"The world is running out of stupid billionaires." -- GM's Bob Lutz, explaining to the Detroit Free Press why an ultra-luxury Cadillac would cost less than the $300,000 Maybach
Thanks to a new federal law, millions of consumers are getting a free peek at their credit on www.annualcreditreport.com, a Web site set up by the major credit bureaus. But they're also discovering that "free" means dodging pitches for plenty of fee-based services.
The credit bureaus -- Equifax (EFX), Experian, and TransUnion -- were reluctant to simply give away products, explains Norma Garcia, a senior attorney at Consumers Union. The result: The site is easy to navigate, yielding a gratis list of current or delinquent loans, credit-card payments, and so on. But the bureaus also are allowed to offer other services. Choose a free report from Equifax, and up pops a chance to pay $6.95 for your credit score. Click "no thanks," and you get two more paid offers. Experian's sell is a bit softer: After getting your report, up come offers for such services as Triple Alert, which lets you know, for $4.95 a month, if some- one is probing your credit.
The bottom line? Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says most folks don't need the extras and should stick with the no-charge credit report.
Indonesian navy patrol boats on Aug. 27 detained a North Korean-flagged ship off the Riau Islands. The Mount Tioman was carrying more than 18,000 barrels of oil toward China. It was the latest example of rampant smuggling of oil out of Indonesia, a perverse consequence of that nation's heavy subsidies on petroleum products. Refined products sell in Indonesia for about a quarter of global prices; unleaded gas in Jakarta retails for just 25 cents a liter. Smugglers can make huge profits buying locally and reselling elsewhere. In recent weeks nearly a dozen vessels carrying 80,000 bbl. of gas have been detained, half of them sailing to China or North Korea.
Indonesia was Asia's largest oil exporter until six years ago. Today it is a net importer, and production has fallen from 1.6 million bbl. a day to 970,000. Much of the imported oil leaves as quickly as it arrives. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has vowed to punish smugglers and government officials who collude with them. But analysts have a better solution. "The way to stop smuggling is to remove the root cause: the huge subsidies," says Fauzi Ichsan, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Jakarta.
A new web-based business, MoneyGaming.com, offers high-stakes betting and jackpots to players competing in a variety of online games. Just don't call it gambling. Launched last month, Britain's MoneyGaming is one of a growing number of sites offering so-called games of skill such as chess, backgammon, and eight-ball pool as a legal alternative to online gambling. The general rule under U.S. common law is that contests where the element of skill predominates over chance are considered legal gaming. Those involving more luck than skill, including poker, are classified as gambling.
However, unlike other skill-game sites offering cash prizes, such as WorldWinner and Pogo, the look of the MoneyGaming site suggests the online equivalent of an upscale casino. Players deposit up to $1,000 and can win as much as $2,000 in multiplayer games. In games like solitaire, they compete for shares of jackpots as high as $5,000. "It appeals to the online gambler and to people who have never gambled online," explains MoneyGaming CEO Liad Shababo. MoneyGaming has about 200,000 registered participants, he says.
While skill-based games may not violate U.S. law, several states have laws that ban the practice or are unclear enough to warrant caution, says Joseph Kelly, a business law professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and co-editor-in-chief of Gaming Law Review. (MoneyGaming blocks access in eight states.) And a wild card awaits MoneyGaming back home. A new British law may require the company to obtain a license. Shababo expresses confidence that such a possibility would prove "no hindrance whatsoever."
When Armor Holdings' (AH) Centigon unit tested its latest products, they had to survive a roadside bomb blast and a barrage of armor-piercing bullets. Using a new superhard, lightweight steel, the company will upgrade SUVs, sedans, and limos that ferry private contractors and government officials around Iraq and other dangerous places. The price tag: from $100,000 to more than $1 million. Armor Holdings exec Gary Allen says the vehicles will "offer the same protection U.S. military troops are getting" in heavily armored Humvees. It could prove a lucrative niche. "The interest level is huge," says Doug Kennedy, managing partner of Far West Consulting Group.
Dr. Andrew Weil wants to show policymakers and health insurers that preventive medicine is worth their investment. Says Weil, "It's cost effective." To prove his point, the alternative-medicine guru, 63, plans to create a hybrid clinic and spa, the Center for Life In Balance, in Catalina, Ariz., that will apply the techniques outlined in his books -- from anti-inflammatory diets to medicinal plants -- to patients attending the posh Miraval spa. Former AOL chief Steve Case bought a 70% stake in Miraval last February.
Weil, who graduated from Harvard with botany and medical degrees, now practices at the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona at Tucson. "Patients get treated there, but then they go down to the cafeteria and eat fast food," he says. He hopes Miraval visitors will take weeklong stays to engage in "integrative healing." His clinic there will collect health data, which he hopes to use to convince insurers that integrative medicine can pay for itself.
Underage drinking is a problem almost everywhere. That includes Japan, where wine coolers and whiskey can be bought from vending machines. Parental complaints led to a suspension of such sales in that country between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and to newer machines that can check IDs. But minors may be getting mixed messages from the growing popularity of a concoction dubbed Kodomo Biru ("kids' beer").
The brew for the younger set, while made of nonalcoholic fruit juice, comes in dark-brown bottles and pours out like a crisp golden lager with a foamy head. The marketing by soft-drink maker Tomomasu positions Kodomo Biru as a kind of near-beer so that elementary-school kids and women in their 20s who don't like alcohol can be part of the crowd. The Tomomasu Web site shows snapshots of kids quaffing the stuff with the caption: "For those nights when you want to act a little like an adult."
Originally a novelty when it appeared in southwestern Japan five years ago, the brand has spread to restaurants and stores throughout the country. Tomomasu says it can barely keep up with the demand and expects to ship 1 million bottles this year. The shop owner who invented the product and later allowed Tomomasu to license production says he never intended it to be marketed to children.
Kodomo Biru may not be real beer, but it is priced as a premium brew -- a 12-pack gift set (with a complimentary glass mug) goes for about $35. At that price, some kids may decide to stick with plain old soda after all.
More Chinese students are heading to the land of bagpipes and kilts. That coincides with a sharp drop in the number of Chinese studying in the U.S. post-September 11, when visa rules tightened. Chinese coming to U.S. universities are down by 20% since fall, 2001, to 65,000 last year. Meanwhile, Chinese heading for Scotland tripled, to 3,567. Nearly 70% study business, IT, or English for business.
The influx reflects strong business and science programs at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. Also, Scotland welcomes foreigners to stay and work for two years after graduating; the U.S. kicks them out if they can't find a corporate sponsor. The drift is slowing: U.S. grad admissions from other countries are off 5% this fall, after a 28% drop last year. But with foreign tuition and fees bringing in $13 billion, that's still big money going elsewhere.