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Teri Bernstein, MBA, CPA has been teaching full time in the Business Department of Santa Monica College since 1985.  Prior to that, she worked in Internal Audit and Special Financial Projects for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, CBS, Inc., and Coopers & Lybrand (which is now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers).  She attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.


  • Nothing is safe: Heartbleed coding flaw breaks encrypted financial transactions

    image from businessinsider.com How much of a problem is the Heartbleed coding mistake that endangered every encrypted financial transaction? According to Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and security consultant: " I've been saying that on a scale of one to 10, this is an 11 ." There are public policy issues that are arising with respect to Heartbleed ( i.e .the NSA and other security organizations have known about the vulnerability, and have most likely taken advantage of it--without informing citizens and consumers). But, like many business problems--fixing the blame and finding those who abetted the crime does not help the "victims"--which are the millions of us who have been using online banking and retailing sites over the last few years. What do we do about this? The basic advice is: Don't change your password until you are sure the site has fixed its vulnerability problem; and DO change your password for every single institution with which you transact online business. Although it may seem daunting to make a list of all of the sites with which you have done business, and systematically go through them one by one to change the password--that hassle pales in comparison to dealing with identity theft once it has occurred. Make sure you don't forget to change your passwords on Google, Facebook and Yahoo--who have already admitted that they were affected by Heartbleed. They have already fixed the flaw on their side. Some institutions have said that the flaw did not affect them, but others have claimed the issue was "industry-wide" with respect to banking institutions. But if you have used the same password on more than one site--if your password was used on a vulnerable site, it is out there and can be tapped to invade your identity on sites that said they were safe. Sources: " Flaw Calls for Altering Passwords, Experts Say ," by Molly Wood, the New York Times , April 9, 2014. F ollow up: Have you changed your password for Google, Facebook, and/or Yahoo yet? If not, why not? Have any institutions informed you that their site was vulnerable? Have they encouraged (or required) you to change your password? What was the procedure like? How long did it take? Share your experience with others and encourage them to protect their identities as well.
  • Social media manipulates General Motors' reputation

    [View:http://community.cengage.com/GECResource/themes/gew/ utility/ :550:0] Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors talking to her employees about the vehicle recall in a recent video If video does not appear above, see link to video here . "Damage control" looks different in the modern age of social networking. General Motors' recent problems with the ignition switches of several of its vehicles has created a public relations problem. GM's response has utilized social media on at least three fronts. First, a video--supposedly a speech to GM employees--is available in the public domain. Second--the Facebook page of GM is responding to customer issues--maybe not always successfully: image from www.nytimes.com Third, GM is at least listening in to Twitter complaints...and responding. One Alaskan mother, Lauren Munhoven, tweeted a complaint. GM listened and helped her with her Saturn Ion by paying the ferry cost to get her car fixed, and getting her a rental car. Munhoven posted her thanks on Twitter. GM is also using old school methods of snail-mail notices of recalls, and call centers to help with customer problems. I found it quite compelling that part of the message was that the cars were safe to drive IF there were no other items attached to the keys--like no key ring. These apparently could be bumped or could weight the ignition switch in a way that the problems ensued. The mixed message--that there is an ignition problem but that the customer might be partly to blame because they use a key ring--might not be the best message to be putting out to the public. In this modern age of social media, customers who are outraged can "flame" GM's service--that is, negatively report their experience to as many others as might be tantalized by the customer message. It remains to be seen how this plays out in GM sales. By the way, there is another Facebook page called GM Recall Survivors . From what I've read on it, it seems more to be about those who have not survived. Source: " G.M. Uses Social Media to Manage Customers and Its Reputation ," by Vindu Goel, New York Times , March 23, 2013. Follow up: What effect would a text message from GM Customer Care have on your confidence level if you were a Cobalt owner? Evaluate Mary Barra's video as a communication vehicle to GM employees, and as as public relations piece "spinning" the defective part debacle.
  • Long-term care insurance hikes rates 90%

    image from www.planaheadny.com The above chart represents nursing home costs increases, which are probably at the root of the rate hikes charged by private insurers. If you are a student, you are probably more interested in the health-care options of Obamacare than in long term care insurance. But because your parents are more likely to be drawing on long term health insurance, its cost and viability might be of some concern to you. The main "bright line" of sustainability and fairness separates the positions on long term care along the same line as it does on general health care: Does the private insurance marketplace provide better coverage per dollar, or would a government-sponsored "single payer" plan be better? One couple with private long-term insurance, provided by John Hancock, was recently informed that their premiums would almost double from last year to this year: Up to $3,714.38 for the husband and $4,642.97 for the wife. On a percentage basis, this represents a 90% rate increase. Nothing has changed about the couple themselves, but the marketplace of nursing care costs and the possibility of future claims has caused the insurance company to hike the rates. To put it more clearly: this couple, the Holtzmans, have been paying premiums for 10 years. They have never made a claim. Still, their premiums have increased this much. " This seems unconcionable ," Holtzman said. Would this happen with single-payer, government-sponsored insurance? Probably not. We have not seen these kinds of spikes in Medicare insurance payments, and that is the currently operative single-payer plan that is in place in the U.S. What does this mean in terms of risk management on an individual level? Source: " Feeling ill effects of private long-term care insurance ," by David Lazarus, The Los Angeles Times , March 25, 2014. Follow up: Would you buy long term care insurance? Do you want your parents to be covered by this insurance, or are you willing to take over their care if they become disabled for a long period of time?
  • Walmart's tax subsidies hurt taxpayers

    When a corporation publishes its annual financial report, they include income statements, balance sheets, statements of cash flow, other financial statement data, and footnotes to the financial statements. The footnotes are part of what used to be called "full disclosure," but is now referred to as "adequate disclosure." Wal-Mart's annual report for 2013 was forced to disclose factors beyond their control that could "materially affect financial performance." These included, " changes in the amount of payment made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) and other public assistance plans (and) changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans ." In other words, if public assistance plans to its employees were to be eliminated, Wal-Mart would either lose those employees, or have to pay them more to be able to afford food and housing without government assistance. This would decrease Wal-Mart profits. In other words, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Wal-Mart stockholders. "SNAP" is known in casual language as "food stamps," and the program has recently been reduced by Congress. $90 per month per family was cut in January...and $29 per month had already been cut in November 2013. Not only are many Wal-Mart employees subsidized by food stamp programs, many Wal-Mart shoppers get food stamps, so this cut in food stamps could mean a cut in revenue from this population. It is interesting to note that these cuts are so large that they might "materially" affect net revenues for Wal-Mart. How much has the American taxpayer been subsidizing Wal-Mart? / Source: " How Walmart Exploits Taxpayers ," by Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times , March 26, 2014. Follow up: Research what income levels make an individual, and a family of four, eligible for food stamps.
  • Unpaid Internships cartoon: Not Funny

    part of a graphic story by Matt Bors, published by Upworthy Here is another story about unpaid internships. It seems as though unpaid internships have gotten out of hand. In 1992, 17% of post-college positions were unpaid; now it is 50%. Many interns do work that for-profit businesses usually need to pay people to do. They are profiting from unpaid labor. The argument made by corporations (and sometimes college counselors) is that an unpaid internship can lead to a job. But, check out these statistics: worked an unpaid internship....and got a job: 37% did NO internship....and got a job: 35% worked a PAID internship...and got a job: 63% So, it looks as though the employers willing to pay are more willing to employ. An organization now working to end unpaid internships is FairPay Campaign . Source: " Half Of Interns Are Victims Of This Illegal Act After College. It's Really Not OK .," by Matt Bors, edited by Joseph Lamour, Upworthy , posted on Facebook , March, 2014. Follow up: What is the elephant in the room regarding economic class and unpaid internships? What are the far-reaching consequences of the increase in unpaid internships related to this issue?
  • Borrowing money from your boss...good idea or bad?

    image from blog.financialsecurity.org Let's say you have an sudden financial crisis. Your car needs an unexpected, major repair...or your dog needs a few thousand dollars worth of surgery--and you don't have the cash. If you can't reasonably take on (additional) credit card debt, if you don't have family members to ask, or you don't have a major asset such as a house to borrow against, where can you turn for a loan? Well, there's the "workplace loan." At first glance, it might seem like a good idea. Get a cash advance from your employer and pay it back as a payroll deduction. The "messy" part of setting up the loan contract can now be handled by middlemen, such as Think Finance's product called " elastic ." Through this vehicle, loans of $200 to $1000 can be made...with a fee of 5% of the loan amount, plus interest. Another company, FairLoan , offers a similar service...at interest rates ranging from 18% to 30% plus a 5% loan origination fee. This sounds pretty pricey to me. The set-up is starting to remind me of historical " company towns ," where employees seemed to be taken care of by companies that built housing around coal mines or factories and provided stores and short term credit. But what resulted over time were employees that became so indebted to their employers that they could not move or take any stand against company policy. Also, the employer controls the interest rate and fees. The only other source of emergency loans for those with limited credit resources is the " payday lender ," which often charges up to 300% on an annual basis. image from forums.debtcc.com Source: " Take Out A Loan--From Your Employer ," by Gigi Douban, Marketplace American Public Media, March 21, 2014. Follow up: What is a "payday loan"? What are the pros and cons of this type of loan? What unforeseen consequences might be the result of an employee owing money to its employer, in terms of workplace events? How can a third-party facilitating the loan mitigate these possible consequences?
  • Toyota criminal penalties: Are fines a real punishment? Why isn't Toyota in jail?

    image (of a Prius that had accelerated to 90 mph on a mountain road) from the Colorado State Patrol, published in the Los Angeles Times Toyota recently entered into an agreement to pay a multi-billion dollar settlement as a result of a known problem that caused deaths. The documented problem was that of sudden, unexplained acceleration. Last week, Toyota settled a criminal case brought against it by the Justice Department. Various lawsuits remain, but costs to this point include: $1.6 billion settlement of civil claims in a class-action lawsuit on this issue a $1.2 billion payment to the Justice Department, a criminal penalty, relating to wire fraud issues National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fine, which is capped by law at $35 million an agreement that Toyota will not be allowed to deduct its criminal penalty on its tax returns, which means that the American taxpayer will not lose out because of this settlement Part of the Justice Department agreement also stated that no individual executives will be prosecuted for these injuries and deaths related to the sudden acceleration problem. “The rules of evidence sometimes do not allow you to use certain kinds of evidence and certain documents against individuals, although they might be admissible against the company itself. Although there is an admission that they were individuals who engaged in conduct which provides for a basis to bring a case against the company, they are not charged here,” explained Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York. Toyota can afford these penalties, as its current year profits total about $19 billion. If an individual person had committed these crimes, it is unlikely that they would get off without any jail time. Here are some mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for individuals: Mandatory sentencing guidelines, Federal, from Wikipedia But Toyota is still allowed to operate. Toyota's stockholders continue to make money. According to the doctrine of " Corporate Personhood ," corporations have many of the rights as individuals. But if a corporation has the benefits of a person, should it also not be subject to the same criminal penalties? Source: "T oyota sudden-acceleration suit is ratified ," by Tina Susman and David Hirsch, The Los Angeles Times , March 20, 2014. " Toyota admits deceiving consumers; $1.2-billion penalty is record, " by Jerry Hirsch, The Los Angeles , Times, March 19, 2014. Follow up: What do you think? Is manufacturing a car when you know a defective part will cause deaths a punishable crime? Is it better to charge money penalties or to give the corporation the same penalty a "person" would receive: inability to work for a time period. What are the pros and cons of shutting down a corporation the same way an individual would have his or her business life shut down by incarceration? Should individual executives be prosecuted? Discuss the pros and cons. Comment on the agreement that Toyota cannot deduct its penalties from its taxes. Can individuals deduct fines such as parking tickets on their tax returns? Discuss the reasons for tax deductions and how criminal penalties fit into that logic.
  • Coffee convenience bad for the environment (and expensive)

    image from www.coffeemarvel.com As a committed coffee enthusiast, I periodically pine for a Keurig single-service brewing machine. The problem is, the little cups that that machine requires are not only expensive--they are bad for the environment. Still--the convenience and the visual artistry of it all does speak to me. I have to admit that the first time I tried to use this machine--at a motel--I had no idea how to manage it, and I made every mistake, creating a colossal mess. Now, however, I am an expert, and each morning--as I am either making my pot of home brew or walking the 1/2 a block to my neighborhood coffee house--I fantasize about what it would be like to have one of those splendid little single-brew machines. I'm not alone. In 2008, single-pod coffee sales were $132 million; in 2013, they were $3.1 Billion. But there are issues. First, to properly recycle the remains of the pods means separating the aluminum top, from the plastic pod, from the wet coffee. Do users really do that? Probably not. Moreover, the #7 plastic that almost all of the K-cups are made from is not recyclable. In addition: there are a lot of tiny cups to recycle. To put it in perspective, the 8.3 billion cups produced last year by Green Mountain for Keurig machines would circle the earth more than 10 times. For now, I'm sticking to home-brewed or my Tall red-eye half-caf dark in a personal cup at my local coffee place. Source: " Your Coffee Pods' Dirty Secret ," by Maddie Oatman, Mother Jones , March 19, 2014. Follow up: Make a chart comparing the cost of a cup of coffee, 5 cups, 10 cups, 20 cups, 100 cups and 365 cups brewed vs. K-cup. What can you conclude from this analysis? What are all of the environmental and health issues of these cups, according to the article?
  • China wants U.S. milk

    image from www.trust.org: powdered milk produced by Fonterra, and were part of a bribery scandal. Above is a picture of a shopping aisle in China--fully stocked with powdered milk. In the above photo, however, the milk is being removed because of a bribery scandal involving a foreign company that paid to have its product stocked on these shelves. The market for non-domestic milk product in China is particularly high for two reasons--breastfeeding is unpopular, and the 2008 melamine-tainted Chinese milk that poisoned over 100,000 infants is still on the minds of parents. Responding to this demand are tiny farming towns in the United States. The town of Fallon, Nevada, has built huge processing plants to convert milk into powdered milk for shipping overseas--since shipping to nearby California has been thwarted by "Real Milk from Real California Cows" advertising campaigns. image from Fallon, NV production plant from the article linked below Because U.S. milk consumption has plateaued, the new Chinese market represents a growth opportunity. Source: " China's thirst for milk gives dairy farmers a boost ," by David Pierson, The Los Angeles Times , March 15, 2014. Follow up: What might happen to domestic milk availability and prices as a result of factories being built to process powdered milk for overseas shipment? Is this production and sales system sustainable? Why or why not?
  • Whistleblower gets shafted by agency shift

    from Chris Slane's cartoon portfolio In 2010, the Dodd-Frank law created 10% to 30% rewards for whistleblowers who filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Under this law, a former mortgage underwriter filed a complaint against SunTrust, alleging that SunTrust did not disclose that "tens of billions" worth of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "had fallen outside of the buyers’ quality guidelines." The complaint was filed in 2012, and the SEC did not take direct action on it. Instead, it passed the complaint on to the Justice Department. Under Dodd-Frank, the whistleblower can't collect if the complaint is not resolved within the SEC. Congress probably did not anticipate this loophole when they passed the law. The attorney for the whistleblower is arguing that the Justice Department action is based on the evidence in the original complaint filed with the SEC, but it remains to be seen whether the substance of the whistleblower's actions will be rewarded at all. The intent of the Dodd-Frank legislation was to uncover and prevent events that led up to the financial collapse triggered by over-valued mortgage instruments in 2008, and it seems as though the government got the benefit of the inside knowledge, but has proceeded in a way that will probably side-step the anticipated compensation. Source: " A Whistle That's Lost in the Crowd " by Gretchen Morgenson, New York Times, March 8, 2014. Follow up: Have you ever been in a situation where you witnessed wrongdoing by those who ranked above you at work? Describe the situation and the courses of action you considered. What are the risks associated with being a whistleblower? Are there any rewards other than monetary rewards? Would you bring a complaint to the SEC, knowing what happened in this case? Should Congress take action to amend the law?
  • GM auto defects ignored for years; deaths mounted

    Kelly Ruddy's Chevy Cobalt from the NYT article linked below Here is the problem with several low-to-mid-priced General Motors (GM) cars: suddenly--even at freeway speeds--the car stalls out, totally losing power to the engine, steering, power-assisted brakes, and air bags. When did GM first become aware of these problems? Since 2003 an average of two complaints per month have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) about these random "shut-downs." Who knows how many complaints were lodged with GM, but didn't make it as far as the NHTSA? What was done? Even when former Congressman Barney Frank intervened on consumers' behalf in 2010, the NHSA responded: “ At this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation .” By this time, there had been at least 78 deaths and over 1500 injuries due to the sudden ignition failure problem. The NYT analysis shows that the NHTSA as well as General Motors seemed to ignore data relating to this problem. The vehicle recall now in place involves 1.6 million vehicles. Source: " Auto Regulators Dismissed defect tied to 13 Deaths " by Hilary Stout, Danielle Ivory and Matthew L Wald, New York Times, March 8, 2014. Follow up: With whom does the responsibility for car defects lie? The manufacturer? Government regulators? The consumer who buys the less-than-top-of-the-line car? Who should "pay" for damages and why? Do you think that government regulation takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the manufacturer? When a manufacturer becomes aware of a defect, what communication, financial, production, and legal procedures should kick into place? Are the issues only "civil" or are they possibly "criminal"?
  • Foreign shoppers in the United States

    image from internetretailer.com When American shoppers choose to shop in one state vs another--it is probably only the tax rate they are looking to get a deal on, as most product prices are similar. Moreover, this price dodge will even out in the end, as state taxes have to be paid in the state the product is going to be USED, anyway. But product prices between countries can change a lot. Here are some examples: Slingbox 350 : When it goes on sale in Mexico it will cost $75 more than it costs in the U.S. This is possibly because of the way things are taxed, but also because there is less competition among electronics dealers in Mexico. Apple computers : These can cost $500 more in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. And iPads can cost $160 more. Car tires : Black Friday sales on car tires brought Canadians over the border for bargains. Adobe software : According to the article it is " cheaper to fly to the U.S. and back to buy Adobe's software than it is to buy it in Australia" Some products, such as Photoshop, cost $1700 more overseas. Middlemen try to create other buying opportunities for foreigners: image from info.opas.com Source: " Why Foreign Consumers Shop In the U.S, " by Jeff Tyler, Marketplace Morning Report on American Public Media , March 7, 2014. Follow up: What products are cheaper for Americans overseas? What international laws may be violated in some of the travel-and purchase transactions? Can the workarounds be justified ethically?
  • Bank Fraud and Seniors

    image from www.exploitationelderly.com A study done by the Pew Research Center and evaluated by Go Banking Rates has determined that senior citizens are not getting the discounts available to others or advertised as being available for them. In addition, they are being exploited in other ways by banks, primarily through excessive fees or unneeded services. For example, a $25 account maintenance fee was established at one bank for accounts with balances under $1500. For seniors, however, a balance of $5,000 had to be maintained to avoid this fee. I recently had a questionable experience with a bank I will call "Seaside Bank" in Florida. In the course of their dealings with my step-parents (who are ailing and aged 83 and 94), the bank told my parents "someone" had been writing improper checks out of their account, pressured my parents to fire their attorney of more than 20 years, and attempted to have my parents assign check-writing authority to the bank's designee, which was going to cost "a pretty penny" according to my stepfather. But when clear action was taken in defense of these seniors, the bank was quick to back down. This perhaps provides a cautionary tale to those who might be laissez-faire regarding oversight of bank transactions. Source: " Study: More than One Fifth of Banks Ripping off Senior Citizens " by PR Web, PRWeB.com, October 3, 2012. Follow up: Have you ever had a situation where the bank made an error which you found and brought to their attention? How were things resolved? If there was an explanation provided for how the situation arose, what was it? What other demographic group do you think may be targeted by banks for exploitation? Why? How can this be overcome?
  • Substance vs. form: who you are versus how you look

    image from www.bubblews.com Which is more important: Who you ARE? or How you LOOK? What you CAN do? or What other people THINK you can do? Whether personal gain influences the decisions you make for others? or Whether it looks as though you could benefit financially from the decisions you make for others? In the current social environment of Twitter and Instagram--where one picture or fewer than 140 characters can communicate information in isolation--without context or the opportunity for rebuttal or additional information, it seems as though "form" may have the upper hand. One bad review on Yelp can unfairly effect the reputation and revenue stream of a restaurant. When it comes to making life choices--about where to live, what to own, who to hang out with, and where to work--form and substance can guide your decision-making process in very different ways. Choices based on how things look to others might bring you a different kind of security of satisfaction than choices based on how you feel and what is important to you--regardless of the opinions of others. According to Peter Vadja , " Substance is the inner you. Substance is your true, authentic self. It's the 'you' who shows up with the conscious intention of doing and being the very best you can be in every area of your life... Substance focuses on truth-telling, not elaborate stories, rationalizations and excuses for avoiding the truth. Substance focuses on integrity, not tap-dancing around honesty, sincerity and self-responsibility. Substance focuses on conscious self-management, not on controlling others ." Peter Vadja is the author of " Becoming a Better You: Who You Are vs. Who You Think You Are ." The issue of substance vs. form also arises in accounting and auditing relationships and in determining whether certain investments are properly held when political figures are part of decisions that affect the profit margins of companies in which investments may be held. Source: " Substance vs. Form, " by Peter Vadja, Management Issues.com, October 21, 2013. Follow up: Pick an arena (for example--choosing a person to "date"--but don't pick this one, pick your own). What factors influence your choice of who to "date" in substance? What factors influence your choice in form? (That is, how does the person look to you and to others.) How do you decide which to value? How do issues of form and substance affect hiring decisions? What about discrimination issue, in various Human Resources decisions? How do issues of form and substance affect performance reviews and management decisions?
  • Blackfish: whistleblowing ethics and animal welfare

    image from www.examiner.com What do the bands Heart, Willie Nelson, and Barenaked Ladies have in common? It seems that all of them have dropped out of commitments to play at SeaWorld due to the " Blackfish " scandal. Animal welfare is a hot-button topic that can polarize fans and radically influence events. If you aren't up on this particular scandal, here are the particulars: "Blackfish" is a documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite , that is critical of the treatment of whales in captivity. It is currently available on Netflix . Controversy surrounding the leaking of documents relating to the 2010 fatal attack by a killer whale named Tilikum on Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer, is a major part of the current issue. SeaWorld has pursued an aggressive campaign to deny harm to killer whales in captivity and to block certain OSHA officers from oversight of their facilities while the whole issue is under review. According to the NYT article, " Whether the film and a subsequent debate about the propriety of orca captivity have taken a toll on SeaWorld’s business — a publicly traded company with a stock market value of more than $3 billion — remains an open question ." Whether relevant or not..."Blackfish"--once considered a contender for the 2013 Best Documentary Oscar--was not nominated. It seems that SeaWorld's pushback against what may or may not have been unfair ethical complaints has had some influence in at least the small community of Academy voters. It remains to be seen what effects accusations--true or untrue--may have on the SeaWorld business model for years to come. Source: " Seaworld Questions Ethics of Blackfish Investigator ," by Michael Cieply, New York Times, February 28, 2014. Follow up: What effect do animal rights issues have on you and your business decisions? Do you eat meat? Wear fur? Wear leather shoes or belts? How do these issues affect your peer group? Are there any broader issues that influence your decisions? What are your thoughts about misplaced indignation and the effects it can have on legitimate business operations? What should the penalties, if any, be for this type of breach? What should the standards of proof or business harm be for damages? Have you seen "Blackfish"? What are your thoughts?
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