevation resort than Homewood. President and CEO Andy Wirth says Squaw has been able to "hedge" the challenge of climate change.

"We are facing the three driest years in 1200 years," Wirth says. "But at the same time, we have increased season passes by 37 percent."

Squaw Valley has ways to make it through these dry winters. It offers season passes that can be used at other resorts, so skiers and snowboarders can chase the powder — that is, if they have the money to travel. Squaw also has attractions besides the mountain: restaurants, retail, and a winter park with tubing. There was even talk of building a water park, a popular development now at bigger resorts.

So, is this the future for a smaller resort like Homewood? No, says General Manager Kevin Mitchell. "We don't want to become one of the giant resorts in Tahoe," Mitchell says, "We want to hold a lot of the character we currently have." The resort is planning to build a gondola that will ferry passengers higher up the mountain where there may actually be some snow. In the meantime

But if the snowstorms don't start coming to Tahoe, that could become harder and harder to do.

This story originally appeared on KQED's "The California Report."

Google launches new cloud ‘cold storage’ service

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:11

If you are a business which needs to store loads of data, this week you've got more options for that so-called "cold storage."

Google has unveiled a new service to store old data at a penny per gigabyte per month, and a retrieval process it says takes seconds.

The company considers this new product a "game-changer" that will make it easier to access the kind of data a business might occasionally need.

Forrester analyst Henry Baltazar sees this as a way for Google to build relationships.

"There's a lot of things you can do once data is in the cloud but the key thing is you can't really sell those services unless you have data," he says.

Federal government approves powdered alcohol for sale

Thu, 2015-03-12 11:05

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the federal government approved powdered alcohol for sale:

The product, called Palcohol, had received the greenlight from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau briefly last year before the bureau backtracked and said the label approvals had been given in error. 

On Wednesday, bureau spokesman Tom Hogue told The Associated Press the issues were resolved and that four varieties of Palcohol were approved. But Hogue noted that states can also regulate alcohol sales in their borders.

It's apparently freeze-dried alcohol packed in small easy to carry pouches. You can get it in vodka, rum, cosmopolitan, margarita and lemon drop flavors.

Left unexplained, is why — just kidding. I know why.

 

 

FCC releases 400-page net neutrality order

Thu, 2015-03-12 10:56

The Federal Communications Commission voted to approve new rules on Net Neutrality two weeks ago. On Thursday, the FCC released the 400-page document

Because the record overwhelmingly supports adopting rules and demonstrates that three 
specific practices invariably harm the open Internet—Blocking, Throttling, and Paid Prioritization—this 
Order bans each of them, applying the same rules to both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access
service.

Prefer a condensed version?  

Alibaba is getting into Snapchat

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:59
$200 million

That's what Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is investing in Snapchat, Bloomberg reported, which would value the company at $15 billion. The disappearing photo and video sharing app had been reportedly fundraising at a valuation between $16 and $19 billion, but Snapchat's star is still rising fast.

24.79 million

Speaking of Snapchat, that's how many views one user's "Snapchat Story" got during New York's much-ballyhooed snow storm earlier this winter. The video was folded into a compilation feature Snapchat calls "Our Stories," which are pushed out to all users for 24 hours. Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson makes the case that "Our Stories" might just be the perfect mobile advertising platform, and a threat to Facebook, Google and broadcast television.

$3,120

The average refund this tax season, according to the IRS. A recent Bankrate.com survey found more people are saying they'll invest that money or use it to pay off debts than in the past. But when those checks actually arrive, more than the predicted 3 precent of people are likely to splurge.

$820 million

That's what General Mills paid for organic-and-natural food company Annie's last year. It's a bellwether for the food business in general, which is trying to pivot in the wake of customers' growing dislike of processes and packaged convenience foods.

52

The age of Google CFO Patrick Pichette, who just announced he would retire once a successor is in place. In the corporate world, Pichette is something of a rarity, Neil Irwin writes for the Upshot. When you're making seven or eight figures quality of life tends to plateau, making early retirement appealing. However, so few top businesspeople, athletes, or entertainers do because that's not the way someone at the top of their field tends to operate. And that's "the paradox of success."

Do you know what you're paying for TV?

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:11

If you ask Ian Olgeirson what it's like to comparison shop for a pay-TV deal, he will tell you that it's a confusing experience. 

"There are times where it's difficult to figure out exactly what's included in an offer," says Olgeirson.

While that's something TV customers might be able to relate to, Olgeirson is no mere customer. He is a principal analyst at SNL Kagan and follows the pay-TV market. In other words, he's a professional. 

 "We certainly are in an era of increasingly complex offers," says Olgeirson, "It is difficult to gain absolute clarity on a customer service call as to what your bill will be."

The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against DirecTV on Wednesday, accusing the nation's largest satellite TV provider of failing to disclose fees it charges customers above what's promoted in its advertisements. 

DirecTV denies the allegations and says its customers were fully informed of what they would be paying, but the company is hardly alone in complaints about charges. 

James Boffetti, who heads the New Hampshire Attorney General's Consumer Protection Bureau, says pay-TV providers register among the top 10 most-complained-about businesses. The bureau gets about 13,000 complaints a year in total.

The complaints against pay TV providers, he says, tend to follow a general theme. "People have complaints about ... the advertising of promotional packages" says Boffetti, "And they don't find that that's what they're actually being charged by the company."

Boffetti says a lot of complaints get resolved, and are usually misunderstandings between the consumer and the company. It's hard to draw a conclusion that companies are deliberately deceiving customers, he says. To do that, companies have to be more willful. 

"A lack of disclosure about significant terms in a business deal could be unfair and deceptive," Boffetti says. 

Still, the complaints show there is confusion out there about pay TV offers. And Laura Martin, an entertainment analyst at Needham & Company, says that's partly because pay-TV providers are facing price pressures both from consumers and the very TV channels that they sell. 

"Content providers have been investing more in original content, and that is increasing their fees to the cable operators ... Telco, cable and satellite, by double digits," says Martin. "And yet, the consumer is faced with a zero-inflation-rate environment, and therefore he doesn't want prices increasing. So we're getting margin pressure in the video part of the business, as programming costs rise faster than prices can be passed through to consumers."

And that means pay TV providers have to compete in price while also making enough to cover their costs. 

All of which comes back to consumers needing to be aware, says Olgeirson, and to do their homework. He recommends asking a pay-TV representative to add up exactly what the monthly bill is going to look like both now and in 12 months before agreeing to sign up for a new service. 

How bank stress tests are like restaurant inspections

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:11

The results of the Federal Reserve's annual stress tests resulted in a failing grade for European banks Deutsche Bank and Santander, a pass — after some extra credit — for JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and a do-over for Bank of America.

The grades are a bit like those handed out to restaurants by health inspectors. 

One difference is that banks know when the inspectors are coming. But Kent Smetters, professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton, says this isn't a problem, because banks can't easily change — and then change back — the basic riskiness of their balance sheets. 

This years' tests did ding Bank of America for "certain weaknesses" in its processes and controls.

"It would be similar to going to a restaurant and saying the food tastes good, the service is fine, and then you walk back in the kitchen and you see somebody is using their hands with fingernails that are unclean," says Mike Mayo, bank analyst at CLSA.

But while these kinds of offenses might shut down a local restaurant, Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that because banks are so systemically important, regulators tend to treat them with "kid gloves" — but that complexity also means their risks are very difficult to accurately "grade."

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