Current Events in August 2018

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2018

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    Albertsons and Rite Aid scrap plans to merge

    The companies have abandoned their plan to join forces

    This week, Albertsons and Rite Aid announced they will no longer be working to merge their two companies.

    The decision comes after a great deal of pushback from shareholders who argued the deal undervalued Rite Aid’s worth. In addition to boasting 4,900 locations across the United States, the merger was also expected to create a company that brought in $83 million in revenue.

    “While we believed in the merits of the combination with Albertson’s, we have heard the views expressed by our stockholders and are committed to moving forward and executing our strategic plan as a standalone company,” said Rite Aid CEO John Standley in a statement.

    Albertsons, however, had a different view.

    “We disagree with the conclusion of certain Rite Aid stockholders and third-party advisory firms that although they acknowledged the strategic logic of the combination, did not believe that Albertsons Companies was offering sufficient merger consideration to Rite Aid stockholders,” the company said in a statement.

    Additionally, the company “is unwilling to change the terms of the merger.”

    Proposed deal

    The idea of a merger between Albertsons and Rite Aid came in February of this year, following the fallout of a merger between Rite Aid and Walgreens in 2017. At the time, Walgreens had agreed to buy roughly 2,000 Rite Aid locations, leaving the pharmacy chain a much smaller company.

    However, when Albertsons came into the picture, Rite Aid was expected to grow, as the grocery chain operates Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Safeway, Vons, and Acme. Under the deal, existing Rite Aid stores would remain as is, with few -- if any -- changes.

    The merger would have created 4,900 stores and 4,350 pharmacy counters with 320 clinics across 38 states and Washington D.C.

    “This powerful combination enables us to become a truly differentiated leader in delivering value, choice, and flexibility to meet customers’ evolving food, health, and wellness needs,” Standley said at the time.

    “The combined platform positions Rite Aid to capitalize on our pharmacy expertise and expand and enhance our pharmacy footprint. We are confident that delivering improved customer experiences and value will drive growth and profitability while creating compelling long-term value for shareholders.”

    Next steps

    Rite Aid reported that it has cancelled a special shareholders meeting regarding the deal that was scheduled for today. Neil Saunders, managing director of analysis firm GlobalData Retail, believes the merger was created on an “overly optimistic view.”

    “There was some logic in the deal that would have given Albertsons more scale in the high-growth pharmacy and health space,” he said. “It would have also granted it access to some geographic areas it does not currently serve with a pharmacy offer. However, both of these things are about ‘one plus one equaling two.’ They are not compelling reasons for a complex and costly merger.”

    Saunders now believes Rite Aid’s future is “questionable,” and will most likely be looking for another group to merge with.

    “After the sell-off of stores to Walgreens, [Rite Aid] lacks scale,” he said. “Given that scale is now more critical than ever in the pharmacy and health market, it will no doubt be casting around for another entity with which it can combine.”

    This week, Albertsons and Rite Aid announced they will no longer be working to merge their two companies.The decision comes after a great deal of pushb...

    Seattle soda tax brings in over $10 million in first six months

    It’s still unclear whether buying habits have changed in the city

    The Sweetened Beverage Tax hit Seattle on January 1st of this year, and both the first and second quarter earnings prove the tax to be lucrative for the city.

    This week, Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services department reported receiving $5.8 million in second-quarter payments from the tax, on top of $4.7 million in first-quarter payments. According to spokeswoman Cyndi Wilder, the tax has raised $10.5 million to date.

    However, Wilder believes that number will continue to rise, as many second-quarter checks are still in the mail. Additionally, some companies only do their taxes annually, rather than quarterly, accounting for even more money.

    Prior to the start of the tax in January, officials predicted a total earning of $14.8 million for 2018, though they didn’t calculate quarterly estimates. Officials have yet to comment on why the tax could potentially raise more money than expected, or if the tax is deterring people from purchasing sugary beverages.

    What the tax looks like

    Seattle’s City Council passed the tax last June, adding a tax of 1.75 cents per fluid ounce on sugary drinks, syrups, or concentrates. At the time, diet soda was exempt from the tax, as was all drinks with milk as their main ingredient -- including flavored lattes -- and small manufacturers like Rachel’s Ginger Beer.

    Store owners and members of the unionized beverage industry were opposed to the tax, believing it would harm lower income people the most. However, proponents of the tax thought the higher prices would discourage consumers from purchasing sugary drinks, which have been known to cause tooth decay, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

    Distributors are the ones paying Seattle’s tax; they can pass it along to supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores, which can then pass it along to consumers.

    Seattle allocated parts of this year’s tax revenue to community college scholarships and administrative costs, as well as healthy food and early-learning programs. The city has also given $520,000 to University of Washington (UW) researchers to study the effects of the tax.

    According to a baseline report produced on Wednesday, the majority of Seattle adults supported the tax, though support was less than 50 percent from black and Asian respondents. Some participants were neither in favor nor opposed to the tax. In the coming months, the research team will look at how the tax has impacted low income families, local prices, and the effect on consumer purchasing habits.

    “We know very little about consumer behavior specifically related to the tax,” said Jesse Jones-Smith, UW professor of epidemiology, who’s leading a study on the policy.

    Philadelphia follows suit  

    Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Philadelphia’s tax on sweetened beverages.

    The 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax that went into effect in January of 2017 raised nearly $79 million that went towards the city’s pre-kindergarten programs, libraries, parks, community schools, and recreation centers.

    “These programs, funded by the beverage tax, will fuel the aspirations and dreams of those who have waited too long for investments in their communities,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “The City of Philadelphia will now proceed expeditiously with our original plans -- delayed in whole or part by nearly two years of litigation -- to fully ramp up these programs, now that the legal challenge has been resolved.”

    However, not everyone was pleased with Philly’s decision. A group called Ax the Philly Bev Tax has voiced its public disappointment with the city’s tax.

    “This tax has cost nearly 1,200 local jobs because consumers are fleeing to the suburbs,” said spokesman Anthony Campisi. “Why stop in the city when you can drive a few miles over the border and save a whole lot of money on your grocery bills. Second, the tax isn’t bringing in the revenue that was promised.

    “It is now up to our elected officials to listen to the concerns of their constituents and provide Philadelphians much needed relief by reversing this tax.”

    The Sweetened Beverage Tax hit Seattle on January 1st of this year, and both the first and second quarter earnings prove the tax to be lucrative for the ci...

    Snapchat reports decline in daily users

    The company lost three million daily active users in the second quarter

    In its second quarter earnings report, Snap -- the maker of the Snapchat app -- reported a drop in users. The platform’s daily active user count was 188 million in its second quarter. This figure represents an annual increase of 15 million, but a loss of three million daily active users.

    It was the first time since Snap went public in early 2017 that its daily active user numbers had dwindled. The platform’s unpopular redesign was a key reason for the drop in its daily active user count.

    Snap is also facing competition from Facebook-owned Instagram, which has Instagram Stories -- a similar feature to Snapchat Stories. As of June, Instagram announced that it had reached 1 billion monthly active accounts. Instagram also recently introduced a section for longer videos called IGTV, which rivals Snapchat’s capabilities.

    In an attempt to boost its underwhelming user numbers, Snap hired “wildcard” new CFO Tim Stone from Amazon in June. If Stone succeeds in laying out a long-term path to profitability, analysts say usage trends could respond positively.

    Increased average revenue per user

    Although the company reported a decline in users, it increased its average revenue per user by 34 percent year-over-year, according the report. Snap also reported double digit revenue growth; an increase of 44 percent year-over-year. Advertising revenue was up 48 percent year-over-year.

    After the report was released, shares fell as much as 11 percent but bounced back to up 11 percent. Snap shares opened Tuesday’s trading session in the red.

    Snap’s report comes after Facebook released a second quarter earnings report which missed analyst expectations on revenue by about $70 million and showed slowing user growth. The company reported a daily active user count of 1.47 billion; market analysts had estimated 1.49 billion.

    Some speculate that the steady stream of bad news about social media may be driving users away. Facebook and Twitter have been rocked by news of foreign interference on their sites and data-sharing scandals. The two sites have also struggled to combat the spread of misinformation.

    In its second quarter earnings report, Snap -- the maker of the Snapchat app -- reported a drop in users. The platform’s daily active user count was 188 mi...

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      Tribune, Sinclair officially break it off

      Broadcasters drop their plans for a controversial merger

      Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group have called off their planned merger. It wasn't an amicable break-up.

      Tribune is suing its former suitor, claiming breach of contract. In a conference call with reporters, Tribune CEO Peter Kern laid the blame on Sinclair, saying the broadcaster only pursued its own interests, damaging the deal.

      Regardless of who is responsible, the merger faced a rough regulatory road. Last month, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai expressed reservations, suggesting Sinclair's plan to sell some of its TV stations wouldn't go far enough to satisfy regulators.

      "The evidence we've received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law," Pai said.

      In particular, regulators expressed concern that Sinclair's divestiture plan involved selling the stations to entities close to the Smith family, the principal shareholders. Days later, the FCC passed on the deal.

      Would have been the largest broadcaster

      In essence, all of Tribune's 42 TV stations would have moved to Sinclair, raising Sinclair’s total ownership to 215 stations. In their application to the FCC, the combined companies said the new arrangement would reach 72 percent of U.S. television households and would own and operate the largest number of broadcast television stations of any station group.

      The proposed deal had also become a political lightning rod, since progressive groups have criticized Sinclair stations for displaying an alleged conservative bias in news coverage.

      But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said its opposition to the deal had nothing to do with ideology. Rather, the group said it didn't like the idea of one company owning more than 200 TV stations, "virtually guaranteeing less viewpoint diversity in local news.”

      Before broadcasting was deregulated in the early 1980s, no one corporation could own more than seven television stations.

      Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group have called off their planned merger. It wasn't an amicable break-up.Tribune is suing its former suitor, cla...

      Missouri voters strike down right-to-work law

      Voters in the state overwhelmingly voted to reject a measure that could have weakened labor union finances

      On Tuesday, roughly 67 percent of Missouri residents voted against keeping a right-to-work law, which prohibits unions from requiring fees as a condition of employment.

      The state’s right-to-work legislation was first passed and signed into law in 2017 by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature. Tuesday’s vote decided “whether the state should ban compulsory union fees in all private-sector workplaces,” according to the New York Times.

      A petition to prevent the law from going into effect and force a public referendum garnered over 300,000 signatures. Opponents contend that these fees are necessary to protect workers’ rights.

      “Unions powered an opposition effort that had spent more than $15 million as of late July, well over three times as much as various groups that support right-to-work,” according to the Associated Press. “Advertisements generally have focused on economics, with supporters claiming right-to-work would lead to more jobs and opponents claiming it would drive down wages."

      ‘Truly historic moment’

      The result of the vote marked a major victory for the organized labor movement. It was described as a “truly historic moment” by Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US.

      "Tonight we celebrate, but tomorrow we're getting back to work. We're going to take this energy and momentum and build more power for working people across Missouri,” Louis said.

      "The defeat of this poisonous anti-worker legislation is a victory for all workers across the country," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. "The message sent by every single person who worked to defeat Prop. A is clear: When we see an opportunity to use our political voice to give workers a more level playing field, we will seize it with overwhelming passion and determination."

      On Tuesday, roughly 67 percent of Missouri residents voted against keeping a right-to-work law, which prohibits unions from requiring fees as a condition o...

      U.S. News picks the best new car deals of August

      Savvy buyers can find interest-free financing and cash back on popular models

      August has traditionally been a good time to purchase a new car or truck since dealers try to clear their lots for the next model year.

      While model year transitions now take place throughout the year, this August may still offer some attractive deals, since sales have leveled off in recent months and more leased vehicles are hitting used car lots.

      If you happen to be in the market for a new vehicle, U.S. News and World Report has identified eight cars and trucks with excellent cash back and financing packages.

      "Car sales remain strong, so a lot of automakers are backing off of incentives, including cash back deals that are popular with consumers," said Jamie Page Deaton, executive editor of U.S. News Best Cars. "We've found this month's best cash back and financing deals on well-reviewed cars, so consumers can save thousands on the right car, SUV or minivan for their needs."

      Best purchase deals

      Topping the list is the 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Depending on the region of the country in which you live, buyers may qualify for zero percent financing for 36 months, plus up to $2,250 cash back. Consumers in other areas of the country may qualify for $4,000 cash back.

      The 2018 Ford Escape offers zero percent financing for 72 months, along with $1,000 in bonus cash. The EV Nissan Leaf also comes with 72 months of interest-free financing and some bonus cash, depending on the region where you live.

      The 2018 Volvo V90 comes with one of the more generous cash back offerings -- up to $6,750. The popular 2018 Subaru Outback this month is offering interest-free financing for what is described as "a limited term."

      The 2018 GMC Sierra pick-up is offering a 14 percent discount from the MSRP when you finance through GM Financial.

      That, of course, brings up a good point. Interest-free financing and cash back are only attractive when you negotiate the best purchase price. Make sure you do your homework and take advantage of online tools to determine a fair price.

      A couple of 2019 models also make the list of best August deals. Qualified buyers can get 0.9 percent financing for 60 months on the 2019 Infinity QX50. The 2019 Jeep Cherokee offers up to $4,500 cash back, depending on where you live.

      August has traditionally been a good time to purchase a new car or truck since dealers try to clear their lots for the next model year.While model year...

      Model year 2018 Volkswagen Tiguans recalled

      The LED module for the panoramic sunroof ambient light bar may short circuit.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 45,457 model year 2018 Volkswagen Tiguans.

      The LED module for the panoramic sunroof ambient light bar may short circuit, posing a fire risk.

      What to do

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will disconnect the power supply for the panoramic sunroof LED module, free of charge, until a future service action can safely reactivate the feature.

      The recall began July 24, 2018.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall 60D1.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 45,457 model year 2018 Volkswagen Tiguans.The LED module for the panoramic sunroof ambient light bar may short...

      G & C Raw recalls Pat's Cat Turkey, and Ground Lamb Pet Food

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      G & C Raw of Versailles, Ohio, is recalling 30 1–lb. containers of Pat's Cat Turkey Cat Food and 40 2-lb. containers of Ground Lamb Dog Food.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      Pat's Cat Turkey comes in 1-lb. clear plastic containers with the lot number WWPKTF051618. The Ground Lamb comes in a 2-lb. plastic container with the Lot number MFF022718. The Lot number codes are listed on the bottom right corner of the label.

      The recalled products were distributed by G & C Raw through direct delivery in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should return them to G & C Raw, 225 N. West Street, Versailles, Ohio, for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at (937) 827 0010 or by email at gcrawdogfood@yahoo.com.

      G & C Raw of Versailles, Ohio, is recalling 30 1–lb. containers of Pat's Cat Turkey Cat Food and 40 2-lb. containers of Ground Lamb Dog Food.The produc...

      NEMO Equipment recalls Stargaze recliner chairs

      The plastic joint supports attached to the legs of the chairs can break

      NEMO Equipment of Dover, N.H., is recalling about 7,500 Stargaze recliner chairs. Some 15,500 were recalled in February 2018.

      The plastic joint supports attached to the legs of the chairs can break, posing a fall hazard.

      The firm has received 14 reports of the joint supports breaking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the Stargaze Recliner, Stargaze Recliner Low, and Stargaze Recliner Luxury lifestyle camping chairs.

      The portable swinging and reclining outdoor chairs have an aluminum frame and black and gray monofilament mesh seat, and weigh between five and seven pounds. They were sold in four colors: birch leaf green, graphite, verdigris (teal) and Sedona (red).

      They come in a black, padded carrying case, and are used as a portable seat for camping and outdoor activities. The model name is printed on the pocket on the inside right side of the seat. The NEMO name and logo is attached to the back of the seat as a stitched logo.

      The three manufacturing lots included in this recall are marked with November 2017, December 2017, March 2018 or May 2018 date codes. The date code can be found on the plastic hub located on the inside edge of the leg strut.

      The date code is in a clock format: The numbers around the circle correspond to the 12 months of the year, the arrow points to the month of manufacture and the numbers on either side of the arrow represent the last two digits of the year.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at REI and specialty outdoor stores nationwide and online at Nemoequipment.com and REI.com from November 2017, through May 2018, for between $180 and $220.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact NEMO Equipment for a free inspection and, if necessary, a free replacement chair.

      Consumers may contact NEMO Equipment at (800) 997-9301 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, by email at journey@nemoequipment.com, online at www.nemoequipment.com and click on Product Recalls for more information or www.nemoequipment.com/product-recalls/stargaze-recliner-hubs/.

      NEMO Equipment of Dover, N.H., is recalling about 7,500 Stargaze recliner chairs. Some 15,500 were recalled in February 2018.The plastic joint supports...

      Congress considering new requirements for airlines

      Legislation would set seat size requirements and limit fees

      A five-year reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently making its way through Congress, and as boring as that sounds it holds major implications for air travelers.

      In recent years the FAA has deflected consumer requests for airline reforms by saying it's up to Congress to make those decisions. So the legislation passed by the House, and now pending in the Senate, addresses some of those issues.

      The House-passed measure instructs the FAA to set rules for airlines when configuring cabins. It requires a minimum for the width of a seat and the length and distance between rows.

      This has long been a major source of air traveler complaints who find it difficult to squeeze into ever-shrinking seats with little to no leg room.

      The consumer group FlyersRights.org says the FAA has consistently refused to set minimum seat standards because the airlines don't want them, even though there are safety issues involved.

      'Shrinking seats'

      “It has been going on for the last 10 to 15 years, seats have been getting smaller as people get larger," Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org’s president, told The Telegraph of London. "Our view is they have been shrinking seats to get more passengers on a plane to get more revenue. They are also trying to make it so uncomfortable that people will upgrade and pay far higher fares.”

      While the House bill requires the FAA to set minimum standards for seat sizes, the measure doesn't specify what those standards should be. The Senate version of the legislation does even less -- only requiring the FAA to conduct a study to determine whether there should be minimum distance between rows.

      Travelers who suspect that space has been shrinking are probably correct. According to USA Today, the pitch -- or distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front -- has declined over the years in Delta, American, and United economy class seats.

      In 1985, the distance was between 32 and 36 inches. In 2014, it was between 30 and 31 inches.

      Consumers will get their say, but so will the airlines

      Assuming the final legislation requires the FAA to set minimum seat standards, the agency will likely take public comments into consideration. Those comments will not only include opinions from the flying public, but also the airlines themselves.

      The airlines have already had some influence on the House version of the reauthorization bill, which removes a 2012 rule that airlines must include all taxes and fees when they advertise a fare. Airlines have never liked that rule, and according to the Chicago Tribune, focused their lobbyists on overturning it.

      Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill would prevent airlines from tacking on "unreasonable" fees for cancelling or making changes to tickets. Other fees charged by the airlines would have to reflect the airlines' actual costs.

      A five-year reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently making its way through Congress, and as boring as that sounds i...

      Ofo, a billion-dollar dockless bikeshare firm, trashes inventory after Dallas imposes regulations

      Locals found bikes piled at a scrap metal factory

      Dockless bikeshare firms are fleeing the city of Dallas in the wake of new regulations meant to reduce bike-littering. The city was once home to an estimated 20,000 dockless bikes belonging to four different bikeshare companies, but nearly all of those businesses have left in the past two months.

      Dallas became the unlikely epicenter of the dockless bikeshare wars after LimeBike showed up unannounced last year. Before, national cycling activists had often ranked Dallas as one of America’s most bike-unfriendly cities. An earlier, city-backed attempt to launch a traditional bikeshare program went disastrously wrong because officials placed all of bike “docks” or parking spots in the same deserted section of the city.

      Those weaknesses turned out to be a recipe for success in a city with flat terrain and numerous paved bike paths around town -- at least for the bikeshare companies that could do business without the nuisance of a dock.

      What began with complaints about dockless bikes blocking sidewalks turned into shows of who could get the most creative with bikeshare pranks -- one homeowner woke up to a pile of dozens of LimeBikes in his front yard, and an artist in January sawed a LimeBike in half and attached each piece to a telephone poll. Even as officials and residents complained, business was great, and competing dockless bikeshare companies began descending on the city.

      Imposing new regulations

      LimeBike initially blamed Dallas residents for the litter, but it later promised to employ more people to clean-up after the inventory. Unsatisfied, the Dallas City Council in June passed what they said would be reasonable regulations to encourage faster clean-ups.

      Under the new city ordinance, bikeshare companies would have to pay a $21 annual permit charge for every bike in their fleet and an additional annual charge of $800. Other guidelines said that bikes would be impounded if they sat in residential neighborhoods for more than two days or blocked narrow sidewalks.

      LimeBike, which has raised an estimated $1 billion from investors, said after the regulations were passed that “we applaud the city of Dallas for looking at innovation.” That apparently didn’t mean much, however, as the company left the city not long after. Two other companies followed.

      Ofo, which was valued at upwards of $2 billion last year, was the final hold-out. After deciding to leave, a company spokesman initially claimed that 250 of Ofo’s 5,000 bikes in Dallas would be sent to a local charity. But not long after, photos surfaced online showing hundreds of Ofo’s yellow bikes piled outside a recycling facility that reportedly sells scrap metal.

      “As we wind down select markets, we remain committed to environmental sustainability and will continue to donate Ofo bikes in good working condition to local communities and recycle all bikes when they’re beyond repair or no longer able to use,” Ofo said in a statement.

      Dockless bikeshare firms are fleeing the city of Dallas in the wake of new regulations meant to reduce bike-littering. The city was once home to an estimat...

      Bitcoin price falls after SEC delays crucial decision on cryptocurrency ETF

      The SEC says it needs more time to consider whether to approve a rule change

      Bitcoin prices continued their downward trend on Wednesday in response to a decision made by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to delay a ruling on a proposed Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF).

      Bitcoin fell nearly 10 percent to just under $6,500, according to data from CoinDesk -- the lowest level since July 16. The price decline happened in response to the SEC saying it was delaying its decision on whether to approve a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) proposed by VanEck and SolidX.

      If approved, the request could cause the value of Bitcoin to surge. The SEC said it is delaying its decision until September 30.

      SEC needs more time

      "As of August 6, 2018, the Commission has received more than 1,300 comments on the proposed rule change," SEC assistant secretary Eduardo Aleman said in a statement on the agency’s website.

      "The Commission finds that it is appropriate to designate a longer period within which to take action on the proposed rule change so that it has sufficient time to consider the proposed rule change."

      The SEC previously rejected a Bitcoin ETF application last year due to the volatility of cryptocurrency prices. Last week, blockchain platform SolidX addressed the reasons for the SEC’s decision not to approve the Bitcoin ETC in 2017.

      In a presentation, SolidX said that since the ruling, that there have been “significant changes in product, market structure and overall circumstances."

      "A green light for the bitcoin ETF would fire the starting gun on a race among institutional investors to cash-in on this new product, so the market is rightly frustrated by the delay to the decision," Matthew Newton, an analyst at the investment platform eToro, told The Independent.

      Bitcoin has fallen sharply from the near-record high hit in December 2017. However, the cryptocurrency has recovered from its June level of below $6,000.

      Bitcoin prices continued their downward trend on Wednesday in response to a decision made by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to delay a ruling...

      Apple tells lawmakers iPhones are not listening in on consumers

      Policymakers are concerned about the privacy of users’ devices

      In an effort to ensure consumers’ privacy when using their own devices, U.S. lawmakers recently stepped in and confronted both Apple and Alphabet.  

      Back in July, Representatives Greg Walden, Marsha Blackburn, Gregg Harper, and Robert Latta wrote a letter to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet’s chief executive Larry Page. The group expressed concerns about reports that users’ devices could “collect ‘non-triggered’ audio data from users’ conversations near a smartphone in order to hear a ‘trigger’ phrase, such as ‘Okay Google’ or ‘Hey Siri.’”

      This week, Apple formally reported that iPhones do not listen to consumers without their consent, and the company doesn’t allow third-party apps to do so either.

      Apple wrote a letter back to Walden and his group, confirming that iPhones do not record users’ while waiting for Siri wake-up commands. Not only must apps clearly display a signal that they are listening to users, but users are also required to approve microphone access for all apps. Additionally, Apple confirmed that Siri does not share users’ spoken words.

      According to a spokeswoman for the Republican majority on the House and Energy Committee, “both companies have been cooperative thus far. The Committee looks forward to reviewing and analyzing the responses as we consider next steps.”

      Third-party apps

      The lawmakers were concerned about Apple’s iPhones, but they also had reservations about third-party apps and their ability to record users.

      In the letter to lawmakers, Apple confirmed that it had banned apps from the App Store due to violations of its privacy regulations. However, the company did not report whether or not it had banned any app developers. Additionally, Apple puts the onus on app developers to inform consumers when an app is removed due to privacy violations.

      “Apple does not and cannot monitor what developers do with the customer data they have collected, or prevent the onward transfer of that data, nor do we have the ability to ensure a developer’s compliance with their own privacy policies or local law,” Apple wrote in the letter to lawmakers.

      In an effort to ensure consumers’ privacy when using their own devices, U.S. lawmakers recently stepped in and confronted both Apple and Alphabet.  Bac...

      CVS to launch MinuteClinic visits via its smartphone app

      The new telehealth service will offer care to patients 24/7

      CVS Health took another step on its path to heighten its customer service on Wednesday. When the pharmacy chain says “the doctor will see you now,” you can take that literally, as its MinuteClinic is launching a new virtual health care offering for patients with minor illnesses, injuries, and other wellness needs.

      The telehealth offering, called MinuteClinic Video Visits, will give patients direct access to health care services 24 hours a day, seven days a week from digital devices such as a smartphone or tablet.

      “We’re excited to be able to bring this innovative care option to patients,” said Troyen A. Brennan, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of CVS Health in a news release. “At CVS Health, we’re committed to delivering high-quality care when and where our patients need it and at prices they can afford. Through this new telehealth offering, patients now have an additional option for seeking care that is even more convenient for them.”

      CVS says it’s done significant homework on the idea and found that 95 percent of the patients willing to give telehealth a try were “highly satisfied” with the quality of care and convenience of the service.

      How it will work

      CVS’ partner in the MinuteClinic Video Visit initiative is Teladoc, a virtual care provider. Through CVS’ Teledoc connection and the CVS Pharmacy app, patients can get healthcare -- specifically tailored to their personal situation -- via a MinuteClinic Video Visit. CVS pledges that the experience will be the same “high-quality, evidence-based care they receive at traditional MinuteClinic locations inside select CVS Pharmacy and Target stores.”

      Patients need to be at least two years old and seeking treatment for a minor illness, minor injury, or a skin condition. Just like at an emergency health care clinic, patients complete a health questionnaire and then are matched to a board-certified health care provider who will assess the patient’s medical history and situation before proceeding with the video visit.

      “As we continue to move the capabilities of virtual care forward, this is an exciting advancement,” said Jason Gorevic, CEO, Teladoc. “CVS Health’s expansion of their health care model to include video visits brings even more care delivery options to patients and Teladoc is proud to work with them on this offering.”

      If the physician determines that additional care, further testing, or prescriptions are required, they will make necessary recommendations or prescription submissions.

      How much and are you covered?

      CVS’ MinuteClinic Video Visits cost $59, but they are only available in nine states and the District of Columbia for the time being; consumers can access the new service in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire Virginia, and Washington D.C.

      The service is expected to be available nationwide, where allowed, by the end of 2018. Regarding insurance coverage, CVS says it should be made available in the coming months.

      Despite the services all falling under the umbrella of “telehealth,” the who, what, when, where, and why of coverage is a confusing environment. To that end, the National Telehealth Policy Resource Center is keeping tabs on laws and policies for all 50 states and has produced a video series covering how telehealth works.

      CVS Health took another step on its path to heighten its customer service on Wednesday. When the pharmacy chain says “the doctor will see you now,” you can...

      CEO Elon Musk considers taking Tesla private

      Musk says he wants to minimize the distractions that come as a result of swings in stock price

      On Tuesday, Elon Musk tweeted about how he’s considering turning Tesla into a private company. The CEO said he’s even secured the funding.

      Musk expanded on the tweet in an email to employees, saying that the move would relive the “enormous pressure” of Wall Street’s expectations. However, no final decision has been made yet.

      Taking Tesla private is “the best path forward,” Musk contended, because it would take away some of the distractions that come as a result of “wild swings in our stock price.”

      "As a public company, we are subject to wild swings in our stock price that can be a major distraction for everyone working at Tesla, all of whom are shareholders," he wrote in the email to Tesla workers, which was later posted on the company’s blog.

      “Finally, as the most shorted stock in the history of the stock market, being public means that there are large numbers of people who have the incentive to attack the company,” Musk wrote in the email.

      Musk said on Twitter that the private funding valued Tesla at $420 per share.

      No decision made yet

      Musk said the decision of whether or not to go private would “ultimately be finalized through a vote of our shareholders. If the process ends the way I expect it will, a private Tesla would ultimately be an enormous opportunity for all of us.”

      "Basically, I'm trying to accomplish an outcome where Tesla can operate at its best, free from as much distraction and short-term thinking as possible, and where there is as little change for all of our investors, including all of our employees, as possible," Musk wrote.

      Tesla shares jumped almost 9 percent after his original tweet before getting halted on the stock exchange. After shares began trading again, Tesla stock finished up 11 percent, at $379.

      On Tuesday, Elon Musk tweeted about how he’s considering turning Tesla into a private company. The CEO said he’s even secured the funding.Musk expanded...

      Freddie Mac financing package promotes affordable rents

      Developers get a better deal if they limit rent increases

      While home prices have been dramatically rising, and consequently pricing many consumers out of the market, rents have been going up just as fast.

      To alleviate that pressure on consumers, Freddie Mac, which is the largest backer of loans to build and purchase apartment buildings, is offering a break on interest rates to owners and developers who agree to cap rent increases until a loan is paid off.

      "Maybe there’s a way we can help change incentives,” David Brickman, an executive vice president at Freddie Mac and head of its multifamily division, told The Wall Street Journal. “We can provide an economic basis for private, profit-oriented developers to pursue a strategy where they didn’t raise rents by quite as much.”

      Under the terms of the program, owners must agree to limit rent increases on 80 percent of the property's units. It went into effect this week and is available in all U.S. markets. Freddie Mac expects to find interest from landlords because rental demand, which has been red hot over the last decade, has slowed in recent months.

      Rent burdens

      Still, rents are high enough in many markets to place an extra heavy burden on consumers who can't afford to purchase a home. Since you have to live somewhere, a growing number of Americans are living in apartments that are officially "unaffordable."

      Rent affordability is measured by the percentage of household income it takes to pay the rent each month. Economists generally agree that having to pay more than 30 percent of pre-tax income toward housing costs makes a home or apartment unaffordable.

      Using that metric, real estate marketplace Zillow recently estimated the median African American family could only afford 16.2 percent of available rental properties last year. That was less than a third of the rental options for median white and Asian households.

      Using median black household income of nearly $40,000 a year, an African American family would have to spend 45 percent of their income to afford 42 percent of available rentals.

      While home prices have been dramatically rising, and consequently pricing many consumers out of the market, rents have been going up just as fast.To al...

      StoneRidge Wholesale recalls pork and beef bologna

      The products contain sodium nitrite and sodium not declared on the label

      StoneRidge Wholesale Division of Wautoma, Wis., is recalling approximately 656 pounds of fully cooked, not shelf stable ready to eat pork and beef bologna.

      The products contain sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate, which are not declared on the label.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following items, produced on May 11, 2018, and packaged on May 15, 2018, are being recalled:

      • 14-oz. vacuum-sealed packages containing “OTTO’S Old-Fashioned Quality RING BOLOGNA” with a lot code of 18131 and a “Sell By: 08/09/2018” date.
      • 14-oz. vacuum-sealed packages containing “OTTO’S Old-Fashioned Quality GARLIC RING BOLOGNA” with a lot code of 18131 and a “Sell By: 08/09/2018” date.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “EST. 33989” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to a retail location in Wisconsin.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products may return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Trevor Diedrick at (920) 787-5444.

      StoneRidge Wholesale Division of Wautoma, Wis., is recalling approximately 656 pounds of fully cooked, not shelf stable ready to eat pork and beef bologna....