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What you should know about the changes to credit scores

Fri, 2014-08-08 07:00

FICO, the nation's leading provider of those all-important credit scores that so many Americans can feel they have tattooed to their backs, has announced it is changing the formula it uses to score credit. The changes could boost the scores of tens of millions of Americans.

Here are a few things to know about the changes:

Exactly what is FICO changing?

There are two main changes. One is that FICO will stop docking people for being overdue on a payment, as long as they have ultimately paid the bill or settled with a collection agency. Until now, having a collection on your record — even if your balance was at zero — could impact your credit score as much as a foreclosure or a bankruptcy.

The second change will be good news to people with medical debt, which is about 40 percent of Americans. FICO says it will start giving less weight in its credit scoring formula to unpaid medical bills that are with a collection agency.

So how could these changes affect my ability to borrow?

FICO’s goal is to boost lending without creating more risk. Since the recession, it has been hard to get a loan without fairly spotless credit. These new changes could boost certain scores by as much as 100 points, meaning if you have an otherwise good credit record aside from the above issues, you might qualify for a loan you wouldn't have before, or at least for a lower interest rate.

When do the changes go in to effect?

FICO says they will offer the new credit score formulas to credit bureaus in the fall and to lenders by the end of the year. But just because the new formulas are available doesn’t mean they will be used. FICO rolls out new scoring formulas every few years, and it takes a while for many lenders to adopt the newest versions.

Beyond that, even though FICO has changed its approach to unpaid medical bills and debts that have been resolved with collections agencies, those events won’t disappear from your record altogether. Lenders will still be able to see them on your credit report for up to seven years, and can still decide they are a sign of risk.

What are the pros and cons of FICO’s new approach?

Any loosening of credit standards raises worries in some corners, that it could leave lenders open to more risk or entice borrowers deeper in to debt. FICO doesn't think so. But we'll have to see.

If the company is wrong, it could undermine the credibility of their credit scores.

John Ulzheimer, a credit expert at credit education website Credit Sesame and a former manager at FICO, says what is certain is that FICO carefully considered the changes. “The only reason someone like FICO is going to make this type of drastic change to their scoring system is because the science behind it supports the change,” he says.  “As time changes, different data elements on a credit report are tested to make sure they're still predictive of elevated risk.”

For example, as medical expenses have risen sharply in the last few decades, FICO may have found that medical debt is no longer a good predictor of elevated risk.

If FICO is right, and the new scoring system raises credit scores for tens of millions of Americans without opening lenders up to more risk, it could have positive ripple effects on the economy. Part of the slow recovery has been due to tight credit. More people qualifying for loans could create useful momentum.

And don't forget how powerful credit scores have become in our lives. Credit card companies and banks look at them, but so do potential landlords and even potential employers.  

Making online education more like iTunes

Fri, 2014-08-08 05:30

As MIT sees it, education is a lot like the record business used to be: still producing albums, when  people would rather download songs one at a time.

To put it another way, instead of offering semester-long classes, professors need to start offering individual lessons and letting students pick which ones they want.

“The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated,” says a new report from an MIT task force on the future of the school. “Much like a playlist on iTunes, a student could pick and choose the elements of a calculus or a biology course offered across [MIT’s online platform] to meet his or her needs.”  

The report notes that 25 percent of professors and 40 percent of students believe classes could benefit from this “modular” approach.

MIT is not the only school thinking this way.  The University of Wisconsin began offering MOOCs this year that offer shorter, more narrowly focused segments.

Also recommended by the MIT task force:

  • Continue to expand online and blended-learning options.
  • Expand the school’s certification program for online courses.
  • Develop ways to use game-based learning in classes.
  • Attract a more diverse group of students to MOOCs– more than 70 percent are male.
  • Make the school more affordable.
  • Admit more students.

 

Weekly Wrap: Blame geopolitics

Fri, 2014-08-08 04:41

Felix Salmon of Fusion and Jo Ling Kent of Fox Business News talk with about geopolitics, economics and where the two shall meet. 

PODCAST: New credit scores

Fri, 2014-08-08 03:00

FICO -- the nation's leading provider of those all-important credit scores so many of us have tatooed on us -- has announced that it is changing the formula it uses to score our credit in a way that could boost the credit scores for tens of millions of Americans. More on what you need to know about your FICO credit score. Plus, things are getting tougher for military personnel who get help on their college tuition. The current rule is people getting assistance have to just pass the classes, but the government now wants them do better than that. Also, Cleveland is a sports town, be it baseball, basketball or badminton. That game is one of 35 featured in the Gay Games, which start Saturday. The international Gay Games 9 competition is expected to bring 30,000 visitors to the area. More on what some small businesses are doing to get fans into their establishments.

 

Military wages war on bad grades

Fri, 2014-08-08 02:30

As of September, active service members who tap the military's tuition assistance program could be financially on the hook if they get bad grades.

Active members of the military can get up to $4,500 a year in tuition assistance. Under the current rules, they just have to pass classes they take off-duty to get tuition covered up to 100 percent, depending on the branch of the military they’re in.

But starting in early September, troops will have to earn a C or better in undergraduate classes, and a B or better in graduate work. And they can’t settle for grades of “incomplete.” Otherwise, they'll have to pay back the course tuition back.

“Tuition dollars and military student time is both limited and valuable,” says Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen. “So, we want to make sure they maintain focus and have an understanding of the expectations that are required of them.”

Christensen says the Pentagon could waive the requirements in certain cases and cut soldiers slack for events like deployments.

Emma Scherer of Student Veterans of America says the threat of paying back tuition for anything less than an average grade could scare people off.

“We don't want to put roadblocks in the way of service members or veterans getting to education, and this clearly does that,” she says.

Student financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, says having to back-pay tuition could also disrupt service members’ long-term education plans.

“They’d either owe the military or owe the college, and that could have consequences for their ability to complete college,” he says.

The changes come as the Pentagon faces long-term budget cuts. 

Silicon Tally: #Scrabble

Fri, 2014-08-08 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally. How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? This week, we're joined by Megan Garber, staff writer at The Atlantic. var _polldaddy = [] || _polldaddy; _polldaddy.push( { type: "iframe", auto: "1", domain: "marketplaceapm.polldaddy.com/s/", id: "silicon-tally-hashtag-scrabble", placeholder: "pd_1407500322" } ); (function(d,c,j){if(!document.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;pd.id=j;pd.src=('https:'==document.location.protocol)?'https://polldaddy.com/survey.js':'http://i0.poll.fm/survey.js';s=document.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);}}(document,'script','pd-embed'));

Corporate earnings: up. Hiring: not so much.

Fri, 2014-08-08 02:00

Corporate earnings reports for the spring quarter are mostly in by the first week in August. Overall, they paint a pretty rosy picture for America, Inc., as Bloomberg predicts profits at S&P 500 companies rose nearly 9.5 percent; sales rose more than 4 percent. So far, 75 percent of companies that have reported earned more than equity analysts predicted.

“The results have been really solid,” said chief economic strategist John Canally at LPL Financial in Boston. He said the results bode well for the second half of 2014, especially since GDP growth has picked up since the winter reversal.

Canally said companies are mostly plowing their profits back into the company; not adding to their payrolls, or investing in new plant and equipment.

“It’s mergers and acquisitions, increasing dividends, share buybacks,” Canally said. “Companies are doing what companies normally do: trying to boost share price for their shareholders. They’re just not doing a lot of hiring right now.”

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto, said U.S. companies have increasing worries overseas — where a lot of their profits are earned — due to geopolitical and economic crises in Russia-Ukraine, Iraq-Syria, Israel-Palestine, Argentina, and Europe.

“Some of those geopolitical events have made people rethink how optimistic they are about the world economy over the next 12 months,” said Ashworth — Which, he said, explains some of the stock market's recent slump.

Tesla teases Reno with a Gigafactory

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:41

Electric car manufacturer Tesla has started work on a huge new battery factory in Reno, Nevada, but don’t let that fool you. Reno may not end up with the factory and the 6,500 jobs it is expected to create.  

Tesla started building in Reno, even though its new “Gigafactory” may not actually be completed there.

On a recent earnings call, CEO Elon Musk said he might start similar construction on one or two other sites. The company is also looking at locations in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

“Before we actually go to the next stage of pouring a lot of concrete though, we want to make sure we have things sorted out at the sort of state level, that the incentives are there that makes sense,” Musk said, adding “on the Nevada side, at this point the ball is on the court of the governor and the state legislature.”

Tesla wants the eventual host state to chip in 10 percent of the factory’s $4-to-$5 billion price tag. While it negotiates, the car maker says it’s worth construction costs to get the factory up and running as soon as possible.

"Any potentially duplicative investments are minor compared to the revenue that could be lost if the launch of Model 3 were affected by any delays at our primary Gigafactory site," the company wrote in its recent investor letter.

“It’s pretty unusual for them to be actually starting construction on a site,” says Tim Bartik, an economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, though he says shopping around for a good deal from states is common.

Still, states should approach these types of deals with caution.

“People should realize that incentives are not a free lunch,” says Bartik. “They do involve costly resources.”

Local officials need to analyze what kind of wages the company will pay or the types of suppliers it might work with.

“Until recently, most states weren’t doing this kind of analysis,” says Josh Goodman, with the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Development Tax Incentives Project. “Sometimes, they might do the analysis on a program that was getting attention because there was a lot of problems there.”

But many of states are wising up, Goodman says, passing laws and requiring periodic reviews of their incentives to be sure they are actually good deals for the state.

Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Why Walgreens stepped back from the inversion brink

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:40

Pharmacy company Walgreens announced it is not going to invert after all. 

Corporate inversion is the practice of one company merging with another that's based abroad to avoid taxes or gain access to assets held abroad. At least 47 U.S. corporations have reincorporated overseas in the past decade, more than during the past 20 years combined, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Walgreens first began to buy up British firm Alliance Boots two years ago, purchasing a 45 percent stake in the company and laying out plans to purchase the remaining 55 percent in 2015. At some point, Walgreens considered the possibility of converting the deal to buy Alliance Boots into a deal to invert via Alliance Boots.

“We had to look at whether the structure of the deal would allow for an inversion,” says spokesman Michael Polzin, and that structure proved unworkable. “We’d have to rip up that deal and come up with a new deal.”

There’s a special provision in U.S. tax law that says the inversion doesn’t count – that is, the newly formed company won’t be considered a foreign company, and won’t get tax benefits – if the shareholders from the U.S. side of the inversion own 80 percent or more of the newly formed company’s shares going forward.

“Walgreens would’ve had to renegotiate the deal with Boots in order to make sure that Boots’s shareholders ended up with at least 20 percent of the combined merged entity’s stock and that would’ve been difficult to accomplish,” says Dick Harvey, distinguished professor of practice at Villanova School of Law and Graduate Tax Program.

Walgreens is also different from many other companies in that people know it well, and its brand has accumulated significant consumer good will.

“This is a 100-year-old pharmacy in the United States, with a very long and storied legacy and it’s something the consumer is familiar with,” says Ross Muken, senior managing director and partner at ISI Group. “If [pharmaceutical and medical device companies] AbbVie or Covidien leave the United States, no one knows those brands as a consumer. But most people will know Walgreens.”

Consumers could be turned off if the Walgreens they knew skipped town for tax reasons. If consumers didn’t make the connection, an aggressive ad campaign by a competitor could easily help convince them.

There are about eight corporate inversions pending, Harvey says, but he estimates there could be 50 to 100 more in the next year or two. Politicians and government officials are already taking aim at corporate inverters.

“My attitude is, I don’t care if it’s legal, it’s wrong,” President Barack Obama told an audience at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in a speech July 24. “I propose closing this unpatriotic tax loophole for good."

Uncle Sam is a customer Walgreens would rather not antagonize — it gets between a quarter and a third of its business from the government through Medicare and Medicaid, says Muken. But most companies considering an inversion don’t have these concerns.

While many businesses wait for comprehensive tax reform, which may or may not materialize, the treasury department announced it would try to close some inversion loop holes on its own. Harvey says this is unlikely to deter many firms.

“There are two or three main benefits from an inversion – and treasury might be able to address one or two of them but there will be other benefits, that could result in businesses inverting even if treasury takes action," Harvey says.

Those benefits include gaining access to assets held abroad, and stripping out earnings from the United States. 

For most firms considering an inversion, he says, those temptations are too good to resist.

Can a rebuilt Gaza build an economy?

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:37

Wednesday is Day Two of a three-day ceasefire between the Israeli Army and Palestinian fighters in Gaza. In Egypt, indirect talks have proceeded between Israeli and Palestinian officials, aimed at extending the ceasefire and opening up Gaza's borders to trade and people.

Israel has largely sealed the borders it shares with Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took over. Recently, the military-led government in Egypt severely restricted its border with Gaza, shutting down the smuggling of goods, people and weapons through a large network of tunnels there.

As the ceasefire began on Tuesday, Palestinian deputy economy minister Taysir Amro estimated the direct damage from Israeli bombing and ground incursions at $4 billion to $6 billion. At least 10,000 homes and 140 schools are believed to be destroyed or damaged; Gaza’s power plant is heavily damaged, as is water treatment and other public infrastructure. Norway is reportedly organizing an international donor’s conference in September to begin the process of raising funds to restore services and rebuild.

“Even if you bring in $5 billion, $6 billion, $8 billion or $9 billion, all that will do is replace what they had, put them where they were,” said Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and author of “The World Through Arab Eyes.”

“We know that where they were was an awful place," he says. "Some people were calling it an ‘open prison.’”

"There's no economy in Gaza"

Since 2007, when Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after winning an election there, Israel has kept all but a trickle of humanitarian supplies and people from crossing the border. Except for what has been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, virtually no building supplies are allowed in by Israel for Gazans to use — Israel says these could be used for military purposes. And virtually no produce or furniture or other goods go out to sell in the West Bank, Israel, or farther afield.

“There’s no economy in Gaza — you can’t export from the Gaza strip,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who has served as an adviser to Palestinian negotiators in Ramallah.

Elgindy says there is little in the way of industry, agriculture or services in Gaza that could bring capital into the economy. So most development — in fact most consumption — comes from international aid, which 70 percent of residents receive. The unemployment rate is at least 40 percent, according to the World Bank. GDP has been falling in recent years.

Gaza’s "real" GDP growth, according to World Bank. (Source: World Bank)

What would have to happen to get economic development going in Gaza? The experts interviewed for this story said the first prerequisite is more open borders — for supplies coming in, goods for export going out and people (foreign visitors, expatriate family members and workers) going in both directions.

Second, they said Palestinians need more control of key infrastructure and economic relationships with immediate neighbors and potential trading partners.

“It would make a huge difference, in terms of normalizing Gaza, to have a seaport,” said Elgindy. The airport should also be rebuilt and opened to international flights, he said.

Telhami said if Palestinians controlled their own seacoast and airspace, and could clean up the beaches: “Gaza does have a waterfront. In good times, if they ever come, it could be turned into a relatively inexpensive vacation spot.”

Fishing has been severely limited by Israel, which controls the waters off the coast; Telhami said that industry could expand as well, supplying fish to the West Bank.

Leila Hilal, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said Gaza has human capital that could drive economic development.

“Gazans are very enterprising, they’ve been surviving under total isolation,” said Hilal, adding that the population of Gaza is young, educated and urban. She said the Palestinian diaspora could potentially help — providing expertise, export markets and investment dollars.

But, she said, a political opening in the peace process with Israel, and significant progress in opening borders and normalizing the ability of Gazans to travel and trade freely, would have to come first.

It's all monkey business for Wikimedia

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:35

Remember that picture that was floating around the internet a while ago?

The one a monkey had taken of herself using a camera it had liberated from a British wildlife photographer. It was basically a monkey-selfie.

Anyway, The Telegraph reported today that Wikipedia has declined the photographer's requests to stop distributing the picture without his permission because the site says the monkey pushed the shutter button and so it owns the copyright.

The NCAA's top conferences break out

Wed, 2014-08-06 10:13

A new proposal that grants the country’s top college athletics programs more money for their athletes and loosens NCAA restrictions is expected to be approved Thursday.

"The move comes amid vigorous public debate about the proper role of sports in higher education, and whether college athletes should be compensated for the billions of dollars they help generate," says Marc Tracy, college sports reporter for The New York Times.

This proposal will make the Big 5 conferences' first-class status official, but it might not be good news for the smaller programs. Non-Big 5 athletic programs could possibly lose their funding or be shut down.

"If you’re a non-Big 5 school that nonetheless feels it needs to compete with Big 5 schools and offer more to students, say in football, then you might need to cut costs elsewhere," says Tracy. "Will that actually be something that happens? I don’t know, but it’s certainly possible."

Yelp's CEO on the end of the professional critic

Wed, 2014-08-06 09:43

Ten years ago PayPal alums Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons had an idea for a website that would allow users to review restaurants and other local businesses. The pair took $1 million in seed capital and turned it into Yelp.

“If you think about the world prior to Yelp, it was the world of the professional critic,” says Stoppelman. “And so that meant lots of businesses didn’t get any exposure at all and the ones that did had kind of a one-shot deal.”

Simmons has since left the company but Stoppelman remains CEO 10 years on. This year is significant for another reason too – in the last quarter, Yelp posted a profit for the first time.

Though it’s free for users to post reviews, Yelp makes money by selling advertisements to small businesses. That concept brought Google knocking in 2009 with an offer to buy the company. Stoppelman remembers the day Steve Jobs called, urging him not to sell. "Fortunately, we chose the independent path"  Stoppelman says, "and I think the company is much more successful as a result."

As for how he and Simmons came up with the name for their now-ubiquitous company, they credit their early days at a business incubator.

“There was a guy we were working with, David, and he just came up with the name. He said it was like Help/Yelp or Yelp/Yellow Pages,"  Stoppelman says. "And both my and Russ’s initial response was 'Oh, that’s kind of a negative word.' But we slept on it and the next day, it was kind of history."

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that the call from Steve Jobs to Jeremy Stoppelman was about selling. It was urging him not to sell. The text has been corrected.

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