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July 29, 2010

Foreclosure help, small business loans and grants

87454169.jpgCollective Banking Group, which is a nationwide organization that provides financial services and education through African-American churches including dozens of churches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, is sponsoring an empowerment conference in Pembroke Park today through Saturday.

It’ll deal with today’s hottest topic: How to save your home. The session also offers potential financing for small businesses.

“We want people to walk away with some immediate solutions, thinking they can make things happen,” said Rev. Paul Wiggins, who is the Collective Banking Group’s executive director in Miami-Dade county. Rev. Wiggins is also the executive minister of Mt. Hermon AME Church in Miami Gardens.

The conference includes foreclosure prevention workshops, a small business grant program and counselors who will deal with mortgage issues from Bank of America, Citibank, Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America and South Florida Neighborhood Housing Services. Partners for Self-Employment and the U.S. Small Business Administration are also running workshops on financing for small business.

Organizers say those who attend will get help filing paperwork for foreclosure prevention. Attendees can also apply for loans of up to $35,000 to start or expand a small business – and get a response on the spot.

The sessions begin tonight at 7 p.m. and continue Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. top 4 p.m. at: Koinonia Worship Center and Village, 4900 W Hallandale Beach Blvd, Pembroke Park.

For more information, go here or call 305-438-1407.

To register to attend, go here.

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July 28, 2010

Sales tax holiday: Did the store grab your tax break?

If you're getting ready for the Back-to-School sales tax holiday, you might be taking part in a political gimmick.

That's one way of looking at it. The Tax Foundation says that after looking at sales tax holidays in 18 states, the holidays really do nothing for the economy, distort the free market and give some merchants free advertising. Not to mention that these tax breaks favor families with school-age kids over all others.

But the public likes sales tax holidays, right? Sure. The Florida Retail Federation declared in a recent press release that excitement is building for the holiday that takes place Aug. 13 through 15. Florida hasn't had a back-to-school sales tax holiday in two years.

A very interesting note in the Tax Foundation report indicates that in one study, done in Florida's panhandle at the time of the 2001 state sales tax holiday, retailers raised prices during the sales tax holiday. In essence, they grabbed 20 percent of the tax break for themselves!

What do you think?

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July 27, 2010

Florida consumers glum, confidence falls

Florida's economy may be teetering on the brink of recovery, but consumers don’t seem to be feeling it.

Florida consumers have the worst outlook on what's ahead for their personal finances in 25 years, according to a survey released Tuesday.

That dismal report is part of the state's monthly consumer confidence index for July. Overall, Floridians’ consumer confidence declined as well, to its lowest point in 16 months, as oil from the Deepwater Horizon well was flowing into the Gulf of Mexico for most of the month. The nationwide consumer confidence index also fell.

In July, the index for Floridians’ outlook on their own personal finances one year from now reached the lowest point ever, said the University of Florida’s Chris McCarty, director of the Survey Research Center in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The center began measuring perceptions of personal finances in February 1985. The figure in July was at 78.

McCarty said the pessimism about personal finances grew largely because of responses from those who are age 60 and older. The personal finance outlook didn't change in July for those who are younger.

“The value of a home and home equity are a big part of most people’s retirement nest egg and they’ve seen that wiped away,” said economist Sean Snaith of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “Maybe the realization is now starting to weigh heavily on sentiment that this not going to rebound anytime soon?”

Overall, all Floridians are growing more glum in their outlook.

The overall index of Florida consumer confidence — which includes personal finances as well as four other components — fell two points to 65 in July, the lowest rating in 16 months. The last time the figure was at 65 was in March 2009.

“Although Florida was by no means recovered from the recession, there were signs that the economy was turning around prior to the oil spill,” McCarty said.

He pointed to a stabilization in the median home price in Florida, an uptick in some sectors of the state’s employment including leisure and hospitality, and a gain in Florida's sales tax revenues in May compared to last year. “Nothing really had changed for the worse,” he said.

The Gulf oil spill’s impact may be weighing on consumers’ minds, McCarty said. Analysts are still trying to figure out the eventual impact on employment, spending and tourism in Florida.

Last month, before the well was capped, Snaith predicted that in the worst case, the spill could put almost 195,000 Floridians out of work and reduce spending in Florida by $10.9 billion. On Tuesday, Snaith said he doesn’t expect that worst-case scenario to become reality, but he’s still waiting on data from this summer before he revises the prediction.

Nationwide, the Conference Board's index of consumer confidence also declined. It fell by 3.9 percentage points to 50.4.

“Given consumers’ heightened level of anxiety, along with their pessimistic income outlook and lackluster job growth, retailers are very likely to face a challenging back-to-school season,” said the Conference Board's Lynn Franco in a statement.

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July 26, 2010

Kaufman Rossin, $9.6 million settlement

South Florida accounting firm Kaufman Rossin & Co. reportedly has agreed to a $9.6 million settlement involving its role as auditor for two Palm Beach County hedge funds that collapsed last year.

The bankruptcy trustee for Palm Beach Financial Partners and Palm Beach Financial II claimed in a lawsuit that the two funds raised $1.1 billion from about 100 investors to lend to a company controlled by Thomas Petters, a Minnesota executive who was convicted of running a $3.65 billion ponzi scheme. Petters is serving a 50-year sentence.

“There are many more lawsuits that we intend to file,” said Michael Budwick, an attorney at Meland Russin & Budwick in Miami. Budwick represents the Chapter 11 Trustee for the hedge funds Barry Mukamal, who is also a partner at the South Florida accounting firm MarcumRachlin.

Budwick said the settlement, reached earlier this month, was filed with the court Monday. The court must approve the settlement, he said.

Several executives at Kaufman Rossin did not respond to requests for comment.

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Refinancing your mortgage - great rates, tough hurdles

In case you missed it. here's my story about mortgage interest rates being at record lows but few borrowers can qualify for them.

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Personal Finance Q&A: Should I use a debt settlement company?

Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628. To see previous questions, visit SunSentinel.com/PersonalFinanceQandA
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I have been considering entering a debt settlement program to get rid of my credit card debts. One drawback is I have not been late in any of my payments for more than 5 years even though the debt is pretty high (more than $40,000). My credit score is OK, around 630. I am wondering if lowering my debt by half, as the settlement companies advertise, is worth it because I know it will damage my credit score for a few years. Would I be better off in five years or would it be better to just keep paying my bills on time? --Ricardo

Certified Financial Planner Shomari Hearn, who is client service manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, advises against entering a debt settlement program. It is costly and may leave you further in debt than you are now.

The typical program requires you to stop paying your credit card bills. You are directed to make monthly deposits into a special account you establish with the debt settlement company instead. Once the account has an adequate balance, which can take many months, the company will try to negotiate lump-sum settlements with the credit card companies for a fraction of your outstanding balances.

Your credit card balances will increase during this period as interest and late payment penalties continue to accrue.

There is no guarantee the settlement company will be successful in negotiating a significant reduction in your debt. And, the credit card companies may file suit against you. If they win a judgment, they may garnish your wages or put a lien on your home, at which point a poor credit score will be the least of your concerns.

The fees charged by debt settlement firms can be very expensive. Some debt settlement companies charge as much as 15 to 20 percent of the credit card balances due – and collect that upfront. Some charge a hefty fee every month until the program is completed.

You’ll owe taxes, too, because cancelled debt is considered taxable income, and the IRS won’t waive any of the bill unless you’re insolvent.

Although this may not be what you want to hear, Hearn advises you to continue to pay your credit card bills on time. As long as your budget permits, make more than the minimum required payments each month.

Better yet, use your savings to pay down credit card balances if such resources have not been exhausted.

Most importantly, tear up your credit cards.

If you still think you need to do something about the debt, consider negotiating with the credit card companies directly instead of entering a program. You'll save on fees and you may be as effective at reducing your debts as the claims advertised by the settlement companies.

Keep in mind, however, that creditors generally won't discuss settlements with consumers unless they're at least three to six months behind on their payments.

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July 23, 2010

Financial reform, WLRN


Financial reform and you.....I chatted with Christine DiMattei on WLRN this morning about what the massive new legislation will mean to South Florida. If you'd like to listen, here's the audio.


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July 22, 2010

Financial reform, Mutual fund fees, Consumers win again

What a week for consumers.

First, we get the financial reform law signed.

Then, the Securities and Exchange Commission makes a move to limit and, in practical terms, perhaps eliminate fees that mutual funds charge to cover their marketing and distribution costs.

The SEC's decision to put some caps on 12b-1 fees is terrific.

Last year, the SEC says these fees amounted to $9.5 billion - up from just a few million dollars the decade before.

Investors pay these fees. Every year. And did we really need to do that?

I'm delighted to see the SEC say there needs to be some restraint and some competition on the price paid for investing in mutual funds.

Oh and, I wanted to point out one more thing about the financial reform bill. While it made the $250,000 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. limit permanent, it also put that $250,000 limit in place retroactively. That'll impact depositors of some failed banks who may have thought they were out of luck.

Here's the FDIC's press release from yesterday:

Retroactive Deposit Insurance Increase to Cover Depositors at Banks That Failed in 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 21, 2010

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed into law by President Barack Obama today permanently raised the maximum deposit insurance amount to $250,000. In addition, the Act made this increase retroactive to January 1, 2008.
The provision making the law retroactive means that the $250,000 deposit insurance amount applies to banks that failed between January 1 and October 3, 2008. These insured institutions are:

• Hume Bank, Hume, MO
• ANB Financial, N.A., Bentonville, AR
• IndyMac Bank, F.S.B., Pasadena, CA
• First Priority Bank, Bradenton, FL
• The Columbian Bank and Trust Company, Topeka, KS
• Silver State Bank, Henderson, NV

This retroactive increase has reduced the number of uninsured depositors at these failed institutions from more than 10,000 to approximately 500.

The FDIC will mail checks to uninsured depositors tomorrow, July 22, 2008.
To learn more, uninsured depositors of these institutions can visit the FDIC's Web site at http://www.fdic.gov/bank/individual/failed/dodd_frank_q_and_a.html or call toll-free on 1-866-806-5919.

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July 21, 2010

Broward begins foreclosure mediation

With an estimated 50,000 or more foreclosure cases backed up, Broward county’s strained court system is rolling out mandatory mediation.

Starting this month, lenders will have to meet with borrowers and try to work out some sort of agreement before they can see a foreclosure judgment.

Those 50,000 or so cases? That’s the backlog of cases filed before July 1.

“The point is to bring everybody together and with a serious tone, to see if the loan can be renegotiationed and we not have somebody else fall into foreclsoure,” said Chief Judge Victor Tobin.

Those 50,000 or so cases are the ones filed before July 1 that haven’t gone through the system yet.

Palm Beach County’s courts, too, began a mediation program this month.

All courts had to institute a program, under a mandate from Florida’s state supreme court.

The American Arbitraition Association, which is running the mediation program, has set up 23 mediation rooms in an office building across from the Broward County main courthouse. With a staff of five, the AAA’s Rebecca Storrow says she can call on a roster of 250 court-certified mediators to handle the negotiations.

The goal is to complete mediation withinn 120 days of the start, she said. About 500 cases a week are currently being filed – with about one third of those for properties that are not owner-occupied. The mediation program is only for properties that have a homestead exemption.

Tobin pointed out that lenders who come to a new deal before filing the foreclosure suit save not only the filing fee – which can run close to $2,000 – but the time that it takes to go through a suit and an eventual foreclosure sale.

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Financial reform is signed; How it affects you

UPDATE: It's the law.

Praising the law as the "strongest consumer financial protection in history, in history," President Barack Obama signed the financial reform bill.

The crowded room of supporters included a woman who had gone through a sudden hike in credit card interest rates and a man who had faced hundreds of dollars of overdraft fees that he never expected.

Stories like theirs had become all to common prior to the financial crisis, which eventually lead to this set of reforms now part of the law. The President said the law should ensure that those in the finanancial services industry can profit by playing by the rules, rather than gaming the system.

Consumer protection was the top issue, but the President also promised "There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts."

The law allows regulators to identify and to break up any institution that threatens the stability of the nation's financial system such as AIG.

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The fellow who called me yesterday wasn't among the crowd of important people watching President Barack Obama sign the financial reform legislation this morning.

But he’ll benefit from it.

And so will all of us. Anyone borrowing money to buy a house. Anyone dealing with a financial advisor. Anyone getting a loan.

I can’t tell you how important it is that there will soon be a law that requires a host of federal agencies to look after consumers’ financial interests. It’s immense.

It’s not a perfect law. But it passed, on the heels of scandal and disastrous financial conditions.

The man who called kept telling me his age, not his name. He’s 90. And he’s worried.

What about deposit insurance, he asked. Are they going to continue that at $250,000?

The financial reform bill makes that limit permanent. Otherwise, it would have expired three years from now.

He was worried, he said, because his wife, who is in her 80s, didn’t understand much about money and he wanted to make sure her money was safe. After he’s gone.

He has one certificate of deposit and he couldn’t afford for that money to be at risk. For her.

I asked him about his wife, whom he met 48 years ago and who he’s worrying about. We chatted.

I assured him, it’s in the bill. And the President will sign it this morning.

It’s a big law. And it takes care of many important people. Like the fellow who called me.

For more details on the law, here's the wire report.

I'll be chatting about it on WLRN on Friday morning, too.

____________________________

More information on how the new law affects you and your money.

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July 20, 2010

Loan mods: South Florida borrowers walk away

The loan mod picture is still very busy, but borrowers in South Florida continue to drop out of the Obama administration’s Making Home Affordable program.

South Florida’s metro areas had more loan modifications than any other cities in the nation in June – which is the same as in May. Statewide, Florida’s number of troubled loans getting new terms was second only to California, also unchanged.

But what’s new: Fewer South Florida borrowers had a permanent loan modification than in May.

Nationwide, the number of borrowers getting permanent loan mods is higher than the previous month. But over the long haul, the Associated Press points out, 530,000 borrowers have dropped out of the program since it began in March 2009 with 1.3 million homeowners.

The Making Home Affordable permanent modifications “are on pace and sustainable for the homeowner, as more than 50,000 trial agreements graduated to permanent in June and default rates remain low,” the Treasury’s statement says.

According to the Treasury’s report released today:

The Miami-Fort-Lauderdale-Pompano-Beach metro area had 35,621 trial and permanent loan modifications underway in June, down from almost 38,500 in May.

Orlando-Kissimmee had 15,130, down from more than 16,000 in May.

Add those two metro areas together and they account for 6.7 percent of all loan modification activity nationwide. That proportion is greater than Los Angeles, with 6.5 percent, New York, with 6 percent and Chicago, with 5.1 percent of all loan modifications nationwide under the Obama administration’s program.

The two also accounted for more than half of all loan modifications in Florida.

Only California was busier when it came to trouble mortgage modifications. In California, there were 168,155 loan modifications underway last month, compared to 92,754 in Florida.

Among lenders, Bank of America has produced the largest number of permanent loan modifications, 72,232 nationwide. JP Morgan Chase reported 54,722 loan modifications.

Nationwide, the Treasury said there were 389,198 permanent modifications were reported in June, up from 340,459 in May.

Why aren't more people getting a permanent loan modification in South Florida? I asked that question in a recent column and you can read the answers I found here.

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Mortgage, Bank of America, New office to help homeowners

Bank of America is opens its first customer outreach center in Florida tomorrow.

Here in the middle of the mortgage meltdown in South Florida, it has been nearly impossible for a borrower looking for help with a mortgage to have a face-to-face conversation with a "homeownership retention specialist" at one of Florida's largest lenders - until now.

Bank of America has been dispatching a mobile unit since January in Florida to meet with homeowners. But this is the first permanent office designed to cope with the mortgage meltdown in Florida.

This will be BofA's seventh such office nationwide. One opened in Boston on Monday.

But don't go rushing out just yet.

You have to have an appointment.

Here's the phone number to get one: 954-308-9592.

Bank of America says it will have also associates there who can "help customers facing hardship with their auto, credit cards and personal loans."

The new center in Fort Lauderdale will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and starting this weekend, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

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July 19, 2010

Personal Finance Q&A: Should I pay off my mortgage early?

I have a good job, I am contributing to my 401(k) account and I have no credit card debt. I’m 60 years old, no kids and am in good health. I have 15 years left on my mortgage. Since I have about twice as much as I owe on my condo in my retirement accounts, should I just pay off the mortgage? And start rebuilding my savings again with money left over and what I used to pay for the condo?
-Cory

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, says Certified Financial Planner Mike Lynch, who runs Money Matters of America in Plantation. Lynch specializes in retirement planning.

Liquidating your IRA to pay off your mortgage early may sound good, but have you stopped to think what might happen if you lose your job prior to retirement? You are a few years away from being eligible for full Social Security benefits at age 66. You may need to work to age 70 to max out what your receive.

Another question: What would happen if your health changed and you were forced into early retirement?

And, do you know about the tax implications? Lynch says don’t do it is because liquidating your IRA will put you into a higher tax bracket. Closing your IRA would push all those IRA dollars into your taxable income.

If he were in your shoes, Lynch said he would want to maintain all the flexibility he could and keep all the options open in case you lose your job or run into serious problems.

Liquidating your IRA to pay off your mortgage early will close a lot of doors for you.

Two other thoughts from Lynch: If you could increase your retirement savings account contributions to 15 percent of your income, that’d help you build up more assets.

And, if your credit is good, you may want to look at refinancing your home to capture today’s great low interest rates and potentially lower your monthly mortgage payment.
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Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628. To see previous questions, visit SunSentinel.com/PersonalFinanceQandA

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July 18, 2010

Goldman Sachs SEC settlement, in context

Here's a fabulous report from ProPublica that points out the Goldman Sachs settlement with the SEC was about two weeks' profit.

Two weeks profit to settle the lawsuit? About as much as the firm gave to charity, after it was criticized for its most generous bonuses.

The Goldman settlement was huge, to ordinary folks, but not to Goldman. I am guessing, they just wrote the check and moved on.

ProPublica is the independent, non-profit newsroom that does such great investigative work.


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July 16, 2010

Denied: EBT cards didn't work, network fixed now

My colleague Doreen Hemlock learned that nearly 80,000 Floridians were unable to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards Thursday and part of Friday, when service was interrupted in the network that processes those transactions.

Here's her report;

JPMorgan Chase said Friday it has fixed the network problem that affected EBT cardholders in Florida. The company processes cards for about 1.5 million people who receive benefits in Florida under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The problem surfaced Thursday, as card holders found that they could not process their cards at sales terminals in stores.

One South Florida resident said his EBT card was declined at a Super Target in Deerfield Beach. When he called to clarify, he said he waited more than 20 minutes on hold, only to be told the issue was the network link – not his card. “Big problem,” he said in an e-mail to the SunSentinel.

JP Morgan Chase said 79,422 Florida cardholders experienced denials during their network telecom outage, or about 5 percent of cardholders in the state. The company traced the problem to hardware in its data center and rerouted network traffic to restore services.

During the outage, retailers could still process sales through JP Morgan’s Interactive Voice Response system or through customer service representatives, but with delays, the company said.

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Consumer prices in South Florida head up

South Florida has a little bit of inflation, unlike last year when prices for consumer goods declined.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Friday that the local consumer price index for Miami-Fort Lauderdale rose at a 0.4 percent annual rate during the two months ended in June.

The BLS doesn’t measure prices in Palm Beach County. And it puts out local stats only every other month.

The 0.4 percent increase in local prices is a small gain, by comparison to the 1.1 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index for all cities. The annual rate of inflation for the nation is 0.9 percent, so small as to be considered hadly any at all.

But even a slight rise in South Florida prices is a complete turnaround from last year. At the mid-point of 2009, consumer prices in South Florida were falling at a 1.6 percent annual rate.

In fact, they fell so far that the index still stands below where it was two years ago in June.
Consumer prices are measured for housing, clothes, transportation, food – all things you probably spend money on regularly.

A few years ago, in 2005 through 2008, South Florida regularly had the highest inflation rate in the nation. Consumer prices back then increased by 5 percent or more. Then the decline hit in 2009.

Now it’s looking like deflation is last year’s news. And a tiny bit of inflation is the hallmark of 2010.

The local CPI has shown an increase in every report so far this year.

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Financial reform and you

“The most comprehensive reform of Wall Street since the Great Depression,” President Barack Obama called the massive financial reform law passed Thursday by the Senate.

But the debate over what reforms are needed, who needs protection, and how this will all play out when a consumer, say, tries to get a loan, has not ended.

Rudy E. Schupp, president of 1st United Bank in Boca Raton, pointed out that the law has 2,323 pages including 60 pages of deadlines for new regulations that haven’t been written.

Exactly how all that will filter down to consumers isn’t entirely clear. And here’s one timeline: U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohoe said on television this week that he thinks it’ll be 15 years before all the regulations are written and the studies are done.

The goal of the law is to protect consumers from abusive financial products and to give the Federal Reserve new powers and responsibilities in hopes of averting any future financial crisis.

For consumers, the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is one of the new law’s primary features. The new bureau will create rules for mortgages and other products that banks and other lenders will have to follow. “I think the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a big deal for consumers and hopefully they’ll do the work right and smartly to protect consumers,” Schupp said.

But the new law could have the unintended consequence of hurting them, said David Roda of Roda Asset Management in Miami, an investment advisory firm.

Among the impacts he sees on South Florida consumers:

-Marginal borrowers will have a harder time getting credit, because banks will have to increase their capital under the law and will likely put in place stricter lending standards.

-Because banks face greater restrictions on their profitable but risky trading activities, they may go cautious and limit their expansion plans.

“The fallout from this is it’s not pro-stimulus,” he said. “And it comes just at a time when it’s vital that banks begin to lend more, so you can create economic growth, especially in the state of Florida with its higher-than-average unemployment level.”

The National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, is upbeat, says my colleague Doreen Hemlock. President Janet Murguia calls the reform “a huge victory for the Latino community and for America.. helping protect all American families from the threat of reckless, unchecked, and irresponsible profit-seeking on Wall Street.”

She said it will help Latino consumers by:

-- Offering at least $1 billion in bridge loans to help families hold on to their homes while they search for a job.

-- Creating a more transparent process for wiring money abroad, including disclosure on how much loved ones will receive in their home country and price comparisons for wiring the money.

Murguía said her group will continue working with lawmakers and advocates to see the reform “is implemented effectively, so it can truly aid in the recovery our country needs.”

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July 15, 2010

Where to find help in tough times

The comments keep coming in from the people for whom the recession in South Florida is not just difficult but nearly impossible to bear.

They read my latest story on the South Florida economy and they're asking for help.

The stories are very sad. From people who are unemployed, sick or broke or all three.

So here's where those who are close to becoming homeless can go for help:

The Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program helps families who are, or about to become, homeless. Florida received $65 million in October, part of $1.5 billion in the federal stimulus program last year devoted to homelessness.

Grants are for individuals and families suffering from economic distress who face eviction or homelessness. The money is paid to the landlord or utility company for rent or back rent, utilities and security deposits. The money cannot be used for mortgage payments.

There is no standard application. Each person must apply to the city, county or local service agency administering the program. Money is given to those whose income is below 50 percent of the area’s median income.

For more information:

In Broward County, dial 2-1-1 or 954-537-0211.
In Palm Beach County, call the Division of Human Services at 561-355-4775 or Adopt-A-Family at 561-253-1361
In Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami, call the Homeless Helpline at 1-877-994-4357.
For all local contacts throughout Florida, go to http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/homelessness/HPRG/docs/FAQs.pdf

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July 14, 2010

An even better way to check out a stockbroker

This is one regulatory change for the better.....89678651.jpg

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has announced plans to provide much deeper background on brokers and provide records even for those who have left the industry, under changes approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Finra says its BrokerCheck data base will soon will increase the number of customer complaints reported publicly, extend the public disclosure period for the full record of a broker who leaves the industry from two years to 10 years and make certain information about former brokers available permanently, such as criminal convictions and certain civil injunctive actions and arbitration awards against the broker.

This is terrific news. Because even when someone is no longer acting as a broker because they've left a previous job, the person can still be handing out financial advice.

Investors should always check a broker's record - and make sure he or she has all the current regulatory ducks in a row. The new additions to BrokerCheck start in August and should be complete by the end of the year.

To look into a broker's background, go here.
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Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628.

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July 13, 2010

Feeling that recovery yet?

“My general sense is while the need continues to be great, the initial tide has slowed down,” said Robin Martin, executive director of The Shepherd’s Way, one of the non-profit organizations in Broward that is part of the group directing federal stimulus funds to prevent homelessness or to help the newly homeless get back into places of their own.

The program makes grants that can cover rent and utilities, sometimes for several months, to give people a break. “The new reality is there’s more homelessness, but it doesn’t feel like it is getting worse,” he said.

That’s the uneven nature of this economic recovery. Not getting worse is much better than it felt a year ago. People are still clinging to their jobs or trying to claw their way out of unemployment. Economists say what’s going on is a recovery, but it’s not strong. It’s stable. That’s all it is.

Are you feeling this recovery yet? Tell me your view.

Here's my latest story about the South Florida economy.

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Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628.

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July 12, 2010

Personal Finance Q&A: Pros and cons of college savings plans

My husband and I have just started a family and we are exploring our options for setting up a college fund to be able to pay for our children's college tuition. Should we do the Florida Pre-Paid or do you recommend a 529 Plan? What are the pros/cons of each?
-Jennifer

The best way to do college planning is so start at the beginning of the child’s life. With time, your savings will grow. And you’ll avoid the financial panic that seems to set when parents and students begin to fill out college applications.

The Florida Prepaid program does cover tuition costs, but that is not the full bill at many colleges.

Since 2007, Florida has allowed the state’s public universities to charge something other than tuition. This second amount, called a tuition differential fee, can add up to 40 percent to the total cost. Plus, the differential can increase by up by 15 percent a year.

To cover most of the bill at a Florida university using the prepaid program, you’d have to buy two plans, one for tuition ($16,647 for a one-time, lump sum purchase price for a newborn today) and one for the differential ($19,700). You can also buy the two for a monthly payment of $234.

There’s even a third program, to cover such things as activity and athletic fees and health care costs.

The prepaid’s greatest benefit: Low-risk. You can get your money back for a minimal fee if it’s not used to pay college costs. You can also transfer the plan to another child. And it can be used for certain out-of-state private colleges, community colleges and technical schools.

The cons? It’s expensive. You have to stick to the payment schedule. And your child may choose a school that isn’t part of the program. If you decide to take your money back, you get back what you contributed, but no interest or earnings on that amount.

If instead you opt for a Section 529 college savings plan, what you’re doing is investing the money in the market, with all the risks involved. It could provide a higher growth rate for your savings than the Florida Prepaid. But if you encounter a terrible year, your investment will go down in value.

With a 529 plan, you have more flexibility about the amount you put in and which mutual funds you’ll select. You’ll need to evaluate the fees and administrative costs involves vs. the investment results. There's a great variety of 529 plans, including those that give state income tax breaks to savers in states that, unlike Florida, have income taxes. You can pick your plan from any state.

You also can pay such costs as laptops with 529 plan funds. You cannot do this with the Florida Prepaid funds. That money can only be used for tuition. The one exception: If your child gets a full scholarship, not a partial one, to cover tuition, the prepaid money can be refunded, semester by semester, to you to use as you please.

The 529 plan’s greatest benefit: The money can be used, tax-free, for public or private college in any state.

And here’s a con that’s true for both the Prepaid and a 529 plan: If your child doesn’t go to college and you don’t shift the money to another relative or use it for education, there’s a tax catch. Jack Rosenberg, a certified public accountant and a partner at Goldstein Schechter Koch in Hollywood, says any earnings on the amount you contributed will be subject to income tax and a 10 percent penalty.

Overall, your concern for your child’s college costs is going to pay off, no matter which way you decide to handle your savings.

Both the Florida Prepaid and a 529 plan are good ways to save, compared to saving the money in an account in the child’s own name. That’s because 529 plans are considered assets of the parent, not the child, and parental assets don’t count as heavily in the financial aid calculation as money saved in the child’s own account.

For more information, see www.myfloridaprepaid.com , www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/intro529.htm and savingforcollege.org for more information.

These sites give the basics. But things change. The contribution limits for each plan are set by the state or the educational institution sponsoring the plan. So check the details before you make a decision.

Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628.

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July 9, 2010

Foreclosure: South Florida borrowers seriously delinquent

Has the foreclosure crisis peaked? Hard to tell. What’s clear is the number of borrowers in serious trouble is still growing in South Florida.

The picture, from the courthouse, is of a crisis that’s leveling off. The number of new foreclosure cases being filed in Palm Beach and Broward counties, so far this year, is running below the rate of last year.

But take a look at what’s going on at the individual level and you’ll see trouble ahead. More South Florida mortgages are seriously delinquent than last year at this time, according to new stats from CoreLogic, a real estate analytics firm.

Here are the numbers that came out this week:

In West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Boynton Beach, 20.3 percent of loans were 90 days or more past due in May. That’s up from 15 percent in May 2009.

In Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach-Deerfield Beach, 22.8 percent of loans were 90 or more days past due vs. 17.5 percent in May 2009.

In Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall, 28.2 percent were 90 or more days past due, up from 20.7 percent in May 2009.

In Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, 20.6 percent past due vs.16 percent the year before.

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July 8, 2010

LeBron, $90 mil, and the odds for Miami

Update: The spotlight on LeBron isn't doing good things for this stock. This morning Friday, it's still sliding. MSG is down another 3 percent at 9:30 a.m.

How much are they planning to pay LeBron James anyway?

Whatever it is, it won’t make some folks happy who traded stocks based on their hunch about where he was going.

Traders who jumped into the stock of Madison Square Garden yesterday were so out of sorts today. Because $90 million in stock market value evaporated as the stock slumped 5.5 percent as the market became convinced he won’t be joining the MSG-owned New York Knicks.

The stock closed at $20.38.

LeBron or no LeBron, big sums are being thrown around about him.

The Motley Fool was reporting that some economists figure James’ value to New York could be $150 million.

Bloomberg news was reporting that Intrade, a Dublin-based “prediction market” was showing the odds that James would sign in New York fell from 50 percent to 11 percent during the day Thursday.

And the odds for Miami? 68 percent.

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Your money: Skimp on vacation? No way

I know consumers are expressing their lack of conviction in the economic recovery. But a new survey shows they may not be holding back quite as much as last summer.1094025.JPG

A full 17 percent of consumers plan to spend more on a major purchase in July, such as a vacation. That’s the highest percentage recorded in two years, says the Discover U.S. Spending Monitor, a daily poll on spending intentions.

I know it’s hard for people who don’t have a job to hear this and there are a million Floridians without a job, but people are indeed spending more at the mall, too.

The Chain Store Sales Index of major retailers is running strongly ahead of last year between February and June. The index is posting its largest year-over-year gain in that period since 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

There is a curiously divided shopping pattern, however. The two categories growing the most are at opposite ends: Warehouse clubs and Luxury stores.

Buy on the cheap in bulk and then indulge on a special something?

All that's certain is retailers are beginning to hum again. Perhaps vacationers will return with a a brighter outlook on the economy.

POSTED IN: Your Money (256)

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July 7, 2010

Signed and sealed? Yvonne and her loan modification

Yvonne McBride Acosta may indeed have her loan modification.

“We are pleased that the initiative we have taken over the past several months have resulted in Ms. Acosta finally sending in her signed paperwork,” said Bank of America spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens in an email.

Yvonne, you'll remember, is the South Florida homeowner I've written about numerous times since last year, when her attempt to get a loan modification went haywire, again and again.

The relationship between Yvonne and her lender has become difficult since then. She has heard from the bank, she told me. But I'm holding my breath until I hear her say the deal is done.


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July 6, 2010

Loan modifications: Your reactions

My column on "Borrowers' Fatigue" talked of the 9,000 South Florida homeowners and the 215,000 nationwide who have dropped out of the loan modification process.

Here are some of the reactions I received. I cut out the names of the banks, because every major bank was the subject of these complaints.

"The situation is intolerable and I am probably another who will have to give up because no one cares," writes a Deerfield Beach homeowner. A judge in foreclosure court ordered mediation for her effort to modify her loan back in May. It looks like it won't happen until the end of July. Meanwhile, the bank "continues to lie and harass me."

"The whole process was awful," writes a professor who works in Fort Lauderdale. He ended up paying a big lawyer's bill and calling on Sen. Bill Nelson for help. He didn't get the modification.

Another homeowner said he had spent two years trying to get a loan modification. "You get a different story every time you speak to someone and you are not assigned a representative."

"We call them sometimes over 50 times without speaking to anyone in authority," said a Fort Lauderdale attorney.

"It is worse than you think. Governor Crist and the Florida Cabinet need to place a two-year moratorium on all foreclosures in Florida," wrote Thad Hamilton, who is running for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services .

"I lost my house to foreclosure in North Carolina this past April and it was not due to lack of trying," wrote a woman who just moved to South Florida. "I submitted and resubmitted all the required paperwork and then some extras. Each time, I was told I needed something else in the packet."

"I feel compelled to share my nightmare," wrote another woman.

"I will continue to pursue this because I will not give up, " wrote another woman. "but I do feel sorry for all homeowners who do not have the ability to provide the backup or don't have the perseverance, time and ability to continue the follow-through."

The problem is not with the homeowners or the program, says the owner of a financial service firm that says it has helped hundreds of people through the loan modification process. "The problem, hands down, unequivocally, is with the banks." he said. "I don't have the answers." He says he has met with Rep. Ron Klein and his staff to try to resolve the problem.

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Loan modifications: In case you missed it...


My Sunday column on borrowers' fatigue with the loan modification process, you can read it here.

POSTED IN: Foreclosure Crisis (84)

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July 5, 2010

Your Money Q&A: How can I find reasonable health insurance?

My group health insurance Cobra coverage ran out on June after the 18-month maximum coverage. Now I need to look for new health insurance.
I was told I don't qualify for the continuation of coverage under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA is a federal law that provides opportunities to enroll in group coverage if you lose your health insurance) because my insurer says I can continue my old policy if I pay a premium of $1,000 a month. I can't afford that.
This seems to be a "Catch 22" because I don't qualify for HIPAA that should insure you when you have been dropped from your group health plan because the former insurer now offers insurance you at an outrageous price. How can I get a reasonable insurance plan?
-JohnB

Since you are 56 and you told us you are in perfect heath, Certified Financial Planner John Carrig of Gold Coast Financial Planning in Boca Raton says you only really need a plan that covers all major care. He recommends a program with a high deductible or one that would be compatible with a Health Savings Account.

AARP offers a good package through Aetna for members under 65. There have several different plans with deductibles ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 The premiums range from about $300 to $700 - the higher the deductible, the lower the premium. Their website is:
http://www.aarphealthcare.com/products/default.aspx?Products=50to64#Age5064

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South Floriday economy may be doing better than you think


Here's a link to my conversation with Christine DiMattei on WLRN about the Florida and South Florida economy.

Enjoy your holida!

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South Floriday economy may be doing better than you think

Here's a link to my on-air conversation with Christine DiMattei of WLRN Miami Herald News about the Florida economy.

Enjoy your holiday!

POSTED IN: Economy (42)

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July 2, 2010

Send in your personal finance questions

Need help with a money problem? Columnist Harriet Johnson Brackey is working with certified financial planners to get answers. Submit your questions at SunSentinel.com/moneyquestion or call 954-356-4628.

POSTED IN: Personal finance questions and answers (36)

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July 1, 2010

In case you missed it, student loan payment help

Hey, I forgot to post my most recent column, which was about a way to cut your student loan payments. If you missed it, you can read it here.

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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