Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Extra N.C. unemployment payments coming soon

A Squeeze reader, currently collecting unemployment, wonders when she might see the extra $25 per week promised in the federal stimulus package President Obama signed in February.

The answer: As early as this week, N.C. Employment Security Commission spokesman Larry Parker tells the Squeeze.

"If not this week, then certainly next week," says Parker, who notes that the payments will show up on debit cards or direct deposit accounts.

The payments also will be retroactive to the week of Feb. 28, when the extra stimulus payments went into effect. That means that if you were collecting unemployment on that date, you'll receive an extra $100 with next week's payment.

Parker says the delay in payments comes from his department coding U.S. Department of Labor guidelines into a 25-year-old system. He notes that many other states also haven't started paying the extra $25 yet.

But he knows how important that cash will be.

"I get a lot of phone calls from folks," he says. "Everyone's been really nice, but they're like 'Even $25 a week can mean two or three days of food.' "

Many economists also believe the extra $25 per week will be an effective stimulus for the economy because it lessens - at least a little - the reduction in spending that job loss causes.

The President has a car deal for you

Along with the news of deep federal intervention into the automaking industry, President Obama mentioned three government incentives Monday designed to motivate Americans to buy American autos.

One, a tax break for certain new-car buyers, was part of Obama's economic stimulus package. Another, a federal backing of warranties from GMC and Chrysler, began yesterday. The third, a "cash for clunkers" trade-in program toward new, more efficient vehicles, needs Congressional approval.

A breakdown of the three:

Buy a car, deduct some taxes

The recent stimulus package allows most car buyers to deduct state and local sales and excise taxes on a new car purchases. The deduction applies to taxes paid on the first $49,500 of a vehicle purchase, domestic or foreign.

Some caveats: The tax break isn't immediate; you pay the sales and excise taxes when you make your purchase, then deduct them later when you file your 2010 return. Also, the benefit starts decreasing for individuals who make more than $135,000 in adjusted gross income - $250,000 for joint filers.

The deduction is good on cars purchased between Feb. 17, 2009 and Jan. 1, 2010.

No-worry warranties

To calm concerns about buying a car from an automaker that might not be here a year from now, the Treasury Department has created a new program in which warranties for GM and Chrysler vehicles will be covered if GM and Chrysler aren't around to cover them.

The program creates an account funded by manufacturers and the government that would honor the warranties in the event of a Chapter 11 filing, which seems a good possibility given Obama's hint Monday that it's a legitimate option for carmakers.

Cash for clunkers

Obama expressed support for this interesting incentive, which didn't make it into the stimulus package. A handful of Senate and House proposals need to be sifted before a final plan emerges. Given Obama's verbal signal, that likely will happen soon.

Depending on the legislation, the program would offer $3,000 to $7,000 cash for your trade-in vehicle, as long as that vehicle is 8 years old or getting worse than 18 miles per gallon. Any one of those numbers could change as legislators shape the bill, but it probably will include most or all foreign or American cars.

A similar incentive program helped motivate buyers in Europe. The idea here is the same with all three programs - to help not only struggling automakers, but all the ancillary businesses that are tied to the industry's success.

Tell us what you think. Are you more motivated to buy?

Your Morning Edge:

There aren't many precedents for the government control that Obama announced yesterday over GM and Chrysler, the New York Times reports.

An auto worry: Obama's intentions were good, but such corporate welfare rarely works, writes NYT's David Brooks.

The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib says Obama is trying to find the space between opposition to bailouts and desire to stop significant loss of manufacturing jobs.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Frontline" producer on Charlotte: You're optimistic (and kind of defensive)

Ofra Bikel is a producer, director and writer for the PBS show "Frontline." She is not, she says, an economist.

Bikel was in Charlotte earlier this month interviewing community and business leaders for a report on the city that "Frontline" hopes to air this spring. Among the questions she's asked is this: How does Charlotte reimagine its economic future?

As we wrote earlier, it's a question that presumes we might have some reimagining to do, given the banking trouble that's hit Charlotte so bluntly. Will our future be different than the previous two decades of bank-aided prosperity?

Bikel called today, however, to say she has little interest in predicting how Charlotte's economic landscape might someday look. Her aim, at least initially, was to report on the impact the financial crisis has had on people, and she thought Charlotte offered a more intimate connection between banks and citizens than New York, the nation's biggest banking city.

"It's so involved in the lives of people (in Charlotte)," she says. "This is what I hope the show is going to be about."

What has she seen thus far? First, that we're a little defensive about the banks.

Actually, not just a little defensive.

"The town is very defensive about the banks," she says. "I hear a lot of people saying, 'We have a lot of other industries.' Of course you have."

She has, however, seen an outlook here that's more difficult to find in New York. "I think Charlotteans take it better than the people in New York," she says. "They're very optimistic."

That might be, she speculates, a factor of churches here helping more people sort through their difficulties. But she is unsure.

"I'm a little perplexed, to tell the truth," she says. "I'm not quite sure what to make of it."

That's why she'll be returning later this month to conduct more interviews and begin shooting.

We'll tell you what we hear.

Are Charlotte's days as a boomtown over?

A team of television reporters spent some time in Charlotte this month posing a question that might be uncomfortable to consider.

The team, from the award-winning PBS show "Frontline," spent about two weeks talking to Charlotte's community and business leaders. Among the larger questions it asked, the Squeeze hears, is this: How does Charlotte reimagine its economic future?

That presumes that there's some reimagining to do, given that we have gone from two bank headquarters to one - with that one, Bank of America, hobbled by the credit crisis.

Has the local economy been irrevocably changed by the recession? We went to the economist who looks closest at the city and the region, UNC Charlotte's John Connaughton.

Are Charlotte's days as a boomtown over?

"No," he says. "That's crazy. I think we'll have more people employed in the financial, insurance and real estate industries in five years than we do today."

More? Here's why: When Connaughton does some reimagining, he looks at a city not with a weakened banking spine, but one with more financial power.

"I don't think people realize how the financial industry is going to change," he says. "It's going to be a lot of power concentrated in a few firms."

Yes, he acknowledges, one of those firms - Wells Fargo - took over Charlotte-based Wachovia, but he notes that significant regional operations - the Eastern U.S. - will remain here. "If it's a better-run bank, it could be better for us overall," Connaughton says.

And BofA? "It's going to be a giant. We'll have four firms conducting 60 percent of business in the U.S., and one of those - maybe the largest - is Bank of America."

And if all this rosiness doesn't take root? Connaughton, who was not interviewed for "Frontline," cautions against what he and other business leaders see as a common mistake outsiders make - thinking that our growth is entirely bank-driven.

About five years ago, UNCC studied how Charlotte grew - both in population and income - in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The result was startling: The city's real income growth was almost identical for each of the three decades.

"The banking industry really didn't start to take off until the late 1980s," Connaughton says. "So most of the growth in the past has been basically driven by economic growth in the rest of the community, as well."

No word on when "Frontline's" Charlotte report might air, or what conclusions the team has drawn. A producer from the show has not returned a message from the Observer. (Update: the show's director will be calling today.) But two weeks signals an impressive effort to get to know the city, so we shouldn't assume a boomtown-gone-bad angle.

We also shouldn't assume good days immediately ahead here, either, not with more banking jobs likely leaving us soon. "It's going to be tough," Connaughton says.

But: "With so much that's left here, I see Charlotte in a great position."

Friday, March 27, 2009

N.C.'s unemployment rate hits new recorded high

The Carolinas were hit with historic unemployment news today, as North Carolina's unemployment rate hit a new recorded high, and South Carolina's came in even higher.

The news comes a day after a poor U.S. job loss report that has economists pessimistic about the short term outlook for the economy. Other indicators, however, show a possible leveling out of job cuts.

Locally, North Carolina's unemployment rate rose to 10.7 percent in February, an increase from 9.7 in January, the N.C. Employment Security Commission said today. The state's highest previous jobless rate was 10.2 percent in February 1983. N.C.'s records go back only to 1976.

South Carolina's rate rose to 11 percent from 10.3 percent last month. The state had 241,000 people unemployed in February, the S.C. Employment Security Commission said.

The news comes amid a mix of encouraging and somber reports this week. Just this morning, the government said consumers increased spending for a second straight month in February even though their incomes slipped due to continuing layoffs.

Those job losses were reported yesterday - an increase for the 10th straight week nationally, with the total number of people claiming benefits jumping to 5.56 million, the highest total on records dating back to 1967.

The unemployment numbers have prompted analysts and economists to shrug off the more positive reports, including housing sales and manufacturing news, and declare a hard road ahead. We asked one economist, UNC Charlotte's Carol Swartz, how she sorts through conflicting indicators.

Says Swartz: "The current economic crisis has focused attention on job cuts and unemployment. During a recession, the unemployment rate goes up for two reasons. One is people who lost their jobs are now looking for work. The other reason is that additional people -- homemakers, teenagers, retirees -- begin looking for work, adding to the number of unemployed people.

A key indicator for her: average hours worked per week.

"When the economic recovery starts, businesses see their orders and sales increase," she says. "At first, no one knows whether this is a recovery so businesses increase average hours worked per week, using overtime if necessary. Only when businesses are confident that the higher volume of orders will last, they hire new workers and the unemployment rate begins to go down."

Is that happening yet? Nationwide, there are signs of some leveling out. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the seasonally adjusted weekly average hours worked decreased by 0.1 hours in each month from August through December 2008. Provisional data for January and February 2009 showed no change in the average work week.

It's not the increase in average hours worked per week that Swartz says will signal the beginnings of a recovery. The leveling out of the hours worked could signal an impending increase, however, another sign that the economy is ready to recover.

Dogs as dependents - and other tax no-nos

A free tax tip from Patsy Schober of H&R Block in Charlotte: No matter how much your dog is a part of the family, expenses and all, you may not declare Butch or Snowball as a deduction.

"As long as pets don't have a Social Security number, you can't count them as dependents," she says.

You know, in case you were wondering.

With the recession a strain on so many bottom lines, Schober says her clients are showing a heightened urgency to save this year, amplifying the already creative approach to taxation that some have.

"People demand that they be allowed to deduct their exercise club dues as medical expenses - and golf clubs, too," Schober says. "They want to deduct the clothes that they wear to the office. Um, no."

Schober's favorite this tax season comes from a colleague, who says a client wants to deduct his currently unfunded IRA account, then hope his tax refund arrives before April 15 so he can use the money to fund the IRA he's deducting.

"It's legal," Schober says. But dangerous.

(Some other wacky tax deductions, courtesy of bankrate.com, including our favorite: A home-office deduction for toilet paper.)

Schober says the urgency she sees this year is different - and serious. "People are just begging me, 'Can you find anything?' " she says.

For clients and non-clients, she recommends legal, but less dangerous, paths to tax savings - including an $8,000 tax credit for people who bought their first home in 2009. She notes, too, that the IRS has increased the deductible mileage rate for business, medical and employee expenses.

And for those desperate enough to convince themselves they can sneak one past the tax man?

"Don't do it," Schober says. "The IRS, their budget to expand audits was granted, and their software is getting more sophisticated.

And also: "I can't imagine there's anything worth not sleeping at night because you've committed fraud."

Your Morning Edge:

Monster.com's Keep America Working Tour will be stopping in Charlotte today for a 10 a.m. job fair at Ballantyne Resort. Representatives from 18 companies are scheduled to attend.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hurts to laugh? Not when it's Dilbert

Worth a look: A Tribune interview today with the comic's creator, Scott Adams, who says "The worse things are, the easier it is to find humor."

In February, dilbert.com handled 1.5 million unique visitors, among the busiest of months in the site's history. Says Adams: "As far as I can tell, I'm having one of the best years I've ever had."

Adams explains it as a "a misery-loves-company situation. People like to know that they are recognized, that their misery is not just in their head. Also, when you have something to laugh at, it allows you to view your situation in its objective absurdity, which gives you perspective."

Tell us what makes you laugh - and what doesn't - during these difficult times.

Who (besides you) is mad at bankers?

We'd like to officially welcome bankers into the Fraternity of Despised Professionals.

Our motto: "It's not you. It's the other (insert your profession here) they hate."

It's been a rough stretch for bankers, who've slid past attorneys and, perhaps, journalists in public scorn. These money experts have, in the past year, been battered for extravagant bonuses, plus loose lending, plus packaging that loose lending into profitable but ultimately ruinous securities.

This week, they were thrashed on Capitol Hill for taking bailout money, then locking the door on customers who come for loans or help with a late credit card payment.

Our perception of bankers once teetered between George Bailey and Milburn Drysdale, between "pillars of the community" and "greedy moneymaker." Now it's so bad that even Barney Frank (unpopular D-Mass.) gets to slap them around publicly.

“People really hate you," Frank said to banking execs last November, "and they’re starting to hate us because we’re hanging out with you. And you have to help us deal with that.”

Who's the angriest at bankers? It might be other bankers.

Says Squeeze reader Rebecca, a Bank of America employee: "To be honest, the number of bankers making the kinds of (bonuses) you hear about is so small … we hate them, too!"

Rebecca says there's a culture clash within banks between the aggressive trading floor types and those who analyze the risk of those trades. "Most bankers by nature are cautious, rule-bound folks," she said. "Contrary to popular belief, BofA has always been pretty diligent about the kinds of investments we make, and has always used sound business principles in my opinion. We just got burned by the (Merrill Lynch) deal."

And those bonuses? "I know my bonus was a third of what was promised," she says, "and it was very small to begin with … Most rank-and-file folks never get raises, and the little tiny bonus we get is used to pay expenses, not buy airplanes."

Most of us in Charlotte know this. We have bankers in our neighborhoods and bankers in our grocery aisles. They drive cars like our cars. They're mediocre at golf like we are.

And they, like us, benefited from the banks being here. Without BofA and Wachovia, Charlotte doesn't get the commerce that flowed through our city, the people that came for a piece of it, or perhaps the Panthers, the splashy downtown, the real estate boom that followed.

Now one of those banks is gone, and the other is wounded, as is our civic pride. More job cuts are coming, perhaps significant, to BofA and Wells Fargo. Some will be tempted to say the bankers had it coming, and perhaps Charlotte, too.

Here's what Rebecca says:

"Most of the people I work with are 'company men' who truly have a sense of dedication to the bank. So when they see the bank being trashed, and folks being laid off to pay for the excesses of a few, they get just as mad as non-bankers.

"We feel like they sullied the family name, so to speak, and we are all paying for it."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The AIG resignation letter - a glimpse into two worlds

Worth a look: A fascinating interplay of perspectives in today's New York Times.

First, a resignation letter (full text below) from Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of American International Group’s financial products unit, to Edward M. Liddy, the chief executive of A.I.G.

Then, almost 1,000 comments from NYT readers, most of them unsympathetic to Mr. DeSantis.

DeSantis, who says he is not responsible for the type of trading that led to AIG's collapse, is returning most of his $700,000-plus bonus, but in protest of what he feels is betrayal by Liddy and the politicians who have demanded that bonus return.

Readers note that the bonus was paid post-bailout (and therefore with taxpayer dollars), and that DeSantis profited greatly from the actions that led to his company's downfall.

Tell us what you think.

The letter:

DEAR Mr. Liddy,

It is with deep regret that I submit my notice of resignation from A.I.G. Financial Products. I hope you take the time to read this entire letter. Before describing the details of my decision, I want to offer some context:

I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in — or responsible for — the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down.

You and I have never met or spoken to each other, so I’d like to tell you about myself. I was raised by schoolteachers working multiple jobs in a world of closing steel mills. My hard work earned me acceptance to M.I.T., and the institute’s generous financial aid enabled me to attend. I had fulfilled my American dream.

I started at this company in 1998 as an equity trader, became the head of equity and commodity trading and, a couple of years before A.I.G.’s meltdown last September, was named the head of business development for commodities. Over this period the equity and commodity units were consistently profitable — in most years generating net profits of well over $100 million. Most recently, during the dismantling of A.I.G.-F.P., I was an integral player in the pending sale of its well-regarded commodity index business to UBS. As you know, business unit sales like this are crucial to A.I.G.’s effort to repay the American taxpayer.

The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses. In this way I have personally suffered from this controversial activity — directly as well as indirectly with the rest of the taxpayers.

I have the utmost respect for the civic duty that you are now performing at A.I.G. You are as blameless for these credit default swap losses as I am. You answered your country’s call and you are taking a tremendous beating for it.

But you also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn’t defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.

My guess is that in October, when you learned of these retention contracts, you realized that the employees of the financial products unit needed some incentive to stay and that the contracts, being both ethical and useful, should be left to stand. That’s probably why A.I.G. management assured us on three occasions during that month that the company would “live up to its commitment” to honor the contract guarantees.

That may be why you decided to accelerate by three months more than a quarter of the amounts due under the contracts. That action signified to us your support, and was hardly something that one would do if he truly found the contracts “distasteful.”

That may also be why you authorized the balance of the payments on March 13.

At no time during the past six months that you have been leading A.I.G. did you ask us to revise, renegotiate or break these contracts — until several hours before your appearance last week before Congress.

I think your initial decision to honor the contracts was both ethical and financially astute, but it seems to have been politically unwise. It’s now apparent that you either misunderstood the agreements that you had made — tacit or otherwise — with the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, various members of Congress and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York, or were not strong enough to withstand the shifting political winds.

You’ve now asked the current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. to repay these earnings. As you can imagine, there has been a tremendous amount of serious thought and heated discussion about how we should respond to this breach of trust.

As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.’s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.’s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you.

The only real motivation that anyone at A.I.G.-F.P. now has is fear. Mr. Cuomo has threatened to “name and shame,” and his counterpart in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, has made similar threats — even though attorneys general are supposed to stand for due process, to conduct trials in courts and not the press.

So what am I to do? There’s no easy answer. I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less — in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.

This choice is right for me. I wish others at A.I.G.-F.P. luck finding peace with their difficult decision, and only hope their judgment is not clouded by fear.

Mr. Liddy, I wish you success in your commitment to return the money extended by the American government, and luck with the continued unwinding of the company’s diverse businesses — especially those remaining credit default swaps. I’ll continue over the short term to help make sure no balls are dropped, but after what’s happened this past week I can’t remain much longer — there is too much bad blood. I’m not sure how you will greet my resignation, but at least Attorney General Blumenthal should be relieved that I’ll leave under my own power and will not need to be “shoved out the door.”


Jake DeSantis

Buy My House: Reverse sticker shock

A Realtor may be coming to the Squeeze house soon to evaluate how much it might sell for in today's market. We're anticipating the news with the same joy that comes with opening our 401(k) statement.

How low will our number go? It's that reverse sticker shock, Realtors say, that's among the biggest obstacles to the housing markets rustling again. People aren't buying homes, in part, because they're unwilling to take a hit on the homes they live in.

Last month, the Squeeze began helping you navigate housing issues in Charlotte by telling you the story of one house. My house. (Our promise: We won't exploit this very public venue for any actual deal-making.)

Our story is a familiar Charlotte story. We purchased our home in the University area in late 2004. Our mortgage was a five-year adjustable rate, and today we are less than a year from that adjustment, facing a decision to bear the expense of refinancing or take a chance and put the house on the market (risking a future refinance.)

We're also confronting a reality seen throughout the city - houses are staying on the market a long time, in part because the market isn't accepting the listed prices on those homes. MLS figures last month show that average sales prices in the Charlotte area were more than 11 percent below what buyers were asking - a gap that has widened in recent months.

Real estate experts have long said that one key to selling is to price competitively from the start. Last year, 55 percent of U.S. homes that sold in just one week sold for the full listing price, according to statistics from the National Association of Realtors. Only 31 percent fetched full price after 2 weeks, 22 percent after 4 weeks, and 15 percent after 8 weeks.

But, says Allen Tate president Pat Riley, it's difficult to convince people that they won't sell their home now for what their neighbor got two years ago.

"It's been brutal," Riley says. "We have supplied our people with every chart, every graph that shows history, shows cycles, so they can sit down and explain this."

Except: "A home is very emotional. It's 'I'm going to wait until I get what Sally down the street got, because my home is nicer than Sally's. ' "

Part of the blame resides on what he calls "The Roaring 2000s," a decade that largely saw home prices spike across around the country, including many neighborhoods in Charlotte. People began seeing real estate as equal parts residence and investment - even in the short term - and they grew to expect nothing less than significant increases in their home's value.

Instead, the market has withered. Prices on homes here fell 15.5 percent last month compared to February 2008, the 15th consecutive month of year-over-year price declines and the second month in a row of double-digit declines for MLS transactions.

That pain is more severe in neighborhoods that saw bigger spikes earlier this decade. Those homeowners are likely better off waiting for values to rise again. "If I bought at the peak and put very little down, I'm handcuffed to that house," Riley says.

For others, including those in more modest neighborhoods like mine, there might be opportunity. Interest rates are abnormally low. Houses in the neighborhoods we'd like to live have also dropped.

And the Squeeze house? Because it appreciated slowly in the middle part of this decade, its value probably has not plummeted.

But it isn't what it was one, two, three years ago. How much loss can we swallow? We're not sure we want to find out.


Tell us about your house. Are you selling, waiting, dreading?

Signs of progress or sober assessment?

In an hourlong, primetime news conference on the economy last night, President Obama was optimistic, cautious, defensive, snappish, professorial.

In any time of crisis, we look to leaders to guide us with both words and tone. What will Americans take from last night? Here's what they woke to from their media today:

The Washington Post led with Obama, in defense of his budget, noting progress on the economy:

President Obama sought to reassure Americans last night that his administration has made progress in reviving the economy and said his $3.6 trillion budget is "inseparable from this recovery."...

Last night, against a backdrop of a broad national anxiety that the economy may still be failing, he attempted to recalibrate the high hopes to more closely fit the challenges he said lie ahead.

Fox News noted Obama's caution:
WASHINGTON -- What kind of politician brings a teleprompter to a news conference?

A careful one.

President Barack Obama took no chances in his second prime-time news conference, reading a prepared statement in which he took both sides of the AIG bonus brouhaha and asked an anxious nation for its patience.
CNN emphasized a somber Obama:
President Barack Obama presented a sober assessment of the state of the economy in his primetime news conference Tuesday, but he insisted his administration has a strategy in place to "attack this crisis on all fronts."

"It took many years and many failures to lead us here. And it will take many months and many different solutions to lead us out. There are no quick fixes, and there are no silver bullets," he said.
The New York Times noted Obama's tone - that he was more lecturer than speechmaker. That may have been deliberate:
To a certain extent, Mr. Obama’s demeanor could have been calculated — an effort, aides said, to lower the temperature after a supercharged week and nudge the country toward what Mr. Obama considers the more pressing issues of fixing the banking system and reviving the economy. Even after excoriating the A.I.G. executives, he cautioned that “the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit.”
As with most news conferences, this one will soon be unmemorable. But what was notable was what we didn't hear - the dire road ahead that has made regular appearances in Obama's speeches and remarks.

Is that a politically expedient nod to the notion that the deficits we're accumulating had better start working? Or an affirmation of what many analysts are sensing - that we're readying for a long climb out, instead of still bracing for something worse?

What do you think today? Let us know.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Squeeze Poll: Has economy affected how you give?

Earlier today, Charlotte's Kasia Faryna introduced herself to Squeeze readers with a story about finding a different way to give after being laid off from a non-profit.

Kasia is a public affairs volunteer for the American Red Cross of Cabarrus County. "I felt obligated to find a new way to give back," she wrote.

Our Question of the Day: Has the recession caused you to cut back on giving? Answer over to the right, then come back and discuss, if you'd like.

Last night's results: We asked how long you could pay your bills if you lost your job tomorrow. There was no clear trend - 26 percent of respondents said six months or more, with 25 percent saying one month or more, 24 percent saying more than a year, and 23 percent saying less than one month.  

Your credit card company seems to hate you (continued)

Credit card companies, including Bank of America, were thrashed once again on Capitol Hill today, this time before a hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senators at the hearing, including Vermont's Bernie Sanders, floated the idea of an interest rate cap on credit cards, a notion that's gaining support across the country.

"I think people have had it up to here with financial firms," Sanders said at the hearing.

A Rhode Island salesman, Douglas J. Corey, was the star witness at Tuesday's hearing, reports the Dow Jones News Service. After he mistakenly failed to completely pay his minimum monthly credit card payment - he misread the statement, Corey said - Bank of America more than doubled the interest rate on his card to 28.99 percent.

"Bank of America has come before you asking for help, understanding, and, with both hands open, for financial support," Corey said. "Yet when we the consumers go to these institutions looking for the same help, understanding and financial support, we get roughed up and receive no compassion."

The Squeeze reported last month on the trend of credit card companies raising rates, fees and charges - and even offering some customers $300 to grab the scissors and halve their cards.

Sanders and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin introduced a bill this month to cap the interest rates on credit cards at 15 percent. That's the same interest rate cap Congress placed on credit union loans almost 30 years ago under the Federal Credit Union Act.

Like the law regulating credit unions, the bill would give the Federal Reserve Board authority to adjust the rate cap if it determines that the safety and soundness of lenders are in jeopardy.

Several states have interest rate caps on credit cards, but issuers can get around those laws by relocating to states, such as Delaware, that have looser usury laws.

Credit card companies oppose such caps, saying they restrict profitability and could actually tighten credit as companies restrict card access to only the most reliable customers.

Congressional discussion of interest rate caps doesn't often progress much past the talking stage. In 1991, New York Republican Alphonse D'Amato authored a bill to cap credit card rates at 14 percent. It passed the Senate 74 to 19, but died in the House.

Will this effort be pushed to passage by the swell of discontent with banks, or is it merely the Congressional outrage of the moment? (See Bonuses, AIG).

Tell us what you think of the interest rate cap concept.

Are you ready to rebound?

How do you bounce back from losing your job?

With preparation - and with help, says employment consultant Martha Finney.

Earlier this month, Finney offered Squeeze readers five fine tips for that awful meeting when you're told you've been let go. Her suggestions resonated with readers - both unemployed and fearful they might be - as well as people on the other side of the desk.

We asked Finney, a Santa Fe-based employment consultant for more than 20 years, to talk about what comes next. She's is the author of nine books, including the recently released "Rebound: A Proven Plan For Starting Over After Job Loss."

How does that rebound happen?

Says Finney:

Don’t let it take you by surprise

If you’re receiving a paycheck, you’re at risk of losing it. This is the era of no-fault layoffs. And you could be a fantastic employee, completely tied into mission-critical projects with your company and still be called into the HR office for that terrible conversation.

Prepare yourself for the possibility that you might lose your job with only a moment’s notice by making sure your resume is absolutely up-to-date (it’s much easier to update your resume now while you’re relatively calm and feeling secure for the moment). Also, build a database of all your contacts – especially the ones that you can legitimately call your own but whose information resides on your office computer. You may not have the chance to recapture that data once you’ve been laid off.

Prepare financially, as well

Start saving money as aggressively as you can, of course. While you’re still on the company health plan, get all check-ups done now so you’ll have an up-to-date clean bill of health to present to your new health insurer. (This is also the time to lose weight because excess pounds will cost you in higher premiums later.)

If you depend on a company car, get a replacement car while you still have an income that qualifies you for a car loan. It’s been known to happen that an employee who has just been laid off is stranded at work because he had to hand over the car keys right then and there. How humiliating is that? To be standing on the curb, holding a box of your desk stuff, waiting for a cab.

Remember that the door back into the company could still be open

If you really enjoyed working for the organization and you were respected there, there are other working opportunities that you might want to be able to tap, either now or later. Maybe even another job. One person featured in Rebound talks of how she was so glad she kept her feelings to herself while she was being laid off (over the phone no less). Just a few weeks later, the same company called her back and offered her a new job, with a raise in pay.

It’s also important to remember that companies still need to get their work done – that work that you were doing before you got laid off. And who is more experienced than you at doing the job? So this could be a great opportunity for you to keep doing the work as an independent contractor -- giving you more flexibility in hours, as well as a possible increase in take-home pay.

Keep all of this in mind if you get fired. Resolve to keep your cool during the meeting itself. If you get emotional, get emotional. You’re only human. But don’t vent your anger to the people who are laying you off. It will only make the inevitable much more difficult for everyone concerned. And you could be destroying relationships that will come in handy very soon.

Remember that you have just entered a new phase of your life and joined a whole new community.

If you have children, keep in mind that they are learning how to handle future emergencies and uncertainties in their own lives by watching you now. Recognize this time as an opportunity to model for them the behaviors and life outlook that even in this time of uncertainty, you know in your heart that everything will be okay. They’ll draw from your example when they’re grownups, facing their own crises. And will be inspired by the memory of these days and months (hopefully not years).

As for the community you just joined: You have just joined an ever growing group of people who have the chance to rediscover in a fresh way the essential truth that our value as people isn’t dependent on our job titles and paychecks. This is bound to become a global village – if it hasn’t already – and now is our chance to recommit ourselves to helping each other out, without judgment, but with compassion and creative problem-solving. Everyone interviewed for Rebound landed beautifully in their next jobs because of the people they knew.

The old truism, “it’s not what you know but who you know,” used to be considered a bad thing – a cynical reference to the assumption that your prospects are limited if you’re not networked into a high-powered group. Well, in this era of no-fault layoffs, we are all equally empowered by the people we know. But more than that: We’re empowered by the people we care about and who care about us.

We’ll get through this time. But the best way we’ll get through it is with each other.

Kasia's story: More than a statistic

For some, losing a job also means struggling to give to the causes we value. Kasia Faryna worked at one of those Charlotte non-profits, and gave to others, until three months ago. How has she reconciled having less to offer?

The Squeeze has been bringing you stories of the recession from around Charlotte, voices that speak to the struggles and successes you'll find throughout our city. Tell us your story, too.

Here's Kasia's:

Three months ago, my employer gave me a letter stating the elimination of my position. From my desk I watched as 40 percent of the 13-person staff began to clear their offices. More than people filling positions, we were a team that worked tirelessly to make difference at our small, national non-profit. After often losing our own identity to the greater good of the cause, 40 percent of us would have to find some other place to filter our passion, dedication and time.

I thought back to the last time the economy shaped my career. It was seven-and-a-half years ago, when I relocated to Charlotte from Orlando, FL. A recent college grad, I followed my instinct and moved despite the challenges of not having friends, connections or job prospects in the area. A few weeks into my search, the nation felt the impact of September 11, 2001’s devastation. As difficult as it was to find an entry-level job in a good economy, my chances slipped away with the economic down-turn that soon followed.

I was able to get my foot in the door as an internal employee at a staffing agency and in April of 2002, they placed me with one of their clients, the same non-profit that employed me through 2008. In the time that many of my peers took two or three jobs, I dedicated myself to the same employer, building a comprehensive resume, maturing as an employee, remaining committed the projects and people I served, and establishing roots in Charlotte.

During my tenure, there was not a day that my organization did not feel “the squeeze.” Like many other non-profits, it never stopped us from delivering programming that far exceeded its value on paper. However, we were no longer able to function at the same level. Deep cuts at our organization resulted in an ironic cycle; my job loss forced me to temporarily cancel monthly contributions to the non-profits that I supported. The situation was disappointing and embarrassing, but a move I had to make for my own financial survival.

I felt obligated to find a new way to give back. For me, that was as a volunteer. Not only did my contribution aid an organization with limited human resource allocations, but I redefined my own self-worth at a time when the world viewed me as a statistic. The eternal optimist, I began to envision the impact of every unemployed worker taking a few hours each week to give back. It could give new life to a struggling organization; maybe even expand programming at a time when the community needs it most. For every minute that a volunteer spends on a mailing, making a phone call or fulfilling a service need, the organization’s leadership can focus on executive functions that will carry them through this volatile time.

My cause, the American Red Cross of Cabarrus County, took me in as their public affairs volunteer. In my role, I work to improve communications with media, donors, clients and volunteers. In return, I am able to keep my skills in practice, add to my resume and make new contacts. If more volunteers came to the office, the Red Cross would be able to enhance their blood drive programs, add daytime personnel to respond to local disasters and expand the reach of live-saving instruction. Imagine if we were able to multiply that sort of impact against the hundreds of non-profit missions in the Charlotte area.

If you are able to, continue making monthly donations, no matter how small. But for those of us who have the opportunity to give the gift of time, it is imperative we step forward and make a difference. Find your cause, find your role and make your contribution. You never know, it could be your work that enables one more non-profit to make it through this economy.

Putting the pitchforks down

Last week, Congress and the president found rare agreement in the way that rare agreement is usually found - a common enemy. Executives at AIG, they declared, would not be getting millions of dollar in bonuses so long as Washington had anything to do with it.

Now, Congress is backing off the heavy taxes that would effectively have eliminated those bonuses.

“This bill ought to slow down, and we ought to think about the ramifications of what we are doing,” said Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Why the change?

The big picture reason is a reluctance to use tax laws as such a micro form of punishment.

The more practical reason comes from the other big news of the day - Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner laying out the administration's Toxic Assets Plan, Part 2, in which the administration would partner with the private sector to buy the bad loans that have crippled the economy.

The worry: Would private investors be wary of doing business with the government if strings were attached to behavior outside the purchase of bad assets?

It's a legitimate concern, given the tendency toward very public legislative finger pointing during this recession. But this week, pragmatism - and potentially, the economy - are winning out.

Your Morning Edge:

When times are tough, Americans turn to sugar, the New York Times reports.

Obama's administration is full of great minds, but he may need a couple more great talkers, the L.A. Times writes.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Squeeze Poll: How many paychecks could you miss?

We wrote this morning about half of Americans reporting they could pay their bills for only a month if they lost their jobs. More than a quarter said they could last just two weeks.

Financial planners recommend keeping three to six months' pay stashed away - perhaps a couple months more in this tight job market.

Our question of the day for you: How long could you pay bills if you lost your job tomorrow?

Answer the poll over to your right. Come back here and tell us: Are you among the 56 percent of Americans who have been spooked by the recession into saving more?

Charlotte's housing market: still sagging, more active, or both?

Is Charlotte's housing market starting to stir - or are we merely seeing some annual warmer weather activity?

There are no comparable local figures to match the encouraging news today that existing homes sales rose unexpectedly across the country in February. But there's one small indicator that the market here might be getting more active.

First, the national news: The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes grew 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January. It was the largest sales jump since July 2003. Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.45 million units.

A caution: The figures do not represent a year-over-year increase from last February, which some industry experts feel is a more accurate indicator of housing health.

The most recent Charlotte MLS numbers, which include new home sales, also show a slight increase in closings from January to February - 1,258 to 1,348 - but that January-to-February rise has happened every year since 2003.

A glass-half-empty perspective: The number of Charlotte-area home closings in February 2008 was 2,179. That's a 38-percent drop from last year to this year.

A glass-almost-empty perspective: Average sales price dropped 15.5 percent both nationally and locally from January to February, as buyers took advantage of deep discounts and foreclosure sales.

So what's the encouraging news? Internet real estate search site Trulia.com says the total number of property views in Charlotte has doubled from February 2008 to February 2009. (Trulia doesn't release exact figures.)

Trulia spokesman Ken Shuman says Charlotte moved from the 24th most popular city in search volume a year ago to 19th last month.

We'll have a better idea soon if interest translates to sales here. Charlotte's MLS figures for March will be released in 2-3 weeks.

Are more men buying American?

Are American men more inclined to buy patriotic when shopping for clothes?

We're skeptical.

A new Women's Wear Daily article says so, however. In it, apparel retailers and vendors are convinced that a "wave of nationalism" will prompt men to check out the labels of the clothes they're purchasing.

(We'll pause while some spouses chuckle at the placement of "men," "clothes," and "purchasing" in the same sentence.)

The article notes several retailers and apparel makers who believe that the flag on the tag will help position them better in the minds of consumers. There are no numbers, however, to back up those assertions.

We asked our favorite consumer behavior expert - UNC Charlotte marketing professor James Oakley - what he thought.

"The patriotism component won't help if the product is of lesser quality, or if the quality is equal, but the price is higher," he says. "Especially during an economic downturn, consumers won't pay extra for something that doesn't add specific value to the purchase."

Oakley says it's too early to measure if "made in America" is making a difference - but even if it does, he doesn't suspect it will be a lasting consumer behavior, regardless of the product.

"All things equal, the patriotism component may play an integral part in the decision process, but on its own, it won't have much of an impact," he says. "It's certainly not helping GM, Ford, or Chrysler right now."

Are you "buying American" more now?

The Rainy Day Question

How many paychecks can your bank statement afford to miss?

Two surveys this past week showed half of Americans are unprepared should their rainy day arrive.

In a monthly Discover U.S. Spending Survey, more than 43 percent said they can only last a month or less maintaining their current lifestyle if they suddenly lost their income. Only 21 percent said they had enough reserves to last six months or more.

A MetLife study showed a similar state of unreadiness - 50% of Americans with only a one-month money cushion, or less, if they were to lose their job. About 28% said they couldn't last more than two weeks.

Those with stout paychecks aren't immune. Of respondents making more than $100,000, 29 percent say they'd be unable to pay the bills after more than a month of unemployment.

Financial planners have recommended keeping three to six months' expenses set aside - three months if you have a two-income family and six if only one income. But with the job market so weak right now, five to eight months is better.

There's a good news/bad news byproduct here: Americans who still have jobs have been spooked by the recession into saving more. While only 30% say they're cutting back on non-essentials such as dining out and vacations, 56% said they are doing so to prepare themselves should bad job news arrive.

This sudden tilt toward thriftiness, if it lasts, is a good sign for our long-term financial health. It's not such good news at the moment for the economy, which has long thrived on our willingness to spend. Even if it's more than we should.

How many paychecks could you miss? Tell us if you're less ready - or more - than you were a year ago.


President Obama is optimistic on the economy. The GOP - not so much, reports the New York Times.

What do the corporate giants really think of your opinion? The Washington Post explores.

CNN reports the market is ready to rally at the news of the Toxic Assets Plan, Part 2.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Squeeze is on assignment

We'll be back Monday.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama to banks: Show us - every month - how much you're lending

(Updated below with new lending numbers for January)

The Obama administration is seeking to address one of the largest frustrations with his (and George Bush's) bailout plans - that they haven't prompted banks to lend enough money.

Officials announced Monday that the 21 largest banks receiving government money must report monthly on how much lending they do to small businesses, the Associated Press is reporting.

All other banks getting taxpayer help are being asked to report quarterly on small business loans. Even banks that are not taking government funds are being told by the administration to “make an extra effort” to increase small business lending.

The nudge - or perhaps, shove - is part of a larger proposal designed to help small businesses, which Obama called “one of the biggest drivers of employment that we have” this morning.

Reports the AP:

Obama said he pressed his economic team to specifically help owners of small businesses and get credit flowing to them again, and he called the newest initiatives only a first step.

The measures includes $730 million from the stimulus plan to immediately reduce small-business lending fees and to increase the government guarantee on some Small Business Administration loans to 90 percent. The government also is taking aggressive steps to boost bank liquidity with up to $15 billion aimed at unfreezing the secondary credit market.

Often primary bank lenders will seek to sell the SBA loans in the secondary market, allowing them to use the proceeds of the sale to make new loans to other small business owners, but skittish investors have been staying away. Under the administration's initiative, the government will step in to buy these loans to help unlock the frozen credit market, using money from the recently passed bailout package in the range of $10 billion to $20 billion, one official briefed on the plan said.

While the SBA typically guarantees $20 billion in loans annually, new lending this year is on track to fall below $10 billion, according to the administration.

(Updated: 6:35 p.m. - More evidence of the problem, from the Treasury Department.

In monthly report today, Treasury said that lending to businesses from the top banks getting bailout funds fell in January despite the billions of dollars the banks received in government support, the AP reported.

Lending on regular business loans and on business loans backed by real estate both declined in January, compared to December. The findings were based on reports filed by the top 21 recipients of rescue money from the government's $700 billion financial bailout fund.

The report attributed the decline in loans banks made to businesses in January to weakening demand on the part of businesses, reflecting the dismal economy.)

Boosting workplace morale ... with karaoke?

Many of us - including our bosses - know that the biggest morale booster we could get at work is the promise of a secure paycheck.

But with layoffs and reduced benefits weighing on workers, some companies are trying to improve morale - sometimes with a microphone, writes the News & Observer's Alan Wolf today.

The efforts include trying harder to communicate and answer workers' questions, including on a weekly interoffice video.

Then there is karaoke:

At iContact, the recent addition of "Karaoke Fridays" is one way the Durham technology company hopes to keep employees excited about coming to work. The company, which provides e-mail marketing services, is still expanding despite the downturn.

"You hear all the stuff about the stock market, job losses," said Taylor Barr, who helped organize the singing with co-worker James Wong.

"This is a great way to boost morale. It gets people smiling."

The company also holds monthly employee lunches, has free bagels on Mondays and organizes trips to Carolina Hurricanes hockey games and other sporting events. The perks are another way to attract and retain top talent.

The karaoke singing at noon on Fridays is broadcast live online so that workers still at their desks can watch, too.

"It definitely alleviates tension, gives you a sense of camaraderie with your co-workers," said Julie Frye Sanders, a marketing manager who sang "Love Shack" and several other tunes during a recent Friday session.

Tell us how your company is trying to improve morale - and if it's working.

The confident, quiet majority

An Observer colleague suggested recently that The Squeeze try reporting economic statistics with a twist. Reverse the numbers, he said. Tell what's going right.

If 12 percent of us are at least one month late on our mortgage, that means 88 percent are paying on time each month. If 9 percent of us are unemployed, then more than nine out of every 10 have a job.

What do you think?

Certainly, the danger in the approach is that it doesn't acknowledge deviation from normal - there are more people now who have lost their incomes, more people who fear they won't make their next mortgage payments. But the point of reversing the numbers is valid: It's important to note that a vast majority of us are not going to lose our jobs and homes.

Last Friday, in our very unscientific Squeeze poll, we asked how long you thought you'd have to work before retiring. The winning answer, by far, was "Before age 67" (the year of full Social Security benefits.) We were, admittedly, surprised at the optimism. Should we be?

News is often, by its nature, an exercise of reporting what's going wrong with our lives. It's an old journalism adage that you'd be uninterested in the thousands of successful takeoffs and landings that go on each day at our airports. We tell you about the unusual - the flights that have a hitch.

The danger with recession journalism is that in telling you stories about very real lost jobs and thinning retirement accounts, we contribute to consumer fear, which leads to spending paralysis, which heightens economic misery. It's the biggest complaint that comes into The Squeeze: You're making things worse.

The flip side is that when good news becomes unusual, we leap to report that as well.

By recession standards, last week was one of those weeks. Retail reports were surprisingly encouraging. Same with earnings reports. Stocks rallied.

Last Friday, a Consumer Index survey by respected pollster Rasmussen showed Americans are more confident today than at any point since the economy became starkly worse last November.

Optimism, experts say, is half the battle in beating the economic downturn. (Stabilizing the banks is the other chore). When consumers feel comfortable enough to spend, they'll start spending, which will stir housing and manufacturing, which will create jobs. Believing things are better is the best way for things to get better.

Sunday's Washington Post asked three "wise men" their thoughts on the economy and market. The most optimistic financial expert noted that we've had 11 recessions since World War II - and 11 recoveries. The least optimistic said that we would not be making the profits on our investments that we are accustomed to. He did not, however, say that we would not be making profits on our investments.

The message: We will be fine, eventually.

We want to hear from those of you who feel the same. Are you optimistic for the short or long term? Tell us why.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Susie's story: "The chance of a lifetime"

Susie Kirsch has lived in Charlotte for a little more than two years with her husband, a daughter, and now a new baby girl. Her husband had a stable marketing job. Susie worked for a non-profit. Like so many here and elsewhere, they thought they were safe from the recession.

Susie told you her story here last month - how her husband went into his yearly evaluation hoping for a raise, but left without a job.

"I, too, fear for my job security, as the non-profit I work for is primarily government funded," she said then. "What will we do if I get laid off?

We've been bringing you stories from around Charlotte, voices that speak to the struggles and successes you'll find throughout our city. Tell us your story, too.

Here's Susie's update:

I have returned to work following my maternity leave, and my husband is now well on his way to learning how to be a stay-at-home dad to our 2-month-old daughter. It's a job that I think he has found to be the hardest of all his fancy professional titles. We now call him 'Daddy Day Care.'

I find that I can relate a lot with Laurie's story of the new norm. It is what plays out in our household every morning. I'm up early getting ready for work, preparing lunches and carting our oldest daughter off to school. She doesn't mind the change one bit and is still too young to truly understand why daddy stays home in his jeans and sweatshirts all day, so we don't have to deal with any questions that we might not have known how to answer.

Before my husband’s layoff, I would leave the house before anyone else had woken for the day and take the long commute up I-77 to my office. I did this so that I could leave early and get my daughter from school and we could have a nice afternoon together. She now spends her mornings with me, and her afternoons with daddy, and at the end of the day my husband and I see the silver lining in this all.

What once was him coming home late and barely seeing the kids is now his time to bond and create a special relationship with them both. For him, this is a chance in a lifetime, and our daughters will never forget it. I guess that is one way to look at a layoff - chance of a lifetime. A chance to reevaluate careers, priorities and what is most important in life.

Maybe this economic downturn serves a greater purpose, a possible paradigm shift from "keeping up with the Joneses" to "the hell with the Joneses - they are the ones that got us here in the first place!"

Don't get me wrong, I used to love the Joneses. I honestly wanted to be one. I longed for a fancy car and a big beautiful house with a three-car garage, granite countertops and a flat screen TV I couldn’t afford. Now, I find myself annoyed with the Mercedes and BMWs that pass me on the roads and the mansions I drive past on my way home (especially when I see a foreclosure sign on one).

It is no longer a glance of longing, envy or jealousy, but now a look of "Really? Do you really need that? Can you really afford it?" and by afford I don’t mean a seven-year car loan, or subprime loan.

As a nation, we’ve maxed ourselves out to try and one up another, to put on this front of success, wealth, happiness, perfection. Can we say greed and gluttony? What has happened to human decency and honesty? I guess that went out the window when executives started getting paid more money than any one human being is worth, selling their souls to the corporate devil.

I think that this life experience has taught my family what is really important. Our Golden Parachute, if you will, is each other. We work hard every day to try and find the positives in our situation. While I won't lie, some days prove to be a lot more difficult than others, I have two beautiful daughters to smile at and they always smile back despite the number of zeros on my paycheck or the labels on my clothing. (Well, the 2 month old is still learning to smile back at me!)

To all the men out there finding themselves in this same situation - wives off to work while you man the domestic fort - I commend you. It is not an easy job. But just remember, although you may have been laid off and feel like your manhood has been diminished from what it once was, being a good father and husband is more manly then a chubby paycheck.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Squeeze Poll: When do you expect to retire?

We wrote earlier today about Americans' net household worth plummeting, and how that likely is influencing the way we see our retirement years (if we see them happening at all.)

Our Squeeze Poll: Do you expect to retire at 67 years old - the age the Social Security Administration offers full benefits? Do you believe that you need to work later than 67 to save enough money to live comfortably? Or do you expect never to stop working?

Cast your vote in the poll over to your right - and explain why here.

Last night's poll results:

With the news that the producer of Sesame Street is cutting 20 percent of its staff, we wanted to know which character you would let go.

The landslide winner: Abby Cadabby, the newest and, apparently, least popular resident of the Street. Abby received 71 percent of the votes. Elmo finished second with 8 percent, although we suspect his total would have increased had the poll included audio clips.

Laurie's story: "Their father will be employed again"

Last November, Laurie Reid's husband came home from work without a job for the next day.

How do they shield their children from the stress of losing their household's only income?

The Reids, parents of two, have lived a comfortable but not extravagant life in Charlotte for 20 years. Now, with thoughtful candor, Laurie faces the strain and challenges her family is confronting.

We've been bringing you Laurie's story weekly - along with others from around Charlotte. They are voices that speak to the different challenges that you'll find throughout our city. We want to hear your stories of struggles and successes, too.

Writes Laurie:

We have settled into a new norm at our house since my husband was laid off. When the alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., he heads for the shower, the kids wake up and ready themselves for school and I pack lunches and shout orders. When all of our chores are done, we assemble into the kitchen for a quick breakfast before my husband whisks the kids off to the bus, just as he has done every day for the past 7 years.

The difference is that now instead of going to work directly from the bus stop, he comes home. And instead of wearing a pair of pressed khakis and a starched button down shirt, he sports a pair of worn jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt. We've settled into this new routine rather nicely. And nobody, except for my dry cleaner, seems to miss the old gig. It's the new norm at our house and the dry cleaner will just have to get used to it.

One morning shortly after he was laid off, my husband had an early meeting with outplacement services. Instead of dressing in his new uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, he dressed in the uniform of not-so-long-ago: a pair of pressed brown slacks and a light blue button-down. I knew about his appointment, in fact, I put my stamp of approval on the outfit (another of my morning duties). But my daughter didn't know about my husband’s plan and as she got dressed and made her bed, she must have sensed that something was different.

I was in the hallway when she approached me. She had a worried look on her face and her enormous brown eyes were as big as I had ever seen them. They get that way when she sees or hears something that she shouldn't see or hear. She came very close, leaned up against me with her back towards my bedroom door where her father was putting the finishing touches on his outfit and whispered, "Um, Mom, why is Dad getting dressed for work?"

I glanced over at my husband and then back to my daughter and knew immediately what she was trying to say, "Dad is losing his mind and has forgotten that he is unemployed. Do something. Quick." She's seen this type of bizarre behavior in movies and read about it in books, and now she thought she was living it first hand.

To be honest, she might have expected this type of outlandish behavior from me, but certainly not from her father who has always been of sound mind and body. I realize that my first reaction should have been to reassure her that her father was not losing his mind, but instead, I collapsed into a fit of laughter at which time her eyes grew even larger. I quickly regained my composure and convinced her that he was not going crazy, he simply had an early morning meeting and was dressing the part. She let out a sigh of relief.

People keep asking me how our children are dealing with the fact that their father is unemployed. I am happy to report that they are doing just fine. It's not as if we've stopped feeding them 3 meals a day or moved them up to the attic so that we can take in borders.

Kidding aside, I realize that this is a tremendous change in our lives and a crisis like this can be very stressful. So far, my husband and I are keeping the stress to ourselves and not sharing it with the kids. I know that the experts would tell me that I can’t possibly hide stress from my kids; children are perceptive. And yes, we’ve had several frank and open discussions with the both of them.

They know that we are cutting back (read: no spring break trip, no week at the beach this summer) but it didn’t come as a shock because we taught them at an early age that money doesn’t grow on trees. They don’t need to know what’s happened to our 401(k). They do need to know that their father will be employed again. They know this and they know that there is no room for doom and gloom at our house.

Hopefully, those pressed khakis and button-down oxford shirts will be making their way out of the closet more and more often over the next couple of months. If that’s the case, we'll have yet another new norm to contend with at our house. I anxiously await that day, as does my dry cleaner.

The recession and your heart

The stories aren't hard to find. A relatively young, relatively healthy young man suffers a heart attack. The patient had lost his job not long before, or worked for a company that was shedding jobs. A recession-linked coronary event?

Stress - both emotional and psychological - has long been shown to have a correlation to cardiovascular disease. But the recession is threatening heart health in more indirect, insidious ways, says Dr. Tom Barringer, medical director at Presbyterian Novant Health and Wellness.

People often react in risky ways to emotional and financial strain, Barringer says. Their diet deteriorates. They drink more, get in more accidents, and stop taking medication.

Also, their bodies change. "There are nervous system changes such as heart rate variability," he says. "There are hormonal changes such as increased cortisol levels." The latter makes blood platelets stickier and more likely to aggregate, increasing risk of blockage.

Stress also has a profound chemical effect on the brain, which drives our vital signs, including heart rate.

But the risk Barringer is confronting more often is financial: Patients are worried about being able to afford treatments and critical medication. "We have more and more people saying, 'I can't stay on this anymore," he says.

Barringer recommends that males 45 and older and females 55 and older with at least one risk factor - high cholesterol, overweight, smoker, or family history of heart disease - get one of several specialized tests that can give doctors a look at arteries and potential risk for heart attacks.

Those tests, which include the coronary calcium score and other artery imaging, often run between $150-$300 - a small price for such critical information.

But, he says: "In the past number of years, I've never gotten the pushback on those tests that I've gotten now."

(Update, 5:28 p.m. - Barringer checks in with some proactive heart advice:

"Given the current financially stressful environment, it is more important than ever to use counter-stress measures daily, which include getting enough sleep, planning 30 minutes of some sort of enjoyable physical activity most days of the week (such as walking with a friend or spouse), paying attention to what you are eating and, lastly, taking some time each day for personal pleasures, whether is it reading or listening to music. All of these things have been shown to lessen some of the negative physiological changes we see in stress.")

How long will you be working?

Most Americans don't remember a day when there was no retirement age - official or perceived. Are we headed toward a new shift in the way we think about retirement?

The Federal Reserve announced yesterday that the net worth of American households fell by the largest amount last quarter since the Fed began tracking the statistic more than a half-century ago. For most Americans, that comes in the form of retirement accounts.

The Fed said Thursday that household net worth dropped by a record 9 percent in 2008's October-December period, compared to the previous quarter. The agency's records go back to 1951.

Drops in home values were a contributor to the loss in net worth, but the biggest dent in the family balance sheet came from stock market losses, which the Fed estimated slashed Americans' stock holdings by 23.2 percent.

Now, more of us are expecting to work longer to make up the differences.

More than 70 years ago, the U.S. Committee on Economic Security proposed age 65 as the retirement age under Social Security - although many Americans, especially farmers, kept right on working. That retirement age has crept up a couple of years as the Social Security Administration has tried to save money by delaying benefits, and those benefits might continue to diminish.

Now, more than half of Americans - 54 percent - believe they'll have to delay retirement at least one year past the age of 67, according to a survey from retirement planning consultant Sun-Life Financial, which is tracking American sentiment about retirement.

A quarter of Americans now think they'll have to work at least five years longer.

Will early or leisurely retirements become a relic - except for the most affluent among us? Tell us what you think. How long do you plan to work, and why?

Your Morning Edge:

The financial news was not as bad as analysts expected yesterday, which was enough to send markets soaring, the New York Times reports. Analysts have short-term skepticism, however.

Beginning today at 10 a.m and through Monday, you can purchase Blumenthal Performing Arts Center tickets with no service fee. The CarolinaTix ticketing system operated by the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center will waive service fees on all events on sale on the system during this four-day period.

This includes tickets for all the Center's own engagements, including the national tours of Broadway hits.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Downsize Me Elmo

Some bad news and - if you dare - some end-of-the-day levity.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street,” is cutting 20 percent of its workforce because of the recession, Bloomberg reported today.

The New York-based company said it eliminated 67 of 355 staff positions. “Sesame Street,” featuring characters such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, has been on the air since 1969 and is the most widely viewed children’s TV show in the world, according to the producers.

Our question for you: If you got to make the call, which Sesame Street character would get laid off? Which one would absolutely be safe?

An informal poll of Squeeze associates from around Charlotte prompted varied (and surprisingly passionate) answers. Among the leaders: Bert ("unable to complete tasks assigned to him"); Cookie Monster ("crummy attitude"); and Elmo, just because.

The clear winner: newest character Abby Cadabby. "Last one in, first one out," said more than one respondent.

Very safe: The Count ("He's the number cruncher.")

Take a breather from the gloom. Cast your votes here or over to the right. 

"It's getting different out there"

Two months ago, Christine and Gregg Fellmann regularly sat for days without a customer coming through the door of The Tile Experience, their store in Matthews.

Now, they're seeing about a five a week - still not great, but enough to have them encouraged.

"We have customers just walking in," Christine said earlier today. "People are inquiring. It's a good sign."

Today, the Commerce Department reported that sales at U.S. retailers in February fell less than forecast, and that January’s gain was almost double the previous estimate - numbers that may show stabilization in one of the economy's key indicators.

Purchases in February decreased by 0.1 percent, led by the slump in demand for cars, but still less than the 0.5 percent drop that was expected. Excluding automobiles, sales unexpectedly climbed 0.7 percent.

Christine Fellman is seeing it. We told you last month about she and Gregg, who are among the many small business owners who saw traffic wither last year. They also will be the first to see signs of improvement, to make a little money, hire some workers, and show us we're headed toward something better.

Gregg, a tile installer for 26 years, moved to Charlotte 10 years ago and saw his business grow to 10 employees. Now, it's just two - he and Christine - hustling hard for customers the same way they did when he was starting on his own.

"I think it's getting different out there," says Christine. "I think people are starting to get their tax checks back."

Economists are mixed on what the retail sales reports mean. Some believe rising unemployment - a new and sobering report today - and falling home and stock values will soon drag sales figures back down again until at least late 2009.

Others wonder if this second straight encouraging month might be signaling the beginning of an eventual improvement in the economy. "We have changed our thinking based on these numbers," Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics with Moody's Economy.com, told CNN today. Hoyt said that a half-year stretch of sales declines could reverse by the end of the year.

Christine Fellmann knows only this: They are surviving.

"People seem less scared," she says. "The phones are ringing. That's what's important."

Buy My House, part 2: Saving, but not saving

We have, in this space, applauded the many ways folks are getting ahead of these difficult times by reexamining their budgets - and their lives - for savings.

Sometimes, it doesn't work out quite the way we intend.

Like many homeowners in Charlotte, the Squeeze household is confronting a stagnant housing market and difficult choices. Last week, we began helping you navigate those issues by telling you the story of one house. My house.

(Our promise: We won't exploit this very public venue for any actual deal-making.)

Our story is a familiar one in Charlotte. We purchased our home in the University area in late 2004. Our mortgage was a five-year adjustable rate, and today we are less than a year from that adjustment, facing a decision to bear the expense of refinancing or take a chance and put the house on the market (risking a future refinance.) Thanks to readers for some good discussion on the possibilities. An update is coming soon.

Meanwhile, there's some primping needed on our home - including the countertops, which were once a sprightly white, but no more. They also were laminate countertops, which a Realtor friend suggested put us at a disadvantage against other homes in Charlotte.

Granite countertops, however, are not inexpensive, so after receiving the estimate and negotiating a free sink, I wondered if there was any other way to lower the price.

"You could tear out the old countertops," the salesperson suggested. The savings: $250.

This seemed doable. When we purchased the house, I'd torn out some hardwood flooring that needed to be replaced. I also once delivered and installed appliances for a summer job. I consider myself handy ... enough.

So, armed with a hammer and reciprocating saw (yes, I had to look that up), I went at the surprisingly compliant countertops. Soon enough, I was alone with a cast iron sink to move. I nudged it to check the weight. The garage was only 20 feet away...

I'm proud to say I've recently completed my last physical therapy appointment. I had 10 overall - a fairly quick rehabilitation for a herniated disc. That was the diagnosis after going mano a mano with the cast iron sink.

The cost of that diagnosis and treatment? Let's just say it dwarfs my do-it-yourself countertop discount.

The lessons here? Several. Don't overestimate your abilities, first of all. But also, especially in these difficult times, make sure your savings efforts actually result in savings.

Have you ever tried to save money - on a home improvement or anything else - only to have it backfire?

Tell us about it.

Vincent is a truly bad writer...

At least when he tries to be. He is a Squeeze reader and the winner of our Bad Financial Writing contest.

Last week, as a fun breather from dire financial news, we asked you to send us the most overwrought, awful financial writing you could produce. Vincent, who is from Charlotte and asked us not to use his last name, lived nicely down to the task.

Here's his winning entry:

"Floating round and round with the push of each handle bestowed upon us by a novice in office, refusing to go down any less, refusing to rise any more. This recession hangs around our necks like a drunken sailor on Elizabeth Taylor’s waist, when it was a waist Bernard Schwartz could hang onto. Set in a gorgeously dreamed of if not self actuated Rockwellian depiction of Skynet proportions, fed to grow on the pillars of minutely propped socialist indicators of soothsayism. Which have been too busy to be noticed setting up the pins on the bowling alley of our existence for our own worse, enemy …ourselves, and our foes abroad to gather up in block party fashion to roll down the lane balls bigger than we have ever seen. Great big crushing, socioeconomically eviscerating ones trademarked with the symbols of our frustrating societal greed and blindness. 
Nay there is not enough Charmin for this bottom, but it sure do make (NYSE: PG) a heck of a buy."

Whew. That kind of bad takes work. (We hope.) 

Second place goes to Charlotte's Terry Maskin, who delivered a fine blend of prose and standup:

"How sick is this economy? It's sicker than a dog after it's got hold of a bad piece of fish on a hot day in July during a typhoid outbreak. And did I mention that the dog's already got rabies? And the fish was the only remaining asset in your company's 401(k) plan?

If this market were a teenage Country singer, it would be singing, "Teardrops on My Portfolio".
On a one-to-ten scale, it's ugly out there. I mean this market's just going to take its clammy, slimy, sweaty hands and grab you by the throat and tell you that it wants your socks and your shoes and your dental floss---and it's not going to leave until you make it some breakfast."

Third to New Bern's Ben Bomar, formerly of Charlotte, for his most painful stretching of a metaphor:

"Have you ever been frustrated when Christmas shopping? Exactly. Or, did you ever witness your mom get frustrated when she was Christmas shopping and you were a kid? That’s even more like it. She’s got a last minute list of must-have presents and it’s 4:50pm on Christmas Eve. She’s yelling and screaming about needing to buy the presents, but what’s really the problem is that she can’t decide if it’s better to cruise the parking lot looking for a spot up close to the mall entrance, or just suck it up and take the open space on the far end of the lot. Don’t you feel that same way about our current situation? I know I do.

It’s time for our leaders in Washington to either suck it up and begin the long march to the mall, or to decide they are not going to do anything until the option closest to the goal (in this case the mall entrance and a healthy economy) is available. Either way, it’s better than being yelled at while sitting in the back seat."

Thanks to all for playing. Now, back to the real, awful stuff...