Archive for July, 2008

Zen Krystal 4GB music player

July 19, 2008

Creative’s Zen Krystal sports an onboard pedometer

Jul 18, 2008

This one slipped through the cracks and appeared on Creative’s Hong Kong Web site out of nowhere. While we are still awaiting more availability and pricing details for the Zen Krystal from Creative Singapore, the information posted on the site clearly shows that it’s aimed at sports enthusiasts with its minimalistic yet lightweight design (57 x 37 x 10.8mm; 22g). Which smacks of the company’s earlier Zen Stone Plus with speakers (53.6 x 35.4 x 12.8mm; 18.5).

What’s unique and probably a first for Creative is the built-in pedometer, which allows users to track their workout regime, much like the Nike+iPod Sports Kit. The Zen Krystal also features a stopwatch function, onboard motion-sensing games, FM radio, voice recorder, and promises up to 10 hours of music playback with its built-in rechargeable battery. It comes with 4GB of storage space and a 0.7-inch blue OLED display.

According to the Creative HK Web site, the Zen Krystal is bundled with a pouch, wrist strap with lens cleaning cloth, earphones, USB cable and Quick Start leaflet. It will retail for about HK$698 (US$89.51), which puts it on par with the Zen Stone Plus (with built-in speaker) in terms of pricing.

Laws on the Job

July 6, 2008
5 Lifestyle Activities That Can Get You Fire

Can having a bacon double cheeseburger and a cigarette put your job at risk? Maybe. It may sound surprising, but many off-the-job actions and lifestyles could put your job in jeopardy.

Fair Game?

Employment experts point out five key areas that a company may scrutinize:

  • Smoking, drinking, and overeating. Due to the cost of health insurance, more and more employers view “unhealthy” habits as a threat to their bottom line.
  • Risky behavior. Likewise, a company might see your bungee jumping hobby as a liability.
  • Speech. Will your employer consider your blogging to be destructive griping?
  • Romantic relationships. Dating someone at a competitor’s company has landed employees in hot water. And some employers might take issue with unmarried coupling or even same-sex relationships (federal law doesn’t protect employees from discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation).
  • Political activity. Volunteering for Obama could be trouble if you have a pro-McCain boss, and vice versa.

Job- or industry-specific behaviors can lead to termination as well. A Ford worker who drives a Toyota is probably safe — unless he or she is president of Ford. But a bank employee who bounces a personal check could get the boot.

Cause or Just Because

If these reasons for termination seem unfair, they must be illegal, right? Not necessarily. Just because most employers don’t let valued employees loose for off-the-job activities and lifestyles, doesn’t mean they can’t.

“Most workers in the private sector don’t understand that, unless they live in Montana and Arizona, their job is at-will,” Paul Secunda, an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, told Yahoo! HotJobs. “At-will means an employee can be fired for good cause or no cause at all,” Secunda said.

Federal job protections include gender, race, religion, and national origin, as well as disability. “Some state laws forbid discrimination on other bases, including sexual orientation, or status as a smoker,” said Rick Bales, a professor at Northern Kentucky University/Chase College of Law. Smokers in the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, for example, are safe from termination, he said.

Don’t Be Fooled

Although union members and public sector (government) workers generally have more protections, employees in the private sector — the bulk of the U.S. workforce — can be fired at any time, and usually without recourse.

“Unless you were fired because you are a member of a protected class under federal law, or under another state statute, it’s likely not illegal,” said Kimberly Malerba, an associate who litigates employment cases with Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., a law firm on Long Island, New York.

The good news is that most companies don’t go out of their way to snoop into employees’ lives, Malerba told Yahoo HotJobs. “A company is most concerned with (off-the-job) behaviors that directly conflict with business interests.”

5 Tips to Consider

Legal experts have advice for protecting your job from unexpected dangers:

  • Understand the concept of at-will employment. Don’t assume that termination must be illegal just because you think it was unfair.
  • Be fully aware of your company’s policies and terms of employment. Read the employee handbook, and ask HR if you have any questions.
  • Be familiar with the company’s internal dispute mechanisms (if any) for filing grievances.
  • Think before you act. Could your employer see your actions off the job as potentially destructive to the company?
  • Don’t disclose. “You don’t have to disclose lifestyle choices or off-the-clock activities unless there is a clear link to your ability to perform the job,” Secunda said.

“My general advice is, don’t do anything on your own time that, if reported in the local paper, would reflect poorly on you or your employer,” Bales told Yahoo! HotJobs.

Oil Price

July 6, 2008
What is keeping oil prices so high?

Despite an emerging global consensus that oil prices are dangerously high, there seems little chance of the cost of oil falling significantly in the near future.

Analysts say measures agreed at Sunday’s crisis summit in Jeddah are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on market trends.

But what is keeping prices close to record levels of almost $140 a barrel?

WEAK US DOLLAR

  • The sharp jump in prices since 2005 has coincided with the plunge in the value of the dollar against other leading currencies
  • Dollar weakness encourages financial investors to look for other more lucrative investment opportunities, with oil top of their list
  • As oil is traded in dollars, it also makes it cheaper to buy
  • Signs the US economy may be on the brink of recession have undermined the dollar, boosting prices. Prices rose $11 on a single day last month when the unemployment rate rose

SUPPLY CONCERNS

  • Analysts say growth in global supplies is worryingly failing to keep pace with growth in demand
  • Supplies from countries such as Russia are thought to have peaked and finding new sources of oil is difficult and expensive
  • Increasing reliance on members of the Middle-East dominated oil producers group Opec, many of which are already pumping as much oil as they can
  • Saudi Arabia is one of few countries with spare capacity but it has been reluctant to boost output substantially

DEMAND GROWTH

  • Global thirst for oil is intense. Demand has risen by about 3 million barrels a day since 2005 and is expected to rise by 32 million barrels a day in the next two decades
  • The US remains the world’s largest oil consumer and high individual fuel usage continues to put pressure on crude stockpiles
  • Fast-growing China and India are forecast to account for 40% of the growth in oil demand by 2030, as industry grows and demand for travel increases

POLITICAL INSTABILITY

  • Much of the world’s oil is concentrated in volatile regions, leading to fears of frequent and unpredictable disruptions to supplies
  • Despite oil output being at a six-year high, Iraq is still beset by violence while militant groups in Nigeria’s main oil-producing region have recently impeded about a quarter of its output
  • Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme. There are fears that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations could trigger a wider conflict and threaten traffic through the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, used to ship 40% of the world’s oil.

MARKET SPECULATION

  • Oil exporters say the price surge cannot be explained by the fundamental ratio of supply to demand and point their fingers at market speculators
  • It is claimed that some traders are making huge amounts of money betting on the direction of prices, in turn forcing prices higher
  • Others maintain that traders are simply hedging their investments against future market developments to reduce risk
  • US regulators are looking for evidence of market manipulation while the IMF is examining the role of traders in the price spike

Retirement

July 6, 2008

Your Retirement Checklist

Planning for retirement is a lifelong process. Whether you’re just starting to invest or you’re well into your working years, this checklist can serve as a starting point to help prepare you for this important financial goal.

Before You Start

  • Understand your likely retirement income needs by calculating an updated retirement savings goal.
  • Take a fresh look at the investments you currently hold in your retirement account(s).
  • Consider your ability to tolerate investment risk, keeping in mind that long-term performance potential may compensate for short-term risk potential.
  • Ask your employer which payout options will be available to you when it’s time to withdraw your retirement savings plan assets.

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Your Retirement Checklist

What does an artist and someone planning for his or her later years have in common? Each visualizes their final objective, but the process is fluid. Although your situation is unique, there are basic elements you can use to sketch an effective retirement plan.
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Pointers for the Accumulation Phase

An important action you can take is to determine your retirement needs. This task involves identifying your potential retirement expenses, as well as estimating the amount you might receive from each potential source of retirement income (Social Security, pensions, personal investments, and employment earnings).

Doing this calculation will give you an idea of how much you may need to finance a comfortable retirement. Don’t be surprised if the numbers add up to be a large sum — after all, this money may need to support you for 20 or 30 years. Fortunately, there are ways to leverage your dollars.

Starting early and contributing as much as possible to employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs may help you to potentially accumulate more money. Why? Because investing in these tax-advantaged accounts means your money will work harder for you. The longer the money sits untouched, the more it can potentially compound.

Another vital step: Determine an appropriate asset allocation — how you divide your money among stocks, bonds, and cash — for your portfolio. This should be based on your financial goals, tolerance for investment risk, and time horizon. Be aware that your asset allocation will need to be adjusted periodically in response to major market moves or life changes.

Once you’re nearing retirement, it will also be necessary to craft a solid plan for distribution of your assets. For example, do you know one of the greatest risks that retirees face? The possibility of outliving their money, according to the Society of Actuaries.

That’s why it’s essential to determine an appropriate annual withdrawal rate. This amount will be based on your overall assets, the estimated length of your retirement, an assumed annual rate of inflation, and how much your investments might earn each year.

Another consideration: After age 70 1/2, you’ll have to begin making an annual withdrawal from some tax-deferred retirement accounts (known as a required minimum distribution), including traditional IRAs. Preparing for this phase ahead of time may help reduce your tax burden — especially if your annual RMD may push you into a higher tax bracket.

Likewise, this is the time to make sure your final wishes are accurately documented and estate strategies are well underway to minimize your heirs’ tax burden. As you can see, planning for the different phases of retirement is a lifelong process. Following is a list that can help you along the way.
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Retirement Planning Checklist

Find the category that best describes you. After answering the questions, bring the list to a qualified financial professional who can help make sure your retirement plan is on target.

Saving for Retirement
1. Have you performed a comprehensive retirement needs calculation?

2. Are you contributing enough to potentially reach your financial goal within your desired time frame, by maximizing contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts, such as your employer-sponsored retirement plan and an IRA?

3. Is your asset allocation aligned with your retirement goal, risk tolerance, and time horizon?

4. Have you determined if you might benefit from contributing to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

5. Do you review your retirement portfolio each year and rebalance your asset allocation if necessary?

Nearing Retirement
1. Do you know the payout options available to you (e.g., annuity or lump sum) with your employer-sponsored retirement account, and have you reviewed the pros and cons of each option?

2. Have you considered your health insurance options, (i.e., Medicare and various Medigap supplemental plans or employer-sponsored health insurance), out-of-pocket medical expenses, and other related health care costs?

3. Have you contacted Social Security to make sure your benefit statement and relevant personal information are accurate?

4. Should you purchase long-term care insurance? If so, have you investigated which benefits are desirable?

5. Is your asset allocation properly adjusted to reflect your need to begin drawing income from your portfolio soon?

6. Have you determined an appropriate withdrawal rate of your assets to help ensure that your retirement money might last 20, 30, or more years?

7. Have you figured the amount of your annual required minimum distribution (RMD) and developed a strategy to reduce your tax burden once you’re required to begin taking RMDs?

8. Have you appointed a health care proxy and durable power of attorney to take charge of your health and financial affairs if you are unable to do so?

9. Have you reviewed all your financial and legal documents to make sure beneficiaries are up-to-date?

10. Are you making effective use of estate planning tools (such as trusts or a gifting strategy) that could reduce your taxable estate and pass along more assets to your heirs while also benefiting you now?
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Summary

  • Planning for retirement is a lifelong process. Determining your retirement needs by identifying your potential retirement expenses and sources of retirement income is an important step.
  • Starting to invest early for retirement and contributing as much as possible to tax-advantaged employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs are two ways to leverage your retirement dollars.
  • Determining an appropriate asset allocation — how you divide your money among stocks, bonds, and cash — is a time-tested strategy for helping you pursue your financial goal.
  • It’s essential to determine an appropriate annual withdrawal rate of your assets during retirement so you don’t outlive your money.
  • After age 70 1/2, you must begin making an annual required minimum distribution from certain tax-deferred retirement accounts. Preparing for this phase ahead of time may help reduce your tax burden.
  • Developing an appropriate estate plan is the important final stage of crafting an effective retirement plan.

Checklist

  • Try to accumulate enough emergency savings and insurance coverage so that you can address unexpected financial crises without spending money earmarked for retirement.
  • Update beneficiary designations on all retirement accounts and other financial paperwork.
  • Consider changing the date of your retirement if it would make it easier to retire with enough money for the future.
  • Rebalance your retirement account’s asset allocation if necessary.

Saving Money

July 6, 2008

SAVING MONEY

When economic times turn tough, governments urge their citizens to spend. Economists think of citizens as “consumers” and rely on them to put their “disposable income” to work. By doing this they will support the economy, which translates into higher stock prices.

However, in times like early 2008, when consumers were reeling from the perfect storm of inflation, a global credit crunch, a global housing market in decline and concerns about stagflation, there is often a conflict with the governmental cry for consumers to spend. It’s a bewildering scenario. What’s the best course of action for a concerned consumer to take? The following strategies provide a road map for surviving economic downturns.

1. Don’t Buy What You Can’t Afford

We all want that designer sweater, leather handbag, or cute sports car, but most of us just can’t afford to make the purchases. There’s a simple solution to this dilemma. If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. This is often the easiest point to understand, but it is one of the hardest to implement when all those goodies are staring you in the face and all your credit companies are telling you it’s OK.

2. If You Can’t Pay Cash, You Probably Can’t Afford It

In our credit crazy world, amassing debt no longer carries a social stigma. Everybody has a car payment, a house payment and credit card payments. Well, remember what your mother said about everybody jumping off of a bridge? Just because “everybody” is doing it, doesn’t make it a good idea. Buying something you can’t afford now, especially when the economy is unsettled, can double the pain of paying later. For example, if you purchase a $450,000 home today and the market goes into a slump and devalues your home by $200,000, you will be paying the bank twice what the home has come to be worth. Just because it was easy to get the credit to buy that home, doesn’t mean it was the right time for you to buy in.

3. Paying Interest on Anything Makes Somebody Else Rich

When you pay interest on a purchase, you are overpaying for that item for the luxury of getting to use it now. The simple act of paying interest means that the price you are paying to make the purchase is greater than the sale price of the item. You are giving away even more of your hard-earned money in order to own that item than the manufacturer thought the item was worth. For example, if you buy a car for $25,000 with a loan at 7% interest for five years, in the end, you will pay almost $30,000 for the car. Once you factor in depreciation, you’re left with a very cheap car that cost you thousands more than it should have.

4. If You Are in Debt, stop Spending Money

Sometimes, such as when purchasing a home, the cost of the item is so great that you simply cannot afford to pay cash. This should be the exception rather than the rule. When it cannot be avoided, you need to close your purse and stop spending. Getting yourself further it debt doesn’t help your financial situation. Making a realistic budget in this case is the key to success. Once you know how much you’re actually spending on those daily trips to the grocery store and coffee shop, you’ll be able to find room to cut costs realistically.

5. Don’t Count on Somebody Else to Save You

In times of economic uncertainty, people often think the government will be able to help them, but unfortunately this is often the time when the government has the least amount of money and freedom to help its own citizens. In most cases, the government won’t save you, so you’ll have to save yourself. When the economy is in a downturn, you can’t just look at what you are spending, you also need to look at where the money is coming from. Your employer is facing the same difficulties you are: trying to make bill payments, balancing the flow of capital, all while sales are slowing. Just like you, your employer will be looking to reduce its costs, which could be in the form of layoffs. You could be in big trouble if you haven’t planned for this possibility. The plan here is to start saving now for that eventual rainy day, and prepare an emergency fund for yourself. If it is too late to start saving and you already need the money, many financial institutions will let you defer a payment or two if you prove you have a smart financial plan to eventually pull through.

When People Don’t Spend

But wait! If we’re all hanging on to our money rather than feeding the economy, what will happen? Will stock prices plummet? Will economic growth grind to a halt? Will we all be poor? No. For a real world example of this, let’s take a look at Japan, where saving more than consuming has been commonplace in its people’s history.

While being a net lender is a concept that the West abandoned some time after World War II, it continued to be practiced in Japan. During the mid-1970s, Reuters reports that Japanese consumers saved some 20% of their disposable incomes. During Japan’s economic slump in the 1990s, the Nikkei 225 fell from a peak of 39,000 in 1989 to 16,000 in 1992. Gross domestic product growth averaged less than 1% per year, but personal savings remained in the double digits. Although the unemployment rate rose from less than 2.5% in 1990 to just under 5% in 2000, with an average of 3% percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it still remained lower than the rate in most industrialized nations. The net result? Japan remained a healthy, vibrant, wealthy country with a poorly performing stock market. If you’ve got savings and a smart financial plan, a weak market won’t break you.

Live Now Like You Face Tough Times

These five strategies work equally well when times are good, so there is no need to wait until you are in trouble to start making smart decisions.Your lifestyle will be characterized by things you can actually afford, such as a house that won’t get repossessed, a car that might not impress the neighbors but will still get you to work and back, and long, restful nights free from financial worries. It might not be the fairytale lifestyle of the rich and famous that corporate marketers having been trying sell you, but at least you won’t have to worry about how to keep up on the payments for a lifestyle you can’t afford.