"I am ready to put my money where my mouth is." -- George Soros, billionaire investor, on his donations to Democratic groups in the hope of unseating President Bush in 2004 There's nothing like purchasing power to draw tourists. The Commerce Dept. says travel to the U.S. will rise 5% this year, to 42 million visitors. That's below 51 million in 2000, but better than the past three years, when tourism was hurt by September 11, SARS, and the Iraq war. "The weaker dollar has made the U.S. one of the cheapest holiday options," says Keith Smith, manager of Uniglobe Star Travel in Bromley, England.
There are signs of a nascent rebound. Delta (DAL), Continental (CAL), and American Airlines (AMR) had sharp gains in overseas traffic in December. Royal Caribbean's Europe-based bookings for transatlantic travel rose 70% over last year. And in November, Hawaii saw its first increase in Japanese tourists in a year. Seems "cheap dollar" translates pretty well. The Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuits against online song swappers are aggressive, but do they work? Two widely cited surveys seemed to show that legal action was chilling file-sharing. In December, a telephone survey by the Pew Internet Project of 1,358 U.S. Net users found music down-loading had dropped by half since May. In November, comScore Media Metrix, monitoring 120,000 U.S. users, saw big yearly declines at four file-sharing services.
Trouble is, those surveys are too narrow. BayTSP, which tracks the number of songs available for down-load worldwide, sees just a 10% drop since July. It also notes steady migration from older, virus-ridden programs for file-swapping like KaZaA to hipper ones such as eDonkey and Bit Torrent -- both of which are absent from comScore's tally. BigChampagne, which monitors millions of global file swappers, actually sees a 35% increase in illegal traffic from 2002 to 2003. Given the broader research of BayTSP and BigChampagne, "they're going to have more accurate empirical data," says John Palfrey of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
The RIAA would not comment on the surveys but says its own studies show increased awareness of the lawsuits "and the conse-quences." Maybe so. Yet it seems piracy is still going strong. At last year's Super Bowl, more than 200 people had to be turned away because they had mistakenly purchased bogus tickets. Each year, forgery "seems to grow a little more," says Jim Steeg, who has organized 24 previous championship games for the NFL. But this year, fans will have an obvious fraud indicator: The tickets are printed on glow-in-the-dark paper. The luminescent paper, made by Brightec, based in Wellesley Hills, Mass., is the newest of more than a dozen antifraud measures on the tickets.
It's not just football fans who may soon be using paper to light their way in the dark. Brightec founder and CEO Patrick Planche hopes the upcoming Super Bowl will be a "launching pad" for his paper, which he would like to see used for decorative CD covers, night lights, and bumper stickers. Planche also plans to sell the paper directly to consumers through retailers. Brightec paper, which needs only five minutes' exposure to ambient light to charge, purports to be 10 times as bright as run-of-the-mill glow products. And the glowing effect is long-lived: Planche says the Super Bowl tickets will shine even 20 years from now. No guarantee that the actual game will be as memorable. A recent job posting on Microsoft's Web site lists skills applicants should have to work as the product manager for a soon-to-appear online music service. The ad also notes: "A prior conviction will not necessarily disqualify you from employment." Microsoft says it's standard language. But a search turns up only 138 mentions of this disclaimer in 2,314 Microsoft listings. The company won't say why it's in the ad. Labor lawyer Steven Swirsky says if companies run background checks, they should be upfront and tell applicants that legal run-ins won't exclude them. It's unclear what sort of conviction would be acceptable. Antitrust violations? The mutual-fund scandal has been a boon for exchange-traded funds. ETFs, which are baskets of securities that track indexes but trade like stocks, grew to $211 billion last year, up from $142 billion in 2002. Even money managers are buying them: 1,336 were in ETFs by mid-2003, up from 448 in June of 2000, says Morgan Stanley.
ETFs have high appeal. Since they trade all day, they can't fall prey to after-hours trading schemes. ETFs also have no redemption penalties or marketing fees -- so more goes in your pocket. Like a hired gun in an old Western, Robert "Steve" Miller Jr. comes to town just long enough to restore order. Since retiring as Chrysler vice-chairman in 1992, Miller has run over a half-dozen faltering companies, such as Morrison Knudsen, Waste Management (WMI), and Bethlehem Steel (ISG). On Jan. 12, he took over bankrupt auto-parts maker Federal-Mogul as nonexecutive chairman. A director and twice the interim CEO, he'll help the company settle its asbestos liabilities.
That may cut into Miller's time for his favorite hobby: building a model railroad. Miller, 62, and his wife, Maggie, are working on a 2,500-square-foot railroad and village in the basement of their Sunriver (Ore.) house. After eight years, they're about 25% done. At that rate, they may never finish unless Miller stays retired. "I'm not desperate to work," he insists. Still, Maggie keeps the linens packed for the next move. The railroad, however, stays put no matter where Miller's jobs take him. In what may be a sign of things to come, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina will unveil an "à la carte" health insurance plan this spring. Dubbed the Freedom Account, it will let policyholders tailor plans to suit their anticipated needs.
How will it work? A 24-year-old in good health could put together a plan with a high deductible for hospitalization but a low deductible for routine doctor visits. Someone who rarely visits a doctor but thinks knee surgery may be looming could choose a higher co-pay for office visits but more coverage for surgery.
Blue Cross says the plan lets employers control costs by allocating a set amount of money for each employee. Workers decide whether they want to pay for more comprehensive coverage through payroll deductions -- or whether they'd rather put that money toward deductibles and co-pays. "This is what consumers expressed a need for," says Robert Greczyn Jr., CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, which started offering the plan to its own employees on Jan. 1. And may-be, just maybe, this approach will help companies get rising health-care costs under control.