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    Aeropostale
    JeepersMedia/Flickr
    Summer is coming to a close and that means that malls across the country are selling back-to-school merchandise. Kids and teens don't want to be seen with what they wore last semester, making it an important time for retailers to stand out with their seasonal sales.

    Some chains will probably be more desperate than others and this is where it's handy for back-to-school shoppers to learn a thing or two about reading a quarterly report. If a chain is suffering through negative comparable-store sales or a spike in unsold inventory, this should translate into aggressive markdowns to either try to turn things around or clear out items that just didn't connect with customers at original prices.

    Weak stores translate into big sales. Let's see where the desperation is likely to result in markdowns this month.

    Aeropostale (ARO)

    It doesn't get much uglier than Aeropostale these days. The once-trendy chain is in a funk, and its stock is trading for about a buck. The typical Aeropostale store is ringing up roughly 20 percent less in sales than it was two years ago, and the chain's response has been to shut down many of its locations.

    The Aeropostale empire has shrunk to 826 stores from 1,072 during the past year, including 23 locations going dark in its most recent quarter. Sluggish sales and inventory left behind from shuttered stores should make Aeropostale a great place to strike up a deal on clothing -- if your mall's location happens to still be open.

    Francesca's (FRAN)

    Unlike Aeropostale, Francesca's is opening more stores than it's closing. The boutique approach, whereby it stocks a limited number of units of each item, is resonating in higher-end malls. Margins have also improved over the past year at Francesca's, something that historically doesn't bode well for the deal seeker.

    However, Francesca's makes the cut because it posted negative comps in its most recent quarter, and when it reports fresh financial results next week, it's expecting to post another decline in store-level sales. If it's a bad report next week, it's easy to see Francesca's getting more aggressive on pricing to woo back shoppers.

    Christopher & Banks (CBK)

    Another specialty women's apparel chain that should be providing generous prices is Christopher & Banks. It shocked the market a couple of weeks ago by announcing that comparable-store sales took a 12.4 percent year-over-year drop in its latest quarter. It also sees gross margins declining, something that loosely translates into lower markups on its merchandise.

    That's bad news for its investors, but great news for its customers. Christopher & Banks recently hired a consultant to help turn things around, and it will shed some light on its situation when it reports quarterly results next week. Any dramatic makeovers will likely be accompanied by big clearance sales.

    Williams-Sonoma (WSM)

    It's not just clothing on sale. Williams-Sonoma -- the company behind Pottery Barn and West Elm as well as its namesake housewares concept -- saw its stock take a 9 percent hit last week after posting mixed quarterly results.

    Sales were healthy, but margins were weak, suggesting that Williams-Sonoma continues to struggle to justify bigger markups on its wares. It's still holding up better than the first three companies on this list, but it makes the cut if we drop down from the income statement to its balance sheet.

    Merchandise inventories have risen 15.3 percent during the past year, even though net sales have only climbed 8.5 percent higher. Seeing inventory growing nearly twice as fast as revenue can be problematic for investors, as it often results in stores having to mark down older merchandise to clear up space.

    Enjoy chasing the deals, fellow back-to-school shopper.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Williams-Sonoma. 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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    Economy Manufacturing
    J Pat Carter/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. factory activity hit a more than two-year low in August as manufacturers struggled with a strong dollar, weak global demand and the lingering effects of deep spending cuts in the energy sector.

    Other data Tuesday, however, suggested the economy appeared to be on solid footing, with construction spending rising in July to its highest level since 2008.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its national factory activity index fell to 51.1 last month, the lowest reading since May 2013, from 52.7 in July. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector.

    The decline in the index also likely reflected the recent global equities sell-off, which was triggered by concerns over China's slowing economy. The ISM's new orders subindex fell to 51.7, also the lowest level since May 2013, from 56.5 in July.

    The employment index slipped to 51.2 last month from a reading of 52.7 in July.

    Manufacturing, which accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. economy, has been under pressure from the strength of the dollar, which has gained 16.8 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    A more than 60 percent plunge in crude oil prices since June last year has led to deep spending cuts in the energy sector.

    The U.S. dollar fell against a basket of currencies after the data, while U.S. stocks were trading sharply lower. Prices for shorter-maturity U.S. government debt rose.

    But apart from manufacturing, the economy is thriving. In a separate report, the Commerce Department said construction spending increased 0.7 percent to $1.08 trillion, the highest level since May 2008, after a similar gain in June.

    Construction spending has increased for eight straight months and was as up 13.7 percent compared to July of last year.

    The construction spending report rounded off a month of solid data that suggested the economy had retained much of its strength from the second quarter, when it expanded at a 3.7 percent annual pace. July data for consumer spending, industrial production, business spending, housing and employment painted a fairly upbeat picture of the economy.

    Construction spending in July was buoyed by a 1.3 percent jump in private construction spending to the highest level since April 2008. Spending on private non-residential construction projects surged 1.5 percent to the highest level since October 2008.

    Spending on private residential construction increased 1.1 percent in July to a near 7½-year high, reflecting gains in home building.

    Public construction outlays, however, fell 1 percent. Spending on state and local government projects, which is the largest portion of the public sector segment, dropped 1.1 percent. Federal government outlays rose 0.9 percent.

     

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    Amazon Smartphone
    Ted S. Warren/AP
    By MAE ANDERSON

    NEW YORK -- Amazon is upping the ante in the streaming-video competition with downloadable videos.

    The e-commerce powerhouse will now let members of its $99 annual Prime loyalty program download some shows and movies on its streaming video service to watch offline, or when there is no Internet connection available, for free.

    There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing anytime, anywhere viewing is important.

    To watch the content users can download the Amazon Video app for iOS or Android.

    Users will now be able to download shows like "Downton Abbey" and "The Good Wife," HBO shows including "Girls" and "Veep" and movies including "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."

    Shows will be downloadable to Apple and Android phones and tablets, including Amazon's Fire devices -- but not desktops or laptops.

    Other streaming services like Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu offer streaming-content only.

    "There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing_anytime, anywhere viewing is important," said Michael Paull, vice president of digital video at Amazon, which is based in Seattle.

    The downloadable videos are available to prime members in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Austria.

    Amazon has been expanding services for Prime members, including its Prime Instant Video service, to attract more subscribers to the annual program.

    Shares of Amazon.com (AMZN) fell about 1 percent amid a broad market sell-off.

     

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    McDonald's Will Use Real Butter Instead of Liquid Margarine

    By Katie Little

    McDonald's (MCD) has some good news for dairy farmers and bad news for the lactose intolerant.

    The chain is changing the way it cooks items with English muffins (which are in its popular McMuffin line), biscuits and bagels to include real butter. Inside stores, some signs already advertise the nationwide switch.

    Two sources said the rollout would occur once locations deplete the supply of liquid margarine.

    McDonald's didn't respond to CNBC's requests for comment.

    One sign at a Manhattan location says, "We're proud to cook breakfast items on the grill with real butter and we toast our English Muffins, biscuits and bagels with real butter too."

    The signs are meant to both highlight the "real dairy" addition and warn those who are not able to eat items made with milk products.

    The move is just the latest in a series by the fast food giant aimed at tweaking the way it makes its food as it continues trying to turn around its struggling U.S. business. As part of the overhaul, McDonald's has said it would toast its buns longer, change how it sears and grills its beef, and increase the Quarter Pounder patty size.

     

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    Score Savings on Sports Tickets
    With sports season in full swing, now's the perfect time to catch your favorite team, but going to the big game doesn't have to mean big costs. Here are some tips on how to score tickets without busting your budget.

    The first easy way to cut your costs is to buy tickets for games that happen on weeknights instead of the weekend. A Tuesday night game is definitely going to be cheaper than a Friday. Those time slots tend to be less popular, so box offices tend to cut prices to get fans in the seats.

    Next, like in most sports, it's all about timing. Ticket prices will continue to increase as the game approaches. However, they will also plunge on the day of the game. Make sure to keep this in mind so you can get the best deal for your budget.

    Finally, another great way to save on first-rate tickets is buying from the secondary market. Websites like StubHub and TicketCity are a great start, but there's another site that helps you get the most for your buck. Seatgeek.com, is great because it aggregates deals from other sites to give you a comprehensive list of which deals are winners and which ones are losers.

    Before heading to the game, remember these tips so you can score great tickets while keeping your budget No. 1.

    View Poll

     

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    Airline Bag Fees
    Elaine Thompson/AP
    By Joan Lowy

    WASHINGTON -- Airlines should clearly disclose the cost of change and cancellation fees, as well as the size of the plane's seats, before a passenger buys a ticket, a federal panel said Tuesday.

    Hotels should also be required to include any mandatory fees in their room rates, the Transportation Department's Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections recommended.

    Some hotels have begun adding mandatory resort and other fees to bills even though customers say they weren't informed of them when they booked their rooms. The panel's recommendation on hotels was directed to the Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating such so called drip pricing.

    Likewise, the four-member panel heard testimony that passengers must search to find the cost of change or cancellation fees that airlines hide in a ticket's fine print. The fees can run hundreds of dollars, especially on international flights. The Transportation Department should require the fees be spelled out clearly so that passengers are informed before a ticket purchase, the panel said.

    The panel also recommended that the Transportation Department permit airlines to choose whether to allow passengers to make wireless voice calls from planes during flights.

    Airlines have also shrunk the distance between a seat and the one in front by as much as 6 inches in recent years. It used to be that 34 inches between the seats was standard for economy class seats. But now 31 inches is typical and some airlines have wedged in so many seats that there is as little as 28 inches of room.

    The width of seats is typically 18 inches but has been reduced in some cases to 17 inches, and there are indications some airlines may shrink them even more, said Charlie Leocha, head of Travelers United, the consumer advocate on the panel.

    Seat shrinkage has raised concern that passengers may get blood clots if they sit for a long time without the ability to move around, and that passengers may not be able to quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency.

    The Federal Aviation Administration requires that aircraft makers demonstrate that all passengers on an airliner can be evacuated within 90 seconds with half the emergency exits blocked in order for the plane to be certified. There have been no evacuation tests of airliners with seats 28 inches apart, Leocha said.

    The panel recommended the FAA conduct more realistic evacuation tests, including of planes with seats as close as 28 inches apart.

    Leocha said he was disappointed the panel didn't recommend the FAA issue regulations establishing a minimum amount of personal space that must be allotted per passenger. There are already regulations that set a minimum amount of space that pets on planes must be allotted, he noted.

    Panel member Dave Berg, an attorney with Airlines for America, a trade group for major airlines, said he objected to the notion that the government should establish a minimum amount of space per passenger. Difference between seat sizes "goes to the heart and soul" of airline competition, and it would be inappropriate for the government to interfere in such competition by a deregulated industry, he said.

    The FAA is not required to act on the recommendations. The airline passengers advocacy group FlyersRights has filed a petition asking the FAA to establish a minimum amount of personal space per passenger.

     

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    A Closer Look at Google's New Logo

    By MICHAEL LIEDTKE

    SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is refining its famous logo as it prepares to become a part of a new holding company called Alphabet.

    The revised design unveiled Tuesday features the same mix of blue, red, yellow and green that Google has been using throughout its nearly 17-year history, though the hues are slightly different shades.

    Google (GOOG) also invented a new typeface called "Product Sans" that is meant to resemble the simple printing in a grade-school book. It will replace a serif typeface that Google has been using in its logo for more than 16 years. The "e'' in the company's name will remain slightly tilted to reflect Google's sometimes off-kilter thinking.

    Although this will be the sixth time that Google has changed its logo since Larry Page and Sergey Brin formed the company, this marks the most noticeable redesign since it dropped an exclamation point that appeared after its name until May 1999

    Google is donning the different look as it embarks on a new era. The Mountain View, California, company is pouring so much money into so many far-flung projects that have little or no connection to its main business of online search and advertising that it's getting ready to place everything under the Alphabet umbrella.

    Under this setup, Google will retain search, YouTube and most of the biggest divisions while smaller operations such as Nest home appliances, life sciences, drone deliveries and venture capital investments will operate as individual companies. All will be overseen by Alphabet, whose CEO will be the Google co-founder Page.

    Alphabet hasn't revealed what its logo will be yet, but the holding company isn't expected to be officially operating for a few more months.

    Google believes its new logo will provide a more versatile identity suited "for a world of seamless computing across an endless number of devices," the company said in a Tuesday blog post.

    The overhaul also will change the appearance of the letter "g'' that Google uses as its shorthand logo on the smaller screens of smartphones and other mobile devices.

    The "g'' will now be capitalized and displayed in color instead of being kept lowercase and white.

    A swirl of dots in Google's colors will also appear when a spoken command for information is being processed or one of the company's other services is performing a task.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By KEN SWEET

    NEW YORK -- Stocks plunged again Tuesday, continuing a rocky ride for Wall Street, after an economic report out of China rekindled fears that the world's second-largest economy is slowing more than previously anticipated.

    The sell-off adds to what has been a difficult few weeks for U.S. and international markets. U.S. stocks just closed out their worst month in more than three years. Tuesday's drop also dashed hopes that, after some relatively calm trading Friday and Monday, the stock market's wild swings were coming to an end.

    There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy, but we are going through this correction process.

    "This market remains fragile," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. "There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy, but we are going through this correction process. We've got a rocky road ahead of us."

    Stocks started the day sharply lower and never recovered, with the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) falling as much as 548 points. No part of the market was spared. All 10 sectors of the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell more than 2 percent. Just three stocks in the S&P 500 closed higher.

    "Monday's relatively peaceful markets are a distant memory as Chinese data and shares sparked another severe ... reaction from the developed world," said John Briggs, head of fixed income strategy at RBS.

    In the end, the Dow lost 469.68 points, or 2.8 percent, to 16,058.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ fell 58.33 points, or 3 percent, to 1,913.85 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) fell 140.40 points, 2.9 percent, to 4,636.10.

    As it's been for the last several weeks, the selling and problems started in Asia.

    An official gauge of Chinese manufacturing fell to a three-year low last month, another sign of slowing growth in that country. The manufacturing index, which surveys purchasing managers at factories, dropped to a reading of 49.7 in August from 50.0 in July. A reading below 50 indicates a contraction.

    China's stocks sank on the news, with Shanghai Composite Index closing down 1.2 percent. The index has lost 38 percent of its value since hitting a peak in June.

    Eye on China

    The Chinese economy has been a focus for investors all summer, and the concerns have intensified in the last three weeks. China devalued its currency, the renminbi, in mid-August. Investors interpreted the move as a sign that China's economy wasn't doing as well as previously reported.

    Investors moved into traditional havens like bonds and gold Tuesday. Bond prices rose, pushing the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note down to 2.16 percent from 2.22 percent on Monday. Gold rose $7.30, or 0.6 percent, to settle at $1,139.80 an ounce.

    Faced with the possibility of slowing demand in China, the commodity markets once again took the brunt of the hit.

    U.S. crude oil fell $3.79 to close at $45.41 a barrel in New York. Brent Crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $4.59 to close at $49.56 in London.

    Energy stocks were once again among the biggest decliners. Exxon Mobil (XOM) fell nearly 4 percent and Chevron (CVX) fell 2.5 percent. Exxon is down 22 percent this year, Chevron 30 percent.

    In a sign of how battered energy companies have been this year, ConocoPhillips (COP) announced it was laying off 10 percent of its workers, roughly 1,800 workers, as a reaction this year's plunge in oil prices.

    Along with worries about China, speculation about whether or not the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates as soon as this month continues to weigh on markets. Traders say a lot hinges on the August jobs report, which will be released this Friday. Economists are forecasting that U.S. employers created 220,000 jobs in the month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent.

    Eye on the Fed

    The Federal Reserve meets Sept. 16 and 17. Some economists are predicting that policymakers will be confident enough in the U.S. economic recovery to raise interest rates for the first time in almost a decade. While Fed officials are mostly focused on the U.S. economy, they can't ignore problems in the global economy.

    "China's problems are totally a concern for the Fed," said Tom di Galoma, head of rates trading at ED&F Man Capital. "With inflation remaining low here, I just don't a reason why they would raise rates."

    Markets in Europe were broadly lower. Germany's DAX fell 2.4 percent, France's CAC-40 lost 2.4 percent and the U.K.'s FTSE 100 index declined 3 percent. Japan's Nikkei 225 was also volatile, dropping 3.8 percent. The Hang Seng in Hong Kong sank 2.2 percent. Stocks also fell in South Korea and Australia.

    The dollar fell to 119.68 yen from 121.20 yen on Monday. The euro rose to $1.1307 from $1.1225.

    In other energy markets, wholesale gasoline fell 10.3 cents to close at $1.396 a gallon, heating oil fell 12.3 cents to close at $1.578 a gallon and natural gas rose 1.3 cents to close at $2.702 per 1,000 cubic feet.

    Copper lost 4 cents to $2.30 a pound and palladium slumped $23.05 to $578.50 an ounce. The price of silver edged down four cents to $14.61 an ounce and platinum edged down $2.10 to $1,008.40 an ounce.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Labor Department releases second-quarter productivity data at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Commerce Department releases factory orders for July at 10 a.m.
    • The Federal Reserve releases its Beige Book survey of regional economic conditions at 2 p.m.

     

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    McDonalds To Offer Its Breakfast Menu All Day Long
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    By Lisa Baertlein

    LOS ANGELES -- McDonald's (MCD) U.S. franchisees have voted to begin offering all-day breakfast on Oct. 6, a widely expected move that the company and investors hope will help reverse slumping sales and traffic at the world's biggest fast-food chain.

    Many U.S. consumers like to eat breakfast foods at all hours of the day. McDonald's is the top choice for those so-called "Breakfastarians," according to a recent survey from YouGov BrandIndex, a brand perception research service.

    McDonald's all-day breakfast menu will include hotcakes, yogurt parfaits, oatmeal, hash browns, sausage burritos and either McMuffin sandwiches or biscuit sandwiches, according to the company, which did not say how much the new program is expected to boost results.

    Richard Adams, a former McDonald's franchisee turned consultant, said McDonald's has told franchisees that all-day breakfast will lure 200 customers a week per restaurant.

    McDonald's is expected to back its breakfast expansion with a significant advertising campaign, and Adams predicted that the company will get an initial sales boost from expanded breakfast service.

    All-day sales of McDonald's iconic McMuffin sandwiches at the chain's more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants could increase sales by as much as 2.5 percent a year, according to an internal company presentation obtained by Bloomberg News.

    "Will this be a long term fix for McDonald's USA? We won't know until well into 2016," Adams said.

    Some franchisees worry that extended breakfast service could complicate operations and slow service at a time when company executives have vowed to simplify and streamline the chain's menu.

    To that end, McDonald's said that regional operators can decide whether to cut certain menu items based on local customer preferences.

     

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    cheerful senior couple enjoying ...
    ShutterstockDownsizing to a new home, condo or apartment that costs significantly less than your current home can give your nest egg a quick boost.


    You have many opportunities to fix your retirement finances before you retire. You can ramp up your savings, eliminate debt and make smart decisions about when to sign up for Social Security and other types of retirement benefits. But even after retirement, it's not too late to fix a funding shortfall. Here are some ways to improve your cash flow after leaving your job.

    Remember required minimum distributions. Retirees are required to take annual withdrawals from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs each year after age 70½ and pay the resulting income tax bill. Missing a distribution triggers a 50 percent tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

    Minimize taxes. Many retirees have some of their savings in traditional retirement accounts, Roth accounts and regular savings and investment accounts, each of which has a different tax treatment. Having money in these three types of accounts gives you opportunities to save on taxes and flexibility in when you pay them. Income tax will be due on every distribution from traditional retirement accounts, but retirees can withdraw money from a Roth account that is at least five years old without incurring any additional tax on that money. "From the time they retire until they take Social Security, there's a window of time to do a Roth conversion and to take some money out of the 401(k) account and put it into a Roth IRA," says Anne Ward, a certified financial planner for Allodium Investment Consultants in Minneapolis. "You are actually prepaying taxes, so that later in retirement, when the required minimum distributions start, you are not forced to take out quite so much."

    Downsize. Moving into a new home, condo or apartment that costs significantly less than your current house can allow you to improve your nest egg in a short amount of time. However, you need to factor in the costs of selling your home and relocating, and make sure you will free up enough cash at the end of the house swap to make the move worth it. "If you are going to sell the home that you raised your children in because it's a four-bedroom house in the suburbs with a bigger yard, you have to make sure you go to a lesser priced house," says Kevin Reardon, a certified financial planner for Shakespeare Wealth Management in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. "If it's only $25,000 less, you may save some money on annual maintenance, but much of that will go toward the expenses when moving." If you move outside your current neighborhood, consider whether you will have friends and family nearby to spend time with in retirement.

    Lower cost of living. Retirees often have time to invest in saving money. You might be able to negotiate lower rates on services you use, take the time to find and use a coupon or be able to visit several stores to comparison shop. Once you reach a certain age, you also qualify for senior discounts. "You could do a defensive driving course, and then get a discount on your car insurance," Ward says. "You can take advantage of travel discounts that people in the workforce can't take advantage of because they don't have the flexibility to leave on a Tuesday."

    Extra income. Many retirees take on part-time jobs or find creative ways to bring in income, often for the cash as well as the social benefits the job provides. You might be able to find a part-time job in your community that suits your tastes. "Perhaps if they like golf, they can work at a golf course -- get paid a little bit, maybe some free golf to go with it. For someone who enjoys working around the house, maybe they can get a job at Home Depot for 20 hours a week," says Scott O'Brien, a certified financial planner for WorthPointe Wealth Management in Austin, Texas. "These part-time jobs serve a number of purposes: [You] can delay the start of Social Security payments, thus allowing the benefit to grow, may get health insurance coverage, which otherwise may be very expensive, and gives the retiree something to keep them active and engaged." You can also use the skills from your former career to consult, mentor or occasionally take on projects when it suits your schedule.

    Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at ebrandon@usnews.com.

     

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    Cutting a Card
    Getty Images
    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- Managing a credit card and your credit score at the same time is no easy task -- although that's exactly what consumers have to do on a regular basis, with no shortage of risk to their financial health involved.

    "Credit cards are a convenient way for consumers to purchase items now and pay them off over time," said Charles Chung, vice president of consulting and analytics for Experian. "However, if mismanaged, credit cards can get consumers into an unmanageable financial situation that can have a negative effect on their credit rating and as a result, future credit will come at a higher price or they may even be denied credit."

    It's a common fallacy that closing credit cards will always help your credit rating.

    One area -- call it a "myth," Chung says -- is when consumers close a credit card, and expect that to mean a subsequent hike in their credit score. "It's a common fallacy that closing credit cards will always help your credit rating," Experian says in a recent study. "Focus more on the amount of available credit being utilized, making sure you are not over extending your debt beyond levels you can manage. Closing good accounts could actually hurt your credit rating."

    Of course, where there's a will, there's a way -- and that goes double for consumers looking to close down a card and protect their credit score. First up, know what's at stake when you cut that piece of plastic in half. "Closing a credit card affects two factors used to calculate credit score -- length of credit history, which accounts for 15 percent of your score, and balances -- also known as debt to available credit ratio -- which accounts for 30 percent," says John Janney, past president of the National Financial Awareness Network.

    If you need to close a credit card, it's best to close the youngest account with the smallest credit limit to minimize the damage, Janney adds.

    "Closing older accounts or accounts with larger credit limits may lower your score, because it makes you look, at least on paper, as if you're new to the credit game and have less credit to work with," Janney says. "My recommendation for someone wanting to close a credit card to is shift balances from the youngest card to the oldest card and close the younger account once its balance reaches zero -- not before. The credit effects may be less harmful, but they will also be temporary."

    Also, consider your options -- there is no shortage when it comes to closing a credit card account, experts say.

    There may be many reasons why you want to close a credit card, and understanding why will help you make the right decision and avoid hurting your credit, says Alex Matjanec, chief executive officer of MyBankTracker.

    "For example, if the issue is your APR is too high, negotiate with your card issuer," he says. "In many cases, they would prefer to lower it and keep you than have to spend money acquiring a new customer. On the other hand, if you have multiple cards and some are costing you money, you may want to consolidate as the hit to your credit score may outweigh the money you are wasting on fees."

    The 'Split' Approach

    Of course, you could opt for the "split" approach, and cut your card in half but keep the account open. "Closing a credit card could hurt you because it eliminates your payment history," notes William Matthews, a self-described millennial finance adviser located in Houston. "For example, if you have a Visa card for three years and kept a low balance, paid on time, closing that account will wipe out the good payment history which helps give you a higher credit rating."

    It's better, Matthews says, to cut the card with scissors but leave the account open. "This gets tricky when you have to pay a membership fee for a card you no longer use," he adds. "[Alternatively] keep the card but only use it once a quarter for groceries or gas just to show activity on the card."

    John Schmoll, who runs the personal finance website Frugal Rules, says he has canceled numerous credit cards himself, with minimal to no impact on his credit.

    "Both my wife and I have 810-plus scores," Schmoll says, adding that if you have two or more cards from the same issuing bank, ask to transfer the limit you have on the card you'll be canceling to another card. "This is important, as it won't impact your credit utilization ratio," he says. "I've done this every time I've canceled a card and in most instances the entire amount is transferred."

    Also, if you want to cancel a card, consider calling your other card issuers and asking them to increase your limit. "If you've been a good customer it's possible they will and thus potentially replace what you're losing and mitigate the impact on your credit," Schmoll adds.

    If you're mulling over the notion of closing down a credit card, count to ten first, and consider the right way -- and the wrong way -- to peel away from your plastic. Your credit score will be all the better for it.

     

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  • 09/01/15--22:00: Modern-Day Tipping Dilemmas
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    Asian male barista holding coffee out
    Getty Images
    By Miriam Cross

    Tipping a restaurant server or cabbie goes without saying. But when it comes to a barista or Uber driver, the ex­pectations aren't so clear. Here's how to navigate new tipping practices.

    When I swipe my card to pay for my latte, the payment screen prompts me for a tip. Am I obligated to give one? Once, cafes and carry-out joints simply left a tip jar next to the cash register. Now your receipt may include a line for gratuities­ -- or a digital payment screen may have preset tip options for your order. Manually entering your own tip amount takes time. Hitting "no tip" in front of the cashier makes you look cheap.

    Nevertheless, gratuities aren't necessary in venues without sit-down service (including those where you pay up front and someone brings you your food), says Daniel Post Senning, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute, so don't feel guilty about pressing "no" or drawing a line through the extra space on your receipt. When the counter staff go out of their way to accommodate your requests, however, tipping is a way to show thanks.

    Do I tip my Uber driver as I would a regular taxi driver? Tipping on Uber rides is a murky issue. Contrary to some assumptions, a tip isn't factored into your fare (the only exception is uberTaxi). However, the company states on its website that you don't need to tip. And because the fare is automatically charged to the credit card you have on file, you can't add a tip via the Uber app. (Uber's competitor, Lyft, does allow riders to tip through its app.)

    So are you off the hook with Uber drivers? Yes and no. "Tipping is not a rock-solid social expectation, as in a restaurant," says Post Senning. At the same time, drivers are free to accept gratuities. (It's another misconception that Uber doesn't permit them to.) If you have cash and want to show your appreciation to the driver for, say, efficiently navigating a complicated route, offer the same 15 to 20 percent you'd pay for a regular cab ride.

    Whether or not you tip, be sure to reward a good driver by leaving a positive rating and feedback after you get dropped off, says Thomas P. Farley, of What Manners Most, an etiquette consultancy.

    A restaurant added an automatic 18 percent service charge to my group's check, but the service was terrible. Should we have paid it? More restaurants are charging a mandatory service fee. If you experienced very poor service, speak with the manager and see what remedy he or she suggests or, if you feel a smaller gratuity is appropriate, determine an amount you think is fair and ask the manager to redo the bill. However abysmal the service, though, don't stiff your waiter, because you never know what behind-the-scenes factors affected how you were treated.

     

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  • 09/01/15--22:00: The Best End-of-Summer Sales
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    Family running together on beach
    Getty ImagesSummer might be almost over, but the sales are lingering.
    By Noelle Buhidar

    With all these back-to-school sales flooding the market, it feels as if the sun is setting on our summer state of mind. But here's the thing: Labor Day is super late this year. It isn't until Sept. 7, which means we've got a couple weeks left of that good old summer spirit. So to help you eke out a little more fun before the autumn chill sets in, here's a roundup of the hottest end-of-season clearance sales.

    Patio furniture: Say goodbye to that rickety wicker chair you've been sitting in, and just barely tolerating, all summer long, and splurge on a cushy new patio set. Because retailers are looking to clear their floors and storage space to make way for, dare I say, leaf blowers, snowblowers and even holiday decorations, they'll part with their patio furniture for peanuts. Home Depot is clearing out its inventory for up to 40 percent off, Lowe's is unloading its collection of chairs, tables and rugs for up to 50 percent off and Pier 1 Imports has slashed its prices by up to 70 percent. For outdoor sectionals, check out Pottery Barn, which is currently offering several models for up to nearly $3,000 off. No, that's not a typo. Oh, just think of the lounging you could do! Toss in a cashmere blanket and a good book, and you'll be set well into fall!

    Grills: For hardcore grillers, the outdoor cooking season never ends. So if you're in need of an upgrade, and just think what you could do with six burners rather than just four, strike now while the sales are red-hot. Sears has gas grills for up to 50 percent off. Char-Broil has seared up to $40 off several models, and with a coupon code, you can take off an additional 15 percent (or up to another $55 dollars). Cuisinart grills at Best Buy are up to $46 off. And for your grilling accessories, such as grill grids or sausage baskets, try Sur La Table, which is clearing out its inventory for up to 75 percent off.

    Bathing suits: Trust and believe, there's still time to swim, and even if it's not for long, there's always next year. The sales on swimsuits are just too good to pass up right now. Old Navy, for instance, has bikini bottoms and tops for $5 and $7, respectively (both originally $20), and one-pieces for $13 (originally $40). Macy's has suits by Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Nike and Calvin Klein for over half off, plus an additional 15 percent off with a coupon code. Victoria's Secret's suits are up to 60 percent off. SwimOutlet.com has over 1,000 items on its end-of-summer sale list, including many that are 80 percent off. And while you're at it, you might as well pick up a plush beach towel, too. Lands' End has sprawling 78-inch-long polka-dot ones for $15 (originally $40), while Pottery Barn has a few for nearly half price, plus free shipping.

    Shades: You've probably abused your poor sunglasses by sitting on them, dropping them and tossing them in your bag, where they get scratched by sand. So now is the perfect time to consider replacing your old pair. After all, the sun shines all year long, and the sales on shades are gleaming right now. Bluefly.com has designer models, including Givenchy, Chloe, Dior, Jimmy Choo and Oliver Peoples, for up to 85 percent off. (Every single pair of Bertha shades, which retail for $450, for example, are now $59.) The Sunglass Hut has over 250 pairs on sale, including Ray-Bans, Pradas and Miu Mius. For a sportier look, OpticsPlanet.com has several Bolle models on sale for nearly half off until Labor Day. The prices are so good that it's worth taking the chance, even if you can't try them on. Besides, each of those retailers offers free returns.

    Boards: You've watched your friends (in real life and on Instagram) riding the waves and paddling into the sunset. Now's the time for you to get in on the action, as surf and stand-up paddleboards are on sale. Global Surf Industries is currently offering both types of boards for up to 60 percent off. For paddlers, L.L.Bean has many models for up to 20 percent off, while Overton's has more than 50 boards on sale, most for over $100 off. For wave riders, Backcountry.com has brands, including Surftech and Lib Technologies, for up to 50 percent off. Of course, you can always just drop into your local surf shop, especially if you need guidance on selecting the right board. Some even sell gently used boards, a perfect introduction for kooks. (That's surfer slang for beginner. Of course, you'll learn that soon enough.)

    Now get out there and have fun!

    Noelle Buhidar is a shopping expert at RetailMeNot, a leading digital offers destination that helps consumers save money when they shop.

     

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    WD-40
    Jeepers Media/Flickr
    By Karla Bowsher

    WD-40 is marketed as a "multi-use product."

    It's known for the capabilities for which it's usually enlisted -- such as lubricating squeaky hinges, loosening rusted parts and driving out moisture. (In fact, "WD" stands for "water displacement.")

    But WD-40's uses extend well beyond those roles.

    WD-40 Co. (WDFC) offers thousands of uses for its namesake product on its website, including 2,000-plus uses contributed by the product's devotees. Pros and amateurs alike have been discovering more uses since the original WD-40 product was developed in 1953 after 39 failed attempts. (Thus, the "40" in its name.)

    We've rounded up some of the least known but most helpful uses below.

    If your instinct is to save a buck by buying a generic equivalent, we applaud you. But following through on that instinct might be more challenging than usual in WD-40's case.

    The product has few competitors, equity research analyst Joseph Altobello, currently of Raymond James Financial, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2013. Liquid Wrench, a brand-name product, and a few store brands could be the closest things to knock-offs.

    The newspaper noted the following about the San Diego headquarters of WD-40:

    The company keeps a room filled with knock-off brands that have tried and failed to mimic the product. Some of the cans look uncannily like regular WD-40. [Chief Executive Garry] Ridge calls that room the mortuary.

    If you try a new use for WD-40 or a knock-off, test it in a small inconspicuous area first. WD-40's list of fan-submitted uses notes that the company has not tested those suggestions, and that "customers should exercise common sense whenever using WD-40" and read the label.

    Indoors
    • Remove stickers, decals, price tags and tape. It also works on adhesive residue they might leave behind.
    • Remove scuff marks. This includes shoe scuff marks on floors and the interior of car doors as well as chair-back scuff marks on running boards on walls.
    • Remove dried toothpaste stains.
    • Dissolve glues. Examples from WD-40's website include removing glue from carpet, leather and other surfaces; removing hair-extension glue from hair; and removing glue stains from jeans.
    • Remove coffee stains. Examples from the website include cups, tables, counters and floor tiles. Just be sure to wipe up all fluid from floors so no one slips.
    • Remove chewing gum. The website mentions gum on hair, shoes, carpet, concrete and lunch trays.
    • Remove permanent marker from dry-erase boards.
    • Remove crayon, colored pencil, modeling clay and Silly Putty. Crayola specifically recommends WD-40, among other products, for various surfaces.
    • Separate stuck Lego building bricks.
    • Clean grass stains, paint and dog poop off shoes.
    • Dislodge salt-impregnated ice from boot soles.
    Outdoors
    • Deter wasps from nesting. For evicting the buggers from a nest or preventing them from building one, users of Reddit's "LifeProTips" message board agree on WD-40's effectiveness. Just don't spray a nest while wasps are around. As one commenter who made this mistake puts it: "They do not like it, and will attack."
    • Prevent grass from collecting on lawnmower blades.
    • Deter squirrels from raiding backyard bird feeders. WD-40 Co. CEO Ridge recently told the Los Angeles Times that his favorite story about an unusual use for WD-40 was about a woman who sprayed it on her bird feeder pole because squirrels were filching bird food: "Can you imagine those little squirrels trying to climb up that lubricated pole?"
    • Prevent snow from sticking to shovels and snowplow blades.
    • Open frozen mailbox doors.
    Vehicles
    • Remove dead bugs from various parts. WD-40's website mentions radiators, grills, bumpers and paint.
    • Remove bird droppings from hoods and roofs.
    • Prevent car parts from freezing in winter. The website mentions locks and windshield-wiper spray nozzles.
    • Remove barnacles from the bottom of boats.
    For more unusual uses for household products, check out "85 Uses for Baking Soda -- and How It Could Save Your Life" and "33 Uses for Baby Oil (Most of Which Don't Involve Babies)."

    Do you have a favorite use for WD-40? Or a favorite alternative product? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!


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    Inside A HireLive Retail Job Fair As Initial Jobless Claims Are Released
    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Private employers maintained a steady pace of hiring in August despite recent global financial market turmoil, suggesting that labor market momentum likely remains strong enough for the Federal Reserve to consider an interest rate hike this year.

    The ADP National Employment Report showed private payrolls increased 190,000 last month. While that was below economists' expectations for a gain of 201,000 jobs, it was a step-up from the 177,000 positions created in July.

    The ADP (ADP) report, which is jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, was published Wednesday ahead of the government's more comprehensive employment report to be released on Friday.

    Businesses are still hiring, but it is not clear if Friday's report will give the Fed either an 'all-clear' or a 'let's go slow' signal.

    "Businesses are still hiring, but it is not clear if Friday's report will give the Fed either an 'all-clear' or a 'let's go slow' signal," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 220,000 jobs in August after rising 215,000 in July. There is, however, a risk of a weaker number as the first print of August payrolls has tended to be weaker in the last several years before being revised higher.

    But some economists were encouraged by the ADP report, which showed job gains in all sectors, except in the energy industry.

    "ADP does not show the same initial under-reporting bias in the initial release of the August data as payroll data from the government appear to display," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

    "This apparent consistent trend in ADP payroll gains would reassure us that the trend in employment was little changed in August in the event that payroll growth drops noticeably below 200,000 in Friday's report."

    The unemployment rate is forecast to tick down 0.1 percentage point to a near 7½-year low of 5.2 percent. The August employment report will be released less than two weeks before the Fed's Sept. 16-17 policy meeting.

    The chances of an interest rate hike this month have been diminished by a global stock market sell-off in the wake of poor economic data from China. In addition, U.S. factory activity slowed to a more than two-year low in August, with some economists citing the financial markets turbulence as a factor.

    However, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer told CNBC last week it was too early to decide whether the stock market rout had made a rate hike this month less compelling.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell. Stocks on Wall Street rebounded from Tuesday's sharp losses.

    Strong Domestic Activity

    In August, manufacturing payrolls increased 7,000 after rising only 1,000 in July, the ADP report showed. The construction industry added 17,000 jobs in August on top of 15,000 jobs in July. Services industry employment increased by 173,000 jobs in August following a gain of 170,000 in July.

    "Outside of manufacturing, the domestic activity data is very strong," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto. "But Fed officials are clearly worried about an economic slowdown in China, commodity prices are lower, and there is little evidence of any marked pick-up in either wage growth or core inflation."

    In a second report, the Labor Department said nonfarm productivity increased at its strongest pace in 1½ years in the second quarter, keeping wage inflation subdued for now.

    The government revised productivity to show it rising at a 3.3 percent annual rate, the quickest since the fourth quarter of 2013, instead of the 1.3 percent pace reported last month.

    But the trend in productivity remains weak. Productivity rose 0.7 percent from a year ago instead of the 0.3 percent increase reported last month.

    Growth in productivity is an important determinant of the economy's non-inflationary speed limit. Though the second-quarter bounce back is dampening wage pressure for now, the weak trend in productivity suggests the economy's growth potential could be lower than the 1.5 to 2 percent pace that economists have been estimating.

    That would imply the spare capacity in the economy is being squeezed out more quickly than thought and that inflation pressures may take hold a little bit faster than had been anticipated.

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, fell at a 1.4 percent rate in the second quarter, rather than increasing at a 0.5 percent rate as previously reported. Unit labor costs rose 1.7 percent compared to the second quarter of 2014.

    A third report from the Commerce Department new orders for U.S. factory goods rose for a second straight month in July on strong demand for automobiles, which could help to keep manufacturing supported as it deals with the buoyant dollar and softening global demand.

    -Chuck Mikolajczak contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    woman sitting at the desk ...
    Shutterstock
    By Bobbi Rebell

    NEW YORK -- Millennials get plenty of recognition for frugality and their desire to share everything from cars to clothes, but they also have the lowest average credit score of any generation, according to a new study.

    The average millennial credit score is 625, and 28 percent of them are ranked below 579, says NerdWallet, a personal finance website. In the world of credit scores, anything above 660 (out of 850) is considered good.

    Based on millennial credit habits, those scores may not improve.

    Among the key issues: Some millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) are shunning credit cards completely after hearing so many debt-related horror stories from the financial crisis. Others are applying for the wrong cards and getting rejected.

    Millennials are misunderstanding, or are simply unaware of, the benefits of credit cards.

    "Millennials are misunderstanding, or are simply unaware of, the benefits of credit cards," says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's resident credit card expert.

    A recent study by Experian found that millennials are making student loan debt more of a priority. That's in contrast to the previous generation, Gen X, which prioritized getting credit cards.

    About a third of millennials have never even applied for a credit card, NerdWallet says. That means they aren't building credit and will have a hard time when they need a credit history.

    Millennials' avoidance of getting into the credit card game will cost them in the long run. For example, you need a solid credit score to rent an apartment, get the best insurance rates or just get a loan.

    Credit scores are even sometimes used to vet job candidates these days. Credit history is key for making grownup purchases -- and the length of that history is a big part of your credit score.

    The good news is that the majority of millennials have applied for a credit card. But when they do apply for credit, about half (48 percent) are motivated by an advertisement or promotion, according to NerdWallet's research. That can lead to a bad fit.

    For example, a millennial who doesn't drive shouldn't apply for a gas card. Credit cards aren't one size fits all.

    Ironically, NerdWallet's study found that millennials with the lower FICO scores -- between 300 and 579 -- are applying for credit the most. Not surprisingly, they also get approved less frequently.

    Credit Strategies

    Getting credit for the first time needs to be done strategically. Here's why: when a consumer applies for a new credit card, his credit score gets what is called a "hard" credit inquiry. The more inquiries a consumer has, the riskier he or she appears to be to lenders, and that in turn lowers his or her credit score. If you are starting out cold with no score, that gets amplified.

    "A good rule of thumb is to wait six months to a year between card applications," says McQuay.

    NerdWallet recommends Millennials take advantage of the free FICO scores now offered by many credit card issuers.

    Other potential sources for this information for some student borrowers include Sallie Mae, along with credit counselors.

    A common pitfall to avoid: store credit cards, which often come with an initial discount off items purchased. "They say, 'Do you want to save 10 percent?' And my answer is always only if you don't run my credit and that ends the conversation," says Cary Carbonaro, author of "The Money Queen's Guide."

    Your credit score goes down the more you shop for credit and keep adding outstanding credit lines, Carbonaro notes.

    Carbonaro's advice is to apply for low-limit cards and charge small amounts on a regular basis. Pay off your bills every month and slowly build a credit score.

    Be careful of rewards cards, too. Or at least do the math before you sign up. The average annual fee on a reward card is $58. The average reward rate is 1.14 cents a point. You have to spend $5,088, just to earn back your annual fee. If that's not likely to happen, it is better to go for the no-fee card, especially since almost one in five people didn't redeem any of their rewards last year.

    Paying cash for everything may sound great. But, like it or not, you need credit to establish yourself in the financial world. It's better to reward yourself with a strong credit history.

     

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    Aerial View of the Pentagon in Virginia
    Getty Images
    The month of August was a weird one at the United States Department of Defense, in at least two ways. For one thing, the Pentagon awarded $38.66 billion on new military hardware and services (not counting servicemembers' salaries and benefits). That's considerably more than what it ordinarily spends in any single month's time.

    For another, the Pentagon spent more than half of that money in just one day.

    And on one single contract.

    Introducing the Nation's Most Transparent Government Agency: The Pentagon

    How do we know this? Let's give credit where credit is due. The Pentagon may be a big spender (of your money). But it's a whole lot more open about how it spends that money, and what it buys with it, than are many government agencies. Every day of the week, almost in real time, the Department of Defense reports to U.S. taxpayers on what contracts it's issued, to whom, and for how much -- all right out in the open on its website.

    Today, we're going to give you a glimpse at those contracts, as we review the top five most interesting Pentagon contracts awarded last month. We'll begin with the one that knocked the lights out:

    $21 Billion for Training, but Not 1 Cent for Tribute

    More than anything else, the U.S. Pentagon spent its money on training last month. In the largest dollar-value contract we've seen in ... well, in a very long time, the U.S. Air Force contracted with 25 separate companies to supply it with "training systems."

    $20.9 billion worth of training systems. That's the amount of hardware "encompassing complex aircrew, maintenance, and system-specific training systems in support of warfighter training at operating locations worldwide" that USAF will be buying from defense companies such as Lockheed Martin (LMT), L-3 Communications (LLL) and Northrop Grumman (NOC) over the next 10 years.

    Call Tech Support!

    The training contract was definitely the biggest news coming out of the Pentagon last month, but it was far from the only large contract awarded. In fact, last month saw two more $2 billion-plus awards days, and a handful of $1 billion-plus days besides.

    On one of these days, Microsoft (MSFT) picked up a cool $163 million in extra funding on its contract to provide the Defense Information Systems Agency unspecified "Microsoft enterprise technical support services." As the Pentagon confides, in total, this contract is now worth $575 million to Mr. Softie.

    Sub-Hunters for the Navy

    Another of those big-dollar days was dominated by Boeing (BA), which grabbed a $1.49 billion deal late in the month on a partial-foreign military sales contract to supply the U.S. Navy with nine P-8A Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft and to sell four more to the Royal Australian Air Force.

    The U.S. Pentagon is apparently acting as intermediary on the latter sale. The Australians, however, will pick up the tab.

    And Speaking of 'Foreign Military Sales'...

    On Aug. 25, Bell Helicopter Textron won a $581 million order to supply nearly three dozen UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper combat helicopters to the U.S. Marine Corps -- but not just the Corps. As described in the Pentagon's announcement, these very modern combat helicopters have been ordered by "the Marine Corps and government of Pakistan."

    Uncharacteristically, the Pentagon wasn't specific on which of these helicopters are destined for the U.S. armed forces and which for the Pakistanis.

    This Is Your Captain Speaking. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto...

    Choosing one final "interesting" contract from a month that saw so many isn't easy. But after hitting all the biggest dollar-value awards, we'll close today with a very small one, but one that has big implications for the service. For a mere $9.8 million, Sikorsky Aircraft Company (soon to be owned by Lockheed Martin) has been hired to begin Phase II of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's ALIAS program.

    Under this program, Sikorsky will attempt to turn one of its iconic Black Hawk helicopters into a flying robot -- a very large, but unmanned, aerial vehicle. Sikorsky's task, according to the announcement of Phase I of the project earlier this year, is to "develop and insert new automation into existing aircraft to enable operation with reduced onboard crew." This would render the Black Hawk an "optionally piloted" vehicle that could, at need, fly into a war zone completely autonomous of human control, and at no risk to a pilot. So even if this was one of the smallest contracts awarded last month, it just might be one of the most important.

    These awards represent only a small sampling of the hundreds of contracts your tax dollars funded last month, of course. To see the rest, check out the U.S. Department of Defense contracts website here.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith wonders if the Pentagon knows that Toys 'R' Us already has remote control helicopters on sale already -- for just $19.99. Follow him on Facebook for all the latest in defense news.

    The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. 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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    Unhappy baby
    Getty Images
    By BREE FOWLER

    NEW YORK -- Several of the most popular Internet-connected baby monitors lack basic security features, making them vulnerable to even the most basic hacking attempts, according to a report from a cybersecurity firm.

    The possibility of an unknown person watching their baby's every move is a frightening thought for many parents who have come to rely on the devices to keep an eye on their little ones. In addition, a hacked camera could provide access to other Wi-Fi-enabled devices in a person's home, such as a personal computer or security system.

    The research released Wednesday by Boston-based Rapid7 Inc. looks at nine baby monitors made by eight different companies. They range in price from $55 to $260.

    There's a certain leap of faith you're taking with your child when you use one of these.

    The cameras are often mounted over a baby's crib or another place where they spend a large amount of time. They work by filming the child, then sending that video stream to a personal website or an app on a smartphone or tablet. Some of the cameras also feature noise or motion detectors and alert parents when the baby makes a sound or moves.

    "There's a certain leap of faith you're taking with your child when you use one of these," says Mark Stanislav, a senior security consultant at Rapid7 and one of the report's authors.

    The Rapid7 researchers found serious security problems and design flaws in all of the cameras they tested. Some had hidden, unchangeable passwords, often listed in their manuals or online, that could be used to gain access. In addition, some of the devices didn't encrypt their data streams, or some of their web or mobile features, Stanislav says.

    'Internet of Things'

    The problems with the cameras highlight the security risks associated with what's become known as the "Internet of things." Homes are becoming increasingly connected, with everything from TVs to slow cookers now featuring Wi-Fi connections. But many consumer devices often don't undergo rigorous security testing and could be easy targets for hackers.

    And if a hacker has access to one connected device, he or she could potentially access everything tethered to that home's Wi-Fi network, whether it's a home computer storing personal financial information or a company's computer system that's being accessed by an employee working from home.

    In the Rapid7 study, researchers rated the devices' security on a 250-point scale. The scores then received a grade of between "A'' and "F." Of those tested, eight received an "F," while one received a "D." All of the camera manufactures were notified of the problems earlier this summer and some have taken steps to fix the problems.

    "When one gets an 'F' and one gets a 'D minus,' there isn't an appreciable difference," Stanislav says. "And unlike a laptop where you can install firewalls and antimalware, you can't do that here."

    For example, researchers noted that the Phillips In.Sight B120 baby monitor, which retails for about $78, had a direct, unencrypted connection to the Internet. That could allow a hacker watch its video stream online, as well as remotely access the camera itself and change its settings, the report says.

    Phillips NV released a statement noting that the model in question has been discontinued. It added that its brand of video baby monitors is now licensed to Gibson Innovations, which is aware of the problems and it working on a software update designed to fix it.

    The researchers also tested the iBaby and iBaby M3S, Summer Infant's Summer Baby Zoom WiFi Monitor & Internet Viewing System, Lens Peek-a-View, Gynoii, TRENDnet WiFi Baby Cam TV-IP743SIC, WiFiBaby WFB2015 and Withings WBP01.

    Officials for iBaby, Lens Laboratories Inc. and TRENDnet didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Withings said he couldn't immediately comment on the report.

    Summer Infant says in a statement saying that it's reviewing the report's findings and will make sure that the needed precautions are taken to protect its customers' security. Gynoii says that it's reaching out to Rapid7 in hopes of fixing the issues with its camera.

    And WiFiBaby released a statement defending its camera's security, noting that its latest software requires users to set their own unique password when they set up their camera.

    Higher camera prices didn't translate to higher levels of security. In fact, the pricier models usually came with more features, which left unsecured could give hackers more ways to potentially access a camera or its video stream, Stanislav says.

    In order to protect themselves, consumers should keep an eye out for any camera or mobile application updates. In addition, if parents still want to use a camera that's known to be susceptible to hackers, they should use it sparingly and unplug it when it's not in use, Stanislav says.

     

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    Economy Fed Rate Hike
    Susan Walsh/AP
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- While U.S. housing and auto sales showed strength over the summer, manufacturers were feeling pressure from China's economic slowdown and the oil industry was squeezed by lower energy prices.

    That's the U.S. economic picture that emerges from the Federal Reserve's latest look at business conditions around the country. The Fed said 11 of its 12 regional banks reported that the economy grew at least modestly in July through mid-August. One of the Fed's regions -- Cleveland -- reported only slight growth.

    The Fed report, known as the beige book, will be used for discussion when the central bank meets next on Sept. 16-17. The gathering will be closely watched because of the possibility it will decide to start raising interest rates from record lows near zero.

    The recent stock market turbulence, triggered by worries about China's slowdown, has led some analysts to lower the odds for a Fed move in September. But other economists still believe a Fed rate hike this month is likely, especially if markets stabilize and Friday's unemployment report shows strong job gains continued in August.

    The Beige Book survey showed a somewhat mixed picture for manufacturing, with 10 regions reporting stable or positive growth overall but New York and Kansas City seeing declines.

    The Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond and Dallas districts all said that a strong dollar had dampened manufacturing activity. Three districts cited China's deceleration as dragging on some business.

    The Chinese slowdown hurt demand for wood products in the San Francisco district, chemicals in the Boston area and high-tech goods in the Dallas region.

    The survey found that real estate activity improved throughout the country, with home sales and home prices climbing in all 12 districts. Auto sales were also a bright spot in most regions.

    "Expectations are generally optimistic that auto sales will improve or continue to be strong through the end of the year," the report said.

    Wages were reported to be "relatively stable" in most regions, although several districts noted wages heading higher in some industries. St. Louis said that almost three-fourths of the businesses surveyed reported rising wages in the last three months, while Cleveland reported intensifying wage pressure in construction, retail and transportation sectors. Kansas City and Dallas, both regions hit by layoffs in the oil industry, reported wage growth had either slowed or was flat.

    The overall economy expanded at a healthy annual rate of 3.7 percent in the April-June quarter. Most forecasters believe growth has moderated slightly to around 2.5 percent in the current July-September quarter but are looking for an acceleration to around 3 percent growth in the final three months of the year.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK - Wall Street stocks jumped almost 2 percent Wednesday in the latest volatile session as investors weighed the impact of a stumbling Chinese economy and global market turmoil on the Federal Reserve's impending decision about when to raise interest rates.

    U.S. investors have weathered over two weeks of unusually wide-swinging trade that has left the S&P 500 with its worst monthly drop in three years and a loss of 8.5 percent from an all-time high in May.

    What we're seeing today is not a recovery. It's market volatility, it's nervousness, it's an inability to call the direction of the market.

    "What we're seeing today is not a recovery. It's market volatility, it's nervousness, it's an inability to call the direction of the market," said Jake Dollarhide, chief executive officer of Longbow Asset Management in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    "Through now and October we're going to see a lot more of this, a lot of volatility."

    U.S. labor markets were tight enough to fuel small wage gains in some professions in recent weeks, though some companies already felt a chill from an economic slowdown in China, the Fed said.

    The combination of more demand for workers and worries about Chinese economic growth underscores the challenge faced by the Fed at a Sept. 16-17 meeting where it may decide to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) jumped 1.8 percent to end at 16,351.31 points. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) climbed 1.8 percent to 1,948.85 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) surged 2.5 percent to 4,749.98.

    The CBOE Volatility index, Wall Street's "fear gauge," fell 11 percent but stayed in territory not seen since 2011 after Standard & Poor's cut its credit rating on the United States for the first time.

    The recent turbulence has left the S&P 500's valuation at 15.1 times expected earnings, inexpensive compared to around 17 for much of 2015, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data. But investors fear that the outlook for earnings may darken as China's economy loses steam.

    Concerns about China's economy pushed major U.S. indexes down almost 3 percent Tuesday and intensified fears of a long-term sell-off.

    Tech Gain Leads

    On Wednesday, all of the 10 major S&P sectors were higher, led by the technology index's 2.6 percent rise, helped by Apple (AAPL), up 4.3 percent, and Microsoft (MSFT), up 3.7 percent.

    Shares of banks and bond insurers rose after Puerto Rico's indebted public utility PREPA reached a deal with a key bondholder group.

    OFG Bancorp (OFG) surged 19.6 percent and First Bancorp (FBP) rose 9.8 percent.

    Ambarella (AMBA) slid 8.5 percent after the chipmaker's third-quarter revenue forecast failed to impress investors. Key-customer GoPro (GPRO) fell 5.5 percent after Raymond James said Ambarella's forecast likely means GoPro won't launch more products this year.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,256 to 793; on the Nasdaq, 1,967 issues rose and 875 fell. The S&P posted 1 new 52-week high and 10 new lows; the Nasdaq composite racked up 20 new highs and 52 new lows.

    Volume was lighter than in recent days. About 6.7 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, compared to an average of 9.1 billion in the past five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -Sinead Carew in New York and Tanya Agrawal in Bangalore contributed reporting.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims, and the Commerce Department releases international trade data for July.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for August, and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Campbell Soup (CPB)
    • Cooper Cos. (COO)
    • Medtronic (MDT)
    • Verifone Systems (PAY)

     

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