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Category: Tiffany Hsu

Real Estate | Autos | Consumer | Economy

Consumer confidence up in December, nearing post-recession high

Shopping

Consumer confidence jumped in December and is pushing toward a post-recession high, though Americans still don’t seem to think the economy is healthy.

A monthly index from the Conference Board shows consumer confidence at 64.5, up nearly 10 points from a revised 55.2 in November, itself a 15-point boost from October.

That’s the highest level since April, when the index hit the 66 mark, though still below the 90 level that economists consider the threshold for a stable economy. The index hit 72 in February, its highest point since the recession.

More people believe that business conditions are good -- 16.6% compared with 13.9% the previous month. And fewer consumers -- 41.8% compared with 43% in November -- think that jobs are hard to find. A higher percentage of respondents also said that conditions for business and jobs will keep looking up during the next six months.

The December improvement could signal better times to come because consumer spending makes up about 70% of U.S. economic activity. Another key measure last week from Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan also found consumers feeling more positive, with 29% expecting good economic times ahead compared with 19% in November.

But Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board’s research center, warned that the boost could have also come from temporary holiday cheer.

“While consumers are ending the year in a somewhat more upbeat mood, it is too soon to tell if this is a rebound from earlier declines or a sustainable shift in attitudes," Franco said in a statement.

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Consumer confidence remains poor in September, Conference Board says

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Shoppers scout for post-Christmas bargains Monday at a Target store in Abilene, Texas. Credit: Joy Lewis / Abilene Reporter-News

Home prices fall in October, Case-Shiller report says

Home prices

Home prices in the nation’s largest cities fell in October for the second straight month, continuing to dash hopes that the sluggish housing market is headed for an upturn.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index, a measure closely followed by economists, showed price drops in 19 of 20 cities since September. Overall, prices slipped 1.2% month-over-month and fell 3.4% compared with October 2010.

The decline is typical of the season, when home buyers back off after the busy summer period. But coming off of five straight months of increases, the retreating prices in the fall suggest that weakness in the market may stretch into 2012.

Atlanta was on particularly shaky ground, according to the index. Prices there declined 5% in October after falling 5.9% in September and were down 11.7% over the last 12 months. Atlanta, along with Cleveland, Detroit and Las Vegas, had average prices that were lower than they were in January 2000.

In Los Angeles prices were down 1.5% in October after sliding 0.8% the month before. Year over year, L.A. prices are down 4.9%.

The Case-Shiller data cast a pall on recent, more promising market feedback. Last week, the Commerce Department said construction of new homes and apartments was up 9.3% last month from October and up 20.1% compared wikth November 2010.

Sales in California were up 4% last month compared with the same period a year earlier, though they fell 4.2% from October, according to real estate research firm DataQuick. The median home price in the state was $244,000, down 4.3% from a year earlier but up 1.7% from October, the report found.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

Magi turn to myrrh as frankincense struggles and gold stays high

Frankincense
If their trek to visit the baby Jesus had happened this year, the biblical Magi might have been in for a surprise.

The market for the gifts offered by the Three Kings -- gold, frankincense and myrrh -- is much changed since the first Christmas thousands of years ago.

Frankincense, used in perfumes and incense, is faltering. Fifty Christmases from now, production of the fragrant resin could be down by 90% due to threats from fire, grazing and destructive beetles, according to the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology this week.

Within 15 years, frankincense yield from the Boswellia tree species, which researchers studied in Ethiopia, is expected be half the amount it is now.

Myrrh is also produced as a resin from the Commiphora tree, native to Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia.
A pound of granular myrrh for incense sold by a vendor called New Age on Amazon runs $13.95. A pound of frankincense resin from xtremek costs $7.95.

For $55, beauty aficionados hoping for “a radiant, smoothed and beautifully healthy complexion” can get Ren’s Frankincense Revitalising Night Cream from Sephora. The resin is also used as an insect repellent, medicine and even toothpaste, according to the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Gold, however, is going to cost quite a bit more. The spot price of the precious metal neared $1,900 an ounce earlier this year and is currently hovering around $1,600.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: A man walks past frankincense trees growing in a wadi near Salalah, Oman. Credit: Drusilla Menaker 

Food prices will continue to rise in 2012, says USDA

Apples
Get ready for more high food prices going into 2012 –- the USDA is projecting that next year will bring an overall spike of 2.5% to 3.5%.

That’s less than the 3.25% to 3.75% boost that the Department of Agriculture is projecting for 2011. High commodity and energy prices along with soaring demand for food pushed up the value of items including ice cream, lettuce and bread.

Grocery store shoppers this year watched prices rise as much as 4.75% while diners in restaurants saw menu prices go up as much as 2.5%, with a surge near the end of the year.

As of last month, beef prices were up 9.8% compared with the same month last year. Pork prices were up 6.9% and poultry was 3% higher. With fewer fertile hens around, egg prices were 10.2% higher; dairy was up 8.7%.

The Japanese tsunami and earthquake in the spring pushed seafood prices up 5.9%. Fruits and vegetables also saw a bump, with apple prices up 9.6% year over year and potatoes up 12%.

Whole food prices could reach their strongest annual gains in more than three decades, National Restaurant Assn. economist Bruce Grindy wrote earlier this year. What comes next will depend on weather conditions, fuel prices and the value of the dollar, the USDA said.

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Price of Thanksgiving dinner up 13%, biggest jump in two decades

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Apples cost 9.6% more in November than they did a year ago. Credit: Jim Witmer / AP Photo / Dayton Daily News

Food online: Anti-Groupon and crowd-sourcing to the perfect dish

Jar

In the run-up to the new year, several food analysts have predicted that the restaurant industry will be more crowd-sourced and digitally based in 2012 than ever before.

Take the growing crop of young online start-ups focused on dining.

Smartphone app Foodspotting goes beyond the Yelp model by giving restaurant guests a forum to find and recommend specific dishes nearby. Good eats get a “nom” or a digital blue ribbon from diners, who can upload photos into the Foodspotting community.

As of August, the app has been downloaded more than a million times. According to AdWeek, the founders are now experimenting with partnerships with other start-ups such as deals site Scoutmob that could create a “virtual blackboard” showcasing daily specials from eateries.

There’s also Treatful, a Bay Area company that offers personalized online gift certificates to high-end restaurants in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

The site, started by Stanford business school graduates Brent Looney and Hoon Kim, is known as the anti-Groupon, according to 7x7 magazine. Users no longer have to pick up or use fax machines for hard-copy gift cards –- instead, the no-registration, no-fee site sends it via e-mail on whatever date designated by the customer. 

The company charges restaurants a commission for each certificate purchased -– a quarter of which are bought by corporate clients. Listed eateries in Los Angeles include Angelini Osteria, BLD, Jar and Hatfield’s Restaurants.

Foodily, a recipe and ingredient search engine that launched in February, clocked more than 100,000 downloads within 10 days of launching its iPhone app this fall.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Jar, one of the restaurants included on Treatful. Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

UPS delivering 26 million parcels Thursday; viral FedEx video

UPS
The brown-suited elves at UPS will be busier Thursday than they have been all year, with nearly 26 million items set to reach their destinations, according to the parcel shipping company.

That’s roughly 300 deliveries a second, up 60% from UPS’ normal daily average. During the rest of the week — the busiest of the year for the company — employees will transport nearly 25 million packages a day.

In the few days before Christmas, the total number of deliveries will reach 120 million this year, up from the 113 million sent this time last year. To make it happen, UPS will add more than 400 extra flights each day and hire nearly 24,000 seasonal employees.

On Tuesday, UPS handled 58 million online tracking requests. On Thursday, workers will process 3 million express shipments through the company’s Louisville Worldport facility.

Workers are also frantic at the U.S. Postal Service and at FedEx. The Postal Service said this week will also be its busiest of the year, with 600 million cards and letters on Tuesday alone. FedEx had its most frantic day ever on Dec. 12, when it dealt with 17 million packages.

At least one of them wasn’t delivered in the most delicate fashion. In a YouTube video that has gone viral this week, a FedEx delivery man is shown hurling a packaged computer monitor over a fence without ringing the doorbell — even though the customer claims he was at home with the door open.  

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U.S. Postal Service expecting busiest week of the year

FedEx expects 17 million shipments on the busiest day in its history

— Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Tim Boyle / Bloomberg

American dissatisfaction with nation's outlook near record highs

Unemployment
Americans in 2011 were more dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country than they’ve been in the past 30 years — with one exception.

That was 2008, during the recession, when just 15% of people polled by Gallup said they were happy with national conditions. This year, 17% of respondents on average were pleased with what they saw on the national landscape.

Most blamed high unemployment, the federal budget deficit, rising poverty or some other economic issue as the root of their malaise. Others pointed to evidence of moral decline, health-care woes and a government that they claim is not up to snuff.  

Throughout the year, satisfaction ranged from a high of 26% in May after the U.S. military killed Osama bin Laden to lows of 11% in August and September after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. debt rating.

The single lowest percentage ever of happy Americans came in October 2008, when the pressures of the financial downturn kept all but 7% of people polled from feeling satisfied. Since Gallup first started asking about the issue in 1979, satisfaction levels have been as high as 60%.

Though a key measure of consumer confidence from Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan saw an uptick in December for the fourth straight month, data also continued to show historically low numbers of people expecting good economic times ahead.

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Key consumer confidence index up for fourth straight month

Economic growth revised down but jobless claims hit 44-month low

— Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Nannies, other service providers tipped up to $425 for holidays

Doubtfire
Nannies and other service professionals may be scoring hefty tips this holiday season, according to a survey of Zagat readers.

The vast majority -- 79% -- of respondents said they’ll be tipping the same amount as they did last year. And gardeners, teachers, hairdressers and other service providers will be getting re-gifted items from 45% of of tipping customers.

But 15% of respondents plan to tip more –- and mostly in cash instead of through gift certificates, bottles of wine or baked goods, according to Zagat.

They plan to parcel out $425 each to their nannies and $139 to housekeepers and maids. Building managers will get $97 while gardeners will be tipped $82, according to the poll.

Child day-care workers will get $79, doormen $74. Pet care providers such as dog walkers will earn $62 on average while handymen will land $58, hairdressers and stylists will receive $44 and schoolteachers will be gifted $42.

Service providers getting less than $30 in tips: garbage collectors, barbers, newspaper delivery workers and postal employees, according to Zagat. 

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Will Mrs. Doubtfire and fellow nannies get hefty tips this holiday season? Credit: Arthur Grace

Immigrants launch nearly half of top U.S. start-ups, study finds

Etsylabs
Immigrants are responsible for launching nearly half of the top start-ups in the country, according to a new report that makes a case for more favorable border policies toward foreign-born entrepreneurs.

Of the top 50 venture-backed companies in the U.S., 23 have at least one foreign-born founder while 37 have at least one immigrant in a major management position, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

Natives of India, Israel, Canada, Iran and New Zealand are most likely to come to the U.S. to start companies or to take on positions such as chief executive, chief technology officer or vice president of engineering, the study found. Their businesses each employ an average of 150 people.

Examples include online handmade crafts retailer Etsy Inc. of Brooklyn, N.Y., which was launched in part by Swiss immigrant Haim Schoppik in 2005 and now has 185 workers.

“Policies that help retain talent in the United States are likely to yield both more start-up companies and the personnel needed to create more jobs and innovation in America,” according to the report.

The companies considered were ranked by research firm VentureSource and are all private, valued at less than $1 billion and had received venture capital funding within the last three years. The National Foundation report was funded by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The study’s findings “perhaps makes it even more imperative that the U.S. put out the ‘Welcome’ mat for these entrepreneurs who help create jobs and drive our economy,” wrote Emily Baker, a vice president of the National Venture Capital Assn. in a blog post this week.

Legislation currently in play in Congress could broaden the number of work visas given to immigrants and their families and also help retain foreign students with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees so they can launch businesses in the U.S.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Etsy Labs

Santa Ana resident accused of running illegal robocalling network

Santa Ana resident accused of illegal robocalling

After tens of thousands of people complained about getting automated telemarketer calls from companies owned by Roy M. Cox Jr., the Federal Trade Commission has accused the Santa Ana resident of illegal robocalling.

The federal agency contends that Cox and his coterie of companies have buzzed phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry since at least 2008 while masking their identities, actions that violate the FTC’s telemarketing sales rules.

In addition to Cox’s Laguna Niguel-based Castle Rock Capital Management Inc., the FTC alleges he runs operations based in Panama, Hungary, Argentina and the Republic of Seychelles. His clients include companies selling credit card interest rate reduction programs, extended automobile warranties and home security systems.

The FTC accused Cox’s network of obscuring its caller ID and instead appearing on customers’ phones as vague entities such as “card services,” “credit services” or “private office.”

The agency also contends that Cox and his companies were aware of -- or at least made a point of not finding out -- that the numbers they were calling were included on the national no-call list.

The FTC’s complaint aims to get Cox to pay civil penalties and stop dialing.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: A telephone. Credit: Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times

Be vigilant against telemarketing fraud, FBI advise

Absolute Poker co-founder pleads guilty to conspiracy charges

Guilty plea in illegal online gambling case


A co-founder of Absolute Poker, one of three major Internet card-play sites targeted by the federal government this year, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy charges linked to a sprawling illegal gambling case.

The felony charges against Brent Beckley include bank and wire fraud and violation of Internet gambling law. Prosecutors have accused Absolute Poker, as well as fellow gambling sites Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, of convincing financial institutions to process online gambling payments by disguising them as transactions with Internet retail merchants.

Beckley told a judge in the U.S. District Court of Manhattan that he “knew that it was illegal to deceive the banks,” according to the Associated Press. He will face sentencing April 19 after striking a plea deal that could land him in prison for a year to a year and a half.

The three gambling sites involved in the case are headquartered abroad.

The government filed a $3-billion civil lawsuit against the companies, which it amended in September to describe Full Tilt Poker as a “global Ponzi scheme” that was “not a legitimate poker company.”

The FBI shut down their websites in the U.S. in April on a day that many poker players now refer to as Black Friday. Prosecutors indicted the founders of the three businesses on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and gambling law violations.

Bradley Franzen, another defendant who helped work with payment processors, pleaded guilty in May after initially entering a not guilty plea.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Gambling chips and cards. Credit: Robert Sullivan / AFP Photo

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