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Real estate flippers are back!

Mon, 2014-04-14 08:13

Some of the biggest players in the housing bubble were house flippers, people who'd buy a house, fix it up and sell it – sometimes at a huge profit. When the bubble burst, the flippers fled. But now they’re back, even in areas that have been overlooked by the big hedge funds and foreign investors. 

For example, take Prince George’s County, Md., which doesn’t have the glitzy condos of Miami Beach or new housing developments of Vegas that big investors like. But it does have lots of housing for middle and low-income families.

That's just fine for Rich Minor, who's been flipping houses for about 30 years. I meet him at his latest acquisition – a house in Bowie, Md.

As he shows me around, Minor explains that he laid low during the housing crisis. He was on one of the first flippers to come back to Prince George’s County in 2009, when you could buy foreclosures cheap. Now, there’s actually a lot of competition, because flipping is back, he says.

“It’s back, and it’s back with a vengeance now, because the deals are much harder to come by,” Minor says.

And even if you get a deal in Prince George’s County, it may be in a neighborhood that's a little dilapidated. That's one reason the big hedge funds and international investors aren't that common here.

“We’re not getting the big boys here, we’re getting the small fries,” says Anthony Sanders, a professor of real estate finance at George Mason University.

The small-fry flippers know they’re going to spend a lot to fix these houses up and that they can’t sell them for too much, because they’re still not in great neighborhoods. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of competition for fixer uppers, even if rough areas.

“On the open market, we don’t really have a ghost of a chance of acquiring any of these homes," says Maryann Dillon, executive director of Housing initiative Partnership, a non-profit which buys rundown houses, fixes them up, and sells them to low income buyers. "We cannot compete with investors who are all cash offers, who can close in a week or two weeks."

Dillon’s organization is able to buy some houses through a federal program that gives them first dibs over private investors.  But there are no such protections for the low-income buyers Dillon tries to help.  She’s seen people who’ve clawed back from foreclosure trying to buy a new house, but losing out to the flippers.


Percentage of total home sales to flippers

“They lost their nest egg during the recession. And now that things are coming back and there’s an opportunity to rebuild their wealth, they’re losing out yet again," Dillon says.

But at least they're just competing with the small flippers.

“These are not the big operations you find in Las Vegas or Phoenix," says Sanders, "where they’re going to the courthouse and buying up 20 properties, 30 properties and flipping them over the course of a couple months."

Sanders says, if you live in a place dominated by small-fry flippers, be thankful – it could be worse. 

Marketing the moon

Mon, 2014-04-14 08:06

Looking back, sending a man to the moon seems like an easy sell. But in the 1960s, NASA had to convince the American public that the space program was a good idea.

"In the 1960s, it was just a radical idea," says David Meerman Scott, co-author of "Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program." "Can you imagine deciding that we’re going to send 12 people to the surface of the moon and it's going to cost 4 percent of the national budget and 2 percent of the national workforce for a decade? So we had to sell it."

And unlike their Soviet counterparts, NASA allowed their success and failures to be public.

"They were selling it not only to the American people, but to the world," says Richardz Jurek, co-author of the book. "It was really the vanguard of real time communication happening with the whole world watching."

To keep Americans interested, NASA hired former journalists to run their publicity campaign. And NASA's publicity department had help from outside marketers, too. As Americans became more interested in the Apollo program's success, they became more interested in buying items associated with the astronauts.

Any company making something for the astronauts – from Stouffer's to Tang to Omega Watches, used the space program in ads to sell their product.

"The brilliance of what NASA did at the beginning is they focused on what we would call today 'brand journalism' in marketing speak," says Jurek.

Wikimedia Commons

Coke and Pepsi cans flown aboard STS-51-F in 1985  on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

Don't expect greenhouse gas emissions to change

Mon, 2014-04-14 07:12

A new UN report on climate change says greenhouse gas emissions rose faster from 2000 to 2010 than they did in the previous three decades, and the United States is one of the worst offenders.  

Part of the reason why is that the US and China still burn too much coal. In addition, emissions are rising faster because developing countries have joined the party.  

But don't expect things to change much: emissions are just too easy to ignore.

"Carbon dioxide is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas.  So it’s very easy to emit it without us noticing much or caring," says Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies at New York University.  

The report does say the cost of wind and solar power is going down.  But the US still needs to improve its power transmission lines. 

“There could be barriers and obstacles to getting the energy from where the sun is falling, for example, and getting it to large cities that need it,” says Union of Concerned Scientists senior climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel.

Of course, we could always conserve energy...  

The report says tightening efficiency standards for buildings and vehicles can really help.

 

America's greenhouse gas record isn't getting better

Mon, 2014-04-14 07:12

A new UN report on climate change says greenhouse gas emissions rose faster from 2000 to 2010 than they did in the previous three decades, and the United States is one of the worst offenders.  

Part of the reason why is that the US and China still burn too much coal. In addition, emissions are rising faster because developing countries have joined the party.  

But don't expect things to change much: emissions are just too easy to ignore.

"Carbon dioxide is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas.  So it’s very easy to emit it without us noticing much or caring," says Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies at New York University.  

The report does say the cost of wind and solar power is going down.  But the US still needs to improve its power transmission lines. 

“There could be barriers and obstacles to getting the energy from where the sun is falling, for example, and getting it to large cities that need it,” says Union of Concerned Scientists senior climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel.

Of course, we could always conserve energy...  

The report says tightening efficiency standards for buildings and vehicles can really help.

 

PODCAST: Warm reception for retail

Mon, 2014-04-14 07:01

Americans bought a lot of stuff last month. So much, in fact, that retail sales rose more in March than they have in any other month in the last year and a half. Eugenio J. Alemán, senior economist at Wells Fargo joins us to discuss.

Over the weekend, members of Congress fanned out across the country for a two-week Easter recess. You're thinking Mai Tais on the beach? "Probably not," says Riva Litman, a staffer with the House Republican Conference. "Especially not in Eastern Washington." In an election year, breaks from the Hill are a key time to drum up support - and money - back home.

And, in France, companies and labor unions have come up with a plan to give certain employees a daily rest from emailing, texting or other electronic communication -- an 11 hour rest. If approved by the French government the limits would apply to about a quarter-million consulting, software and other workers. The BBC's Hugh Schofield has been following the development and joins us to talk about it.

In China, a city's water, poisoned

Mon, 2014-04-14 03:54

Millions of people in the Chinese city of Lanzhou scrambled to buy bottled water this weekend after the city’s water supply was contaminated with Benzene. Levels of the cancer-causing chemical in the city’s tap water were discovered to be 20 times China’s national limit.

All of this comes as China is coming to grips with the environmental damage caused by decades of unprecedented growth. Lanzhou officials are blaming two explosions – one of them 27 years ago, the other 12 years ago – at oil refineries in the area.

They say these explosions caused oil to slowly seep into the groundwater, and that this sudden rise in levels of Benzene shows the decades-old oil is now contaminating the city’s water supply.

“Nearly 80% of chemical industry is built in densely populated city areas,” said Du Sha of Greenpeace China, “So this type of data shows that currently the chemical industry raises the high risk to the public health. The government should take more prevention and more supervised measures to manage these chemical industries.” 

Many residents of Lanzhou say the local government should have informed the public much earlier than they did about the water contamination. The state media is now reporting that city officials waited nine days to tell the public that their water was contaminated. The Lanzhou government now says water quality in the city is returning back to normal.

 

 

Earnings' fate when Easter's late

Mon, 2014-04-14 02:27

Easter the holiday is sacred, of course. But Easter the shopping season is also sacred:

"Easter is one of the biggest consumer holidays for retailers," says Kathy Grannis with the National Retail Federation. "We're expecting about 16 billion dollars to be spent on everything on candy to decorations and even new apparel."

With one small detail: just a little bit later than usual. Easter is almost a month later than last year. It's one of those movable holidays, lunar calendar and all.

But quarterly earnings do not follow the lunar calendar. Easter was in Quarter 1 last year, and this year it will be in Quarter 2. So Quarter 1 earnings – and March earnings for that matter – were lower this year compared to last. Rite Aid and Walgreens have already reported that the late Easter has reduced their front-of-store sales for March. But Easter wasn't canceled. It was just pushed back – along with those earnings.

"When financial analysts fail to recognize the shift in the holiday on the calendar, they proclaim Q1 as being burdened with poor results, and then of course Q2 everyone looks like a genius," says Mark Cohen, professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.

Do people really make that mistake? "Believe it or not they make that mistake all the time," he says.

Although this year, for many retailers, Q1 looks bad because it legitimately was bad. "The weakness of the retail economy was a direct outgrowth of a very tough holiday season," says Cohen. There was extreme discounting in Q4, and while that did manage to boost business, it did so at a tremendous price. So the late Easter helped make earnings less than stellar, "but it's not the main reason."

On the plus side, the late Easter might actually be quite helpful. Michael Polzin, with Walgreens, explains "there's a better chance of warm weather, so that helps with things like easter egg hunts, decorations; it's easier to get into the spirit of a holiday if your little girl doesn't have to wear a coat over her Easter dress."

Easter often coincides with the start of the sales season for everything from apparel to patio grills, so there may be a small bump just by virtue of people getting out and about and feeling more like spring.

Spring break for Congress: Still work

Mon, 2014-04-14 02:27

Over the weekend, members of Congress fanned out across the country for a two-week Easter recess. You're thinking Mai Tais on the beach?

"Probably not," says Riva Litman, a staffer with the House Republican Conference. "Especially not in Eastern Washington."

Her boss, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, made the long trip back to Spokane to talk to voters about issues like the economy and healthcare reform—and to host a few campaign events.

"It's not much of a recess for the members of Congress. They're just in their own districts as opposed to in the capital." Litman adds.

In an election year, breaks from the Hill are a key time to drum up support - and money - back home.

Parent PLUS loans under scrutiny

Mon, 2014-04-14 02:22

There is $62 billion in outstanding debt belonging to parents who’ve borrowed federal Parent PLUS loans to send their kids to school. The Department of Education is considering tightening the loans’ eligibility criteria, amid concern it’s been too easy for low- and moderate-income parents to get in over their heads.

But the last time it did that, it set off a firestorm.

The thing about Parent PLUS loans is they’re not based on income. Pass a credit check, and you can borrow up to the full cost of attendance. Parents don’t have to prove they can actually repay their loans.

“At the time, I was happy to get it,” says 56 year old Barbara Jones of Boston, who took out more than $100,000 in loans she now says she can’t afford.

“Because then if you didn’t get that, then what would you do?” she asks. “You know, how would you keep your child in school, how would you pay it if you didn’t have any other option than the Parent PLUS loan?”

Jones’s son graduated from Pace University last year. Now mother and son are both in debt for the same degree.

Of course, millions of parents take out PLUS loans; they’re a tool to promote college access. The average outstanding balance is $20,338, according to the Department of Education.

But policy analyst Rachel Fishman with the New America Foundation worries it’s too easy for low and moderate income families to borrow too much, as they try to give their kids a better life.

“That really puts the federal government in a dangerous position of telling them, ‘Sure you can do that,’” she says. “'You can mortgage your future. You’re really close to retirement and we can garnish your Social Security, but fine, we’re gonna to let you take on a loan for $20,000, $30,000 dollars.’”

“We absolutely don’t want parents to get in over their head,” says Cheryl Smith, who works with the United Negro College Fund. That’s why we think there should be a counseling program. At the same time, we don’t think we should be paternalistic.”

UNCF helps minority students get to and through college. It also lobbies for the private historically black colleges and universities. HBCUs have a lot of low and moderate income students, and Smith says thousands were affected when the government toughened the credit check for Parent PLUS loans back in 2011. She says enrollment fell at some private HBCUs , and HBCUs  generally lost millions in revenue, “Directly attributable to fewer students being able to get a Parent PLUS loan.”

Even though parents still don’t have to prove they can repay their PLUS loans, Smith says it’s now too hard to get one.

Still, the larger community is conflicted. Johnny Taylor heads the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents the publicly supported HBCUs. He thinks, at a certain point, Parent PLUS loans should be capped.

“Heretofore we have said to students, ‘Pick the school that you want to attend.’ And frankly the narrative may change to pick the school that you can afford to attend,” he says.

It’s a narrative unfolding within the Department of Education too, which is considering changes to the rules this spring.

Shea Huffman/Marketplace

By Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Bitcoin, what is it good for?

Mon, 2014-04-14 01:00

Just in time for tax season, the IRS released its first set of rules for Bitcoin. As the cryptocurrency has gotten bigger, there's been a lot of speculation over how best to use it.

One idea involves computer-to-computer transactions. Take email, for example.

"An example might be if it were really easy to attach a tenth of a penny to every email you send, it wouldn't add for the normal emailer very much. In fact you'd be getting a tenth of a penny as you get emails from people. So it'd basically be a wash. But if you're a spammer...looking to send out a billion emails to people and hope that one of them answers, having them attach a tenth of a penny to each of those emails would not make that cost effective anymore."

Aside from its function as a currency, the way in which Bitcoin functions could serve as a model for how the internet could become more efficient. In this example, provided by Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the ease with which cryptocurrency is exchanged is used to deter spammers. It's an idea that some feel is an inevitability. Zittrain points to the the public journal that records the path of every bitcoin, and how this kind of practice could apply to other kinds of data.

"For my part, I think the interest in a distributed public journal of stuff could be used for all sorts of purposes that don't have to do with the exchange of currency. There might be ways to use bitcoin-style journaling so that when a company transfers sensitive data, it gets journaled over. And there'd be a way then for me to see where it's been. Then if it actually should leak, I can trace the source of the leak."

Legal marijuana creates Denver warehouse shortage

Sun, 2014-04-13 22:09

Business is booming for recreational marijuana dispensaries in Colorado, the first of their kind in the nation. Their success has tightened the commercial real estate market and raised warehouse rental rates, in what may be a sign of things to come for other states.

The shortage of warehouse space is particularly acute in the Denver region, where the vacancy rate has dropped from 6.1 percent to 4.2 percent in 2013. Since January, when Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational pot, dispensaries have been gobbling up warehouses to meet strong demand. So strong, in fact, that some dispensaries have been forced to ration their supplies. 

“We used to see approximately 100 people through our store every day. Now, we’re seeing approximately 300 people through our store every day,” says Luke Ramirez, co-owner of the Walking Raven dispensary - one of the first medical marijuana shops in Colorado to start selling recreational pot. 

Dispensaries can’t buy pot from outside providers, so they need warehouses to grow all of their own supply. 

“We have seen a dramatic increase in people who are looking for warehouse space, and a dramatic decrease in the amount of available warehouse space in Colorado, and especially in the metro Denver area,” says Taylor West, a spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Warehouse space that for some amount of time may have been difficult to sell, or harder to lease, are now in high demand in the area.” 

Landlords have been asking for increasingly higher rents. Ramirez, who pegs the current rent for one of his two warehouses at $20 per square foot -- the national average is $5 per square foot --  has been shopping for a third warehouse. He has seen more than a dozen properties. But so far, he says his insistence on due diligence, to have properties inspected and assessed, means he has been slower than his competition and lost out. In other instances, Ramirez found the landlord’s demands simply too expensive. 

“They want too much sometimes. They want a right to our profit sharing. It can become a much more complicated deal than just simply a tenant, landlord lease,” Ramirez says. 

The rise in warehouse rental rates is not uniform across the Denver industrial real estate market. It has been particularly acute for Colorado’s marijuana industry, because of its needs for particular kinds of warehouses that have the proper zoning, location, and potential to meet the high electricity demands of a pot growing operation. But, as prices have risen and supplies dwindled, other industries that require warehouses have begun to feel the impacts. Denver’s commercial real estate agents report a very tight market and rising rents for all kinds of warehouses. 

“Everything I’ve read and heard from realtors is, it’s not only about fully leased, but also leasing at a little bit higher rates than in our history,” says Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. 

Alaskan voters will decide in a ballot measure this summer whether to become the next state to legalize recreational marijuana. Taylor West expects to see a similar story for the commercial real estate industry there, and in other states that have legalized pot. 

“Each state is handling the regulations around growing slightly differently. So, it depends on the cultivation rules that are being put in place," West says. "And in some of these cases, either the state is involved in the growing or is pinpointing the areas where the grows can happen, but regardless, it’s going to be an area that continues to need more space." 

Food inflation, or, why bacon is a good investment

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:21
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 18:28 Scott Olson/Getty Images

California cows.

If you’ve noticed your receipt from the grocery store seems larger than usual, you have food inflation to thank.

While the prices of everything usually go up due to regular boring inflation, commodities like food have outpaced other goods.

Matthew Boesler, Business Insider reporter, says food inflation is increasing because of a few different factors.

“A lot of it is due to weather. We have a big drought in California. We’ve had dry conditions across the Midwest, the Great Plains regions,” Boesler says. “The extreme weather events serve to disrupt crop supplies. and that can drive prices up.”

“Another factor you have is the ‘financial-ization’ of these commodities markets,” he says. Hedge funds and other investors are increasingly pouring money into goods like beef and coffee. “It’s very easy for an investor to bet on rising commodity prices. And no one really bets on those prices going down, so you have a lot of one-way money flowing into these markets, and they can become quickly overwhelmed because [investment markets are] not designed for that.”

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace

 

“Supply and demand sort of governs the price of a commodity, but the way these markets are set up and you know, given how much capital is flowing seeking investment opportunities, the jumps in prices can be very volatile and large.”

Marketplace Money for Friday, April 11, 2014by Raghu ManavalanPodcast Title Food inflation, or, why bacon is a good investmentStory Type InterviewSyndication Flipboard BusinessSlackerSoundcloudStitcherBusiness InsiderSwellPMPApp Respond No

Tidying up with financial spring cleaning

Fri, 2014-04-11 16:41
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 17:31 Wikimedia Commons

Once you're all done with your taxes, it's the season for spring cleaning. Organizing ... decluttering your house ... throwing out old furniture, money can work the same way, too.

Personal finance expert Farnoosh Torabi gives us her recipe for a productive financial spring cleaning.

Automate your bills: “Automate your bills because that means less stress. It’s minimizing your financial burdens ... Also, to make sure you’re always paying your bills, never getting behind.”

Go paperless: “This is something as a country we’re doing more and more of, but some of us are a little bit behind ... That will help to declutter and give some piece of mind.”

Hold onto three (or six) years worth of tax documents: “If the IRS does come a knocking with an audit, they will want to see the last three years of your records, and all your supporting documents. The one exception, you have to answer this honestly, if you’ve been underreporting income and the IRS audits you for that reason, they can go back as far as six years. So if you’re somebody that takes a little bit of risk with your reporting, and pushes the envelope, make sure you have even more support and backup.”

Look ahead: "Spring is a time when we’re looking ahead. A lot of families perhaps are thinking about a home, people are buying cars, applying for loans for school, so this is a good time to get a firm understanding of where you stand credit wise. Go check your report at annualcreditreport.com (and that’s free!)."

What are your tips for financial spring cleaning? Share them in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LiveMoney.

Marketplace Money for Friday, April 11, 2014Interview by Lizzie O'LearyPodcast Title Tidying up with financial spring cleaningSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherBusiness InsiderSwellPMPApp Respond No

Last-minute tips for tax procrastinators

Fri, 2014-04-11 15:39
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 16:30 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Craig Baldwin holds a sign advertising a tax preparation office for people that still need help completing their taxes before the Internal Revenue Service deadline.

April 15 marks the last day to file your taxes ... unless you hit the panic button and file an extension.

You can file an extension, but…

You still have to pay your estimated taxes. According to Kelly Phillips Erb, a tax attorney in Pennsylvania, “the IRS wants you to pay what you paid last year, that’s a good rule of thumb. If nothing has changed remarkably, if you paid as much as you owed last year, you should be fine. The penalties and interest come when at the end of the extension, you still owe a bucket of money. you want to try and approximate what you owe as much as possible.”

If you can’t pay your taxes in full:

- Pay in installments

At IRS.gov, taxpayers can enter into an installment agreement with the IRS. “There are some restrictions and some limitations,” says Erb. “The one to keep in mind the most is that you have to owe less than $50,000 to qualify for the installment agreement. And it’s for individual taxpayers. Business taxpayers generally still have to go through the normal channels.”

- Pay a little bit now and a little bit later.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be frightened of making partial payments,” Erb says. Even if you have to pay a penalty and interest payments, that’s an improvement over leaving the full tax bill untouched.

Use a tax preparer ...

Though filing your taxes can be a labor of love for many people, Erb says there are times it’s worth using a professional. “If things have changed in your life, I highly recommend using someone … you know whether you’ve had a baby or whether you’ve gotten married and life events, you usually want somebody that can kind of help you get guided through the process because it’s my experience that the folks who are worried about getting their taxes done, it’s generally not that they are worried about making a mistake, it’s that they often are just kind of overwhelmed and I think those people tend to under-deduct.”

... But beware of preparer scams

“When you hire a tax preparer you want to make sure that they are credentialed, and that they know what they are doing. The IRS still require tax preparers prepare returns for compensation, those folks still need to have a PTIN number, you can think of it like a Social Security Number for preparers, so the IRS knows who’s preparing that return.”

... And IRS scams too

Scammers frequently pose as IRS representatives through email and phone calls, and threaten fines and arrest if you don’t immediately send money. “If you owe taxes, if anything has gone wrong with your filing, most of the time they’re going to contact you through a letter. They’re not going to text you. They’re not going to call you. And they’re not going to email you. And a lot of these identity thefts schemes that are going on right now are from folks posing as representatives from the IRS. Kind of the most prevalent one right now is when IRS allegedly, someone from the IRS, calls up folks, they’re kind of targeting immigrants and the elderly in particular, and say, ‘you owe money to us. We’re going to arrest you tomorrow if you don’t pay us now.’ And then they’re asking for debit card information over the phone.

 

What's your tax story? Leave us a comment on our site or Facebook page, or tweet us @LiveMoney.

Marketplace Money for Friday, April 11, 2014by Raghu ManavalanPodcast Title Last-minute tips for tax procrastinatorsStory Type InterviewSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherBusiness InsiderSwellPMPApp Respond No

Food inflation, or, why bacon is a good investment

Fri, 2014-04-11 15:28

If you’ve noticed your receipt from the grocery store seems larger than usual, you have food inflation to thank.

While the prices of everything usually go up due to regular boring inflation, commodities like food have outpaced other goods.

Matthew Boesler, Business Insider reporter, says food inflation is increasing because of a few different factors.

“A lot of it is due to weather. We have a big drought in California. We’ve had dry conditions across the Midwest, the Great Plains regions,” Boesler says. “The extreme weather events serve to disrupt crop supplies. and that can drive prices up.”

“Another factor you have is the ‘financial-ization’ of these commodities markets,” he says. Hedge funds and other investors are increasingly pouring money into goods like beef and coffee. “It’s very easy for an investor to bet on rising commodity prices. And no one really bets on those prices going down, so you have a lot of one-way money flowing into these markets, and they can become quickly overwhelmed because [investment markets are] not designed for that.”

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace

 

“Supply and demand sort of governs the price of a commodity, but the way these markets are set up and you know, given how much capital is flowing seeking investment opportunities, the jumps in prices can be very volatile and large.”

Say cheese... all April long

Fri, 2014-04-11 15:26
Friday, April 11, 2014 - 10:01 Granger Meador/Flickr

A grilled cheese on rye.

Here's an extended look at what's coming up next week:

On Sunday, the final season of "Mad Men" premieres. I had to put on my go-go boots and pour myself a martini for that tidbit.

On Monday, while we all drink heavily at a business meeting we've dressed up and styled our hair for, the Commerce Department is scheduled to report retail sales data for March.

On April 14th, 1939 John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" was first published. The depression era novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Speaking of the Pulitzers, Prizewinners are scheduled to be announced on Monday.

Did consumers pay more or less for stuff in March than they did in February? On Tuesday, the Labor Department issues its Consumer Price Index. And it's tax day. An American tradition.

That brings us up to hump day. We'll get numbers on construction of new homes for March. And the Federal Reserve releases its latest Beige Book summary of commentary on current economic conditions.

Wondering why I'm not talking about any hearings on Capitol Hill? It's because Congress is on recess.

Markets are closed for Good Friday.

Television host and comedian Conan O'Brien turns 51.

And since we here at Datebook love cheese, let's end with this deliciousness: April is National Grilled Cheese Month. Start melting.

Marketplace for Friday April 11, 2014by Podcast Title Datebook: Say cheese... all April longStory Type BlogSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

How digital media is reinventing comics

Fri, 2014-04-11 15:00

For the uninitiated, the term "digital comic" might sound like someone simply scanned a paper copy of their favorite issues of Batman into their computer. The scope of the digital comic world is actually pretty wide, with artists and writers taking advantage of the medium to play around with what a comic can be, and how to distribute content.

Here's an excellent debrief on the world of digital comics. Plus, check out these examples of digital comics that capitalize on the possibilities of the medium.

News Comics

Among the freedoms of publishing a digital comic is the ability to stretch what a comic can be. The team behind Symbolia, for example, use the medium to tell news stories with sound, links, animations, and interactive charts. 

You can check out more about Symbolia here.

Self-Published

Digital comics also allow artists to self-publish and sell their own comics. Artist Dean Trippe's Something Terrible is an autobiographical work about how his interest in Batman helped him cope with being the victim of rape at a young age.

You can read more about Trippe's story here.

Free download of first issue

Not unlike the mobile game model known as "freemium," publishers of digital comics will sometimes offer a first issue for free in the hopes that readers will be hooked enough to purchase subsequent issues.

The critically-acclaimed "Saga" series, for example, offers its first issue free for download here.

Subscription Series

There's also the option of subscribing to a series, which is not unlike subscribing to a newspaper's phone or tablet app. In addition to regularly receiving new issues, subscribers often have access to classic comics that have been uploaded by the publisher. Access to Marvel's annual subscription costs $99.

You can check out more about Marvel Unlimited here.

Tidying up with financial spring cleaning

Fri, 2014-04-11 14:31

Once you're all done with your taxes, it's the season for spring cleaning. Organizing ... decluttering your house ... throwing out old furniture, money can work the same way, too.

Personal finance expert Farnoosh Torabi gives us her recipe for a productive financial spring cleaning.

Automate your bills: “Automate your bills because that means less stress. It’s minimizing your financial burdens ... Also, to make sure you’re always paying your bills, never getting behind.”

Go paperless: “This is something as a country we’re doing more and more of, but some of us are a little bit behind ... That will help to declutter and give some piece of mind.”

Hold onto three (or six) years worth of tax documents: “If the IRS does come a knocking with an audit, they will want to see the last three years of your records, and all your supporting documents. The one exception, you have to answer this honestly, if you’ve been underreporting income and the IRS audits you for that reason, they can go back as far as six years. So if you’re somebody that takes a little bit of risk with your reporting, and pushes the envelope, make sure you have even more support and backup.”

Look ahead: "Spring is a time when we’re looking ahead. A lot of families perhaps are thinking about a home, people are buying cars, applying for loans for school, so this is a good time to get a firm understanding of where you stand credit wise. Go check your report at annualcreditreport.com (and that’s free!)."

What are your tips for financial spring cleaning? Share them in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LiveMoney.

Last-minute tips for tax procrastinators

Fri, 2014-04-11 13:30

April 15 marks the last day to file your taxes ... unless you hit the panic button and file an extension.

You can file an extension, but…

You still have to pay your estimated taxes. According to Kelly Phillips Erb, a tax attorney in Pennsylvania, “the IRS wants you to pay what you paid last year, that’s a good rule of thumb. If nothing has changed remarkably, if you paid as much as you owed last year, you should be fine. The penalties and interest come when at the end of the extension, you still owe a bucket of money. you want to try and approximate what you owe as much as possible.”

If you can’t pay your taxes in full:

- Pay in installments

At IRS.gov, taxpayers can enter into an installment agreement with the IRS. “There are some restrictions and some limitations,” says Erb. “The one to keep in mind the most is that you have to owe less than $50,000 to qualify for the installment agreement. And it’s for individual taxpayers. Business taxpayers generally still have to go through the normal channels.”

- Pay a little bit now and a little bit later.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be frightened of making partial payments,” Erb says. Even if you have to pay a penalty and interest payments, that’s an improvement over leaving the full tax bill untouched.

Use a tax preparer ...

Though filing your taxes can be a labor of love for many people, Erb says there are times it’s worth using a professional. “If things have changed in your life, I highly recommend using someone … you know whether you’ve had a baby or whether you’ve gotten married and life events, you usually want somebody that can kind of help you get guided through the process because it’s my experience that the folks who are worried about getting their taxes done, it’s generally not that they are worried about making a mistake, it’s that they often are just kind of overwhelmed and I think those people tend to under-deduct.”

... But beware of preparer scams

“When you hire a tax preparer you want to make sure that they are credentialed, and that they know what they are doing. The IRS still require tax preparers prepare returns for compensation, those folks still need to have a PTIN number, you can think of it like a Social Security Number for preparers, so the IRS knows who’s preparing that return.”

... And IRS scams too

Scammers frequently pose as IRS representatives through email and phone calls, and threaten fines and arrest if you don’t immediately send money. “If you owe taxes, if anything has gone wrong with your filing, most of the time they’re going to contact you through a letter. They’re not going to text you. They’re not going to call you. And they’re not going to email you. And a lot of these identity thefts schemes that are going on right now are from folks posing as representatives from the IRS. Kind of the most prevalent one right now is when IRS allegedly, someone from the IRS, calls up folks, they’re kind of targeting immigrants and the elderly in particular, and say, ‘you owe money to us. We’re going to arrest you tomorrow if you don’t pay us now.’ And then they’re asking for debit card information over the phone.

 

What's your tax story? Leave us a comment on our site or Facebook page, or tweet us @LiveMoney.

Wal-Mart: Everday low (organic?) prices

Fri, 2014-04-11 13:29

Walmart has announced a new line of prepared organic foods — ketchup, pasta sauce, breakfast cereal — marketed under the name Wild Oats. And cheap: Wild Oats spaghetti sauce will cost the same as Ragu brand. But it's one thing to try to grow demand for organics by offering lower prices. Supplying that demand could be tough, especially at low prices. Already, supplies of commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans are tight.

"There’s not as many acres," says Tim Daley, who buys and sells organic soybeans for Stonebridge, a brokerage in Iowa. "Maybe three or four percent of the marketplace is organic. And a lot of that is still coming in from offshore."  

If not for imports, he says, prices would be even higher. "And they’re already high. So if you’ve got $14 soybeans on the Chicago Board of Trade, you’ve easily got $24 or $28 soybeans."

That's conventional beans, versus organic beans. 

Increasing supply can’t happen overnight. 

"It takes three years for a producer to achieve organic certification," notes Kellee James, CEO of Mercaris, a company that supplies market data on organic commodities. "So even if tomorrow prices go up and a producer decides he wants to grow, say, organic wheat, it’s going to take three years for that supply to come online."

Walmart says it plans to keep prices in line by locking in five-year contracts with producers.

Which may not work, says Paul Mitchell, who teaches agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin. If market prices go up everywhere else, he thinks producers will want to re-negotiate.

"They’re going to ... say, 'Look, WalMart. We sold you our can of corn at $1.50 a can, organic. And now the market price is $2. Well, we don’t want the $1.50 anymore. We want to sell it for $2.'"

And if they don’t get it? Tim Daley, the soybean broker, says beans under contract might “disappear, magically" when market prices climb. "That has happened out here, more than a few years in a row.”

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