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State Prosecutors Push Congress To Examine Herbal Supplement Industry

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Attorneys general from 14 states are calling on Congress to investigate the herbal supplements industry following a report from New York’s top prosecutor that alleged many products contained ingredients that were not listed on their labels and that could pose serious health risks.

The group, led by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, asked Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration more authority to oversee the industry.

“We believe the safety and efficacy of these supplements is a matter of deep public concern across the country. We therefore urge you to take swift action,” the attorneys general said in a letter Thursday to lawmakers.

In February, Schneiderman sent letters to General Nutrition Corp., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Walgreen Co., demanding that they stop selling their store-brand herbal supplements.

His office alleged that 79 percent of products tested from the four retailers had no DNA of the plants listed on the labels or were contaminated by wheat, pine, rice, beans, and other materials.

Schneiderman’s testing method — DNA bar-coding — was criticized by the supplement industry and outside experts.

In a settlement Monday, Schneiderman’s office cleared GNC to sell some of its most popular products, including echinacea, ginseng, and St. John’s Wort.

State investigators found “no evidence” that GNC had deviated from Food and Drug Administration standards or from standard industry practice in producing the supplements, according to a letter Schneiderman sent to GNC’s chairman, Michael Archbold.

However, the two sides continued to disagree on whether federal rules, which don’t require DNA-based testing to authenticate herbal supplements, are sufficient.

GNC said its own testing had shown that its store-brand herbal supplements were “safe, pure” and “properly labeled.”

But GNC said it agreed to expand testing, including the use of DNA bar-coding, to give customers “even greater confidence.”

Photo: Heather Bauer via Flickr

Jobless Claims Hit 15-Year Low

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In a positive sign for the labor market, initial claims for jobless benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in 15 years, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Applications for unemployment benefits fell 43,000 to 265,000 for the week ended Jan. 24, according to the report. Analysts had expected filings to come in at 300,000, according to FactSet.

However, the sharp drop came during a shortened week that included Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Holidays can skew the weekly numbers, because people have less opportunity to apply because of the closure of state offices.

Even without a holiday, the week-to-week reports can be volatile.

The four-week moving average for jobless claims, which smooths some of that volatility, fell 8,250 to 298,500 — a level that indicates the job market is strong.

The U.S. added the most new jobs last year since 1999. And Federal Reserve officials said Wednesday that the economy was growing at a “solid pace,” an improvement from their assessment last month of “moderate” expansion.

AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan

Jobless Claims Drop As Economy Strengthens

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Initial jobless claims fell more than expected last week, underscoring an improved labor market.

First-time applications for unemployment benefits fell 6,000 from the previous week to 289,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists had expected claims for the week ended Dec. 13 to be 293,000, according to FactSet.

After a slow start to the year, the economy is now on pace to create the most new jobs since 1999. In November, the U.S. added 321,000 jobs, the largest gain in nearly three years.

Jobless claims now hover at 2000 levels.

The less-volatile four-week moving average for claims fell 750 to 298,750.

AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan

Business Groups Cheer Obama’s Move To Normalize Cuba Relations

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

President Barack Obama’s decision to start normalizing relations with Cuba gives American business a fresh opportunity on an island once known as a travel hub for the U.S. jet set.

The policy changes, which may foreshadow the end of a half-century of gridlock, could benefit a litany of industries, chief among them banking, finance, technology and telecommunication.

U.S. financial institutions will be able to open accounts at their Cuban counterparts. U.S. travelers can use their debit and credit cards, instead of stacks of cash. And businesses can expand their exports of software and telecommunication systems.

Business groups cheered the changes.

“We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue said.

Telecom companies will be allowed to establish infrastructure to enable phone and Internet service.

The market is almost entirely untapped: Only about 5 percent of the Cuban population has access to the Internet, according to the White House. As of last year, there were only about 18 cellphone subscriptions per 100 Cubans, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

The administration also seeks to boost travel to an island that, before the Cuban Revolution, was a destination for American travelers and gamblers. The U.S. already allows Americans to visit the communist island for 12 specific purposes — including education, humanitarian projects, family visits and professional research — but that travel will be expanded and made easier under new agreements.

And as long as Americans visit Cuba legally, they can now bring back $400 worth of goods. That includes cigars, although alcohol and tobacco imports will be capped at a combined $100.

Agriculture exports also will be streamlined, a move hailed by California farm interests.

“This is something we long supported,” said Josh Rolph, a trade specialist with the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We stand to gain quite a bit.”

Major restrictions remain, however. Americans still can’t visit for tourism, and only Congress can lift the decades-old embargo, which was installed shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and imposed authoritarian rule.

The implications for the financial sector are also far from clear.

Major institutions with large operations in Latin America, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc., declined to comment.

Edmund R. Miller, a senior managing partner for Pan American Finance — a boutique investment bank in Miami with extensive experience around Latin America — expressed skepticism that the new policy would bring a radical opening of the regime on an economic level.

“Normalizing relations is great,” he said, “but I’m not sure that means it’s open for business yet.”

The U.S. could pry that door open wider, however. Obama said he looks forward to “engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

As such, businesses are eyeing what follows. One is General Motors, which could eventually export vehicles to a nation filled with aging relics, including many built in its factories decades ago.

“We’re very encouraged by (the) news,” said GM spokesman James Cain. “We will certainly evaluate any opportunities that may present themselves.”
___

(Times staff writers Jerry Hirsch, Dean Starkman and Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Doug Mills

Wealth Gap Between Whites And Minorities Is Growing, Pew Says

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

An unequal economic recovery has helped create the largest wealth gap between minorities and whites in more than a decade, a new report found.

The gap has grown, as white Americans — who are more likely to own stocks — rode surging financial markets to greater wealth, the Pew Research Center said Friday.

Meanwhile, minorities, hit harder by the housing crash, saw their wealth decline between 2010 and 2013.

The median wealth of white households was 13 times that of black households in 2013, Pew said, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. That is the largest gap since 1989 and compares to a gap of eight times in 2010.

White households had ten times the wealth of Latinos, the widest margin since 2001.

The median wealth of black households fell nearly 34 percent from 2010, reaching $11,000 last year. Latino household wealth dropped 14.3 percent to $13,700.

White households saw a gain. Their median wealth rose 2.4 percent to $141,900.

The homeownership rate for whites fell from 75.3 percent in 2010 to 73.9 percent in 2013. For minorities, it dropped from 50.6 percent to 47.4 percent.

Photo: 401(K) 2012 via Flickr

Apple, FBI Investigate Alleged Theft Of Nude Celebrity Photos

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times

The FBI and Apple Inc. said they were looking into reports that someone stole nude photos of celebrities and posted the racy images online.

The photos, which included several of actress Jennifer Lawrence, circulated on various websites and social media platforms Sunday. A publicist for The Hunger Games star called the published photos a “flagrant violation of privacy.”

The photos first surfaced on the image-based online bulletin board 4chan, according to BuzzFeed.

Apple said Monday in a statement that it was “actively investigating” reports that the photos were stolen from its iCloud service. Apple did not say whether its service, or celebrity iCloud accounts, were breached.

“We take user privacy very seriously,” Apple spokeswoman Nat Kerris said.

The FBI confirmed Monday that it was aware of the hacking allegations and was “addressing the matter.” The agency declined to comment further.

Although Lawrence’s publicist said the photos of the star were stolen, other celebrities, including actress Victoria Justice, said the photos of her were fake.

It remained unclear how the photos were obtained.

In 2012, Christopher Chaney, 36, of Jacksonville, Fla., was sentenced to 10 years in prison for hacking into the email accounts of more than 50 people in the entertainment industry to gain access to nude photos and private information.

Chaney’s victims included Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson and Christina Aguilera.

Chaney admitted taking their email addresses, clicking on the “Forgot your password” feature and then resetting the passwords by correctly answering security questions using information he found by searching the Internet.

AFP Photo/Mike Coppola

Drones At Disneyland? Disney Seeks Patents

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times

On top of Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Aladdin, visitors to Disney theme parks may one day get a glimpse of drones.

Walt Disney Co. appears to have a wish to use unmanned aircraft to produce entertainment shows, according to three recently published patent applications first reported by the blog Stitch Kingdom.

At the moment, aerial shows can be cumbersome and difficult to modify, Disney says in the applications published last week.

The shows may rely on “very complex fountain systems,” fireworks or even blimps dragging large display screens, an application reads. Light shows can also be projected onto buildings, another filing says.

But buildings can’t be moved, fireworks can be dangerous and water can shoot only so high, limiting the size and scope of the shows, the applications say.

Disney’s apparent fix? Drones. What else?

Numerous drones would jet through the sky, carrying “display payloads” to create a “dynamic display,” according to one application.

“Each of these (drones) with its display payload may be thought of as a floating pixel or ‘flixel’ that when combined provides a very large display screen or aerial display that may be three dimensional,” the patent application says.

Another application has a hint of Pinocchio. Drones, the document reads, would pull the strings on marionettes, moving their limbs.

Another patent application says drones would carry flexible, floating projection screens to present “an aerial display over an audience of spectators.”

A representative from Disney could not immediately be reached for comment.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Cigarette Giant Reynolds American In Talks To Acquire Rival Lorillard

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times

Cigarette-maker Reynolds American Inc. said it’s in talks to acquire Lorillard Inc., a deal that would combine the nation’s second- and third-largest tobacco firms.

After months of unconfirmed reports, the two cigarette makers acknowledged the talks Friday. If completed, the deal would create a tobacco behemoth, one with a strong foothold in the increasingly popular electronic cigarette market.

The companies, two of the nation’s oldest, had more than $13 billion in combined sales last year.

Reynolds American, the nation’s second-largest tobacco company, produces the Camel and Pall Mall cigarette brands. Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard owns Newport, the popular menthol brand. And it has a strong presence in e-cigarettes with its blu and Skycig brands.

Reynolds, of Winston-Salem, N.C., also owns the e-cigarette brand Vuse.

The companies said there was no guarantee a deal would be reached.

If they combine, Reynolds, founded in 1875, and Lorillard, in 1760, would likely prove a strong challenger to Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco maker and parent of Philip Morris.

Also on Friday, the United Kingdom’s Imperial Tobacco Group said discussions are underway with Reynolds and Lorillard to acquire some of its brands and assets.

AFP Photo/Daniel Barry

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New-Home Sales Tumble In March; Prices Rise

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times

New home sales plunged in March, another sign the spring home-buying season has started with a whimper.

Sales of recently built single-family homes fell 14.5 percent from February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 384,000, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Sales dropped 13.3 percent compared with March 2013.

The March data missed expectations, after economists predicted an increase from February as the home-buying season got underway.

Many economists blamed severe weather for weak housing data at the beginning of the year. But there’s more behind the recent slowdown, particularly the increasingly high cost of housing.

Many would-be buyers have struggled to adjust after prices surged and mortgage rates increased last year.

New-home sales rose 12.5 percent from February in the Northeast, the only region to see an increase. Sales dropped 16.7 percent in the West, a major home-building region.

The median price for a new house nationwide was $290,000, up from $257,500 a year earlier.

Photo: Dougtone via Flickr

Housing Starts Tumble In January Amid

By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times

New home construction fell sharply in January, as severe weather across much of the country helped freeze development.

Housing starts tumbled 16 percent from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 880,000 last month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Last month’s level was 2 percent lower than in January 2013.

The decline was greater than economists expected. The median forecast of economists polled by Bloomberg News was for annual rate of 950,000 units.

While economists said weather played a role in the poor numbers, there may be more behind the drop.

The housing market has shown signs of weakness lately, as buyers have struggled to adjust to higher prices and mortgage rates compared with a year earlier. Home builders have also said that shortages of labor and ready-to-build lots have held them back.

Building permits, a gauge of future construction, were down 5.4 percent in January from December.

Housing starts fell in all regions, except in the Northeast, where they rose 61.9 percent from December. In the Midwest, starts plunged 67.7 percent. Newly started units fell 17.4 percent in the Western region and 12.5 percent in the South.

Photo: 401(K) 2013 via Flickr