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    Thursday, May 14, 2009

    Reuters - Obama presses for credit card reform by end of May

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    Obama presses for credit card reform by end of May

    Thursday, May 14, 2009 7:5PM UTC

    RIO RANCHO, New Mexico (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged the U.S. Congress on Thursday to pass a credit card reform bill by the end of May to ban unfair rate increases and end abusive penalties.

    "Enough is enough. It's time for strong, reliable protections for our consumers. It's time for reform that is built on transparency and accountability and mutual responsibility," Obama said at a town hall event at a New Mexico high school.

    Obama said U.S. citizens currently pay about $15 billion in penalty fees each year and nearly half of American families carry a balance on their credit cards. [ID:nN14497166]

    "This is America and we don't begrudge a company's success when that success is based on honest dealings with consumers. But some of these dealings are not honest," he said after being introduced by a woman who had the interest rate on her credit card triple after a mistaken charge.

    "We expect to pay what's fair and not just what fattens growing profits for some credit card company," Obama said.

    "I am calling on Congress to take final action to pass a credit card reform bill that protects American consumers and send it to my desk so that I can sign it into law by Memorial Day," he said.

    The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved credit card legislation last month, while the Senate is still debating its version of the bill. The bill could come up for a vote as soon as on Thursday if senators reach agreement on amendments.

    Obama outlined four principles he said any reform measure should contain -- protection against unfair rate increases and abusive fees, clarity and transparency of terms and conditions, enough information so people can comparison shop, and accountability for abuses by credit card issuers.

    Banks such as Bank of America Corp, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc and Capital One Financial Corp face a new set of Federal Reserve rules aimed at reining in abusive credit card practices set to be implemented by July 2010.

    Some lawmakers and consumer groups complain that date is too far away, and U.S. lawmakers are trying to codify those rules in legislation.

    (Reporting by Jeff Mason, writing by David Alexander, editing by Vicki Allen)

    Reuters - Massachusetts stops transit drivers carrying cell phones

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    Massachusetts stops transit drivers carrying cell phones

    Thursday, May 14, 2009 1:48PM UTC

    BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts on Wednesday banned drivers of trains, street cars and buses from using or even carrying cell phones at work, the toughest such measure imposed by a U.S. state transit agency.

    Any driver working for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority caught talking or text-messaging on a cell phone or similar device will be suspended for a month and managers will recommend their dismissal, the state said.

    Drivers found carrying their phones on duty face a 10-day suspension for a first offense. If it happens again, they will be suspended for a month and face a dismissal recommendation.

    The tough new rules were imposed after two trolleys collided in a Boston tunnel on Friday, injuring 49 people, when one of the drivers failed to stop. He told authorities later he was sending a text message to his girlfriend at the time.

    "I know what I saw on Friday night in that tunnel. I know what the cause was. And I know that this new policy would have prevented it," said Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

    The National Safety Council, an independent, nonprofit group, said the rules were the most stringent of any U.S. state transit authority.

    "I predict what we do here in Massachusetts today will soon become a national model," Massachusetts Transportation Secretary James Aloisi told a news conference.

    Massachusetts had already banned state transit operators from using cell phones. The new, tougher rules take effect on Monday.

    The transit authority set up a hotline service in case a driver needs to be contacted by family in an emergency.

    (Reporting by Jason Szep; Editing by Helen Popper)

    Reuters - Auto layoffs lift U.S. jobless claims, PPI up

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    Auto layoffs lift U.S. jobless claims, PPI up

    Thursday, May 14, 2009 1:23PM UTC

    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits rose more than expected last week, government data showed on Thursday, pushed up by auto plant shutdowns related to Chrysler's bankruptcy.

    Initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits increased 32,000 to a seasonally adjusted 637,000 in the week ended May 9, the Labor Department said, reversing an easing trend of the previous two weeks.

    A Labor Department official said "a good part of the increase is due to automotive states and claims."

    The data, coming on the heels of a report showing a consumers were still reluctant to go out and shop, was another set back an economy trapped in recession since December 2007.

    "I'm afraid a little Round-Up has been sprayed on the green shoots" of the recovery, said Lee Olver, fixed income strategist at SMH Capital in Houston, Texas.

    U.S. stock index futures extended losses and U.S. government debt prices extended gains after the surprisingly weak jobless claims data. The dollar fell against the yen.

    Chrysler filed for bankruptcy on April 30 to help it reorganize and shut its 30 plants starting May 1.

    The job pace of job losses had shown signs of losing momentum in recent weeks and nonfarm payrolls dropped by 539,000 in April, the least amount since October, government data showed last week.

    High unemployment is a drag on incomes, restraining consumption by households and stalling the economy's recovery.

    The government said on Wednesday that retail sales fell 0.4 percent last month, a second straight monthly decline that tempered hopes the economy would soon pull out of its downturn.


    On Thursday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc reported that its profits were flat in the quarter ended April 30 as it managed to attract shoppers with its low prices.

    Wal-Mart CEO Mike Dunn said the company, the world's largest retailer, would remain cautiously optimistic on the timetable for an economic recovery as long as unemployment was rising.

    The Labor Department said the number of people staying on the benefit rolls after collecting an initial week of aid jumped 202,000 to a record high of 6.56 million in the week ended May 2, the latest week for which the data is available.

    This was the 15th straight week that so-called continued claims touched a record high. The insured unemployment rate climbed to 4.9 percent, the highest since December 1982, from 4.8 percent the previous week.

    The four-week moving average for new claims, considered to be a better gauge of underlying trends as it smoothes out week-to-week volatility, rose 6,000 to 630,500 last week from 624,500. This measure had declined for four straight weeks.


    In another report, the Labor Department said prices received by U.S. producers rose at a brisk pace in April, driven by a surge in food costs.

    The Producer Price Index climbed 0.3 percent after declining 1.2 percent in March. Food prices rose 1.5 percent in April, the biggest increase since January 2008. Food costs rose on a record jump in egg prices, along with soaring prices for vegetables and meat.

    Excluding food, the headline PPI would have increased 0.1 percent. However, compared to the same period last year, prices received by producers tumbled 3.7 percent, the biggest decline since January 1950, keeping the risk of deflation alive.

    Core producer prices, excluding food and energy costs, rose 0.1 percent in April. The core PPI was unchanged in March.

    Compared to the same period a year ago, core producer prices were up 3.4 percent.

    Energy prices fell 0.1 percent in April versus a 5.5 percent decline in March. Gasoline prices edged up 2.6 percent in April and residential natural gas fell 6.2 percent.

    (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

    CNN - Marijuana potency surpasses 10 percent, U.S. says

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    Marijuana potency surpasses 10 percent, U.S. says

    The average potency of marijuana, which has risen steadily for three decades, has exceeded 10 percent for the first time, the U.S. government will report on Thursday.

    Scientists working for the government predict that potency, as measured by the drug's concentration of the psychoactive ingredient THC, will continue to rise.

    At the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project, where thousands of samples of seized marijuana are tested every year, project director Mahmoud ElSohly said some samples have THC levels exceeding 30 percent.

    Average THC concentrations will continue to climb before leveling off at 15 percent or 16 percent in five to 10 years, ElSohly predicted.

    The stronger marijuana is of particular concern because high concentrations of THC have the opposite effect of low concentrations, officials say.

    In addition, while experienced marijuana users may limit their intake of potent marijuana, young and inexperienced users may not moderate their intake and possibly suffer from dysphoria, paranoia, irritability and other negative effects.

    Potent marijuana also poses significant risk to the developing adolescent brain, said Edward Jurith, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    Increasing potency is leading to higher admissions to emergency rooms and drug treatment programs, officials say.

    The average THC for tested marijuana during 2008 was 10.1 percent, according to the government, compared to 1983 when it was reportedly under 4 percent.

    Even drugs seized at the United States' southwest border are showing increasing potency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says. The median potency increased from 4.8 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent in 2007. Marijuana from Mexico and other southern sources traditionally had lower THC content then other sources'.

    "The children I'm most worried about are children who are heavy users ... people who use it on a daily basis," said Dr. Lawrence Brain, a child psychiatrist in Maryland.

    Lloyd D. Johnston, a University of Michigan professor who has spent 35 years studying youth drug use, said youth marijuana use has fluctuated dramatically over that period.

    "One of the driving forces of that ... is the degree to which young people think that marijuana is dangerous," he said. "Perceived risk has usually been a leading indicator of changes."

    News about potency is not likely to change adolescents' behavior, Brain said.

    "I'm not advocating the use of marijuana at all," he said. "But in some ways, it is out there. ... Telling them it's 10 percent -- three times more potent than what their parents smoked -- is not an argument they are likely to buy into or to even utilize in any constructive sort of way.

    "I think they do what they do today. I don't think they consider or reflect on what it might have been like 30 years ago."

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