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Producers try to keep fish sticks from going under water

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:23

Another day in which I pass on what I read in the Wall Street Journal this morning, comment on it, and have you guys tell me how wrong I am:

The Journal has a story about fish sticks, and how the fish stick industry is looking to get kids excited about fish sticks again. They say fish are transitioning from the frozen stick model to "a fillet that can be cut into a fish stick" instead. 

I personally think that's gonna be a tough haul because... ew.

You should know, by the way, that I appear to be in a minority here at Marketplace Global headquarters, when it comes to feeling that way.

Bank earnings show: Americans got better at paying off debts

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:14

The big banks have been releasing their first quarter earnings reports over the last week, and they’re all over the map: Profits are down at JPMorganChase, up at Wells Fargo.

But one trend is clear from nearly all the banks: Consumers are doing a better job paying down their mortgages and credit cards.

“This is not an unusual phenomenon,” says Nancy Bush, banking analyst and founder of NAB Research, LLC. “It normally goes on after a financial brush with death like the one we had in the years 2005 to 2008.” 

Both consumers and the big banks have changed their ways since those dark days. Banks are more cautious about who they lend to. And, we, the public, are a lot more careful with our credit cards and other loans. 

“Credit card and auto delinquencies have been hovering around all time lows for the last several quarters,” says Steve Chaouki, head of financial services at the credit reporting agency TransUnion.

Look at just about any big bank’s earnings report lately, and the trends are clear. JPMorgan Chase’s earnings, for instance, shows four charts under the heading "delinquency trends". All of them—whether home loans or credit cards—point straight down since 2010.

Total US home loan delinquencies are down more than 12 percent versus last year, according to Black Knight Financial Services. 

But this isn’t just because Americans are getting better at managing debt. Banks have also been much stricter. 

"In order to get a mortgage loan these days, you need to have a high credit score, so these borrowers are already more responsible,” says Kostya Gradushy with Black Knight’s Data & Analytics division. 

But all this responsibility can have a downside for the economy: Careful, responsible Americans tend to spend less - which means retailers won't be thrilled.

Bloomberg: 'Here's $50 million for gun control'

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:11

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending $50 million to fight the National Rifle Association on gun control. This is not the first time Bloomberg has used his private foundation to contribute huge sums of money to nonprofits. He’s has given $50 million to fight coal companies, to clean up the oceans and to promote women’s reproductive rights.

In terms of gun control, Bloomberg’s $50 million is a huge amount to spend in a single year. The NRA spent just under $3.5 million on lobbying in 2013, and the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy group, has an annual budget of just over $3 million. Bloomberg’s $50 million will fund a network of smaller nonprofits organized under one large umbrella group called Everytown for Gun Safety.

Stacy Palmer is the editor of The Chronicle for Philanthropy. She says this money will help these smaller grassroots groups eliminate some of the redundancy in their organizatio,n “and make them a lot more efficient.”

Professor of philanthropic studies Mark Hager says large donations allow a group to fund big campaigns on a particular issue. “It can stop and take stock of that and really give its attention to marketing or lobbying efforts,” says Hager.

Private foundations are prohibited from lobbying for legislation and supporting political campaigns. But, says writer Joanne Barkan, “private foundations are allowed to spend as much money as they want on educating.” For private foundations like Bloomberg’s, the Koch brothers’ and the Gates', the difference between Gates’ educating a member of Congress and lobbying one is often impossible to distinguish. 

Backlash over Crimea hits Russian economy

Wed, 2014-04-16 12:08

The Russian economy is beginning to suffer fallout from the crisis in Ukraine.

Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told parliament in Moscow today that growth slowed sharply to just 0.8 percent in the first quarter -- far short of the earlier prediction of 2.5 percent. The minister said that the Ukrainian turmoil had spooked investors, and capital is fleeing the country at a record rate. Earlier in the week, the Russian finance minister forecast that if the capital flight continues the economy could see zero growth this year. Independent observers are equally gloomy.

"Everything seems to be going in the wrong direction for Russia at the moment,” says Raoul Ruparel of the Open Europe think tank in London. "It’s really due to increasing uncertainty around the situation in Ukraine and potential sanctions.”

So far, the U.S. and the Europeans have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on certain Russian and Ukrainian officials. The European Union has threatened to escalate the sanctions if peace talks due to begin in Switzerland on Thursday fail to make progress, and if Russia persists with what the EU calls its “provocation.”

 But Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unfazed by all the threats.

"Regaining Russian lands is taking precedence over practical , economic considerations," says Daragh McDowel of the Maplecroft research house.

 Other analysts argue that Putin has no reason to feel seriously threatened -- yet.

"The Russians have the third largest hard currency reserves in the world – a half a trillion dollars' worth - and that could cushion the capital flight," says Sam Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "So I don’t see a dramatic, huge, short-term economic impact from this."

A European embargo on imports of Russian oil and gas or a ban on Russian banks to stop them dealing in western financial markets could be a different matter. That could bring Russia to its knees. But such drastic action – which could also inflict real economic damage on Europe - seems highly unlikely... unless Russia invades eastern Ukraine.

Pattern making: A stitch in time?

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:41

Jen Beeman is a pattern maker based in Chicago. She runs the patternshop Grainline Studio.

Here's how she describes her job:

"Nobody ever realizes that people are involved in the making of your clothes anymore. People just assume that it’s a machine that makes our clothes. We’re so removed from how our garments or products in general are made that they never assume that there’s a person who does that.

With pattern making, if you can imagine something you want to make, then you can make it because you have the tools to make the pattern to make that a reality. And that’s really exciting to me – the creativity.

What it involves is a large work table, brown paper, 90lb craft paper, rulers, and a pencil. That’s pretty much it."

The Archer Button Up shirt is one of Grainline's most popular patterns.

Courtesy of Jen Beeman/ http://shop.grainlinestudio.com/product/archer-button-up-shirt

"[My job]’s going away because computers are making things more efficient. And you need less patternmakers to do the same amount of work and also things are getting outsourced overseas where the things are being made. But for me, it means that you need to be more creative and think outside the box to make it a viable career.

In 2009, I randomly started a blog and published my first pattern in, I think, 2010. And from there, it’s taken off. There are people in high school who buy them, and I’ve had people email me who are in their eighties. I’m just kind of flabbergasted that that many people are using my patterns and it is world-wide too which blows my mind.

I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I couldn’t do patternmaking, and I honestly can’t come up with an answer. And I know that’s super lame. But I just really love what I’m doing. And I just know I’m really, really lucky to be able to do what I do."

Hear more stories in our Disappearing Jobs series:

Finding a battery that will power the future

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:29

Wearables like smartwatches have been the techie dream since forever. Now it seems as though the dreamm may come true. The mobile revolution has allowed hardware makers to create devices that can fit on your wrist  - devices that have the same computing power as devices that used to sit on your desktop.

But while the electronics have shrunk, the batteries haven't, says Marc van den Berg. He's a venture capitalist at Technology Partners in Palo Alto, Calif. On an iPhone, for example, the battery takes up nearly half the real estate of the device.

"If my watch is going to become my new smart phone I don’t want the watch to be a nice piece of jewelry and for me to have to wear a big arm band battery next to it," van den Berg says. 

In the past, the battery business wasn't as sexy as the software or mobile hardware biz.  But the challenge of powering mobile and wearable devices has sparked a renewed excitement in battery technology among tech companies and investors in Silicon Valley. And it's not just small batteries people are excited about.

"The investment community sees the need -- certainly in consumer electronics - but we also have the automobile marketplace and we have utility scale storage devices," van den Berg says. "All three of those things are the demand that the investment community has woken up to."

Just down the road from van den Berg, Yi Cui is working in his lab ast Stanford, where he's a professor. He’s also the CEO of a venture backed start-up called Amprius, which tests the boundaries of battery technology. The company counts former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as one of its big name investors. 

"My group invented paper batteries and textile battery," he says. And in this lab, Cui also developed a battery that uses silicon, which he sells through Amprius.

Cui says batteries are hard to develop because they live in the world of material science or very simply put, it all depends on finding the right material. Sometimes, materials like paper don’t hold enough charge. Or others like metals, can be too expensive. And often they can be dangerous.

"The safety concern is there. Make sure the packaging is good. You don’t leak out anything bad for your body," he says. Sorting through those issues takes a lot of research, time and testing. 

He shows me his battery testing machine. It’s around 4 feet high and has about a 100 little slots. In them, flat silver button batteries, like the ones in a watch. The chip uses silicon, and Cui says it allows the battery to lasts 25 percent longer than other batteries. And Amprius is selling a small number of them to Asian smartphone manufacturers.

Jim Kim is a venture capitalist at Formation 8 and he’s rooting for Amprius.

But, he says, "There’s a valley of death that exists between the research lab and commercialization."

He says while venture capitalists might be funding the research, nobody is paying to manufacture the batteries on a mass scale, at least not in the U.S.

"If you think about what needs to be done, you have to build a plant and that’s very expensive," he says. "And this is a process that takes a long time to tune. You have to be safe with it. If you make a mistake, it’s catastrophic."

Kim says a battery factory can cost up to hundreds of millions of dollars. While the luxury carmaker Tesla wants to build a factory, Kim says it’s mainly Korean conglomerates like LG that are investing, not companies in the U.S.

"And then you’ve had Panasonic, Samsung BYD and Lishen in China, who have built their factories on the back of government subsidies," he says. "Those are the players who are now dominating the market and that’s a shame."

This is what the new SAT will look like

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:00

Update: The College Board has released sample questions for the updated SAT. Scroll down to see some selected questions below.

It’s going to be a late night for folks in the multi-billion dollar tutoring and test prep industry. Details of the newly revamped SAT are expected to hit the web just after midnight eastern time.

“I’m somewhat of a night owl,” says Christine Brown, executive director of K-12 and college prep products at Kaplan Test Prep. “I’ll probably be online this evening keeping an eye on things.”

From the big players like Kaplan to small mom-and-pops, test prep companies will be scrambling to overhaul their offerings in time for the new test’s debut in the spring of 2016—and hoping to capitalize on an expected surge in demand.

“When the new SAT comes up, business just goes through the roof,” says David Benjamin Gruenbaum of Ahead of the Class, a California-based tutoring company.

He expects another bump in business this time around, even though the College Board is teaming up with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free help.

As Marketplace has reported before, the college application process is a huge -- read: expensive -- endeavor. Standardized tests cost from registration to score reports:

Just taking the SAT costs upward of $51.00. Tack on individual subject tests required by some colleges, and you're adding another $24.50 in initial registration fees, plus $13-24 for every individual subject.

The ACT  costs $36.50. The ACT Plus Writing Test, required by some colleges, costs $52.50.

A new official test prep book is $31.99. A subscription to the full online suite runs $69.95 per year.

SAT and ACT tutoring costs an average of $125 per session. Private tutoring for the tests will range in costs by tutor. Princeton Review's 24-hour private tutoring program will set a family back $3000. One independent tutor we spoke with charges almost $550 an hour for his services. 

Sample questions from the new SAT:

Reading and Writing:

Courtesy of The College Board

Courtesy of The College Board

Math:

Courtesy of The College Board

Problem Solving and Data Analysis:

Courtesy of The College Board

View the entire set of sample questions here.

 

Oman: 15 percent unemployment, but jobs are open

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:53

Like its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Oman has oil. But unlike others in the region, Oman’s supply is limited so it’s been trying to diversify the economy by encouraging small businesses, and pushing locals to work, especially in the private sector. The results have been mixed.

Salma’s Chocolates is a tiny café and store in the lobby of the Bank of Oman; it’s the kind of small business that a lot of people here think is the future of Oman’s economy.

What sets Salma’s apart from the competition are the local flavors it uses. “We have old sweets that started to vanish,” explained Aisha Al Hajri, one of the owners, “so we choose to take the old generation sweets like the halwa, the caramelized sesame and there’s a kind of sweet called mahoo, it’s like a toffee.

They source the sweets from local producers, and then fill their chocolates with them.

Although they pride themselves on local ingredients, Al Hajri and her co-owner (and the store’s namesake) Salma Al Hajri are the only Omani employees.

“The rest are foreigners,” Aisha Al Hajri said. “For a small business in Oman, it’s difficult to hire an Omani due to the minimum wages.”

Instead, they use foreign workers from the Philippines, India and Indonesia. There’s no minimum wage for foreign workers. (Although, Al Hajri, says, they do pay them a living wage.)

About 15 percent of Omanis are unemployed, but a lot of them would rather have government jobs, because they have shorter hours and other perks. To get more locals to work, the government has been raising the minimum wage for Omanis in the private sector.

David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at U Mass-Amherst, says changing Omani attitudes about private sector employment will be hard. “The new expectation they’re going to be shaping,” he said. “If you’re young, looking for a job, you can’t count on the public sector. This is going to be a very big shift."

Other countries in the Persian Gulf, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, also want more locals to work in the private sector; Mednicoff thinks Oman is more likely to succeed, partly because its native population is bigger.

But Aisha Al-Hajjri isn’t sure about that. She recently offered her young cousin a job, and the woman turned it down saying a private sector job just wasn’t stable enough.

Pass the pecans

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:22

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up April 17:

  • Events continue at the National Cathedral in Washington in observance of Holy Week.
  • NASA is scheduled to make an announcement—a discovery by its Kepler Space Telescope.
  • Securities, salsa and soda. Goldman Sachs, Chipotle and Pepsi are slated to report quarterly earnings.
  • "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has a birthday. Actress Rooney Mara will be 29.
  • And April is National Pecan Month. That's just nuts.

What happens when there are 9 billion mouths to feed

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:00

As it stands right now, the world has a little over 7 billion people. 

Come 2050, however, that "7" will look more like a "9," and those 2 billion extra mouths could mean disaster for the planet's already-strained resources.

Jonathan Foley wrote the cover story for the May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicking off an eight-month series on food and sustainability. In his words: "We've got to get more value out of agriculture.We need to figure out how to feed a growing and more prosperous world, but we also have to figure out how to make it more sustainable."

Foley teamed up with National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz on this "big-picture approach" to landscapes of industrial food:

On the Vulgamore farm near Scott City, Kansas, each combine can harvest up to 25 acres of wheat an hour—as well as real-time data on crop yields. Most of the food Americans eat is now produced on such large-scale, mechanized farms, which grow row after row of a single crop, allowing farmers to cover more ground with less labor.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At Granja Mantiqueira in Brazil eight million hens lay 5.4 million eggs a day. Conveyor belts whisk the eggs to a packaging facility. Demand for meat has tripled in the developing world in four decades, while egg consumption has increased sevenfold, driving a huge expansion of large-scale animal operations.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

Only the Brazil nut trees—protected by national law—were left standing after farmers cleared this parcel of Amazon rain forest to grow corn. Despite progress in slowing deforestation, this northern state of Pará saw a worrying 37 percent spike over the past year.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At the Nutribras pig farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil, sows are confined to sectioned crates that allow a mother to suckle her piglets without acci­dentally crushing them. Hog farms can be big polluters—the average 200-­pound pig produces 13 pounds of manure a day—but Nutribras recycles waste as fertilizer and methane power.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At Monsanto’s North Carolina lab, corn plants emerge from an automated photo booth that documents their growth. The company is trying to develop strains of corn and soybeans that need less water and fertilizer—a goal that’s eluded biotech thus far. Reducing the use of such resources is key to feeding the world in the coming decades. 

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

Check out the entire series on National Geographic's website.

Professional video gamers earn lots of real life dollars

Wed, 2014-04-16 07:38

In recent years, competitive online gaming, known as eSports, has grown in popularity and scope. Professional video game players face off in matches broadcast to global audiences, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans.

At the recent Call of Duty World Championship in Los Angeles, two four-man teams of gamers -- their shirts covered in corporate logos -- faced off for the top title. The gamers  competed in front of a studio audience, which peered into a control room constructed on a gunmetal stage. On the side of that stage sat the play-by-play men, who called the action in suit and ties.

$1 million in prizes was on the line at the tournament, which was broadcast online for free by Major League Gaming. MLG is an eSports promoter that's been around since 2002, when most of America was on dial-up.

"Internally, we refer to ourselves as the e-ESPN," says MLG CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni. "I saw things like extreme sports taking off and realized that we were on the verge of this technological revolution that was going to allow us to have a global, connected, digital sport."

MLG has built its success by promoting live events for shooter genre-games like "Call of Duty" and "Halo." These are pumped-up versions of the gamer tradition of having friends over to play in front of the TV. The spread of broadband in the U.S. leveled the playing field, making it possible for even more gamers to compete as pros.

"Without broadband internet, you simply can't practice games at a professional level," says Jason Lake, who should know. He's the founder and CEO of CompLexity Gaming. Its "Call of Duty" team took home the $400,000 grand prize at the World Championship.

"Complexity in its simplest form is, I guess you could say, the LA Lakers of video games," says Lake. "Except we play multiple games instead of just basketball."

It has the look of a lot of new media companies: one part talent agency, one part marketing firm. Complexity lets the players keep any competition prize money they earn. Instead, the company makes its revenue from marketing deals.

"We're always keeping an eye on the next game because it's our business to do so, as we need to find the stars and get them under contract before our competition does," says Lake, who compares the current state of eSports to the Wild West.

Promoter MLG has locked up official "Call of Duty" matches and has even started its own streaming platform. Other promoters, like the Electronic Sports League, are using the game streaming juggernaut Twitch.tv as their platform of choice. A recent event in Katowice, Poland drew more than 643,000 simultaneous viewers at its peak -- double the previous record.

A new generation of gamers is discovering eSports, and what was once a subculture inside a subculture is on the verge of going mainstream.

This story was produced by TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio

PODCAST: China's slowing growth

Wed, 2014-04-16 06:55

China’s first quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2014 was 7.4 percent, the slowest China’s economy has grown in a year and a half.  Markets in Asia rose because of China’s GDP news. Slower growth, however, could be an indication that China’s leadership is serious about making tough changes to its economic model.

If you're a shrimp lover, you may be wondering why you're paying more for your favorite shrimp cocktail or Pad Thai. It's a bacterial infection ravaging shrimp farms in Southeast Asia called "early mortality syndrome" or EMS. The disease doesn't affect people, but it kills baby shrimp. The resulting shortage is causing price spikes.

Santa Clara County in the Bay Area has the fifth largest homeless population in the US. The area is also home to some of the country's most expensive real estate. And that's got the area's homeless population turning to some unlikely places for shelter.

.buzz and .pics: Your site here

Wed, 2014-04-16 03:20

"After hearing all the .buzz and .reviews surrounding .london, we’ve finally settled on the .uk as our destination for our 2014 .vacations": these dot-words are possible future top-level domain names expected to be released in the upcoming months since the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) began its rollout of new top-level domain names on January 24 of this year.

Since its inception, over 175 domain names have been created, and on Wednesday, you can start to register domain names ending in .holiday and .marketing. 

  • Marketplace reported on the new domain frontier earlier this year when things got underway, and here's an update on how to create your own .holiday: 
  • You can visit hockey.today, jamesforbes.photography, or vintageelectric.bike to see these new domain names in action. 
  • The most popular names thus far include .guru, .berlin, .photography, .email and .today.
  • Some companies are pushing for industries to cluster around specific names.

For example, luxury brands such as Chanel, Balenciaga, Ferragamo and Harry Winston, Isabel Mirant, and a few others have already registered with the domain name .luxury, according to Zoe Coady of Brandstyle Communications.

".Luxury is providing an innovative platform and competitive advantage for companies to position themselves within the luxury space. For the first time, luxury goods and services will now be found in one place online," said Monica Kirchner, CEO, .Luxury.

Here's a screenshot from the TSOHOST.com website displays domain names expected to launch April 2014: 

Happy 50th birthday, Ford Mustang

Wed, 2014-04-16 02:36

If you're in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday and look way, way up, you might see a Mustang perched on the observation deck of the Empire State Building -- a triple yellow, 2015 model. It's Ford's way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic car. The Mustang's design was so innovative it had a huge impact on auto makers and car culture, and Ford is still making the cars today.

Mark Takahashi, an editor with automotive website Edmunds.com, says the first Mustangs sold for around $2,300. When the first Mustang came out, in 1964, it was a hit.

"People driving around the first Mustangs were being hunted down on boulevards, being asked to pull over, so they could take a look at the car," he says. "You pull into a parking lot and you're just swamped with people – it was just such a big deal back then."

The Mustang's sales, he said, blew away expectations. "They expected to sell 100,000 the first year, and they ended up selling 100,000 the first three months."

David Whiston, an equity analyst with Morningstar, says the Mustang was built on the platform of another car, the Falcon, which saved a lot on development, engineering and design costs.

"It was sporty, it was cool. It was something you wanted to drive, or take to the beach, but it was also -- and the key thing for why it was still around -- it was affordable."

A lot of automakers today, notes Whitson, are interested in building multiple models on the same platform. Luckily he says, they won't have to reinvent the wheel.

Attack of the shrimp (prices)

Wed, 2014-04-16 02:34

If you're a shrimp lover, you may be wondering why you're paying more for your favorite shrimp cocktail or Pad Thai. It's a bacterial infection ravaging shrimp farms in Southeast Asia called "early mortality syndrome" or EMS. The disease doesn't affect people, but it kills baby shrimp.

Shrimp farms in China, Vietnam, Thailand and Mexico have all been affected, but production in Vietnam and Thailand has dropped by more than half. Now the U.S. is getting most of its shrimp from India, not Thailand, and the shortage has caused price spikes.

"I would say the import prices went up anywhere from 50 to 100 percent, depending on what the item was," says Marc Nussbaum, president and COO for shrimp and seafood importer International Marketing Specialists. "Due to this, retailers have moved their prices up."

And that, dear consumer, is why you may opt for the fettucine alfredo instead of shrimp scampi next time you eat Italian.

On a bus to nowhere

Wed, 2014-04-16 02:10

Santa Clara County in the south Bay Area has the fifth biggest homeless population in the United States. Over 7,600 people are without a home on any given night, in Silicon Valley's backyard.

People like Elizabeth Garber. At 2:30 in the morning, she sits on on a crowded Valley Transportation Authority bus somewhere in San Jose.

"I've been homeless for about eight months so far, riding the Bus 22 every night, as many times at night as we have money for," she says.

Bus 22. It's a regular city bus line during the day - traveling between East San Jose and Palo Alto. But at night, for $2 a ride, it unofficially becomes Hotel 22 to dozens of people like Elizabeth Garber.

She stays on the bus every night with her husband Michael, who explains they ride the bus for the full two hours of its route. Then they stand out in the cold, waiting for the next bus to head back the other way.

"Back and forth, back and forth. I try to get sleep when I can, and then it's just figuring out where to go in the morning from there," he says.

Michael says they get about three to five hours of sleep a night, which takes its toll.

"I've missed interviews because I've fallen asleep on the bus in the morning and missed my stop," he says. "I've missed court dates, all kinds of stuff. It's like, okay, I have to get off at this stop, and then you don't even feel yourself going, next thing you know, you wake up, oh you're at the end of the line. I don't know how many opportunities I've lost because of it."

The Garbers say they've tried to sign up for affordable housing, but nothing has panned out.

"There's a one percent vacancy rate in the county," says Bob Dulci, homeless concerns coordinator for Santa Clara County, "which makes it extremely difficult to provide housing for folks, even though we have a lot of rent subsidy dollars."

With the market so competitive, Dulci says, landlords are much more likely to go for someone with a stable job history, instead a person coming off the streets.

Michael Garber said sleeping on the bus is the lowest point of his life, but it could be worse.

"At least out here I'm still free, I'm not incarcerated or somthing like that. It could be a lot worse," he says. "Although sometimes it does feel like jail, you're crowded and shuffled along, no sense of privacy, no sense of decency or anything like that."

I ask Michael what he thinks about the nickname "Hotel 22."

"I call it home," he says.

And next winter, one of Santa Clara County's biggest shelters is closing -- possibly forcing more people onto Hotel 22.

China GDP growth slips to lowest level in 18 months

Wed, 2014-04-16 00:23

China’s first quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2014 was 7.4 percent, the slowest China’s economy has grown in a year and a half.  Markets in Asia rose because of China’s GDP news.

“Markets are going to say: ‘oh, they hit their target, they exceeded their target, whew,’” said Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Assett Management. “Actually, I breathe a sigh of relief when their GDP number goes down," said Chovanec. "Because it makes me think: ‘maybe they’re serious.’ Maybe the declarations that quality matters more than quantity, that they can’t add to the bad debt.”

Chovanec echoes many China economists when he says sustained high GDP figures usually reflect unhealthy growth – In China’s case, that means building more infrastructure - which carries the burden of more debt.

Slower growth, however, could be an indication that China’s leadership is serious about making tough changes to its economic model. China's GDP number is currently somewhere in between – it was pulled down by housing sector problems, yet retail sales in China were up.

 

 

New SAT spells bonanza for test prep business

Tue, 2014-04-15 13:54

It’s going to be a late night for folks in the multi-billion dollar tutoring and test prep industry. Details of the newly revamped SAT are expected to hit the web just after midnight eastern time.

“I’m somewhat of a night owl,” says Christine Brown, executive director of K-12 and college prep products at Kaplan Test Prep. “I’ll probably be online this evening keeping an eye on things.”

From the big players like Kaplan to small mom-and-pops, test prep companies will be scrambling to overhaul their offerings in time for the new test’s debut in the spring of 2016—and hoping to capitalize on an expected surge in demand.

“When the new SAT comes up, business just goes through the roof,” says David Benjamin Gruenbaum of Ahead of the Class, a California-based tutoring company.

He expects another bump in business this time around, even though the College Board is teaming up with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free help.

As Marketplace has reported before, the college application process is a huge -- read: expensive -- endeavor. Standardized tests cost from registration to score reports:

Just taking the SAT costs upward of $51.00. Tack on individual subject tests required by some colleges, and you're adding another $24.50 in initial registration fees, plus $13-24 for every individual subject.

The ACT  costs $36.50. The ACT Plus Writing Test, required by some colleges, costs $52.50.

A new official test prep book is $31.99. A subscription to the full online suite runs $69.95 per year.

SAT and ACT tutoring costs an average of $125 per session. Private tutoring for the tests will range in costs by tutor. Princeton Review's 24-hour private tutoring program will set a family back $3000. One independent tutor we spoke with charges almost $550 an hour for his services. 

What's pulling up the Consumer Price Index

Tue, 2014-04-15 13:51

The Consumer Price Index (both the overall rate, and the ‘core’ rate excluding food and energy) rose 0.2 percent in March 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. CPI is up 1.5 percent for the past 12 months. Big drivers of price rises in March were food (up 0.4 percent m/m and 1.7 percent y/y) and shelter costs, especially rent (up 0.3 percent m/m, 2.9 percent y/y). Economists were predicting a smaller rise in inflation at the consumer level.

Food prices, both at home and in restaurants, are facing multiple inflationary pressures, including a spate of bad weather—severe drought in California, deep freezes in the South—as well as higher-priced food imports. Leading the surge were meat and eggs (up 1.2 percent in March), dairy (up 1 percent) and fruits and vegetables (up 0.9 percent).

Shelter costs have been rising steadily for renters and owners. The latter face higher home prices and mortgage rates; the former face a shortage of rental units, which drives up rents. Homebuilding (especially of multifamily apartment buildings and condos) has started to pick up after coming to a virtual halt through the Recession. But it will take many years for inventory to catch up with demand, says Ethan Handelman, VP for Policy and Advocacy at the National Housing Conference. 

“The pain [of rising rents] really goes pretty broadly," says Handelman. Handelman says low-income people usually can’t afford a rent hike—they’ve got no cushion and may be thrown into homelessness. He says middle-class people aren’t seeing their paychecks rise much. “Many of them are paying more than a third—and some are paying more than half—of their income for housing."

Among major product categories, only gasoline and airfare prices have fallen in the past twelve months (Gasoline is down 4.7 percent, and airfares have fallen 4.1 percent). 

The uptick in inflation so far is not alarming most economists. Inflation rates are still well below the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent. 

But economist Sarah Watt House at Wells Fargo Securities says average Americans might have a different experience of inflation going forward. 

“Even if you have a moderate rate of inflation,” says Watt House, “if you’re still not getting commensurate pickup in wage growth, and that starts to eat away at real income gains, I think it could be a little bit concerning to folks.”

By Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Why farmers can't wait to pick Vidalia onions

Tue, 2014-04-15 13:03

Even if you’ve never been to south Georgia, you’ve probably tasted the region’s most famous vegetable. It’s almost time for this year’s Vidalia onions to start showing up in the produce aisle.

Some Georgia farmers are beginning to harvest the $120 million crop this week. But that's not going over well with some other growers -- or Georgia's agriculture commissioner, who wants farmers to wait to pack and ship onions until next Monday, April 21.

The dispute centers around what's best for the Vidalia brand.  To be labelled a Vidalia, onions must be certain approved varieties, and must be grown in a 20-county region in southeast Georgia. They're know for their sweetness, a product of the soil and water conditions in the region.

"Matter of fact, they only make you cry when they’re gone," says Delbert Bland, by all accounts the biggest grower of sweet onions in the nation.

Standing in a field of onions, with narrow green shoots sticking out of the ground, Bland says Vidalias grow rapidly during the final two or three weeks before harvest.

Close-up of the onion shoots. (Sarah McCammon/Marketplace)

"If you come out here tomorrow, you’ll see cracks all over this dirt," Bland says. "That’s just how fast they grow at the very end."

His company, Bland Farms, raises close to 3,000 acres of onions. He says a lot of them are ready to harvest and sell.

But the leader of Georgia’s agriculture department, Commissioner Gary Black, says farmers have been rushing onions to market to take advantage of higher prices early in the season. He says some grocers are complaining to him about quality.

"Quality," Black says, "meaning taste, shelf life, appearance."

As guardian of the Vidalia trademark, Black says he wants to make sure onions aren’t in stores before they’re ready. So he set April 21 as the official packing date. That means farmers who harvest and pack early could be fined as much as $1,000 per illicit onion bag.

"In most growers’ minds, that’s been the earliest date that a real, true reliable Vidalia onion could be put into the marketplace," Black says.

But harvesting too late carries its own risks, says George Boyhan, a vegetable specialist with the University of Georgia Extension. 

"In my professional opinion, that’s insane," he says.

Boyhan started working with Vidalia farmers in the late 1990s. He says harvesting too late can expose the crop to diseases.

"Onions we’d harvest in the second or third week in May, we always had problems with those bacterial diseases," Boyhan says.

But many farmers support a later start to the season. Bo Herndon is chairman of a growers’ advisory panel that helped choose the April 21 pack date. Herndon says he won’t harvest until early May - even though some of his competitors are starting earlier.

"I think it’s all about the dollar," Herndon says. "And if they pick right now they’re not gonna be ready. They’re gonna be green and whoever gets them isn’t gonna be happy with them."

Bland, meanwhile, has pushed back, taking the agricultural commissioner to court. He says it's not good business to wait to harvest - even if other farmers would like him to.

A road sign for Bland's farm. (Sarah McCammon/Marketplace)

"They don't want someone to go to market before they do," Bland says. "We're all onion growers, and yet we all compete with each other or market share."

 This year, that competition isn’t just playing out in the grocery aisle, but also in Georgia courtrooms.

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