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Quiz: Students at the bar haven’t bounced back

Wed, 2014-12-24 07:09

Law school enrollment declined again in 2014.

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PODCAST: Christmas tree economy

Wed, 2014-12-24 03:00

First up on today's show, as the markets have been up in the U.S., we look at if this trend will continue into 2015. And we follow up on news that the CEO of Uber has been indicted by South Korea. Plus, ‘tis the season for Christmas trees. We profile a business that provides Christmas tree delivery service to residents ... by elves.

Travel snafus delight retailers

Wed, 2014-12-24 02:00

While weather-related travel delays can throw a wrench into holiday plans, that doesn't mean it's bad news for everyone. After all, what do people do when they get stuck in an airport or decide to bail out on a traffic jam? Spend money.  

We look at who wins when travelers are the losers.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Some of Santa's elves are also lumberjacks

Wed, 2014-12-24 02:00

Most of the year, Brandon Johnson makes a living as a lumberjack. He runs a business in Minneapolis, Minn. trimming and clearing trees. But cold and snow make it hard to scale trees in the winter. 

So, Johnson came up with a side job for the holidays: delivering Christmas trees ... dressed as an elf.

“Essentially, I take all my guys from my tree business for the rest of the year and we just transition from lumberjacks to elves,” he says.

Johnson recently delivered a Christmas tree to a home in St. Paul. He was dressed in full elf attire: tight yellow pants and a green tunic.

“These were uniforms issued straight from the North Pole,” he says. “That's just what Santa requires for us elves.”

Johnson often blasts Christmas carols from the truck when he pulls up at a home. A big sign on the truck reads, "Santa's Tree Delivery."

Included in the standard $130 delivery package for a 7 foot Fraser fir is the chance for any children in the house to rub elbows with Santa's helper.

“How old is Santa Claus?” asked Ollie Koelb, the homeowner’s eight year-old granddaughter.

“I don’t know if anyone actually knows,” said Brandon the Elf. “He's getting up there. He's old.”

Johnson and two of his elf pals have delivered roughly 100 trees around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area this season. Johnson says the big trees are the most profitable. He can charge as much as $450 for a sixteen-footer.

Johnson hopes to ramp up the business next year with a big marketing campaign and more man — or elf — power to speed the deliveries, maybe even out of state.

Visit MPR News to check out more photos from the elves' deliveries.  

Ruble woes spark London house-buying spree

Wed, 2014-12-24 02:00

The sharp fall in the Russian ruble is having an impact on the British capital—It’s sparked a wave of near panic-buying at the top end of the London real estate market.

President Putin once dismissed Britain as a small island nobody pays any attention to anymore, least of all the Russians, but that hasn’t been Gary Hersham’s impression.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve noticed an upturn in the number of enquiries we’ve had from Russian purchasers,” says Hersham, the founder of the upscale Beauchamp Estates. He has half a dozen Russian clients clamoring to spend as much as $30 million each on a London home. “These are all cases of people wishing to live in London more or less permanently,” he adds.

And he’s not the only London realtor enjoying a boom as Russians scramble to protect their wealth. Becky Fatemi of the Rokstone agency claims to have registered six new Russian clients over the last week—practically a stampede in the discreet world of the super rich.

They’re coming to London, says Fatemi, because it’s a home away from home for them; a quarter of a million mostly wealthy Russians already live in the British capital. “London works for them due to its proximity to the south of France, Cannes, Monaco, Ibiza and other summer hotspots,” says Fatemi. “New York is a seven-hour flight, Russia is a four-hour flight. And here they can feel safe and secure.”

Rich Russians are made very welcome in Britain. If they have more than $3 million to invest, they can get a visa in as little as 24 hours; if they have more than $15 million they can apply for citizenship after only 2 years. The number of British “investor visas” issued to Russians soared by 69 percent in 2014 as they fled the economic crisis at home.

But one well-known British realtor says the Russian bonanza could be short-lived.

“I think there will be a slashing of demand from Russian buyers in London and indeed in other major cities," suggests Russell Quirk, boss of the eMoov online real estate firm. He says the current flurry of interest is from Russians who anticipated the ruble collapse and got their money out beforehand. Now he thinks there could be a Russian sell-off at the top end of the London market.

“You might be persuaded to liquidate your UK assets in order to have money because your Russian assets have plummeted in value,” says Quirk.

Holiday hiring could be at its highest since 2000

Wed, 2014-12-24 02:00

Even in the depths of the recession, retailers hired several hundred thousand extra workers to stock shelves and run registers during the holiday shopping season. This year, it will be double that. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas predicts retailers including Amazon, UPS, Fedex, Macy’s, Target, GameStop, and others will have added as many as 800,000 seasonal workers from October through December—more than any year since 2000.

CEO John Challenger points out that with Black Friday losing its prominence and consumers spreading their shopping out right up until Christmas, retailers are continuing to hire as store traffic warrants well into December.

And he notes that 2014 has been a good year for non-seasonal hiring as well. “Three million more people are working now than in November 2013,” says Challenger. "And that adds to the spending power of American consumers during the holiday season.”

Many seasonal retail jobs are low-wage and part-time. But Kristy Stromberg at job-search site simplyhired.com says limited hours aren’t necessarily a bad thing: “Some people are looking for that. One of our highest job-search keywords is ‘part-time.’”

The work is also mostly temporary. “For the most part,” says Challenger, “the jobs added to the economy go away in February and March.” He estimates one in ten seasonal retail workers ends up being hired on permanently after the holiday shopping surge is over.

When Christmas means delivering trees and Chinese food

Wed, 2014-12-24 01:30
2,000 workers

That's how many workers are currently employed by Alibiba to weed out counterfeit products on the site, with an additional 200 workers being hired next year. They also have 5,400 volunteers tasked with the same goal. Between the beginning of 2013 and November of this year, Alibaba says it spent $160 million fighting fake goods on the site, as reported by the BBC

$130

That's how much Brandon Johnson charges for a 7 foot tall Christmas tree. But you're not just paying for a tree. Your payment also buys you tree delivery ... from elves. Weather during the winter months mean a slow period for Johnson's lumberjack business. So, he found a way to make money around the holidays. "Essentially, I take all my guys from my tree business for the rest of the year and we just transition from lumberjacks to elves," he says.

800,000 seasonal workers

As many as 800,000 seasonal workers will have been added by businesses in the U.S. from October through December of this year—more than any year since 2000. But some estimate that only 1 in 10 seasonal workers will be hired full-time after the holiday season.

$3 million

Rich Russians can get a good deal in the UK. If they have more than $3 million to invest, they can get a visa in as little as 24 hours; if they have more than $15 million they can apply for citizenship after only 2 years. And with the ruble plummeting in value, some are seeking to invest their money elsewhere, like in high-end real estate in London.

152 percent

If you're eating out for Christmas, chances are good that you're ordering Chinese food. Over at Slate, they found that the percentage of orders on GrubHub for Chinese food rose 152 percent on Christmas day of 2013.

Some of Santa's elves are also lumberjacks

Tue, 2014-12-23 12:54

Most of the year, Brandon Johnson makes a living as a lumberjack. He runs a business in Minneapolis, Minn. trimming and clearing trees. But cold and snow make it hard to scale trees in the winter. 

So Johnson came up with a side job for the holidays: delivering Christmas trees. Dressed as an elf.

“Essentially I take all my guys from my tree business for the rest of the year and we just transition from lumberjacks to elves,” he says.

Johnson recently delivered a Christmas tree to a home in St. Paul. He was dressed in full elf attire—tight yellow pants and a green tunic.

“These were uniforms issued straight from the North Pole,” he says. “That's just what Santa requires for us elves.”

Johnson often blasts Christmas carols from the truck when he pulls up at a home. A big sign on the truck reads, "Santa's Tree Delivery."

Included in the standard $130 delivery package for a 7 foot Fraser fir is the chance for any children in the house to rub elbows with Santa's helper.

“How old is Santa Claus?” asked Ollie Koelb, the homeowner’s eight year-old granddaughter.

“I don’t know if anyone actually knows,” said Brandon the Elf. “He's getting up there. He's old.”

Johnson and two of his elf pals have delivered roughly 100 trees around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area this season. Johnson says the big trees are the most profitable. He can charge as much as $450 for a sixteen-footer.

Johnson hopes to ramp up the business next year with a big marketing campaign and more man-- or elf-- power to speed the deliveries, maybe even out of state.

Why holiday reruns are the gift that keeps on giving

Tue, 2014-12-23 11:34

Holiday reruns are as much a part of the season as mall Santas, Black Friday sales and grandma’s eggnog buzz. 

According to the Nielsen, we just can’t get enough of reruns. The ratings tracking company says nine out of 10 TV viewers will take in at least one holiday special between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That includes Jeffrey Butzer. His favorite? "A Charlie Brown Christmas." “To me, there’s just like this warmth and realness to Charlie Brown,” he says, as a DVD version of the special plays on a nearby TV. “And it is funny.” 

Butzer’s love for the holiday classic runs deep. He owns the show on DVD, and before that, VHS. And when "A Charlie Brown Christmas" airs on TV,  Butzer makes sure he’s parked in front, taking in the antiquated animation and reciting the simple – but touching – storyline. He and his band mates even re-create the show’s soundtrack on stage at The Earl, a staple in Atlanta’s bar scene.

Unlike other shows we see over and over, there’s something different about holiday reruns. When CBS aired "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" earlier this month for the 50th time, it attracted 10.6-million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s good enough to land it in the No. 11 ratings spot for the week.

Turner Networks began airing "A Christmas Story" for 24 hours straight in 1997, and it now brings in an average of 3.3-million viewers per showing, according to the network.

Michael Rice is likely to account for one of those viewers. In addition to "A Christmas Carol," the New Yorker says he counts the 1983 holiday classic as among his favorites. But do viewers like Butzer and Rice mean much in terms of ad revenue?

Turner declined to give specifics, but Chris Lemley says the networks don’t have to bring in much to make the specials lucrative. “A number of the broadcast outlets … own the movies,” says Lemley, a marketing professor at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. “So [networks’] effective cost of putting them on the air is zero.” Lemley says. The cost to advertisers is often low as a result.

In fact, the “number one title is something that has no words at all and is not even a movie,” says Elizabeth Rasberry, a spokeswoman with Cox Cable.

It turns out that a 47-minute video loop of a yule log on a fireplace gets about twice as many viewers as the cable provider’s other holiday programs. Not to be outdone, this year saw the broadcast of a digital menorah for Hanukkah. 

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on future of the U.S. economy

Tue, 2014-12-23 11:06

We always say the economy is not the stock market, and the stock market is not the economy, but today, they seem to be more or less on the same page.

There's a lot of economy numbers out there: The Dow hit 18,000, consumer sentiment is at an eight-year high. But we'll start the show with the biggie, gross domestic product last quarter was up more than it's been in a decade, 5 percent.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew joins us to talk about the outlook for the U.S economy.

Adriene Hill: This is the fastest quarterly growth we've seen in more than a decade. It sounds like good news, but I wonder, what's the picture look like for the middle-class here?

Jack Lew: It is good news. I think what we've seen, over the past several quarters, is that the economy is growing at a healthy rate. Growing at the fastest pace in over a decade is significant. And we've seen a number of economic indicators that show improvement in the labor market, increase in domestic energy security, lower health-care costs.

We took a lot of steps in 2009 and 2010 to rescue our economy and to build a foundation for growth, and we're now seeing the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s. I think when you look at the effect on workers, creating more jobs is incredibly important. And we're seeing job growth in areas where wages are better and better.

I think for working families who went through the experience of the Great Recession, there's some deep scar,s, and they're looking to see it in their pay. They're looking to see it in their family budgets. I think we're seeing signs that is going to begin to break through, and that's the challenge going forward.

AH: In the White House press release today, it says, "We have more work to do to boost wages for middle-class families." What's that look like, what's that mean?

JL: It means a few things. First of all, it means we need to keep focusing on making sure that there is an environment conducive to creating jobs in areas like manufacturing and technology and areas like construction where jobs are good middle-class jobs. I think at the bottom end, it means we have to make sure we keep working to see increases in the minimum wage, so that workers who are working full-time at least get their income above the poverty line. The growing economy, the confidence in a growing economy will continue to put some steam behind the labor markets and some energy behind what the future looks like. That confidence in the future ... will be part of what helps create the jobs that create more and more good middle-class incomes. 

Our work isn't going to be done until every American who wants to work can work and can have a decent middle-class shot. And that's what our efforts are about, it's what our programs and policies have been about. It's what they'll continue to be about.

AH: Is there anything your office can do to help push things in that direction?

JL: You know, I think that one area we have worked a lot on, you look at at all the things that are going well in the economy, we've been looking at what can you do to create more activity in construction in housing. And I think we've seen some good progress there but we need to see more. The challenge of continuing to make the investment climate one where there's confidence in the future where employers are willing to make the investment ... is always important. I think you know we've just come out of a couple weeks where Washington has shown that we can get our work done. That there can be stability and not just this week or this month, but for the next year. 

I think you look back on the last few years, it wasn't that way in 2011 and 2012. There was reason to be nervous to be nervous about what was happening in Washington. I think the fact that we were able to reach agreement on an approach that creates as I say certainty, will help. And will help to create an environment where more jobs are created. That was frankly one of the most important reasons to get behind the budget deal in the last week.

AH: We've seen very positive growth in the economy in the last two quarters. And I wonder, how much of that is about factors that could change quickly? Things like low oil prices and the strength of the dollar?

JL: I think the drop in oil prices is fairly recent. It is serving to reduce the cost of gasoline and to essentially be a tax cut for families that are stretching their budget. That's a good thing. Obviously, it's meant a little bit of a slow-down in new development in some areas, but I think that over time that will kind of work itself out, resources will be developed, if it's not this month or next month, it'll be a little bit later. I don't think that the progress we've seen in the economic indicators over the last few quarters are directly a result of oil prices being low. I think it's a result of core strength, you look at the manufacturing and job creation numbers, they started before oil prices started coming down. 

The sense that the United States was the best place in the world to do business was improving before oil prices started to come down. Obviously, lower oil prices are a plus for the general economy. I think that the fact we've developed our own energy resources is actually very significant, it's part of the reason why the U.S. is such a good place to do business, because we have political stability, we have the best workers in the world, and we have now abundant energy resources. So, I think that I don't look at it as the developments of the last couple of weeks, it's really the developments of the last couple of years in energy area that have been more significant.

AH: Now, we now still that people aren't earning much more than they have been, which means that they're been borrowing. And I wonder, how healthy is it to have economic growth based at least in part on record consumer debt.

JL: I think that if you look at family balance sheets, we've seen a lot of de-leveraging take place. Family balance sheets are in a much better place than they've been in a very long time. So I actually don't think that we're seeing more growth now that fueled by excessive levels of debt. Frankly, we're in a place now where I think there's every reason to believe that more people should be able to get mortgages, and to buy a home, and to take that step where they have the income and the economic record to qualify. What they need is the confidence to go forward, and that sense that next year and the year after are going to be better than what they came out of in the Great Recession. I hope we'll bring more people out into the housing market for example. That's not bad, it's bad if people get in over their heads, it's not bad if people who can afford a home buy a home of their own, that's the American dream.

AH: A lot of people though are sitting on the sidelines right now of the housing market, how do you pull them back in?

JL: If you look at people sitting on the sidelines, they fall into different groups obviously. A lot of young people graduate school at a time they couldn't find a job right away, and they're taking a few years to make a lot of decisions in life to make sure feel comfortable about the future. 

A series of good economic reports helps a lot. Government working smoothly making decisions one a time to move things in the right direction helps. I think fundamentally, individuals and businesses alike will benefit from an extended period of confidence. And if businesses have confidence that the future is going to be better, they're going to invest and hire more. And if individuals have confidence in the future, they're going to willing to take that leap and buy a family home for the first time. I think there's every reason to be optimistic about 2015, we're ending the year quite strong. We had kind of an anomalous first quarter that did not represent where the rest of the year has been, many of us thought at the time that it was kind of not where we really were. The last three quarters are proving that. And I think going into next year, we have every reason to think the year will start strong and be strong.

AH: We asked you this last time you were on the show, but it's worth asking again. The numbers look great, but when we talk to regular people, I as a reporter am talking to regular people, they're still not feeling it. And I wonder, what needs to change to really translate these numbers into real life?

JL: You know, what I think what we were talking about [earlier] is very real. The recession in '08 was very deep. The experience that people went through was very bruising. It takes a while for confidence to come back, and it's taken a while for incomes to get back. We're seeing incomes rise too slowly, but we're seeing incomes rise again. i think that needs to continue. I think that the combination of time and things moving in the right direction will help.

But, to be clear, there's more work that we need to do. We need to make sure that whether it's in education, or in the way we create an environment that's conducive to investment and manufacturing, in housing, there's more policy that we need to do. And the president's actions in 2009 and 2010 have a lot to do with the strength of the macroeconomic indicators today. And I think that the vision for the future involves making more progress going forward. And I'm optimistic that even in a period of divided government we will make progress on things that are important to the American people.

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the future of the economy

Tue, 2014-12-23 11:06

We always say the economy is not the stock market, and the stock market is not the economy, but today, they seem to be more or less on the same page.

There's a lot of economy numbers out there, the Dow hit 18,000, consumer sentiment is at a 8-year high, but we'll start the show with the biggie, GDP last quarter was up more than it's been in a decade. 5 percent.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew joins the show to talk about the outlook for the U.S economy.

Adriene Hill: "This is the fastest quarterly growth we've seen in more than a decade. It sounds like good news, but I wonder, what's the picture look like for the middle-class here?"

Jack Lew: "I think it is good news. I think we've seen, over the past several quarters, is that the economy is growing at a healthy rate. Growing at the fastest pace in over a decade is significant. And we've seen a number of economic indicators that show improvement in the labor market, increase in domestic energy security, lower health-care costs.

We took a lot of steps in 2009 and 2010 to rescue our economy and to build a foundation for growth, and we're now seeing the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s. I think when you look at the effect on workers, creating more jobs is incredibly important. And we're seeing job growth in areas where wages are better and better.

I think for working families who went through the experience of the Great Recession, there's some deep scars and they're looking to see it in their pay. They're looking to see it in their family budgets. I think we're seeing signs that is going to begin to break through, and that's the challenge going forward."

AH: "In the White House press release today, it says, 'We have more work to do to boost wages for middle-class families.' What's that look like, what's that mean?"

JL: "I think it means a few things. First of all, it means we need to keep focusing on making sure that there is an environment conducive to creating jobs in areas like manufacturing and technology and areas like construction where jobs are good middle-class jobs. I think at the bottom end, it means we have to make sure we keep working to see increases in the minimum wage, so that workers who are working full-time at least get their income above the poverty line. The growing economy, the confidence in a growing economy will continue to put some steam behind the labor markets and some energy behind what the future looks like. That confidence in the future ... will be part of what helps create the jobs that create more and more good middle-class incomes. 

Our work isn't going to be done until every American who wants to work can work and can have a decent middle-class shot. And that's what our efforts are about, it's what our programs and policies have been about. It's what they'll continue to be about."

AH: "Is there anything your office can do to help push things in that direction?"

JL: "You know, I think that one area we have worked a lot on, you look at at all the things that are going well in the economy, we've been looking at what can you do to create more activity in construction in housing. And I think we've seen some good progress there but we need to see more. The challenge of continuing to make the investment climate one where there's confidence in the future where employers are willing to make the investment ... is always important. I think you know we've just come out of a couple weeks where Washington has shown that we can get our work done. That there can be stability and not just this week or this month, but for the next year. 

I think you look back on the last few years, it wasn't that way in 2011 and 2012. There was reason to be nervous to be nervous about what was happening in Washington. I think the fact that we were able to reach agreement on an approach that creates as I say certainty, will help. And will help to create an environment where more jobs are created. That was frankly one of the most important reasons to get behind the budget deal in the last week."

AH: "We've seen very positive growth in the economy in the last two quarters. And I wonder, how much of that is about factors that could change quickly? Things like low oil prices and the strength of the dollar?"

JL: "I think the drop in oil prices is fairly recent. It is serving to reduce the cost of gasoline and to essentially be a tax cut for families that are stretching their budget. That's a good thing. Obviously, it's meant a little bit of a slow-down in new development in some areas, but I think that over time that will kind of work itself out, resources will be developed, if it's not this month or next month, it'll be a little bit later. I don't think that the progress we've seen in the economic indicators over the last few quarters are directly a result of oil prices being low. I think it's a result of core strength, you look at the manufacturing and job creation numbers, they started before oil prices started coming down. 

The sense that the United States was the best place in the world to do business was improving before oil prices started to come down. Obviously, lower oil prices are a plus for the general economy. I think that the fact we've developed our own energy resources is actually very significant, it's part of the reason why the U.S. is such a good place to do business, because we have political stability, we have the best workers in the world, and we have now abundant energy resources. So, I think that I don't look at it as the developments of the last couple of weeks, it's really the developments of the last couple of years in energy area that have been more significant."

AH: "Now, we now still that people aren't earning much more than they have been, which means that they're been borrowing. And I wonder, how healthy is it to have economic growth based at least in part on record consumer debt."

JL: "I think that if you look at family balance sheets, we've seen a lot of de-leveraging take place. Family balance sheets are in a much better place than they've been in a very long time. So I actually don't think that we're seeing more growth now that fueled by excessive levels of debt. Frankly, we're in a place now where I think there's every reason to believe that more people should be able to get mortgages, and to buy a home, and to take that step where they have the income and the economic record to qualify. What they need is the confidence to go forward, and that sense that next year and the year after are going to be better than what they came out of in the Great Recession. I hope we'll bring more people out into the housing market for example. That's not bad, it's bad if people get in over their heads, it's not bad if people who can afford a home buy a home of their own, that's the American dream."

AH: "A lot of people though are sitting on the sidelines right now of the housing market, how do you pull them back in?"

JL: "If you look at people sitting on the sidelines, they fall into different groups obviously. A lot of young people graduate school at a time they couldn't find a job right away, and they're taking a few years to make a lot of decisions in life to make sure feel comfortable about the future. 

A series of good economic reports helps a lot. Government working smoothly making decisions one a time to move things in the right direction helps. I think fundamentally, individuals and businesses alike will benefit from an extended period of confidence. And if businesses have confidence that the future is going to be better, they're going to invest and hire more. And if individuals have confidence in the future, they're going to willing to take that leap and buy a family home for the first time. I think there's every reason to be optimistic about 2015, we're ending the year quite strong. We had kind of an anomalous first quarter that did not represent where the rest of the year has been, many of us thought at the time that it was kind of not where we really were. The last three quarters are proving that. And I think going into next year, we have every reason to think the year will start strong and be strong."

AH: "We asked you this last time you were on the show, but it's worth asking again. The numbers look great, but when we talk to regular people, I as a reporter am talking to regular people, they're still not feeling it. And I wonder, what needs to change to really translate these numbers into real life?"

JL: "You know, what I think what we were talking about [earlier] is very real. The recession in '08 was very deep. The experience that people went through was very bruising. It takes a while for confidence to come back, and it's taken a while for incomes to get back. We're seeing incomes rise too slowly, but we're seeing incomes rise again. i think that needs to continue. I think that the combination of time and things moving in the right direction will help.

But, to be clear, there's more work that we need to do. We need to make sure that whether it's in education, or in the way we create an environment that's conducive to investment and manufacturing, in housing, there's more policy that we need to do. And the President's actions in 2009 and 2010 have a lot to do with the strength of the macroeconomic indicators today. And I think that the vision for the future involves making more progress going forward. And I'm optimistic that even in a period of divided government we will make progress on things that are important to the American people."

13 last-minute gift ideas pulled from holiday movies

Tue, 2014-12-23 11:04

Whether you have a holiday movie buff on your list, or you're on a mission to collect the greatest — or not-so-great — presents from such films, here's a breakdown of the cost of memorabilia that includes "Elf"-inspired lingerie and Turbo Man from "Jingle All the Way."

"A Christmas Carol" (Various releases)
Turkey, approximately $20 
Need a last-minute gift for that person on your list who has everything? Don't be a Scrooge this holiday season. A giant turkey should do the trick. Ebenezer didn't even deliver one to the Cratchits until Christmas morning.

"The Polar Express" (2004)
Sleigh bell, $64.95 gift set or about $20 elsewhere
This "first gift of Christmas" can provide some excellent accompaniment to any and all hot chocolate dance parties.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965)
Small tree, $6.49 or free
For the eternal optimists in your life. If you're feeling crafty, go outside, grab a pine tree branch and hang a single red bulb on it.

"Elf" (2003)
"For that special someone" lingerie, $29.99
Sure, you could give this to your significant other, but as the movie clearly shows, it may be the best present for your dad.

 "World's Best Cup of Coffee" mug, $12
Actually finding the world's java champion might prove difficult, so at least you can give the gift of letting someone think they're drinking the best. That's what Buddy did in "Elf."

"Jingle All the Way" (1996)
Turbo Man, about $300
An actualTurbo Man toy will set you back a few hundred bucks these days, but if you know anyone who is strangely obsessed with Arnold Schwarzenegger or superheroes that look suspiciously similar to Iron Man, this may be for you.

"The Santa Clause" (1994)
Mystery Date board game, $25.15 
Reproductions of this 1965 game are widely available, so play Santa to your own nostalgic family member.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966, 2000)
Dog reindeer antlers,$5.02 to $11.15
Dress up your pooch in something way easier to manage than the big horn from the movie.

"Love Actually" (2003)
Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now" CD, $13.69
Anyone expecting a gold necklace from you this Christmas, like Emma Thompson did (heartbreakingly) in the film? Perfect, get them this instead.

"Home Alone" (1990)
Bag of green army men, $7.25
On his shopping trip, Kevin buys Tide detergent, toilet paper, a microwavable Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner, and most importantly, some of these guys. Listen to your inner kid and pick some up, too.

"A Christmas Story" (1983)
When it comes to holiday movies featuring great gifts, "A Christmas Story" offers something for everyone: dads in need of some light, kids who prefer Easter and of course, anyone who can't stand their neighbor's turkey-dinner ruining hounds (see above if in need of a new turkey).
Leg lamp, $34.52 to $249.99

Adult pink bunny suit, $49.99

Red Ryder BB gun, $27

Move over, Snapchat. There's a new app in town.

Tue, 2014-12-23 11:00

In every disaster there is an opportunity, and a market, for someone.

Confide, a smartphone app company, created an app, also called Confide, that makes top-secret business messages self-destruct, like Snapchat images. According to Confide's website, "messages disappear after they're read, ensuring all of your communication remains private, confidential and always off the record."

Confide is trying to capitalize on the Sony hack by pitching its app to big companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. Good timing.

The best part? The company is offering the service to Sony for free.

 

Russia is facing a 'full-blown economic crisis'

Tue, 2014-12-23 08:27

Western sanctions and the dramatic fall in the price of oil have taken a toll on the Russian economy. Russia’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, has warned that the country is facing a "full-blown economic crisis." The BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, tells us how people living in Russia are responding to the turmoil.

How bankers muscled ratings agencies on tobacco bonds

Tue, 2014-12-23 08:20

This story was co-published with Cezary Podkul and ProPublica

When the economy nosedived in 2008, it didn’t take long to find the crucial trigger. Wall Street banks had peddled billions of dollars in toxic securities after packing them with subprime mortgages that were sure to default.

Behind the bankers’ actions, however, stood a less-visible part of the finance industry that also came under fire. The big credit-rating firms – S&P, Moody’s and Fitch – routinely blessed the securities as safe investments. Two U.S. investigations found that raters compromised their independence under pressure from banks and the lure of profits, becoming, as the government’s official inquiry panel put it,  “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.”

Now there is evidence the raters also may have succumbed to pressure from the bankers in another area: The sale of billions of dollars in bonds by states and municipalities looking to quickly cash in on the massive 1998 legal settlement with Big Tobacco.

A review by ProPublica of documents from 22 tobacco bond offerings sold by 15 state and local governments shows that bankers routinely bragged about having their way with the agencies that rated their products. The claims were brazen, the documents show, with bankers saying they routinely played one firm against its competitors to win changes to rating methods, jack up a rating or agree to rate longer-term, riskier bonds.

"Bear Stearns is the ONLY firm in two years to have negotiated new rating criteria pertaining to stress tests and tobacco sector fundamentals,” the now-defunct investment bank stated in a typical 2005 pitch for a deal led by Kym S. Arnone, who today chairs the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, the industry’s self-regulator.

“Fitch reached out to UBS for input so that they would fall in line with the other ratings agencies,” UBS said after they and others dropped the firm from deals because of its “constraining” stress tests. Following the conversation, “Fitch amended their stress criteria,” UBS told Michigan as it readied a 2006 deal.

In 2007, JPMorgan promised to negotiate Fitch “to their knees” if Ohio hired the bank for a $5.5 billion deal that was the largest sale, or “securitization” of tobacco settlement payments.

The 140 documents, unearthed through public records requests, show that bankers from six Wall Street firms – UBS, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs – claimed they could  convince the rating agencies to make favorable changes to their criteria.

Garnering better grades for the tobacco bonds meant the bankers could sell more of them, get a leg up on their competition and win millions of dollars in fees from the governments issuing the debt. The state and local governments were trading their annual tobacco payments for up-front cash by making the bond deals. As ProPublica has reported in a series of stories, the bonds have proved much riskier than advertised, leading to fiscal headaches for the issuers and losses for investors.

While there are no indications that the bankers did anything illegal, their claims further undermine the argument by the raters that their opinions are only the result of independent analysis – something the firms will soon be required to attest to in writing under reforms enacted in the wake of the financial crisis.

Since the economy tumbled in 2008, the estimated $36 billion of bonds issued in the tobacco sector – like so many other corners of Wall Street – have proven to be founded on shaky assumptions. In this case, the unraveling was caused by weaker-than-expected cigarette sales, which drive the size of the settlement payments. The outlook is now so bleak that in September Moody’s estimated that 80 percent of the money owed on tobacco bonds it rates won’t repay on time.

The future may be even bleaker for a $3 billion sliver of the debt. Those securities, known as capital appreciation bonds, promised balloon payoffs so large – $64 billion, all told – that they are almost certain to default. The documents show bankers pressed rating agencies to ease criteria for evaluating those bonds as well.

ProPublica shared the tobacco bond documents with S&P, Moody’s and Fitch. All denied changing their methodologies, also known as rating criteria, in response to demands from bankers.

In an interview, Nicolas Weill, who oversees Moody’s rating methodologies for tobacco bonds and similar securities, said, “We don’t negotiate criteria.” Those criteria – such as stress tests that gauge how much cash is available to repay the bonds under various scenarios – are “never, ever’’ open to deal-by-deal changes. He said the firm may evaluate different deal structures but only if they meet those criteria.

In a statement, Fitch said: “With respect to every one of the examples provided to us by ProPublica, we can affirm that no banker or other outside party unduly influenced any of these ratings decisions … We determine our ratings – they are not open to negotiation with issuers and bankers.”

S&P said in a statement: “On the whole, the assertion that S&P’s cash-flow stress assumptions for tobacco settlement bonds were relaxed is false … credit ratings change because factors that affect credit risk change.”

ProPublica shared the documents with each of the banks. All declined to comment except UBS, which said the bankers involved no longer work for the firm, which exited the municipal bond business amid the 2008 market turmoil.

ProPublica also shared the materials with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates rating agencies and has been working to reform the rating process since the abuses in mortgage-backed securities. In August, the agency adopted hundreds of pages of new rules it said will help prevent “conduct and practices that were central to the financial crisis.”

The SEC also has been investigating whether S&P bent its criteria to win ratings of commercial mortgage bonds. The regulator is now seeking to suspend S&P from that part of the business in what would be its toughest action yet against one of the big three raters, Bloomberg News reported this month.

The SEC declined to comment on the documents provided by ProPublica.

The documents give the bankers’ version of what happened, and some degree of exaggeration can be expected in any sales pitch. Nevertheless, former rating analysts, lawyers and regulatory experts who reviewed the documents said the consistency of the bankers’ claims across multiple years, deals and states, compared with known criteria changes and ratings, suggests the banks’ influence was real.

“Banks have a right to advocate for their clients – that’s normal,” said Mayra Rodriguez-Valladares, a financial regulatory consultant who reviewed the documents at ProPublica’s request. “What’s going on here is very different ... this is the banks trying to convince rating analysts to make changes to their methodology, and that’s really crossing the line.”

Crafting the Recipe

Credit rating agencies’ letter grades signal their judgment as to which debts are safe to buy and which ones carry a higher risk of nonpayment, or default – akin to credit scores banks look at before they decide to make home loans.

Depending on the size of the issue, a local government issuing bonds with a “AAA” rating, the highest in the scale run by S&P and Fitch, could wind up paying millions of dollars less in annual interest to bond buyers than an entity selling an issue with a rating below “BBB-," the lowest grade for safe, investment-grade bonds.

Thus, issuers and their bankers have a natural incentive to push the credit-rating agencies to assign favorable ratings. Their leverage is that the raters’ compensation comes from money raised from the debt they rate. S&P, for example, earned $266,000 for rating a March tobacco deal in New Jersey.

Executives of S&P, Fitch and Moody’s, the three biggest firms in the business, have long maintained that their ratings are independent judgments of the creditworthiness of a bond. They have said there is no incentive to succumb to pressure because that would taint the reputation as honest brokers that their business model demands.

But as the SEC acknowledged in its recent rules, the potential conflict of interest faced by rating agencies is “more acute” in the area of structured finance. That term refers to the practice of turning streams of money – like mortgage or credit-card payments – into debt backed by those payments.

That is exactly what happened to money from the 1998 settlement.

For bankers and politicians, it was an irresistible opportunity for structured finance deals. The accord with cigarette manufacturers promised to send more than $200 billion over its first 25 years to state governments to reimburse smoking-related health care costs – and more money beyond. Even before the first payments began flowing in 1999, bankers were asking rating agencies to develop criteria for how they would grade the creditworthiness of the debt, the documents show.

From the beginning, that was going to be part art, part science.

The tobacco settlement payments are linked to inflation as well as cigarette sales, with room for adjustments based on legal disputes. That left a whole host of uncertainties, from the rate of the likely decline in cigarette sales to the potential bankruptcy of tobacco firms.

Starting in 1999, the rating agencies published their basic expectations, along with various so-called stress scenarios, for attaining various letter grades on their credit scales. They made clear that these criteria were subject to change at their discretion.

To protect investors, these criteria are supposed to be a non-negotiable element of the rating process: They are the independent recipe rating agencies use to fairly measure deals brought to them by bankers.

“Rating criteria should not be changed simply to enable securities to achieve the rating level the banker desires," said Thomas McGuire, former executive vice president of Moody’s, who worked at the rating agency from 1977 to 1995.

Going shopping

Beginning in 2002, documents show, the bankers took aim at that recipe. They sought to pack more debt into tobacco deals while preserving the highest possible grades.

“UBS's tobacco securitization team turned the sector on its head in mid-2002 when the rest of the industry was passively accepting ratings criteria, and blindly structuring securitizations to meet the most constrictive criteria of the three rating agencies (the lowest common denominator approach),” UBS bankers boasted to Michigan officials when they were wooing the state’s business in 2006.

“UBS analyzed, challenged and fundamentally changed the underpinning criteria for mainstream ratings," they added in bold italic text.

A 2002 pitch to New York State recounted how the UBS bankers said they did it. After being hired by Rhode Island on a tobacco deal, the bankers said they spent an “intensive 10 days redefining the statistical ranges employed in Moody's tobacco stress tests” using cash-flow projections they’d developed for the deal.

UBS said Moody’s agreed to alter its stress tests, allowing Rhode Island to get more proceeds out of the deal, which Moody’s rated “A1”– the highest rating it assigned in the sector.

“This was the first time that any issuer had been successful in achieving a favorable change in a rating agency's tobacco rating criteria," UBS said in a 2005 deal resume submitted to California. “As a result, Moody's decided to permanently ease its stress tests,” UBS claimed in a later California document.

The Rhode Island transaction was only the beginning. UBS said that over the following years, it “pioneered” the concept of “shopping” ratings to max out the amount of cash it could raise for its clients by pitting rating agencies against each other. Competitors followed its lead, UBS said.

It was all viewed as business as usual: “In the structured finance arena, each rating agency is accustomed to and comfortable with the ‘shopping’ dynamic,” UBS told Virginia in a 2007 pitch.

By 2005, rivals Bear Stearns and Citigroup were making similar claims about their persuasive prowess. Citigroup took credit for negotiating new stress tests with Moody’s, and in one pitch, it provided a “timeline of events” outlining its negotiations – and favorable results – with all three rating agencies.

Not to be outdone, UBS said it helped Moody’s spruce up its criteria in late 2005 after the firm didn’t get hired on a spate of deals: “Though others viewed Moody's as obsolete, UBS brought them back to the sector and worked with them to modernize their criteria.”

Weill, the Moody’s executive, declined to discuss any specific remarks by bankers.

However, an internal Moody’s document, disclosed in one of several lawsuits brought against the firm in the wake of the financial crisis, indicates that something happened in late 2005 that allowed the rater to recapture market share in rating tobacco bonds.

“Moody’s position is this market was regained in late 2005 but could be lost again,” an executive wrote to senior management in a November 2006 discussion of “competitive issues.”

‘Cherry-Picking’

As the market for tobacco debt continued to heat up in 2005, bankers added one particularly toxic security into their sales pitch: a capital appreciation bond, or CAB.

Unlike traditional bonds, CABs do not pay interest to bondholders every year, instead letting it add up into huge amounts at maturity. The CABs were often dated to mature in 40 years or later, so that regular interest-paying tobacco bonds would be paid first. CAB investors were last in line.

Some issuers, such as Puerto Rico, had already maxed out on the amount of interest-paying tobacco bonds they could sell. So the CABs helped keep the tobacco market humming. But CABs were a riskier proposition to investors, since their longer maturities meant forecasts of cigarette sales would have to hold up over many decades for the debt to repay.

To attract buyers, and get better prices, bankers needed the rating agencies to weigh in. But Moody’s didn’t rate CABs. Neither had S&P.

Fitch stepped in to fill the void.

Starting with first CAB sale in 2005, the rating agency got hired again and again to assess CABs.

With Fitch in the game, bankers pushed for more favorable treatment of CABs in areas like the stress tests used to rate the bonds. Changing the tests could allow bankers to squeeze out more money from CAB deals Fitch rated. In pitches they submitted to Michigan on Feb. 17, 2006, Citigroup and Bear Stearns each took credit for lobbying Fitch to ease up on CABs.

Just a few days later, Fitch announced that “with the advent of new bond structures,” it would update its criteria with a stress test that would make it easier for bonds 40 years or longer – the typical maturity for CABs – to get rated.

UBS bankers immediately ran the numbers and decided the change wasn’t favorable enough.

"UBS shared its findings with Fitch within 24 hours of their press release. Fitch confirmed our analysis and worked with our tobacco securitization bankers to devise a new stress test methodology,” UBS told  California in bold letters in a 2006 deal document.

Fitch did not respond to written questions from ProPublica about UBS’s claims.

Days later, in a Feb. 28, 2006, presentation to Michigan, UBS bankers bragged about getting Fitch to agree to what they called a “revision to revision” on its CAB criteria. Thanks to the rater’s more “lenient” rules for CABs, they also recommended that Michigan use Fitch on its deal, which UBS ultimately didn’t win.

By then, one of Fitch’s competitors, S&P, had decided to jump into rating CABs, too.

During the months that followed, bankers continued to press agencies to relax their criteria, pouncing on any advantage they could find. Bear Stearns claimed to have the most success negotiating favorable changes. Led by Arnone, the top banker in the sector, the firm handled enough deals to have leverage in challenging rating agencies’ criteria and picking the ones that agreed to the best terms.

“Cherry-picking” is how Arnone and her team described the ratings process in a January 2007 document submitted to Virginia. Often, the team would get “negotiations” with the agencies started before pitching a deal so they could brief governments on various criteria changes they could expect if they hired Bear Stearns. These were noted on a running list of “major inroads” with the rating agencies.

In one case, Arnone’s team told California officials in November 2006 they were seeking an adjustment to the estimated market share of cigarette manufacturers participating in the settlement. Even a tiny increase in the assumed market share, from the current 94 percent to 94.3 percent, would mean $26 million more in upfront cash to the state – if a committee of S&P rating analysts agreed to the change.

“We are highly confident that this criteria change will be approved by the rating committee," Arnone’s team said in its pitch. Six months later, S&P did publish new criteria for tobacco bonds, establishing the market share for participating firms at 94.3 percent.

Arnone, now a managing director at Barclays Capital, declined to comment or to answer written questions about the documents through a spokesman for the bank.

S&P said in a statement that its May 2007 criteria changes were actually more conservative, since they included “more severe” stress tests for cigarette consumption declines underpinning the bonds.

At the time, however, bankers disagreed. In a June 2007 document dissecting the new criteria, Bear Stearns said that, overall, S&P’s new criteria were more favorable since they allowed them to raise more cash.

Sometimes the bankers took advantage of the apparent absence of a constraint to spark negotiations.

Citigroup noticed that S&P’s new 2007 criteria chose to “remain silent” on the maximum length of the CABs it would rate. With Fitch rating CABs longer than 40 years, Citigroup had been pushing S&P to do the same.  And so, “immediately after the release of the criteria,” Citigroup’s bankers made a case for rating CABs with a 45-year term instead of 40. Goldman Sachs also sought the change.

A few weeks later, Citigroup closed an all-CAB deal in Rhode Island in which S&P for the first time rated CABs with a 45-year maturity. In general, the longer the term of an investment, the more risky it becomes because predictions are less dependable.

Just a few years into their 45-year terms, those risks been realized: The highest-rated CABs in the deal have been downgraded from a relatively safe “BBB” rating to well below investment grade. Earlier this year, Rhode Island sought to bail out the debt.

Citigroup declined to comment.

Biggest Deal of All

In the summer of 2007, Ohio officials decided to come to market with a $5.5 billion bond sale linked to their share of the tobacco settlement. It was to be the biggest such offering yet, and the stage was set for a historic showdown among bankers eager for a piece.

JPMorgan beefed up its tobacco team by hiring two key bankers from UBS. The firm said it now had a “leading tobacco bond resume.”

However, by now the landscape was changing, the bank warned. Storm clouds of the financial crisis were gathering as Congress began to scrutinize the rating agencies for their faulty grades on subprime-mortgage securities.

"What was formerly a very negotiated, fluid ratings process at Moody's is now poised to become clinical and public. Moody's criteria will be published and rigidly adhered to for the first time,” JPMorgan’s bankers lamented to Ohio in their August 2007 pitch.

The rating firms continued to insist that their work wasn’t subject to meddling from bankers.  “We offer reasoned independent forward looking opinions about relative credit risk,” Michael Kanef, an executive in Moody’s structured finance division, testified to a Congressional committee just a few weeks after JPMorgan pitched Ohio.

JPMorgan declined to comment.

Bear Stearns, meanwhile, had been readying the ground by negotiating a list of favorable rating criteria changes that would help Ohio get more cash. Among them, Bear said, were a more optimistic assumption Moody’s had agreed to about what would happen in case a cigarette manufacturer went bankrupt, and more favorable cigarette consumption declines agreed to by Fitch.

Fitch was also reviewing its ratings of the tobacco companies themselves. Bear told Ohio that an upgrade for the industry might help boost the ratings available for the bonds, including CABs, since Fitch links its ratings on the bonds to its assessment of cigarette manufacturers.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 29, 2007, Fitch made the upgrade. By then, Ohio’s bond issue was under way, with Arnone’s Bear Stearns team at the helm alongside Citigroup. Bear Stearns immediately helped Ohio cash in, selling two tranches of CABs that netted the state $319 million but promised to repay $6.6 billion by 2052. Fitch rated the CABs  “BBB+” and “BBB,” ratings that comfortably landed them within the investment-grade categories sought by the state.

The upgrade might well have been the result of Fitch’s independent analysis of the tobacco sector. But bankers at Bear Stearns also took credit.

When pitching another deal in Michigan a few months later, Bear Stearns bragged about “facilitating” Fitch’s upgrade and getting a rating agency “for the first time in the history of the tobacco market” to give CABs a “BBB+” rating. More negotiations were “ongoing,” Bear said.

Fitch disputed such claims in its statement to ProPublica: “Even if the bankers actually believed they had some sort of undue influence over us, that doesn’t make it so – they had no such influence.”

By 2008, the broader markets already were beginning to crumble under the weight of subprime mortgage debt. Bear’s competitors wondered why tobacco bond criteria were being loosened.

“We view the current rating criteria relaxation for tobacco bonds as particularly interesting and unusual given current market conditions, where the rating agencies are ‘under fire’ for rating criteria for structured financings,” bankers for DEPFA First Albany Securities wrote in a competing March 10, 2008, pitch to Michigan.

Four days later, on March 14, 2008, Bear Stearns collapsed and was sold off to rival JPMorgan in a fire sale brokered by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The financial crisis precipitated by the banks, with rating agencies’ help, had arrived.

 ‘Sold out’

After 2008, the market for tobacco bonds collapsed with the broader economy. Prices nosedived, too, especially for the long-dated CABs.

Downgrades ensued as cigarette sales slid more than expected. A big federal tax increase on cigarettes, announced in 2009, had dashed those expectations, and soon prompted the rating agencies to retool their criteria, too.

Fitch has downgraded Ohio’s CABs five times since they were issued. They are now considered highly speculative. S&P has also lowered ratings on its CABs to junk territory. Moody’s flirted with rating CABs, according to a Goldman Sachs pitch, but in the end didn’t.

S&P told ProPublica that its ratings on tobacco bonds reflected its own views of cigarette consumption and, as those views changed in 2009, CABs got downgraded to speculative levels. Fitch said its downgrades were prompted by lower-than-expected cigarette sales after 2006, though about half of its portfolio of rated tobacco bonds remains within investment-grade ratings.

The implosion of mortgage-backed securities graded favorably by rating agencies prior to the financial crisis triggered lawsuits, including one in 2009 by Ohio’s then-Attorney General Richard Cordray. As Ohio treasurer in 2007, he had overseen the state’s tobacco bond sale. While the state had been issuing tobacco bonds with questionable ratings, its pension funds had been investing in mortgage debt securities whose ratings also turned out to be inflated.  He sued the three big rating firms in November 2009 over $457 million of losses caused by what he called “false and misleading” ratings.

“The credit rating agencies sold out, and they sold us out," Cordray was quoted in news reports at the time. "They traded in their objectivity, and in exchange received massive profits." The lawsuit was tossed out in 2011 by a federal judge.

Congress addressed rating agencies in its 2010 Dodd-Frank financial system reform law. The Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission each concluded that the raters contributed to the 2008 disaster. In August, the SEC adopted rules requiring the firms to set up better internal controls so that business managers do not interfere with the analytical work.

More stringent policing of conflicts of interest is also required, as well as the opportunity to give everyone a chance to comment when the firms propose changes to rating criteria.

An SEC official said the rules would help avoid a repeat of the behavior that led to the financial crisis. But others who reviewed the rules and the documents collected by ProPublica demurred.

 “One of the things that the documents illustrate is that it’s not just the rating agencies alone making bad decisions,’’ said Frank Partnoy, professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego and a former Wall Street trader.  “It’s the banks manipulating the rating agencies into making bad decisions.”

 

Quiz: How colleges break your heart

Tue, 2014-12-23 04:24

At least two private universities sent acceptance emails to rejected students in 2014.

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It's beginning to look a lot like ... a strong GDP report

Tue, 2014-12-23 03:00
5 percent

On Tuesday, the Commerce Department revised its estimate of gross domestic product to 5 percent, up from the 3.9 percent reported last month. As reported by the New York Times, this is the fastest growth rate for the U.S. economy since 2003.

$30 million

Sponsoring a bowl game for college football can be expensive – some estimate it costs companies as much as $30 million. It could be a big reason why there has been a recent shake-up in bowl game sponsorships.

10 hours

The Internet went down Monday for 10 hours (some reports say nine) in North Korea, leading some to speculate that the outage was the proportionate response to the Sony hacks promised by President Barack Obama.

$16,000

WSJ reports that last week, police in Chongqing, China, raided a training session for Uber drivers. Officials say they will crack down on such car-hailing services, fining drivers as much as 100,000 yuan, or $16,000.

$5,000

If you're looking for holiday gifts for that special Scientologist in your life, Quartz has a link to a Christmas catalogue featuring L. Ron-approved holiday merchandise. Maybe you're interested in a $5,000 e-meter as a stocking stuffer?

PODCAST: It's expensive to pay for college...football

Tue, 2014-12-23 03:00

First up, we talk the biggest economic growth for the U.S. in 11 years. And college football’s new playoff system is shaking up the game off the field too. Some of the big companies sponsoring bowl games defected to another game or dropped their support altogether. We look at why there's been such a large shake up. Plus, many industries have gotten the Silicon Valley treatment (i.e. disruption), so why not Wall Street? More of our conversation with IEX CEO and President Brad Katsuyama on bringing innovation to financial services. 

It's beginning to look a lot like...a strong GDP report

Tue, 2014-12-23 03:00
5 percent

On Tuesday, the Commerce Department revised its estimate of GDP to 5 percent, up from the 3.9 percent reported last month. As reported by the New York Times, this makes for the fastest growth rate for the U.S. economy since 2003.

$30 million

Sponsoring a bowl game for college football can be expensive—Some estimate it costs companies as much as $30 million. It could be a big reason why there has been a recent shake up of sponsorship of bowl games.

10 hours

The internet went down for 10 hours (some reports say 9) in North Korea on Monday, leading some to speculate that the outage was the proportionate response to the Sony hacks promised by President Barack Obama.

$16,000

WSJ reports that last week, police in Congqing, China raided a training session for Uber drivers. Officials say they will fine drivers using car-hailing services as much as 100,000 yuan, or $16,000.

$5,000

If you're looking for holiday gifts for that special Scientologist in your life, Quartz has a link to a Christmas catalogue featuring L. Ron-approved holiday merchandise. Maybe you're interested in a $5,000 e-meter as a stocking stuffer?

Will Venezuela default? Investors think so

Tue, 2014-12-23 02:00

Venezuela’s dealing with a double whammy as far as oil prices are concerned. Oil, whose price has halved in the past year, accounts for 95 percent of the country’s exports and 45 percent of the government’s budget. Oil is the primary source for the U.S. dollars needed to sustain the country’s severe import dependence and external debt. Traders put the odds of default within the next five years at 91 percent. 

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