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The 4 biggest 2013 stories that impacted your wallet

Thu, 2013-12-26 14:16

We're joined by Marketplace's David Gura, Tara Siegel Bernard of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus to talk about some of the biggest personal finance-related news stories of 2013:

HEALTH CARE

David Lazarus:

“Health care, probably the single biggest pocketbook story of the year for ordinary folks because the stakes are so large. We spend approximately $3 trillion every year on health care in this country and per person that’s about twice what our colleagues in the developed world are spending. There was a big story earlier this year … Steve Brill just had a fantastic piece in Time Magazine looking at the health care landscape and specifically hospital charges and how insane they are. Not to put too fine a point on it.”

“I dwelled into that a bit myself, and I looked at drug prices, pharmacy prices, and in my reporting I found that all the major drugstore chains, mostly CVS, were refilling people’s prescriptions without their permission. CVS said, ‘Oh no, we would never do that,’ but I got my hands on emails from within the company saying that there are quotas, that there are ramifications for druggists if they don’t get these things refilled. And all of this adds up to show how unlevel the playing field is, and how hard it is for consumers to make informed decisions about the treatment they’re seeking, about the drugs they’re taking, when the entire system seems to be about reaching deeper into our pockets.”

Tara Siegel Bernard:

“We’ve heard from a variety of readers that have had really mixed experiences [with the insurance changes from the Affordable Care Act]. Some were able to get on, no problem and were happy to learn that they’d be paying less.”

“There’s also plenty of people that wrote to me over the past month or two that had said, ‘Hey I’m going to be paying far more than I expected.’ And oftentimes those were younger, healthy people who are going to have to probably pay a little bit more to offset the fact that older people, sicker people, are required to pay only three times more than the general population. So there’s going to be some give-and-take.”

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

David Gura:

“This couldn’t have happened at a worst time. This was at the beginning of October leading into the holiday season, and Washington has not done very much good to help consumer confidence over the last many months. I think coupling with a fight over the budget was a fight over the debt ceiling, that certainly gave consumers a lot more reason to be nervous as well.”

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

Tara Siegel Bernard:

“The demise of the Defense of Marriage Act will entitle these couples to a slew of federal benefits that their opposite sex peers took for granted. If you are a married couple with a lower-earning spouse, or a stay-at-home spouse, you’re probably going to get a nice refund … you could save nearly $4,200 in federal taxes.”

“On the other end, if you’re a higher income couple, or a couple that earns about the same amount of money, just because of the way the tax brackets line up you could be paying far more. So you really have to run the numbers to see where you’re going to come out.”

“TurboTax has a new calculator that will help you do that. And the reason why you want to check in with such a calculator or an accountant is because you can re-file your taxes for the past three years. So if you’re that couple … entitled to a $4,200 return times three, that’s significant savings.”

CONSUMER FINANCE PROTECTION BUREAU

David Lazarus:

“They spent a bit of their time, not just getting the enforcement thing rolling, but marking their territory. They’re trying to basically establish the territory that they’re going to be covering. And it is a wider purview than might have been imagined. They’ve been gradually going after other types of lenders, other types of financial institutions, other types of loans and making it clear they’re taking their mandate of consumer finance protection very seriously.”

Tara Siegel Bernard:

“I’m curious how the CFPB lays in the big credit reporting bureaus, because up until now, they really haven’t been … maybe lightly regulated by the FTC, if you could call it that. So now they fall under their purview, [and] our credit reports are our lifeline to everything these days."

5 tax tips for end-of-year planning

Thu, 2013-12-26 14:12

Along with New Year resolutions and gift returns, here's another holiday rite of passage: End-of-year tax planning. 

We're a few months away from the filing deadline, but what you do now can make a big difference on your tax bill. Barry Glassman, certified financial planner, joins us to discuss what tax moves you should make now. 

"For the first time in a long time, we know what's likely to be the tax brackets and rules for next year," says Glassman. The past couple years there have been rules expring and tax brackets expiring and all kinds of different things. This year is kind of easier, due to less congressional noise." 

Charitable Donations 

1. 25 percent of all charitable donations occur during the winter holidays. That means you still have time to get that deduction! And here's one quick tip, consider donating stock in lieu of money: "Tax payers need to know there’s an advantage to donating appreciated securities," says Glassman. "Let’s say you bought a stock or mutual fund during the downturn, and it’s appreciated substantially. If you sold today you’d realize a capital gain [and be subject to taxes on those gains], but if you donate that sock or mutual fund, you get the full market value of the donation, and the charity gets to sell it and not pay the tax.” 

Retirement Account Contributions 

According to Glassman, there are two things people should look at outside of the basic tips like maxing out your IRA: 

2. "For everyone turning 50 next year, they should consider the fact they can contribute a bit more with catch-up contributions. For those people who are mature enough to handle the extra $5,500 of contributions, they can go ahead and put that in place," Glassman says. Make sure you speak with someone to maximize contributions. Some assume deductions will automatically max-out if that's the option they chose when they first signed up for their retirement plan.

3.  If you are self-employed and own a SEP, you might want to switch an individual-K. Basically, it's a personal 401k plan for people that are self-employed.  IndividualK.com is a great resource to calculate how much you should be contributing.

Taxes

4. Take a look at your portfolio and re-assess stocks that lost value. According to Glassman, "It makes sense to sell [losing stocks] before year-end. Those losses can help offset the capital gains that were realized, even [if they occured] earlier in the year."

5. Glassman suggests using tax preparation software like TurboTax for basic returns, but turning to a tax professional if you need more guidance or might be moving to a new tax bracket next year. A tax professional can walk you through potential savings on retirement accounts and suggest other ideas that can add up in the long-run.

High prices: When pigs fly

Thu, 2013-12-26 14:00

Bacon was everywhere in 2013.

There was the Denny's "Baconalia!" menu, which featured pork in pancakes, macaroni and cheese, and even ice cream. Chicken-fried bacon made headlines in Texas and we heard about a bacon martini in Las Vegas.

And then there was the government shutdown, which left farmers without a way to calculate the price to set for each of their hogs.

"After the government got back to work and the prices started to get reported again we had a nice counter season rally on the pork market,"  says Brian Duncan, a hog farmer in Polo, Ill. "On the production side, the market's done what it usually does this time of year when the market has gone down. So this is a tough time seasonally for pork producers to make money."

Currently, bacon will run about $6 a pound, the highest the price has been since 1980.

"When you go buy bacon, that's a value-added product." Duncan says. "I would challenge you though to go look at the bargains in the meat case. Take a look at say ham which is also a value-added product but are dirt cheap right now."

Duncan says a 40-percent drop in corn and grain prices is one of the few bright spots currently offsetting hog prices.

A new app wants to make stock trading free for all

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:58

Robinhood, a new smartphone app launching after the new year,  wants to make investing in the stock market free. Well, at least it wants to save consumers the commission fees they usually pay to make trades. Robinhood’s website says the service is about letting everyone fully share in the fruits of capitalism. But is paying a fee for a trade really what’s stopping people from investing?  

Aside from being broke, says James Angel,  a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business,  the primary barrier to investing is ignorance.  “I remember when I was starting out, I was an engineer, I had a college degree, I had a job  and I was clueless about how or where to invest,” he says.

Angel, who has since gone to grad school and now, as a finance professor, "knows a little bit about it", says consumers can be afraid of making expensive mistakes. So instead, they invest nothing. “If you put the money in the bank it sits there," he says, "but at least it stays there.”  Which Angel says could be better than making bad investments. 

Kent Smetters, a professor who teaches risk management at Wharton, says a free trading app like Robinhood could encourage poor strategies. "An app like this," he notes, "would be attractive to those who trade much more frequently, and usually people who trade frequently underperform the market."

But Robinhood's co-founders, Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, say it doesn’t encourage any particular investment philosophy.  They have a laundry list of the service's selling points, including the argument that that the individual investors they hope to serve can help to stabilize the economy.

Twenty-something millennials making $300 dollar trades on their iPhones don't have the same impact as a Goldman Sachs. "They can't borrow a ton of money and short sell stock," the pair says.

Tenev and Bhatt say they believe in giving consumers freedom and tools. If products are tough to use they’ll turn off consumers. But Nan Morrison, with the Council of Economic Education, says ease of use is not enough. “For a reporter, spell check is a great app," she says, "for an engineer, less so.” Education, says Morrison, is the biggest obstacle for investors. “It was really easy to get a mortgage in 2007. Not such a smart decision for a lot of people, right?” she says.

Wharton’s James Angel says low cost options for investors already exist. But Tenev and Bhatt say 50 thousand users added their names to its early access list– in just one day. And they hope their app will mean better returns for its users than what they see as the only alternative for their money - "dumping it into a savings account and waiting for it to accumulate."

On Cyber Monday, Amazon sold 426 items every second

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:25

This final note, in which one can start to feel sorry for delivery companies in this day and age: Amazon said that on Cyber Monday it sold 37 million items.

That's 426 purchases every single second. Enough crayola markers do draw a line around the world four times. Enough miniature flashlights to light up four football fields to NCAA standards. 

Not mentioned? 

Exactly how many packages didn't show up in time for Christmas.

Shell's challenge in drilling for Arctic oil

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:14

Over a year ago, Royal Dutch Shell began oil drilling operations offshore of Alaska, the first attempt to explore the outer continental shelf in two decades. But Shell's initial foray proved disastrous. After sinking $5 billion into the effort, not a single well was drilled and its rig ran aground. Shell racked up big fines for faulty equipment, pollution and safety violations and sat out the last season. Outgoing Shell CEO Peter Voser called the Arctic one of his biggest disappointments. Elizabeth Arnold, based in Alaska, looked into the state of Arctic oil exploration in the U.S.
___________

Out the window of a propeller plane, Wainwright appears below through the fog, an Inupiaq eskimo village of wooden houses perched on a sand spit at the edge of the Arctic ocean. I'm the only one on this flight, just me, the pilot and a dozen empty seats. We land on a short dirt runway. There's no one around, so I head on foot to town.

Wainwright is the usual portrait of contrast in the Arctic, a polar bear hide stretched over a satellite dish, slabs of whale meat in the bed of a shiny new pick up.
Old ways, and new money.

Wainwright is the closest village to Royal Dutch Shell's most prized oil leases offshore. It's where a subsea pipeline would surface to move oil 300 miles across the frozen tundra to Prudhoe Bay. A year ago, this place wasn't so quiet. Flights were sold out and the man camp was full up. But other than a lone excavator shoring up the eroding beach, there's no sign of any activity here today.

Inside the tribal office, Ronnie Morales makes coffee and shakes her head over how quickly everything came to a standstill. "With their ability to just up and go, that just really made it real, you know that really happens," she says.

Six years ago, at a standing-room-only auction in Anchorage, Shell spent $2 billion on leases in the Arctic, including a record-breaking amount for a single block just miles out from this village. But Shell had problems from the start.

Support vessels were deemed unsafe, a rig dragged anchor on its way north, and last year, when Shell was finally allowed to start limited drilling, an ice flow 30 miles long and 80 feet thick shut down operations after just one day.

The Coast Guard found multiple violations on one rig, and the other snapped its tow lines and ran aground.

A month later, Shell announced it wouldn't try to drill in 2013. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says industry just wasn't ready.

"Nobody wants to put their company at risk, their reputation at risk, or the environment at risk," she says, "and I think that that's what we saw in the lessons learned over the course of the last year."

Interior is now poised to issue new regulations for arctic drilling.

"This is not a place where you mess around," says Marilyn Heiman, arctic program director for Pew Charitable Trusts, which made its own recommendations a few months ago.  "This is probably the most challenging place on the planet to drill for oil."

"What we're asking for is a set of standards that every company operating in the arctic needs to follow," she says. "Most of the regs that Interior uses to regulate are based on temperate water -- during the Deepwater Horizon spill, when the waves got to six feet they stopped cleaning up oil. when it was dark they stopped cleaning up oil. Those are normal conditions in the Arctic!"

From the bow of this icebreaker, the Healy, conditions are extreme, even on a bright blue spring day. The Arctic Ocean is a flat plain of ice, ice so thick we have to back and ram every hundred feet to make headway. Building-sized slabs of ice fold and crash on both sides of the hull. The open black water behind us freezes in our wake.

The Healy is the Coast Guard's only working icebreaker in the Arctic. The nearest base and major port are 1,000 miles away. That worries Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard here. Vessel traffic, he says, is on the rise, and much of it, the U.S. has little control over.

"As the North Slope of Alaska and the northwest portion of Alaska down to Nome, as that all opens up and becomes accessible, we just don't know what we don't know," he says. "I do know wherever humans operate in the marine environment, sooner or later someone gets in trouble or there's some form of a disaster."

Despite the risk, and Shell's pitfalls, Alaska's former oil and gas division director, Ken Boyd, says the Arctic is in play.

"If you're hunting elephants," he says, "you have to go where the elephants are."

In its conference call over third quarter earnings, Shell broke its long silence over plans in the Arctic. CFO Simon Henry said the company will move forward on leases in the Chukchi Sea, which he described as a "multi-billion barrel opportunity."

"individually it's the largest single exploration prospect in the Shell group," he said.

The company has submitted a stripped-down exploration plan to Interior to keep its options open to drill next summer.

In Wainwright, news that Shell may be back next summer was met with skepticism. But village leaders are planning ahead for the day when offshore oil does begin to flow. This winter they're holding hazardous materials training sessions and drafting response plans in the event of a major oil spill, out on the ice, at sea.

 

Where can I recycle all this wrapping paper?

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:09

Online retailers shipped us so many individually-boxed Christmas gifts this year that UPS couldn't keep up.  And once all those packages arrive, the boxes themselves have to go somewhere.  

Christmas week has always meant a bulge for trash pickup, thanks to piles of wrapping paper and other detritus. Add cardboard boxes on top, and it’s reasonable to start worrying how big a mess we’re creating.

So, first, some good news:  The Christmas trash pile hasn’t grown out of control — at least not yet.

Economist Jeffrey Morris creates forecasts of Seattle’s waste stream for the city’s public utilities — “the big picture of what’s coming at them,” as he puts it. He says that December’s bump hasn’t grown appreciably in the ten years he’s been paying attention. “Nothing’s punched me in the face,” he says.  “Maybe because it’s the early days, but it hasn’t shown up yet.”  

Nationally, the big picture is similar: The total tonnage of stuff we throw away and recycle hasn’t grown appreciably in the past ten years, says Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, an industry group.

Even the amount of cardboard has been flat.  “What we have seen in the last decade or so is called the ‘evolving ton,’” says Miller, meaning that today’s ton of waste reflects a new mix of materials.

For instance, some cardboard boxes have gotten replaced by lighter weight, smaller plastic containers. “For instance, my asthma pills come in a little, plastic package now,” he says, “because that’s all that’s needed to ship them.” Cardboard boxes themselves have gotten a bit lighter.

However, it’s likely that we’ve only begun to face the rising tide of cardboard.

An individually shipped item generates about ten times more solid waste, on average, than the same item purchased from a retail store, says H. Scott Matthews, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the issue.

He says the primary reason online retailing hasn’t yet affected the waste stream in aggregate is likely because these are still such early days. Despite rapid growth, e-commerce still represents only six percent of total sales.

As that tide rises, that cardboard sea will rise with it.  “It’s humbling to think about managing all that waste,” says Matthews.

However, he thinks another problem will come first -- the explosive growth in air and truck traffic delivering all this stuff.  

“Eventually, we’re going to be sitting in traffic, in rush hour on the way home, competing for space with these delivery trucks,” he says.  “We’re going to be staring at the problem next to us, out the window, while sitting on streets and highways.”

Ten thousand apply for 750 Southwest Airlines jobs

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:09

Southwest Airlines has been doing better than a lot of its rivals. But the discount carrier hasn’t hired new flight attendants from outside the company since February 2011. Last week, it announced 750 new positions, and, says company spokesman Dan Landson, “we received 10,000 resumes that were emailed to us within two hours and five minutes.”

At which point, Landson says, Southwest closed the search.

Southwest is expanding after its merger with AirTran, with more international flights planned, says Landson. And it will be flying bigger planes—it has ordered 55 additional Boeing 737-800 jets—which carry more passengers. Regulations require more flight attendants to staff those flights.

Flight attendants can make close to $25/hour for time flying (they are paid from the time the plane leaves the gate, until the time it arrives at the gate, but not for time getting through security or boarding). Free travel (including for some family members) and flexible hours are other perks of the job.

And these jobs have been scarce—total employment at the nation’s airlines has been falling over the past year, even as employment in many other industries has been gradually increasing. Airline employment fell by 0.8 percent in October 2013 compared to October 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics It was the smallest decline in 13 months.

But with the economy getting better, University of Portland transportation expert Richard Gritta expects airline employment to increase in 2014. He says mega-mergers have left fewer airlines flying fewer, more lucrative routes. And they’re packing their planes 85-percent-or-more full to make the flights more profitable.

“The consolidations have reduced competition, the airlines have cut capacity, and their profits are up,” says Gritta. “The economy is continuing to grow, allowing them to begin to expand very gradually.”

Seth Kaplan at Airline Weekly also expects hiring to pick up—especially at discount carriers.

But not so much for jobs on the ground.

“You don’t need quite as many employees to serve the same number of travelers anymore,” says Kaplan. “Every year you have more and more people using kiosks at the airport instead of having to talk to an agent. They print their boarding passes at home or get them on their mobile phones.”

Richard Gritta says changes in the industry have made the job of flight attendant more stressful.

“Now you’re flying with planes that are full to the limit,” says Gritta. “More people being crammed in, fighting over space for their luggage because they’re trying to avoid the checked bags fees--the pressure has ratcheted up, and your wages haven’t really done the same.”

That makes it not so much of a pleasure to fly—or work a flight—these days.

Lost UPS packages: a glimpse of the future

Thu, 2013-12-26 12:09

Searching through a pile of 100,000 packages

Heath Thompson thought he’d covered every base, and come  today he’d be on his way to the Caribbean. Then he forgot his passport.     

"I had a friend ship it early on the 22nd priority overnight with UPS," Thompson says.

The passport did not arrive overnight. Or on the 24th.  Or on the 25th.  He became concerned that, "I wasn’t going to be able to go on vacation with my family."

Thompson flagged down a UPS driver, got the number for the warehouse, and inquired there. 

"It might be lost," he was told at one point. 

But a warehouse worker took pity and personally searched through a vast pile of 100,000 packages at the distribution center.  She and another worker gave Thompson their cell phone numbers and he was able to stay in touch with them as they looked. 

Finally, success. 

He drove to the distribution center and called her on his phone, "she ran the package out through the freezing weather, came out and delivered it in the car window," just hours before his plane took off.

"I’m sure they’ve been getting tons of calls of people whining and complaining but they were very sweet, helpful ladies," Thompson says.

Not everyone was as lucky. Twitter was awash with venom directed at UPS and FedEx.

So how does something like this happen? 

Bottom line: Shippers always have to predict demand, and this time they got it wrong. 

UPS was expecting peak holiday package traffic to run 15-18 percent higher than their daily average of 15.5 million packages per day, according to Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting. 

On Christmas Eve, UPS was looking at 34 million packages.

FedEx was overloaded too, going from handling 10 million packages on an average day to 22 million Christmas Eve, says Jindel.

Why the last-minute crush?

"What was not expected and could not have been planned for was the change in the weather patterns in the days leading up to Christmas Eve," says Jindel.  He is not, however, saying that bad weather delayed the shippers, but rather, it paralyzed shoppers. "They were placing online orders that they otherwise would’ve gone to the brick and mortar stores if the weather was better."

Add to that eager retailers who, with six fewer shopping days this season, tried to snag as many last minute shoppers as possible by pushing back deadlines. 

"It really compresses the logistics providers’ ability to make those schedules and have any flex at all in their system," says Doug Fisher, director of the Center for Supply Chain Management at Marquette University.  

Consumers want – and are offered – instant gratification. 

"You don’t build a church just for Easter."

Fisher says that during the holidays, shippers have to expand capacity and there is little room for last minute finesse . 

"UPS has close to 400,000 employees, about the size of Milwaukee, with a  fleet of 230-240 jets and 100,000 trucks," he says. "Over the holiday period they hire 50,000-60,000 temporary workers, they lease another 20-25 airplanes, and will try to build another trucking fleet for capacity purposes."

Demand prediction is an art, and there is increasingly little wiggle room.

"I used to know demand planners," says Fisher. "They used to introduce themselves as the people who are always wrong.”

Moving forward, retailers and shippers may well promise less, and consumers may have to expect less.

Questions of brand damage

Jindel, with SJ Consulting, says it’s important to bear in mind that the number of affected people is probably relatively small.

He says service is usually so good, and consumer opinion normally so favorable (far better than the airline industry), that FedEx and UPS will probably be able to weather this incident.

Remember, 90 percent of packages make it on time on an average day, he says. 

In this instance he thinks mailers “probably still achieved close to 96-97 percent, which I would remind you is a very high number.”

It’s just that when those missed deliveries happen on Christmas ... everyone notices. 

Explainer: the charitable tax deduction

Thu, 2013-12-26 11:48

Every year, I have to fork a percentage of my taxable income over to the Internal Revenue Service. Taxes! But before I do that, I might consider taking advantage of the charitable tax deduction.

I might give away a car, or a boat, or some of my clothes, or jewelry. I might give away some stocks or bonds … or I could just keep it simple and hand over some cash. 

And if I give $1,000 to charity, that reduces my taxable income by … $1,000. Because there’s less for the government to tax, I pay less in taxes.

Plus, our tax system puts us into tax brackets. The more taxable income we make each year, the higher the bracket and the higher the percentage of that income that goes to the IRS. Say you’re quite wealthy, and you’re in the top tax bracket, you give away a bunch of money, which reduces your taxable income.

Give away enough, and you could shrink your taxable income enough to put you in a lower bracket. Which means all the rest of your money will be taxed at a lower rate.

It’s one of the reasons why Americans are such big donors to charity, and why come tax time, wealthy people write some very big checks.

Why aren't more women on tech boards?

Thu, 2013-12-26 11:34

Why aren’t there more women on tech boards in Silicon Valley? The issue came into the spotlight recently with Twitter, which appointed its first female board member earlier this month. That appointment came after the social media company drew heat for not having any on the board.

But pose the question to women in Silicon Valley -- I'm talking engineers, VCs, entrepreneuers -- and the answer you get depends on whether the microphone is on or off. When the mic is on, the answer I generally get is this:

“Every job I’ve ever had was through someone I’ve worked with before or was friends with, every single one,” said Alison Voss, a engineer I met at a recent Geek Girl Dinner.

And with men starting up about 97 percent of the tech companies in Silicon Valley, that means they dominate at networking. And that makes it tough for women to advance.

I met Voss at a Geek Girl dinner, which is one of the dozens of events popping up all over Silicon Valley that’s trying to create women-centered networks.

The dinners are waiting list only and December’s dinner was at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox.

Voss was there hanging out with her friend Sarah LaFassett, who is an engineer-in-training. She added that start-up culture complicates matters. Like starting any business, LaFassett says you want to do it with people you know, “because you’re going to see them more than you’re going to see your family.”

But Voss adds, “and what that ends of meaning is do I get along with this person, do we want to go snow boarding together and you know, nobody you know is a woman, so those jobs just don’t come to women generally speaking.”

Women like Voss and LaFassett will tell you as more women enter the pipeline, they’ll move up and start hiring more women. And eventually, we’ll start seeing more women on tech boards.

Now, that’s the answer you get when the mic is on. But when mic is off, women tell a different story. 

“Have you been to the fraternities at the universities? They’re behaving as if they’re in the frat clubs,” said Vivek Wadhwa.

By the way, Wadhwa isn’t a woman. He’s an entrepreneur and scholar. And for the last five years, he’s been researching a book on the subject of women in tech.

“I’ve been interviewing hundreds and hundreds of women,” Wadhwa said. “They are afraid they’ll be ostracized and they’ll be labeled as feminist if the speak up.”

Wadhwa says there’s a public narrative that says women are shut out of boardrooms and high-profile jobs because the pipeline to those positions are overwhelmingly male. But there’s also a private narrative in Silicon Valley and that’s of start-ups that celebrate frat-like behavior and turn a blind eye to sexual discrimination. And he says, women, generally keep those stories to themselves.

“They don’t tell you how they go to conferences and they’re groped,” he said. “It’s not everyone who’s bad here by the way, you know. there are a lot of men -- um, men who have daughters or a boys who had strong supportive mothers and sisters tend to be more open-minded about women. Many others are intimidated.”

In fact, there have been a few high-profile instances when women who tweet about what they consider to be sexist behavior are met with rape threats. And personally, when the mic is off, women have told me: Yes, the pipeline issue is real but it’s overblown. They note that many women have made it through the pipeline but are overlooked because tech operates like a boys club.

“I would venture every woman at one point or another in her professional career has seen something that was discriminatory, to you know even being invited to the golf game or the ski trip,” said Fran Maier.

Maier is a serial entrepreneur, who co-founded the dating site Match-dot-com. She also founded, and chairs the board of TRUSTe, a venture-backed firm that manages privacy.

She agrees women in Silicon Valley could speak up more. But then, they risk falling into the “angry woman” category

“Nobody likes an angry woman,” Maiers said. “On the other hand, I don’t think I’m angry, I think I’m pointing out what some of these issues are but some guys might hear me and think I’m an angry women and who wants an angry woman on the board?”

Maier say it’s not just tech. All across the country, the number of women on the boards of publicly-traded companies has remained stagnant for eight years now.

Countries like Norway, Germany and France have tried to change corporate culture by instituting quotas. And Maiers says, we might consider similar measures too.

 

Are no jobs safe? Outsourcing sign-spinner jobs ... to robots

Thu, 2013-12-26 07:22

It's hard to think of a job that is more unlikely to be outsourced than a sign-spinner outside a store or restaurant. They're low-wage retail jobs that have to be done at the location.

But retailers in cities across the country are experimenting with robotic road-side retail promotion.

Tyson Miltenberger of Bakehouse Water Bagels in Portland, Ore., employed a motorized female mannequin to advertise his adjacent bagel and taco shops along a busy commercial strip.

The robot business is growing fast. By the end of 2013, author Marshall Brain (Robotic Nation) predicted there would be more than one million industrial robots worldwide, or about one for every 6,000 humans.

And the robot industry is booming. Including the robots themselves, plus software and engineering to make them tick, the industry is generating $26 billion in sales, according to the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics, a trade group.

Some of the smartest tech guys in the room have caught the bug, too: Google has made eight acquisitions in the robotics field just this year.

Of course, there are downsides — for the humans who interact with robots, or are replaced by them in the workplace. Twenty deaths have been linked to robots and other automation in factories, according to the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA).

U.S. factory output is up more than 50 percent in the past two decades, while manufacturing employment is down by nearly 30 percent, according to Bloomberg News. Some of that is the result of people being displaced by ever-smarter and more capable machines.

Experts predict service industries will be the next to see serious inroads made by robots. According to an article in Business Insider, the most vulnerable service jobs include pharmacists, paralegals, retail cashiers, library clerks, babysitters, reporters ... and perhaps we should add retail sign-spinner.

PODCAST: UPS's Christmas fail

Thu, 2013-12-26 07:15

Many people who ordered their Christmas presents via UPS got a nasty surprise yesterday. No presents! The company says the volume of packages exceeded its capacity. 

This month marks the third anniversary of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where the uprising began, the economy is still trying to find its footing. Many Tunisia watchers say fostering entrepreneurship will be critical to establishing a sustainable recovery.

It can be worth it to drive your golf cart off the green. And, around the country, at local council meetings from South Dakota to Kentucky to Wisconsin, new regulations making it legal to do just that are being proposed.

You found the perfect gift. Ordered it UPS. And uh-oh... It didn't arrive.

Thu, 2013-12-26 06:33

Many people who ordered their Christmas presents via UPS got a nasty surprise yesterday. No presents! The company says the volume of packages exceeded its capacity. Marketplace's Noel King has the latest on the story. Click the audio player above to listen.

Verizon and AT&T to issue transparency reports

Thu, 2013-12-26 06:16

By now, the tech world is familiar with transparency reports from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. The reports detail a number of metrics, like how many law enforcement requests have come in for email data. The takeaway from Google this year was that government snooping is way up. Now, just before 2013 draws to a close, the world is getting a new set of reports from older tech companies like Verizon and AT&T. Count Time Magazine tech reporter Sam Gustin among the surprised. Click the audio player above to hear the story.

Mexico's corruption problem

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:30

Corruption in Mexico was one of the focal points of President Enrique Peña Nieto's election campaign. But Transparency International hasn't given Mexico very high marks. Enrique Acevedo, anchor and correspondent for Univision, tells Marketplace Morning Report's Lizzie O'Leary about the issues dogging Mexico's government.

Nikkei 16,000!

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:17

Japan's stock market is on a tear, with the Nikkei closing above 16,000 for the first time since 2007. The news comes after the Bank of Japan's campaign of monetary easing, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's aggressive attempts to revive the Japanese economy. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has the latest on the story. Click the audio player above to hear more.

Three years post-revolution, a look at Tunisia's economy

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:11

This month marks the third anniversary of the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, where the uprising began, the economy is still trying to find its footing. Many Tunisia watchers say fostering entrepreneurship will be critical to establishing a sustainable recovery.

So how easy is it to set up a business? One way to see: Drop in on a networking party for young start-ups and venture capitalists in the capital of Tunis.

Get your kid a golf cart when she turns 16

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:09

It can be worth it to drive your golf cart off the green. And, around the country, at local council meetings from South Dakota to Kentucky to Wisconsin, new regulations making it legal to do just that are being proposed.

Ten years ago, the local high school in Peachtree City, Georgia had to build a special parking lot with hundreds of new spots, tecause the teenagers there drive golf carts.

“They definitely get out and use them," says Sharon Lee, with Peachtree City Golf Cars. She says for parents, the carts make good financial sense. “You’re not paying near the insurance that you do when you have a teenager,” she says. And when you think about the cost of gas, notes Lee, it's hard for drivers to miss the potential savings of driving an electric cart,  "when you have an SUV that gets nine miles to the inch."

Peachtree has 90 miles of special paths for the carts, and Georgia doesn’t require them to be insured. Currently, there are ten thousand golf carts registered in Peachtree.

The city has been a trendsetter, but now, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safeway, all but four states allow golf carts to be driven on some public roads.

Brandon Ruiz, an industry analyst at IBIS World, says part of their popularity can be chalked up to a certain...greying population.  “As the baby boomer generation continues to get older, you're more likely to see them use golf carts to get from point A to point B,” he says.

The average cost of an electric cart, says Ruiz, is $3,500 dollars. And he says sales are expected to hit almost 700 million dollars this year.

Boxing Day? Is Dec. 26 still a day for sales?

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:07

Dec. 26 has historically been a day to visit the shopping mall. One, to buy stuff on sale. And two, to exchange unwanted gifts. But sales keep moving earlier in the holiday season. So is the day after Christmas still a big deal for retailers?

“Dec. 26 is already institutionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year because it’s the busiest day for returns,” says Brian Hoyt, a spokesperson for the digital coupon company, RetailMeNot.com.

Of course, returns don’t make money for a store. In fact, the volume of returns can cause some businesses to lose money on Dec. 26.

The popularity of gift cards has been a blessing for many retailers, helping them to offset the returns.

“A lot of consumers are telling us -- about 79 percent -- that they plan to shop at these end of year sales that kick-off historically on the 26th of December," Hoyt says. "And a lot of them are going with the gift card money that they received for the holidays.”

Some industries benefit more than others. Britt Beemer is chairman and founder of the consumer research company, America’s Research Group. He points to clothing companies.

“Those retailers that rely upon that high school/teenage customer base, it’s by far their most important week of the year,” says Beemer.

Same goes for businesses that sell furniture.

“That week between Christmas and New Years for the furniture retailers is referred to by many of them as their 13th month,” says Beemer. “They’ll do as much business in those last five or six days as they did in the previous month of December.”

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