Off the Wires

Bitcoin hits $785 with a little help from Bernanke

November 19th, 2013  |  Source:

A US Senate hearing on the “risks, threats and promises” of virtual currencies sparked a new leg up in the price of Bitcoin, the experimental currency which has risen by more than 5,000 per cent in value this year.

An intervention by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, enabled Bitcoin’s enthusiasts to put the spotlight where they believe its potential value lies: as a cheaper alternative to the current system for transferring money around the world.

An intervention by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, enabled Bitcoin’s enthusiasts to put the spotlight where they believe its potential value lies: as a cheaper alternative to the current system for transferring money around the world.

Mr Bernanke, in a letter to the Homeland Security committee, pointed out the Fed’s longstanding view that while virtual currencies pose money laundering and other risks, “there are also areas where they may hold long-term promise”.

Full story here:

How McDonald's and Wal-Mart Became Welfare Queens

November 13th, 2013  |  Source: Bloomberg

It seems that welfare queens are back in the news these days. The old stereotype was an inner-city unwed mother -- that’s dog-whistle-speak for black -- having multiple babies to get ever bigger welfare checks (throw in a new Cadillac and the myth is complete). Regardless, welfare reform of the 1990s ended that narrative.

No, the new welfare queens are even bigger, richer and less deserving of taxpayer support. The two biggest welfare queens in America today are Wal-Mart and McDonald's.
This issue has become more known as we learn just how far some companies have gone in putting their employees on public assistance. According to one study, American fast food workers receive more than $7 billion dollars in public assistance. As it turns out, McDonald's has a “McResource” line that helps employees and their families enroll in various state and local assistance programs. It exploded into the public when a recording of the McResource line advocated that full-time employees sign up for food stamps and welfare.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private sector employer, is also the biggest consumer of taxpayer supported aid. According to Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, in many states, Wal-Mart employees are the largest group of Medicaid recipients. They are also the single biggest group of food stamp recipients. Wal-mart’s "associates" are paid so little, according to Grayson, that they receive $1,000 on average in public assistance. These amount to massive taxpayer subsidies for private companies.

Why are profitable, dividend-paying firms receiving taxpayer subsidies? The short answer is, because they can. The longer answer is more complex and nuanced.
Read on here:

Norway weighs going green with its $800 billion pension fund

November 13th, 2013  |  Source: CS Monitor

While some are calling for Norway to divest itself of foreign coal companies to reduce global warming, there's a wrinkle: Norway is itself a major coal producer.

Norway, as the owner of an $800 billion sovereign wealth fund – the world’s largest – has made great efforts over the years to be an ethical investor. But it’s not always been easy.

The most recent reminder came last week when politicians in Norway called for the Government Pension Fund, which is based on excess petroleum revenues, to pull out of coal company investments abroad – a conundrum given that the country itself produces coal via a Norwegian state-owned company up in the northern territory of Svalbard.

Norway’s finance ministry, which oversees the pension fund, announced Monday it would consider recommendations from a strategy council to improve its responsible investment practices.

Political investments
This is not the first time the fund has found itself in an ethical dilemma.
Since 2005, the fund has excluded investments in Lockheed Martin for producing nuclear weapon components, yet the country purchases its planes. The fund currently excludes a total of 60 companies from investments over human rights violations, gross corruption, severe environmental damage, and production of tobacco, palm oil, and certain weapons.

A coal pullout would put at stake investments representing 1 percent of the fund in large companies such as BHP Billiton, Xstrata, and Anglo American. Such a move would be a natural follow-up to the decision by the Nordic prime ministers’ September meeting in Stockholm with US President Barack Obama to stop the financing of international coal projects, said Jonas Gahr Store, a Labor party representative behind the initiative.

Putting Robots To Work for Solar Energy

October 29th, 2013  |  Source: News

More than anything else, the solar industry remains laser-focused on reducing the price. Even though costs for solar systems have plunged in recent years, that's not enough to out-compete natural gas.

As we've reported on at length, efforts are underway on many fronts to get solar costs down, from reducing permitting costs to automating the sales process online.

Another method that has great potential is the use of robots, which at least two start-ups are focused on.

So far, the idea is to make constructing and operating large solar plants much cheaper and more efficient.
Alion Energy thinks it has a solution for the expensive, tedious process of building a large solar farm. Right now, those thousands of solar panels are screwed into the ground using human hands, one by one.

But Alion says "Rover" and "Spot" could do the job easier and cheaper.

Starbucks to open first Teavana store, in New York City

October 23rd, 2013  |  Source: Reuters

Having made its mark in the global coffee market,Starbucks Corp is setting its sights on tea - the world's most consumed beverage after water - which it dubs a $90 billion market opportunity.

On Thursday, the Seattle company will open its first Teavana tea store and bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The debut comes as Starbucks expands its reach with new shops focusing on everything from premium tea to pressed juices.

"This new store concept elevates the tea experience in the same way we've done for coffee," Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said in a statement.

Gold Trade Most Bearish Since 2010 as Fed Spurs Drop

June 20th, 2013  |  Source: Bloomberg

Gold traders are the most bearish in 3 1/2 years after prices fell to the lowest since 2010 following Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s comments that the central bank may start curbing stimulus.

Fifteen analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect prices to fall next week, with six bullish and five neutral, the largest proportion of bears since January 2010. The metal slumped below $1,300 an ounce for the first time since September 2010 yesterday. Investors sold 520.7 metric tons valued at about $21.7 billion from exchange-traded products this year.

Africa’s youngest billionaire pitches Africa as the next emerging market

June 14th, 2013  |  Source: Venture Beat

With more than 85% of its population under the age of 35, the most naturally rain fed arable land in the world, a huge power deficit, and over 650 million mobile phone subscribers, “Africa has arrived,” says Ugandan businessman Ashish Thakkar, founder and chief executive of pan-African business conglomerate Mara Group.

Mara Group operates 16 companies in 26 countries from its base in Dubai. It has over 7,500 employees across industries ranging from tech and call center businesses to glass manufacturing, steel, agriculture, sugar, banking, and insurance. The group has a billion-dollar portfolio, according to Thakkar.

He notes that today, Africa is where India and China were 10 years ago.
“The Indian tiger and the Chinese dragon have had their days, it’s now the African lion’s turn,” says Thakkar, emphasizing the huge market opportunity and the massive potential the continent presents. ‘Lion’ is also the logo of the Mara Group.


Boston woman pays $560,000 for two parking spots

June 14th, 2013  |  Source: BBC

Two adjacent parking spots in the US city of Boston have been auctioned for $560,000 (£357,000), almost double the average price of a home in the region.

Bidding for the patch of asphalt began at $42,000 during an onsite auction in the city's upmarket Back Bay area.

They were sold by the Internal Revenue Service, which had seized them from their original owner over a tax debt.

Lisa Blumenthal, who lives in a multi-million dollar home nearby with three existing parking spots, was the buyer.

She told the Boston Globe the spaces would be useful for guests and workers.

The record price for a single parking spot in Boston is $300,000, also in Back Bay.

The average price of a single-family home in Massachusetts is $313,000.

How America Lost Its Way

June 9th, 2013  |  Source:

It is getting ever harder to do business in the United States, argues Niall Ferguson, and more stimulus won't help: Our institutions need fixing.

Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Still, everyone should try—if only once—to start a business. After all, it is small and medium enterprises that are the key to job creation. There is also something uniquely educational about sitting at the desk where the buck stops, in a dreary office you've just rented, working day and night with a handful of employees just to break even.

As an academic, I'm just an amateur capitalist. Still, over the past 15 years I've started small ventures in both the U.S. and the U.K. In the process I've learned something surprising: It's much easier to do in the U.K. There seemed to be much more regulation in the U.S., not least the headache of sorting out health insurance for my few employees. And there were certainly more billable hours from lawyers.

Read on here:

IRS official in Star Trek spoof apologizes for lavish conference

June 6th, 2013  |  Source: Reuters

A top official at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on Thursday acknowledged that it was "embarrassing" how much the tax agency spent on training videos, including a Star Trek spoof, and other lavish expenses during a 2010 conference in California.


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