Current Events in December 2016

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    How real is OPEC's agreement to cut oil production?

    If it doesn't hold, consumers could see still lower gasoline prices

    Oil prices move up and down like the stock market, and it takes some time before those movements translate to consumers at the gas pump.

    Even so, many motorists might have noticed gasoline prices have moved up in the last week. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of self-serve regular is $2.19 a gallon, up four cents from last week and 17 cents from a year ago.

    The main reason for the slightly higher prices is last week's agreement by OPEC that its members will reduce their output in the coming year to shrink the persistent glut of oil on world markets. The move is aimed at pushing the price of oil above $50 a barrel, which would increase profits for producers while raising fuel costs for consumers.

    “Traditionally this time of year gives way to lower gas prices as a result of cheaper to produce winter-blend fuel and less demand,” AAA said in a statement. “However, due to the agreement from OPEC it is still unclear if prices will retreat considerably ahead of the upcoming holidays.”

    Can the agreement hold?

    But OPEC historically has had problems enforcing its production cuts, and industry analysts are already pointing to what they say are cracks in the brand new, yet to be implemented agreement. MarketWatch reports that analysts are pointing out that OPEC oil production reached a record level of 34.2 million barrels a day last month.

    Analysts say OPEC was producing nearly 1.7 million barrels a day more than the amount it has set as a target, beginning in January. They say when non-OPEC countries like Russia see these figures, they may be much less likely to curtail their own oil output, which must happen in order for supplies to go down. Meanwhile, Russia also stepped up production last month.

    Reuters reports Russia produced more than 11 million barrels a day in November, its highest level in nearly 30 years. Between Russia and OPEC, there was enough oil produced in November to meet half of the world's demand.

    While this may be bad news for oil producers, consumers stand to benefit, especially when they fill their tanks. The modest price hikes consumers have experienced in recent weeks, it should be pointed out, are all speculative.

    Gasoline futures prices have been bid higher simply on the expectation that oil is going to cost more in the future. But if oil production doesn't actually go down, eventually that sentiment will change, and it will bring gasoline prices down again.

    Oil prices move up and down like the stock market, and it takes some time before those movements translate to consumers at the gas pump.Even so, many m...

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      Mortgage applications post second straight weekly decline

      Contract interest rates rose to their highest levels in two years

      Mortgage applications were down for the second week in a row last week.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association reports applications dipped 0.7% in the week ending December 2. The prior week’s results included an adjustment for the Thanksgiving holiday.

      While the Refinance Index was down 1% percent from the previous week, the refinance share of mortgage activity increased to 56.2% of total applications from 55.1% a week earlier.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6% -- the highest level since February; the FHA share rose to 11.3% from 10.4% the week prior; the VA share went to 12.6% from 11.7%; and the USDA share of total applications rose to 0.9% from 0.8% the week before.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose four basis points -- from 4.23% to 4.27% -- its highest level since October 2014, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.41 (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) increased to its highest level since September 2014 -- moving to 4.22% from 4.18%, with points unchanged at 0.29 (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 remained unchanged at 4.99% -- its highest level since July 2015, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.44 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs jumped five basis points to 3.53%, its highest level since September 2014, with points increasing to 0.39 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 increased to its highest level since September 2013 -- 3.39% from 3.23% -- with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.44 (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.

      Mortgage applications were down for the second week in a row last week.The Mortgage Bankers Association reports applications dipped 0.7% in the week en...

      FMIF Holdings recalls Snow Monkey Goji Berry and Cacao pods

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      FMIF Holdings is recalling Snow Monkey Goji Berry and Cacao pods that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date from consuming Snow Monkey products.

      The following products, packed in 8-oz plastic pods with sticker labels, are being recalled:

      • 8 oz. Snow Monkey Subzero Superfood in Cacao delivered from online order between May and June 2016. Barcode reads ‘000000000000 Sample Only - Not for Resale’
      • 8 oz. Snow Monkey Subzero Superfood in in Goji Berry delivered from online order between May and June 2016. Barcode reads ‘000000000000 Sample Only - Not for Resale’

      The barcode can be found printed horizontally on the side of the label next to the nutritional facts.

      The recalled products were distributed via online order between May and June 2016 in California, Missouri, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Hawaii, Oregon, Colorado, District of Columbia, Michigan, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and New Hampshire. None of these products were sold at retail stores.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them but dispose of them.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at (951) 878-0887 weekdays, 9am-4pm (PST) or by email at kingdom@snow-monkey.com.

      FMIF Holdings is recalling Snow Monkey Goji Berry and Cacao pods that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.No illnesses have been reported t...

      Mathew & Lauren collection crib recalled

      The mattress support system may dislodge

      Mother Hubbard’s Cupboards is recalling about 100 Mathew & Lauren collection cribs sold in Canada.

      The mattress support system may dislodge resulting in a change in the side height. The change in side height poses a fall hazard for the child. Thus these cribs do not meet the requirements of the Cribs, Cradles and Bassinets Regulations in Canada.

      The company says there are no reports of incidents or injuries.

      This recall involves Mathew & Lauren collection cribs, identified by model 8700-700. The recalled product is a crib that can be converted into a double bed. The model number can be found on the product's packaging and on a label on the inside of the side panel.

      The cribs, manufactured in Canada, were sold from January 2015, to November 2016.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should immediately stop using it and contact Mother Hubbard’s Cupboards to arrange for replacement fasteners for the mattress support system.

      Consumers with questions may contact Mother Hubbard’s Cupboards at 1-888-661-8201, by email at sales@mhcfurniture.com or online at http://www.mhcfurniture.com/baby-furniture/.

      Mother Hubbard’s Cupboards is recalling about 100 Mathew & Lauren collection cribs sold in Canada.The mattress support system may dislodge resulting in...

      Congress to hold hearings on AT&T-Time Warner merger

      Company facing skeptical lawmakers and president-elect

      A lot is at stake Wednesday as AT&T executives go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the company's proposed acquisition of content provider Time Warner.

      President-elect Trump is already on record opposing the deal and a number of lawmakers have expressed skepticism as well.

      The $108.7 billion acquisition would join America's largest pay TV provider with a media and entertainment company that has a massive catalog of movies and TV shows.

      From the beginning, AT&T executives have maintained the merger is a “vertical” one that brings together two entities providing different products, and therefore will not decrease competition. But AT&T could face some pointed questions at Wednesday's hearing.

      “This proposed massive consolidation of distribution and content raises potentially serious questions about competition, consumer choice, and privacy across the media, cable TV, wireless and broadband industries,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

      'Zero-rate' could be the sticking point

      Even though the proposed merger would be “vertical,” critics charge it could give the telecom giant a huge advantage in the marketplace. At issue is something called “zero-rate.” That means the ISP, in this case AT&T, won't count a customer's viewing of AT&T-owned content against his or her data allowance.

      Currently, AT&T has such a promotion with DIRECTV. AT&T wireless customers who also subscribe to DIRECTV can watch that content on their mobile devices without it counting against their data allowance.

      If you are both an AT&T and DIRECTV customer, that's a great deal. But if you are a small ISP trying to compete against AT&T, you may think the playing field has suddenly become a lot less even.

      Small ISPs worried

      Jimmy Carr of All Points Broadband in Ashburn, Virginia, who chairs the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) Legislative Committee, says it will hurt the mostly small companies that are bringing broadband to underserved rural areas.

      “AT&T has recently begun to zero-rate its DIRECTV content, and it has stated its intention to expand zero-rating to the Time Warner content it would obtain through this proposed merger,” Carr said. “Allowing any ISP to favor certain content has a direct, harmful impact on thousands of small, competitive ISPs that do not own content and lack the ability to negotiate fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access to content.”

      Carr says AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner raises serious concerns and should be rejected by federal regulators.

      So far, AT&T is batting one for two on proposed mega-mergers. Last year it's deal to acquire DIRECTV got a green light from regulators. Before that, its deal to acquire rival T-Mobile did not

      A lot is at stake Wednesday as AT&T; executives go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the company's proposed acquisition of co...

      Medical researchers worry about 'masked' hypertension

      Blood pressure levels found to be higher than during doctors' office visits

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a growing health concern in the U.S., mainly because of lifestyle factors. A poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity are all contributing factors.

      High blood pressure is easily treatable, but first you have to know if you are affected by it. Blood pressure is measured using a cuff that applies pressure to your arm or wrist. Unless you have one of these cuffs at home, the only time you take a reading is when you visit a healthcare provider.

      Researchers at Stony Brook University and Columbia University wondered if occasional measurements at a doctor's office provided an accurate determination of whether someone suffered from high blood pressure.

      They enlisted a group of patients who had normal readings on their infrequent measurements in a clinical setting and placed wearable monitors on them to measure blood pressure around the clock. They say they discovered that for some subjects, their blood pressure was outside the normal range during daily activities, even though it seemed normal at the doctor's office.

      Reverse of 'white coat hypertension'

      The researchers say it's the reverse of so-called “white coat hypertension,” when the slight stress of being in a doctor's office results in higher blood pressure readings. When blood pressure spikes during normal day-to-day activities, the researchers call it “masked hypertension.”

      The only way to uncover masked hypertension is with around the clock monitoring, using a wearable device. The researchers say that compared to blood pressure measured infrequently in a clinic, ambulatory blood pressure is a better predictor of future heart disease.

      In the study, nearly 16% of patients with normal clinic blood pressure were found to have “masked hypertension.” It was more common in men than women. Interestingly, it also affected younger, normal weight participants more than those who were older and overweight.

      Debunking a widely held belief

      “These findings debunk the widely held belief that ambulatory blood pressure is usually lower than clinic blood pressure,” said lead author Dr. Joseph Schwartz.

      Schwartz said healthcare providers need to know that there appears to be a tendency for blood pressure during normal activities to be higher than clinic blood pressure in healthy patients who are being evaluated for high blood pressure during well-patient visits.

      It's an important issue because high blood pressure, left untreated, can lead to more serious health conditions, such as heart attack and stroke.

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a growing health concern in the U.S., mainly because of lifestyle factors. A poor diet, lack of exercise, and obes...

      Sen. Chuck Schumer rails against United Airlines' baggage policy under new fare

      Overhead storage should be free regardless of the ticket price, he says

      Last month, United Airlines released information on its new Basic Economy fare. It immediately garnered attention from regulators and fliers due to a provision that limits the amount of carry-on baggage that can be brought on the plane.

      Under the new fare, fliers would only be allowed to bring one small item with them into the cabin, measuring a maximum of 9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches. The items would need to be stored under the seat, and if it didn’t fit, then the flier would have to pay to check it.

      While the purpose of the new rule was to cut down on boarding time and clutter in the aisles, many have come out in opposition. One of them is New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who says that the measure is “one of the most restrictive polices” that travelers have faced for some time, according to the New York Post.

      Nickel-and-dimed

      “The overhead bin is one of the last sacred conveniences of air travel and the fact that United Airlines—and potentially others—plan to take that convenience away unless you pay up is really troubling. . . Air travelers are sick and tired of being nickel-and-dimed for every bag they carry and every morsel they eat by airlines that are already making sky-high profits,” he said.

      Schumer says that the new policy would end up costing consumers quite a lot over the next four years, estimating that United stands to make an additional $1 billion from charges on the Basic Economy fare by 2020. In a release, he points out the unfairness of customers being locked out of lower prices unless they give up their rights to the overhead bin, calling the situation a “lose-lose.”

      “No matter the ticket price, the overhead bin should be free. Period,” he said. “It seems like each year, airlines devise a new, ill-conceived plan to hit consumers and it has simply got to stop. Already, airlines charge extra for checked luggage, pillows, peanuts, and headphones and now you’ll have nowhere to store them. United Airlines should reverse this plan and allow the free use of the overhead bin for all.”

      Last month, United Airlines released information on its new Basic Economy fare. It immediately garnered attention from regulators and fliers due to a provi...

      Wendy's joins group in advancing sustainable beef

      Company is joining the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

      Hamburger chain Wendy's has always tried to set itself apart with the beef it uses to make its burgers. Its advertising proclaims its patties are “fresh, never frozen.”

      Now the chain is doubling down on its beef, announcing a partnership with the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef that is says will advance sustainability efforts throughout the U.S. beef value chain.

      The company says it has always tried to support sustainable beef production and responsible animal production practices. It says its partnership with the Roundtable will give it a place at the table when environmental, social, and economic sustainability issues are discussed.

      Liliana Esposito, Chief Communications Officer for The Wendy's Company, says the partnership simply solidifies long-time commitments.

      “We have a long-term interest in promoting the continued sustainability of the U.S beef supply chain, and we are proud to join the efforts of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and align on common goals and metrics to drive continuous improvement in U.S. beef production," Esposito said.

      Millennial influence

      As Millennial consumers, especially, have held companies to higher ethical standards, dozens of chains operating on massive scales have made commitments in the area of animal welfare. Wendy's is one of many fast food companies to pledge to move to 100% cage free eggs at its restaurants. Early this year it announced it would make that transition by 2020.

      Wendy's says it understands that consumers are increasingly want to know more about their food and where it comes from. The company says the Roundtable is trying to make the U.S. beef value chain to be the best in breed when it comes to environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable beef.

      Roundtable members include farmers and ranchers, processors and industry partners, as well as academics, retailers, and environmental groups.

      "The strength and success of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is dependent on a diverse membership that encompasses the entire beef value chain," said John Butler, beef producer and Roundtable chairman. "We are very proud to have Wendy's join the Roundtable as we all work to improve the sustainability of the U.S. beef industry."  

      Hamburger chain Wendy's has always tried to set itself apart with the beef it uses to make its burgers. Its advertising proclaims its patties are “fresh, n...

      Lexibook recalls baby bath seats/chairs

      The bath seat can tip over while a baby is in it

      Lexibook S.A., of France is recalling about 7,00 baby bath seats and chairs.

      The bath seats can tip over while a baby is in it, posing a drowning hazard to babies.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall includes all Lexibook Baby Bath Seats and Chairs. The plastic baby bath seats/chairs are intended for children 6 months and up. They have a plastic base with suction cups on the bottom, a back/arm support and a toy tray.

      “Lexibook” is stamped on the back/arm support. “Made in China” and “2014 Lexibook Limited IT028/IT029 SN: 1407/VA09” are stamped on the bottom of the base. They were sold in a variety of colors.

      The bat seats and chairs, manufactured in China, were sold online at Amazon.com, Unbeatablesale.com, Wayfair.com and Youngexplorers.com from January 2013, through August 2016, for between $30 and $60.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled baby bath seats and contact the online retailer where it was purchased for return instructions and to receive a full refund, or a refund in the form of a store credit or gift card, depending on the online retailer. All known purchasers will be contacted directly about the recall.

      Consumers may contact the retailers as follows:

      Company

      Number of Units

      Remedy

      Online Retailers

      Young Explorers

      5,900

      Refund

      855-831-7478 anytime

      Email recalls@youngexplorers.com

      Online at www.youngexplorers.com

      Amazon.com

        780

      Gift Card

      888-280-4331 anytime

      Online at www.amazon.com

      Wayfair LLC

       200

      Store Credit

      888-549-1625 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET

      Online at www.wayfair.com

      Unbeatable Sale, Inc.

        65

      Refund

      888-657-8436 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET

      Online at www.unbeatablesale.com

      Lexibook S.A., of France is recalling about 7,00 baby bath seats and chairs.The bath seats can tip over while a baby is in it, posing a drowning hazard...

      Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay over $1 billion over hip products

      The company says it will appeal, but the decision could set a costly precedent

      Johnson & Johnson has been ordered by a Texas jury to pay over $1 billion in damages because claimants said that the company covered up flaws in its Pinnacle artificial hips. The suit claims that the DePuy unit of the company knew about the defects but still chose not to warn doctors and patients about the inherent risks.

      The company was ordered to pay $30 million in damages to six plaintiffs and over $1 billion in punitive damages, according to a Chicago Tribune report. Those who had the defective devices installed had to have them surgically removed. The company will likely appeal the decision, but University of Michigan law professor Erik Gordon says that company may want to start making settlement offers to the thousands of potential claimants across the country.

      “They may think they have good defenses to these claims, but they don’t seem to be working with juries. There’s no easy way out of these cases now that they have a billion-dollar verdict against them. They better start thinking of how they can settle these claims before the price goes up any more,” he said.

      Setting the tone

      Early signs indicate that the company will continue digging in and defending its actions. Company spokesperson Mindy Tinsley released a statement saying that the DePuy unit had designed and tested the hip products appropriately.

      Further, the company says it has strong grounds for an appeal, alleging that Texas Judge Ed Kinkeade did not allow a “fair presentation to the jury.” In a statement, attorney John Beisner said that an appellate court would need to review the case for errors; representatives will be asking Judge Kinkeade to postpone scheduling any more trials until that review is conducted.

      Regardless of the outcome, Johnson & Johnson will have long road of litigation ahead of it connected to the hip products. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission estimates that there are roughly 9,000 pending suits connected to Pinnacle hip failures, and a billion dollar settlement would set a grim tone going forward.

      “The jury is telling J&J that they better settle these cases soon,” said John Lanier, who represented the six Texas claimants. “All they are doing by trying more of these cases is driving up their costs and driving the company’s reputation into the mud.”

      Johnson & Johnson has been ordered by a Texas jury to pay over $1 billion in damages because claimants said that the company covered up flaws in its Pinnac...

      TSA should drop enrollment fee for PreCheck, study finds

      Dropping the fee for frequent travelers might boost enrollment, speed up security lines

      A study finds the Transportation Security Administration could save money and speed up security lines by eliminating the $85 fee it now charges frequent travelers for the TSA PreCheck program.

      "This is an easy case where spending some money will save the federal government more money," Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer seience professor at the University of Illinois, said. "There is a transition period - the savings are realized over the first five years, and then in perpetuity. So if the federal government is looking for a way to save money, giving TSA PreCheck at no cost to high-volume, high-value fliers makes sense."

      The study by Jacobson and graduate students Arash Khatabi and Ge Yu calculated the cost of extensive screening compared with expedited screening in terms of workforce labor hours and equipment. They found that costs saved by frequent travelers using expedited security exceeded the cost of waiving their enrollment fees for PreCheck.

      The study looked at different scenarios and found that the average travel frequency of those enrolling would have to be six round trips, or 12 screenings a year.

      Cost savings

      "We only look at the direct cost savings in labor and equipment. We don't even talk about the savings in time of the passengers who would no longer have to wait hours in line," Jacobson said. "That could add tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year, which would be a bonus to the economy. More people could decide to fly, because of the time and cost savings."

      The benefits would extend beyond the cost, though. According to Jacobson, an expert in aviation security, submitting every passenger to heightened security actually has the adverse affect of making air travel less safe by diluting resources that should be focused on high-risk, unknown passengers. TSA PreCheck reduces the number of unknowns by pre-screening passengers.

      The problem with PreCheck is that enrollment has lagged far behind the projected numbers. Jacobson said waiving the fee might boost enrollment to more effective levels.

      "The strength of PreCheck is the background check. It's not the item that we're trying to stop, it's the person with ill intent who we're trying to stop," Jacobson said. "PreCheck vets people and says, 'These people are not likely to be a problem to the air system.' They make sure you are who you say you are, and that your background shows no evidence that you are going to cause a problem."

      The study was published in the Journal of Transportation Security.

      A study finds the Transportation Security Administration could save money and speed up security lines by eliminating the $85 fee it now charges frequent tr...

      Researchers identify brain protein as potential target for Alzheimer's research

      They believe that the disease may occur partly due to the breakdown of an important brain system

      Recently, researchers began developing a potential therapy for concussions, using an FDA-approved drug that helps reduce the harmful effects of swelling. Specifically, they found that the expression of a certain membrane protein called aquaporin-4 increased dramatically after a head injury and caused damage.

      While work on that project continues, other experts believe that aquaporin-4 may be a prime target for Alzheimer’s research. A study conducted by researchers from Oregon Health & Science University has revealed a connection between the protein and possible prevention of the brain disease. While it may not materialize into a lasting cure, the researchers believe that their work could contribute to future therapies and prevention strategies.

      "It suggests that aquaporin-4 might be a useful target in preventing and treating Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Jeffrey Iliff, senior author of the study. "However, we aren't under any illusion that if we could just fix this one thing, then we'd be able to cure Alzheimer's Disease."

      System breakdown

      In a broad sense, Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease that happens all at once – it takes time and is much more progressive. There is currently no cure for it, but several therapies have been developed that may be effective in slowing it down; the researchers believe that aquaporin-4 could provide another.

      Aquaporin-4’s functions as part of the brain's glymphatic system. Under certain conditions, it is the protein that allows cerebral-spinal fluid to enter the brain and wash away other proteins like amyloid and tau – the build up of which are main drivers of Alzheimer’s.

      The researchers believe that when the system regulating aquaporin-4 breaks down, amyloid and tau are allowed to build up unchecked, leading to nerve damage. They tested this theory by analyzing three groups of 79 donated brains – people younger than 60 with a history of Alzheimer’s, people younger than 60 without a history of any neurological disease, and people over 60 without Alzheimer’s.

      They found that aquaporin-4 levels were well organized and ordered in the brains of people without Alzheimer’s or a history of neurological disease, but older brains with Alzheimer’s had very disorganized aquaporin-4 levels. The researchers posit that Alzheimer’s may have developed in these brains due to decreased function to clear away harmful proteins.

      Last year, the researchers were given a $1.4 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to continue their research and develop new imaging techniques that could capture brain processes as they happened. The team’s full study has been published in JAMA Neurology

      Recently, researchers began developing a potential therapy for concussions, using an FDA-approved drug that helps reduce the harmful effects of swelling. S...