Saturday, February 26, 2011


I will say that there are individuals who are fat sensitive and will develop a less favorable cholesterol level on a high fat diet than on a low fat diet.

Intensive study of medical reports strongly suggests that less than one person in three falls in to this category. If the results are not to your liking, you may be a person who is fat sensitive. So for the next interval, eat only the lean proteins.

But if you are happy with the new lower fat version of the diet, still losing at a comfortable rate, and feeling just as well, stay with it and have another lipid profile drawn. A cholesterol elevation runs counter to the anticipated trend and would be significant.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

When will unemployment checks be mailed? Not soon

evin Landry had to give up his San Diego apartment because he couldn't afford the rent after his federal unemployment benefits were cut off in early June.

Since then, Landry and his cocker spaniel, Curley, have been sleeping in his 1991 Dodge Dakota in a church parking lot. He sold his possessions and applied for food stamps in order to survive.

And even though President Obama signed a measure Thursday that extends benefits through November, Landry knows he won't get his $475 weekly check anytime soon.

The last time Congress allowed the benefits to lapse, it took a month for him to start getting payments again.

"I'll just have to scrape by," said Landry, who lost his job as a credit manager for K2 Skis in September 2008. "There's nothing I can do about it. I've learned to deal with it."

Though Congress has finally pushed the deadline to file for federal extended insurance through Nov. 30, it could take weeks before the jobless start getting their checks again.

Nearly 2.9 million people ran out of benefits in the nearly two months it took Congress to extend the filing deadline beyond June 2.

But just when the checks start hitting bank accounts and mailboxes again depends on the state.

The long delay wreaked havoc on the state unemployment insurance technology that process the payments. States often have to call in experts to reprogram the computer systems, which are an average of 22 years old.

And state officials have to make sure that the unemployed were eligible to receive benefits during the interim. If the jobless stopped looking for work or earned income during June or July, they may not qualify.

"States will move as quickly as possible to resume [federal unemployment] payments, but it will not happen overnight," said Rich Hobbie, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. "Because the program has lapsed for over a month, state workforce agencies need to ensure that claimants qualify for all retroactive payments."

The unemployed should check their state agency's website for updates or wait for a letter with instructions on restarting their payments and claiming the retroactive sum, said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.

Some states asked the jobless to continue sending in the forms certifying they were eligible for payments. The unemployed in those places will likely see their checks sooner.

But it will still take time, said Steve Meissner, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which told its 64,000 claimants who were affected by the lapse to keep filing.

"We will do it as quickly as we can," he said, adding the state is still waiting to receive official guidance from the federal Department of Labor. "There are always some ambiguities because unemployment law is pretty complicated."

The checks, however, can't come too quickly for the jobless. For many, it's the only way they can afford housing, utilities, food and car payments, Conti said.

Vicki Wolf of Lebanon, Pa., is anxiously awaiting her $393 weekly check so she can pay her rent and buy essentials, such as shampoo. The former call center supervisor, who continued sending in her forms to the state, is behind on all her bills because she hasn't had any income since June 5.

Pennsylvania officials said in a statement that those who kept filing their paperwork should receive payment within two weeks. The rest of the more than 200,000 state residents who lost their benefits should submit their claims online as soon as possible.

Wolf, at least, is one of the luckier ones. She starts a new job at a trucking company on Monday, though she won't see her first paycheck until mid-August. Until then, she'll have to walk 45 minutes to work from her home.

"I don't have money to buy gas to put in the car," she said.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Renting: The new American dream?

The American dream of home ownership has turned out to be the American nightmare for those who could never really afford a home in the first place.

Many borrowers are now in deep trouble as home prices have plummeted and the payments on bubble-era adjustable rate mortgages have shot up. Foreclosures are still continuing at an alarming pace.

If the so-called Great Recession has taught us anything, it's that buying a house is not a divine right. It's a privilege to be earned only after you've saved up a nice chunk of cash for a down payment and are in a healthy enough financial position to keep making those monthly mortgage payments .

So for many consumers, renting is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. That's worth keeping in mind now that some experts think home prices are close to bottoming and fixed mortgage rates are still fairly low.

Sure, we've all been taught that buying real estate is the smartest thing you can do in order to build wealth. That's probably still true for the long haul.

But like with any investment, you should only make a purchase if you can afford the near-term hit that comes from doling out all that money now. Plus, you have to be able to stomach the possibility that the value of the house may actually fall over a short period.

And guess what? It seems many people are in fact coming to the realization that, for now at least, it makes more sense to rent instead of buy.

Jerry Davis, senior vice president of property operations for UDR (UDR), a Denver-based real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns and manages apartments, said that before the housing market collapsed, about 25% of the company's renters that moved out of apartments did so because they were buying a home.

Now, only about 12% are moving out to purchase a home, and in some of the harder hit real estate markets, such as California, Davis said that fewer than 10% of movers are buying a house of their own.

"Even though prices have come down, you're not seeing a big exodus of renters to buy homes," Davis said. "Buying a house used to be the way to get rich, but people are afraid to jump back in."
0:00 /2:39Whitney: Housing set to fall again

In addition, banks also appear to have learned lessons from the housing crash. Many remain reluctant to give mortgages to even the most credit-worthy consumers.

"It was Shakespeare who wrote that when home prices are declining, neither a borrower nor a lender be," joked Edward Leamer, chief economist for the Ceridian-UCLA Pulse of Commerce Index and professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

Simply put, many consumers just aren't buying the notion that the economy is getting better. For many, the stock market rally does not make their daily lives any easier. Consumers are more interested in the job market improving than the Dow or S&P 500 hitting highs.

"This is a frugal recovery. People are more reluctant to buy homes as they would in a normal recovery," Leamer said. "If you don't have a job or are worrying about your job, you're not going to buy a home. That's the ultimate statement of optimism about the future."

Add that up and it's reasonable to expect a rental boom that could last for some time. That's not lost on Wall Street. Shares of UDR, for example, are up 20% this year.
Check out CNNMoney's new market pages

Other apartment REITs have also surged this year and an analyst at RBC Capital Markets upgraded UDR, BRE Properties (BRE), Camden Properties Trust (CPT) and Apartment Investment and Management (AIV) last week, citing their growth potential.

Thomas Toomey, CEO of UDR, said that favorable demographics will also probably drive more people to rent than buy. He pointed to the increasing number of retiring Baby Boomers who may look to downgrade from bigger houses to apartments.

He also said that record-high college enrollment levels are a boon for UDR and other apartment owners. Most recent college graduates, particularly those finding work in cities, are not in a position to buy a home.

Toomey added that cities are also interested in building more apartments closer to where people work for environmental reasons.

"So if you look toward the future, it's not just demographics and people making a conscious decision of whether they can afford a home that will lead to more renters. Cities want more apartments for younger and older generations," he said.

Of course, that's exactly what you'd expect the head of a company that owns apartments to say. But I also agree with him. And I'm curious to hear what you think.

Are any of you long-term renters finally looking to buy? Homeowners that want to sell and not deal with a mortgage anymore? E-mail me and if I get enough feedback, I may do a follow-up column about renting versus buying.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

6 smart ways to spend your tax refund

Expecting a large chunk of change back from the IRS? Think carefully about where you want to spend it.

Nearly 90% of Americans are set to receive refunds this year at an average of $3,036, up 10% from last year. That's a lot of extra cash in your pocket, especially if you're just barely scraping by, or don't have any income at all.

Instead of spending that check on a shopping spree or splurge, it's important to put that money -- or at least some of it -- into something that will benefit you in the long term.

But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it too. Just make sure you come up with a plan before you hit the stores.

Writing it down is a good place to start, suggests Diahann Lassus, co-founder of wealth management firm Lassus Wherley.

"The most important thing is to really think about where you want to spend that money and put it all down on a piece of paper," said Lassus. "Because many times, the dollars are bigger in your head than they are in your bank account so you end up spending more than what you've got."

Here are a few suggestions to help you craft your strategy:

Pay down debt: The last thing most people get excited about when receiving a refund in the mail is paying down debt.

But unfortunately, this is where the majority of your refund should go if you have a lot of debt, said Lassus. Just how much depends on what you owe.

"If you have huge credit card debt, a much larger portion of the refund needs to go to paying off this debt," said Lassus.

With lenders hiking fees and raising rates, debt is becoming increasingly expensive. So while it might not seem that exciting, you'll be able to sleep a little easier when you start making a dent in your debt. And once you've paid it off, you'll have more money in your pocket for discretionary spending and enjoyment.

Lassus usually recommends paying off the cards with the highest interest first. But if you have a few credit cards with small amounts on them, it might make more sense to pay some of these off first, she said.

Save for a rainy day: Everyone should have at least 3 months' worth of expenses in a liquid savings account. But especially if you're unemployed or worried about keeping your job, this is a crucial way to allocate some of your refund, said Tom Orecchio of Modera Wealth Management.

Chances are that at some point throughout the year, you will need to replace an appliance, pay a medical bill or repair something that's broken. Planning for a large expense later in the year can take the stress off of your weekly paycheck and give you a little extra wiggle room.

"Making sure you have adequate short-term savings is the second most important thing you can do [behind paying off debt]," said Orecchio. "And those who are employed but don't feel like they are on solid footing really need to make sure they have an emergency fund to dip into."

Orecchio suggests keeping this money in a high-yield money market or savings account that comes with a debit card or an electronic link to checking or ATM access.

Save for retirement: If you've taken care of your outstanding debt and have a healthy emergency fund, the next step is to tuck away some money for retirement.

To plan ahead, Orecchio said he advises people to look into whether they are eligible for a Roth IRA, or a tax-deductible IRA in order to save money on a tax-deferred basis.

Contributing as much of your refund as possible to a fund like this will allow you to worry a little less about your golden years, he said. The government allows you to contribute up to $5,000 a year into an IRA, or $6,000 if you're age 50 or older.

Invest in yourself: If you're unemployed or may be in danger of losing your job, earmarking a chunk of your refund to help you learn a new skill isn't a bad idea either, Orecchio said.

"If you have enough money put aside and don't have major debt, you might want to use this money to invest in yourself," said Orecchio.

"Go back to school to train for a new field of work, buy nice clothes for interviews, take a course on improving your résumé and interviewing skills or anything else that will improve your chances of getting a job."

Buy something you need: Saving up for a new home? This year's refund could help you make that down payment.

If you don't have debt to worry about and have a good amount of emergency cash on hand, go ahead and use your refund to complete a big purchase, said Lassus. While it might be tempting to make impulse purchases with your refund, putting it toward a planned purchase is a smarter choice.

"If you need a new car because yours is dying or want a washing machine because your old one is broken, put a certain amount of the refund aside for things like that," she said. "Refund dollars are really good for certain purchases you know you'll have to make."

Have a little fun: Even if you do need to shore up savings or pay off debt, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of your money. Making sure to do something for yourself can make you feel a little better about writing a check to the credit card company, or tucking it away in a retirement account for the next 20 years.

"You should save some of [your refund] for fun," said Lassus. "Whether it's something as simple as getting ice cream or eating out once a week or putting some dollars aside for a family vacation, sometimes you want to take at least 5% and do something fun with it."

And after the filing deadline, retailers, restaurants, hotels, spas and auto centers are ready to lure you in with tax season specials.

From clever $10.40 and $9.90 discounts at hotels and restaurants to half-priced spa treatments, be on the look out for deals reserved especially for IRS checks.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bernanke: Fed should oversee all banks

As Congress considers limiting the Federal Reserve's regulatory authority to just the country's largest bank holding companies, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated on Saturday that the central bank should retain power over banks of all sizes.

"Because of the remarkable diversity of the U.S. financial system, a supervisory agency that focused only on the largest banking institutions, without knowledge of community banks, would get a limited and potentially distorted picture of what was happening in our banking system as a whole," Bernanke said in a speech to the Independent Community Bankers of America.

The talk echoed points Bernanke has made in several previous speeches, when he has argued that the supervision of small banks helps the Federal Reserve monitor the pulse of the "continent-spanning, highly varied" economy.

That "breadth of vision" informs the Fed's decision-making process when setting monetary policy, Bernanke said Saturday. He added that the Fed is the only body with the expertise to keep close watch on big banks as well as regional and community banks.
0:00 /6:35Chris Dodd on financial reform

"Although it was not the case in the current crisis, instability can be generated by small institutions as well as by large ones--as occurred in the Great Depression or in the thrift crisis, to cite two particularly dramatic examples," he said.

Recent regulatory reform proposals aim to strip the Fed of policing these smaller community banks, arguing that its oversight should be focused on the 35 biggest bank holding companies.

A bill put forth by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., earlier this week would create a new consumer regulator housed inside the Fed to ensure fair dealings with mortgages and credit cards. It would also push banks to boost capital and create a new process for taking down giant failing companies without forcing Wall Street bailouts.

Bernanke addressed the bailout issue in his comments Saturday, saying "the pernicious problem of financial institutions that are deemed 'too big to fail'" is one of the biggest hindrances to recovery.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Buffett's $50 million credit card blunder

Peddling credit cards isn't so easy that a caveman can do it.

That seems to be the conclusion Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA, Fortune 500) chief executive Warren Buffett reluctantly reached last year, when he shut down a money-losing credit card business he had dreamed up for Berkshire's Geico car-insurance unit.

The decision was disclosed in Buffett's annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, released Saturday. The letter called Geico's brief foray into credit cards "a very expensive business fiasco entirely of [Buffett's] own making."

Since Berkshire took over Geico in 1996, the company has grown rapidly, thanks to low prices and an advertising budget that has grown 25-fold to $800 million.

Geico is best known for a series of television commercials featuring a gecko that talks with a Cockney accent. Since 2004, the company also has run spots on TV showing preppy cavemen protesting the claim that buying insurance at is "so easy a caveman can do it."

Geico has been expanding fast -- it has added 4 million policyholders since 2002 and is now the top car insurer in New York, among other places -- and Buffett says he has long puzzled over which other products the company might dangle before loyal Geico customers.

Against the advice of Geico executives, Buffett said in the letter, he lit upon the idea of a Geico credit card. The Geico Platinum MasterCard was born.

"I reasoned that Geico policyholders were likely to be good credit risks and, assuming we offered an attractive card, would likely favor us with their business," Buffett wrote in this year's letter.

Buffett was so high on the idea a few years ago that he urged Berkshire shareholders to use the card.

"Sign up for the new Geico credit card," Buffett wrote in his 2005 investor letter. "It's the one I now use."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stocks hit as confidence slips

Stocks tumbled Tuesday after a key measure of consumer confidence plunged, reflecting investors' growing pessimism about the strength of the economic recovery.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) lost 100 points, or 1%. The 30-share Dow had lost as much as 115 points earlier.

The S&P 500 index (SPX) lost 13 points, or 1.2%. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) fell 28 points, or 1.3%.

A mixed market turned negative after the late morning release of a weaker-than-expected reading on consumer confidence. The report reflected investor wariness this year amid some conflicting readings on the economy, debt issues at home and abroad, and lawmaker squabbling in Washington.

Stocks have been choppy lately, with the major indexes declining for four weeks, advancing for two weeks and then slipping again Monday -- despite some upbeat earnings and an $11 billion merger in the oil services sector.

The Volatility (VIX) index, Wall Street's so-called fear factor, rose 9% Tuesday as nervousness grew about the strength of the recovery.

"The bears and the bulls are in a tug of war, and today, the bears have the upper hand," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Financial Services Group.

He said that the consumer confidence number is one of the more forward-looking readings and is raising worries that the consumer -- already struggling in a battered labor market -- might pull back even more.

"Today it's a combo of a weak number and maybe needing to take a breather after the rally," Stone said.
Toyota problems could be electronic

Struggling after the rally: After a huge runup in 2009 based on expectations for a strong recovery in 2010, investors are now looking for proof that such a recovery will take hold.

A mixed batch of economic readings has put some doubt in the market this year, while better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings and revenues have had little impact on investor sentiment.

China's decision to temper growth by limiting bank loans and fears of Greece's debt crisis spreading to other European nations have also played a role in the market's seesawing.

"In a broad sense, we're in the fourth quarter of a bull rally and a lot of the steam is out of it now," said Tom Hepner, financial adviser at Ruggie Wealth Management.

He said investors are looking past the fiscal and monetary stimulus that has propped up the economy over the last year and are looking at the earnings and economic reports. "We're looking at the so-called fundamentals of the market and we're not quite sure it's all there yet," he said.
Sick banks may mean feeble recovery

Federal Reserve: Last week, the Federal Reserve surprised investors by boosting the discount rate, the emergency bank lending rate, by a quarter-percentage point, to 0.75%.

It was the first change in interest rates in over a year and signaled the very early stages of the Fed returning to a more normal phase of monetary policy. However, the move was largely symbolic, as the discount rate is rarely used.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday and Thursday. He is expected to discuss the economy and monetary policy, but investors will be listening to see if he says anything more about the central bank's plans to close out some of the emergency programs put in place during the height of the financial crisis.

Housing: The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price index of the 20 largest metropolitan areas fell 3.1% in December versus a year ago, in line with estimates and an improvement after a drop of 5.3% in the previous month. However, the index rose 0.3% from November's levels, suggesting the housing market is continuing to recover.

On a quarterly basis, the index fell 2.5% versus a year earlier, an improvement over the last three years.
0:00 /1:19Toyota brags about limited recall

Jobs: The Senate on Monday agreed to move forward on a $15 billion jobs creation bill that gives businesses a tax break for new hires. The bill would also extend an existing break for spending money on investments like equipment and funds highway and transit programs through the rest of the year.

Toyota: Executives from the troubled auto manufacturer are in Washington this week to discuss the company's massive recall and future plans.

At the first of three congressional hearings, witnesses argued that the problems with the brakes could be tied to the vehicles' electronic throttle system.

James Lentz, the company's U.S. sales chief was testifying Tuesday and Akio Toyoda, the company's president, was due to testify Wednesday. Toyoda is expected to tell U.S. lawmakers that the rush to expand Toyota Motor's business led to the safety issues that resulted in the recall.

Quarterly results: A number of retailers reported results Tuesday, including Dow component Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500).

Home Depot said it returned to a profit in its fiscal fourth quarter after posting a loss a year earlier, with earnings of 18 cents per share, two cents better than expected. Home Depot also boosted its dividend. But the company gave a cautious 2010 outlook amid the still-fragile economic recovery.

Target (TGT, Fortune 500) and Sears Holdings (SHLD, Fortune 500) also reported better-than-expected quarterly profit. Sears is the operator of Sears and Kmart.

Banks: Over 700 banks are at risk of failing, according to a report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. published Tuesday. The FDIC said that the number of banks on its so-called problem list has climbed to 702, the highest number in 6-1/2 years.

The number has increased steadily since the start of the recession in December 2007. However, only a small percentage of banks identified as being in danger end up failing.

World Markets: In overseas trading, European markets fell and Asian markets ended mixed.

The dollar and commodities: The dollar gained versus the euro and fell against the yen.

U.S. light crude oil for April delivery fell $1.45 to settle at $78.85 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

COMEX gold for April delivery fell $9.90 to settle at $1,103.20 per ounce.

Bonds: Treasury prices rose, lowering the yield on the 10-year note to 3.70% from 3.79% late Monday. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Market breadth was negative. On the New York Stock Exchange, losers beat winners seven to three on volume of 1.08 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers by over two to one on volume of 2.29 billion shares.

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