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Restaurants in November had best performance in five months

Restaurants in November turned in their best performance in five months and are looking forward to solid sales and a better economy in 2012, according to a major trade group.

A monthly performance index calculated by the National Restaurant Assn. hit 100.6 in November, up 0.6% from October and the highest level in nearly half a year. Any level above 100 signifies growth.

More customers visited eateries during the month, leading to the strongest net sales in more than four years at establishments open more than a year. The trade group’s current situation index rose 0.8% from October to 100.2 last month.

And restaurant operators are feeling more optimistic, pushing the expectations index up 0.4% to 100.9 in its third consecutive monthly gain. Nearly half said they plan to buy equipment, expand or remodel within the next six months.

But come Sunday, the industry will start facing some changes.

Health inspectors across California will begin to enforce a state law that requires about 900,000 restaurant workers that prepare, serve or store food to hold a food handler card. Employees must complete food safety training and pass a test to earn the card, according to the California Restaurant Assn.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Assn. is opposing a new program set to launch next month in which the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, will begin accepting applications for new Internet domain names.

The restaurant association claims that eateries will be forced to spend at least $185,000 each protecting their brands and trademarks. 

“For our largest restaurant-member brands, the price tag is exorbitant,” said Scott DeFife, the association’s executive vice president of policy and government affairs, in a statement. “For the hundreds of thousands of smaller restaurant operators who depend on the Internet to communicate with guests, the costs and confusion could be insurmountable.”


ICANN approves open Web domain name rules: .anything is possible

Restaurant predictions for 2012: Popcorn, pine needles, smartphones

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Drug prices, Google Wallet, paper towels

Here's your touch-of-gray Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Drug-price gouging could soon become a federal crime. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) says he's proposing a bill that that would give the Justice Department the authority to crack down on "unscrupulous drug distributors" who sell hospitals lifesaving prescription medicines in short supply at huge markups. The problem has been growing this year, as shortages have dramatically worsened for normally cheap generic injected medicines that are the lifeblood of hospitals: drugs for cancer, pain, infections, even liquid nutrition and anesthesia for surgery. The shortages are disrupting care of patients and even clinical trials of experimental drugs that must be tested against older standard treatments. (Associated Press)

--Verizon is growing pickier about what it lets on your smart phone. Verizon Wireless is blocking the new flagship phone running Google's Android software, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, from running Google's in-store payment application, the Wallet. The smart phone is the first to run a new version of Android, and is due to be released soon by Verizon. Examinations by Wired and other publications reveal that the international version of the phone has the chip necessary to run Google Wallet. But Verizon is part of a consortium of carriers that are planning its own payment application, and the company says its waiting to provide a wallet application until it can provide "the best security and user experience." (Associated Press)

--Like most people, you've probably been up at night agonizing over which paper towel is best. Well, worry no more. Our friends at Consumer Reports have been running tests, and they've got the answers. The magazine put 23 towels through their paces, testing for absorption, scrubbing and wet strength. The top paper towel is plain Bounty, with a score of 90. (Don’t confuse it with its lower-scoring brand mate, Bounty Basic, which earned a 66.) In second place was Bounty Extra Soft with a score of 84. In third place, Target’s Up & Up Eastern version. The Western version, from a different supplier, didn't perform as well. And now you know. (

-- David Lazarus


New financial protection laws to help California seniors

Dave jones katiefalkenberg4thetimes

California's elderly are about to get new protections against being victimized by unscrupulous financial product salesmen.

On Jan. 1, a new law takes effect to guard unsophisticated senior citizens from purchasing unneeded annuities that are not likely to provide them with promised financial security.

Annuities are a form of insurance that provide a guaranteed regular income to policyholders.

The law requires insurers to verify that an annuity purchase, replacement or exchange would provide the promised benefits based on a buyer's age, income, liquidity needs, financial goals and other factors. It also mandates that the seller prove that the annuity provides "a tangible net benefit" to its buyer.

The law empowers the state insurance commissioner to pull a sales agent's license, impose fines and demand restitution.

"For far too long, seniors have been victimized by the aggressive marketing and sale of annuity products that may not be suitable for them," California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said. "Consumers have unwittingly bought these products not realizing that their invested funds will not be available to them or their funds are terribly expensive to recover if they want to withdraw their money to pay for immediate expenses."

Jones also alerted seniors about another new law that will prohibit financial product sellers from trying to sell unsuitable products to people who recently acquired reverse mortgages to gain access to cash to pay for living expenses.


Scam artists exploit generosity in Japan 

For most vulnerable, a promise abandoned 

New York is probing 401(k) plans

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times 

Toys with McDonald's Happy Meals will cost a dime in San Francisco


San Francisco McDonald’s locations will stop giving away free toys with Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals as a new law aimed at child obesity takes effect Thursday.

Instead, the massive fast food chain plans to sell the toys separately for 10 cents with a purchase of the children’s combos in its 19 stores in the Bay Area city. The funds, the company said, would go toward a project through its Ronald McDonald House charity.

It’s McDonald’s way of reluctantly complying with a new ordinance that forbids restaurants from offering toys gratis with a kid’s meal unless the servings have less than 600 calories, a drink option that isn’t too sugary or fatty and also includes a helping of fruits and vegetables.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain began offering apple slices along with downsized servings of French fries in all its Happy Meals this summer. The company is also introducing low-fat milk, fat-free chocolate milk and apple juice.

Around the same time, San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. pulled toys out of its children’s meals entirely and began including apples with caramel.

After the San Francisco measure was passed last year, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban new fast food restaurants within a half-mile of similar chains in South Los Angeles, an area that suffers from high rates of obesity and diabetes.

In the spring, the New York City Council began considering a measure that would ban toys from children’s meals that fail to meet strict nutritional standards.

Some activists scoffed at McDonald’s toy-selling tactic Wednesday.

“As McDonald’s long has, it is again using a charity that helps children get well to defend a practice that contributes to a range of diet-related conditions like diabetes,” said the Corporate Accountability International group in an email.


McDonald's to make Happy Meals more healthful

Jack in the Box stops including toys in kids' meals

Fast-food industry is quietly defeating Happy Meal bans

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: A Happy Meal at McDonald's in San Francisco last year. Credit: David Paul Morris / Getty Images

Michael Hiltzik: Rick Perry runs off the highway

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's take on the federal Highway Trust Fund is something of a car wreck.

Perry's hastily assembled economic plan released Tuesday holds up the Highway Trust Fund as the model for how to "protect" federal funds from being raided by Congress for "unrelated purposes." The idea is to contrast the HTF with the Social Security trust fund, which Perry claims has been " spendthrift Washington politicians."

Thus Perry manages to demonstrate that he doesn't know the first thing about either fund.

Funded principally from federal gasoline taxes, the Highway Trust Fund has, in fact, been a disaster. In May, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that it would be out of money by mid-2012 -- in effect, bankrupt. By 2018, the CBO says, its shortfall of receipts versus proposed expenditures will be $80 billion.

Not even the right-wing Heritage Foundation would agree that it's been well-managed. In fact, Heritage offers a list of all the ways Congress has raided the fund -- for ferry boats and magnetic levitation research, among other things.

Congress borrows from the highway fund all the time. But it also requires the fund's balance to be invested in non-interest bearing securities, thus stiffing motorists on the interest their tax funds would accrue. By contrast, the Social Security trust fund must by law be invested in interest-paying Treasury bonds. That trust fund collected $117 billion in interest last year on its balance of more than $2.5 trillion -- a risk-free return of better than 4.6%.

Perry's critics in both parties will no doubt be picking apart all the details of his economic plan in coming days. But this one bollixed nugget leads us to ask: Did he do all his research this way?


The Cain monstrosity

Obama's jobs push conjures FDR

Rick Perry gets it wrong on Social Security

-- Michael Hiltzik

Photo: Rick Perry speaking in South Carolina on Tuesday. Credit: Mary Ann Chastain / Associated Press

Consumer Confidential: BofA woes, Ivory upgrade, reader privacy

Bank of America
Here's your whoa-nellie Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Bank of America just can't catch a break. After taking it on the chin over a new $5 monthly debit card fee, the bank has been struggling to keep its website up and running. The company had said Friday that the troubles had been fully resolved, but some customers still had difficulty accessing their accounts through the weekend. A message on the bank's homepage Tuesday noted that customers can still access their accounts at ATMs or at one of the company's nearly 6,000 branches. It also suggested that customers try logging back on during a "non-peak time." BofA is the largest U.S. bank and has 29 million online customers.

--Ivory soap is getting a facelift. Procter & Gamble is updating its 132-year-old Ivory brand with colorful, eye-catching packages, a remade logo and a new marketing campaign. But the soap itself isn't changing. The remake is part of an effort by the Cincinnati-based company to breathe new life into Ivory. It comes at a time when Americans are scaling back on spending but are looking for little, cheap ways to pamper themselves, by, say, taking a long, hot shower. As P&G has focused on bigger, faster-growing brands, the white bar of soap has lagged behind its rival Dove and faced increasing competition from the likes of Dial and Irish Spring.

--You are what you read. And thanks to a new California law, readers' privacy has new safeguards. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the Reader Privacy Act, updating state privacy laws to cover new technologies such as electronic books and online book services as well as local bookstores. The Reader Privacy Act will become law on Jan. 1 and will establish privacy protections for book purchases similar to long-established privacy laws for library records. In other words, your online book browsing, buying and reading won't be revealed to marketers, lawyers and others. Not that we have anything to hide, of course.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: BofA is having technical troubles. Credit: Andrew Gombert / EPA


Gov. Jerry Brown asks PUC to pass electric bill surcharge


Gov. Jerry Brown is asking his appointed members of the California Public Utilities Commission to come up with a way to continue tacking a surcharge on residential and commercial electric bills to pay for an energy efficiency program that did not get renewed by the Legislature last month.

The $400-million-a-year program is set to expire at the end of the year.

"We cannot afford to let any of these job-creating programs lapse," Brown said in a letter to PUC President Michael Peevey. The surcharges -- $1 to $2 a month on a typical residential bill -- pay for a 14-year-old levy called the Public Goods Charge. It pays for retrofitting structures to make them use less energy, for renewable energy subsidies and for research.

"I request that you take action under the commission's authority to ensure that programs like those supported by the Public Goods Charge are instituted -- and hopefully at their current levels," Brown wrote to Peevey.

The PUC will consider opening a legal and administrative proceeding on Brown's request at its Oct. 6 meeting in San Francisco, said spokeswoman Terrie D. Prosper.

"We're pursuing the fastest path to consider maintain funding levels for these programs and policies already underway," Prosper said.

Some environmentalists said they're supporting the governor's effort to revive the Public Goods Charge.

However, Sierra Club lobbyist Jim Metropulos lamented that Brown did not push earlier and more energetically to get enough bipartisan legislative support to pass the bill.

"We were disappointed that the governor put [his bill] out late, if it was one of his priorities," he said.


Designs on energy efficiency

State should extend energy levy

Light-bulb standards equal energy efficiency

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: A man looks at energy efficient washing machines at a mall in Baldwin Hills. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Gov. Jerry Brown signs Amazon sales tax collection law


Saying it would save existing jobs and create new ones, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation to require and many other out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases by California customers.

The new law will "create tens of thousands of jobs and inject hundreds of millions of dollars back into critical services like education and public safety in future years," Brown said Friday at a ceremony held at the San Francisco headquarters of clothier Gap Inc. The event was attended by the lawmakers, who sponsored the bill, and and retail industry executives.

Experts predicted that the new law would help bricks-and-mortar stores that have sales staffs compete with e-commerce companies that need fewer people to fill orders. They also predicted that new jobs would flow into the state if Amazon, as expected, opens some large distribution centers to better serve California, which is estimated to represent as much as 20% of the company's market.

Although the bill, AB 155 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), takes effect immediately, it doesn't require that sales taxes be collected from Californians until Sept. 15 of next year. The delay was part of a compromise put together by Amazon with representatives of national retailing chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., as well as local, independent store owners.

As part of the deal, Amazon agreed not to go forward with a planned referendum to ask voters to overturn an earlier sales tax collection law that took effect July 1.

Proponents of the bill argued that Seattle-based Amazon received an unfair competitive advantage over stores because many Internet buyers did not include sales tax on top of the purchase price of the goods.

California law requires consumers to pay a "use tax" that is equal to the sales tax if the merchant doesn't collect the levy for the state. However, tax collectors generally do not enforce that obligation on non-commercial transactions, and less than one-half of 1% of taxpayers voluntarily pay, state officials said.

"The new law is a big victory for Main Street retailers that have battled to close a loophole that gives Amazon and other e-tailers special treatment in the tax code," said the Retail Industry Leaders Assn., a trade group that has lobbied across the country for laws similar to California's, in a statement.

Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, said his firm plans to bring 10,000 new jobs to California and invest $500 million over the next few years.



Gov. Jerry Brown expected to sign Amazon sales tax collection bill

Amazon sales tax deal avoids ballot fight

Amazon offers to build facilities in bid to end sales tax fight

 --Marc Lifsher

Photo: An Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix. Credit: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg

Gov. Jerry Brown expected to sign Amazon sales tax collection bill

Amazon A bill that would require and many other out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by Californians is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, according to people in the Legislature familiar with plans for the event.

The governor has scheduled a signing ceremony for Friday at 11 a.m. at the San Francisco headquarters of Gap Inc., a clothing manufacturer and retailer that lobbied along with other California companies for passage of the bill, AB 155 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier).

The governor's office would say only that Brown would be in San Francisco to "take action on legislation critical to job creation in California."

The so-called Amazon bill is expected to boost employment in a number of ways. Proponents said it would save jobs at shopping malls and on Main Street by creating "a level playing field" between bricks-and-mortar retailers, such as Gap, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., and Amazon and other Internet sellers.

Brown's signature on the bill, which would take full effect Sept. 15 of next year, could also boost employment if Amazon follows through on a tentative plan to open new distribution centers in California that would be staffed by thousands of new hires.

To date, Amazon has avoided opening offices and warehouses in California because it did not want to have any physical presence in the state. Such facilities would have forced Amazon to give up its past exemption from being required to collect sales taxes as laid out in a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.


The compromise

Amazon cuts deal on California sales taxes

Amazon offers to build facilities in bid to end sales tax fight

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: An Amazon distribution center in Goodyear, Ariz. Credit: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press 

Got alcohol? Gov. Brown legalizes flavor-infused drinks

Cocktail Aficionados of cocktails infused with fruit, vegetable or spice flavors won a political victory when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill making them legal.

Although the Prohibition-era restriction on the practice of flavoring vodka, gin and other distilled alcoholic beverages with flavors had largely been ignored, proponents of the bill argued that the old law needed to be changed.

State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulators argued that bartenders who infused the flavors into the spirits violated state statutes designed to keep the three functions of the liquor industry -- distilling, distributing  and serving -- separate.

The updating of the law was sought by a coalition of business and tourist industry groups including the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn., the California Chamber of Commerce, the Family Wine Makers of California and the California Restaurant Assn.

"I'm pleased that the governor has recognized the need to update an unnecessary regulation that has prevented businesses across California from making infused beverages available to their customers," the bill's author, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), said Wednesday.

"In San Francisco and other cities where tourism is critical to the local economy, restaurant owners have been asked to stop serving infused cocktails in the name of an outdated law written decades ago."

The bill sailed through the state Legislature without receiving a dissenting vote.


Gin cocktails make a splashy comeback

Cool Summer cocktails

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

Unemployed? Party City hiring thousands for Halloween season

Halloween hiring at Party City
Party City Holdings Inc., which operates dozens of stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties, announced that it plans to hire 14,000 seasonal workers to staff its stores during the busy Halloween shopping season.

The party-goods store operator said Thursday that the average Party City store would be hiring 15 to 50 seasonal employees to help customers as they shop for costumes and other Halloween party supplies, the Associated Press reported.

The privately held retailer said it would be hiring cashiers, stockroom workers and sales-floor associates. Employees may have the opportunity to continue working past Halloween based on staffing needs at individual stores, company President Lisa Laube said.

Anyone interested can apply through the company's website or in person at local stores. The company operates 800 stores across the United States, including many Southern California locations.


Retailers' holiday hiring plans remain conservative

Study finds 41% of small businesses plan to hire in next 6 months

Is California economy improving, or worse than ever?

-- Stuart Pfeifer

Photo: Halloween decorations Credit: Los Angeles Times


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