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    Microsoft Windows 10
    Elaine Thompson/APMicrosoft CEO Satya Nadella at an event in January demonstrating new features of Windows 10 at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash.
    We're now just weeks away from what may be Microsoft's (MSFT) last chance to breathe new life into its fledgling operating system. Windows 10 will roll out on July 29, and it won't come cheap. Pricing has been set at $119 for the Windows 10 Home version with the higher-end Windows 10 Pro slapped with a price tag of $199.

    That's a lot of money to shell out for a PC operating system, but there's also a good chance that you won't have to pay anything at all. Microsoft has been humbled in recent years after coping with the sluggish PC market and failing to be as popular as Android and iOS in mobile computing. It knows that it will have to be generous in getting consumers to embrace Windows 10, and there will be a couple of ways to grab a complimentary copy.

    You just need to know what to do -- and by when to act.

    Microsoft has said that if you already have a legal version of Windows 7 or Windows 8, the upgrade to Windows 10 will be free for the first year. It's not clear what will happen to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users who wait until next summer to upgrade, so it's probably a good idea to take the software giant up on its standing offer and upgrade sooner rather than later.

    Insider Out

    The more intriguing way to score Windows 10 is to join Microsoft's Windows Insider group. This is essentially a glorified beta-testing group, but the treat for dealing with any hiccups that Windows 10 may have in its pre-release form is that it also includes a free copy of the final build.

    Microsoft posted last week that members of the Windows Insider program will receive Windows 10 activated, genuine and updated forever. However, as Ars Technica points out, Microsoft updated that blog entry over the weekend, eliminating the wording about perpetual activation. All that the program offers now is the final release build of Windows 10.

    However, that's another way to score a free copy of the new PC operating system, and going the Windows Insider route doesn't require ownership of legal versions of Windows 7 or Windows 8.

    I Know What You Did Next Summer

    There's naturally plenty of skepticism surrounding Microsoft's motives. Does cutting off complimentary Windows 7 and Windows 8 upgrades by July of next year -- and tweaking its Windows Insider program blog that promised activation into perpetuity -- mean that Windows is about to follow Microsoft Office into the realm of subscription-based software?

    This seems unlikely, but it's something that bears watching. For now it's clear that Microsoft is going out of its way to get as many people to embrace Windows 10 as quickly as possible. It wants a large audience to enjoy its Cortana digital voice-activated assistant and the more seamless return of the Start menu. It's giving it away for those who act fast, and that's as good a reason as any to have high hopes for Microsoft's upcoming operating system.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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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    CORRECTION Ford Plant-Louisville
    Brian Bohannon/AP2013 Ford Escape sits on display outside the Louisville Assembly Plant in Louisville, Ky.
    NEW YORK -- Ford Motor (F) is recalling more than 200,000 Transit Connect vans and Escape sport-utility vehicles because of instrument panel and seatbelt issues.

    There are have been no injuries or accidents attributed to the defects, the company said.

    The recall involves 203,500 2014-2015 Transit Connect and Escape vehicles in North America because the warning chimes and lights might not work on the instrument panel when the vehicles are started.

    They were built at the Valencia assembly plant in Spain from May 13, 2014 to Dec. 10, 2014 and the Louisville assembly plant in Kentucky from May 19, 2014 to Feb. 6, 2015.

    Meanwhile, the Dearborn, Michigan, company is recalling one fleet customer's 49 2015-model Transit vehicles in the U.S. for a seat belt labeling issue.

     

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    Dov Charney 2012
    vintagelife2012/FlickrOusted founder of American Apparel Dov Charney
    By Alex Dobuzinskis

    Clothing company American Apparel (APP) has accused ousted founder Dov Charney of using ethnic slurs against workers, and keeping videos on a company server of himself in sex acts with models and employees, recently filed court papers show.

    American Apparel's board of directors suspended Charney as CEO a year ago, citing his misuse of company funds, violation of company policy and misuse of corporate assets, and in December the board terminated him.

    Charney's ouster was a dramatic fall from power for a clothing trend-setter who, early in his career, won acclaim for making apparel in the United States when the bulk of the industry was producing overseas.
    The company, with a factory in Los Angeles, operates retail stores across the United States and in several other countries, including Germany and China.

    Charney's lawyer, Keith Fink, said in a statement many of the allegations presented by the company were false.

    "The company has engaged in an invasion of Mr. Charney's privacy in a shameful attempt to extort him and gain leverage over him," Fink said.

    American Apparel's latest court filing presents previously undisclosed details of a misconduct investigation. The filing represents an effort, under California law, to prevent Charney from bringing future lawsuits against the company.

    Company attorneys filed the court papers in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, the same day Charney opened a separate case by filing a $30 million defamation lawsuit against American Apparel.

    In their court papers, American Apparel attorneys said Charney violated company policies prohibiting harassment and retaliation against former employees.

    "The company discovered voluminous evidence of Mr. Charney's sexual liaisons with employees and models," the company's court papers said, adding that at least one of these "numerous" encounters took place at his office.

    Company investigators also discovered Charney had kept videos of these sex acts on a company server, the papers said. The company said he also sent employees emails with pornographic videos and photos, and accused him of using ethnic slurs against certain employees.

    Charney had for years before his ouster faced highly publicized lawsuits accusing him of sexual harassment.

    Through September 2014, the company incurred $8.2 million in insured litigation costs and $1.2 million in uninsured costs due to Charney's sexual liaisons, court papers said.

    Earlier this month, American Apparel was granted a restraining order against Charney preventing him, among other things, from making negative comments about the company in the press.

     

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    CHINA-STOCKS-PLUNGE (CN)
    Xinhua News Agency/Getty ImagesInvestors review stock information at a trading hall in a securities firm in Shanghai, east China.
    U.S. investors have enjoyed strong returns from stocks over the past six years, with stock markets recovering sharply from the 2008 recession and financial crisis that sent the Dow industrials (^DJI) to their worst level since the 1990s. Yet more recently, even as the Dow's gains have slowed, the Chinese stock market has taken off, with the Chinese equivalent of the Dow, the Shanghai composite, more than doubling in less than a year. That has a lot of investors excited about China's prospects, but some are nervous about whether the Chinese stock market has come too far too fast.

    Why Is China Booming?

    At first glance, the performance of China's stock market seems completely out of sync with its economic prospects. After decades of strong growth, China's economy has finally started to slow down, and while growth rates are still substantially faster than most of the rest of the world, some measures of economic activity look gloomier. For instance, profits from the industrial sector have fallen 1.3 percent so far in 2015 compared to the same period last year, as declines in prices and reduced demand for goods has offset the positive influence from reductions in interest rates.

    Yet the nature of China's economic system reveals some of the reasons behind the rise. The long-term boom in China's economy has created a lot of new wealth among the population, yet there are a limited number of ways to invest within the country. Capital controls prevent most people from investing overseas, and a red-hot real-estate market has pushed prices higher and caused concerns of its own among economists seeing signs of a bubble. To stave off a housing bust of the sort the U.S. saw in the mid-2000s, central government officials started talking about the benefits of stock-market investing, and that has led to a rush of interest among Chinese investors looking to cash in on the big rise in the stock market.

    In addition, international interest in Chinese stocks has helped push up demand. In the past, foreign investors haven't been able to invest directly in the Chinese stocks that trade in Shanghai and other mainland exchanges, instead having to route capital through Hong Kong. However, more recently, signs that China might open up its market to outside investment has led major international investors to look at getting into Chinese stocks. In particular, exchange-traded funds that focus on emerging-market stocks track indexes that could soon include some of these newly available Chinese stocks, and if that happens, these ETFs will essentially have to buy shares at whatever price in order to keep tracking their benchmark properly.

    Why Should You Worry About China?

    Those who follow the Chinese stock market have plenty of concerns about the sustainability of its recent rise. By traditional measures, valuations of Chinese stocks have soared through the roof, with some shares sporting prices that are reminiscent of the enthusiasm that U.S. investors had for Internet stocks during the late 1990s and early 2000s. If the Chinese market follows the path that U.S. stocks went down more than a decade ago, the fallout could be extremely painful.

    In addition, structural deficiencies in the Chinese market could add to losses. Increasingly, investors in stocks within China have turned to margin loans, borrowing against the value of the stock they've purchased in order to buy still more shares and try to maximize their gains. When stocks go up, investing on margin leads to much higher returns. But when they fall, margin loans can wipe out entire portfolios much more quickly than simply holding an unleveraged stock portfolio, and the forced selling that can result from margin liquidation often makes stock-market declines much worse than they'd otherwise be.

    Finally, the prevalence of day-traders and other unsophisticated investors within China could add to future instability. In March, 5 million new trading accounts got opened in the emerging-market nation, and many of the newest traders have limited education and experience in investing.

    What to Expect

    The problem in predicting the future is that even when it's clear that a stock market is in a bubble, the conditions can last far longer than you'd expect. As a result, even as an increasing number of people agree that the Chinese stock market has climbed to unsustainable levels, it could remain there for a long time or even climb higher. Eventually, though, history shows that all good things eventually come to an end, and China might soon become the latest market to find itself on the list of burst bubbles. As a result, only those who are comfortable with substantial risk and a long-term approach should consider jumping into Chinese stocks at this point.

    Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has indirect exposure to Chinese stocks through ETFs. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google Plus. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Couple in kitchen with laptop and paperwork
    Getty Images
    By STAN CHOE

    NEW YORK -- Couples are worrying more about their retirement savings. Maybe they should start by figuring out how much they have saved in the first place.

    When asked how much in savings they collectively have, or how much their partner makes in income, many couples get the answer to basic questions wrong, according to a survey for Fidelity Investments. It's the latest evidence that many couples still aren't on the same page when it comes to planning their financial future, even when the majority says they're worried about outliving their savings in retirement.

    More than a third of couples -- 36 percent -- disagreed on how much money they had to invest. An even larger percentage -- 43 percent -- couldn't correctly say how much their partner earns. Of them, 10 percent were off by $25,000 or more.

    Your salary is a very personal number, and it's something we have been taught as a society not to talk about.

    "Your salary is a very personal number, and it's something we have been taught as a society not to talk about," says John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity. "But if you can't detail that with your partner or spouse, it's going to show up in your spending and savings patterns being misaligned. And where finances create strains on marriages is when you don't have alignment."

    The misunderstandings come even as most couples say they communicate well with each other about finances. One possible reason is that more people are working as freelancers, where incomes aren't as predictable.

    Another driver is that in many couples, one person takes charge of how to invest retirement savings, while the other stays less involved. Division of labor is fine, Sweeney says, but it's important for both members of the couple to talk regularly about their finances and ensure they're working together toward the same goal.

    That means learning not only how much each person makes and has saved up, but also how much the Social Security Administration's online benefit estimator says they can expect and how much they plan to spend in retirement. That way, either member of the couple can take control of decisions if something were to happen to the other.

    The survey for Fidelity by GfK covered 1,051 couples who had household incomes of at least $75,000 or total assets of at least $100,000. The survey covered both heterosexual and same-sex couples, including those who were married and ones who were in long-term committed relationships.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Ryan Vlastelica

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks closed lower Wednesday, dropping in a broad decline as the outcome of negotiations between Greece and its international creditors remained up in the air, prompting investors to drop riskier assets like equities.

    Wall Street has lately taken its cue from the situation in Greece, which needs fresh funds to avoid defaulting on a $1.8 billion debt repayment to the IMF on June 30.

    Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently announced tax and reforms proposals, which market participants took as a sign of progress. But creditors demanded sweeping changes to the proposals on Wednesday, adding fresh uncertainty to talks aimed at unlocking aid to avert a debt default next week.

    The optimism we had about getting close to a deal has faded.

    "The optimism we had about getting close to a deal has faded. That doesn't mean we won't get one, but insiders seem less confident than they were a few days ago," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors in New York.

    "If Greece defaults, the economic impact on the U.S. will be relatively minor, but the headline risk will be significant and could lead to a drop of 5 or even 10 percent" in the S&P 500.

    The Commerce Department said gross domestic product fell at a 0.2 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter, instead of the 0.7 percent it estimated last month.

    Investors have been keeping a keen eye on economic data to see if the U.S. economy has recovered from a slow start at the beginning of the year. The Federal Reserve has said it remains data-dependent and expects to raise rates when it sees a sustained rebound in the economy.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 178 points, or 1 percent, to 17,966.07, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 15.62 points, or 0.7 percent, to 2,108.58 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 37.68 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,122.41.

    Movers and Shakers

    All of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors were lower, with the materials index leading declines with a 1.3 percent drop.

    Monsanto (MON) fell 5.7 percent to $106.32 as the S&P's biggest percentage decliner after the seed company said it would still pursue an acquisition of Swiss rival Syngenta even as it warned of market challenges ahead.

    Netflix (NFLX) fell 0.4 percent to $678.61 after investor Carl Icahn said his firm had sold the remainder of its stake in the company. The stock moved on heavy volume of nearly 11 million shares, the most active day for the stock since April, a day after the video-streaming company's board approved a seven-for-one stock split.

    Lennar (LEN) rose 4.2 percent to $51.06. The second-largest U.S. homebuilder reported a better-than-expected 33 percent jump in quarterly profit as it sold more homes at higher prices.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,154 to 880, for a 2.45-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,987 issues fell and 784 advanced for a 2.53-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 17 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 113 new highs and 27 new lows.

    About 5.5 billion shares traded on all U.S. platforms, according to BATS exchange data, below the month-to-date average of 6.1 billion.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims 8:30 a.m., and the Commerce Department releases personal income and spending for May.
    • Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Accenture (ACN)
    • Barnes & Noble (BKS)
    • Nike (NKE)

     

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    Student Graduate Looking into Future Financial Prospects, on White Background
    Getty Images
    Recent college graduates are currently enjoying a luxurious six-month grace period on their federal student loans. The government offers this breathing room to give graduates a chance to find a job and actually be able to afford paying back loans. But even those graduates who manage to find employment may not actually be able to cover the cost of student loans on top of monthly living expenses. Fortunately, income-driven repayment programs make federal student loans manageable for those struggling to make ends meet.

    Income-Based Repayment

    The most frequently used of the income-driven repayment plans, income-based repayment, has two different rates. The first one is available for borrowers who weren't new on or after July 1, 2014. This plan generally requires you pay no more than 15 percent of your discretionary income. Discretionary income is determined as the difference between your adjusted gross income and 150 percent of the poverty line for a family of your size in your state, according to federal poverty guidelines. IBR payments are then made for 25 years. After that time any remaining balance will be forgiven.

    For borrowers on or after July 1, 2014, the rate drops from 15 percent of your discretionary income to 10 percent. Payments are made for 20 years before the remaining balance will be forgiven.

    Payments aren't permanently set, as those enrolled in income-based repayment must submit their salary and family size information each year. Payments can increase or decrease based on this information, but you won't be removed from the program if your salary sees a significant increase. You also will never be paying more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount. However, it may be worth it to drop income-based repayment and repay your loans at an accelerated pace to save on the interest, so always be sure to do the math.

    Pay As You Earn

    Pay as you earn is the newest income-driven repayment plan. It's similar to the second income-based repayment rate as your payment is capped at 10 percent of your discretionary income and any remaining balance is forgiven after 20 years.

    In order to be eligible, you must be able to prove partial financial hardship and be a new borrower as of October 1, 2007 and have received a disbursement on or after Oct. 1, 2011. This means students who matriculated (to undergraduate or graduated school) in the fall semester of 2008 are eligible.

    Like the income-based repayment plan, you must resubmit paper work each year and payments may change. However, you will never be paying more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount.

    Income-Contingent Repayment

    Income-contingent repayment is the grandfather of income-driven repayment plans and also the least attractive. You will either pay 20 percent of your discretionary income or the fixed payments on a 12-year repayment plan that has been adjusted according to your income.

    There is no income eligibility requirement for Income-contingent repayment. Anyone with an eligible federal student loan can apply to make these payments. This is also the only income-driven repayment plan that allows for PLUS loans made to parents to eligible, if consolidated into a direct consolidation loan.

    You can find a full list of loans and eligibility at studentaid.ed.gov.

    The Catches

    The income-driven repayment plans offer breathing room to those struggling with student loans, but they don't come without some catches. If you apply for any income-based repayment programs, then keep these 5 things in mind:
    1. You will owe taxes on any amount of your loans that's forgiven.
    2. If you get (or are) married and file taxes jointly, it will impact your income and cause your payments to increase.
    3. Parent PLUS loans aren't eligible for income-based repayment or pay as you earn.
    4. Private loans aren't eligible for these programs.
    5. Always do the math on how much interest you'll be paying by lowering your payments and the repayment period. It could make you change your mind or consider refinancing to a lower rate.
    Erin Lowry writes for DailyFinance on issues relating to millennials, money and personal finance. She is the blogger behind Broke Millennial, where her sarcastic sense of humor entertains and educates her peers. She is also the content director for MagnifyMoney.

     

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    Doctor talking to patient in hospital
    Getty Images
    By Martha Lynn Craver

    Some changes are in the wind for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- entitlement programs that account for 45 percent of the federal government's payouts.

    Many of the changes are still years away. But some of them will start next year, smack in the middle of the presidential election campaign, forcing candidates to address issues that they and their advisers generally try to steer clear of when they're running.

    Kicking off the rare election-year debate: a move to rescue the Social Security disability fund before 20 percent cuts in monthly payments need to be made (recipients are people unable to work because of illness or injury). Congress will find a solution before money runs short in fall 2016. Tighter eligibility standards are likely to be added as a condition of more money being pumped into the fund.

    A less visible change with a broader effect will come with Medicare's emphasis on value over volume. By the end of 2016, 30 percent of Medicare payments to providers will be value based. By 2019, that figure will jump to 50 percent.

    Examples of value pricing: A single price for all care that is tied to one medical event, such as heart bypass surgery. And reduced payments to hospitals that have high rates of readmission or infection.

    The shift bears watching, since Medicare is the largest health insurance provider in the United States and other insurers are generally quick to follow its lead.

    Short-term changes are also in store for Medicaid, the government's program that provides health care to people with low incomes. More states will join the 29 (along with the District of Columbia) that already have agreed to expand eligibility in return for federal subsidies to help pay the bills for a few years.

    Republicans will use the debates over parts of the programs to press for longer-term fixes and cost cuts, even if those actions expose them to a potential pushback from Democrats and senior citizens. For example, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced his candidacy for president on Monday, advocates raising the Social Security retirement age.

    Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich want to allow individuals to invest

    some of their Social Security withholdings in private accounts, an idea that George W. Bush proposed during the campaign for president in 2000. The idea stalled after he took office, and lost momentum when the stock market fell during the last recession.

    Raising the cap on payroll taxes and means testing are also on the table for Social Security. For Medicare, too, a higher eligibility age and means testing will be proposed.

    Democratic resistance will derail most of the longer-term reform efforts, for now. In time, though, some of the changes will have to be put into place to avoid major cuts in benefits.

    Medicare Part A, which covers hospital stays, will reach insolvency around 2030, if no alterations are made. Pushing it to the brink: A swelling of the ranks of beneficiaries to 82 million, from 55 million now, and a corresponding increase in obesity and chronic diseases.

    Social Security is in a bit better shape. It can avoid benefit cuts until 2037. After that, though, without some sort of infusion of cash or higher eligibility standards, monthly checks would be trimmed by 25 percent.

    But none of those fixes are likely until the deadlines loom. That's how Congress works.

    -Senior Associate Editor Richard Sammon contributed to this report.

     

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    los angeles   june 7  nintendo...
    ShutterstockThe slow-selling Wii U is expected to drop in price as Nintendo rolls out its new NX game console next year.
    It's awfully tempting to go shopping these days, but think twice before shopping for big-ticket consumer electronics items. There are a couple of items that could get cheaper -- or at the very least better -- by the time the holiday shopping season rolls around.

    Let's go over some of the high-priced gadgetry that could be a bargain later this year if you can hold off on making the purchase now.

    Video Game Consoles

    This is shaping up to be a big summer for folks looking to buy new gaming devices. Microsoft (MSFT) introduced a new Xbox One last week, packing double the storage capacity as the previous model. Sony (SNE) announced that it will be updating its PS4, matching the new Xbox One's full terabyte of storage, next month.

    Sony hasn't announced pricing, but that is likely being done to protect sales of the current 500-gigabyte model. We already saw Microsoft roll out the new Xbox One at the same $399 price as the original, and that was accompanied by an announcement that the promotional $349 rate on the earlier model will become permanent. In other words, Sony will likely price the new PlayStation 4 Ultimate Player 1TB Edition at the same price as the current 500 gigabyte model, lowering the price of what will be the earlier machine.

    Nintendo has been quiet this generation, but with plans to hit the market next year with an entirely new platform -- codenamed "NX" -- it's probably a good bet that the poor-selling Wii U will get another price cut in time for the telltale holiday shopping season.

    Smartwatches

    We're now a couple of months into the era of Apple's (AAPL) bar-raising Apple Watch, and there's already chatter on tech blogs about the enhancements for the second generation of Apple's smartwatch. A camera, built-in GPS, and possibly even built-in Wi-Fi would be nice additions, and improving on the battery life would address the biggest knock on the iPhone-tethered wristwatch.

    Will the second generation of Apple's smartwatch hit the market later this year or early next year? It will probably be in early 2016, but the consumer tech giant's success should open the door for other smartwatches to gain traction this year. Apple validated smartphones in 2007 and tablets in 2010, opening the floodgates for cheaper Android alternatives. If 2015 is the year of the smartwatch, you can be sure that history will repeat itself.

    Amazon Gadgetry

    Amazon.com (AMZN) has gone from being merely the leading Internet retailer to a launching pad for consumer electronics. Its Kindle e-reader and Kindle Fire tablet lines have been successful, and while it stumbled last year with Fire Phone, it has a shot to redefine the smart home with Amazon Echo.
    Echo became officially available for sale on Tuesday at $179, already $20 less than the suggested price of $199 it was touting when it offered the digital assistant to Amazon Prime members at half that price several months ago. If Echo isn't a hit at $179, it wouldn't be a surprise to see it drop to $149 -- or less -- come November. Amazon doesn't have a problem coming through with quick price cuts even when it has a hit on its hands. The original Kindle was priced at $399, for example.

    Amazon moves quickly, and it wouldn't be a shock if we get cheaper or better Kindle and Kindle Fire updates in time for the holiday shopping season.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com and Apple. 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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    Health care and Taxes
    Getty Images
    The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has been controversial ever since it was first proposed. One of the most contentious issues over Obamacare is the individual mandate, which requires Americans to have qualifying health insurance coverage to avoid owing a penalty.

    Yet some have asserted that taxpayers don't have to worry about Obamacare penalties because of limitations in the law that created it, and even the IRS has noted that it doesn't have as much recourse to collect unpaid penalty amounts as it does for traditional income tax collections. Let's take a closer look at the Obamacare penalty provisions with an eye toward figuring out the truth about whether you have to pay a penalty or not.

    When You Might Have to Pay Obamacare Penalties

    Penalties under Obamacare, which the law refers to as "shared responsibility payments," kick in if you don't have the required minimum essential coverage and don't qualify for an exemption. Exemptions are available in 2015 for those for whom the cost of health insurance would be more than 8.05 percent of their household income, as well as those who are homeless, have had their homes foreclosed upon, have filed for bankruptcy, have substantial unpaid medical bills, or have suffered the death of a close family member. A few other exemptions apply, including victims of domestic violence, those who've gone through a natural disaster, and those who are caring for eligible family members and have had to pay higher costs as a result.

    If you don't have coverage and an exemption doesn't apply, then the base penalty for 2015 is $325 an adult and $162.50 a child up to a family maximum of $975. However, if your income is high enough so that 2 percent of the amount of income above the tax filing threshold is greater than the base penalty, then you'll owe the higher amount.

    Why Some Say You Don't Have to Pay

    One of the strangest elements of the Affordable Care Act is that after going to all the trouble of creating penalties for not having adequate health care coverage, the law does almost nothing to give the IRS any power to enforce the penalty provisions. Specifically, the law forbids the IRS from using its typical collection actions, including filing a notice of a tax lien. Ordinarily, that would allow the IRS to attach a lien to items including bank accounts, personal assets, or even your wage income. Moreover, the IRS isn't allowed to impose any other penalties related to unpaid taxes or to begin criminal prosecution proceedings for failure to pay the penalty voluntarily. Obamacare - 2015 Total On Exchange Enrollment | HealthGroveIndeed, the only way the IRS can collect the Obamacare penalty is by deducting it from the refund you'd otherwise be due. If you don't have a refund coming to you, then the penalty amount simply carries forward to future years, presumably accumulating interest but otherwise being practically unenforceable.

    Still, the problem is that if you ever are in a position where you'd be owed a tax refund, the IRS will jump at the chance to collect back Obamacare penalties from your refund check. There's no guarantee that lawmakers won't change those provisions in the future and allow collection of back taxes owed, but for now, IRS power to enforce penalties is quite limited.

    For those who categorically oppose Obamacare and its individual mandate provisions, the better course of action is to apply for an open-ended hardship exemption based on the "any other hardship" provisions of the statute. Even if none of the listed exemptions applies to your situation, the ability to make your case could get you out of penalties entirely -- and never have to worry about whether the IRS might be able to enforce a penalty later. Given how much Obamacare penalties have grown since last year and are projected to rise even further next year, taking steps to get an exemption is far safer than rolling the dice with the IRS and hoping that you'll never get a refund that the IRS would simply take away from you.

    Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is fortunate enough to have health care coverage. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google Plus. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    How to Fight High Medical Bills

    By Karla Bowsher

    The Medical Debt Relief Act of 2015 would strengthen federal laws to better protect the credit of consumers hounded by medical-debt collectors.

    The proposed legislation would remove repaid medical debts from credit reports within 45 days of the debts being paid off.

    Rep. John Carney, a Democrat from Delaware, and Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced the bill last month, but it is "a long way from passage," CBS News reports today. It isn't unusual for disputes with providers and insurers to take months before they are resolved. Consumers who wait to pay their bill until the matter is resolved may see their lack of payment result in a negative notation on their credit report.

    Barr said shortly afterward:

    "Too many Americans face costly and unexpected medical bills. They should not have to endure the additional burden of years of bad credit due to an illness, injury, or even an inaccurate medical billing."

    Until and unless the bill is passed and adopted into law, consumers can take certain actions to better protect themselves. Christina LaMontagne, general manager of health at NerdWallet, tells CBS News they include:
    • Confirm whether heath care providers are in your insurance network before every visit and get it in writing if possible. "The majority of people who call us with bills that are $5,000 or more have had some sort of in-network/out-of-network complication," LaMontagne says.
    • Ask providers for estimates of planned procedures and how much of the cost would be covered by your insurance company.
    • Compare prices. "Our research shows that pricing can vary widely for the same procedures," LaMontagne says.
    • Verify that medical bills are correct before paying them to avoid paying for errors. For help understanding medical bills, check out "Is Your Doctor Overcharging You?"
    If you're being hounded by debt collectors, be sure to also check out our Solutions Center. Among other things, it can help you with debt collector harassment.

    Have you had any medical billing or insurance problems recently? Do you believe the Medical Debt Relief Act of 2015 could help consumers? Let us know what you think -- leave a comment below or on our Facebook page
    .

     

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    Hacker
    Getty Images
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- Many Americans assume their money is relatively safe regardless of where the account is located. As hackers have moved from retailers to banks, the likelihood of retirement accounts being the next target is increasing.

    While having access to financial accounts, including banking and retirement portfolios, has increased accessibility to consumes, it has also increased the risk of fraud "significantly," said Paul Martini, CEO of iboss Network Security, a San Diego network security provider.

    The recent attack on the IRS used personal data such as Social Security numbers stolen in previous breaches and cyber attackers are now "monetizing insight from personal information aggressively," said Ben Johnson, a chief security strategist of Bit9 Plus Carbon Black, a Waltham, Massachusetts security company.

    Retirement accounts are squarely in their crosshairs.

    "Retirement accounts are squarely in their crosshairs," he added.

    IRA and 401(k) accounts are even more attractive targets for hackers, because most people don't track them the way they do their credit cards or checking accounts. The thefts could wind up being undetected for months.

    Even cybercriminals who are "semi-skilled" can access a victim's 401(k) or IRA account easily using stolen personal information and social engineering tactics, Johnson said.

    "Once they have access to the account, it can be emptied in a matter of minutes, but the victim may not realize it until they do their annual review of their retirement accounts months later," he said.

    Although retirement accounts are insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000, FDIC insurance only "comes into play if a bank fails," said David Barr, a FDIC spokesperson. "Banks carry separate insurance to cover losses or other liabilities."

    Vanguard, the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. mutual fund company that has more than 20 million investors and manages $3.3 trillion globally, will reimburse funds taken from an account in an unauthorized transaction, said David Hoffman, a Vanguard spokesman.

    In 2014, Vanguard added two-factor authentication which allows investors to opt into a service that requires them to enter a code which is sent to their cell phone via text message before they are able to log onto the website.

    "Clients can choose to always receive this code for log-ins or only from unrecognized devices," he said. "This service is designed to provide added protection when accessing Vanguard, because someone will not only need to know your user name and password, but will also need access to your mobile device to obtain a one-time security code that would be sent to you during each log on once you opt-in to this service."

    After studying the top nine banking Trojans -- the software written to steal information from consumers that would allow the attackers to take over their bank accounts and transfer money out -- Symantec's research found that all nine of them are capable of stealing log-in and password information from customers of over 1,400 different banks, said Kevin Haley, director of security response at Symantec.

    "People's finances are already under attack," he said. "The threat is there today."

    Any data posted on the Internet is vulnerable to attacks, including that related to your 401(k) and IRA accounts.

    "Your money can disappear," said Sergio Galindo, a general manager for GFI Software, an information technology services provider in Durham, North Carolina. If it happened to JPMorgan Chase and other financial companies that invest in millions of dollars to prevent and detect "rogue access," then it can happen to any account, he said. Finding the hackers is becoming more of a challenge and can take weeks, if not longer.

    Cyber criminals are not giving up, especially since many consumers make hacking fairly easy for them. Industry experts estimate that half of people are using the same ID and password combination on multiple accounts.

    These criminals are coming smarter, and even phishing has become more sophisticated and believable, with emails claiming, for example, consumers' Home Depot accounts were accessed and asking them to log-in again to change the password, he said.

    Too few consumers are checking their accounts on a regular basis. Galindo recommends checking your account for charges or other changes at least once a month.

    "Little charges sometimes indicate bigger issues," he said. "If you don't recognize it, ask and stop the charge."

    Consumers can safeguard their accounts better by following these five tips:

    Don't make it easy for the hackers. If your browser gives you the option to remember your password, always say no. "Typing in your password also assures that you are physically the one interacting with the system," Martini said.

    When you are shopping online, make sure the website is one you can trust such as PayPal or Amazon, which are more likely to have "security policies in place over a small run-of-the-mill website," he said.

    Always opt to use your bank card as a credit card instead of a debit card, because "recovering fraudulent activity from a credit card is much easier as it doesn't lock up your bank account funds while that's in process," Martini said.

    Use strong passwords that aren't related to your personal information. Avoid your birthday, a pet's names or other information someone can find via social media, said Shawn Marck, an executive vice president at Nexusguard, a San Francisco-based security provider.

    Take advantage of two-factor authentication when it is available. Some retirement account providers such as Vanguard will text a code to your smartphone before you can log-in.

    "IRAs and 401(k)s are no more secure than your favorite online retail account," Marck said. "The log-in processes are virtually the same, and in many cases, users do not follow good password discipline or take advantage of two-factor authentications unless they are forced to do so."

    The bottom-line is that all of your accounts, ranging from your Dropbox to your financial ones, can be hacked because anything with a username and password connected to the Internet is "susceptible to an attack," said Luis Chapetti, a software engineer and data scientist at Barracuda, a Campbell, California-based security and storage solutions company.

    "Nothing is safe," he said. "Proper security protocols and appliances mixed with educating users is the best way to mitigate these and any attacks."

    Passwords remain the "weakest links" for data theft, Chapetti said. As the industry matures, passwords need to become obsolete, because they are "dangerous to Internet security and in this case, all information relating to 401k data."

     

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    Consumer Spending
    Alan Diaz/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Consumer spending recorded its largest increase in nearly six years in May on strong demand for automobiles and other big-ticket items, further evidence that economic growth was accelerating in the second quarter.

    While other data on Thursday showed a modest increase in first-time applications for unemployment benefits last week, the underlying trend in jobless claims continued to suggest the labor market was tightening.

    This portends well for second-quarter growth and the broader momentum of economic activity in the second half of the year...

    The strengthening economy suggests the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates this year even as inflation remains well below the U.S. central bank's 2 percent target. Many economists expect a rate hike in September.

    "This portends well for second-quarter growth and the broader momentum of economic activity in the second half of the year, and keeps the prospect of a September rate hike squarely on the table," said Anthony Karydakis, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.

    The Commerce Department said consumer spending rose 0.9 percent last month, the biggest gain since August 2009, after a 0.1 percent rise in April.

    May's sturdy increase in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, suggested households were finally spending some of the windfall from lower gasoline prices, and capped a month of solid economic reports.

    It was the latest indication that growth was gaining momentum after gross domestic product shrank at a 0.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter, as the economy battled bad weather, port disruptions, a strong dollar and spending cuts in the energy sector.

    From employment to the housing market, the economic data for May has been bullish. Even manufacturing, which is struggling with the lingering effects of dollar strength and lower energy prices, is starting to stabilize.

    Though a report Thursday showed some cooling in services sector activity in June, businesses continued to view economic conditions as improving.

    Economists had forecast consumer spending rising 0.7 percent last month.

    U.S. stocks traded higher, with healthcare shares enjoying a broad rally after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding tax subsidies crucial to President Barack Obama's signature 2010 healthcare law.

    Prices for longer-dated U.S. government debt fell, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies.

    Labor Market Tightening

    Last month, spending on long-lasting manufactured goods such as automobiles jumped 2.2 percent and outlays on services like utilities rose 0.3 percent.

    When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending increased 0.6 percent, the largest jump since last August, after being unchanged in April.

    The rise in real consumer spending prompted economists at Barclays to bump up their second-quarter GDP estimate by 0.1 percentage point to a 3.1 percent annual rate.

    Personal income increased 0.5 percent in May after a similar gain in the prior month. Income is being boosted by a tightening labor market, which is starting to push up wage growth.

    A separate report from the Labor Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 271,000 for the week ended June 20.

    But it was the 16th straight week that claims had held below 300,000, a threshold usually associated with a firming labor market. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell last week.

    The strengthening jobs market could be bolstering confidence in the economy, encouraging households to tap into savings that have been boosted by lower gasoline prices.

    The saving rate fell to 5.1 percent last month from 5.4 percent in April. Still, savings remain at lofty levels. That, together with rising wages, suggests more fuel for consumer spending for the rest of the year.

    "The labor market is tight, wages and incomes are rising solidly, so we should expect consumers to help lead the economy forward," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    Despite the acceleration in consumer spending, inflation pressures remained tame last month. A price index for consumer spending increased 0.3 percent after being flat in April.

    In the 12 months through May, the personal consumption expenditures price index rose only 0.2 percent.

    Excluding food and energy, prices edged up 0.1 percent after a similar gain in April. The so-called core PCE price index rose 1.2 percent in the 12 months through May, the smallest gain since February 2014.

     

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    AAA Holiday Travel
    Ross D. Franklin/AP
    By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ

    NEW YORK -- A stronger economy, rising consumer confidence and cheap gasoline will likely have Americans traveling in big numbers this Independence Day.

    An estimated 41.9 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home during the holiday weekend, up 0.7 percent from last year and the most since 2007, right before the recession, according to travel agency and car lobbying group AAA.

    As usual, the vast majority of travelers will be using their cars: about 85 percent. Gas currently costs $2.78 a gallon, down 88 cents from the same time last year. That means a family driving 200 miles on highways will save about $7.30 for their holiday gas this year.

    AAA defines the holiday period as July 1 through July 5. But Americans, in general, are already driving more.

    The Federal Highway Administration this week announced that Americans drove 987.8 billion miles for the first four months of the year, topping the previous record -- 965.5 billion -- set in 2007. The government said that the nation's driving has increased steadily for 14 consecutive months.

    More folks are going away this July 4 thanks to the better economy and lower fuel prices which give them more disposable income. However, Independence Day travel predictions are particularly volatile since the holiday falls on a different day of the week each year. Three- or four-day weekends see more travelers, typically.

    AAA estimates that mid-range hotels this holiday will cost 6 to 8 percent more and airfare is 6 percent higher.

     

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    Traffic congestion builds on the highway due to construction
    Alamy
    By Scott Cohn

    Granted, it may be tough to conjure up much sympathy for America's most spectacular state. But strip away the fabulous beaches, palm trees, hula dancers and surfers, and Hawaii is just one state trying to compete with 49 others, while facing a host of built-in disadvantages.

    It is in the middle of the ocean, more than 2,000 miles away from the mainland and the bulk of U.S. resources. The same factors that make Hawaii an expensive place to live -- think close to $4 for a loaf of bread -- also make it an expensive state to govern, and in which to do business.

    And here we come, ranking Hawaii as America's Bottom State for Business for the second time in three years (Hawaii has never finished above 48th in our rankings). Talk about rubbing salt water in the wound!

    The last time we ranked Hawaii at the bottom, in 2013, Hawaii Business -- "locally owned, locally committed since 1955" -- shot back with an article extolling the virtues of Hawaii's business climate.

    While acknowledging the state's high costs and onerous regulations, the publication declared, "Some companies could be based anywhere in America, but are based here because they say Hawaii is a great place to do business."

    The article quoted a number of business owners who said just that, insisting there is no place they would rather be. And who can blame them, with a quality of life that ranks at the top in our study year after year, including this year?

    But by the numbers on just about everything else, Hawaii doesn't measure up, and not only for reasons beyond its control.

    "Roughly 40 percent of the state's bridges are rated deficient or worse."

    Take Hawaii's infrastructure -- the second worst in the nation behind Rhode Island's, according to our study. While it is true that we consider railroads as part of our Infrastructure category and Hawaii doesn't have any, we also look at roads and bridges. The state has plenty of those, and they are in poor shape.

    Roughly 40 percent of the state's bridges are rated deficient or worse by the U.S. Department of Transportation. And when it comes to roads, we're not just talking about Maui's famously beautiful Hana Highway, with its hair-raising switchbacks and one-lane bridges. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Reason Foundation rated Hawaii's urban interstate highways the worst maintained in the nation, with congestion second only to Florida.

    As for the regulatory climate, which even Hawaii Business conceded is "onerous," the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in its annual report "Freedom in the 50 States" goes even further, calling Hawaii "interventionist, with strict workers' compensation requirements, mandatory short-term disability insurance, and no right-to-work law."

    Hawaii's unemployment rate is below the national average, coming in at 4.1 percent in May. But in our all-important Workforce category, where Hawaii comes in 46th, the state not only loses points for its heavy union presence -- nearly 23 percent of workers are represented, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- but also because state worker training programs are showing only modest success putting people to work.

    Or look at the cost of doing business. Again, Hawaii comes in at a disadvantage because of its location, which helps explain why utility bills and office rent are the highest in the nation -- the average electric bill in Hawaii is four times the rate in Arkansas, and office rent is twice as high.

    Location also helps explain why taxes are on the high side. But it doesn't explain the complexity of Hawaii's tax code, with at least a dozen different personal income tax rates, according to the state revenue department's website. The Tax Foundation's annual ranking of state business tax climates puts Hawaii's at No. 30, dinging the state for its multiple tax brackets, its 11 percent top marginal income tax rate and its failure to index corporate taxes for inflation.

    And when it comes to incentives to help companies reduce their cost of doing business, such as tax breaks and outright state aid, Hawaii is among the stingiest.

    Of course, the state does have some built-in incentives beyond its quality of life -- incentives that make Hawaii a unique place in which to do business. Here is one where location works to Hawaii's advantage: Its time zone is roughly midway between the Pacific Rim and the East Coast, making it much easier to be in two places at once.

    The state prides itself on being a hub of innovation, ranking 12th in the nation for start-ups this year, according to the Kaufmann Foundation. The report estimates that for every 100,000 adults, 350 become entrepreneurs every month. And it's not out of desperation. Nearly 89 percent of new-business owners last year were employed and left an existing job to strike out on their own, one of the highest rates in the nation. It helps that Hawaii residents seem inherently happy, healthy and motivated. Probably has something to do with that great quality of life.

    But will Hawaii ever parlay those advantages into a Top State ranking? Realistically, probably not. There is just too much working against the state. Still, that doesn't mean it can't unleash a little more of its legendary hospitality on business.

     

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    Obama
    Evan Vucci/APIn upholding subsidies for participants in the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court handed President Barack Obama a major victory.
    By Lawrence Hurley

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a conservative legal challenge that could have doomed President Barack Obama's health care law, upholding nationwide tax subsidies crucial to his signature domestic policy achievement.

    Obama strode into the White House Rose Garden after the ruling to declare that the law known as Obamacare is working, helping millions of Americans afford health insurance who otherwise would have none, and that it is "here to stay."

    Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.

    Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, wrote in the 6-3 ruling that Congress clearly intended for the tax subsidies that help millions of low- and moderate-income people afford private health insurance to be available in all 50 states.

    The court decided that the law did not restrict the subsidies to states that establish their own online health insurance exchanges, as the challengers in the case contended.

    "Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them," Roberts wrote, adding that nationwide availability of the credits is required to "avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid."

    Roberts was joined by fellow conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and the court's four liberal members in a ruling that may ensure Obamacare becomes a lasting element of the nation's social programs.

    The ruling means the current system will remain in place, with subsidies available nationwide. If the challengers had won, at least 6.4 million people in at least 34 states would have lost subsidies worth an average of $272 a month.

    It marked the second time in three years the high court ruled against a major challenge to the law brought by conservatives. Both rulings were written by Roberts. Unlike the 2012 case, in which the court was split 5-4, Kennedy joined Roberts in the majority this time.

    Republicans, who have fought the law since its inception, vowed on Thursday to continue efforts in Congress to repeal it despite appeals from Obama's fellow Democrats for them to stop.

    Here to Stay

    The law was passed by Democrats in Congress in 2010 over unified Republican opposition.

    "After more than 50 votes in Congress to repeal or weaken this law, after a presidential election based in part on preserving or repealing this law, after multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay," Obama said.

    "It has changed, and in some cases saved, American lives," Obama added.

    The question before the justices was whether a four-word phrase in the expansive law saying subsidies are available to those buying insurance on exchanges "established by the state" has been correctly interpreted by the administration to allow subsidies to be available nationwide.

    The exchanges are online marketplaces that allow consumers to shop among competing insurance plans.

    Roberts wrote that although the conservative challengers' arguments about the plain meaning of the statute were "strong," the "context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase."

    Scalia Dissents

    After Chief Justice Roberts announced the decision from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia read for 11 minutes from his dissenting opinion inside the court's white marble and crimson-draped setting.

    Scalia said the statute's words were clear, that Congress wanted to limit the credits to the state exchanges. Scalia recalled the court's 2012 decision narrowly upholding the law, again over his dissent.

    "We really should start calling the law SCOTUScare," Scalia said. SCOTUS is the acronym for the Supreme Court of the United States.

    "This court has no free-floating power to rescue Congress from its drafting mistakes," Scalia added.

    Roberts, sitting next to him on the bench, sat stone-faced. He smiled slightly at the SCOTUScare line, but otherwise betrayed no emotion.

    Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Scalia's dissent.

    Fewer Uninsured

    The Obama administration said 16.4 million previously uninsured people have gained health insurance since the law was enacted. There are currently around 26 million Americans without health insurance, according to government figures.

    "This is not about the Affordable Care Act as legislation, or Obamacare as a political football. This is health care in America," Obama said.

    The top two congressional Republicans denounced the law Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell said it makes life "miserable" for many people it purports to help. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner called it "fundamentally broken."

    The court, in another ruling favoring the Obama administration Thursday, also embraced a broad interpretation of the type of discrimination claims that can be made under the landmark Fair Housing Act.

    The Obamacare ruling comes as a major relief to Obama as he seeks to ensure that his legacy legislative achievement is implemented effectively and survives political and legal attacks before he leaves office in January 2017.

    The U.S. hospital industry also breathed a collective sigh of relief on Thursday and investors cheered that the growing number of paying customers created by Obamacare wouldn't disappear.

    Health Stocks Soar

    The ruling was a catalyst for a rally in shares of health care providers and insurers, with hospital stocks in particular getting a big boost. Shares of hospital operators Community Health Systems (CYH), HCA Holdings (HCA), Universal Health Services (UHS) and LifePoint Health (LPNT) all hit life-time highs, each rising by 8 percent or more.

    "The subsidies upheld today help patients afford health insurance so they can see a doctor when they need one and not have to wait until a small health problem becomes a crisis," said Dr. Steven Stack, president of the American Medical Association.

    Conservatives have called Obamacare a government overreach and "socialized medicine." Opponents repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought to repeal it in Congress and launched a series of legal challenges.

    The current case started as a long-shot legal challenge by conservative lawyers that oppose the law. Financed by a libertarian Washington group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the lawyers recruited four people from Virginia as plaintiffs. The lead plaintiff was a self-employed limousine driver named David King.

    The plaintiffs said they were "deeply disappointed" with the ruling. The law "unfairly restricts the health insurance choices of millions of people, and it threatens their jobs as well," they added.

    The case is King v. Burwell, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-114.

     

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    General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals
    JeepersMedia/Flickr
    NEW YORK -- General Mills (GIS) expects to cut 675 to 725 jobs as it wrestles with sluggish sales.

    The maker of Cheerios, Yoplait and Progresso said Thursday that it will record pre-tax costs of about $57 million to $62 million, mostly for employee termination benefits.

    Along with other packaged food makers like Kellogg (K) and Campbell Soup (CPB), General Mills has slashed costs to offset slowing sales growth. Net sales rose barely 1 percent last year and the Minneapolis company expects core sales to grow at a "low single-digit rate" this year.

    Big packaged food makers are facing changing tastes and smaller players that position themselves as more wholesome or fresh.

    General Mills said its current restructuring should be complete by early fiscal 2017, generating annual savings of about $45 to $50 million.

     

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    Dow Drops Over 150 Points Over Tensions During Greek Bailout Talks
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By Ryan Vlastelica

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended a quiet session with modest losses Thursday, but health care stocks rallied after the Supreme Court upheld tax subsidies key to President Barack Obama's signature health care reform law.

    Energy shares drove the day's weakness, falling alongside crude oil prices, while uncertainty surrounding Greece also limited positive sentiment. Transport stocks, considered a proxy for economic activity, entered correction territory, closing 10.6 percent below a Dec. 29 closing high.

    The S&P 500 health care index rose 0.5 percent after the court ruled that the 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, didn't restrict the subsidies to states that establish their own online health care exchanges.

    While any change in policy would've been a surprise, affirming the status quo removes a lot of uncertainty from the sector.

    Hospital operators were among the biggest beneficiaries of the ruling, with investors relieved that the growing number of paying customers created by Obamacare wouldn't disappear.

    Tenet Healthcare (THC) jumped 12 percent to $56.21 as the S&P 500's biggest percentage gainer on the day, followed by HCA Holdings (HCA), up 8.8 percent to $90.72. Universal Health Services (UHS) rose 7.7 percent to $140.78.

    "While any change in policy would've been a surprise, affirming the status quo removes a lot of uncertainty from the sector," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    The S&P 500 health care sector trades at 24.3 times analyst estimates of future earnings, while the S&P 500's forward P/E is 17.6, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 75.71 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,890.36, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 6.27 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,102.31 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 10.22 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,112.19.

    Ongoing Crisis

    Wall Street continued to take cues from the ongoing Greek debt crisis as the country again failed to clinch a deal with its international creditors, setting up a last-ditch effort Saturday to avert a default next week.

    Eurozone finance ministers ended their third meeting in a week without agreement after the three creditor institutions put a final cash-for-reform proposal on the table in a showdown with Athens' leftist government.

    Energy shares were the weakest of the day, with the S&P energy index down 1 percent. U.S. crude futures settled down about 1 percent at $59.70 a barrel, weighed by weaker U.S. refined fuels markets. Occidental Petroleum (OXY) fell 1 percent to $78.53.

    IAC/Interactive (IACI) jumped 5.1 percent to $81.19 after the company said it planned to list its dating business, which includes Match.com and mobile app Tinder.

    After the market closed, Dow component Nike (NKE) rose 2.2 percent to $107.50 after fourth-quarter results.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,964 to 1,100, for a 1.79-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,500 issues fell and 1,274 advanced for a 1.18-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The benchmark S&P 500 posted 16 new 52-week highs and 17 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 119 new highs and 42 new lows.

    About 5.7 billion shares traded on all U.S. platforms, according to BATS exchange data, compared with the month-to-date average of 6.1 billion.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The University of Michigan releases its final report on consumer sentiment for June at 10 a.m.

     

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    Earns CVS
    Matt Rourke/APCVS offers an appealing loyalty program to customers.
    By Mel Bondar

    I remember my first ever loyalty card was for American Eagle when I was 14. It added something legit to my keychain that otherwise consisted only of a house key, which was super cool to my teenage brain. Every time I dragged my mom to the mall or talked a family member into dropping me and my friends off, I would wind up in that store and I quickly racked up a ton of points, which translated into discounts and coupons.

    And then the little loyalty cards on my key ring started to grow -- and help me save.

    Loyalty programs can be really fantastic. You can usually join for less than five minutes of your time and if you're a frequent shopper, the deals can be really worth it. Here are several loyalty cards that really pack a punch.

    CVS Rewards

    If you're a regular CVS shopper and you don't have this card, you're just throwing away money. Even if you're an irregular CVS shopper, it's worth signing up for. CVS tracks what you spend on and provides you with coupons geared towards your shopping habits. To sweeten the deal even further, after certain amounts of spending, they give you rewards cash -- sometimes it's for beauty-related items, but lots of times the rewards cash is just $5 to $10. You don't have to purchase a minimum amount of items in those cases, it's just like getting a $5 or $10 gift certificate.

    Walgreens

    Not to be left behind, Walgreens also has its own Balance Rewards program that incentivizes healthy living. Regular purchases can get you anywhere from one to 10 points a dollar and 5,000 points equals a $5 reward -- the more points you rack up, the higher the reward amount, capping out at $50 for 40,000 points.

    That may seem like a lot of purchases, but the Balance Rewards emphasizes making healthy choices. You get bonus points for filling prescriptions, keeping you immunizations up to date and even completing weekly activity goals, like walking or running a certain number of miles.

    Also, for the older readers, you can link your AARP card to your Balance Rewards card and super charge your points.

    Starbucks

    Listen up coffee lovers, if you stop by Starbucks on your way to work everyday or even just once a week, the 13th cup is on Starbucks if you have the rewards card. You use it like a gift card that you keep refilling and each drink or food item is worth a star. Once you collect 12 stars, the next item is free. Starbucks also often offers discount codes that you receive when you sign up for their rewards system and offers double stars on some items at certain times, to help you get to your 12th star quicker.

    Dunkin' Donuts

    If you're a Dunkin' Donuts loyalist, sign up for DD Perks, Dunkin' Donuts reward system. Every 200 points you earn gets you a free reward, and every dollar is worth 5 points. There are regularly 2X point offers on different items.

    You also get to take advantage of different limited time offers; recently there was a promotion for DD Perks members to purchase a beverage five times within a set period and the next beverage was free.

    This is another rewards club that gives you a freebie not only when you join, but also on your birthday every year.

    Sephora

    If you're a makeup maven, the Beauty Insider card is worth the time it takes to sign up. Sephora can be a pricey store, but the Beauty Insider card gets you really excellent coupons you can take advantage of throughout the year.

    Additionally, rather than gift cards, the points you rack up through purchases allow you access to exclusive items only available to Beauty Insiders and you get a coupon for a free item on your birthday each year.

    One quick word of wisdom though: While signing up for any loyalty program with a store you shop at often is a terrific idea, you may want to start a separate email for these programs. While coupons are awesome, having your inbox swamped with them takes away some of the charm. By creating a separate email address for your loyalty cards, you can just log on whenever you're about to head out shopping and print the latest offers.

    Mel Bondar blogs at brokeGIRLrich, where she explores topics including how not to totally panic over adulthood, working in the arts and retirement strategies that don't involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass.

     

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    Students with stellar grades often get scholarships. So do promising student athletes. But what about the rest of the high school crowd? Can they earn scholarship money for college, too? Yes, it turns out. Many merit-based scholarships are available to anyone with the proper credentials and a willingness to apply.

    Two Types of Merit-Based Scholarships

    Merit-based scholarships differ from needs-based scholarships in that anyone can apply for one, regardless of financial status. Financial hardship can enter the equation, but it's not the first filter. Instead, qualifications and performance are more likely to determine success.

    Many merit-based scholarships involve contests in which multiple applicants compete for awards. Scholarships can be organized according to ethnicity, interest, career goal, volunteerism history and just about anything else you can imagine.

    Ready to start your search? Let's begin by defining the two types of merit-based scholarships:

    • Public: Anyone can apply, which means the competition is fierce. Good examples of public merit scholarships include the Financial Service Centers of America Scholarship, which awards $2,000 or more to students who are "committed to community service, leadership, and academic excellence." Overcoming a serious obstacle is also a plus. Students must submit a 1,000-word essay for consideration.
    • Private: Only those who meet certain requirements can apply, which means there's less competition. Good examples of private merit scholarships include the various scholarships given out by the Air Traffic Control Association. Last year, the group awarded 11 scholarships totaling $71,000 for students pursuing degrees in aviation-related fields. Students must submit a 500-word essay and letters of recommendation.

    Where You'll Find Them

    Both of the above examples I found on the Internet. And yet that's not the most efficient way to look for college cash. Rather, I'd say that it's third on this list of three sources:

    1. Your high school counselor. They're around to give advice, right? Use that. Ask for help sharpening your search for scholarships. Ask whom they know at the colleges where your son or daughter plans to apply. They may be able to help you make a valuable connection. Or, at the very least, point you to credible resources that tend to go unnoticed.
    2. Your employer. Large companies that expect to be recruiting generations of talent tend to offer scholarships in hopes of replenishing the ranks once top candidates have finished school. Boeing is a good example. Not only does the aerospace giant offer scholarships through partner universities, it also provides additional funds to National Merit Scholars who are children of Boeing employees.
    3. Web-based searches. If you think I mean via Google search, you're wrong. Dozens of websites have popped up over the years to help students and their parents find scholarships worth targeting. Notable tools include Fastweb, Unigo, the College Board's Scholarship Search and Financial Aid Finder.

    Don't Stop Saving

    As with anything, the more time and effort you put into applying for merit scholarships, the more likely it is that you'll end up with a heap of cash to help pay for school. Or, as in the case of Gwen Thomas, more than you need.

    Author of the book "The Parent's Smart Guide to Sending Your Kid to College Without Going Broke," Thomas said in an interview that she and her son tackled 100 merit scholarships and won 25, netting a half-million in proceeds and an educational experience that included travel to some 30 countries.

    Odds are that you and your offspring won't hit the jackpot as Thomas did, so be sure to keep socking away funds for college whenever you can, via a Coverdell IRA or tax-advantaged 529 account. But you also needn't admit defeat before you've tried. Scholarship money is out there. Now you know where to find it.

    Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers will be chasing scholarship money for the next several years. He owned shares of Google (A and C class) at the time of publication and can be found on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Google (A and C class). 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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