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DailyFinance.com

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    Beige Book
    Lenny Ignelzi/AP
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. economy was growing at a moderate pace in most regions of the country in April and May, as consumers ramped up spending at retailers and auto dealers, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday.

    In its latest survey of business conditions around the country, the Fed said that manufacturing activity held steady or increased, except in the energy industry. Some companies laid off workers and cut back on drilling activities in response to the big fall in oil prices over the past year.

    The Fed report, known as the beige book, will be reviewed by officials at the Fed's next meeting June 16-17 meeting. Economists expect the central bank to delay any rate hike until they see more signs of an economic rebound.

    Four districts -- Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and St. Louis -- reported moderate growth in manufacturing, while some other districts said growth was basically flat during the survey period.

    The report found wide-ranging consequences from the fall in energy prices, with over half of the Fed's 12 districts reporting a negative impact on companies that either operate in the energy sector or provide services to energy companies. Kansas City described a sharp fall in activity in energy producers Oklahoma and New Mexico, while the Dallas district said that oilfield machinery sales were down significantly from a year ago.

    The Fed report also found that the rise in the value of the dollar wasn't uniformly hurting demand for U.S. manufactured goods. The Philadelphia and Richmond districts reported stronger demand in the rubber and plastic industries. In San Francisco, biotech and pharmaceutical companies also saw growing demand.

    But the report said that business contacts in the Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas districts all reported a drag on either export sales or business investment plans from the rise in the value of the dollar against foreign currencies, which makes U.S.-made products more expensive on foreign markets.

    While the Fed at its April meeting downgraded its view of the U.S. economy to reflect the impact of an unusually harsh winter, economists believe it will upgrade its outlook at the June meeting. But private economists think the Fed will still prefer to wait until later in the year, possibly September, before it begins raising a key interest rate.

    That rate has been at a record low near zero since December 2008 as the Fed tried to counteract the impact of a severe recession on the labor market and overall economic growth.

     

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    spencer   wisconsin sept.12  ...
    Shutterstock
    NEW YORK -- Taco Bell says it will serve beer, wine and "mixed alcohol freezes" at a new location set to open in Chicago this summer.

    The chain, owned by Yum Brands (YUM), says the restaurant will have a new design it's testing in urban markets. It says the layout has already been launched in South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom.

    A rendering of the design shows a row of lime-green stools along a bar that peers into an open kitchen, flanked by an exposed brick wall. The chain says the location "will highlight the work of local artists" to give it a neighborhood feel.

    The new layout is the latest sign Taco Bell is working to shed its fast-food image and appeal to millennials, who marketers say prefer places and products that seem less cookie-cutter and more "authentic." Wendy's (WEN), which is also trying to recast itself as a step up from traditional fast-food, has also been pushing a remodeling of restaurants that features more inviting and mixed seating options.

    The push to embrace a new image extends to food as well. Last month, Taco Bell announced it would drop artificial flavors and colors from its menu by the end of this year, although co-branded products like the Doritos Locos tacos would be exempt.

    Taco Bell says its franchisee in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago will ensure that alcohol is served responsibly at the new location and that a third-party secret shopper service will be hired to monitor alcohol sales.

    A representative for Taco Bell declined to provide further details on the drink options.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rose Wednesday, helped by optimism that Greece was close to an agreement to avoid default and as further gains in bond yields lifted financials.

    The S&P financial index climbed 0.7 percent and was among the day's top sector performers as U.S. benchmark Treasury debt yields jumped to seven-month highs, extending recent gains.

    Adding to the day's upbeat tone, Greece's international creditors signaled they were ready to compromise to avert a default even as Athens indicated it might skip an IMF loan repayment due this week.

    "Yields going higher is a net positive for all of the financials. Higher yields on fixed income translate into higher rates and that increases the net interest margin for financials," said Michael James, managing director of equity trading at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.

    Economic data bolstered the view the Federal Reserve may consider raising interest rates later this year, including reports showing the U.S. trade deficit narrowed in April on a drop in imports and private sector jobs in May.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI)​ rose 64.33 points, or 0.4 percent, to 18,076.27, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 4.47 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,114.07 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC)​ added 22.71 points, or 0.5 percent, to 5,099.23.

    The Fed, in its Beige Book report, said U.S. economic activity expanded from early April to late May and growth was expected to continue at a "modest" to "moderate" pace.

    The consumer discretionary index rose 0.7 percent.

    Bonds Yields Rise

    Ten-year bond yields have risen about 28 basis points in three days, their biggest rise in a comparable period in nearly two years. While that boosted financials, it weighed on utilities index for a second day. The index was down 1.4 percent.

    Logistics company C.H. Robinson (CHRW) jumped 5.5 percent to $64.62 and was the biggest daily percentage gainer in the S&P 500. It also lifted the Dow Jones transportation average, which was up 1.2 percent, bouncing back from near correction territory last week.

    Wendy's (WEN) rose 3.3 percent to $11.47 after the hamburger chain said it would buy back $1.4 billion of shares, including some from Nelson Peltz's Trian Group, its largest shareholder.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,548 to 1,503, for a 1.03-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,908 issues rose and 863 fell for a 2.21-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 11 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq composite 151 new highs and 21 new lows.

    About 6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.2 billion daily average for the last five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Tanya Agrawal.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department reports weekly jobless claims, and worker productivity and costs for the first quarter.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Cooper (COO)
    • J.M. Smucker (SJM)
    • Michaels (MIK)
    • Navistar International (NAV)

     

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    Depressed Senior Adult Man With Stacks of Papers and Envelopes
    Getty Images
    By Tom Anderson

    How bad is America doing when it comes to retirement savings? The Government Accountability Office looked into the question, and its answer is sobering.

    GAO analysis finds that among households with members aged 55 or older, nearly 29 percent have neither retirement savings nor a traditional pension plan.

    There hasn't been a significant increase in wages, people have student loans and other debt, and many are continuing to struggle financially.

    "There hasn't been a significant increase in wages, people have student loans and other debt, and many are continuing to struggle financially," said Charles Jeszeck, the GAO's director of education, workforce and income security, which analyzed the Federal Reserve's 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances to come up with its estimates. "We aren't surprised that people have not saved a lot for retirement."

    Even among those who do have retirement savings, their nest eggs are small. The agency found the median amount of those savings is about $104,000 for households with members between 55 and 64 years old and $148,000 for households with members 65 to 74 years old. That's equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 a month, respectively, according to the GAO.

    "I don't care what anyone says. That's not enough income for retirement," said Anthony Webb, senior research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, who reviewed the GAO report.

    Social Security remains a fundamental part of most Americans' retirement plans, with benefits providing most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older, according to the GAO.

    The agency studied the level of Americans' retirement savings at the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election and is also the ranking Democratic member on the Senate's subcommittee on primary health and retirement security.

    Estimates about the size and scope of the retirement savings problem vary widely, the GAO found. In addition to examining the Survey of Consumer Finances, it reviewed nine studies conducted between 2006 and 2015 by a variety of organizations, including academics, benefits consultant Aon Hewitt, the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Investment Company Institute. Based on these reports, it concluded that one-third to two-thirds of workers are at risk of falling short of their retirement savings targets, in part because of the range of assumptions about how much income is required in retirement.

    The research that the GAO examined consistently showed that people aged 55 to 64 are less confident about their retirement and plan to work longer to afford retirement. However, a 2012 study by EBRI found that about half of retirees said they retired earlier than planned because of health problems, changes at their workplace or having to care for a spouse or another family member. This suggests "that many workers may be overestimating their future retirement income and savings," wrote GAO researchers.

    "EBRI's model does show that a significant percentage of households will run short of money in retirement," said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director. "This is because we model all the major risks in retirement."

    Reports like those and the GAO analysis should serve as a wake-up call about the lack of Americans' retirement savings, said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

    Transamerica's retirement research, which wasn't included in the GAO's review, doesn't give board projections about America's retirement readiness because retirement is "a very personal question," she said. But Collinson stressed the need for more people to calculate their projected retirement needs and to plan ahead accordingly. "As a society, we cannot do enough to raise awareness about the magnitude of this problem."

     

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    Stressed out businesswoman in office.
    Getty Images
    Just about everyone wants to advance in their career. Some people are willing to work hard and sacrifice to make it happen. Others prefer to play it safe and then they wonder why they go nowhere.

    To move ahead in your career, you might have to face some harsh realities -- about yourself and your organization -- and make some tough choices to make it happen.

    Here are 12 reasons why your career is going nowhere, and what you might be able to do to remedy the situation.

    1. You're Too Comfortable Another way to put this is that you like your job too much. Wait, is that even possible?

    While it might seem like loving your work would help you to advance your career, the opposite is often true. If you like the position you're in, your boss, your coworkers, and your routine too much, you can get so comfortable that you lose the desire and ambition to do what's necessary to advance your career.

    Then again, if you love your job that much, why are you reading this post? There's nothing wrong with being content and satisfied with where you are. But if you eventually want to climb the corporate ladder, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with your current circumstances is often necessary to provide the motivation that you need to move forward. If you're completely comfortable in the position that you're in right now, you might be unconsciously avoiding doing what you need to do to move ahead.

    2. You Have Too Many Interests Off the Job

    The people who usually move the farthest and the fastest in a company or career are often the ones who are basically obsessed with their work. If you have lots of interests off the job, that can get in the way of your next promotion. For example, if have major recreational interests that eat up most of your time off the clock, you just might not have either the time or the motivation to push your career ahead.

    This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. For many people, their real passions exist outside of their career; the job is simply the vehicle that affords them the time and money to pursue those interests, like visiting every In-N-Out Burger in the world (a guy can dream, right?). But if you decide that advancing your career becomes a priority above your recreational pursuits, you may have to consider minimizing, or even giving up one or more of your non-business interests.

    3. You Lack a Critical Skill or Two

    This is something that holds a lot of people back. Overall, you're good at your job, but there is one, or maybe two, important skills you lack that are keeping you from advancing. If it's a relatively minor skill, such as learning more about a particular software program that's important in your company or industry, that can be pretty easy to overcome.

    But sometimes the missing skill is something more substantial -- something you might hesitate to even take on.

    For example, let's say that you are in a job where advancing will require speaking before groups. A lot of people are deathly afraid of doing just that. For that reason, learning to do so could be a major obstacle. Another example can be sales. Sales are required to advance in a lot of job capacities, but if you don't have hands-on sales skills, it could be holding you back.

    If either of these skills, or one that is equally challenging, is standing in the way of you moving forward in your career, you may have to suck it up and get the necessary training and experience. That could involve taking a course or two outside of work, and then getting practice under controlled circumstances. This could mean speaking before small, friendly groups in your company, or handling inside sales on the job.

    Still another option is to take a part-time job that will enable you to learn the skill that you need in a real-world environment, but one where you aren't dependent on the job or the income. For example, you can take a part-time job that involves face-to-face sales. Sometimes the most important aspect of selling is just getting comfortable with it. That can happen if you begin working with it in a low-pressure environment. And then when you think you're ready, you can bring it out on your full-time job.

    4. You Don't Get Along With Your Boss

    This will be a major obstacle to advancing in your career, no matter what that career is. If you don't get along with your boss, it will be close to impossible to improve your career prospects in the job that you are in right now. Worse, all the options that you have are pretty bad.

    The first, best way to deal with this problem is to find a way to make peace with your boss, and to find as much common ground as possible. The difficulty with this approach is that puts all of the burden on you to make it happen. But one of the best ways to do this is by finding out what your boss's biggest concerns are, and how you can help him or her overcome them. By positioning yourself as your boss's ally, you may be able to put aside the animosity that has existed up to this point.

    If that effort fails, your only option will be to get a new boss, and that usually requires finding a new job. Naturally, if you're forced to go this route, you'll have to make sure that you establish the firm basis for good relationship with your new boss. Two bad boss relationships in a row can be a real career killer.

    5. You're Working For a Boss Who's Going Nowhere

    One common way that people move ahead in their careers is by riding on the coattails of their boss. If your boss is on an elevator ride up, and you are a trusted loyalist in tow, you will often move up as well. Unfortunately, if your boss has been stuck in the same job for longer than five years, you're not getting help on that front.

    As a rule, employers are reluctant to promote people over their bosses. It tends to create harmony problems, not to mention a bruised ego by your former boss. But that creates a roadblock in that if your boss's career isn't going anywhere, yours probably isn't either.

    The only way around this dilemma is to get out from under your static boss. That will require that you either transfer to a different department, or you make a move to another employer. Both moves have their own risks however. Once you make the change, you may have to put in certain time requirements before you are eligible for promotion. Another is that the new boss could turn into a sudden roadblock, and be just as stuck as your old boss.

    Once again, there are no easy solutions to this problem, but in-action is generally the worst of course of all.

    6. Upper Management Doesn't Know You Exist

    Sometimes you actually can leapfrog over your boss, but only if upper management -- defined as anyone higher in rank than your boss -- is aware of your skills and talents, and has a generally favorable view of you. However, if no one in upper management seriously knows you or what you do, you don't have a chance.

    You can approach this from a social standpoint, which means interacting with members of upper management in a non-confrontational way (translation: the purpose should never be to complain about your boss). You might also work on getting involved in projects and activities that have higher visibility. The idea is to get noticed if you haven't ever been up to this point.

    This is a delicate balancing act however, as you have to be careful that you are not obviously trying to upstage your boss. If your boss perceives that you are, a smack down could follow that takes you in the exact opposite direction of where you are hoping to go.

    7. You're Working For an Employer Who's Going Nowhere

    Just as there are bosses who are going nowhere in their careers, there are also employers who are going nowhere in the pecking order of their industry. Generally speaking, when an organization is underperforming its industry sector, advancement of any kind is extremely hard to come by.

    Even if you are very comfortable in your current job, if you plan to advance your career, you'll almost certainly have to leave if your employer fits this description. While you are languishing at the company, people are moving ahead at more successful competitors. You'll have to make sure that you get on board at the more successful companies during the best times to advance, and before you get labeled as a lifer in a losing organization. You never want to settle in at a company that's going nowhere.

    8. You're Working in an Industry That's Going Nowhere

    This is a far more complicated situation, and it is probably more common today than ever before. Technology is rendering entire industries obsolete. What makes it difficult is that the decline isn't always obvious early on. As a company makes efforts to slow the fall, there can be false starts that give false hope, and keep you where you're at longer than you need to be.

    Any time you find yourself in industries in decline, it's important that you make a transition into another industry as soon as possible. Most people in your industry will be reluctant to leave early on, believing that salvation is right around the corner. That makes now the perfect time to go -- before everyone else is out looking. Later on, when the decline becomes painfully obvious to everyone, the stampede will start and your chances of transitioning into an entirely new industry sector will begin to drop rapidly.

    9. You Don't Volunteer

    Every organization has new projects that come up from time to time. Like a lot of people in your company, you may be reluctant to volunteer for these projects because working on them can change your routine, present you with difficult challenges, and be kind of messy. It's certainly easy to see why anyone would not want to get involved, but doing so is a way of showing management that you are proactive and willing and ready to do what's necessary to advance the goals of the organization.

    If you fail to volunteer for special projects at least some of the time, management may assume that you are perfectly comfortable in your cozy routine. And when promotion situations come along, you may very well be passed over.

    10. You Prefer Not to Be the Go-To Guy/Girl

    You're probably aware that in every department, there are people who step up and take responsibility during times of peak stress. And there are others who kind of disappear during those peaks. You never want to be counted among the second group!

    You'll have to do some serious soul-searching here. Some people think that they are stepping up simply because they get their job done. It's as if doing anything more than doing their regular job is outside their paradigm, and beyond consideration. Rest assured that management will be aware of this, and you'll be passed over when a promotion comes around.

    Management wants people who they can rely on in difficult and unconventional situations, and though it will make your job even tougher, becoming one of the go-to people in the department is one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd.

    11. You Don't Spend Enough Time and Effort on What's Really Important

    It would be easy to say instead that you're too easily distracted, but this issue goes way beyond simple distraction. Nearly every job today is multifaceted -- you might have a dozen or more responsibilities that you need to accomplish every week or even every day. That's to be expected, but how you prioritize those responsibilities can have a material effect on your career advancement.

    The key is to be able to distinguish between mission-critical functions, and simple busywork. The better that you are at identifying and managing this distinction, the more successful you'll be in your career.

    If you do have a lot of responsibilities, you need to pick out the one or two that are most important for your job. Once you do, you have to give top priority to these tasks, and save everything else for later. You're probably aware of what those critically important tasks are, but if you're not, talk to your boss about it. Most likely, your most important functions are the ones that are most important to your boss. He or she may be encouraged at your desire to create such a priority, since it will reflect better on them.

    This will help you isolate your most important functions, and to apply the greatest effort at becoming better at them. It's likely that your performance on your most important tasks will define your future career direction.

    12. You're Afraid to Take Chances

    People often play it too close to the vest when it comes to their careers. It's understandable that you don't want to do anything that will jeopardize your job and your income. But sometimes taking chances is exactly what you need to do.

    This is particularly true if you feel that your career has stagnated. This may involve changing jobs, making a career change, or even considering self-employment. For example, if you're in an administrative capacity, and everyone in your organization and industry who is on the career fast-track have a sales background, you may have to take a chance on getting into sales.

    While making such a move will be stressful -- and risky -- sometimes the biggest risk is doing nothing. Stagnating in your job could make you layoff bait in the next recession. But showing a willingness to transition into new areas can make you a more valuable employee, which will make you both more promotable and less subject to layoffs.

    There's no doubt about it, advancing your career usually means moving outside your comfort zone or interviewing for another job. But that's the price to be paid to move forward, and there's no way to get around it. Make the changes you need to make, then embrace the new direction for all it's worth!

     

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    American dollar bills scattered in a chaotic manner
    AlamyDesign your cash pool according to the types of market opportunities that best advance your investing plan.


    For investors, cash needn't be a four-letter word.

    After all, without cash -- money in a liquid account you can withdraw immediately without penalty -- you can't seize fleeting market opportunities. But those opportunities are only worth pursuing if they "fit into your overall investing plan," cautions Craig Bartlett, vice president and division consulting manager for U.S. Bancorp Investments, based in Minneapolis.

    It's likely counterproductive to scan the market for potential bargains with a sum you are itching to invest. Bartlett recommends first defining the types of market opportunities that best advance your investing goals so you can move fast for the right reasons. Then, design your cash pool accordingly.

    As a matter of functional money management, it is smart to have a cash account set up as a parking spot for money flowing in and out of your portfolio. Ahmad Adnan, a certified financial planner with Ameriprise Financial Services, based in Austin, Texas, says brokers call this a "sweep" account because it's used to sweep money in and out of investments. That's especially useful if you expect to be directing funds to several types of investments over a period, or, conversely, rolling money from maturing or performing holdings into a pool of money for a purchase.

    The sweep account could be set up as a money-market account, short-term certificate of deposit in an FDIC-insured institution, or a similar account, Adnan explains.

    "Don't expect to make any money with it," he adds. "Clients ask, 'What's the cash earning?' and the answer is 'nothing.' " He and other advisers agree that with interest rates so low, cash accounts are lucky to reap even a fraction of a percentage point.

    That doesn't make much of a difference when you are parking cash for a few months or a couple of years in anticipation of a major purchase, such as a house down payment. In fact, advisers agree, it's smarter to table the funds in a cash account than risk losing some of it in an equity investment. The rule of thumb, they agree, is that if you need a certain amount of money on a certain date, keep the money in a cash account. "Cash is for short-term circumstances," Adnan says.

    The flip side is that the longer the cash languishes in the sweep account, the greater the chance you will start to lose money thanks to inflation, advisors say.

    If inflation is at 2 percent, and you're earning zero percent, "then you've lost 2 percent of your purchasing power," says David A. Frisch, president and founder of Frisch Financial Group, based in New York. "People think of cash as a riskless asset, but it's not."

    His recommendation: For any goal two years or more in the future, try to capture some return. "The shorter the time horizon, the less return you need. The longer the horizon, the more you should be thinking about capturing return," Frisch says. An interim step might be to buy 10-year Treasury bonds, which are currently yielding about 2.1 percent, he adds. Those at least keep pace with the current inflation rate.

    As you fine-tune your cash strategy, consider these points:
    • If your portfolio is large enough, you might allot as much as 10 percent of your conservative investments to cash. "This diversifies the conservative portion of your portfolio," says Paul Jacobs, chief investment officer with Palisades Hudson Financial Group, based in Atlanta. "You can maybe take a little more risk with bonds."
    • Be sure you know in advance if you'll be dinged for transaction fees to move the cash from a maturing instrument to a holding account.
    • Forecast your likely financial moves with a cash holding account in mind. If you are likely to be rebalancing or shifting assets around, "you might need to have a decent amount of cash on hand," Jacobs says. If are working toward a major purchase several years out, "ladder your instruments so all the money is available at the right time," Bartlett says. With various accounts maturing in succession, you can roll them into the cash account in an orderly fashion. ""Match the maturity for the purchase date for when you need the money. You want to actually allow a couple extra months for the transition, so do it early," Bartlett says.

     

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    Money Moves to Make in Your 50s

    By Marilyn Lewis

    The 50s are a pivotal decade. You are near enough to retirement to feel its hot breath on your neck, and that can be a good thing. It sharpens your focus at a time when you may still have 10 or 15 years of work left, so there's time to fatten your savings and watch the money grow. At this point, too, you may have been doing a job or honed a skill for long enough to feel a delicious sense of mastery and to be at the peak of your earning power.

    These peak earning years coincide with a peak chance for savings. If children finally are on their own, household expenses are lighter than they have been in decades. Rather than spend this freed-up money, sock away savings and pay off debt, bringing you closer to the retirement you've hoped for. Here are 12 critical financial moves to make in your 50s:

    1. Map out your strategy. Spend a weekend gathering your financial information -- your savings, investments and other assets, your debts and bills -- and map out your strategy for retirement. Seeing the details of your finances and setting goals for life beyond work will expose the gap, if any between your plans and your savings and spur you to close that gap while you still can.

    2. Meet with a fee-only financial planner. This is a good moment, while there's still time for course corrections, to make sure you haven't missed any crucial piece of planning. Even people who comfortably manage their own investments can profit from one or two meetings with a fee-only financial planner. It's important that the person you see charges an hourly fee with no commissions or products to sell, so they can objectively review your numbers, assumptions and plans. Learn how to find a trustworthy adviser by reading Ask Stacy: Do I Need a Financial Adviser, or Can I Manage My Money Myself?

    One key question for screening financial advisers: "Are you required to uphold the fiduciary standard?" What this means is that the adviser is required to put your financial interest -- not theirs -- first. If the answer is anything but "yes," keep looking. Here are sources for fee-only advisers: 3. Use retirement calculators -- with caution. By your 50s, you should be able to have a realistic idea of what your income will be in retirement. Online retirement calculators are a good, if inexact, way to estimate the monthly or annual income you'll receive from savings and other sources. Calculators vary a great deal in their accuracy, but they can be useful for setting goals and exposing gaps between your likely income and expenses in retirement.

    The more detailed data a calculator collects the more likely its results will be useful for you. One respected calculator is ESPlanner, a free tool created by Boston University Professor of Economics Laurence Kotlikoff. Three other calculators are: Two problems with calculators: They require you to make impossible guesses about the future rate of return on your investments. Also, "[m]ost online retirement calculators do not accurately account for taxes," says About Money's Retirement Planning in your 50s.

    Because of these issues, it's a good idea to play around with several different calculators to see how your results can vary.

    4. Supercharge savings. If life's demands have made it hard to save for retirement, your 50s offer a good chance to catch up. You'll see if you are saving enough by following the three steps above, mapping your retirement, assessing your situation and using calculators to estimate your retirement income.

    If there's a gap between savings and your needs in retirement, ramp up your savings. Shoot for saving 20 percent of your income. If that's too big a change, "set aside just 5 percent now and make a plan to ramp up your savings by 1 percent every quarter until you reach your target goal," suggests Interest.com.

    5. Maximize retirement plan contributions. The IRS has special rules to encourage savers who are 50 or older to ramp up savings for retirement. Here's how to take advantage of these rules:

    Max out your employer's retirement plan contribution. If your workplace matches a portion of your retirement contributions, take full advantage of the free money. If your employer matches up to 3 percent, for example, save at least 3 percent to capture that gift. According to U.S. News:

    The most common employer match is 50 cents for every dollar saved up to 6 percent of pay, according to Vanguard data. For a worker earning $60,000 a year, this employer match could be worth as much as $1,800.
    • Max out your retirement savings contribution. IRS rules let workers contribute up to $18,000 to a 401(k) plan in 2015. That's money you can save tax-free (you'll pay the income tax when you take it out in retirement).
    • Max out your "catch-up" contributions. Savers age 50 and up may also contribute an additional $6,000 to a 401(k) account in 2015. That's $24,000 total you can save -- tax free -- if you are able.
    • Max out IRA contributions. The IRS' 2015 maximum contribution to an IRA account is $6,500 if you are 50 or older ($5,500 otherwise).
    6. Decide whether to pay off your mortgage. In an earlier era, workers tried to enter retirement with no debt at all. Paying off your mortgage before retirement still is a good goal, but it's not possible for many people today.

    Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson says that tax-deferred savings accounts often offer a better return than paying down a mortgage. The reason: tax savings. If you can do both that's even better, of course. At the same time, you can't discount the psychological value, at least for some people, of owning their home free and clear in retirement. Read Ask Stacy: Should I Save More for Retirement or Pay Down My Mortgage? to learn about the pros and cons.

    7. Pay off debt aggressively. Once you retire, interest payments on debt can eat up your limited income, making it difficult to pay off loan balances. Now, in your highest earning years, is the time to aggressively eliminate nonmortgage debt, from credit card balances to auto loans and other debts.

    Don't let pride stop you from getting help if you need it. You owe it to yourself and your family not to stick your head in the sand. If loan payments are feeling unmanageable, you may benefit from taking out a consolidation loan to lower your interest rates and help you focus on a single payment.

    A trustworthy nonprofit credit-counseling agency can help you set goals, make a repayment plan and negotiate with your creditors if necessary. But, beware of sleaze bags masquerading as credit counselors! The bad ones make your debt problems even worse. Learn where to find good help: Is 2015 the Year to Tackle Your Debt? 10 Tips to Find Free or Low-Cost Help.

    You'll find lots more help at Money Talks News. A few good reads: 8. Keep a portion of savings invested in growth. Playing it safe is a natural inclination at this stage in life. You want to protect your hard-earned savings, but if your savings don't at least keep up with inflation you'll lose spending power. For example, it takes $155 to buy goods and services today that you could have bought with $100 in 1995, according to this Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. Inflation is low currently: It was 1.6 percent in 2014. But, historically, it has been higher and takes a big bite out of savings.

    The solution? Keep a good portion of your retirement savings invested in the stock market. Because retirement is a stage of life that can last 20 or 3o years, there's time to recover if some of your investments lose value. Keeping 60 percent of your investments in long-term growth with the remainder in more conservative investments is a good idea even after retirement, Ohio financial planner Doug Kinsey tells Jean Chatzky at DailyFinance.

    9. Bring both spouses on board. If finances are the realm of just one spouse in your family, it's time to correct that. Both members of a couple should understand the family's debts, savings, investments and plans in order to take over the financial reins in case one dies or becomes disabled.

    10. Consider dropping life insurance. One place to cut expenses could be dropping your life insurance premiums. Do it only if, after careful consideration, you find that the insurance no longer benefits your family. For example, if your spouse and children will not need the protection because the children are grown and are financially independent, and if your spouse will inherit a home and sufficient retirement savings.

    If you are unsure what to do, get expert help from a fee-based financial planner (see step No. 2). Do not accept financial advice from an insurance representative or from anyone who stands to gain from your decision or could sell you products.

    11. Decide if you want long-term care coverage. If you are going to buy long-term care insurance, which pays some or most costs should you become unable to care for yourself, your 50s is the time to do it. Wait much longer and premiums become prohibitively expensive. Also, you could develop health problems that disqualify you for coverage.

    The problem is, long-term care insurance is extremely expensive. The cost of coverage rose nearly 9 percent in 2014 alone, according to the American Association for Longterm Care Insurance, which says:

    A healthy 55-year-old man can expect to pay $1,060 a year for $164,000 of potential benefits, compared to $925 last year. ... The average cost for a 55-year-old single woman is $1,390, an increase from $1,225 a year (2014).

    What's a prudent person to do? After all, the cost of nursing home care currently is about $205 a day ($6,235 a month) for a semi-private room, according to the federal government, at LongTermCare.gov.

    Fortunately, long-term care insurance isn't always necessary, says Stacy Johnson, weighing the pros and cons of long-term care insurance in Ask Stacy: Should I Have Long-Term-Care Insurance?

    12. Practice living on less. You'll save more, and faster, by reducing spending. But there's another reason to get a good grip on your outflow: Living on less gives you information about where your money goes and how much you truly will need in retirement. It's a reality check for your planning. To get started read Resolve to Budget This Year: Here's How to Do It Painlessly.

    What are your money tips for people in their 50s? Share your experiences.

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    Massive Airbag Recall Prompts Safety Concerns
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    You may have heard that a massive series of automotive recalls are underway to replace air bags made by big auto-industry supplier Takata.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the number of cars that need to be recalled has grown to almost 34 million. But the investigation is continuing, and that number could grow further. The recalls have expanded to include cars from nearly all of the major automakers.

    Many owners of affected cars haven't yet received recall notices, because the automakers have been scrambling to identify all of the affected cars and notify owners. But many consumers have already received recall notices, or heard reports about defective "exploding" air bags and wondered how to find out if they're affected.

    How big a deal is this, and what should car owners do?

    Car Owners Need to Take This Seriously

    The short answer is that the risks are statistically quite low -- but they're still serious.

    Air bags are wonderful safety devices that have saved many lives: The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that frontal air bags saved over 25,000 lives between 1987 and 2008, and likely many more since.

    But to do their jobs, air bags need to deploy instantly and explosively in a crash. "Explosively" is accurate: Air bags use a propellant similar to gunpowder to deploy quickly.

    The issue with the defective Takata air bags is that the propellent can deteriorate over time under certain conditions. That has resulted in some cases in which the airbag's metal housing has ruptured. If the housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards can be sprayed throughout the inside of the car.

    For anyone in a car when that happens, that's a potential disaster. Over 100 injuries, including six fatalities, have been linked to the defective Takata air bags.

    That's a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of cars on the roads that have Takata air bags. But the danger is still very real.

    How to Find Out if Your Car Is Affected

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has a new website devoted to updates on auto recalls, including the airbag recalls. You can find it here at NHTSA's Recalls Spotlight website.

    That site includes a tool that allows you to enter your car's Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, and search to see if there are any active safety recalls affecting your car.

    If your car isn't listed, keep checking back. Not all of the affected cars have been added to the database yet, because some of the recall orders are very recent and the automakers are still working to gather the VINs of the affected cars. But all of the automakers are working hard to notify owners and replace the affected air bags.

    The risks appear to be highest in cars that have spent much of their lives in warm, humid areas, according to NHTSA. The automakers are prioritizing repairs for cars in places including Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, South Carolina, the Gulf Coast states and U.S. island territories.

    But it could take a year or more for the automakers to complete the needed repairs -- meaning that some consumers may have to wait months before their defective air bags can be replaced.

    Why You Might Have to Wait a Long Time for Repair

    The problem is a shortage of replacement air bags.

    To be very clear, this isn't the automakers' fault. The blame for the defects falls squarely on Takata, which may have known about -- and concealed -- the defects for years. But the sheer numbers involved have overwhelmed Takata's ability to make replacement air bags.

    Takata has scrambled to boost its production, but even with its expanded output, it can only make about 450,000 units a month, according to an Automotive News report. At that rate, it will take several years to supply enough new air bags to fix all of the affected cars.

    Another giant airbag supplier has stepped up to help. Industry leader Autoliv (ALV) said in January that it has committed to deliver up to 25 million additional airbag inflators to its automaker clients, and that it is expanding its production capacity as quickly as possible in order to meet those commitments. But it will still take months to install new assembly lines, and many of those airbag inflators won't be delivered until 2016.

    That could leave affected consumers hanging for a long time.

    What to Do if You Get a Recall Notice for Your Car

    If you get a safety recall notice (of any kind) for your car, don't throw it away! Follow the instructions to contact a dealer and schedule your repair. (There will be no charge for recall-related repairs.)
    If the dealer says that it's waiting for parts, ask to be put on a waiting list so that the dealer will call you when it receives the replacement airbag parts.

    The risks to any individual driver or passenger are very low. But the consequences of this defect can be serious. Don't hesitate to drive and enjoy your car, but do get this taken care of as soon as possible.

    Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Autoliv. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Senior woman shopping online with credit card, smiling
    Alamy
    By Kristin Colella

    NEW YORK -- Making smart financial decisions is the key to a fantastic retirement, and that includes choosing the right piece of plastic to keep in your wallet. Whether you're looking to rack up rewards on everyday purchases, earn airline miles for travel or pay down debt, there are several credit cards available that are especially beneficial to retirees.

    After consulting with credit experts, we've come up with a list of five of the best credit cards to use during your golden years. Read on to see which is right for you.

    1. AARP Credit Card from Chase

    If you're interested in a great cash-back rewards card without an annual fee, consider the AARP Credit Card from JPMorgan Chase (JPM). The card allows you to earn unlimited cash-back rewards, including 3 percent on restaurant purchases, 3 percent on gas station purchases and 1 percent on all other purchases. Rewards don't expire as long as your account is open. You can redeem rewards as cash, gift cards (from more than 75 major retailers) or travel (including flights, hotels, cruises and car rentals).

    The card also offers a sweet sign-on bonus: you'll get $100 back after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of opening the account.

    "You're essentially getting paid to have this card, and your everyday spending can help supplement your income in retirement," says Greg Lull, head of consumer insights at Credit Karma.

    The AARP Credit Card from Chase has a zero percent introductory annual percentage rate for the first 12 months, then a 16.24 percent APR after that. Although the card is a great choice for retired people, you don't actually have to be a member of AARP to apply for the card, Lull says.

    Need more incentive? For every purchase you make at restaurants with your card, 10 cents will be donated to the AARP Foundation in support of Drive to End Hunger, which helps provide food to older Americans in need.

    2. Citi Double Cash Card

    Another great cash-back credit card is the Citigroup (C) Double Cash Card, which allows you to earn cash back twice on every purchase -- 1 percent when you buy, and an additional 1 percent when you pay. Unlike many other cash-back cards, the Citi Double Cash Card has no restrictive categories and doesn't limit the amount of cash back that you can earn.

    The card charges no annual fee and has a zero percent introductory APR for first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 12.99 to 22.99 percent after that.

    3. Venture from Capital One

    If you plan to do a good deal of globetrotting during your retirement, consider signing up for the Venture card from Capital One (COF).

    Venture allows you to earn two miles for every $1 you spend on purchases, and there's no cap on the amount of rewards that you can earn. You'll also get a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles (equal to $400 in travel) if you spend at least $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of signing up. Rewards don't expire unless you close your account, and you can redeem your miles for any flight or hotel stay, as well as car rentals, cruises and more.

    Another plus: there are no foreign transaction fees when making purchases outside of the U.S., so this card is great if you plan to travel internationally.

    While there's no annual fee for the first year, you'll have to pay an annual fee of $59 after that. The card also offers a 12.9 percent, 17.9 percent or 22.9 percent variable APR on purchases and transfers.

    4. Chase Slate

    Retirees who are looking to get out of debt can benefit from Chase Slate, an attractive balance transfer card.

    "The Chase Slate is one of the few cards on the market that doesn't charge a balance transfer fee on transfers made in the first 60 days," says Erin El Issa, credit card analyst at NerdWallet. After the first 60 days, the balance transfer fee is either $5 or 3 percent of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

    The card charges no annual fee and also offers a zero percent introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, then a variable APR of 12.99, 17.99 or 22.99 percent after that.

    "Many 0% [APR] offers are for only 12 months, so the additional three months is nice," says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com and `. "The bottom line is that this card could easily save a senior hundreds of dollars depending on the amount transferred and the rate of the card you are transferring from. Even if you have a good rate of 10 percent or less, you still could save a lot."

    5. Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express

    Want to get rewarded simply for making everyday purchases? Check out the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express (AXP).

    Blue Cash Preferred offers 6 percent back on groceries (up to $6,000 a year in spending, then 1 percent after that), 3 percent back on gas and select department store shopping and 1 percent back on other purchases. "This allows cardholders to earn big rewards on the spending they're already doing," says El Issa.

    The card's sign-up bonus isn't too shabby, either: you'll get $150 back after you spend $1,000 on purchases with your new card in the first three months. (The reward comes in the form of a statement credit.)

    Blue Cash Preferred has an annual fee of $75. There's an introductory APR of zero percent on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, then a 12.99 percent to 21.99 percent variable APR after that.

     

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    Dr. Creflo A. Dollar at Chicago Book Signing
    Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesCreflo A. Dollar at a book signing in Chicago in 2008.

    "If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me! You cannot stop me from dreaming." -- "Prosperity preacher" Creflo Dollar

    "I ain't never asked you for a dime." -- Same guy

    Recently, the Internet blew up over the campaign of a controversial televangelist of an Atlanta megachurch to get his parishioners to buy him a Gulfstream G650 luxury jet -- list price: $65 million.

    That sounds like a lot, but it might be a bargain. Described by some as "the biggest, fastest and overall best private jet money can buy," it's a very popular plane, with a waiting list of hopeful buyers last estimated at five years long. Of course, this still raises the question: Should parishioners pay up to buy one for their pastor?

    Who Is Creflo Dollar? (And Is That Really His Name?)

    First and foremost, apparently, yes, that is his name: "Creflo A. Dollar Jr." The son of Creflo Augustus Dollar Sr. apparently founded his World Changers Ministries Christian Center in 1986, and has since grown the organization into a series of megachurches boasting 30,000 members spread across five states and the District of Columbia.

    The mothership is the $18 million, 8,500-seat "World Dome" church located just outside Atlanta, which espouses the religion of "prosperity theology," wherein it is believed that God wants all Christians to be rich and rewards those who tithe more money with more personal riches here on Earth.

    "Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle ..."

    Whatever you think of the theology, it's certainly working for Mr. Dollar, who, according to CNN, possesses a fleet of Bentley and Rolls-Royce luxury cars, lives in a $2.3 million mansion with a "$23,000 marble commode," and recently pocketed $3.75 million from the sale of a Manhattan condo.

    And yet, CNN admits that no one's quite certain just how rich Dollar is, because donations to the church are tax-exempt and, according to The New York Times, Dollar refuses to reveal his salary. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Dollar's Atlanta church alone received $69 million in 2006 (Dollar operates 11 other "satellite" churches).

    So no wonder Dollar felt compelled to ask for a special contribution! That single G650 luxury jet is going to cost him almost a full year's worth of tithes and offerings.

    In a Perfect World ...

    The Wall Watchers church financial monitoring organization gives World Changers an "F" grade for financial transparency. But inquiring minds still want to know: Just how common is it for churches to splurge their entire offering plate on private jets for televangelists?

    As it turns out ... it's not common at all. Heading over to the Church Law & Tax page at Christianity Today, you can find a detailed listing of how churches in America spend their money on average.

    CLT breaks down church spending into 14 categories. "Private jets" is not one of them, but "travel" is -- and it consumes just 1 percent of an average church's tithes and offerings. That's on par with spending on servicing church debts, and spending on "etc."

    The single biggest expense (47 percent of spending) of most churches in America is on salaries and benefits for church staff. Next comes spending on "ministries and support" -- 9 percent -- followed by a further 9 percent spent on international and domestic "mission support."

    Mortgages and utilities, the inevitable cost of owning any house (even a house of God), consume 7 percent apiece. And because cleanliness is next to godliness, maintenance and cleaning services cost 5 percent of most church budgets.

    Administrative expenses -- office supplies, insurance premiums, and fees paid to a denomination's home office -- when combined, add up to a further 10 percent. And a final 2 percent is saved for a rainy day (or 40), constituting "cash reserves." (On average, such reserves are enough to keep a church afloat for less than two months).

    'You can't stop me from dreaming ...'

    One final stat, and then we'll say our prayers and put this topic to bed for the day. According to Mr. Dollar, you "cannot stop [him] from dreaming" of owning a $65 million private jet. But for most pastors in U.S. churches today, all they can do is dream. Earning average annual salaries of $88,059 in 2013, the average male senior pastor of a U.S. church will be able to buy just one G650 luxury jet ... every 738 years.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith can't help but noticing that Creflo Dollar had to ask for $65 million to buy himself a luxury jet -- but Elijah got a fiery horse-drawn chariot and he didn't even have to ask. How cool is that? Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond -- no donations required.

     

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    Young couple  taking selfies in their new home
    Getty Images
    By Karla Bowsher

    The gap between wages and rents continues to grow in America, making it difficult for low-income workers to afford a modest apartment, according to the latest annual "Out of Reach" report.

    The 2015 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which promotes affordable housing, shows that renters need to earn anywhere from $12.95 an hour to $31.51 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, depending on the state in which they live.

    In 13 states and the District of Columbia, workers need to earn more than $20 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

    The federal minimum wage, by comparison, has remained at $7.25 an hour since July 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

    Several California cities have adopted higher minimum wages in recent years, with the latest, Los Angeles, raising it to $15 an hour by 2020.

    Other places that have adopted higher minimum wage levels include Seattle, Chicago and a couple of cities in New Mexico. (See "The 'New Norm'? Los Angeles Ups Minimum Wage to $15" to learn more.)

    According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's study, which has been conducted since 1989, California and Washington are among the 10 most expensive states in which to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Illinois is No. 17 and New Mexico is No. 32. Here are the states where affording a two-bedroom apartment currently requires the highest wages, along with the wages earned by the average renter in those states:
    1. Hawaii: $31.61 an hour (average renter earns $14.49 an hour)
    2. Washington, D.C.: $28.04 (average renter earns $26.08)
    3. California: $26.65 (average renter earns $18.96)
    4. New York: $25.67 (average renter earns $22.21)
    5. New Jersey: $25.17 (average renter earns $16.92)
    6. Massachusetts: $24.64 (average renter earns $18.20)
    7. Maryland: $24.64 (average renter earns $15.71)
    8. Connecticut: $24.29 (average renter earns $16.16)
    9. Alaska: $22.55 (average renter earns $17.47)
    10. Washington: $21.69 (average renter earns $16.30)
    Here are the states where a two-bedroom apartment requires the lowest income, along with the average renter's wages:
    1. Iowa: $13.46 an hour (average renter earns $10.98 an hour)
    2. South Dakota: $13.41 (average renter earns $10.67)
    3. West Virginia: $13.21 (average renter earns $10.46)
    4. Kentucky: $13.14 (average renter earns $11.38)
    5. Arkansas: $12.95 (average renter earns $11.68)
    The National Low Income Housing Coalition's findings are similar to those of Forbes' 2015 rental rankings, which show that the most expensive cities for renters are:
    1. San Francisco
    2. Oakland, California
    3. San Jose, California
    4. Manhattan
    5. Los Angeles
    Check out "Where Being a Renter Really, Really Stinks" to learn more about Forbes' rankings.

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    T Mobile shop sign England Uk
    David Bagnall/Alamy
    Dish Network and T-Mobile are discussing a deal to combine the second-largest satellite TV operator in the United States with the fourth-largest wireless carrier, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.

    Dish (DISH) and T-Mobile US (TMUS) shares were up 5.6 percent and 4.8 percent respectively in morning trading, while those of T-Mobile's majority owner Deutsche Telekom were up 2.9 percent.

    A deal, which has been mooted in the past with senior executives from both companies having entertained it in public comments, would fit with Deutsche Telekom's stated interest in partnerships to strengthen its U.S. business after failing to sell it last year. It would also join a wave of tie-ups in the telecoms and TV industries as companies look to add services for customers.

    The talks between the two companies are at an early stage and important aspects of the deal such as a price and structure have yet to be determined, the source said, asking not to be identified because the negotiations are confidential.

    Representatives at Dish and T-Mobile didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, which owns about 66 percent of T-Mobile, declined to comment.

    The two sides have agreed T-Mobile Chief Executive Officer John Legere would serve as the CEO and Dish CEO Charlie Ergen would become the combined company's chairman, the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the news, cited people familiar with the matter as saying.

    T-Mobile has a market capitalization of about $31 billion, while Dish's is around $33 billion.

    "It is clear that Deutsche Telekom is looking for future prospects in the United States," a source close to Deutsche Telekom's management board told Reuters, adding it had no knowledge of talks between T-Mobile and Dish.

    Dish and T-Mobile have previously floated the possibility of a deal. Ergen said earlier this year he was "impressed" by T-Mobile, while Legere said it made sense for T-Mobile to team up with Dish.

    Dish, a surprise winner in the record-setting U.S. sale of airwaves for mobile data in January, has amassed wireless spectrum and recently went into streaming TV to offset the loss of pay-TV subscribers. However, what Dish plans to do with the newly-acquired spectrum remains unclear.

    T-Mobile has been looking to buy spectrum from smaller rivals, according to media reports.

    The company has turned around years of subscriber losses with cut-price deals, marketing and wireless plans in recent quarters. While these initiatives have led to customer gains, they have pressured T-Mobile's margins.

    Last year, Deutsche Telekom tried to sell T-Mobile to Sprint (S) but the No. 3 U.S. carrier dropped its bid after regulatory resistance. French operator Iliad also abandoned its attempt to buy T-Mobile last October.

    T-Mobile's rival AT&T (T) is close to wrapping up its $49 billion deal for Dish competitor DirecTV (DTV), while Charter Communications (CHTR) is seeking to remake the U.S. cable television industry by acquiring larger rival Time Warner Cable (TWC) for $56 billion.

    -With reporting by Greg Roumeliotis in New York, Supriya Kurane in Bangalore and Peter Maushagen and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt.

     

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    In this April 2, 2015, photo, a crowd gathers for a huge 15-county job fair at The Colonnade in Ringgold, Ga. The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims on Thursday, June 4, 2015. (Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP) THE DAILY CITIZEN OUT; NOOGA.COM OUT; CLEVELAND DAILY BANNER OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT
    Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. nonfarm productivity fell more sharply than initially thought in the first quarter, leading to a jump in labor-related production costs, a trend that could ignite inflation if sustained.

    Other data Thursday showed the labor market tightening, with first-time applications for unemployment aid falling slightly more than expected last week and the number of people on benefit rolls hitting the lowest level since 2000.

    The data likely keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates later this year.

    Productivity fell at a 3.1 percent annual rate instead of the previously reported 1.9 percent pace, the Labor Department said. That was the first back-to-back fall in productivity since 2006.

    U.S. stock index futures and the dollar trimmed losses after the data. Prices for U.S. Treasuries were slightly higher.

    The productivity decline mirrors the economy's dismal performance in the first quarter, when output contracted at a 0.7 percent rate.

    Given that temporary factors contributed to the decline in output, the drop in productivity could be overstated and a rebound is likely in the second half of the year.

    Still, weak productivity suggests that the economy's potential growth could be lower than the 1.5 percent to 2 percent pace economists currently estimate.

    Economists also say muted productivity growth, if sustained, raises the risk of a faster pick-up in inflation that would require more aggressive interest rate increases than the Federal Reserve and financial markets currently anticipate.

    Productivity rose only 0.3 percent from a year ago. Workers put in slightly fewer hours in the first quarter than previously estimated. Hours increased at a 1.6 percent rate instead of the previously reported 1.7 percent pace.

    With output declining at a 1.6 percent pace, unit labor costs increased at an upwardly revised 6.7 percent rate in the first quarter, the fastest pace since the first quarter of 2014.

    Benign Inflation

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor for each single unit of output, were previously reported to have increased at a 5 percent rate. Unit labor costs rose at a 1.8 percent pace compared to the first quarter of 2014, a sign that wage inflation is benign for now.

    Compensation an hour increased at a 3.3 percent rate in the first quarter of 2015, instead of the previously reported 3.1 percent pace. Wage growth looks set to pick up as the labor market tightens.

    In another report, the Labor Department said Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 276,000 for the week ended May 30. It was the 13th straight week that claims held below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market.

    Economists had forecast claims falling last week to 279,000.

    The tightening jobs market underscores the economy's solid fundamentals even though growth is struggling to regain steam after output contracted in the first quarter.

    The economy got off to slow start in the second quarter in part because a strong dollar and spending cuts in the energy sector constrained manufacturing activity.

    There are, however, signs of some pick-up, with data this week showing a surge in automobile sales in May and gains in factory activity last month for the first time since November. In addition, the trade deficit narrowed sharply in April and construction spending hit its highest level since November 2008.

    Last week's claims report has no bearing on May's employment report, which is due for release on Friday, as it falls outside the survey period.

    Still, the claims data suggest another month of solid job growth. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased 225,000 last month after rising 223,000 in April.

    Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell to its lowest level since November 2000.

     

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    Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Orlando Florida FL
    Alamy
    The country's priciest theme park may be about to get even more expensive. Disney (DIS) sent out a survey to recent resort guests late last month, asking them how they would feel about a tiered pricing strategy.

    Guests presently pay $105 for a one-day ticket to visit its most popular park, Magic Kingdom. The survey tried to gauge guests' reaction to Disney charging $115 on some of the seasonally busier days and as much as $125 during the peak tourist periods in July and the winter holiday.

    To be fair, the survey also posed lowering prices for some of the family entertainment giant's less popular parks during the off-season. However, once you introduce the potential of $125 for a day at the park, you know you're going to hear it.

    There's Nothing Goofy About It

    Disney's Magic Kingdom became the first theme park to bump its single-day admissions into the triple digits earlier this year, boosting its rate to $105 in late February from $99. That turned heads, but it also still turned turnstiles.

    Disney reported record results at its Florida theme parks in its latest quarter, and it also came through with strong growth last year despite another big ticket increase. Disney itself doesn't publish individual attendance metrics, but industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association just put out its tallies for the leading amusement and theme park operators in 2014, and it was another big year for Mickey Mouse.

    Themed Entertainment Association pegs the Magic Kingdom's attendance at a record 19.3 million, 4 percent ahead of the prior year. Disney World's three other Florida parks drew smaller audiences, and only climbed at a mere 2-percent clip.

    The attendance gap between the Magic Kingdom and the rest of its sister parks continues to widen, and that's despite Disney moving to park-specific pricing in 2013. Each of Florida's four Disney parks used to charge the same one-day ticket prices until then, and making the Magic Kingdom more expensive than its other parks hasn't stopped guests from choosing it on arrival.

    Let's Go Fly a Hike

    Surveying resort guests about tiered pricing on single-day admissions may not be the ideal sample of respondents. Most of them either have annual passes or are buying Magic Your Way passes that cover all of the parks for a set number of days. In short, these aren't the people buying one-day tickets.

    However, it's clear that there's pricing flexibility at the Magic Kingdom. It's also clear that the world's largest theme park operator is falling behind in updating its lesser parks to keep pace. Instead of charging even more for the Magic Kingdom, the real push at Disney should be sprucing up its other parks to make them as valuable in the eyes of savvy travelers.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He's also spending the summer in Celebration, Florida, covering the industry at mouse level. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Chinese businessman working at desk at night
    Getty Images
    By Shana Lebowitz

    It's widely known that professionals in fields like finance and consulting regularly log more than 60 hours a week. Even when they aren't at the office, employees are expected to be on call, answering client messages and phone calls as they arise.

    But much of the time people spend working isn't very productive, said Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School.

    In this culture of "overwork," it isn't always necessary to pull an all-nighter or to leave a family event early to return a client phone call. But doing so can make you seem impressive -- especially to your colleagues, according to Ely.

    She co-authored a study of a global consulting firm that wanted to understand how its company culture might be limiting women's success.

    The work-family narrative actually diverts attention away from the broader problem: long hours and a culture of overwork.

    The researchers found that, while most employees believed the issue was women's competing allegiances to work and family, the underlying problem was the long hours that everyone was expected to work. In fact, both men and women felt that work demands were placing a strain on their families.

    "The work-family narrative actually diverts attention away from the broader problem: long hours and a culture of overwork," Ely told Business Insider.

    At many consulting firms (not just the one she studied), Ely said, "the belief is that clients need to have consultants available 24/7."

    But how much is an email response sent at 1 a.m. really benefiting the client -- and how much is it boosting the consultant's self-esteem?

    "There is something almost appealing to being available 24/7," Ely said. "Being in demand is a symbol of status. It suggests you're important and influential."

    Ely gave the example of consultants who spend the entire weekend preparing for a client presentation on Monday. Typically, she said, they put together far more information than the client can absorb. "The clients don't really look at [the slides]," Ely said. The consultants' goal is really "to prove to other people in the firm how smart you are."

    One of Ely's co-authors, Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organization at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, found in another study of the same firm that many men simply pretend to log 80-hour workweeks. That way, they can impress their superiors with their dedication to the company while still spending time with their families.

    Ely suggested that firms should start finding other ways to spotlight high performers besides simply the number of hours people work (or purport to work) and make sure employees are using their time wisely. In her interviews, she heard from people who were highly frustrated with inefficiencies in their work processes.

    Ely acknowledged that these would be hard changes to make. For years, employees at financial firms have achieved success largely by working around-the-clock. In fact, when the researchers told the company they were investigating that the firm leaders would need to rethink their work practices beyond simply offering more work-family accommodations, the firm discontinued the study.

    Ely argued that making these adjustments could benefit firms in the long run. It would save them money, she said, because fewer employees would leave after a few years when they could no longer tolerate the culture of overwork.

    "If a few brave firms stepped out there and changed their work cultures," Ely said, "they would attract and retain more employees."

     

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    The Truth About Off-Price Retailers
    Have you ever been to off-price retailers, like T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, and wondered why you're getting such a good deal on brand name clothes and other items? Here's an inside look at how off-price stores cut down their prices without compromising quality.

    Let's start with clothes. A lot of people think the great deals you see are because the outfits are defective or irregular, but that's a myth. While regular department stores can return the clothes they don't sell to the manufacturer, off-price retailers don't have that luxury. They ultimately have to unload their inventory, which gives them more incentive to lower their prices. That means more savings for you in the end.

    As for food products, one major misconception is that they're old and past their due date. That's not true, either. It's actually illegal to sell expired food, so what you see on their shelves is safe to eat. When you see a deal, take advantage of it.

    However, when it comes to beauty products, it's a little harder to tell what you're getting for your money. Since these items are pretty popular, be sure to check the box for wear and tear. This could mean that what's inside is damaged, or has already been opened up and used.

    Also, some types of beauty products aren't required to have an expiration date stamped on them. Search CheckCosmetic.net to see if it's safe to buy. Just check the batch number, which is usually on the bottom of the container, and this site will tell you if that marked-down lipstick or eye shadow is past its prime.

    The next time you're at an off-price retailer, keep these tips in mind to help you get a good deal. You'll see that you don't have to shop at high-end stores to get high-quality merchandise.

    View Poll

     

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    IMF US Economy
    Jacquelyn Martin/APInternational Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaking Thursday on the U.S. economy at IMF headquarters in Washington.
    By PAUL WISEMAN

    WASHINGTON -- What's the hurry?

    The International Monetary Fund on Thursday urged the Federal Reserve to put off raising short-term interest rates until next year because the U.S. economy still needs help.

    In its yearly check-up of the United States, the IMF predicted the American economy would grow just 2.5 percent this year, down from its April forecast of 3.1 percent. The downgrade reflects the economy's stumbling start to the year: Gross domestic product fell the first three months of 2015, tripped up by harsh winter weather and the export-killing strength of the dollar.

    The IMF has no direct influence over U.S. economic policy. But the global lending agency is widely respected for its technical expertise on economics and finance.

    Since December 2008, the Fed has kept the short-term interest rate it controls near zero. Fed Chair Janet Yellen last month said she expects to begin raising rates this year. Many economists expect a rate hike at the Fed's September meeting.

    A rate increase probably won't have a big or immediate impact on most consumer loan rates.

    For one thing, the Fed is expected to ratchet up rates only gradually. For another, rates don't move in lockstep. Mortgage rates, for instance, are tethered to long-term rates such as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. Those rates can move up or down based on things, such as foreigners' hankering for the safety of U.S. Treasurys, that have little to do with the Fed.

    Still, the Fed's easy money policies have powered the American stock market to record levels, and investors hang onto Yellen's every utterance.

    Here's a look at the competing cases for the Fed's next move.

    Don't Be Hasty

    IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the risks of raising rates too soon -- and wounding the economy before it's reached full strength -- outweigh the risks of waiting a bit too long and allowing inflation to creep up.

    "The economy would be better off with a rate hike in early 2016," Lagarde said at a press conference.

    The Commerce Department reported last week that the U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.7 percent from January through March. A widening trade deficit was largely to blame, reducing growth by 1.9 percentage points. The stronger dollar makes U.S. exports more expensive overseas and foreign imports cheaper in America.

    Inflation still is well short of the Fed's 2 percent target. The IMF doesn't see it hitting that level until mid-2017. The inflation threat looks distant now: Consumer prices were lower in April than they'd been a year earlier, largely because of tumbling oil prices.

    The IMF calls for the Fed to hold off on a rate increase until "there are greater signs of wage or price inflation than are currently evident."

    Do It, Already

    Despite the nasty first quarter, "we're seeing more signs that the economy is gathering momentum and that a rate increase in September looks more appropriate," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

    The job market certainly looks healthy. Employers are adding jobs -- nearly 3 million over the past year -- at a rate not seen since the boom years of 1998 to 2000. Unemployment fell in April to a seven-year low 5.4 percent.

    If the Fed waits too long, it could lose its grip on inflation -- and its inflation-fighting credibility with financial markets.

    "If there's a belief that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve in controlling inflation, more investors would lose confidence," Baumohl said, arguing that inflation lags other signs of economic strength.

    Another worry: Super-low interest rates encourage investors to seek higher returns in riskier investments. That can drive up the prices of stocks, long-term bonds and other investments to dangerous levels.

    "The longer the Fed waits, the higher the price they are going to pay in terms of the market volatility that could occur including the potential of a crash in the stock market and the bond market," said David Jones, an economist who has written several books on the Fed.

    -AP economics writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

     

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    Subway Ingredients
    Ted S. Warren/AP
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- Subway wants to give new meaning to its "eat fresh" slogan by joining the list of food companies to say it's dropping artificial ingredients.

    The sandwich chain known for its marketing itself as a healthier alternative to hamburger chains told The Associated Press it will remove artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its menu in North America by 2017. Whether that can help Subway keep up with changing attitudes about what qualifies as healthy remains to be seen.

    Change has come so fast and rapidly, consumers are just expecting more and more.

    Elizabeth Stewart, Subway's director of corporate social responsibility, said in an interview that ingredient improvement has been an ongoing process over the years. More recently, she said the chain has been working on removing caramel color from cold cuts like roast beef and ham. For its turkey, Subway says it plans to replace a preservative called proprionic acid with vinegar by the end of this year.

    Among its toppings, Stewart said Subway is switching to banana peppers colored with turmeric instead of the artificial dye Yellow No. 5. Without providing details, she said the chain is also working on its sauces and cookies.

    The purging of artificial ingredients is quickly becoming the norm among major food companies, which are facing pressure from smaller players that tout their offerings as more wholesome. That has prompted so-called "Big Food" makers including Taco Bell (YUM), McDonald's (MCD), Kraft (KRFT) and Nestle to announce in recent months they're expelling artificial ingredients from one or more products.

    Subway's announcement comes at a challenging time for the chain, which grew to be the world's largest restaurant brand by number of locations with the help of weight loss pitchman Jared Fogle.

    The company is privately held and doesn't disclose sales figures. But last year, sales for Subway stores in the U.S. averaged $475,000 each, a 3 percent decline from the previous year, according to industry tracker Technomic.

    Subway is facing evolving definitions for what qualifies as healthy, said Darren Tristano, an analyst for Technomic. While older generations looked at nutritional stats like fat and calories, he said younger generations are more concerned about qualities like "local," ''organic" and "natural."

    "Change has come so fast and rapidly, consumers are just expecting more and more," Tristano said.

    And although Subway markets itself as a fresher option, he noted that people don't necessarily see it as the healthiest or best product around.

    Last year, Subway's image took a hit when food activist Vani Hari, known as the Food Babe, launched a petition calling on it to remove azodicarbonamide from its bread, noting the ingredient was used in yoga mats. Subway has said that it was in the process of removing the ingredient, which is widely used as a dough condition and whitening agent, before the issue became a controversy.

    Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, noted the chain is already seen as a place for low-fat options, but that it needs to keep up with changing customer attitudes.

    "As their expectations go up, we have to meet those expectations," he said.

    Pace said the use of simple ingredients is becoming a "necessary condition" to satisfy customers, but that it won't be enough on its own to drive up sales.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks fell Thursday, hit by nervousness ahead of Friday's employment report and lingering uncertainty over a Greece aid deal with creditors.

    Declining oil and gold prices also weighed on energy and materials shares, which led declines in the benchmark S&P 500.

    Data showed the labor market tightening, with first-time applications for unemployment aid down last week and the number of people on benefit rolls hitting the lowest level since 2000, suggesting the Federal Reserve will remain on track to raise interest rates later this year.

    The concern is tomorrow and the jobs number, that is where all the focus is.

    The data came ahead of Friday's key U.S. jobs report, expected to show a 225,000 gain in non-farm payrolls, according to a Reuters estimate.

    "The concern is tomorrow and the jobs number, that is where all the focus is," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York. "Probably the concern [is] that it is going to be a good number."

    Some investors think stronger jobs numbers could increase chances the Federal Reserve could raise rates sooner rather than later.

    Adding to investor concerns, Greece delayed a debt payment to the International Monetary Fund due Friday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said talks on a cash-for-reforms deal were still far from an agreement.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 170.69 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,905.58, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 18.23 points, or 0.9 percent, to 2,095.84 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 40.11 points, or 0.8 percent, to 5,059.13.

    To Hike or Not to Hike

    Investors also digested the International Monetary Fund's comment urging the Federal Reserve not to raise rates until there are clear signs of a pickup in wages and inflation.

    In a bearish sign, the S&P 500 closed below its 50-day moving average, a key technical indicator.

    The S&P materials index fell 1.3 percent, while the energy index declined 1.2 percent. Oil prices fell for a second day ahead of an OPEC decision which could keep the market oversupplied.

    Shares of chemical-maker LyondellBasell Industries (LYB) shares lost 3.2 percent at $99.48, leading declines in the materials sector.

    Delta Air Lines (DAL) fell 0.7 percent to $42.92 after it said its operating profit margin this quarter could be lower than it expected, with airlines hit by weaker U.S. demand. Shares of American Airlines (AAL) dropped 2.2 percent to $42.17.

    On the plus side, Five Below (FIVE) shares jumped 7.6 percent to $37.77 after the teen merchandise retailer increased its full-year forecast.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,374 to 677, for a 3.51-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,994 issues fell and 769 advanced for a 2.59-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted four new 52-week highs and six new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 83 new highs and 32 new lows.

    About 6.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, matching the average for the last five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Labor Department releases employment data for May at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for April at 3 p.m.

     

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    US Capitol Building, Washington DC, USA
    Alamy
    By KEN DILANIAN and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- China-based hackers are suspected of breaking into the computer networks of the U.S. government personnel office and stealing identifying information of at least 4 million federal workers, American officials said Thursday.

    The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department had been compromised.

    "The FBI is conducting an investigation to identify how and why this occurred," the statement said.

    The hackers were believed to be based in China, said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

    Collins, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the breach was "yet another indication of a foreign power probing successfully and focusing on what appears to be data that would identify people with security clearances."

    A U.S. official who declined to be identified said the data breach could potentially affect every federal agency. One key question is whether intelligence agency employee information was stolen.

    "This is an attack against the nation," said Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer of Xceedium, who said the attack fit the pattern of those carried out by nation states for the purpose of espionage.

    The information stolen could be used to impersonate or blackmail federal employees with access to sensitive information, he said.

    The Office of Personnel Management is the human resources department for the federal government, and it conducts background checks for security clearances. The OPM conducts more than 90 percent of federal background investigations, according to its website.

    In November, a former DHS contractor disclosed another cyberbreach that compromised the private files of more than 25,000 DHS workers and thousands of other federal employees.

    DHS said its intrusion detection system, known as EINSTEIN, which screens federal Internet traffic to identify potential cyber threats, identified the hack of OPM's systems and the Interior Department's data center, which is shared by other federal agencies.

    It was unclear why the EINSTEIN system didn't detect the breach until after so many records had been copied and removed.

    "DHS is continuing to monitor federal networks for any suspicious activity and is working aggressively with the affected agencies to conduct investigative analysis to assess the extent of this alleged intrusion," the statement said.

    Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called the hack "shocking, because Americans may expect that federal computer networks are maintained with state of the art defenses."

    Ammon said federal agencies are rushing to install two-factor authentication with smart cards, a system designed to make it harder for intruders to access networks. But implementing that technology takes time.

    -Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Alicia A. Caldwell and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

     

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