Current Events in June 2015

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2015

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    Airlines improve on-time arrival and cancellation rates

    Not many folks were left stranded on the tarmac, either

    Traveling by air was a little less aggravating in April.

    According to the Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 81.8% in April, an improvement from both the 79.6% on-time rate in April 2014 and previous month's 78.7% mark.

    At the same time, the carriers reported canceling just 0.9% of their scheduled domestic flights compared with 1.1% a year earlier and 2.2% in March.

    Perhaps best of all, there was just 1 tarmac delay of more than 3 hours on a domestic flights and no tarmac delay of more than 4 hours on international flights. DOT is looking into the circumstances surrounding the delay that was reported.

    The consumer report also includes information on chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, statistics on mishandled baggage reports and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints received by DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

    Additionally, there are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air.

    The full report is available on the DOT website

    Traveling by air was a little less aggravating in April. According to the Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s large...

    Garden-Fresh Foods recalls potato salad

    The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

    Garden-Fresh Foods is recalling its Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad potato salad sold at Jewel food stores.

    The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

    There are no reported illnesses associated with the recalled product.

    The product was distributed to Jewel stores in the Chicago area and may have been sold at delicatessen counters between May 30 and June 9 under the brand name Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad.

    No other Garden-Fresh products and no other potato salad sold in the delis at Jewel are involved in this recall.

    Customers who purchased the recalled product should dispose of the product immediately or return it to their local store for a refund.

    Consumers with questions may contact Garden-Fresh Foods by email at information@gardenfreshfoods.com or by calling 1-414-204-4611 Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., CT.

    Garden-Fresh Foods is recalling its Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad potato salad sold at Jewel food stores. The product may be contaminated with List...

    Ramart recalls swing chairs

    The swing chairs can tip over

    Ramart LLC, of Tulsa, Okla., is recalling about 250 swing chairs.

    The swing chairs can tip over, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

    The company has received 11 reports of the swing chairs tipping over with consumers in them, including 4 reports of injuries to adults and a baby.

    This recall involves green, apple-shaped swing chairs and brown, teardrop-shaped swing chairs. They hang from a chain connected to a metal stand with a circle-shaped base. The chairs are made from plastic rattan and have red cushions. The chairs measure about 42 inches in diameter and 43 inches tall with a 48 inch wide seat cushion. The stand measures about 77 inches tall.

    The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at HomeGoods stores nationwide from March 2015, through May 2015, for about $400.

    Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled swing chairs and return them to a HomeGoods store for a full refund.

    Consumers may contact HomeGoods at (800) 888-0776 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

    Ramart LLC, of Tulsa, Okla., is recalling about 250 swing chairs. The swing chairs can tip over, posing a fall hazard to consumers. The company has recei...

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      Wealth Index begins to favor renting over buying

      But only if renters invest the money they would have used for a down payment

      It is now cheaper to buy a house and make monthly mortgage payments than it is to pay rent. In some markets, that is.

      But if you are still renting, don't feel bad. A quarterly index produced by Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities measures how owning or renting affects wealth accumulation. It concludes it's becoming more favorable for renters.

      The Beracha, Hardin & Johnson Buy vs. Rent (BH&J) Index attempts to answer one of the toughest questions American consumers face: is it better to rent or buy a home in today’s housing market?

      But instead of looking at the question strictly from a cash flow standpoint – whether a mortgage payment or rent payment is lower – the BH&J Index looks at how the two scenarios affect someone's net worth.

      23 key cities

      The index examines the entire housing market and isolates the markets of 23 key cities.

      According to the researchers, as of the end of the first quarter of 2015, the housing market in the U.S. and all cities in the index are trending either closer to renting being the better option or strictly favoring renting over purchasing a home.

      For example, if you live in Dallas, Denver or Houston, you're clearly better off renting, with property pricing out-pacing rents, meaning buyers must tie up more of their assets.

      “Potential buyers should be cognizant that ‘the deals’ are out of the marketplace and that it is essentially a tossup between rent and ownership as to which way will, on average, provide greater wealth accumulation,” said Ken Johnson, a real estate economist who is one of the index’s authors and an associate dean of graduate programs and professor in FAU’s College of Business. “Miami, in particular, deserves attention as it has been trending toward rent territory for several reporting periods. In Miami, potential buyers should seek to bargain more aggressively.”

      In other words, don't be too quick to offer the asking price.

      On the bubble

      Seven cities – Miami, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle – are on the bubble. The Index has them at or near the balance point between ownership and renting.

      In other words, in these cities the spread between monthly rent payments and ownership payments appears to be at a point where neither ownership nor renting is statistically favored.

      Midwest still favors buying

      There are four Midwestern cities – Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit – that remain in strong buy territory. Their Index scores have historically favored wealth accumulation through home ownership.

      An important distinction should be noted. The Index assumes that a consumer who rents will take the money that would have been used for a purchase down payment and to pay for maintenance and invest it. Assuming a normal return on investment, the Index determines that paying a higher rent than comparable mortgage payment is better if the resulting investments grow faster than equity in the home.

      However, for renting to be a faster wealth-builder, the renter must also be willing to invest his or her money -- not spend it on entertainment and consumer goods. Admittedly, not every renter falls into that category.

      It is now cheaper to buy a house and make monthly mortgage payments than it is to pay rent. In some markets, that is. But if you are still renting, don'...

      Consumer and manufacturing groups fight to save COOL

      Congress urged not to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling law

      In the past nothing could dampen cocktail party chatter faster than bringing up some world trade issue. Then along came Ross Perot warning of a “giant sucking sound” from Mexico if the U.S. approved NAFTA and American manufacturers headed south of the border, taking with them millions of America jobs.

      Today trade issues are among the hottest political issues in Washington. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the latest trade deal on the table, dividing the Democratic Party and making strange bedfellows of President Obama and Senate Republicans, who are pushing for the deal.

      Adding to the confusion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a leading opponent of TPP, finds herself on the same side of the issue with some right-wing talk show hosts, who share her strong opposition.

      One issue is jobs. There are fears that lowering trade barriers will mean U.S. workers will be competing with much cheaper labor in Asia. Erosion of national sovereignty is another concern for some, who see U.S. laws taking a backseat to international consensus.

      In fact, there's growing concern about the latter issue.

      Push back

      When the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last month that America's country or origin labeling (COOL) law violates international trade agreements and must be changed, it struck a nerve. Congress passed the law in 2002 and expanded it in 2008, to give consumers information about where certain agricultural products, in this case fresh meat, came from. Congress is now considering legislation to repeal the law.

      That doesn't sit well with Joel Joseph, Chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation. Joseph claims the WTO is basically a secret organization with hand-picked delegates from around the world. It does not promote U.S. interests, he argues.

      “WTO decisions make a mockery of U.S. and European laws designed to protect the health of consumers and the environment,” Joseph said in a statement. The WTO is unfair, unethical and undemocratic and needs to be overhauled.”

      Canada and Mexico, the U.S.'s NAFTA trading partners, brought the complaint before the WTO, claiming COOL is an illegal restraint to free trade. The WTO ruled in favor of the complaint, meaning Canada and Mexico may impose punitive tariffs on U.S. products if COOL remains unchanged.

      Conflict of interest

      Joseph charges the WTO ruling is tainted, claiming that 1 of the 3 judges appointed to decide the matter is Recardo Ramírez-Hernández, a Mexican citizen who Joseph says has represented Mexico on trade matters.

      “Even with a biased group, the WTO appellate panel recognized that the COOL measure is an internal measure of the United States, as opposed to a customs or border measure,” Joseph said.

      And as Joseph points out, the law requires retailers in the United States to affix labels providing country of origin information on certain products, regardless of whether the products are imported or domestically produced.

      Joseph is hardly alone in his defense of COOL. A coalition of 283 farm, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the U.S. has called for Congress to refrain from repealing the consumer legislation.

      “If Congress repeals COOL, then the next time consumers go shopping for a steak or chicken for their families, they won’t be able to tell where that product came from,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “That's completely unacceptable. Consumers want more information about their food, not less.”

      Joseph says the U.S. should withdrawal from the WTO, something that is highly unlikely. Still, it points to the passions trade issues now arouse and suggest an increasingly difficult path for future trade deals, including TPP.

      In the past nothing could dampen cocktail party chatter faster than bringing up some world trade issue. Then along came Ross Perot warning of a “giant suck...

      Walgreens vitamins recalled

      The packaging is not child-resistant and senior friendly

      International Vitamin Corporation (IVC) of Freehold, N.J., is recalling about 17,000 containers of Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets

      The packaging is not child-resistant and senior friendly as required by the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. The tablets inside the bottle contain iron, which can cause serious injury or death to young children if multiple tablets are ingested at once.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves “Well at Walgreens” Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets. The white plastic bottles contain 200 multivitamin tablets. “Well at Walgreens Multivitamin Women 50+” is printed on the bottle’s white and silver label. A yellow band at the top of the label states “Value Size.”

      UPC number 3-11917-17262-0 and one of the following lot numbers -- 000001 (EXP 9/2016), 000002 (EXP 12/2016) or 000003 (EXP 11/2016) -- are printed on the back of the bottles on a white label.

      The vitamins, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Walgreens drug stores nationwide from January 2015, through March 2015, for about $16.

      Consumers should immediately place recalled bottles out of the reach of children and contact International Vitamin for a free replacement child-resistant cap.

      Consumers may contact International Vitamin Corp. toll-free at (866) 927-5470 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

      International Vitamin Corporation (IVC) of Freehold, N.J., is recalling about 17,000 containers of Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets The packaging is not ch...

      Natural Grocers expands recall of Macadamia nuts

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is expanding its last month's recall of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia Nuts.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There are no reports of illness

      The following product, packaged in clear plastic bags with Natural Grocers label, is being added to the list of products previously recalled:

      UPC CodeDescriptionPacked on Dates
      000080657552Raw Macadamia Nuts 10 oz.14-328, 14-337, 14-360, 14-365, 15-020, 15-041, 15-056, 15-077, 15-090, 15-104, 15-127

      Only packages bearing the Julian packed on dates listed above are subject to recall.

      The recalled product was distributed to Natural Grocers’ 97 stores located in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

      Customers who purchased this product should return it to the store for credit or refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at (303) 986-4600, ext. 531, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MST).

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is expanding its last month's recall of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia Nuts. The product may be ...

      Travel report suggests plenty of bargains for rest of 2015

      Strong dollar isn't the only thing boosting savings

      With a very strong dollar U.S. consumers have found travel around the world isn't as expensive as it used to be.

      A new analysis of global travel, by Expedia and Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), suggests that money-saving trend will continue for the rest of 2015. even extending to many U.S. destinations.

      Specifically, the report analyzes average ticket price fluctuations on key international routes, travel demand and package growth savings opportunities and the impact of foreign exchange on air travel and how long travelers are staying on vacation.

      At the beginning of the year, the two companies predicted international air fares would decline 2% across North America and Europe and 7% across Asia, a prediction they say has been borne out in the first half of the year.

      How much you can save

      How's the rest of the year shaping up? The report says the deals will get better. Specifically, it predicts travelers can save:

      • 22% on airfare from Malaysia to Australia
      • 22% on airfare from Italy to Portugal
      • 17% on air fare from Brazil to the U.S.
      • 17% on air fare from Spain to Thailand
      • 16% on air fare from Germany to Portugal
      • 16% on air fare from Japan to France
      • 15% on air fare from the U.S. to Dubai

      The report also predicts that travelers who bundle will save even more. It notes that by bundling, travel suppliers have more flexibility on the rate offered and will offer better deals to achieve a competitive advantage.

      "An analysis of air industry data suggests that, with smart planning, the second half of this year will be an optimal time to explore the world," said Greg Schulze, senior vice president Expedia Global Tour & Transport.

      Airlines are adding seats

      Chuck Thackston, managing director of enterprise information management at ARC, says travelers are benefiting as airlines modernize their fleets and add seats. That, he says, is resulting in lower average ticket prices, especially for North America and Europe.

      "This additional capacity, plus other factors reported by Expedia such as length of stay and dynamic currency valuations, provides a great opportunity for travel deals this year," Thackston said.

      After crunching the numbers, the report predicts travelers who bundle and travel between June and September will save up to $648 across all destinations.

      Destinations offering best deals

      For certain destinations, package savings for 2015 can be even greater. For example, travelers to London can save $1,424, or 30%. A trip to Maui, Hawaii will by 22% off, saving over $1,000. Travel to Paris should be 24% cheaper, saving $1,058.

      Within the continental U.S., the report predicts you can save 23% on travel to San Diego, 22% on travel to Las Vegas and 20% on travel to Orlando.

      When the report analyzed length of stay (LOS) for travelers, it found travelers on flights originating in the U.S. had the shortest LOS of all. The authors suggest that means – despite the strong dollar that makes exploring the world cheaper – U.S. consumers are opting to travel domestically on short trips.

      With a very strong dollar U.S. consumers have found travel around the world isn't as expensive as it used to be.A new analysis of global travel, by Exp...

      Your dog can make waves but don't let him drink them

      Dogs can pick up dangerous diseases by drinking lake or salt water

      It's summer and who doesn’t love to take their dog fishing or just hanging out by the lake? A dog beach is wonderful too but watch your dog carefully so he doesn't lap up the water in the lake or drink a huge gulp of salt water from the ocean.

      You have to be so careful because lakes and waterways contain organisms and chemicals that can be harmful to your dog, some of which can put you at risk for zoonotic disease as well. A zoonotic disease is a disease that can be passed between animals and humans. Zoonotic diseases can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi.

      Salmonella can be spread through water as well. Water that’s contaminated with animal or human waste can contain microscopic bacteria, including species of salmonella, campylobacter, Escherichia coli and Leptospira .  If it’s not good enough for you to drink it’s not good enough for your dog.

      Best case

      If it doesn’t hit your dog too hard the bacterial infection at its lowest point would create diarrhea. You can imagine what a full blown effect would be like. Some of these infections can be in the stools and then if you pick it up and don’t wash your hands it can be transmitted to you.

      Leptospira is not something that you want to mess around with. It thrives in areas like muddy marsh waters or stagnant waters. It can be very hazardous to your dog and create an infection, which can can result in liver or kidney damage and death. There is a vaccine for Leptospira. Ask your vet about it.

      Watch for algae -- the blue-green kind. It forms blooms on top of the water and dogs consume the blooms, some of which produce toxins, such as microcystins, which can lead to liver failure, and anatoxins, which typically affect the nervous system. Signs can begin soon after ingestion and may include vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, collapse and death. Get your dog to the vet at once if this happens.

      If your dog is swimming in the lake drinking the water, you can be sure it is drinking chemicals. Think of all the gas from boats as well as other streams that run off into the lake that have pesticides in them and herbicides.

      Ocean water is full of salt and while a little won’t hurt if they consume to much they will get diarrhea and it will mess with their electrolytes.

      So what can you do if you are out and about with your pup and it's thirsty? Bring plenty of water for your dog in a backpack. Bring a bowl and when you see your dog is thirsty push him to your bowl of water. He can swim and play -- just don’t let him drink the water.

      It's summer and who doesn’t love to take their dog fishing or just hanging out by the lake? A dog beach is wonderful too but watch your dog carefully so he...

      Apple seeks to cover all the music bases with Apple Music

      Music service to compete head-to-head with Spotify and Pandora

      Apple revolutionized the music business with iTunes. Now, with the introduction of Apple Music, it wants to own the space.

      Steve Jobs brought about the 99-cents-per-song download, giving consumers the freedom to purchase just the songs they liked. That's great if you know what you like but many consumers frankly aren't sure what they like.

      That's why apps like Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio and TuneIn have been so successful. With Pandora, you enter the name of an artist or a song and the app puts together a playlist of similar tunes.

      With Spotify, consumers may browse music titles or search by artist, album, genre, playlist, or record label. I Heart Radio and TuneIn are collections of radio stations around the world – some Internet radio only – that can be accessed on a digital device.

      Apple Music, unveiled this week at the World Wide Developers conference, seeks to encompass all of that, and maybe a little more.

      Music streaming

      First, it's a streaming service giving subscribers access to the entire Apple Music catalog on all their devices. Consumers who have a personal collection of digital songs from iTunes or ripped from CDs can store them in their Apple Music library and play them on any of their Apple devices.

      People spinning records on the radio used to be called disk jockeys. Now they are called "curators." Apple says it's hired top curators around the world to suggest songs to individual subscribers, based on their preferences.

      The app will also present a wide range of new Internet radio stations, each one programmed to meet a particular music niche. The new stations range in genres from indie rock to classical and folk to funk. But unlike traditional radio, when you hear a song you don't like, you can change the tune without changing the station.

      Beats 1

      Apple Music's flagship radio station is Beats 1, a live station dedicated to music and music culture and will be available in more than 100 countries. Beats 1 will feature influential DJs Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London. Listeners around the globe will hear the same great programming at the same time, regardless of time zones.

      Apple Music has enlisted Siri's help as well. She might not be a music expert but she does know how to find things. If you're in the mood to relive a certain era, just ask Siri to play the tops songs from 1985.

      The service launches June 30 with a 3-month free trial period. After that, an individual subscription is $9.99 a month and a family plan, allowing as many as 6 individual users, costs $14.99.

      Competitors in the space are preparing for Apple's ambitious entry into their space. If they are concerned, they aren't saying so publicly. Spotify's CEO says the company has 20 million paid subscribers and doesn't expect to lose many to Apple.

      Meanwhile, Spotify and Pandora both have free, ad-supported music services and I Heart Radio and TuneIn are both free.

      Will consumers pay for Apple's music service? Apple is betting they will.

      Apple revolutionized the music business with iTunes. Now, with the introduction of Apple Music, it wants to own the space. Steve Jobs brought about the ...

      Marriott switching over to Internet-connected TVs

      But the surfing choice is limited to Netflix

      In another sign that watching TV online has become mainstream, Mariott Hotels has announced it will begin replacing guest room TV sets with Internet-connected sets.

      A press release announcing the move emphasizes a relationship with Netflix, noting guests will be able to watch Netflix content on TV sets in their rooms when they travel. However, Marriott isn't providing a Netflix subscription, only a way to watch it.

      Smart TVs, connected to the Internet, will replace those that just offer typical cable channels. To watch Netflix, guests must access their own accounts or subscribe.

      According to the press release the Internet-connected TVs will have the Netflix app. Presumably there will not be apps for Netflix competitors and no way to view other Internet content.

      Changing consumer preferences

      “Our collaboration with Netflix responds to changing consumer preferences in the way our guests access and watch content, while recognizing the leading role Netflix is playing in driving this transformation,“ said Matthew Carroll, vice president brand management, Marriott Hotels. “Because consumers are choosing to take their streaming content with them when they travel, Marriott Hotels is making the industry’s first rollout of Netflix a priority.”

      While Marriott isn't exactly making everything on the Internet accessible through in-room TVs, it's a big step for any hotel chain. Many hotels, after all, sell premium content to guests. Watching Netflix for free could be stiff competition.

      With the agreement, Marriott says it is the first hotel brand authorized to offer guests direct access to their Netflix accounts as part of its guest room entertainment offering. Netflix is currently available at 6 Marriott properties, with 6 more launching this summer.

      All hotels by the end of 2016

      The hotel plans to expand Internet TVs to 100 of its properties by the end of 2015, and to nearly all of its more than 300 properties in the U.S. by the end of 2016.

      Marrriott says Internet TVs have been installed at:

      • New York Marriott East Side
      • San Jose Marriott
      • Princeton Marriott
      • Newport Marriott
      • Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott Solana
      • Bethesda Marriott Suites

      The next properties to get Internet TVs are:

      • Marriott Marquis Washington, DC
      • San Francisco Marriott Marquis
      • Atlanta Marriott Marquis
      • Dayton Marriott
      • San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
      • Anaheim Marriott

      The company says guests staying multiple days only have to login to their accounts once throughout their stay. When guests checkout, it says all account information is wiped clean from the televisions.

      Marriott said a report from Accenture, showing more than half of U.S. consumers watch Internet television, was persuasive in moving it in that direction. In testing at hotels, the number of guests using any of the Internet apps on the guest room televisions was as high as 26%, depending on the property.

      In another sign that watching TV online has become mainstream, Mariott Hotels has announced it will begin replacing guest room TV sets with Internet-connec...

      Mortgage applications finally turn higher

      It's the first increase in 7 weeks

      After declining for 6 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages moved upward last week.

      Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications rose 8.4% during the week ending June 5.

      “Mortgage application volume rebounded strongly in the week following the Memorial Day holiday, indicating that the holiday had a larger impact on business activity than originally assumed, “said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “Strong job gains in May and initial signs of wage growth are supporting the purchase market.”

      The Refinance Index increased 7% from the previous week, but the refinance share of mortgage activity was unchanged at 49% of total applications.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.3% of total applications, the FHA share dipped to 14.3% from 14.9%, the VA share dropped to 11.5% from 12.0% and the USDA share of total applications inched up 1.1% from 1.0% the week prior.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) jumped 15 basis points -- from 4.02% to 4.17% percent, its highest level since November 2014, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 4.15%, its highest level since October 2014, from 4.01%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA jumped 13 basis points to 3.90%, its highest level since November 2014, with points dipping to 0.19 from 0.21 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.37%, its highest level since November 2014, from 3.27%, with points slipping to 0.32 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 9 basis points to 3.06%, with points unchanged from 0.50 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

      After declining for 6 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages moved upward last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mort...

      Homeowners' association threatens to sue residents over wheelchair ramp

      Because learning from someone else's mistake is just too easy

      Last month, a homeowners' association in Franklin, Tennessee paid $156,000 to settle (with no admission of wrongdoing) a lawsuit brought by former residents who said that the HOA discriminated against them and violated the Fair Housing Act, when it refused to let them build a therapeutic sunroom where their two children with Down syndrome could play and receive in-home physical therapy.

      And this week, another HOA in nearby Brentwood is threatening to sue a couple unless they remove a wheelchair ramp necessary for the husband to enter his own home.

      WSMV reports that, after Michael Broadnax suffered a stroke last summer, his wife Charlotte put a small ramp in front of their house so her husband could have his rehabilitation therapy at home. But their HOA, the Woodlands of Copperstone, sent them a letter dated June 1 and demanding the ramp be removed within 14 days.

      “The association demands that within 14 days of the date of this letter, you remove the wheelchair ramp and restore the exterior of your home,” the letter said, or else “the association [will] come onto your property and remove the ramp and charge you with the work.” Furthermore, “If you force the association to sue you, it will seek a court order” and then charge the Broadnaxes for attorney's fees.

      Charlotte Broadnax says that she installed the ramp around Thanksgiving. “The nursing home said they were sending my husband home and I needed a ramp put up.” So she hired a legal contractor to install the ramp, whch passed the nursing home's inspection, and she also says that neither her neighbors nor anybody else ever complained to her about the ramp — until she received the certified letter threatening legal action if she didn't remove it within two weeks.

      Ghertner and Company, which manages the HOA, said in a press statement that:

      The governing documents for this community require that all exterior improvements receive prior approval. A letter was sent to the owner regarding the ramp as no application for approval had been received.

      The board did not know the ramp was for the homeowner, Mr. Broadnax. The association would like to work with the owners on a compromise regarding the appearance and location of the ramp and compliance with any applicable codes.

      The Federal Fair Housing Act bans “discrimination in sale or rental of housing,” including discriminatory HOA policies, and says that “discrimination includes a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.” (And last March, an HOA in North Carolina had to pay $20,000 to settle allegations that it discriminated against a disabled resident by trying to get rid of said resident's wheelchair ramp.)

      It is arguably impossible to experience “full enjoyment” of any premises if you cannot enter them because you are confined to a wheelchair and your HOA wants your wife to tear down your wheelchair ramp. Then again, the management company did say they didn't know the ramp was for the homeowner's use. Maybe they'll change their minds now that they know the ramp is intended for medicinal rather than recreational purposes.

      Last month, a homeowners' association in Franklin, Tennessee paid $156,000 to settle (with no admission of wrongdoing) a lawsuit brought by former resident...

      Big Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine recalls poultry products

      The products contain wheat, an allergen not listed on the label

      Big Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine of Lake Charles, La., is recalling approximately 93,006 pounds of both raw and cooked stuffed chicken product.

      The product contains wheat, an allergen not listed on the label.

      There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following products are being recalled:

      • 3-pound chipboard cartons of BIG EASY FOODS of LA “Boneless Stuffed Chicken with Pork Sausage and Potato Stuffing” with sell by dates of June 9, 2015 through June 8, 2017.
      • 3-pound chipboard cartons of BIG EASY FOODS of LA “Fully Cooked Boneless Stuffed Chicken with Pork Sausage and Potato Stuffing” with sell by dates of July 21, 2013 through April 11, 2015.

      The products, produced from June 9, 2013, through June 9, 2015, bear the establishment number “13251” inside the USDA mark of inspection and have the sell by date printed on the product label.

      The products were shipped to retail outlets in Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Arizona, Florida and Tennessee.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mitzie Midkiff at 1-337-477-9296 ext 1133.  

      Big Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine of Lake Charles, La., is recalling approximately 93,006 pounds of both raw and cooked stuffed chicken product. The produc...

      Volkswagen recalls Tiguans

      The vehicles may be missing the required tire pressure information

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,957 model year 2015 Tiguans manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 20, 2015.

      The recalled vehicles may be equipped with Certification labels that are missing the required tire pressure information and may state incorrect weight and loading information. If the labels have incorrect weight and loading information, the operator may overload the vehicle which could cause vehicle instability, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will correct the information on the certification label, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in June 2015.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 01A5.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,957 model year 2015 Tiguans manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 20, 2015. The recalled vehicles may be equ...

      Feds offer debt relief to former Corinthian students — with a catch

      The actual stated requirements might prove impossible for most students to meet

      Yesterday the Department of Education (DoE) made the surprise announcement that it would offer “Debt relief for Corinthian Colleges students,” as part of an attempt “to ensure Americans are protected from unscrupulous colleges that deny students meaningful educational opportunities and leave taxpayers holding the bag.”

      Yet critics call the DoE's plan “a process that re-victimizes students as a solution to a problem they [the DoE] created.”

      The Corinthian Colleges debacle offers illustrative examples of almost every complaint made against the modern for-profit college industry: namely, exorbitantly high tuition rates not only leave students deeply in debt which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, but the college degree or credits they earned in exchange for all that debt turn out to be worthless. Traditional four-year colleges and universities rarely if ever accept transfer credits from such schools, state professional certification boards won't accept them, and potential employers won't either.

      Corinthian, which owned and operated schools under the brand names Everest, WyoTech and Heald, filed for bankruptcy last month after years of legal troubles.

      But the true beginning of the end for Corinthian arguably came last June, when the Department of Education temporarily halted all federal student aid, including bankruptcy-proof federal student loans, to various Corinthian-owned schools. Though federal funding was re-instated a couple of days later, Corinthian had to agree to many strict conditions including a “'teach-out' of schools that are under-performing.” At the time, Corinthian was already under investigation in 20 different states, in addition to its troubles with the feds.

      Selling campuses

      In early July, Corinthian started selling off some of its campuses after it missed one of the deadlines the feds had established as part of its previous month's agreement with the company.

      At the end of that month, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee released a report showing that for-profit schools such as Corinthian were collecting a “disproportionate share of new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits” paid out to military veterans.

      In September, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Corinthian for what the CFPB called an illegal, predatory lending scheme. CFPB Director Richard Corday said “We believe Corinthian lured consumers into predatory loans by lying about their future job prospects, and then used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students at school. We want to put an end to these predatory practices and get relief for the students who are bearing the weight of more than half a billion dollars in Corinthian’s private student loans.”

      The lawsuit charged that Corinthian used “misleading claims” in order to convince students its schools were worth attending. Among other things, Corinthian allegedly paid employers to hire graduates for temporary jobs, which Corinthian then counted as as in-field work toward its job-placement statistics. Corinthian even allegedly created fake employers, then falsely claimed students worked for them. Meanwhile, Corinthian's “career counseling” services included urging students to check job postings on websites such as Craigslist.

      In October, the state of Wisconsin made similar claims in a lawsuit it filed against Corinthian-owned Everest College in Milwaukee (which had shut down in August 2013).

      Debt relief for students

      In February, the DoE and CFPB announced $480 million in debt relief for Corinthian students who'd taken out high-cost, private “Genesis” loans. CFPB Director Corday said it would “provide substantial relief to current and past students who were harmed by Corinthian’s predatory lending scheme.” Affected students were told they could see their individual Genesis debt burdens be reduced by up to 40% – which was another way of saying the students were still on the hook for 60% of those predatory loans.

      Then, in April, the attorneys general of nine states (Illinois, California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington) published an open letter urging the DoE to immediately relieve the federal student-loan debt burdens of all Corinthian and Everest students. Illinois AG Lisa Madigan said that such students were “victims of the predatory practices of for-profit schools such as Corinthian, which was more concerned with their profits than they were about the quality of education they provided.”

      A week later, Corinthian was fined $30 million and forbidden from enrolling any new students at certain of its campuses, for “misrepresenting” job placement rates for its graduates.

      According to the DoE, Corinthian's deceptive practices included paying temporary employment agencies to hire graduates for on-campus jobs lasting as little as two days, so the company could then count those students as having found work in their field after graduation.

      School's out

      Near the end of that month, on Sunday, April 26, Corinthian abruptly announced that it would close all of its remaining campuses effective the next day. Then the company declared bankruptcy the following week.

      And now, almost exactly 12 months after the Department of Education first halted federal funding to Corinthian, it announced on its official “HomeRoom” blog that it would offer debt relief to certain Corinthian students.

      Some Corinthian schools closed down, while others were sold but remain open. We are establishing plans to ensure debt relief for:

      • Students whose schools have closed down

      • Students who believe they were victims of fraud, whether their school closed or not

      ….

      If you are a Corinthian student seeking debt relief of either type, please visit the FSA website or call toll-free at (855) 279-6207 and a staff member will provide the information you need.

      The DoE also put out an online “fact sheet” about “Protecting students from abusive career colleges.” Among other things, the fact sheet promises that the DoE is “Establishing a streamlined process” for Corinthian students seeking debt relief:

      the Department will create a simple application for debt relief, which borrowers can complete online or by email or postal mail. Starting today, former Corinthian students can visit studentaid.gov/Corinthian to learn more, and in the coming weeks, the Department will have an online form available for these borrowers. In addition, students can call a special toll-free borrower defense hotline at (855) 279-6207 to ask about their options.

      A long list

      But just how streamlined is that process? The Student Aid page says that “In your Borrower Defense to Repayment submission materials, you should include at a minimum” a long, bullet-pointed list of information. The list starts out reasonably enough – you need “A statement that the borrower wishes to assert a borrower defense to repayment based on state law,” and of course you must include some personal identifying details – your full name, date of birth, current contact information and similar things.

      Then it says you also must provide this:

      • Documentation to confirm the borrower’s school, program of study, and dates of enrollment. Suggested items include transcripts and registration documents indicating your specific program of study and dates of enrollment.

      • Any details about the conduct of the school that the borrower believes violated state law including, but not limited to:

        • The state and applicable law or cause of action (if available)

        • Specific acts (including failures to act) of alleged misconduct by the school

        • How the alleged misconduct affected the borrower’s decision to attend the school and take out a loan to pay to attend the school

        • The injury suffered by the borrower as a result of the school’s alleged misconduct

        • Any other supporting information that would help the Department of Education review the borrower’s claim

      As Salon pointed out:

      Even getting a transcript from Corinthian, especially if the particular campus went out of business, may be challenging. Additionally, the application demands highly specific legal formulations, and borrowers would have to make the right citations of state law and fulfill the proper definitions of injury. This is a job for a lawyer, not a struggling borrower, who may not even be aware of Corinthian’s behind-the-scenes machinations.

      Last February, shortly after the CFPB announced $480 million in loan forgiveness for the holders of certain private (not federal) Corinthian-based student loans, a group of former a group of former Corinthian students associated with an offshoot of the Occupy movement known as the Debt Collective announced that they were staging a “debt strike” and refusing to repay their student loans in order to protest the government's legal and financial support of Corinthian.

      At the time, the “Corinthian 15” (so called because they started with 15 members) posted an open letter to the Department of Education saying that:

      Who are we? We are the first generation made poor by the business of education. …

      We trusted that education would lead to a better life. And we trusted you to ensure that the education system in this country would do so. But Corinthian took advantage of our dreams and targeted us to make a profit. You let it happen, and now you cash in. … We are not alone in this fight. Corinthian’s predatory empire pushed hundreds of thousands into a debt trap. But even beyond for-profit schools, tens of millions of students are in more debt than they can ever repay. And you are the debt collector, with powers beyond a payday lender’s wildest dreams. …

      And yesterday, in response to the DoE's debt-relief announcement, the Debt Collective responded by saying that the “Department of Education refuses to do its job, again”:

      How many times do Corinthian students have to be lied to?

      Just as Corinthian Colleges portrayed its programs as a path to a better life when they were in fact debt traps, the Department of Education is portraying a process that re-victimizes students as a solution to a problem they created.

      If Education Secretary Arne Duncan was truly “committed to making sure students receive every penny of relief they are entitled to under law” he would sign the “Order for Discharge of Federal Student Loan Debts” the Debt Collective sent him last week, immediately and automatically discharging Corinthian students' debts. Students are entitled to receive full relief under law. The legal and most painless possible process for students is no process—they deserve an automatic discharge of their debts. … In place of this obvious option, the Department of Education's "solution" is a bureaucratically tortured process designed to provide relief only to those who hear about it and can figure out how to navigate unnecessary red tape.

      The Debt Collective also argues that without DoE funding – primarily, the federal promotion and backing or bankruptcy-proof student loans intended to cover tuition costs – schools such as Corinthian wouldn't have stayed in business in the first place:

      The Department of Education has been misusing taxpayer dollars for decades, funding up to 90% of Corinthian and other exploitative for-profit college chains. Hundreds of thousands of students were led into a debt trap funded by tax dollars. Automatic, class-wide discharges are not only just, they would also serve as a corrective for the Department's flagrant failures to allocate public funds wisely.

      Credits wiped out

      If you are a former Corinthian student who does have the necessary documentation and legal expertise to apply for the Department of Education's current debt relief program, bear in mind that doing so will completely wipe out any credits or degrees you might have collected from a Corinthian school. Or, as the DoE webpage puts it:

      Please note that if you choose closed-school debt relief, you can’t transfer your credits to a comparable program at another institution. However, if you believe you have a claim against your school under state law, such as fraud, you may still pursue debt relief based on borrower defense to repayment, as described below – even if you transfer your credits to another school.

      Quite frankly: if you're a former Corinthian student, you should not let fear of losing Corinthian-generated course credit deter you from applying for debt relief, because those credits are probably worthless anyway. The only other schools likely to accept Corinthian-generated transfer credits are other for-profit schools no better than Corinthian. In February 2013, for example, an Everest graduate sued his school, alleging that none of the credits he took at Everest were transferable to a state community college, and many consumers posting on ConsumerAffairs have complained of problems transferring their credits.

      “I attended Everest here in Miami in 2010,” a consumer named Lucy said in a ConsumerAffairs posting from last summer. “At the time I had no high school diploma. I completed a test that qualified me for the pharmacy technician program. ... I passed with flying colors.”

      But that hasn't done Lucy any good. “To make a long story short, I am $13,000 in debt and still no employment in my field of study,” she said. “We cannot transfer our education credits because it's not considered real.”

      The education may not be real, but the crushing debt and financial ruin are.

      Yesterday the Department of Education (DoE) made the surprise announcement that it would offer “Debt relief for Corinthian Colleges students,” as part of a...

      Job openings in April at highest level in 14 years

      Both hires and separations were fairly stable

      There were 5.4 million job openings at the end of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- the highest level since the series began in December 2000.

      At the same time, number of hires was little-changed at 5.0 million and the number of separations was fairly steady at 4.9 million. Within separations, the quits rate was 1.9% and the layoffs and discharges rate was 1.3% -- both little different from the previous month.

      Job openings

      The number of job openings was essentially unchanged for government. At the industry level, job openings rose in health care and social assistance but fell in arts, entertainment and recreation. By region, job openings increased in the West.

      The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private and government. Job openings increased over the year for many industries with the largest changes occurring in professional and business services and in health care and social assistance. Job openings decreased over the year in mining and logging and in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

      The number of job openings increased over the year in all 4 regions.

      Hires

      The number of hires was little changed for total private and government, with little change in the number of hires in all industries and regions over the month.

      Over the 12 months ending in April, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little-changed for total nonfarm and total private, and increased for government. At the industry level, hires increased in accommodation and food services and in state and local government. The number of hires decreased over the year in mining and logging and in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

      The number of hires was essentially unchanged over the year in all 4 regions.

      Separations

      Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, and is referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee. Therefore, the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs. Layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations includes separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

      There were 4.9 million total separations in April -- about the same as in March, for a separations rate of 3.5%. The number of total separations was little-changed for total private and government, and in all industries and regions over the month.

      There were 2.7 million quits in April, little-changed from March, for a quits rate 1.9%. The number of quits was little-changed for total private and government over the month. The number of quits did not increase over the month for any industries, but fell in retail trade and in accommodation and food services. The number of quits was little-changed in all 4 regions.

      The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Over the year, quits increased in several industries with the largest rises occurring in durable goods manufacturing; finance and insurance; and health care and social assistance. The number of quits increased over the year in the South.

      There were 1.8 million layoffs and discharges, about the same as in March -- a rate of 1.3%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little-changed over the month for total private and government, and in all 4 regions.

      The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) was little-changed over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private, and government. The number of layoffs and discharges

      increased over the year in mining and logging and in accommodation and food services, but decreased in health care and social assistance. There was little change in layoffs and discharges over the year in all 4 regions.

      There were 395,000 other separations for total nonfarm, about the same as in March. Over the month, the number of other separations was little-changed for total private at 326,000 and for government at 69,000.

      Over the 12 months ending in April, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) was

      little-changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government, and in all industries and regions.

      The full report is available on the BLS website.

      There were 5.4 million job openings at the end of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- the highest level since the series began in D...