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In U.K., a case for re-opening coal mines?

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:59

Thirty years ago, the country that started the Industrial Revolution - and fueled it with coal - scaled back its coal mining industry. The UK announced  it was closing many of its deep mines. Today only three remain, and two of those are facing closure.

But have the Brits blundered? Is there a case for  the UK re-opening its deep coal mines… and digging a little deeper?

Bob Fitzpatrick  certainly believes so. But then, he would. He’s one of  the UK’s  few remaining deep pit coal miners. 

“The coal’s here and you can get it,” says Fitzpatrick, who works at the Hatfield coal mine in Yorkshire, in the north of England. “If the mines are mined properly and managed properly they are viable.”

Then there’s the issue of energy security. The UK may have shut down most of its mines, but it still  generates 40 percent of its electricity from coal, importing the bulk of it from the U.S., Colombia and Russia.

The Russians supply the largest amount of that imported coal, and after the annexation of Crimea, that  has got some people worried. “The gas supplies and the coal supplies from Russia are now pretty doubtful,” says local Yorkshire politician Jane Hamilton. “President Putin has got his own agenda. I think we should be very careful and look to re-opening mines, because we don’t know where our energy is going to come from.”  

The case for UK coal  began to look even better last week. Geologists revealed that the country could have vast reserves of the fuel, as much as 20 trillion tons of it, lying under the sea bed off its eastern coast -- enough to keep the lights on in the UK for centuries. But the  problem with deep pit mining, let alone with burrowing under the sea for coal, is that it is horrendously expensive. And, says importer Nigel Yaxley, it’s now much cheaper for the Brits to bring in foreign coal. “At the moment prices are depressed, partly because of surplus coal in the U.S. thrown up by the shale gas revolution," he says, "and partly because of the slowdown in growth in China.”

The future of British coal seems to depend on much higher world prices and much improved technology  making it easier to mine, and cleaner to burn. The case for UK coal? Not yet proven.   

Why the Ally IPO is good news for taxpayers

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:57

Ally Financial is trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, under the ticker symbol ALLY. The company, you might remember, had to be bailed out by the government in 2008, as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP, to the tune of $17.2 billion.

The government sold 95 million shares in the company through the initial public offering, raising about $2.4 billion dollars.  Add that to the $15.3 billion Ally had already paid back, and U.S. taxpayers have made about half a billion dollars more than they invested in the company.

The stock sale puts the government a step closer to sloughing off what remains of the financial crisis bailouts.

According to the New York Times:

The firm, once General Motors’ financing arm, is the government’s last remaining holding from its enormous bailouts of the financial and auto industries.

The U.S. Department of Treasury said the Ally stock sale brings its total returns on TARP investments to $438.3 billion.  The government has handed out about $423.4 billion.  With a little math, we’re talking taxpayer profit from TARP in the neighborhood of $15 billion.



But, we're not in the clear yet.  TARP will likely still cost taxpayers. This, from the U.S. Treasury:

"Treasury's latest quarterly estimate of TARP's lifetime cost as reflected in the February 2014 Monthly Report to Congress, developed in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, is $39.02 billion, which is largely attributable to our efforts to help struggling homeowners deal with the housing crisis. Unlike TARP's investment programs, the funds committed for TARP's housing programs were not intended to be recovered." 


Teens now spending as much on food as clothes

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:46

Teenagers are now spending as much, if not more, on food as on clothing, according to Piper Jaffray’s semi-annual report on teen spending, out this week. And teenage's new favorite place to spend money? Starbucks

“Food of course is the one category that isn’t e-commerce-able,” says senior research analyst Stephanie Wissink of Piper Jaffray. “When they indicate they’re spending more on food that most likely means they’re also frequenting food locations more regularly.”

Wissink says it’s a misconception that teens want to be alone with their phones. Looks like they want to be together – with their phones – in places like Starbucks.

"Starbucks probably has the most widely-used app at the point of sale system," says Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy. "So when people are making purchases, their app is used for one in every five purchases at this point."

Why automakers are getting into healthcare

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:44

A new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers highlights growing opportunity in the healthcare sector. 

In fact, the report lays out that almost half of the Fortune 50 companies – firms that previously did not have anything to do with healthcare – are getting into the game.

“The money is starting to move differently,” says the report’s author, Ceci Connolly, the head of the Health Research Institute at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "More and more of us are having to spend our own dollars, and make our own health care decisions."

Because of the Affordable Care Act, millions more Americans have health insurance, technology is changing, and we have seen “the rise of the consumer.”

The report highlight's Ford's work on a system that would help drivers with chronic conditions.

"These sorts of pushes toward more consumer-directed health care might be a good thing," says Zack Cooper, a health policy professor at Yale. He says access to data and access to information means we're not as reliant on experts.

Can Russia be isolated? Not if China has anything to do with it.

Thu, 2014-04-10 02:16

With Ukraine refusing to pay its gas bills to Russia's Gazprom and Europe looking for alternative energy sources, Russia -- it seems -- is on the outs. But now Putin is turning his attention eastward, towards China, and may be finding a friend. 

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss Russia's balancing act and why the country might try to disrupt Ukraine's upcoming elections.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview. 

Sharp decline in Chinese trade surprise economists

Thu, 2014-04-10 01:12

Speaking at the Bo’ao forum for Asia, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reassured attendees that China’s economy “has had a smooth start this year, and our overall performance is good.”

 As Li said this, key economic data was released from China showing exports from the world’s second biggest economy had slipped 6.6% in March from a year ago. Imports were down more than 11%.

Both numbers were worse than forecasters predicted. Part of the reason is that a year ago, many Chinese exporters were overstating the value of their shipments in order to bypass China’s strict currency controls. That allowed them to bring more dollars into China with the hopes that the Yuan would appreciate. This year, China’s central bank has pushed down the value of the Yuan, so there’s no longer an incentive for exporters to fake the numbers.

The 11% decline in imports, however, surprised a lot of economists. The month of March is always an important one for China, because it’s the first month after the Chinese New Year, which tends to skew numbers a bit because of the inactivity of the markets.

A decline in imports is a sign that China’s economy is still in slowdown mode. Premier Li acknowledged as much during his speech today. “These problems are not only the result of a complex international environment, but also objective reflections of prominent conflicts that lie deep inside China’s economy, as well as the fact that China’s growth rate is shifting gear,” said Li.



The U.S. needs more energy grids

Thu, 2014-04-10 01:00

The U.S. Senate Energy Committee is meeting to consider the reliability and security of the U.S. electric grid. It's a question that bears asking, considering the entire U.S. runs on just three, large-scale power grids (East coast, West coast and Texas. Go figure). As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. 

At least David Newman, a physics professor at the University of Alaska, thinks so. His research explores how smaller power grids could help avoid massive outages like the 2003 Northeast blackout. Though, he certainly understands the appeal of having a larger grid:

"As you increase the size of the network, you’re increasing the number of places that you can be getting the energy to, and so you make it -- in a sense -- more efficient. But our work showed that it’s actually also potentially a bad thing because what it does is that it allows larger and larger failures of the system."

Newman acknowledges that there's no way to get rid of system failures completely, but with massive outages potentially costing billions of dollars, it's at least worth exploring what size network optimally combines efficiency and security.

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