Finance news. My opinion.

September 4, 2014

US worker productivity rises at 2.3 percent rate in second quarter while labor costs edge down

Filed under: Uncategorized, money — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 11:51 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — US worker productivity rises at 2.3 percent rate in second quarter while labor costs edge down.

Source

August 23, 2014

Mexico creates special economic-crime force

Filed under: Uncategorized, online — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 12:15 am

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico launched a special 5,000-strong police force Friday to combat industrial, farm and business crime that has extended far throughout the country’s economy, strangling commerce in some regions.

Drug gangs have long penetrated some Mexican mining and agricultural sectors, but officials now reveal that everyone from fishermen to tourist resorts to banana growers have been hit by the wave of extortion, kidnapping and thefts by the gangs.

In some cases, like the western state of Michoacan, the cartels and gangs cut down trade so much that “even the barbershops weren’t serving customers. The whole social fabric broke down,” said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido.

The new force known as the gendarmerie is made up of fresh recruits — average age 28 — who have never served on another police force. Trained by the Mexican army, the forces’ commanding officers got training from police forces from Colombia, Chile, Spain, France and the U.S.

It will act as a division of the federal police and will be sent to areas where there is an organized crime presence and there is no economic activity because production is being restricted by the criminals.

Most Mexicans had long been aware that parts of the country had such problems: Michoacan, where the Knights Templar cartel told farmers when to plant and took a cut on every product, and even ran the iron ore industry. Or the northern border state of Tamaulipas, where demands for businesses to pay protection money was common.

Mexico’s national statistics institute estimated that in 2012, the latest figures available, that crime cost the country about $16.5 billion, or 1.34 percent of GDP.

But the breadth of problems authorities have now acknowledged is staggering.

Luis Montoya Morelia, the head of federal police in Tamaulipas, said the hyper-violent Zetas cartel had threatened fishermen on the Gulf coast, forcing them to sell their catch to the cartel for just 7 cents per kilograms (3 cents per pound). The gang would then apparently take the fish to market and sell it for full price.

Rubido said cattle ranchers in southern Mexico were buying sorghum abroad because nobody would rent harvesting machines to sorghum growers in Tamaulipas, apparently fearing the cartels would burn or steal the equipment free credit report and score. This year, under police and military protection for every stage from harvest and packing to distribution, Tamaulipas was able to bring in a bumper crop.

Banana growers in the steamy southern Gulf state of Tabasco also have come under gang pressure. When the banana harvesting season comes around, extortion and kidnappings rise to some of the highest rates in Mexico, Rubido said.

And on the southern Pacific coast, gangs threaten the resorts of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, though Rubido did not offer specifics on the threat there.

Michoacan offers the most extreme example of the Mexican cartels’ Mafia-style control, especially with the region’s main crop, limes. “The planters, pickers, packing houses and distributors all had to pay a cut for the right to operate or ship to the criminals,” Rubido said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how such a small force would be used to attack such widespread problems. The task to date has largely fallen to soldiers and marines, whose tactics have spawned continuing complaints. But it doesn’t appear the new gendarme force would have enough officers to replace military units in a broad range of law enforcement roles.

“It is naive to think that just by creating a new force with people who haven’t been in the police before … things are going to change,” said Miguel Moguel, a researcher at Mexico’s Fundar think tank.

“We have been creating new police forces for decades, armored police, ‘incorruptible, super-trained police,’” with disappointing results, he noted.

This year, the government even took the unprecedented step of providing guns, uniforms and salaries for former vigilantes in Michoacan, recruiting about 2,000 of them into the newly created “Rural Force.” But critics say the force has little oversight and training.

Mexico hopes the gendarmerie will help break the cartels’ economic stranglehold, but Rubido said it won’t be easy. “Many times they have attacked with grenades,” he said of the cartels.

Source

July 23, 2014

Canada Border Services review finds 19,000 outdated lookout warnings

Filed under: Uncategorized, debt — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 5:04 am

OTTAWA—An internal review has revealed that Canada’s border agency had more than 19,000 outdated electronic notices warning officers to be on the lookout for suspicious travellers.

The Canada Border Services Agency discovered the old notices earlier this year following the review of about 117,000 active lookouts to ensure each contained up-to-date information, says a new federal report.

Accuracy and timeliness are vital because the border agency is supposed to use lookouts to intercept suspected terrorists, organized criminals and others of concern attempting to enter Canada.

An outdated or inaccurate lookout could also mean a traveller is stopped at the border and subjected to unnecessary scrutiny.

The notices are based on intelligence information, past customs seizures, immigration violations and known national security risks.

Last fall, federal auditor general Michael Ferguson found the border agency was not consistently monitoring the results of lookouts and lacked a consistent process for recording the results when someone was intercepted. Ferguson noted the agency had made little progress on its monitoring of immigration lookouts since a 2007 study.

“Given the seriousness of the threats that lookouts are designed to address, even one missed lookout is cause for concern,” the auditor general said. “Without relevant performance data, the agency does not have information on whether lookouts are working as intended or how it can improve on results.”

The border agency’s own study confirmed problems with the lookout system.

In response to a request from the House of Commons standing committee on public accounts, the government recently issued an update on the border agency’s efforts to improve the management and effectiveness of the lookouts program.

The agency also made a number of changes to its computer systems to make it easier to find possible matches associated with a lookout and to provide partners with more timely information.

In his fall report, Ferguson also expressed concerns about information the border agency receives from airlines with the aim of zeroing in on suspected security threats.

Air carriers are required to provide the border agency with advance information about passengers entering Canada to allow for screening of travellers before they arrive. Complete and accurate information helps the agency identify people who might need closer examination once their plane lands.

Ferguson found the border agency did not receive all of the necessary information about passengers, and recommended it take steps already developed to fix the problems.

Source

July 18, 2014

Jamestown Mall quietly closes its doors, planning for a rebirth of the site begins

Filed under: Uncategorized, management — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 7:44 am

FLORISSANT • With the Jamestown Mall quietly locking its doors, officials hope the passing creates an opening to transform a site that has long troubled north St. Louis County residents and leaders.

“The goal is to put the property in a condition where we have reasonable hope to develop it to serve the citizens of North County,” said Andrew Ruben, a senior vice president of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

The County Planning Commission is expected to begin the process Monday by approving a declaration to mark the 1.2 million-square-foot parcel as a “blighted area.”

That measure will signal the first step to what could be a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

Studies have recommended a mixed-use conversion to accommodate housing developments, senior living units and approximately 200,000 square feet of retail shops.

The planning commission recommendation will be passed along to the County Council.

The possibility of condemning the site to pave the way for redevelopment will entail gaining state approvals and could drag on for years.

“The estimated timetable is 10 years,” said Ruben, adding, “We will do everything in our power to expedite the process but this is a complicated and long-term project.”

Carolyn Marty, president and CEO of the Greater North County Chamber of Commerce, sees widespread support for a radical transformation for a retail site long in decline.

“From the chamber’s perspective this is the path we want to see happen,” Marty said. “Someone needs to move forward so we can bring economic development to that area of North County.”

County Executive Charlie Dooley said the county is seeking to blight the area because the mall’s business model stood in the way of redevelopment.

Jamestown Mall ownership is divided among five different parties. One company owns the majority of the mall proper; the rest of the property is divided among the corporate owners of the anchor stores and other investors Faxless payday loans. Dooley said the owners have not responded to county requests about redeveloping the property.

Mall security and maintenance will for now continue to be the responsibility of the five owners, Ruben said.

But, as Dooley explained in a letter inviting residents and businesses to share their thoughts on the future of the property: “St. Louis County cannot move forward in any productive manner in terms of future development of the site unless we actually have some control over the property, which currently remains in the hands of private owners.”

The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the North County Recreation Complex, 2577 Redman Road.

Assistant Blackjack Fire Chief Ankeneth Corbin promised representatives of the fire district will attend.

The district, Corbin said, “has multiple areas of concern” about what lies ahead — including compensating for the absence of what was once a major source of revenue.

The district has additional misgivings about safety after young people turned an abandoned section of the mall into an illegal haunted house last year.

Corbin said an illicit venue that operated until authorities learned of it on a social media site raises concerns that homeless people or other individuals will find a way to get into the empty mall.

Some contend the mall was doomed from the start by a lack of foresight.

The building went up near the terminus of North Lindbergh Boulevard in an area where the addition of nearby housing never reached projections.

Unlike many malls, Jamestown was not built near a major interstate highway or mass transit.

County Planning Director Glenn Powers believes the physical placement of the mall on a plot where it was obscured by a corn and soybean field also contributed to its decline.

Powers also questioned why the sinkholes and underground caves that eventually threatened the mall infrastructure were not discovered when the site plan was developed.

In its final years the mall was further bedeviled by power outages, the loss of heat and an exodus of retailers — large and small.

The death knell was sounded when Macy’s, the last of the Jamestown anchor stores, closed its doors earlier this year.

The mall was 41 years old when its few remaining tenants departed the building last week. The UniverSoul Circus, scheduled for next week in the parking lot, will go on despite the demise of the mall.

“It was wonderful in its heyday,” Marty said.

Source

July 3, 2014

Gross Says Slow Wage Growth Outweighs Jobs for Fed Policy - Bloomberg

Filed under: Uncategorized, house — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 5:37 pm

Pacific Investment Management Co.

June 20, 2014

Congress probes how IRS emails could go missing

Filed under: Uncategorized, news — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 6:17 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Eight federal employees connected to the tea party investigation experienced hard drive crashes, resulting in an unknown number of lost emails, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers Friday in an unusually tense congressional hearing.

A week ago the IRS acknowledged it could not produce some of the emails of the IRS executive at the center of the probe because her computer crashed in 2011. Koskinen acknowledged to lawmakers that the hard drive was recycled and presumably destroyed.

“I want that hard drive and I want the hard drive of every computer that crashed,” said the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

Koskinen said the IRS took extra measures to try to retrieve the lost emails. But he was unapologetic about the computer crashes or the period when the IRS advised Congress that emails it had sought were lost.

“I don’t think an apology is owed,” Koskinen said.

Koskinen says it’s not clear whether all eight of the hard drive crashes resulted in lost emails.

Koskinen also said appointment of a special federal prosecutor to investigate the IRS handling of tax-exempt applications would be a “monumental waste of taxpayer funds.”

The congressional investigation has been highly politicized because of allegations that the IRS improperly singled out tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status. Friday’s hearing was unusually tense, as Camp and other Republicans occasionally interrupted Koskinen and continued to ask other questions before Koskinen had an opportunity to answer.

The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sander Levin of Mich., chided his colleagues that, “Witnesses deserve some respect.”

An FBI investigation is ongoing.

The former IRS official at the center of the investigation, Lois Lerner, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers’ questions. Lerner did not learn that IRS staffers were improperly reviewing applications of tea party and other conservative groups for tax-exempt status until weeks after her computer crashed, according to an earlier audit by the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

Lerner’s computer crashed sometime around June 13, 2011, according to emails provided to Congress. She first learned about the tea party reviews on June 29, according to the inspector general.

Koskinen told Congress that Lerner’s hard drive was unavailable to them because it had been recycled.

The IRS said last week it became aware of the missing emails in February of this year. The IRS did not know whether the other computer crashes have resulted in lost emails as well. It will also not say how often its computers fail and lose data.

The lost emails are raising questions even by the government’s records officer. In a June 17 letter to the IRS, Paul Wester Jr. asked the agency to investigate the loss of records and whether any disposal of data was authorized. Wester, the chief records officer at the National Archives and Records Administration, was responding to the IRS’ June 13 disclosure of Lerner’s lost emails.

Wester’s letter did not address the lost records of six other employees that the IRS disclosed that day. Wester said the IRS is required to report its finding within 30 days. Federal agencies are supposed to report destruction of records — whether accidental or intentional — to the National Archives “promptly” after an incident.

The IRS said that after Lerner’s computer crashed in June 2011, technicians were not able to retrieve data from her hard drive.

In May, more than two months after the IRS discovered the emails were missing, the IRS assured Camp that it would provide all applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status in 2010 and 2011, including all files, correspondence and internal IRS records related to them. Camp had asked for the records in May 2012.

It’s similarly unclear why the IRS didn’t attempt to recover the emails from backup servers in June 2011, especially since Lerner told an IRS computer technician in a July 2011 email, “There were some documents in the files that are irreplaceable.”

Shawn Henry, the FBI’s former cyber director, said technicians should have been able to retrieve data from the servers around the times the computers crashed.

“If they knew there was a problem in 2011,” said Henry, now president of CrowdStrike, a security technology company, “they could have or should have been able to recover it.”

The IRS told Congress last week that recovering emails has been a challenge because doing so is “a more complex process for the IRS than it is for many private or public organizations.”

The IRS was able to find copies of 24,000 Lerner emails from between 2009 and 2011 because Lerner had sent copies to other IRS employees. Overall, the IRS said it was producing 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, covering 2009 to 2013. The agency said it searched for emails of 83 people and spent nearly $10 million to produce hundreds of thousands of documents.

At the time that Lerner’s computer crashed, IRS policy had been to make copies of all IRS employees’ email inboxes every day and hold them for six months. The agency changed the policy in May 2013 to keep these snapshots for a longer, unspecified amount of time. Had this been the policy in 2011, when at least two of the computer crashes occurred, there likely could have been backups of the lost emails today.

The chief executive for an email-archiving company, Pierre Villeneuve of Jatheon Technologies, said most public and private sector organizations keep emails for several years, not six months, because of financial regulations and inexpensive computer storage.

“To have a large agency like the IRS have a very weak policy for email archiving and retention is quite shocking,” Villeneuve said. “If this were a private enterprise and they couldn’t produce this information on demand, they’d be in trouble. They’d either be fined or accused of hiding information.”

The IRS has said technicians sent Lerner’s hard drive to a forensic lab run by the agency’s criminal investigations unit. But the information was not recoverable, a technician told her in an Aug. 5, 2011, email.

Source

April 25, 2014

Minding the tax bite in fund investing

Filed under: Uncategorized, uk — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 8:29 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — How painful was tax season for you?

For many investors with mutual funds in a taxable account, it was tougher this year than last. That’s because the best year for stocks since 1997 pushed many funds to make capital gains distributions to their shareholders, and those got taxed even if the shareholder didn’t sell any shares. Investors who make the biggest incomes got a double whammy: They paid a higher percentage of their capital gains distributions in taxes than a year before.

Now that April 15 has passed, investors have a chance to reflect on what drove their tax bills and rejigger their portfolios. For most retirement investors, the answer is simple: Keep your mutual funds in a tax-advantaged account, whether that’s a 401(k), individual retirement account or Roth IRA. For those with funds in taxable accounts, other avenues are available for tax-smart investing, and experts say they’re growing in importance.

During the ’80s and ’90s, when markets were booming, many investors were making so much money that they didn’t mind paying big tax bills, says Fran Kinniry, a principal in the investment strategy group at Vanguard. Now that many don’t expect the returns they got during the boom years, there’s more interest in keeping costs and taxes low.

“Investors are taking 100 percent of the risk of their investments, and the goal should be to capture as much as 100 percent of that return,” Kinniry says.

First, a reminder on the taxes mutual-fund investors can incur: Funds that own dividend-paying stocks distribute those payments to shareholders, which can be taxable. Each year, funds also tally the gains booked from selling stocks and bonds. From that, funds subtract the losses they incurred from trading and pass along the remainder to shareholders. These are called capital gains distributions, and the tax rate on long-term gains for the very top earners rose to 23.8 percent last year from 15 percent.

Here’s a look at what investors can do to minimize those payments:

—REMEMBER THE POWER OF TAX-ADVANTAGED ACCOUNTS. If you own a mutual fund in a 401(k) or IRA, you also get dividend and capital-gains distributions. But you don’t need to worry about taxes until you withdraw money. Investors with funds in a Roth IRA don’t need to worry about taxes on those distributions at all, under some conditions.

Tax-advantaged accounts are particularly useful for mutual funds that produce more distributions than others, such as ones focused on bonds, dividend-paying stocks or real-estate investment trusts used car warranty. Actively managed stock mutual funds - ones run by stock pickers looking to beat an index - also can have bigger gains distributions because they do more buying and selling than index funds.

— SOME MUTUAL FUNDS ARE BUILT TO MINIMIZE TAXES. Tax-managed mutual funds use several methods to limit their shareholders’ tax bills. They can be biased toward stocks with lower dividend yields, looking to limit dividend payments, for example. They also try to hold off on selling stocks to minimize potential capital gains distributions.

Generally, only investors who have already maxed out their annual contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs would consider tax-managed funds. Because their audience is so narrow, they tend to have fewer assets under management, says Michael Rawson, a fund analyst at Morningstar.

Their smaller size means tax-managed funds don’t benefit from the economies of scale that large mutual funds do, which can mean higher expense ratios, Rawson says.

— INDEX FUNDS AND ETFs CAN MEAN SMALLER TAX BILLS. The capital-gains distributions that funds make are a result of buying and selling stocks. So one way to limit those distributions is to limit buying and selling.

Big index mutual funds and ETFs do just that. Unlike actively managed funds looking to beat the market, index funds are merely trying to match an index’s performance. That means they’re content to own the same stock as long as it stays in the index. Index funds also tend to have lower expenses than actively managed funds.

But “just because a fund is an index fund doesn’t mean that it’s tax efficient,” says Vanguard’s Kinniry. Indexes that cover smaller swaths of the market tend to change more often than large, broad-market indexes. So a small-cap value index fund will likely see more turnover than a broad-market index fund, which can trigger more gains distributions.

— MUNICIPAL BONDS OFFER TAX-FREE INCOME. The interest paid by bonds issued by cities, water and sewer authorities and other local governments is generally free from federal income taxes. That means investors can more comfortably keep muni-bond funds in a taxable account.

They come with their own risks, of course: Worries flare periodically about the financial strength of local governments, which can cause their prices to swing sharply.

Source

April 18, 2014

Brewers seeks to rekindle Belgium’s love of beer

Filed under: Uncategorized, house — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 3:18 pm

DWORP, Belgium (AP) — The ruby lettering on the front of the old corner pub “In de Welkom” has peeled almost beyond recognition. Owner Leza Wauters, a tough 87-year-old, is holding on to her business but can’t say how much longer. Sooner or later, yet another bar with a warm “Welcome” will be gone.

Serving local geuze, triples and pils beers for generations, the pub has embodied what the drink means to Belgians — bringing together families and friends with cheers of “sante” and “gezondheid,” gulping down tasty suds before ordering more.

Now, the tables are often empty, a sign of the hard times many pubs like these have fallen upon as Belgians have stopped drinking beer like they used to. The beer industry, meanwhile, has increasingly relied on exporting the world-class beers to far-flung markets.

Not good, they say here.

The Belgian beer federation is trying to rekindle local interest in the drink with a “Proud of our Beers” public awareness campaign, including a tricolor national flag with the middle yellow turned into a glass of beer.

“Belgian beer made in Belgium but not drunk in Belgium is not really Belgian beer anymore,” said Gert Christiaens, the owner of the Oud Beersel brewery, which won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup last week with his geuze, a sour beer made through natural fermentation.

“If it is not in their roots anymore and they cannot pass it on to the next couple of generations, then we’ve lost. We cannot claim the heritage of Belgian beer if nobody knows about it,” he said.

Beer consumption in Belgium is still relatively high — at 74 liters (16 criminal records.2 gallons) a head annually. But that is a 27 percent drop since 1992.

In just about any town or village, pensioners can point out the places were bars used to be, and are now gone. Guidea, the research institute of the industry, says the number of drinking establishments has declined from 38,128 in 1983 to 17,512 in 2012, the last year on record in this nation of 10.5 million.

Exports, meanwhile, have risen, from 5.47 million hectoliters in 2000 to 11.69 million a dozen years later to account for roughly two-thirds of production now.

Sven Gatz, the head of the Belgian Brewers federation, says the overall trend is not good for the local industry.

“You cannot be a strong beer country only exporting beer,” he said at his gilded, baroque headquarters on one of Europe’s finest squares, the Brussels Grand Place, proof of the exalted status beer has in this country.

It’s not only about boosting current sales but about preserving for the future the identity and national heritage that had made the Belgian beers famous in the first place, he argued. In a globalized market, that identity is valuable.

Leza Wauters remembers the good times well. “Oh, we had more than 50 cafes in Dworp,” she said of the bucolic village 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Brussels, part of a hilly area of pastures whose landscapes, and beers, figured in the paintings of the famous artist Breughel. “It was incredible - it was almost like everyone had a cafe.”

Now the village’s pubs can be counted on two hands, she said.

Her granddaughter Barbara Danis fondly remembers time spent at the “In de Welkom” but recognizes its days may be numbered. Most clients are of an older generation that used to congregate daily in the pubs but that is now fading away.

“You used to have card players who came here every day,” she said. Now, her grandmother complains, those games are over.

Younger clients are tough to attract because they prefer to enjoy drinks at home. They move around mainly by car — and have to heed modern drunk driving laws — whereas clients in older times would walk to their local pub. Laws prohibiting smoking in pubs have also hurt business.

Siene Verhelst, who ducked into the “In de Welkom” after a walk in the surrounding woods to order an amber Westmalle trappist beer, pondered: “You are lucky to be here, because this can be over next week.”

Part of the decline in interest in beer was also due to the growing industrialization of beer production that often alienated locals.

“In the 1960s to the eighties, the bigger breweries took over the midsized breweries, the midsized breweries took over the small brewers and there was consolidation,” said Gatz. That has reduced the amount of choice and severed the sense of identification a local population had with their local brew.

The world’s largest brewer, AB Inbev, is an extreme example. Part of the Belgium-based conglomerate originated in the country but it has become so large that most of its brands are foreign — Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s criminal record search.

There is some hope, however, that the beer culture might be revitalized by what is, ironically, a global trend — the surge in microbreweries.

Next door to Dworp is Buizingen, where Kloris Deville and his dad Bart have turned Den Herberg — “The Inn” — into a thriving little pub over a half dozen years with heaving weekend clientele, partly because they started their own microbrewery in the back.

Bart Deville says he’s produced up to a dozen new beers and is finding huge demand — he has a huge storage room full of a new brew for which he still has to find a fitting name.

Microbreweries have found success across the globe, but Belgians are inspired by their particularly rich and long tradition.

It is what moved Gert Christiaens to drop a career in the telecoms services and become a brewer. Twelve years ago, at the age of 25, he was shocked to hear a bartender tell him that his favorite geuze would soon be extinct, as the brewery had closed down.

“A couple of days later I rang the brewery,” he said, and now Christiaens brews the Oud Beersel gueze himself, winning global prizes along the way and expanding his business to make it sustainable.

“I did not want this heritage of Belgium to disappear,” he said.

___

AP Video journalist Mark D. Carlson contributed to this story

Source

March 29, 2014

Senate Advances Long-Term Unemployment Benefits Extension - Bloomberg

Filed under: Uncategorized, loans — Tags: , , , — Professor @ 2:16 pm

The U.S. Senate voted to advance legislation restoring benefits for the long-term unemployed that the Obama administration has sought to revive since they expired late last year.

By a vote of 65-34, with 60 required for approval, the Senate agreed to move toward taking up the measure, which is the product of a bipartisan agreement struck earlier this month by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, Nevada Republican Dean Heller and eight other senators.

Ten Republicans joined with the chamber

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