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Two Profiles of China's Economy

Fri, 2015-03-13 02:32

It’s 3:00 a.m. in the most populated city of the world’s most populated country. Most of Shanghai’s 24 million inhabitants are fast asleep, but it’s rush hour inside the city’s largest wholesale fish market.

The Tongchuan Road market supplies the metropolis with one of its most popular staple foods. Vendors wearing rubber boots rush through miles of twisting, cramped corridors covered with a thick film of fish guts. It’s a slimy, lively labyrinth that’s difficult to navigate, not unlike finding one’s way into China’s elusive middle class.

Zhang Wenquan knows this all too well. The tall,  muscular 47-year old kicks off his sneaker. He pulls on a pair of camouflaged rubber boots before entering the sprawling market, oblivious to the calls from competing vendors. Zhang grew up in the impoverished countryside of Anhui province. When he turned 17, he came to Shanghai to work on an assembly line. He met his wife at the factory, and they now sell fish at a small neighborhood market. Zhang wakes up at midnight each day to buy his merchandise here.

And “buy” might not be the right term, constant haggling is more like it.

“How much?” Zhang asks a vendor as he plunges his strong hands into a box of live shrimp.

“Fifty,” the woman barks back.

“Fifty? Yesterday you sold them for 48! These are too small!” Zhang says.

He repeats this with every vendor: Too small, too expensive, too ugly – at one stall he takes one look at a tank of fish and declares: “They’re all dead.”

“Buying fish is tougher than raising children,” Zhang says. “By this afternoon, everything I just bought will be dead and worthless.”

His children, on the other hand, could someday be the family’s ticket into China’s middle class. “I’m not working this hard so that my daughters end up working as fish sellers like me,” Zhang says. “They’ve got to go to good colleges and find good jobs with good salaries.”

Zhang has twin daughters, a stroke of luck in a country with a one-child policy. But that’s where he sees his luck ending. His girls are 16, they were born in Shanghai and call the city home. Yet, Zhang and his wife had to send the girls to the countryside last year so that they could finish their schooling.  “They can’t legally attend high school in Shanghai because they don’t have Shanghai Hukou,” he explains.

Hukou means ‘household registration’. If you don’t have Hukou for Shanghai – in other words if you’re not registered to live there – then you’re not eligible for social benefits like health insurance, a pension, or even a high school education for your children. You have to return to where your family originally came from to qualify for those benefits.

China’s modern Hukou system has its roots in the country’s old communist-style command economy. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong revived the ancient household registration system in 1958 as a mechanism to restrict peasants from swarming into the country’s largest cities. After the economic reforms of the 1980s, the system was relaxed to allow migrants to move to the city, but strict rules remain governing where their children can attend school and take college entrance exams.

Hukou supporters say controlling China’s massive population has helped prevent the creation of slums around its biggest cities that are common sights in the developing world.

The Zhang family Hukou belongs to his wife’s ancestral village in the countryside of Jiangsu province, and that’s why the couple has been without their daughters for more than a year.

At 6:00 a.m., Zhang arrives to his stall at a wet market in the Xujiahui neighborhood of central Shanghai. He’s dropped off the fresh fish, and his wife, Shi Huiqun, takes over the work so that he can go home and sleep. The 42-year-old tells me business is tougher than it’s ever been: “Competition here is fierce," she says with a sigh. "We used to be able to save money, but now we’re paying for our daughters to attend school back in my hometown, so we’re close to breaking even.”

Shi and Zhang own an apartment in Shanghai, a house in the countryside, a foreign car, and they make around the equivalent of $15,000 a year – three times more than the average urban family makes in China. Yet when I ask her if she considers herself middle class, Shi shakes her head. “I don’t think small business owners like us belong to the middle class. We don’t make that much money. What is the middle class, anyway?” she asks.

“I don’t know if anybody knows what the middle class is in China,” says James McGregor, Asia Chairman of APCO and author of the book, "One Billion Customers."

McGregor says the first wave of China’s middle class were the 400 million people who grew up in China’s largest cities and are now – on paper – upper class. They became wealthy on China’s real estate boom and they now drink Starbucks, own iPhones, and drive imported luxury cars.  “Maybe the middle class is China’s next wave of migrant workers who are getting legal registration in the cities and getting city services and becoming the next consumers,” says McGregor. “Actually, if you look at studies of the future of Chinese economy, that group of people, if you can get 10 million of them a year and they can become consumers, you can have 6 percent growth in China for 20 years.”

And that’s why China’s government has launched an urbanization campaign with the goal of moving a 250,000 rural Chinese to the cities over the next decade. Government propaganda posters throughout the country advertise “The Chinese Dream,” the guiding principle of president Xi Jinping’s government.

Back at the market, I ask Shi if she’s pursuing the Chinese Dream.  

“What’s the Chinese Dream? Is that something from TV? I haven’t heard about it,” says Shi, embarrassed.

Instead, I ask her, “What’s your dream?”

“Originally, I dreamt that my girls could finish their schooling here in Shanghai,” Shi tells me, “but that dream never came true.”

Nearly half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents are in the same conundrum as Zhang and Shi: According to Shanghai’s municipal statistics bureau, nearly ten million children can’t attend Shanghai schools because they don’t possess city Hukou. Nationwide, it adds up to nearly a third of China’s urban population: A quarter of a billion Chinese lack legal rights to social welfare and high school for their children in the cities where they reside.

China’s leaders have vowed to reform the Hukou system, but so far, meaningful change hasn’t taken place. Meanwhile, migrants continue to move into the country’s largest cities.

Today, though, Shi Huiqun is heading in the opposite direction. She’s driving two hours north of Shanghai to her rural hometown to visit her twin daughters. Shi has rented a bare, unfurnished apartment for them located next door to their private middle school. The 16 year-olds have had to repeat the 9th grade, because the curriculum in their new school is a year ahead of that of their former middle school in Shanghai.

When their mother arrives, the twins are studying their textbooks side-by-side. Their grandmother, who can’t read or write, stands guard behind them, making sure they complete their homework.  Zhang Ming studies physics while Zhang Yue reads her English homework out loud. “Our own planet, the Earth is becoming more and more crowded and polluted because of the rapid increase of p ... population,” she says in broken English with help from her sister.

The two are identical twins, they wear identical jackets and identical hairstyles – it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. Throughout our conversation, though, their mother recites their differences to me: Zhang Ming is ranked 4th in class, Zhang Yue is 15th; Zhang Ming’s eyesight is worse; Zhang Yue is quieter; Zhang Ming is temperamental; Zhang Yue is lazier. The girls nod in unison.

Shi’s daughters tell me school here is much more demanding than in Shanghai. They’re in class from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., and they attend half days on Sundays.

“I’d prefer to be in Shanghai,” says Zhang Yue. “I feel like a foreigner here. I think China should allow children to attend school where they grew up. We consider ourselves Shanghainese, but according to our Hukou, we’re not.”

Despite what their Hukou says, the family has come a long way. Shi accompanies me to the farm she grew up on down the road from the school – a couple acres of crops, pigs, chicken, and sheep. “I grew up here in a house with a dirt floor,” Shi tells me.

Life is better now, but not for everyone. Hukou laws have forced parents throughout China to leave their children behind – they’re called ‘left-behind children,’ and there are an estimated 60 million of them, nearly as much as the entire population of the UK. Shi isn’t too worried about her daughters because she and her husband are just a two-hour drive away. But for most left-behind children, that’s not the case. With their parents in another part of China, many of them drop out of school, all but removing an entire population of Chinese from the dream of making it into the middle class.

But the story of the Chinese economy is also about the expansion of wealth and the business leaders who have paved their path to prosperity. How did a poor communist country transform itself into having the second most billionaires in the world, after the United States, in just over a generation? 

The Hurun Report is an annual survey of China's wealthy. Hurun identified 400 billionaires in China, but there are another 800 yet to be profiled. The report estimates that one in seven people in Shanghai and Guangdong are millionaires – and it's even higher in Beijing, where it's one out of six.

It's an extraordinary change from a centrally-planned economy where everyone was at least nominally equal. Hurun estimates that more than half of millionaires started their own businesses. Of the rest, 10 percent made their fortunes from the stock market, 15 percent from real estate, and 20 percent are highly-paid executives.

Of the super-rich – those with $16 million or more – the number of entrepreneurs stands out even more. Some 80 percent of the super-rich own their own firms and 15 percent made their money from real estate.

To put this in context, the self-employed make up only about 6 percent of the Chinese workforce. That's much lower than in developing countries such as India, where it's 82 percent.

The reason is because the market was only opened up to private enterprises in the past two decades when private firms were legally recognized and private contracts honored after the dramatic downsizing of the state-owned firms that have dominated since 1949. And those who took the plunge early on to start their own firms, such as Wang Jianlin, are among the richest people in China. 

Sixty-year-old Wang Jianlin is the biggest property tycoon in China. His company, Wanda, is the largest listed real estate company in China. His company has built housing complexes, entertainment and shopping centers.

His firm catered to the middle class, taking advantage of the developing consumer market in China.  

"Wanda is always trying to reinvent itself," says Wang Jianlin. "We are constantly changing our business model, for example, we started with residential property, then we turned to business centers. Now, we are tapping into culture, finance, and even e-business."

He believes that most Chinese companies are not reaching their potential.

“Currently, most Chinese companies are imitating. Innovative companies — be it technological innovation or business model innovation — are still lacking,” he says. “Chinese companies are still learning. I think it might take up to 10 years, or at least eight years, before Chinese companies can stop imitating their Western counterparts and become genuinely innovative.”

His desire for innovation has made his company invest in film production. The Wanda Studios in China will be the world's largest film and television studios in the world when it opens in 2017.

"We don't want to become another Disney," he says. "For one reason, Disney is too old. It already has an 80 year history. I don't want to be like that. I want to create a brand new Wanda Style entertainment project."

Wang Jianlin built his business anticipating the needs of the emerging middle class. But China is still a poor country – on par with Peru in terms of Gross Domestic Product per person – and there are still strict governing how ordinary people live their lives.

Taxpayers say they plan to spend refunds responsibly

Thu, 2015-03-12 14:20

Forthwith, some tax-time number-crunching.

The average 2014 federal tax refund is $3,120, according to IRS data as of February 20, and 83 percent of taxpayers – more than 40 million people – are getting them.

A recent survey of by Bankrate.com finds that, of those who anticipate a refund, more would pay down debt and less would splurge on vacations or shopping than in years past.

Bankrate.com tax analyst Kay Bell says the survey shows taxpayers "are doing some pretty responsible things with these funds."

"Whether it's because they are finally recovering from the recession and finally getting a job, or getting a little more money from employers," Bell says, "I think people have realized the need to be more prepared."

Bell acknowledges Bankrate’s survey doesn't follow up to ascertain whether respondents follow through on their pre-refund financial plans.

“Like the IRS, we trust what they say,” she says.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow at Golden Gate University, author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind," is not convinced that a majority of taxpayers will act as responsibly as they intend.

“In surveys, people answer according to what they hope they’ll do, as much as what they actually will do,” Yarrow says. In her own consumer-survey research, she finds that many people’s plans to use a tax refund to pay off debt, save, or invest, are aspirational.

"After the fact, this is what I hear: 'I’ve spent some of it on clothing,’ or ‘I’ve spent it on an evening out, it felt like a windfall.’"

Yarrow says some taxpayers use excessive withholding from their paychecks combined with an anticipated refund, as a strategy to pay for holiday gifts and entertainment. They spend it up on credit during the holidays, then pay off as much of that debt as they can once their tax refund arrives.

Some more key stats from Bankrate's survey:

  • 38 percent of taxpayers prefer to receive a big refund. Typically, this means allowing the IRS to withhold more money than is likely necessary from one’s paycheck.
  • 43 percent of millennials would accept higher taxes in exchange for free college tuition for all students. A fifth of other adults would agree to that.
  • 22 percent of Americans would accept higher taxes to provide free health care to all who need it.

The tricky practice of pricing parking

Thu, 2015-03-12 13:06

On a freezing cold day, Zhan Guo stood on a Manhattan street corner. Every available parking space on the surrounding blocks was taken. Turning to the cars driving past, Guo estimated one out of every three was circling the blocks, looking for a place to park.

“Why are they searching? Because [street-parking rates] are too cheap,” Guo says.

Guo researches parking at the Wagner School of Public Policy at New York University, and says studies show that on average, one-third of cars in a downtown area at any given time are looking for parking.

Metered parking in much of Manhattan costs $3.50 an hour, while other blocks require only that cars be moved for twice-weekly street cleaning. That means many people would rather search for street parking than pay for a private garage.

“If you’re a reasonable person, you’re willing to spend maybe thirty minutes searching around, instead of $20 right now into a garage,” he says.

Tell someone the price of their parking meter is too cheap and most people will probably disagree, probably pretty strongly, says Rachel Weinberger with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.

Weinberger says the average meter rate nationwide is $1.15. Accounting for inflation, that’s actually roughly about on par with the country’s first meters.

“The first parking meters were installed in the '30s, really at the behest of a merchant who felt like his employees were parking in front on his store and he couldn’t get them to move,” she says. “So he petitioned the city council to put meters in on his block.”

But if the price of parking hasn’t changed much in real terms, demand for it has. Weinberger says raising prices is difficult, as the process in many cities is more political than scientific.

“We sort of lost the will to change the prices,” she says. “It’s particularly humorous to me that someone might be going out to dinner for say $200, and yet they’re loathe to pay $6, let’s say it’s two hours, on top of your $200 dinner bill.”

However, in recent years, some cities, like Seattle, Pasadena and San Francisco have started to use systems that do try to take demand into account when setting the price of parking.

“So every six or eight weeks we adjust the rates up or down by 25 cents an hour or 50 cents an hour,” says Lauren Mattern, the manager of parking policy and technology at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

San Francisco recently finished a pilot program to test its new pricing strategy. The city nudges the rates up or down until sensors in the parking spots indicate that at any given time, there’s about one open space per block. Rates were also adjusted based on the day of the week or time of day.

“Then there is a ceiling and a floor to that, so we can go as low as 25 cents an hour or as high as $6 an hour,” she says. 

In one neighborhood, she says that meant increasing rates on a busy street, and dropping them on a nearby quieter one.

“Basically by adjusting rates, we’re able to draw some of the demand away from the busier street and give people a bargain for parking on the less popular street,” she explains. “So you’re able to price shop for parking in that neighborhood for the first time.”

Mattern says on the whole, the average price of parking in the pilot neighborhoods actually dropped, and no more circling, looking for a spot.

Startup mattress companies disrupt a stiff business

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:53

There’s a new set of companies getting into the mattress game, and they’re disrupting the traditional model of lying on bed after bed to compare. Kyle Stock explores the mattress industry and the newcomers that are changing things up in his piece, “New Startups Aren’t Keeping Big Mattresses Up At Night,” for Bloomberg Business.

In the scope of consumer products, the humble mattress is becoming simpler by the day. A mattress doesn’t need to get faster or smaller or lighter. It doesn’t have to charge more quickly or use less energy. And though bedding now involves complicated chemical formulas rather than horsehair and reeds, it is still primarily a puzzle of textiles.

But a mattress store was still plenty baffling to Jeff Holt, a professional photographer who recently moved to Charleston, S.C., with his girlfriend and her weary, taco-like mattress. They lay on bed after bed, lent a skeptical ear to a dogged salesman, and eventually grew tired—and not from the cushy products.

“It was like going to a restaurant with 200 options on the menu,” Holt said. “All it does is confuse you. And everything about it feels like a car dealership.”

 

As young companies grow, the future of the industry is uncertain. However, even with the new craft mattress companies starting up, industry giants are doing just fine. Last year, the three biggest public companies, Tempur-Sealy, Select Comfort, and Mattress Firm, saw sales jump 21 percent.

Unpredictable weather is remaking the ski industry

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:42

There is something depressing about a closed ski slope in winter. The trails are bare and grassy. The chairlifts just hang there, waving a little in the breeze. It's like walking into an empty restaurant on a Friday night. That's been the mood in Tahoe for much of this winter.

In the middle of February, I took a trip to the Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. It is a smaller ski area in Tahoe frequented by locals. Unlike the bigger resorts, Homewood sells lift tickets for under 50 dollars, and it isn't filled with restaurants and retail stores. The base of the mountain starts right at the lake, a relatively low elevation that gives it beautiful views but not much snow.

Like many of the smaller resorts in the area, Homewood has been forced to shut down twice this season because of warm, dry conditions. General manager Kevin Mitchell says it has been challenging to keep employees and customers engaged. Looking around at the muddy trails, it's not hard to see why.

Professor Daniel Scott studies tourism and climate change at the University of Waterloo. He says increasingly unpredictable weather favors companies with deeper pockets. They have resources to invest in ways that will mitigate the financial impact of unfavorable conditions — like snow-making machines and resort attractions aside from skiing and snowboarding.

"The problem with mom and pop resorts," says Scott, " is if you have two or three bad years in a row, your financial reserves are gone. You can't make a go of it anymore."

Scott says larger corporations are more climate resilient. They have capital reserves to ride out bad years, and they can diversify geographically. He says big resort chains are now buying ski areas across the country so they can cash in wherever the snow falls. Scott puts it this way: increased variable weather is hastening the trend toward consolidation in the ski industry.

It is already happening up in Lake Tahoe. Five ski areas there are now owned by either Powdr Corporation or Vail Resorts, both industry giants. And in the last few years, the private equity firm KSL Partners has merged two iconic Tahoe resorts — Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Some of the bigger resorts in Tahoe seem to be handling these bad seasons better than others. Squaw Valley is a much larger and higher elevation resort than Homewood. President and CEO Andy Wirth says Squaw has been able to "hedge" the challenge of climate change.

"We are facing the three driest years in 1200 years," Wirth says. "But at the same time, we have increased season passes by 37 percent."

Squaw Valley has ways to make it through these dry winters. It offers season passes that can be used at other resorts, so skiers and snowboarders can chase the powder — that is, if they have the money to travel. Squaw also has attractions besides the mountain: restaurants, retail, and a winter park with tubing. There was even talk of building a water park, a popular development now at bigger resorts.

So, is this the future for a smaller resort like Homewood? No, says General Manager Kevin Mitchell. "We don't want to become one of the giant resorts in Tahoe," Mitchell says, "We want to hold a lot of the character we currently have." The resort is planning to build a gondola that will ferry passengers higher up the mountain where there may actually be some snow. In the meantime

But if the snowstorms don't start coming to Tahoe, that could become harder and harder to do.

This story originally appeared on KQED's "The California Report."

Google launches new cloud ‘cold storage’ service

Thu, 2015-03-12 12:11

If you are a business which needs to store loads of data, this week you've got more options for that so-called "cold storage."

Google has unveiled a new service to store old data at a penny per gigabyte per month, and a retrieval process it says takes seconds.

The company considers this new product a "game-changer" that will make it easier to access the kind of data a business might occasionally need.

Forrester analyst Henry Baltazar sees this as a way for Google to build relationships.

"There's a lot of things you can do once data is in the cloud but the key thing is you can't really sell those services unless you have data," he says.

Federal government approves powdered alcohol for sale

Thu, 2015-03-12 11:05

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the federal government approved powdered alcohol for sale:

The product, called Palcohol, had received the greenlight from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau briefly last year before the bureau backtracked and said the label approvals had been given in error. 

On Wednesday, bureau spokesman Tom Hogue told The Associated Press the issues were resolved and that four varieties of Palcohol were approved. But Hogue noted that states can also regulate alcohol sales in their borders.

It's apparently freeze-dried alcohol packed in small easy to carry pouches. You can get it in vodka, rum, cosmopolitan, margarita and lemon drop flavors.

Left unexplained, is why — just kidding. I know why.

 

 

FCC releases 400-page net neutrality order

Thu, 2015-03-12 10:56

The Federal Communications Commission voted to approve new rules on Net Neutrality two weeks ago. On Thursday, the FCC released the 400-page document

Because the record overwhelmingly supports adopting rules and demonstrates that three 
specific practices invariably harm the open Internet—Blocking, Throttling, and Paid Prioritization—this 
Order bans each of them, applying the same rules to both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access
service.

Prefer a condensed version?  

Alibaba is getting into Snapchat

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:59
$200 million

That's what Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is investing in Snapchat, Bloomberg reported, which would value the company at $15 billion. The disappearing photo and video sharing app had been reportedly fundraising at a valuation between $16 and $19 billion, but Snapchat's star is still rising fast.

24.79 million

Speaking of Snapchat, that's how many views one user's "Snapchat Story" got during New York's much-ballyhooed snow storm earlier this winter. The video was folded into a compilation feature Snapchat calls "Our Stories," which are pushed out to all users for 24 hours. Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson makes the case that "Our Stories" might just be the perfect mobile advertising platform, and a threat to Facebook, Google and broadcast television.

$3,120

The average refund this tax season, according to the IRS. A recent Bankrate.com survey found more people are saying they'll invest that money or use it to pay off debts than in the past. But when those checks actually arrive, more than the predicted 3 precent of people are likely to splurge.

$820 million

That's what General Mills paid for organic-and-natural food company Annie's last year. It's a bellwether for the food business in general, which is trying to pivot in the wake of customers' growing dislike of processes and packaged convenience foods.

52

The age of Google CFO Patrick Pichette, who just announced he would retire once a successor is in place. In the corporate world, Pichette is something of a rarity, Neil Irwin writes for the Upshot. When you're making seven or eight figures quality of life tends to plateau, making early retirement appealing. However, so few top businesspeople, athletes, or entertainers do because that's not the way someone at the top of their field tends to operate. And that's "the paradox of success."

Do you know what you're paying for TV?

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:11

If you ask Ian Olgeirson what it's like to comparison shop for a pay-TV deal, he will tell you that it's a confusing experience. 

"There are times where it's difficult to figure out exactly what's included in an offer," says Olgeirson.

While that's something TV customers might be able to relate to, Olgeirson is no mere customer. He is a principal analyst at SNL Kagan and follows the pay-TV market. In other words, he's a professional. 

 "We certainly are in an era of increasingly complex offers," says Olgeirson, "It is difficult to gain absolute clarity on a customer service call as to what your bill will be."

The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against DirecTV on Wednesday, accusing the nation's largest satellite TV provider of failing to disclose fees it charges customers above what's promoted in its advertisements. 

DirecTV denies the allegations and says its customers were fully informed of what they would be paying, but the company is hardly alone in complaints about charges. 

James Boffetti, who heads the New Hampshire Attorney General's Consumer Protection Bureau, says pay-TV providers register among the top 10 most-complained-about businesses. The bureau gets about 13,000 complaints a year in total.

The complaints against pay TV providers, he says, tend to follow a general theme. "People have complaints about ... the advertising of promotional packages" says Boffetti, "And they don't find that that's what they're actually being charged by the company."

Boffetti says a lot of complaints get resolved, and are usually misunderstandings between the consumer and the company. It's hard to draw a conclusion that companies are deliberately deceiving customers, he says. To do that, companies have to be more willful. 

"A lack of disclosure about significant terms in a business deal could be unfair and deceptive," Boffetti says. 

Still, the complaints show there is confusion out there about pay TV offers. And Laura Martin, an entertainment analyst at Needham & Company, says that's partly because pay-TV providers are facing price pressures both from consumers and the very TV channels that they sell. 

"Content providers have been investing more in original content, and that is increasing their fees to the cable operators ... Telco, cable and satellite, by double digits," says Martin. "And yet, the consumer is faced with a zero-inflation-rate environment, and therefore he doesn't want prices increasing. So we're getting margin pressure in the video part of the business, as programming costs rise faster than prices can be passed through to consumers."

And that means pay TV providers have to compete in price while also making enough to cover their costs. 

All of which comes back to consumers needing to be aware, says Olgeirson, and to do their homework. He recommends asking a pay-TV representative to add up exactly what the monthly bill is going to look like both now and in 12 months before agreeing to sign up for a new service. 

How bank stress tests are like restaurant inspections

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:11

The results of the Federal Reserve's annual stress tests resulted in a failing grade for European banks Deutsche Bank and Santander, a pass — after some extra credit — for JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and a do-over for Bank of America.

The grades are a bit like those handed out to restaurants by health inspectors. 

One difference is that banks know when the inspectors are coming. But Kent Smetters, professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton, says this isn't a problem, because banks can't easily change — and then change back — the basic riskiness of their balance sheets. 

This years' tests did ding Bank of America for "certain weaknesses" in its processes and controls.

"It would be similar to going to a restaurant and saying the food tastes good, the service is fine, and then you walk back in the kitchen and you see somebody is using their hands with fingernails that are unclean," says Mike Mayo, bank analyst at CLSA.

But while these kinds of offenses might shut down a local restaurant, Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that because banks are so systemically important, regulators tend to treat them with "kid gloves" — but that complexity also means their risks are very difficult to accurately "grade."

In surgery, practice makes perfect

Thu, 2015-03-12 09:10

From today's file of statistics that will scare you, a patient-safety organization called The Leapfrog Group finds survival rates for some high-risk surgeries can swing by as much as 23 percent depending on the hospital a patient visits.

In all, The Leapfrog Group looked at four risky surgeries including esophagectomy, replacing the aortic valve in the heart and removing some or all of the pancreas.

Dr. Tom Varghese, a surgeon at the University of Washington, often performs esophagectomies. He says there’s good reason why a patient dies during a procedure that involves removing some or all of the esophagus. The patient is often weak and malnourished. That patient has often gone through chemotherapy and radiation, and then, Varghese has to cut him open to perform a tough procedure.

“So you take out the esophagus, then you have to reconstruct the replacement which is most of the stomach. And then you have to make that stomach, which is a big sack, make it into a tube. Then you have to stretch it back up to reattach in the neck,” he says.

Varghese says he performs maybe 15 of these surgeries every year. The study found in general the hospitals that performed these procedures the most tended to have the best outcomes. That’s no surprise says Dr. Bob Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

“There’s clear evidence that practice does make perfect. The more cases you do in general the better you are,” he says.

Wachter says the hospital matters, too. Questions like: Does the facility report their mortality and readmission rates? Do members of the staff wash their hands? Do nurses feel comfortable calling a doctor at 3 a.m.? All play a role in patient quality.

The trouble has been it’s hard to find reliable information. Consumers in need of care today still must rely on a patchwork of sources. Wachter says for certain procedures, like transplants and some hearts surgeries there’s decent information.

Patients can also turn to Consumer Reports, U.S. News and World Report and other rankings. Ultimately though, Wachter says people are “stuck with sitting down and meeting with the [physician] and looking them in the eyes and seeing if this is a person I can trust,” he says.

But Leapfrog’s Erica Mobley says change is coming.

“Healthcare hasn’t really been held to the standards of other industries, having to publicly report information the good and the bad,” she says.

When Leapfrog began its hospital survey in 2001, only 200 hospitals responded. This year, 1,500, or one-third of all hospitals nationwide participated. And consumers are a driving force behind better quality information.

In a recent survey, Mobley says consumers said what disturbed them the most was not high infection rates, nor even when surgeons left an object inside a patient. It was when hospitals withheld information and failed to report data. And it appears hospital executives are listening.

Quiz: School lunch specifics

Thu, 2015-03-12 08:55

A school-cafeteria study published in Childhood Obesity finds students wasted less food after USDA lunch standards were implemented.

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PODCAST: Courts could upend Uber's model

Thu, 2015-03-12 08:20

First up: The ride services Uber and Lyft failed to convince a pair of U.S. judges on Wednesday that their drivers are “independent contractors” rather than regular employees. Class-action lawsuits – brought by drivers of both companies – will now go to jury trial, the results for which could have important consequences for the sharing economy. Then, Google is getting into "cold storage," taking on the masses of old data businesses like to squirrel away and making it available to them at a moment's notice. Finally, New Yorkers have been enjoying excellent ski conditions for most of this winter, but in Lake Tahoe, the slopes are bare and warm. We look at how small ski areas are scraping by while the bigger resorts are looking for new ways to turn a profit.

In Vietnam, a cemetery kicks out the living

Thu, 2015-03-12 07:54

Some of the world's fastest growing economies are in Asia. With more cash flow, more jobs, more people, Asian cities are getting a lot bigger. Some are overflowing.

In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, it seems as if little can stand in the way of urban sprawl — not even the dead. The city's biggest cemetery is slated for demolition, with plans to use the space for a shopping mall, apartments and parks.

Moving 70,000 tombs is one challenge. Here's an even trickier one: What to do about the hundreds of people who work and live inside the cemetery? 

The cemetery, Binh Hung Hoa, is a relatively quiet place — to lay flowers, light incense at a loved one's grave, even say a solemn prayer.

And hey — before you leave, grab a massage. 

"Oil, full body, hand, head… everything! Very cheap!" a masseuse named Man says with a laugh. She says she's offering oil, full-body, hand, and head treatments for less than $5 an hour.

It's kind of a steal — if you're okay with a rubdown among nearly two hundred football fields worth of above-ground cement tombs.

Man says her customers couldn't care less. Many local people who have colds, the flu, or fever often come here. There's been a big community living here for years and years, since before the early 1960's, when a much smaller cemetery first opened. After the U.S. war ended, the whole place just got bigger. More graves, and today, hundreds of people.

Thi Cuc Nguyen and her husband live here, where they work sweeping and looking after nearly 1,000 tombs.

"Are you scared of ghosts?!" Nguyen asks, laughing. "No ghosts here, only bodies. Their spirits are up in heaven already. So I feel totally peaceful living here."

The Catholic Church hired the couple almost 25 years ago. Nguyen says this gig sure beats her old job selling produce.

"Visitors often thank me, as they see that I am taking care of their families' tombs," she says. "I make $100 to $150 a month. And I have more freedom. I really enjoy taking care of the graves."

There are other ways to earn cash here. Some rent out rooms to day laborers, others run makeshift speakeasies. Want to order a whole roasted pig? One of the temple caretakers will hook you up.

Hoa Binh runs a small stand at a crossroads in the cemetery, where she sells sweet iced coffee, plus flowers and incense for the graves. Things have been tough for her since 2011, when the district People's Committee closed the cemetery to new burials. Families came and started emptying the tombs.

Since then, she says, business, well, it's been kind of like a graveyard around here.

"As soon as they started removing the tombs, the number of visitors dropped a lot," she says. "There used to be 500 tombs in this area. Sometimes there would be a line of cars here, just to visit one tomb, you know? But it's getting quiet. Very quiet!"

Quiet? Not exactly. The cemetery sits just two miles from Ho Chi Minh City's very busy international airport. This is where it's all supposed to happen: luxury apartments, a shopping mall, maybe a park, all by the year 2020.

Partly, yes, it's about sprawl, but there are public-health issues, too, says Yale anthropologist Erik Harms, who's written about urban redevelopment here.

"There's been stories about people drinking water from wells there," he says. "That's pretty nasty, right? To drink water from a well in a cemetery where corpse juices are dripping into the well, right?"

Some of those who live here are embracing the new plans. Harms says that with projects like this one, people often imagine a more comfortable way of life.

"They say, 'Yeah, it would be nice to live in a nice house or an apartment building with air conditioning, clean sewers … good schools for the kids.' That's in some ways preferable to living in a cemetery."

But the local government hasn't said what it's going to do for the residents. It's tricky in part because many people don't have any legal claims to the land.

One thing is clear: Soon, they'll have to pack up and move on, as this old graveyard gets set to start a new life.

Juries to decide if Uber drivers are 'contractors'

Thu, 2015-03-12 07:36

The ride services Uber and Lyft failed to convince a pair of U.S. judges Wednesday that their drivers are “independent contractors” rather than regular employees.

The class-action lawsuits – brought by drivers of both companies – will now go to jury trial, the results for which could have important consequences for the sharing economy.

By serving as middlemen in a market for surplus labor, or car rides, or whatever, many sharing economy startups have been able to skirt labor regulations such as social security, worker’s comp, or sick leave.

In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Edward Chen noted that Uber, “would not be a viable business entity without its drivers,” and that the company can also fire drivers for a variety of reasons, including low passenger ratings, or for no reason at all. Both of these reasons are cases for the drivers being considered employees.

By cautious estimates Uber has upwards of 160,000 drivers across 61 cities in the United States.  If it has to pay out benefits to all those drivers it will affect the profitability of their business model, as well as other gig-economy apps such as TaskRabbit, Wonolo, Instacart or Handy.

Still, given how much money Uber has already raked in from investors, even if a jury rules against them on the issue of independent contractors, they should still be able to adapt.

"I'm sure they have a contingency plan to deal with this,” says John Horton, from NYU’s Stern School of Business. “It may take some of the shine off them as an investment, but my guess is we're not going to see Uber close up shop if the jury rules against them."

Uber is valued somewhere north of $40 billion, Lyft is around $2.5 Billion. Horton points out that many of the labor regulations that apply to the workforce were written into law before companies like Uber were part of the marketplace.  Still, he cautions against re-writing laws too quickly.

“One of the things you worry about when crafting policy before the contours of the industry are already apparent,” Horton says. “It can happen where the people who seem to be already out in front, can use regulation to squash new entrants.”

Horton notes this frontrunner position could be leveraged by other companies in the surplus economy, not just Uber.  He also says it would likely result in increased costs being passed on to consumers.

If Uber or Lyft drivers are ultimately ruled to be employees, they'll be entitled to reimbursement for gas and vehicle maintenance, among other expenses, according to Reuters.

How to make an educational game kids want to play

Thu, 2015-03-12 04:05

There are plenty of serious conversations taking place this week at SXSWedu in Austin — student data, social learning, digital citizenship, online degrees.

But there is also a lot of serious talk about games, and how they can be used to help engage kids and improve learning. In 2013, the market for educational games was about $1.5 billion and growing rapidly. 

Rule No. 1: No chocolate-covered broccoli. That’s according to Phaedra Boinodiris, global lead for serious games and gamification at IBM. 

“You enter into the realm of what I call ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ if you do it wrong,” she says. 

To Boinodiris, chocolate-covered broccoli is the thinly disguised, anti-fun. In other words, educational games still need to feel likes games. And that means something at stake, something to win. 

"Brain Chase" is an online educational treasure hunt for kids to complete over the summer, using geography and math skills to find a real “buried treasure”: a $10,000 scholarship. 

Founder Allan Staker says violence isn’t an option in educational games, so developers have to rely on something else to keep kids interested. 

“You have to start with a quest, get them in the shoes of a protagonist,” he says.

During the Brain Chase game, participants had to use a compass, map and clues from video prompts to help their fellow adventurers escape a cryptic hedge maze.

Kelsey Fowler/Marketplace Without having “Grand Theft Middle School,” Staker says, the answer is unsurprisingly, treasure.

Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto, says during the last month of the year, he turns his class into the psych ward from Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” 

“My students are put into the role of mental patients, and I take on multiple roles either through videos, or live performances as the faculty that’s running the mental ward,” he says. 

Darvasi uses Twitter and Facebook to post challenges, questions and quests for his students. 

“A really interesting thing about Keasy’s novel is his critique of the industrial elements of the mental institution coincide well with the critiques of the education system,” he says.

Shawn Young shows off his creation Classcraft, a role-playing game designed to increase collaboration and engagement in the classroom.

Courtesy of Classcraft

Brothers Shawn and Devin Young of the role-playing game "Classcraft" say introducing games into the classroom faces the same challenges introducing new technology in schools has always faced: finding the money in the budget.

“There are a lot of great, empowering things about video games and using them to motivate and learn,” Shawn Young says.

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