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Quiz: Hidden cameras in the classroom

Tue, 2014-11-11 04:40

Harvard researchers secretly photographed more than 2,000 students to study classroom behavior last spring. News reports and other Harvard faculty have called out the study’s questionable ethics. Two years ago Harvard administrators reportedly read the emails of resident deans – you guessed it – in secret.

Harvard researchers studied student behavior with secret cameras. What did they uncover?

You can watch a presentation by one of the photo researchers on YouTube.

PODCAST: Powerful and profitable art

Tue, 2014-11-11 03:00

First up, in China, what's called "Single's Day" is drawing to a close. It's a new-ish celebration that is to single people what Mother's Day is to mother's. But it's now morphed into the day people go online to buy things, often with their office computer. China's Alibaba said sales broke through $8 billion so far today in an orgy of commerce that, if you do the math, dwarfs America's so-called Black Friday. And tech products could soon travel across borders with less baggage as a result of the first major cut in international tariffs in 17 years, and it affects a range of technology products from MRI medical scanners to video games. More on that. Plus, it's Veterans Day in the U.S. and this summer marked 100 years since the outbreak of hostilities that became what was then called The Great War. To commemorate Britain's lost lives, an artist has staged a powerful installation at the Tower of London. It's really popular, and lucrative for veterans' charities.

Garth Brooks album is online, but not for streaming

Tue, 2014-11-11 02:00

Garth Brooks is following Taylor Swift’s lead, away from streaming music services. Not even a month after Swift pulled her catalog from Spotify, Brooks is releasing a new album that you can download, but not stream, for free. 

The album is called "Man Against Machine," but it may as well be called "Man Against Streaming Machine."

Garth Brooks is releasing the album on a new website he helped create, called GhostTunes. The site only allows you to buy music from Brooks and many others.

“It’s a sale, not a stream," says Stephanie Kellar, the lead marketing professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She says Brooks faces a huge challenge: “How does he get people to go to his site and purchase music there?”

But GhostTunes says it's not trying to be Spotify.

“There’s no question that we’re the smallest ant on this molehill,” says Randy Bernard, CEO of GhostTunes. 

Bernard says they’re aiming for a niche market, appealing to Garth Brooks fans, and offering extras.

“When you go on the site, you’ll be able to purchase merchandise or tickets from Ticketmaster," he says. "We offer a one-stop shop."

And, unlike Spotify, the site also offers Taylor Swift’s music.

London’s poppies prove the value of public art

Tue, 2014-11-11 02:00

London has gone poppy mad. Many people, throughout the UK and Ireland, wear poppies at this time of year to show their support for veterans and their families. So it’s not uncommon to see glimpses of scarlet everywhere; on business suits, overcoats, sweaters and even T-shirts. This year, though, the poppies that are really attracting attention are on the ground, filling the moat of the Tower of London, in a display of 888,246 ceramic flowers, one for each colonial or military fatality of the first world war.

The display, called "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red," has been a money-spinner for charities, which will raise as much as GBP15 million from the sale of the two-foot tall poppies. The drive to raise money around the event knocked even the most successful Kickstarter campaign into a cocked hat, raising GBP2.5 million in just six days.  

The poppies have also been good for London. Again, estimates vary, but news reports from the capital said as many as four million people, mostly from other parts of the UK and Ireland, have visited the Tower to see the display. The poppies have been such a resounding success that the exhibit is to go on tour: 10,000 poppies will be displayed around the country before they become housed by the Imperial War Museum.

The enormous display didn’t cost the UK government or the City of London a penny. The thousands of volunteers who hammered the flowers into the moat were volunteers. The flowers sold for GBP25, 10 percent of which will go to six service charities: Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help For Heroes, the Royal British Legion, SSAFA and the Confederation of Service Charities. All net proceeds from the sale will also go to those charities, and the government said recently it will waive the tax bill resulting from the sale of the poppies. UK Chancellor George Osborne said the government will make up some of the cost with GBP500,000 in LIBOR fixing fines collected from banks.

Best of all, the installation has been good for art. It has shown that great works of art don’t have to be static or permanent; they can be broken up and bought by the public; they can be successfully sponsored, and they can be of enormous benefit to society. How many other works of art in London get four million visitors in a quarter? And how many have the kind of impact that Blood-swept Lands and Seas of Red has had on those who’ve visited it? Millions of children have learned something about the history of their country, and probably their family, that they might never have otherwise known. The fact that they learned it for free is a bonus for the government. And it’s a lesson, too: art can be a good investment, not just socially, but financially. Which is why governments should work hard to fund and promote their countries’ artworks whenever possible.

Economic recovery drives growth in low-paid jobs

Tue, 2014-11-11 02:00

The October 2014 employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the U.S. economy is continuing to deliver steady job growth and lower unemployment, even as consumer demand and business activity remain lackluster compared to previous recoveries.

And signs increasingly point to a solid finish to the year. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that retailers and shippers—including both brick-and-mortar and online operations—added 180,600 jobs in October, more than any previous October on record. That’s an increase of 13 percent from 2013.

Employment in the transportation sector has been going up all year in tandem with the recovery of consumer spending.

“We’re seeing a huge demand for truck drivers,” said Michael Gritton of Kentuckiana Works, the regional workforce development agency in Louisville, Kentucky, which has become a logistics hub for the Midwest.

Nationwide, the U.S. economy has added more than 35,000 truck drivers since October 2013, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gritton points out that the cost of commercial-driver training is high—as much as $5,000—and it's not easy to find government funding or student loans to cover the cost. But a typical course only takes four to six weeks. Starting pay is typically in the $15/hour range (though it can rise to nearly double that with experience).

Other service sectors in which jobs are now consistently growing are also low-pay, explains economist Paul Edelstein at IHS.

“We’re seeing a big shift towards the leisure and hospitality sector, restaurants and bars, where the wages aren’t very good,” said Edelstein. Employment in leisure and hospitality has increased by 380,000 in the past year.

Daycare is another low-paid occupation that is now adding jobs consistently (nearly 19,000 since October 2013), driven by the overall expansion of the economy. As more parents become two-income households again, they need to pay someone else to watch the kids.

U.S. leaves other big world economies behind

Mon, 2014-11-10 12:27

One reason for recent volatility in U.S. equity markets — and for remaining uncertainties about the resilience of the U.S. recovery — is a myriad of signs that the rest of the world is sinking economically. 

America's biggest trading partners in every direction face troubles: China is attempting to manage a measured slowdown in growth (from the 10 percent to the 7 percent range); Brazil’s boom has turned sour with lower commodity prices and corruption scandals; Europe’s malaise has not lifted after the recession, with rickety banks and risky government debt levels still unresolved; and Russia faces a host of troubles — from sinking oil prices and economic sanctions, to Olympic debts and a lack of rule of law.

By contrast, the U.S. economy is clearly on a path back to relative health and strength, says economist Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics in Toronto.

“It may sound strange, but the U.S. is the stand-out performer of the G7,” Ashworth says. The G7 includes the U.S. Canada, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K., and Japan. “Everything in the U.S. seems to be going in the right direction — the unemployment rate, the federal budget deficit below 3 percent of GPD.”

And some of what ails the rest of the world, actually juices the American economy, at least in the short run. In an uncertain world, rich foreigners and overseas companies are investing their money in U.S. equities and government bonds, explains Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“People buy up U.S. Treasuries because in the scheme of things the U.S. looks relatively safe,” Baker says. “That lowers interest rates, meaning people can refinance their homes, and pay lower rates if they buy a car or get a car loan.” 

But there is a flip-side — at least for many U.S.-based businesses — to the United States being the global standout among major developed and developing economies: a strengthening U.S. dollar. 

That makes it cheaper for Americans to buy Italian sunglasses, Japanese cars or foreign oil. But U.S. companies that export face more price competition from cheaper foreign-made goods.

And, says investment strategist Anthony Valeri at LPL Financial, U.S. companies may lose significant sales overseas, especially if the eurozone goes into recession again.

“If we do get a slowdown in Europe and in emerging markets, it will impact the profitability of domestic companies,” Valeri says. And that in turn could depress job-creation in the U.S. next year.

Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew exists

Mon, 2014-11-10 11:00

The Bahn Mi proved flavor fusion can taste great. Then cappuccino-flavored Lay's potato chips proved it can be a horrible mistake.

Now, in an effort toward total and complete flavor fusion chaos, Pepsico has confirmed reports that they are working on Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew. 

The "Dewitos" flavor apparently tastes strikingly similar to the traditional nacho cheesy, triangular chips, according to a post on Reddit. Sadly, it isn't Cool Ranch flavored. 

Your ultimate junk food fantasy (or nightmare) just came true.

Obama calls for net neutrality

Mon, 2014-11-10 11:00

Should there be slow lanes and fast lanes for content on the Internet? This is the province of the Federal Communications Commission, and has been long debated and litigated.

But President Obama today decided he needed to speak loud and clear on this, and tell the FCC what he thinks it should do. The president has long been against special fast lanes online. But this is the most direct he’s been, calling for “an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.”

The Federal Communications Commission is an independent agency. But the President called on the FCC to “create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.”

The FCC is currently considering whether to treat Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast like phone companies, which are regulated under Title II of the telecommunications law. Obama endorsed Title II today.

“We’re experiencing Title II right here,” says Craig Aaron by phone. He heads Free Press, an advocacy group lobbying for such neutrality. “Your call to me gets treated the same way as your call to the White House. You get to decide what the priority is going to be.”

For their part, Internet providers proclaimed “unprecedented government interference” and a predicted a crippling future of Mother-May-I rules.

“Let me be clear: this is all about how do you regulate the Internet,” says former FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, now with the Hudson Institute think tank. “And the obvious answer is, you regulate it the way you have the past 20 years, which is not at all.”

For all the sound bites, this issue is incredibly complicated, litigated, obfuscated.

But emerging from the weeds, Daniel Weitzner of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory says the task for the FCC really is to keep the Web working as it does today. In his view, it does work.

“We know that companies both on the network side and on the edge as it were – the Amazons and Google and Twitters of the world – have all been able to grow,” says Weitzner.

The issue is where the Internet goes from here. Some analysts already see it moving in a direction of pay-to-play and more speed for the rich.

“That would be contrary to the way the Internet has worked and grown,” Weitzner says.

Businesses start to text, and problems emerge

Mon, 2014-11-10 11:00

In the Internet age, the line "I didn't get your text" has a real "The dog ate my homework”-feel to it. But it's also the truth for some Android users who are not getting messages sent from iPhones.

Those messages, sent to those who switched to an Android phone from an iPhone, was sometimes getting caught up in something of a iMessage black hole, because newly-Android phone numbers were stuck in their previous iMessage ecosystem.

"Anecdotally, I’ve experienced it with my wife’s friends,” says Wayne Lam, a senior analyst at Telecom Electronics.

Now, Apple has a website where you can delist your phone number from iMessage. But the fix comes long after anecdotes surfaced of not only lost personal texts, but of the bug causing problems for businesses.

Scott Irwin with Rembrandt Venture Partners, which focuses its investments on enterprise and business technologies, sees a growing trend in businesses adopting texts as an integral part of their daily operations.

"We think that the timing is good, and the need is very real,” says Irwin. “Employees… use various texting platforms in their personal lives, and that tends to bleed over into their professional lives as well, so this is creating the problem and therefore the opportunity.”

Irwin says employees are adopting consumer texting services for business use, which can have all kinds of problematic implications from the stand point of confidentiality, information security and compliance issues.

A number of services are now vying for the business texting market to help solve those problems. And anlysts there may be a shake-out coming among texting providers, as the business world increasingly adapts to the technology.

Meanwhile, companies are also looking at texting as an important tool in how they communicate with customers. 

Airlines are a perfect example, when they send text alerts with changed flight information, says independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan.

"Some businesses are really moving into this aggressively. And other competitors in the same space are not,” says Kagan. "But over the course of the next several years, as other companies start to implement it themselves… then, you’ve got to use it or you’re in a disadvantage.”

“We’re in the early stages of seeing this form of communication become a real productivity tool,” says Lam, who adds that there are now a lot of companies entering the field.  

More texts from Nova and Dave.

(Photo: David Shaw)

The numbers for November 10, 2014

Mon, 2014-11-10 10:18

Stakes have been raised in the fight for an open Internet.

President Barack Obama took a strong stance for net neutrality on Monday morning. In a recorded statement, Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a utility, like water or electricity, under Title II of the Communications Act.

The FCC, which is independent from Congress and the White House, actively sought comment from the outside on the issue. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the Commission would add Obama's input to the 3.7 million-comment pile that they've already received.

The FCC was originally expected to introduce new rules by the end of the year, but Wheeler has said they will take more time.

Republicans hope to update the Communications Act for the first time since 1996, and net neutrality will play a role. Texas Senator Ted Cruz signaled further politicization of the issue by calling net neutrality, "Obamacare for the Internet," in a tweet after the president's announcement.

Here are the other stories we're reading and numbers we're watching: 

45

"Sesame Street" debuted 45 years ago, on November 10, 1969. For the occasion, The Atlantic dug up their initial review of the show, which praised the muppets but lambasted the show's potential, thanks in part to its "great stress on the alphabet." On "Marketplace," we've explored Elmo's dominance in toy sales, "Sesame Street"-branded schools overseas and where different characters fall on the economic spectrum. What does Oscar the Grouch care about most during the election? Stimulus spending.

8,019,763

That's how many people bought a health plan using an insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates there are about 20 million more potential buyers. The latest iteration of Healthcare.gov went live Sunday night and open enrollment starts this weekend. Vox breaks down what to expect from round two of the ACA.

1 percent

That's the portion of Internet time people spend on Twitter, according to a Morgan Stanley chart featured on Quartz. Compare that to Facebook, which accounts to about 15 percent of time spent online. It's no wonder the company wants to publish content directly.  

Stuxnet, Digital Weapons, and Countdown to Zero Day

Mon, 2014-11-10 09:29

Stuxnet is a computer worm that was discovered in 2010 and was used against Iran's uranium enrichment program.

Kim Zetter's book "Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon" goes deep into the discovery of Stuxnet, how it was used and discovered in the past decade and the future of digital weapons. 

Stuxnet was designed not to steal anything or harm computers, but for mere sabotage of physical equipment. While Zetter agrees Stuxnet may have prevented a "kinetic war," she suggests it also opened the possibility of damage to critical digital infrastructure in the not-too-distant future.

"There’s no going back," she says.

Read an excerpt from "Countdown to Zero Day":

Prologue

The Case of the Centrifuges

 

It was January 2010 when officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations body charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, first began to notice something unusual happening at the uranium enrichment plant outside Natanz in central Iran.

Inside the facility’s large centrifuge hall, buried like a bunker more than fifty feet beneath the desert surface, thousands of gleaming aluminum centrifuges were spinning at supersonic speed, enriching uranium hexafluoride gas as they had been for nearly two years. But over the last weeks, workers at the plant had been removing batches of centrifuges and replacing them with new ones. And they were doing so at a startling rate.

At Natanz each centrifuge, known as an IR-1, has a life expectancy of about ten years. But the devices are fragile and prone to break easily. Even under normal conditions, Iran has to replace up to 10 percent of the centrifuges each year due to material defects, maintenance issues, and worker accidents.

In November 2009, Iran had about 8,700 centrifuges installed at Natanz, so it would have been perfectly normal to see technicians decommission about 800 of them over the course of the year as the devices failed for one reason or another. But as IAEA officials added up the centrifuges removed over several weeks in December 2009 and early January, they realized that Iran was plowing through them at an unusual rate.

Inspectors with the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards visited Natanz an average of twice a month—sometimes by appointment, sometimes unannounced—to track Iran’s  enrichment activity and progress. Anytime workers at the plant decommissioned damaged or otherwise unusable centrifuges, they were required to line them up in a control area just inside the door of the centrifuge rooms until IAEA inspectors arrived at their next visit to examine them. The inspectors would run a handheld gamma spectrometer around each centrifuge to ensure that no nuclear material was being smuggled out in them, then approve the centrifuges for removal, making note in reports sent back to IAEA headquarters in Vienna of the number that were decommissioned each time.

IAEA digital surveillance cameras, installed outside the door of each centrifuge room to monitor Iran’s enrichment activity, captured the technicians scurrying about in their white lab coats, blue plastic booties on their feet, as they trotted out the shiny cylinders one by one, each about six feet long and about half a foot in diameter. The workers, by agreement with the IAEA, had to cradle the delicate devices in their arms, wrapped in plastic sleeves or in open boxes, so the cameras could register each item as it was removed from the room.

The surveillance cameras, which weren’t allowed inside the centrifuge rooms, stored the images for later perusal. Each time inspectors visited Natanz, they examined the recorded images to ensure that Iran hadn’t removed additional centrifuges or done anything else prohibited during their absence. But as weeks passed and the inspectors sent their reports back to Vienna, officials there realized that the number of centrifuges being removed far exceeded what was normal.

Officially, the IAEA won’t say how many centrifuges Iran replaced during this period. But news reports quoting European “diplomats” put the number at 900 to 1,000. A former top IAEA official, however, thinks the actual number was much higher. “My educated guess is that 2,000 were damaged,” says Olli Heinonen, who was deputy director of the Safeguards Division until he resigned in October 2010.

Whatever the number, it was clear that something was wrong with the devices. Unfortunately, Iran wasn’t required to tell inspectors why they had replaced them, and, officially, the IAEA inspectors had no right to ask. The agency’s mandate was to monitor what happened to uranium at the enrichment plant, not keep track of failed equipment.

What the inspectors didn’t know was that the answer to their question was right beneath their noses, buried in the bits and memory of the computers in Natanz’s industrial control room. Months earlier, in June 2009, someone had quietly unleashed a destructive digital warhead on computers in Iran, where it had silently slithered its way into critical systems at Natanz, all with a single goal in mind—to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment program and prevent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from building a nuclear bomb.

The answer was there at Natanz, but it would be nearly a year before the inspectors would obtain it, and even then it would come only after more than a dozen computer security experts around the world spent months deconstructing what would ultimately become known as one of the most sophisticated viruses ever discovered—a piece of software so unique it would make history as the world’s first digital weapon and the first shot across the bow announcing the age of digital warfare.

Profits increase for luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers.

Mon, 2014-11-10 09:18

The luxury home builder Toll Brothers had some good news for shareholders today. Revenues for the quarter ending in October shot up by 29 percent.  Strong demand, especially on the West Coast, boosted the company's sales. 

This past year Toll Brothers has been aggressively expanding on the West Coast.  In southern California alone it’s developing five new communities.

But the strong quarterly showing from Toll may not say much about a wider housing market recovery. Toll focuses on the higher end of the homebuilding market, something that many homebuilders have been doing the past few years.

“Homebuilders have been serving the part of the market that’s been the healthiest, which has been older, move-up buyers that have home equity, that have more wealth,” says Robert Dietz, an economist with the National Association of Homebuilders.  

That trend has been reinforced by lenders chasing wealthy buyers, offering them surprisingly low rates on large “jumbo” mortgages.  The rates, in some cases, are even lower than those for standard loans. Housing economist Brad Hunter at Metrostudy hopes by next year, there will be signs of a broader recovery in the housing market.

“Our take is that rents are getting so high and job formations are getting better,” says Hunter.

What do CEOs do all day?

Mon, 2014-11-10 09:03

Corporate titans, leaders of Fortune 500 companies, wearers of starched white shirts, winners of enormous paychecks and occupiers of corner offices with imposing black desks and gleaming glass views. It's easy to conjure images of CEOs in offices... but what, exactly, is it that they do in there all day?

A CEO's job isn't one that's easy to categorize. It doesn't fit neatly into a one-slot job description like number-cruncher, analyst or ad-man. And when I contacted companies to try to coax out an answer, most said their CEO's time was too tight for a discussion about how they spend it.

Andrea Prat, a professor of economics at Columbia Business School, who studies this exact corporate mystery, says over 80 percent of a CEO's time "is spent in interactions with other people.”

To translate academic-speak into more conversational language: CEOs, says Prat, spend most of their days in meetings. And, he notes, most of the meetings are with employees inside the company. If you find yourself questioning this practice, concerned that meetings have a poor reputation as wasters of time, says Prat: “Surprisingly, that’s actually not what we find.”

Instead, he says, the more time a CEO spends in meetings with his or her employees, the better the company does.

"You can measure firm performance as productivity," he says. "You can measure it as return on capital employed, or you can measure it as growth over time. This strong correlation exists even when we control for everything we observe about the firm – the industry, the location, the size, the capital employed."

When CEOs aren't spending the majority of their time with employees, it can be evidence of a serious problem. It can mean, says Prat, a focus on maintaining outside visibility for the CEO – a hedging of bets. That he or she may be polishing up their resume and keeping an eye on the horizon for other job opportunities. CEOs need to be steering the ship from the inside, mostly, via meetings.

And meetings were what were happening at the two companies that agreed to let their CEOs talk to a reporter. First, at Happy Family, a maker of organic food for babies, tots and kids, 37-year-old CEO Shazi Visram has been so busy all day she's barely had time to – well....

“So I wanted to go to the bathroom like 20 minutes ago, but see, this is, that’s what happens."

Visram is talking about getting sidetracked by trying to check in with her 80 fulltime employees. Something she says she tries to do whenever she’s in her New York headquarters, like today. There's a group meeting to look at sketches of designs for product packaging, a one-on-one check-in about the design of the company website, a meeting to taste test new potential products. And in between, work on a charity project, an orphanage for kids overseas, writing an article, wrangling time zones and dialing codes to place international phone calls with Happy Family's parent company, Danone. And of course, email.

"I probably get close to 500 emails a day on average," says Visram.  "Not every one needs a response, but every one needs to be read."

A stressful prospect for any employee – C-Suite level or not. Luckily, at Sealed Air, a New Jersey-based company, with 25,000 employees, there is a special option available for the relief of nerves. Among the many products the company produces is bubble wrap. Enough, says Ken Chrisman, president of product care at the company, "to reduce the whole level of stress worldwide by at least 1 degree.”

Jerome Peribere, 59, is the company's CEO. After a tour of the Secaucus, N.J., plant he pulled out a printed itinerary of his schedule for the day.

Arriving around 7:15 a.m., Peribere caught up on emails, had a phone meeting, spoke to employees in New Jersey at a town hall meeting - and the schedule for the rest of the day? More meetings.

Sealed Air has over 100 manufacturing sites around the world, and Peribere estimates he spends 60 percent of his time traveling to visit customers, plants and offices.  

At Happy Family, Visram says she does a little bit of everything – sales, marketing, management. Being a CEO, says Visram, requires a certain personality type – someone with a strong vision for the future.

Yeah, I’m a little bossy – but in a good way. If a corporate culture is all about collaboration, and there’s no one person who can say, 'you know what, this is great, but we’re going to do this and this is why,' you’re asking for chaos.”

Andrea Prat says CEOs put in just over 11 hours at work every day. But he says it's probable they work even more. His study is limited to the hours a CEO was observed working, or had been scheduled for work activities, by her or by her personal assistant.

"So if, for instance, after dinner they make phone calls or they do emails, we don’t observe that," he says.

Being CEO, says Peribere, is more than a full time job, and isn't limited to five days a week.  "The good thing about the weekend is that you can spend quality time working," he says.

 

Visram is not only CEO of Happy Family, but also the company's founder. She recalls putting in epic hours during its start-up phase. She was also pregnant.

"And I would literally think, 'I’m not going to drink too much water right now, because I’m going to be on the phone for an hour and a half, and I don’t have the time to go and literally walk all the way down the hall,' because the restroom was really far away."

Visram would get so busy, she says, she used to sleep on the floor of her officewith a little blue blanket and a yoga mat, until an employee felt sorry for her and splurged on a $100 fold-out bed. She still keeps the yoga mat in a corner of her office. So when people bring up the touchy subject of high CEO pay, Visram says that while she's not familiar with the workings of banking institutions, "the CEO pay scales that really get critiqued"– she is quick to voice her opinion about the pay scale of other corporate leaders:

“I believe that for the folks who are in that position, many of them have really earned it, and they’ve paid their dues,” she says. "I was the CEO for four years of this business, and I was making $36,000 a year, living in New York City, and I had an MBA from Columbia. So, I think it all balances out."

Peribere, who is originally from France, says he applauds the American practice of publishing the salaries of top executives of public companies.

"I like very much this transparency with the concept of being paid for the value you create," he says. "You have CEOs who have created zero value during their tenure. I think it is unfair to have very high salaries for people who have created zero value."

He takes out his phone and pulls up a chart of Sealed Air's stock performance dating back to before he started with the company.

"It was at $13 the day before my nomination has been announced," he says. "And it is today at $35."

Peribere says the company has done well, so the executive team should be rewarded – reasonably. And, he notes, not everyone is cut out to be CEO. A company's leader has to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, he says, as well as to lead their team there. Like when employees use overly complex language in presentations, and he asks them "what do you mean?"

"And then the person tells you oh, what I meant is, 'this is where we are, this is where we’re going and these are the five things we need to do to get there.' And my answer systematically is – just say so. Business is simple; people make it difficult.”

PODCAST: Natural gas, naturally

Mon, 2014-11-10 07:40

What does it mean when buying stocks in China gets quite a bit easier?  Andrew Batson, China Research Director at Gavekal Dragonomics, joined us from Beijing. Plus: Wholesale natural gas prices spiked last week, and they're back up this morning on news of a new polar vortex. Finally: natural gas production, however, shows no sign of abating - the question now is what to do with all of it.

Wall Street bonuses as economic indicator

Mon, 2014-11-10 05:45

It’s that time of year again: Wall Street bonus season. 

A survey Monday from Johnson Associates suggests this year will bring good news and bad news to different sectors of the financial industry, providing a mixed indicator of the health of the American financial industry, as well as the economy as a whole. 

The survey has bad news for some of finance's risk takers: Hedge funds and traders of stocks and bonds are predicted to see bonuses drop by as much as 10 percent from last year.

 "The first question is: 'Why are the trading bonuses lower?'" says Wallace Turbeville, senior fellow at Demos and former Goldman Sachs investment banker. "That could be a lot of reasons."

Turbeville thinks it could be due to lower stock market volatility or an increase in automation. "But the real question is whether the traders are changing their behavior and putting less risk on the books at the banks and hedge funds," he says. "That kind of risk can blow up, of course, that's what happened in 2008."

The Johnson Associates survey projects other sectors of the financial industry to see bonus increases. Investment bankers and private equity employees working on mergers and acquisitions are predicted to see increases of up to 15 percent.

"The picture is really quite bright, or it is getting brighter, for investment banking," says S.P. Kothari, deputy dean at MIT's Sloan School of Management. 

This is in part because of a number of big mergers and acquisitions this year, like Comcast's acquisition of Time Warner and AT&T's acquisition of DirecTV. This year's M&A activity is on track to be one of the biggest, in dollar value, of all time.

"The merger activity is a harbinger of good prospects for the economy," says Kothari.

 For the financial industry, the good and bad prospects more or less average out: With bonuses factored in, take-home pay at commercial and investment banks is expected to be about the same as last year.

Electricity as utility. A model for the internet?

Mon, 2014-11-10 04:00

 

Update 11/10/2014: President Obama made a statement this morning calling for "free and open Internet," citing the 4 million comments sent to the FCC regarding net neutrality.  

For context, read on.

As Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler moves closer to releasing new rules on net neutrality and internet "fast lanes," many open internet advocates have been calling for the FCC to reclassify internet service providers as "common carriers."

Doing so would effectively turn them into public utilities like power, gas and water services, and thereby subject them to more strict regulation.

But some of those utilities themselves started out as products sold on the open market, just like internet service. So how did they get regulated as public utilities? For the best comparison with the internet's current situation, look at how another "new" technology went from market good to public good: electricity.

In the case of electricity, it starts with Edison.

With a patent for the first practical light bulb in 1879, Thomas Edison needed an actual market of people who could use his invention, meaning a way to get power to his customers. In 1882 his Edison Illuminating Company constructed the first central power plant in the United States, the Pearl Street Station in New York.

The catch with early direct current power plants, however, was that they couldn't generate power at very high voltages. The power couldn't travel that far along the copper wires without weakening the further it went. But as electricity gained popularity and more appliances were created to use it, numerous companies began building power plants to supply electricity to individual neighborhoods, each station selling power to customers within a small radius.

This is where goverment regulation entered the picture, in the form of municipal franchise agreements. Those agreements allowed the companies to dig up streets and build infrastructure. In exchange, they had to meet certain price caps and service standards. These controls, usually administered by city governments, were in fact very weak.

The large investment costs usually prohibited one company from owning all the power stations in a single city at first, but the different firms would often compete over customers in areas where their services overlapped. As companies were able to expand their reach, customers in large cities like New York and Chicago actually experienced a sort of golden age of price wars with many local companies competing against each other.

The competition was short lived, however, as single companies gained monopolies over large cities and increasingly advancing technology made for high barriers of investment in infrastructure needed for a new competitor to enter a market. The market for internet service providers is kind of at the same point right now in terms of barriers to entry, as telecom and cable companies have consolidated to a certain extent, buying up smaller regional ISPs. This has made it pretty much unfeasable for new competitors to get in the the game without considerable resources.

The old municipal franchises that governed electric companies also became prone to corruption from city politicians. In the early 1900s, an entrepreneur named Samuel Insull who had exploited the economies of scale to dominate the Chicago market argued along with other electric utilites that they were "natural monopolies," that resulted from the inherent barriers to competition in large markets.

State governments attempted to regulate these monopolies with legislation, but power barons like Insull were able to outmaneuver the efforts by restructuring their businesses with holding companies that were not covered by the reforms. By the late 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission was investigating the holding companies for market manipulations.

It wasn't until the onset of the Great Depression, and the strong reforms of the New Deal that power over electric utilites was taken away from the holding companies in the form of the Public Utility Holding Company Act and the Federal Power Act of 1935, transferring much of the regulatory power over eletricity over to the federal goverment.

This was significant not because power utility monopolies were split up, but that the "natural monopolies" were in fact legitimated; they could exist, but they had to be under government control. The federal legislation, along with other New Deal legislation, actually provided for the creation of a number of government monopolies over public goods.

As it stands now, internet service providers are sort of stuck in between being a wholly private good or a heavily-regulated public utility. Until recently, the FCC has successfully imposed on ISPs to treat all content the same in terms of speed of access, but they haven't set caps on how much they can charge or set standards for quality of service as are required of utilites like water and power.

The federal government has also subsidized ISPs to the tune of $200 billion to build a fiber broadband infrastructure for schools and low-income regions, which many activists contend they never completed. Following the model of electic utilites, further government investment could hypothetically result in internet infrastructure owned by the government itself.

It's unclear whether the internet will go along the same route to regulation as a utility, but with nearly a third of Americans having no choice for their internet service provider, the circumstances are starting to look very similar.

What it's like to drive a car powered by natural gas

Mon, 2014-11-10 03:00

America’s natural gas production shows no signs of abating. And increasingly, the question is: What to do with all of it?

One proposed solution is to drive cars on it, which is possible. But likely?

Marketplace’s Scott Tong conducted a test drive on a recent reporting trip to Michigan:

As soon as I land at the airport, the dual-fuel truck is waiting. This Ford F-150 burns gasoline and natural gas. The vehicle drives the same, except there’s just one switch to flip on the alternative fuel.

The benefit of natural gas? Let’s talk a bit of chemistry. Natural gas is one of several hydrocarbons: ethane, propane, butane…

“Natural gas is the simplest one,” says John DeCicco of the University of Michigan Energy Institute. “It’s just one carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms. And because it just has one carbon, it burns very cleanly.”

When it’s burned, natural gas emits half the amount of greenhouse gas CO2 than gasoline.

DeCicco joins me as we drive to a nearby gas station. There, commercial driver John Duffiny is filling up at a special pump for his natural gas van.

“It drives great,” Duffiny says. “Just like a gas motor. You punch it, you get to 80 miles an hour in [a]  minute. I shouldn’t say 80 … 70 miles an hour.”

And on this day, the fuel costs 30 percent less than gasoline, per unit of energy.

Now here’s the rub: First, I can’t work the natural gas station hose. It looks different. It goes into a different place in the vehicle. And the pump has a problem with its compressor.

To fill a natural gas tank, the fuel has to be pushed in, or compressed. Hence the term “compressed natural gas,” or CNG. It’s like filling a tire with air. Natural gas is similarly gaseous. It’s not a liquid.

“Think about filling up a balloon,” DeCicco says. “You have to blow it up. And what this pump is doing is the same thing.”

Another trade-off: the tank is really big. See, the fuel is less dense, less concentrated.

“The vast majority of people who want pickup trucks aren’t going to want to lose a bunch of their bed space,” DeCicco says.

Today, many buses and large trucks figure all these trade-offs are indeed worth it. They have space for extra-large fuel tanks. And since they often drive long distances, the savings add up.

But the rest of us, not many are sold on the idea yet. Of a billion vehicles in the world, 1 percent or so burn natural gas. 

Winter is coming: Why forecasters love a good vortex

Mon, 2014-11-10 02:00

The polar vortex is back. It hit the northern U.S. on Sunday, is sweeping down through the Midwest, and will then move out to the East Coast. Temperatures could drop by 40 degrees and bring some all-time daily lows. 

Directly in the path of this cold air mass is the city of Brainerd, Minnesota. City administrator Patrick Wussow is not panicking. When I called him, he was actually chuckling. 

Wussow had not yet heard that the area would be struck by a vortex. The city had not made any special preparations for the cold weather, nor did people in town seem overly concerned. He says: “It's business as usual, preparing for the weather whichever way it comes—cold or warm.” 

When similar weather patterns brought on historic cold temperatures in December and January last year, the media popularized the phrase “polar vortex,” and for good reason. It makes for a big weather story, and that buzz creates revenue for weather news outlets. This vortex is a top story on sites like Accuweather.com. CBS News tells readers to prepare for “the sequel.” The NY Daily News calls it a “scary weather phenomenon.” 

Dave Changnon is a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University. He says one of the reasons forecasters love a good vortex is that it is predictable, so it makes for an easy story. “It's not like a snow storm,” he says “where forecasters sit there and say, 'oh, we are going to get buried with two feet of snow' and then all the sudden it misses.” If the weather patterns show a polar vortex is coming, it is coming. 

People have pretty short weather memories says Changnon, so they forget that these vorticies are nothing new. They are a reoccurring and documented part of the weather pattern, and he says people in their 40s should remember similar cold weather in past Novembers. 

This vortex is a little unusual, Changnon says, because it is appearing earlier in November than most. But for that reason, he says it won't be anywhere near as cold as last year's vorticies. Changon says people in the affected areas should just prepare for temperatures that feel more like January instead of November. 

 He, for one, plans to wear a scarf and coat.

The cost of freezing your eggs

Fri, 2014-11-07 15:11

Apple and Facebook offered to pay, to different degrees, for employees to freeze their eggs. Citigroup says they too will provide coverage for egg freezing.

I thought, OK, I'll talk about it. Marketplace Weekend is about how the economy collides with real life. Here's how it collided with mine.

A few years back, I got sick. I have a condition called endometriosis, where uterine tissue grows in places it shouldn't. And it can make it hard to have kids. So, in between surgeries bookending a few years of my life, I froze my eggs.

It cost me $7,000, insurance covered the drugs, which were $1,800. The rest, I paid out of my own pocket. Storage runs about $300 a year.

It was scary. Painful. Expensive. And I still don't know if all that money and effort will ever be worth it, because the science is pretty new.

But, I do know that I bought myself maybe a little confidence to go forward in my career, and not worry late at night that I'm throwing away my chance to be a mother, because I love my job.

And if more companies are going to pay for women to have this expensive chance, what does that mean? Maybe greater freedom to work in your 20s and 30s?

And that brings us to this weekend's number: 4.4 percent. American women's earnings at work decrease 4 percent for every child they have, according to a study at the University of Massachusetts.

And yes, it controls for education, hours, and different types of jobs.

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