Current Events in June 2015

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    Australia's medical board urges doctors to stop prescribing homeopathic remedies

    At best they'll waste your money, and at worst they'll ruin your health

    On Wednesday, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Australia's equivalent to the American Medical Association, more or less) formally asked pharmacists to stop stocking homeopathic “medicines” and doctors to stop prescribing them, on the grounds that homeopathic remedies do absolutely nothing.

    The request comes three months after Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies and concluded that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo for treating any medical condition, and previous studies claiming otherwise all proved deeply flawed upon inspection:

    ….Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy....

    Dr. Frank Jones, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said that people who use homeopathic products to treat medical conditions endanger their health, because homeopathic users thus either delay getting effective medical treatment, or avoid it altogether. Jones expressed particular concern about reliance on so-called homeopathic vaccines.

    "Do not prevent diseases"

    “These alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection,” Dr. Jones said. “Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunization.”

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America reached the same conclusion in a background paper on homeopathy: “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect.”

    What exactly is homeopathy? The Food and Drug Administration offers this capsule summary:

    The term "homeopathy" is derived from the Greek words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease). The first basic principles of homeopathy were formulated by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700's. The practice of homeopathy is based on the belief that disease symptoms can be cured by small doses of substances which produce similar symptoms in healthy people.

    Here is an example of how this supposedly works, offered by a pro-homeopathic website in the U.K.:

    Although homeopathy has its roots in Ancient Greek medicine, the system as we know it today is only around 200 years old. It all began with the observation that some remedies, when taken in raw form by a healthy person, produced very similar side-effects to the illnesses they were meant to treat. This led to the conclusion that 'like cures like' or, in other words: substances that produce symptoms can be used to treat those same symptoms when they are produced by an illnesses. This explains why Allium cepa (taken from onion, which causes watery eyes and running noses) is used to treat hay fever and common cold symptoms (like watery eyes and running noses). Another example is poison ivy, which causes itchiness, redness and intense burning and is used to treat conditions such as herpes and eczema, which both cause itchiness, redness and burning.

    Sounded good in 1700

    To be fair: such ideas sounded plausible in the 1700s, before humanity discovered the germ theory of disease in the 1860s, or started figuring out how allergies worked in the early 1900s – in other words, before we could even begin to accurately pinpoint the causes of various medical and biological problems that plague us.

    Samuel Hahnemann died in 1843, two decades too early to even suspect that herpes and the common cold are actually caused by various invisible, not-quite-living things called “viruses.”

    And given the abysmally ignorant and downright harmful state of the medical art in Hahnemann's day – some bloodletting prescriptions called for draining more blood out of a patient than we now know a typical adult human body actually contains – it's true that back then, getting no treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking official medical attention. For that matter, even rubbing poison ivy on your skin is less harmful than swallowing arsenic, bloodletting, purging and other spectacularly dangerous 18th-century medical treatments.

    But medical science and science in general has advanced considerably since the mid-1700s, whereas homeopathic theories remain essentially unchanged. Another core pillar of homeopathic belief (which, again, might have sounded plausible before humanity really understood anything about atomic structure, the periodic table of elements, how atoms combine into molecules and other basic aspects of modern chemistry) is that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it.

    If you inspect the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth. They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which in homeopathic terms means “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

    "Dilution increases strength"

    Suppose you have a shot glass full of whiskey and want to dilute/strengthen it according to homeopathic principles. If you combine one drop of whiskey with 99 drops of water, you'll get 1C whiskey, which is 99 percent water and 1 percent whiskey.

    Combining one drop of 1C whiskey with 99 drops of water results in 2C whiskey, which is 99.99 percent water and 0.01 percent whiskey. One drop of 2C added to 99 drops of water makes 3C, which is water containing 0.0001 percent whiskey, and so on.

    Once you reach 12C you crash against the physical barrier of Avogadro’s limit, which means that your 12C whiskey probably doesn’t contain even a single molecule of alcohol. Yet, if the homeopathic “dilution increases strength” idea were true, drinking a glass of that 12C water should give you a much stronger alcoholic buzz than a glass of undiluted whiskey, and a glass of 200C water would presumably make you pass out from booze intoxication even though you never downed a single drop of alcohol.

    If the homeopathic belief in dilution could be confirmed and reproduced under controlled circumstances, it would be a Nobel-worthy and world-changing discovery. No more shortages of life-saving drugs: just water one dose down (and strengthen it up) until there's enough for everybody.

    No need to worry about high grocery costs, if a single bowl of nourishing soup plus a few hundred gallons of clean water can make enough fattening and filling homeopathic stew to feed a typical family all year. And if watering down gasoline strengthened its potency rather than destroyed your car's engine, humanity could solve the triple problems of “climate change,” “environmental pollution” and “high energy costs” in approximately half a day.

    Unfortunately, despite the massive wealth and worldwide acclaim that would accrue to anybody proven capable of performing such wonders, no trustworthy, reproducible test results have ever shown homeopathic principles to work. That's why the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners urges doctors to stop risking their patients' health (and wasting untold amounts of money) prescribing ineffective homeopathic remedies.

    As the RACGP's Dr. Frank Jones said: “Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists.”

    Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy (Photo via Wikipedia)On Wednesday, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Australia's equival...

    Home buyers continue to make smaller down payments

    This suggests more entry-level shoppers are buying homes

    Though the traditional down payment is 20% of a home's purchase price, down payments can be much smaller – 3.5% for an FHA loan and as little as 3% for some conventional loans. New programs can lower them even more.

    As home prices creep higher, it becomes harder to meet the benchmark 20% down payment. So it isn't too surprising that homebuyers have been putting less down on recent home sales.

    RealtyTrac, which collects and markets a wide variety of housing data, reports the average down payment for single family homes, condos and townhomes purchased in the first quarter of 2015 was 14.8% of the purchase price, down from 15.2% in the previous quarter and down from 15.5% a year ago. It's the lowest down payment since the first quarter of 2012.

    RealtyTrac's Daren Blomquist says there was an increase in the number of FHA loans, with low down payments, during the period and that was partly the reason for the falling number. As far as housing trends go, he said it's a healthy sign.

    Return of the first-time buyer

    “Down payment trends in the first quarter indicate that first time homebuyers are finally starting to come out of the woodwork, albeit it gradually,” Blomquist said. “New low down payment loan programs recently introduced by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with the lower insurance premiums for FHA loans that took effect at the end of January are helping, given that first time homebuyers typically aren’t able to pony up large down payments.”

    Blomquist says first-time buyers increased their purchases in the first quarter, in part, because they had less competition from large institutional investors that had been buying up starter home inventory as rentals.

    Some lenders now have programs that offer financing with even less than 3% down. Blomquist says these plans represent a concerted effort by lenders to draw first-time buyers into the market.

    “I see the rise in low down payments as a positive for our market. In Seattle, it’s primarily a function of the price growth in our region combined with buyers looking to take advantage of the new Fannie/Freddie 97 loan to value programs,” said OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate, covering the Seattle market.

    In Seattle, low down payment loans were 13% of all purchase loans in King County and 31% of all purchase loans in Snohomish County.

    “As long as qualifying for mortgages remains stringent, I don’t see this as being problematic,” Jacobi said. “Our region continues to expand economically and the desire to buy remains high.”

    Nationwide, the share of low down payment loans — defined in the report as purchase loans with a loan-to-value ratio of 97 percent or higher, which would mean a down payment of 3% — was 27% of all purchase loans in the first quarter, up from 26% in the fourth quarter. Low down payment loans accounted for 83% of FHA purchase loans originated in the first quarter, while 11% of conventional loans were low down payment loans.

    More risk?

    Requiring buyers to put less of their own money into their home purchase sounds like a significant risk to the housing market. Isn't that what happened during the housing bubble?

    Craig King, COO of Chase International brokerage, in the Lake Tahoe andReno, Nev., market, says there are important distinctions.

    “The dangers of interest only, negative amortization, and low, low credit score loans are not a part of today’s low down loan programs,” King said. These are the components that got buyers in trouble during the severe downturn.”

    After all, mortgage qualification standards remain stringent. Without the types of high risk components rampant in the industry before 2009, King says low down payment loans can be a sound strategy.

    Though the traditional down payment is 20% of a home's purchase price, down payments can be much smaller – 3.5% for an FHA loan and as little as 3% for som...

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      Half of older Americans have no retirement savings

      Social Security becomes an increasingly fragile lifeline

      As data continues to pile up about the financial condition of older Americans, one conclusion is becoming pretty clear. For millions of Americans, there probably won't be any retirement.

      At least, not a retirement that fits into the traditional meaning of the word. A new report (PDF) from the General Accountability Office (GAO) shows a disturbing number of Americans are approaching their retirement years with no savings and few, if any, assets.

      Their future may then depend on whatever income they can derive from continued employment and the increasingly fragile lifeline provided by Social Security.

      52% have no savings

      In a report produced as the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the GAO found that 52% of U.S. households age 55 and older have no retirement savings, such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA. Worse still, the agency found many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit pension, non-retirement savings or other assets.

      The older Americans who do have retirement savings are in much better shape because the GAO found they typically also have other financial resources, such as pensions, non-retirement savings and real assets like property.

      Among those who have some retirement savings, the median amount of those savings is about $104,000 for households age 55-64 and $148,000 for households age 65-74. GAO estimates that is the equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 per month, respectively.

      Relying on Social Security

      Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older. GAO says these benefits offer 2 primary advantages; they are monthly payments that continue until death and adjust each year to provide cost-of-living increases.

      But U.S. workers have been paying into Social Security at a much slower rate than retirees have been withdrawing it. As a result GAO says the Social Security trust fund is projected to run out of money in 2034.

      What happens then is anyone's guess but one option is to reduce payments to cover just 75% of benefits. Another is to increase the withholding of the FICA tax, as was done in 1983.

      The Social Security Administration reports that as of April 2015 the average Social Security benefit received by retirees was $1,333 a month.

      Unable to maintain lifestyle

      GAO said it reviewed a number of different surveys and studies about Americans' retirement savings pattern and found widely differing conclusions. But its analysis shows that at least one-third to two-thirds of workers will be unable to maintain their present lifestyle if and when they retire.

      Perhaps because of that, younger Baby Boomers say they plan to work longer than they previously assumed. Workers age 55 and older say they expect to retire later and a higher percentage plan to work during their traditional retirement years.

      For those who can keep working, that helps address the lack of savings. However, as the GAO report points out, about half of current retirees said they retired earlier than planned when health problems cropped up or when their employer downsized or went out of business.

      The GAO report says that suggests that many workers may be overestimating their future retirement income and their ability to accumulate future savings.  

      As data continues to pile up about the financial condition of older Americans, one conclusion is becoming pretty clear. For millions of Americans, there pr...

      Employment and the jobless rate both moved higher in May

      More good news: Those with jobs were earning more

      May was a strong month for job creation.

      According to the Labor Department (DOL), the economy cranked out 280,00 nonfarm payroll positions last month following a revised total of 221,000 new jobs in April.

      At the same time, the unemplopyment rate edged up 0.1% to 5.5%. But even that was good news as people who had given up looking for work re-entered the job market -- a sign of growing optimism.

      Nearly as important, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 0.3%, or 8 cents, in May to $24.96. Over the year, average hourly earnings are up 2.3%.

      Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza calls the May increase "a step in the right direction from the more pronounced weakness in March," but adds, "it remains a significant step in the wrong direction from the 324k pace at the end of last year. "

      Who is and isn't working

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (5.0%), adult women (5.0%t), teenagers (17.9%, whites (4.7%), blacks (10.2%), Asians (4.1%) and Hispanics (6.7%) showed little or no change in May.

      The civilian labor force rose by 397,000, but the labor force participation rate was little changed at 62.9%. Since April of last year, the participation rate has remained within a narrow range of 62.7% to 62.9%. The employment-population ratio was essentially unchanged in May at 59.4%.

      The number of people unemployed for less than 5 weeks fell by 311,000 to 2.4 million last month, following an increase in April. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) held at 2.5 million in May and accounted for 28.6% of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed is down by 849,000.

      Where the jobs are

      Professional and business services added 63,000 jobs in last month and 671,000 jobs over the year. Employment also increased in computer systems design and related services (+10,000), temporary help services (+20,000), management and technical consulting services (+7,000) and in architectural and engineering services (+5,000).

      Employment in leisure and hospitality increased in May (+57,000) as did arts, entertainment and recreation (+29,000), while there's been little net change over the past 3 months in hiring at food services and drinking places.

      Also adding jobs were health (+47,000), retail trade (+31,000), construction (+17,000), transportation and warehousing (+13,000) and financial activities (+13,000).

      On the other hand employment in mining fell for the fifth month in a row, with a decline of 17,000 in May, while job creation in manufacturing, wholesale trade, information and government showed little change over the month.

      The complete report is avilable on the DOL website.

      May was a strong month for job creation. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the economy cranked out 280,00 nonfarm payroll positions last month foll...

      Looking for a job? Check these fast-growing industries

      CareerBuilder highlights those expected to experience at least 15% job growth in 5 years

      With jobs a little more plentiful, consumers can be choosier when deciding whether to stay put or look for a new job. And those who are ready to make a move might find job site CareerBuilder.com'slatest survey useful.

      The company has just issued a list of industries that, based on its research, are expected to add jobs at a a faster pace from 2014 to 2019. The study is based on data pulled from over 90 national and state employment resources.

      The survey projects that the U.S. economy will probably create 8 million jobs from 2014 to 2019 – a 5% increase. As you might expect, some industries will grow more slowly, some will likely experience a greater%age gain during this period.

      Outperforming the national average

      “Around one third of all U.S. industries are expected to outperform the national average for employment growth over the next 5 years,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “While it’s not surprising that technology and health care made the list, the accumulation of new jobs will take place within a diverse mix of industries requiring a broad range of skills and experience.”

      To make the list, CareerBuilder had to determine that an industry would add at least 10,000 jobs over the 5 year period and experience at least 15% growth. A total of 20 industries made the list.

      The fastest growth – 36% – goes to a somewhat unlikely category, translation and interpretation services. However, it is only expected to add a little over 12,000 jobs, taking it from 34,431 in 2014 to 46,832 in 2019.

      In terms of sheer numbers, home health care services tops the list. With aging Baby Boomers it's expected to grow from 1,344,672 to 1,677,455 – an increase of 332,782 or 25%.

      Other growth areas include residential remodelers. With recent declines in home building activity more older housing stock will need to be updated and renovated to meet housing demand, creating opportunities for skilled tradesmen.

      CareerBuilder projects that industry will hire an additional 148,250 people, taking that workforce to 708,646 by 2019.

      Marketers in demand

      With competition to sell things never greater, CareerBuilder says marketing consultants will be in demand. Job growth should reach 55,142, a 21% increase.

      Computer systems design should also remain a hot field for the foreseeable future. Jobs should grow from 893,689 in 2014 to 1,083,160 – a 21% increase. Internet publishing and broadcasting should see 17% growth, rising from 164,367 jobs in 2014 to 192,240 in 2019.

      A large number of these jobs and industries do not require a 4-year college degree, which could increase a recent trend among Millennials to opt out of college.

      With jobs a little more plentiful, consumers can be choosier when deciding whether to stay put or look for a new job. And those who are ready to make a mov...

      Smart Lipo dietary supplement recalled

      The products contain undeclared ingredients

      SmartLipo365 is recalling 122 lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules, that contain undeclared ingredients of sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine and phenolphthalein.

      Sibutramine and Phenolphthalein are not currently approved for marketing in the U.S. because of safety concerns. Health risks associated with phenolphthalein could include potentially serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat and cancer with long-term use.

      These undeclared ingredients make these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established. These products may also interact in life-threatening ways with medications a consumer may be taking.

      Smart Lipo is marketed as a dietary supplement and is packaged in bottles of 30 capsules, with 22 bottles of 800mg, 77 bottles of 900mg, and 23 bottles of 950mg.The affected Smart Lipo products include the following expiration dates:

      • 800mg capsules - 9/15/2017,
      • 900mg capsules - 7/30/2017, and
      • 950mg capsules - 7/30/2017 & 7/30/2018.

      Smart Lipo was sold in stores, Centro Naturista in Richardson, Texas, SmartLipo365 in Arlington, Texas, as well as distributed nationwide via the Internet.

      The company is notifying its distributors and customers by e-mail and letter and will not continue the distribution of Smart Lipo.

      Consumers, distributors and retailers who have the recalled product should stop using it and dispose of it.

      Consumers with questions may contact SmartLipo365 at 1-(800)-547-6365 or by email at info@smartlipo365.com on Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. (CT).  

      SmartLipo365 is recalling 122 lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules. The products contain sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine and phenolphthalein,...

      Demes recalls chicken and pork products

      The chicken sausages were wrapped in hog casings that were not listed on the labels

      Demes Gourmet Corp., of Fullerton, Calif., is recalling approximately 29,052 pounds of poultry and pork products.

      The chicken sausages were wrapped in hog casings that were not listed on the labels. Hog casings may produce allergic reactions in the rare cases of individuals known to be allergic to pork proteins.

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

      The following items, produced on various dates between Sept. 17, 2014, and June 1, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 18 lb. cases of 12 oz. tray packs of “Panama Sweet Chicken Longanisa.”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-2888” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in California.

      Consumers with questions may contact Ruby Phillips at (714) 870-6040 or by email at demesgourmetcorp@gmail.com.

      Demes Gourmet Corp., of Fullerton, Calif., is recalling approximately 29,052 pounds of poultry and pork products. The chicken sausages were wrapped in ho...

      Mazda recalls vehicles with driver-side air bag issue

      The air bag inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 444,907 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008; 2004-2008 RX-8 vehicles manufactured April 10, 2003, to February 18, 2008; and 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6 vehicles manufactured August 4, 2005, to June 29, 2007.

      The vehicles are equipped with a dual-stage driver frontal air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion and other factors, including manufacturing variability that, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the driver's frontal air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's frontal air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Vehicles that have had their driver's frontal air bag replaced previously as part of a recall remedy need to have their air bag replaced under this recall as well.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 7914J.  

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 444,907 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008; 2004-2008 RX-8 vehicl...

      Big Lots recalls hanging chairs

      The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the base

      Big Lots Stores of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling about 16,000 hanging chairs.

      The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the base, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received 8 reports of the hanging chairs falling in stores with consumers in them, including 5 reports of minor injuries.

      This recall involves egg-shaped hanging chairs made from brown plastic wicker pattern mesh and have red seat cushions. They hang from a chain connected to a black metal pole and U-shaped base.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Big Lots stores from December 2014, through January 2015, for about $300 including the base.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled hanging chairs and return the chairs to Big Lots for a full refund. Consumers can discard the base.

      Consumers may contact Big Lots toll-free at (866) 244-5687 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

      Big Lots Stores of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling about 16,000 hanging chairs. The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the ...

      Industry analysts predict gasoline prices ready to fall

      Prices usually go down in June but history doesn't always repeat itself

      Gasoline prices began the month of June at their high for the year, up more than 70 cents a gallon since January, but they remain well below recent historical norms.

      A number of industry sources are predicting prices at the pump will be headed lower soon, treating drivers to what AAA predicts will be the cheapest summer gasoline prices since 2009.

      “This could be the year of the summer road trip with lower gas prices motivating millions of people to travel,” said AAA spokesman Avery Ash,. “Many drivers are likely to save hundreds of dollars this summer as gas prices remain more affordable than in recent years.”

      Even though prices have been creeping higher for weeks, to a national average of around $2.76 a gallon, fuel is a lot cheaper than it was at this time last year when it averaged $3.66 a gallon. And it might be about to get even cheaper.

      June pattern

      GasBuddy.com's Will Speer, writing on the site's blog, notes that there is a well established pattern of falling pump prices after Memorial Day, especially in certain markets.

      “Looking at the average of the last 5 days of May and June over the last 5 years, we see a common trend among the 4 largest U.S. markets,” Speer writes. “Los Angeles, despite having the highest absolute gas price, had the second highest drop in gas price from May to June with 11.3 cpg. The volatile Chicago market had the largest decrease in prices at 16.3 cpg over the 5 year period.”

      For its part, AAA says gas prices lose upward momentum in June as refineries complete seasonal maintenance and gear up production for the busy summer driving season. Gas prices have declined by an average of 12 cents per gallon in June over the past five years.

      “This production trend likely will continue this year, which means gasoline supplies could soon grow even more plentiful,” AAA says.

      Exceptions

      Maybe, but there are always exceptions and analysts will stay busy scanning the latest industry data for signs of anomalies. For example, in the 4 largest markets last year, prices actually rose slightly in June.

      In it's release of petroleum data this week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a decline in both gasoline and crude oil inventories, a trend not usually associated with price declines.

      However, the drop in crude supplies was slight and the stockpile remains 88 million barrels above last year's levels. So there is plenty of oil on hand.

      And even with a slight drop in gasoline supplies, to 220 million barrels, that's still 4% higher than a year ago when gasoline prices were well above $3 a gallon.

      Refineries operated at only 93% of capacity last week but the EIA report notes that total products sent to market over the last 4 weeks averaged nearly 20 million barrels a day, up 4.3% over the same period last year.

      Gas Buddy predicts areas of the upper Midwest may be slower to see price declines than elsewhere in the U.S. It says 2 major refineries in the Chicago area are still undergoing maintenance. A new refinery issue in Toledo is expected to keep supplies tight for a while in the Great Lakes region.

      Gasoline prices began the month of June at their high for the year, up more than 70 cents a gallon since January, but they remain well below recent histori...

      Applying for a mortgage: how to get started

      Here's what you need to know, ask and be able to put your hands on

      Whether you are buying a home for the first time or downsizing after the kids have moved out, applying for a mortgage is a more rigorous and complicated process than it once was.

      It's about to get more complicated when new government regulations go into effect so, if you plan to buy a home and apply for a mortgage there is reason to do it sooner rather than later.

      But where to start? It will help if you gather some information first and get organized. The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) recently offered up some tips for making the process go smoothly.

      Know your numbers

      You need to have an honest appraisal of your finances and it starts with your banker. ICBA naturally suggests talking with a community banker, and there's a lot to be said for that advice. But if you already have a relationship with a bank, that may be a place to start too.

      Discuss your plans and ask your banker what he or she thinks you can afford, given your income and current debt. It's worth the small fee required to obtain your credit score, since that will play a big part in qualifying for a mortgage. You can get a free copy of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.

      If you start your conversation with a mortgage loan officer, this is where you might get prequalified. The important thing is to complete this step with a realistic idea of how much you can pay for a house. The important thing, says ICBA, is to stay within your means.

      Analyze

      You need to know what you are spending now and what you are likely to be spending each month if you purchase a home. Check how much you spend on rent and utilities and compare that to what a mortgage payment will be.

      Remember that a mortgage payment isn't just principal and interest but usually includes taxes and insurance. If you are putting less than 20% down, it will also include mortgage insurance. If the property is a condo, there will be a condo fee on top of that.

      But with low interest rates and rising rents, you may be pleasantly surprised that the monthly costs of owning may be comparable to, or less than renting. But check.

      Organize

      Applying for a mortgage requires a lot of documents. The mortgage underwriter who will decide whether you are qualified for the loan you've requested will demand all manner of documents proving how much money you make, how much you have and how much you owe.

      You can prepare by gathering and organizing this paperwork in advance. Items you should have readily available include paycheck stubs, W2 forms, tax returns and bank and investment statements for the last two years.

      Improve your financial health

      Having a large credit card balance could be an issue when you apply for a mortgage. If possible pay it down significantly or pay it off before applying for a mortgage.

      By the same token, postpone any credit purchase like a car until after you have closed on the home purchase. Don't open new credit accounts, such as credit cards or even store charge cards.

      Learn about mortgages

      Here your banker can be of help. Ask about the different types of mortgages and which would be right for you. Check into current mortgage rates and any government programs that might be available to assist with down payment and closing costs.

      Hurry

      There may be good reason to expedite the process. The government is implementing new regulations that combine the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and Truth in Lending Act (TILA) into one disclosure rule. The change is set to take effect August 1.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says the change will present a learning curve for all concerned in real estate transactions and says the timing couldn't be worse, coming during the busiest time for home for home closings.

      NAR has asked the government to delay implementation of the rule until the winter but such a delay is very uncertain. Getting your closing in under the August 1 deadline might be a good idea.

      Whether you are buying a home for the first time or downsizing after the kids have moved out, applying for a mortgage is a more rigorous and complicated pr...

      Online shoppers not even close to abandoning brick-and-mortar

      Survey shows many consumers favor online deliveries to stores

      Online shopping and brick-and-mortar shopping are usually viewed as an either/or proposition. A survey of shoppers conducted by comScore for UPS suggests it's more complicated than that.

      It was assumed that consumers prefer online shopping so the anticipated result of the survey was the extent to which mobile now plays a role. And the survey showed it's significant. Consumers want advanced mobile features, flexible shipping options and hassle-free returns.

      But they want a lot more and the findings tell a lot about the constantly shifting retail landscape.

      There were 5,000 U.S. consumers in the survey, who generally said they plan to research and purchase more frequently using their mobile devices, they are influenced by social media, and free shipping continues to drive purchasing decisions.

      But physical store locations have not lost their importance. When purchasing online from a retailer that also has a physical store, 39% of consumers who make returns prefer to ship the product back while the overwhelming majority – 61% – prefer to return the item to the store. When they go to the store to make that return, 70% said they purchase an additional item.

      Shipping to store for pick-up

      When ordering online, about one-third of consumers said they would prefer the item was shipped to a location other than their home, such as a retail store – perhaps because they are nervous about leaving a package unattended while everyone is at work or school. Nearly half of online shoppers – 48% – have used ship-to-store in the past year, and 45% of those consumers made an additional purchase when picking up their online purchase.

      The survey also shows shoppers increasingly are looking beyond big box retailers when they order online. Ninety-three percent said they shop online at small retailers, usually because the retailer offered a unique item or the item wasn't available from one of the major online stores. Forty percent of consumers in the survey said they wanted to support small, independent businesses.

      Differential pricing

      Meanwhile, personal finance magazine Kiplinger's is warning online shoppers to avoid tricks retailers sometimes employ to get higher prices. It's called “differential pricing” and is based on small bits of information the retailer has gathered about the shopper.

      “For example, a site may charge higher prices after taking note of the Web browser you’re using, your location, your previous shopping habits, or your search history,” the publication writes. “Or the merchant may steer your search—arranging the results to guide you toward more expensive items.”

      Let's say you are using a MacBook Air or an iPad, rather than a Windows desktop, to book travel. Kiplinger's says the travel site may show you a pricier selection of hotel rooms.

      It's not illegal and Kiplinger's says almost everyone does it. It cites a Northwestern University study showing Cheap Tickets and Orbitz came up with lower prices for shoppers who logged in than for those those shopping as a guest. It worked out to an average of $12 a night less for about 5% of the hotels.

      Consumers can overcome this tactic a number of ways, including by filtering items from lowest price to highest and shopping around.

      Online shopping and brick-and-mortar shopping are usually viewed as an either/or proposition. A survey of shoppers conducted by comScore for UPS suggests i...

      Feds find reverse mortgage ads sow confusion

      Focus group finds viewers aren't aware they are loans that have to be repaid

      Advertisements are usually meant to persuade you to buy something, not provide unbiased information. So if everything you know about a reverse mortgage comes from reverse mortgage ads, you're likely to be misinformed, confused or both.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is concerned about reverse mortgages because they are not simple loan products and they are targeted exclusively at older homeowners. To qualify for a reverse mortgage, you have to be at least 62 years old.

      And what most people know about reverse mortgages comes from TV commercials.

      Focus group

      CFPB put together a focus group of seniors who watched a number of commercials for reverse mortgages, then answered questions about what they had seen. CFPB says in most cases the viewers were left with misconceptions about the product.

      Some of the false impressions were that reverse mortgages are a government benefit. Not true. Or, that they guarantee consumers can stay in their homes the rest of their lives. Again, not true.

      “As older consumers consider reverse mortgage loans to tap into their home equity, they need to be careful of those late night TV ads that seem too good to be true,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “It is important that advertisements do not downplay the terms and risks of reverse mortgages or confuse prospective borrowers.”

      It's a loan

      A reverse mortgage is a home loan that allows the homeowner – in this case someone older than 62 – to receive money against their equity while continuing to live in the home.

      People can do that with other types of loans, such as a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or other second mortgages. But with those loans the borrower must make monthly payments, just as with any other loan.

      The reverse mortgage was designed to help retirees who need money but don't have the income necessary to make monthly payments. So the borrowers gets a lump sum or receives monthly payments while continuing to live in the house. But a reverse mortgage is still a mortgage and the borrower still has responsibilities.

      Most reverse mortgages today are federally insured through the Federal Housing Authority’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program, which carry some regulatory requirements.

      It has to be repaid

      After studying the results of the focus group CFPB is worried that too many seniors see a reverse mortgage as free money, which it is not. The results show some consumers found it difficult to understand from the ads that reverse mortgages are loans with fees and compounding interest and more importantly, are loans that have to be repaid.

      Most ads either did not include interest rates or included interest rates in fine print. Other consumers thought that because the money they received through a reverse mortgage represented home equity they had accrued over time, there was no reason they would have to pay it back.

      Here is what CFPB wants you to know about reverse mortgages:

      • It's a home loan, not a government benefit: there are fees and compounding interest. Just because it isn't paid monthly doesn't mean it won't be eventually repaid, just like other loans.
      • The ads don't tell the whole story: they don't mention the fact that it is possible to lose your home through foreclosure.
      • A reverse mortgage doesn't take the place of a good financial plan: without a financial plan, consumers can outlive their money. Tapping into a home's equity too soon could mean running out of money a lot sooner than you thought.

      Here's another reason CFPB is concerned: the number of reverse mortgages is likely to grow in the years ahead as Baby Boomers look to their homes in a desperate attempt to generate retirement income.

      CFPB cites studies showing 41% of Americans nearing retirement have no retirement savings but a majority – 74% – own homes with substantial equity.

      Advertisements are usually meant to persuade you to buy something, not provide unbiased information. So if everything you know about a reverse mortgage com...

      Expansion in the economy's services sector slows

      Things are still perking along, though

      While economic activity in the non-manufacturing sector grew in May for the 64th consecutive month, the rate of expansion was slower.

      According to the Institute for Supply Management's (ISM) latest Non-Manufacturing Index (NMI) registered 55.7% last month down 2.1% from the April reading of 57.8%.

      “Overall there has been a slight slowing in the rate of growth for the non-manufacturing sector,” noted Anthony Nieves chair of the (ISM) Non-Manufacturing Business Survey Committee. But he adds that respondents’ comments are “mostly positive about business conditions and indicate economic growth will continue.”

      Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza was not quite as upbeat.

      "Service activity had been holding relatively steady throughout the first half of the year, but now appears to be joining the general trend of recent economic data with waning top line activity,” she said, adding,"While far from alarming, service activity appears to have taken a large step in the wrong direction amid sluggish household spending and declining confidence in a near-term surge in overall economic activity."

      Industry performance

      The 15 non-manufacturing industries reporting growth in May -- listed in order -- are:

      1. Arts, Entertainment & Recreation;
      2. Management of Companies & Support Services;
      3. Real Estate, Rental & Leasing;
      4. Utilities;
      5. Transportation & Warehousing;
      6. Construction;
      7. Accommodation & Food Services;
      8. Professional, Scientific & Technical Services;
      9. Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting;
      10. Public Administration;
      11. Wholesale Trade;
      12. Educational Services;
      13. Finance & Insurance; Retail Trade; and
      14. Health Care & Social Assistance.

      The only industry reporting contraction in May was mining.

      While economic activity in the non-manufacturing sector grew in May for the 64th consecutive month, the rate of expansion was slower. According to the In...

      The reality of cyber-parenting

      Parents' fears are justified, study finds

      As a parent you have many fears. You worry if your kids will get hurt, if they will have friends, good grades, the list goes on. A new study by Intel Security indicates that as far as the Internet is concerned, parents are most concerned about their kids online interacting with a child predator.

      The study takes a look at the online behaviors and social networking habits of American pre-teens and teens ages 8 to 16; it also surveyed the concerns of parents. 

      Parents biggest fear, the study found, is that their kids will interact unknowingly with a pedophile or a predator. That fear is warranted, as 27% of teens or preteens who took part in the survey said they would meet or had already met someone in person that they first met online.

      Parents have known this for ages but don't always like to admit it: You don't always really know what your kids are doing. You might think you know, but in reality kids have a way of eluding you. Parents keep trying though. The study found that 84% of parents follow or are connected with their children, hoping to gain access to their interactions with followers and the information they post.

      Kids are pretty clever, though. The study showed that children readily share password information with their friends and then use that information to do high-tech spying on them to see if that person is talking to an ex, for example. They use the info to look at personal photos and just dig up things that could have the potential to be used against that person.

      Bulling epidemice

      When you look at the stats it appears that pre-teens and teens aren’t the nicest group of people. A great deal of them indicate that they have bullied people on social media. Of those who have bullied others, 61% said it was because the person was mean to them, while many indicated it was because they just did not like the person.

      Although the parents' greatest fear was the thought of a pedophile or predator enticing their children, parents really had no qualms about their children being friends with other adults on social media. Of this group, 93% of parents approve if the person is a relative or someone they know, and 56% of parents would permit their children to be friends with a teacher.

      What to do

      How can you gain some control over your teen’s online activity?

      “Parents must have frequent and open conversations with their children about their online behavior as well as its risks and rewards,” said Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist at Intel Security. “This type of transparent communication may help build stronger trust between parents and children; hopefully this will encourage children to share more information about their online interactions, and, in turn, alert their parents when they encounter any suspicious activity or conversations online.”

      As a parent you have many fears. You worry if your kids will get hurt, if they will have friends, good grades, the list goes on. A new study by Intel Secur...

      A big drop in the number of planned job cuts

      Analysts credit a stabilization in oil prices

      The number of planned job cuts announced by U.S.-based firms plunged in May, falling by 33% -- to 41,034 after hitting a 3-year high in April.

      The latest tally by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas follows the 61,582 planned job cuts announced the previous month -- the highest monthly total since May 2012.

      The May total is down 23% from a year ago, when 52,961 planned job cuts were announced in May.

      So far this year, employers have announced 242,830 terminations -- 13% more than in the first 5 months of 2014.

      Oil prices stabilize

      Job cut announcements related to falling oil prices appear to be ebbing. Last month, just over 1,000 planned cuts were attributed to the drop in oil, while April saw 20,675.

      “Oil prices are starting to stabilize,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Exploration and extraction companies responded quickly to the drop in prices, but they are likely to be careful about cutting too deeply, as they will need workers on hand when demand inevitably increases. Unless, there is another severe drop in the price of oil, we probably will not see another surge in oil-related job cuts this year.”

      A hit for the financial sector

      In May, the heaviest downsizing occurred in the financial sector, where announced job cuts will affect 5,539 workers. The bulk of these cuts came from JP Morgan Chase, which announced that the number of tellers working in its branches will shrink by 5,000 over the next 18 months.

      Overall, financial cuts total 14,853 in 2015, down 28% from the first 5 months of last year.

      The government was the second leading job-cut sector in May at 5,539. Most of these came from the state of Massachusetts, which announced plans to trim its payroll by 4,500 workers in an effort to close a $1.8 billion budget gap.

      “We could definitely see an upswing in state layoffs over the next few months, if more of these financially troubled state governments follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps,” said Challenger.

      Jobless claims

      The number of people filing for state unemployment benefits for the first time fell last week.

      According to the Labor Department (DOL) initial jobless claims fell by 8,000 in the week ending May 30 to a seasonally adjusted 276,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 2,000 -- to 284,000.

      The government says there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and is considered a better gauge of the labor market was 274,750 -- up 2,750, but still close to 15-year lows.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website

      Payroll to Population

      Along those lines, Gallup reports the U.S. Payroll to Population employment rate (P2P) was up 0.6% in May to 44.5% -- the same as a year ago. It was the strongest month-to-month change for P2P so far this year.

      Gallup's P2P metric tracks the percentage of the population aged 18 and older who are employed for at least 30 hours per week. Gallup does not count adults who are self-employed, work fewer than 30 hours per week, who are unemployed or are out of the workforce as payroll-employed in the P2P metric.

      After reaching a three year high in April, The number of planned job cuts announced by U.S.-based firms plunged in May, falling by 33% -- to 41,034 after...

      The best and worst days to fly this summer

      Traveling on holidays, but not on Sunday, can save money

      Summer is a great time to travel and, with the kids out of school, is prime vacation season. Booking flights at the right time – not too close to departure – can save you money.

      So can choosing the right days on which to fly. CheapAir.com has looked at the summer calendar and thousands of fares and given us the best days for summer travel – when fares are cheapest – along with the worst days.

      June

      In general, you are usually safe traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday. CheapAir reports those days generally have the lowest fares, though there are exceptions. Compared to the average Sunday fare, you'll save $74 by traveling during the middle of the week.

      When consumers plan vacation travel they usually book a Sunday return to ensure the most time off. Airlines know this and get the most out of their Sunday flights. CheapAir says you can save money if you return on Saturday instead.

      Next week June 9th and 10th will be good days to travel and the following week, June 17th – a Wednesday – is also more affordable, and even cheaper than the 16th, a Tuesday.

      Meanwhile, the 14th, 21st and 28th – all Sundays – should be avoided if possible since ticket prices will be higher.

      July

      The biggest bargain in July is July 4th, which this year falls on Saturday. Not only is Saturday traditionally cheaper, most travelers on that holiday weekend want to arrive at their destination before the holiday itself.

      But CheapAir advises to skip the fireworks and travel on the Fourth for the month's biggest savings.

      Elsewhere on the calendar, Sunday is most expensive and mid-week is cheapest. Plan to fly on the 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, 21st, 22and, 28th or 29th. Avoid the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th.

      August

      The August calendar is chock full of cheap travel days but has an increased number of expensive ones as well, meaning flying in August will require some careful planning.

      As usual Tuesdays and Wednesdays will afford the cheapest travel. In fact, CheapAir singles out Tuesday August 25th as the cheapest travel day of the month.

      In addition, you should be able to book lower-than-usual fares for Saturday the 22and and Monday the 24th. However, in addition to avoiding Sundays in August there are 2 additional days that will carry pricey fares – Friday, August 28th and and Monday the 31st.

      September

      September has the Labor Day weekend so, while flying on the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday is cheap, traveling on Thursday the 3rd and Friday the 4th is not. But CheapAir finds that if you can wait and travel on Saturday the 5th, you've save an average of $30 over a Friday departure.

      Labor Day itself is more expensive than the average Monday since the airlines figure most holiday travels have to be back at work on Tuesday.

      Fares begin to even out in the second half of September as no one day is a lot cheaper or a lot more expensive than the others.

      The travel website offers this final advice: to save money on air travel be flexible with your travel days, mix and match airlines and airports to get the best price and when you find a cheap fare, don't wait for a better one – book it.

      Summer is a great time to travel and, with the kids out of school, is prime vacation season. Booking flights at the right time – not too close to departure...