Thursday, July 24, 2014

Carnival Cruise Lines bans smoking on balconies

Cruisers who are also smokers should check their preferred line's smoking policy before they book their next voyage. More and more lines are banning smoking on cabin balconies, once considered a must-have feature for smokers who needed a place to puff in private.
The latest to join the balcony smoking ban is
Carnival Spirit
Carnival Spirit (Photo credit: blmiers2)
, one of the largest and most popular lines, especially for American cruisers.
The ban on balcony smoking will take effect on Oct. 9. The line had already banned smoking in cabins. Smoking will continue to be allowed in designated open deck areas, as well as night clubs and certain areas within the casino and casino bar, the cruise line said.
Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor of Cruise Critic, called the new policy a "big move on Carnival’s part."
But it seems to be the "wave" of the future: several other lines -- including Royal Caribbean, Cunard, P&O, Disney and Seabourn -- have also banned balcony smoking, at least to some degree. But while the smokers may be fuming, it seems the majority of Carnival cruisers are in favor of the policy change.
READ: Cruise Trend: All You Can Drink Plans
"We’re currently seeing a pretty favorable response from our members. Many say that they’ve refrained from booking a balcony cabin for this particular reason, so it’s a step in the right direct for those cruisers," said McDaniel.
Carnival Cruise Lines told ABC News the change was "response to the preferences of a majority of our guests."
The only mainstream cruise lines that still allow smoking on cabin balconies are Norwegian and Holland America. Holland America is part of the larger Carnival Corp., but the ban does not apply across all brands.
For smokers who are used to smoking on cabin balconies, it will be more important than ever to become familiar with cruise line smoking policies prior to boarding, as many lines have already made similar policy changes. Carnival Cruise Lines said guests who smoke in their staterooms or on their balconies will be assessed a $250 cleaning and refreshing fee.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

U.S. is on track to pass Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of crude oil

Four years into the shale revolution, the U.S. is on track to pass Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of crude oil, most analysts agree. When that happens and by how much, though, has produced disparate estimates that depend on uncertain factors ranging from progress in drilling technology to the availability of financing and the price of oil itself.
Forecasts for U.S. shale oil production vary from an increase of 7.5 million barrels per day by 2020 – almost doubling current domestic output of 8.5 bpd -- to a gain of 1.5 million bpd, or less than half of what Iraq now produces.
The disparities are a function of the novelty of the shale boom, which has consistently confounded forecasts. In 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that production from eight selected shale oil fields would range from 700,000 bpd of so-called tight oil to 2.8 million bpd by 2035. A year later, those predictions had been surpassed.
"The key issue is not whether production grows, it's by how much," said Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup in New York. "We're only at the beginning of the first inning and this is a nine-inning game."
The stakes couldn't be bigger, ranging from the multibillion-dollar investments needed to explore and drill to oil supply issues that go to the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Relations with countries ranging from Iraq and Iran to Russia, Ukraine, Libya and Venezuela are colored to one degree or another by the question of energy.
The U.S., a nation transformed by the 1973 Arab oil embargo, could become energy independent by 2035, according to bullish forecasts from BP Plc and the International Energy Agency. Coupled with growing output from oil-rich neighbors, the continent has a growing shield from supply shocks.
"Looking at North America, including Canada and Mexico, we're much more politically stable," said Lisa Viscidi, program director of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Still, many drillers have found that healthy forecasts of oil in the ground don't guarantee it can be economically extracted.
For example, based on the promise of free-flowing oil, Chesapeake Energy's then-top executive Aubrey McClendon bought up land in Ohio's Utica shale oil field and touted it in 2011 as a $500-billion opportunity. State geologists estimated the shale play could hold as much as 5.5 billion barrels of reserves.
But last year, after months of drilling, Chesapeake’s average output per well per day was just 80 barrels. Competitor BP wrote off $521 million and exited the Utica just two years after leasing 85,000 acres.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wells Fargo & Co the largest U.S. mortgage lender, reported a 3 percent rise in second-quarter

Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo (Photo credit: JeepersMedia)
Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N), the largest U.S. mortgage lender, reported a 3 percent rise in second-quarter profit, helped by a rally in the equity and fixed income markets, and said it was seeing signs that the U.S. economy was improving.
The bank said its capital markets, corporate banking, commercial real estate, debit card and personal loans businesses had all perked up in the latest quarter compared with the first.
But mortgage lending and investment banking revenue fell and overall loan growth was modest, compared with a year earlier.
Wells Fargo is the first of the major U.S. banks to report second quarter results, and its earnings show the headwinds that its rivals also faced during the period.
This is also the first quarter since 2009 that Wells Fargo did not increase its earnings-per-share from the preceding quarter, ending a 17-quarter streak.
CEO John Stumpf was upbeat, however, noting that the bank's businesses were improving compared with the first quarter.
"Our results ... reflected strong credit quality driven by an improved economy, especially the housing market, and our continued risk discipline," he said in a statement.
Wells Fargo shares were down 1.2 percent at $51.20 in early trading. Up to Thursday's close, the stock had risen about 14 percent since the start of the year.
Net gains from equity investments jumped 121 percent to $449 million, while earnings from the bank's wealth, brokerage and retirement business grew 25 percent to $544 million.
Net gains from debt securities were $71 million compared with a loss of $54 million a year earlier.
Net income applicable to common shareholders rose to $5.42 billion, or $1.01 per share, matching the average analyst estimate. In the second quarter of 2013, the bank earned $5.27 billion, or 98 cents per share.(bit.ly/TWX0oK)
Net income was boosted by the release of $500 million that had been set aside to cover bad loans, the same amount it released in both the year-earlier and first quarters.

Revenue slipped to $21.1 billion, from $21.4 billion in the second quarter of 2013, slightly beating expectations, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Monday, July 21, 2014

European Central Bank becomes the region's financial supervisor in November

Bank
Bank (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)
The European Central Bank wants to give banks just 48 hours to review the results of a balance sheet health check so it can guard against data leaks even though the banks would like more time.
The ECB is carrying out the most detailed ever review of the euro zone's 128 largest banks before it becomes the region's financial supervisor in November.
Its aim is to restore confidence in Europe's banking sector that has traded at lower valuations than its U.S. counterpart since the financial crisis due to uncertainty about the health of European banks' balance sheets.
The results of the eight-month exercise are due in October and the ECB is holding meetings in Frankfurt this week to tell bankers how they will be released to the banks and the markets.
The bank faces a delicate balancing act in trying to keep its work under wraps and avoid breaches of market disclosure rules, while not blind-siding banks with unforeseen capital demands that they could struggle to fulfil.
Two people familiar with the Frankfurt discussions told Reuters the ECB proposed giving banks 48 hours warning of their results ahead of the publication date in late October.“Banks can't comprehend this highly complex ... process within 48 hours in a way that they can sign it off in good conscience,” one person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The ECB said the 48-hour deadline was one element in an ongoing dialogue with the 128 banks it was reviewing.

“We will communicate with the banks directly concerning exact timelines for the disclosure of the final result of the Comprehensive Assessment closer to the end of the process,” a spokesman said.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Big retailers are taking a calculated hit to margins to invest in online grocery operations

Another Grocery Store
Another Grocery Store (Photo credit: NatalieMaynor)
Big retailers are taking a calculated hit to margins to invest in online grocery operations, in the hope they can persuade consumers to add more profitable items like clothes and computers to their orders of fruit and vegetables.
Food has been one of the last things to move online because complex logistics for fresh, chilled and frozen products make it an expensive business. Retailers are also reluctant to lose the potential for the lucrative impulse buys that occur in-store.
However, retailers in Europe and North America are now ramping up their online food offer to compete with Amazon.com, which is expected to expand its sale of fresh produce beyond a few trial areas with the aim of complementing its non-food sales - and eating other retailers' lunch.
"They are trying to hook customers up to brands for their grocery shop and hope they will spend on non-food which is lower headache and higher margin, which will drive profitability," said Sophie Albizua of retail consultancy eNova Partnership.
"It is notoriously difficult to make money selling groceries online. The reason why people do it and need to do it have nothing to do with profit and nothing to do with groceries."

Britain has led the way in selling groceries online, with e-commerce already accounting for some 5 percent of food sales. Other countries like France are now catching up and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts the global market will grow to $100 billion by 2018 from $36 billion in 2013.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

WinRAR compression

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Billionaire Carlos Slim is bowing to imminent antitrust legislation

English: Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú....
English: Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú. Deutsch: Mexikanischer Unternehmer Carlos Slim Helú, u.a. Präsident von Grupo Carso. Español: El empresario mexicano Carlos Slim Helú. Português: O empresário mexicano Carlos Slim Helú, presidente do Grupo Carso, chega ao Palácio do Planalto para reunião com o presidente Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Billionaire Carlos Slim is bowing to imminent antitrust legislation by planning a breakup of America Movil SAB (AMXL)’s phone operations in Mexico rather than risk profit-crushing restrictions if his company did nothing to curb its dominance. The shares soared.
America Movil, the Americas’ largest operator with 272 million wireless subscribers, decided to divest some assets to an independent company, reducing its market share in Mexican landlines and mobile phones to below 50 percent to appease regulators, America Movil said yesterday in a filing. Slim’s carrier will also separate its wireless towers from the rest of the business and will renounce its rights to acquire control of satellite-TV provider Dish Mexico. Slim and his family hold 57 percent of America Movil.
Slim, the world’s second-richest man and the son of a Lebanese immigrant to Mexico, had been weighing options for America Movil as Congress considered a bill that would impose the harshest penalties the company has ever encountered, as long as its subscribers represent more than half of the Mexican market. The carrier currently has 70 percent of Mexico’s mobile-phone subscribers and about 80 percent of landlines. America Movil has lost about $17 billion in market value since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in 2012 on promises to spark more competition to boost the Mexican economy.
“The message is clear: They’re reacting to the regulatory pressure,” said Julio Zetina, an analyst at Vector Casa de Bolsa SA in Mexico City. “I’m surprised they have made a decision like this, and so quickly.”

Regulatory Approval

America Movil rose 9.4 percent to 14.73 pesos at the close in Mexico City, the biggest gain since April 2009.
America Movil didn’t specify which assets would be sold to the new independent operator. It said they would have to fetch market prices.
In a radio interview today, America Movil Vice President Arturo Elias said the company won’t just sell rural, money-losing phone lines. America Movil is still analyzing which assets to sell and prefers a single buyer to create a strong competitor, he said. He also said that the assets for sale will “require much investment.”

Sale Estimates

America Movil may fetch about $8.6 billion by selling assets and will need to divest about 21 million wireless users and 4 million landlines to reduce its market share below 50 percent, Martin Lara, an analyst with Corp. Actinver SAB, estimated in a note today. Grupo Televisa SAB (TLEVICPO) may be a potential buyer for some of the assets, Lara wrote.
America Movil brought a special committee of board members together to study its options after the newly created Federal Telecommunications Institute, or IFT, declared it the dominant company in Mexico’s phone market. Last year, lawmakers made constitutional changes to let regulators force companies to divest assets if they have too much control over the industry.
The board made the breakup decision based on the committee’s recommendations, America Movil said yesterday. The measures require regulatory approval and may need the endorsement of shareholders, the company said.
America Movil contacted the IFT with its plans to restructure, which will be subject to approval, the regulator said in a statement. The IFT said it has yet to receive a concrete plan.

‘Direct Consequence’

“This decision is a direct consequence of the regulatory framework created by the telecommunications reform,” the Communications and Transportation Ministry, which reports to Pena Nieto, said in a statement yesterday. “This decision may transform the conditions of effective competition in the telecommunications sector, with greater quality and better prices for services to end users.”

Pena Nieto’s press office declined to comment.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Microsoft is once again tweaking its Office 365 plans

Microsoft is once again tweaking its Office 365 plans.
The software giant on Wednesday announced plans to launch three new Office 365 plans tailored for small and midsized businesses, or those ranging from 1 to approximately 250 employees. Here's a breakdown of the new plans, which will go into effect Oct. 1.
  • Office 365 Business ($8.25/user/month): Includes the full suite of Office apps (Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher) along with 1TB of OneDrive for Business cloud storage.
  • Office 365 Business Essentials ($5/user/month): Comes with just the "core cloud services for running your business" — email and calendaring, Office Online, online meetings, IM, video conferencing, cloud storage, and file sharing.
  • Office 365 Business Premium ($12.50 user/month): Includes everything from both of the above plans.
The new offerings will eventually replace Microsoft's current plans for SMBs — Small Business, Small Business Premium, and Midsize Business. The current Enterprise plans will stay the same.
"This new lineup reflects the feedback we've received from SMB customers about how they want to get started and grow with Office 365," Microsoft said.
The new Business Premium plan is the same price of the old Small Business Premium plan, but with all the features of the old Midsize Business plan, if that's not too confusing. The new Business Essentials Plan is the same price as Small Business, but comes with additional services like Yammer and Active Directory support and a higher seat limit of 300.
"As you grow and your technology needs change, you can move your company (or just specific users) to an Enterprise plan, a different Business plan, or even add solutions like Project, Visio, Dynamics CRM Online and more," Microsoft said.
Once the new plans go into effect, current Small Business and Small Business Premium customers will automatically see their seat cap raise from 25 to 300 while Midsize Business customers will get a price cut from $15/user/month to $12.50/user/month.
Existing customers don't need to take any action until their first renewal after Oct. 1, 2015. After that date, you'll need to select one of the new plans.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also recently launched Office 365 Personal, which is designed for individuals, and allows one PC or Mac and one tablet to be connected to the service for $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption

Xi Jinping 习近平
Xi Jinping 习近平 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption has sown so much fear that many Chinese officials are doing anything to stay out of trouble - from dithering over approving big-ticket projects to seeking early retirement.
A small number of top executives under investigation at state-owned enterprises have even committed suicide.
While the campaign has been a hit with a public usually skeptical about such crackdowns, it's having an unintended consequence, said bureaucratic sources and officials at state enterprises: Those supposed to implement much-needed economic reforms and run the machinery of government are dragging their feet because they are scared of attracting unwanted attention.
One reason for the fear is that Xi's 18-month-old campaign shows no sign of faltering - it claimed its biggest scalp so far last week when the government said it would court-martial a former top army general for taking bribes, the most senior officer ever felled in a Chinese graft probe.
Another is that with corruption so endemic in China - especially in government procurement, the energy and construction sectors and the awarding of land-use and mining rights - many officials know they could be next.
"The anti-corruption campaign is having a big economic impact. Local officials are no longer keen to launch investment projects - they are laying low," said a government official in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, where Xi served as Communist Party boss from 2002 to 2007.
"People thought it would be short-lived, just like the others."

Some sources said large projects were attracting increasing public scrutiny on the Internet in China, even if there was no suggestion of graft, prompting officials to be cautious. A number of projects have been shelved in the past year, for example, after ordinary Chinese raised environmental concerns.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

stop banks and third-party payment processors

Seal of the United States Department of Justice
Seal of the United States Department of Justice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The job of government, some people say, is to protect life and property and maintain the rule of law, period. But even that much government may be too much for the opponents of a Justice Department initiative known as Operation Choke Point.
The idea behind Operation Choke Point is simple: stop banks and third-party payment processors from abetting fraud. Financial institutions have long been required to watch out for (and report) evidence of criminal activity. Yet they have long been tempted to look the other way, since criminals can also be highly profitable customers. (The $8.9 billion fine against BNP Paribas this week for transferring money to Sudan and other blacklisted countries is just the latest case in point.)
In recent years, scammers of many sorts have developed ways of systematically extracting money from people’s bank accounts. In doing so, they have benefited from the rise of online commerce and automatic debiting, and also, in too many cases, from the complicity of banks, which have sometimes lent a hand even when the warning signs were staring them in the face.

Mass-market consumer fraud, in all its forms, is a huge law enforcement problem, costing people tens of billions of dollars a year, by the FBI’s estimate. Older Americans, a prime target, are bilked out of $2.9 billion a year, according to a study by MetLife. A few weeks ago, a payment processor agreed to surrender its claim to $1.1 million in earnings from what the Federal Trade Commission said was the company’s knowing alliance with a bogus credit-card interest rate reduction service that had defrauded tens of thousands of consumers out of more than $10 million in all.

In addition to the banks and payment processers and their respective trade associations, the forces of opposition appear to include online gamblers and payday lenders. The payday lending industry has come under mounting criticism for a business model that depends on getting borrowers stuck in triple-digit-interest debt for months on end. Twenty-two states have banned or sharply limited such loans. Some lenders have responded by moving online or engaging in other subterfuges, and a crackdown on the processing of illegal payments clearly poses a threat to their ability to make loans that violate the law. (And even licensed payday lenders and money transmitters have sometimes been unable to get bank accounts; but that’s an old industry complaint – one that long predates the 2013 launch of Operation Choke Point.) Undoubtedly, there is money to be made – campaign money – by legislators who decide to join the attack. And if some of them seem to have let their rhetoric get out of control, perhaps that can be attributed to a combination of reflexive government-bashing and the need to find moral cover for a position that would otherwise sound a lot like shilling for an especially smarmy collection of special interests.

Fortunately, this strange cause has not gained traction in the Senate, and the Justice Department appears to be standing behind the program. Two banks, Zions and PNC, have disclosed that they are currently under investigation for facilitating fraud. The Department has announced similar investigations into more than 10 additional (but as yet unnamed) banks and payment processing companies. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement vowing to “enforce the law against both the fraudsters who prey on consumers and the financial institutions who choose to allow these crimes to occur.”
As the Operation continues, and word gets out, most people will probably respond well to the phenomenon of Uncle Sam challenging (rather than enabling) the unlawful conduct of banks. Perhaps, in time, we will hear fewer lawmakers railing against what ought to be viewed as a normal and uncontroversial exercise of law enforcement.