TODAY

– July 22, 2014

Amazon hikes Prime membership to $99 per year

(AP) — Amazon is raising the price of its popular Prime membership to $99 per year, an increase of $20.

It's the first price increase since the online retailer introduced its Prime membership program, which includes two-day free shipping on many products, in 2005. The company said it would probably raise the price by $20 to $40 in January.

The hike will apply to users when they renew their membership. Users who renew membership before April 17 will pay $79 for the year. After April 17 the price will change to $99. New customers that start a free trial between now and March 20 will lock in the $79 rate for the first year.

Amazon has spent heavily to grow its business and expand into new areas, from movie streaming to e-readers and groceries, and it has accomplished that goal.

The company said it added a million new Prime members in the week before Christmas and a surge in online ordering in the U.S. contributed to huge delays for people sending gifts just ahead of the holiday.

But that has rankled some investors, who are looking for bigger returns.

In an email Thursday to members, the Seattle company stressed that it has not raised the price on Prime in the nine years since its launch, even though shipping costs have increased and it has added new services, such as video streaming. The number of products available for two-day shipping has grown to 20 million from 1 million.

Amazon doesn't disclose how many Prime members it has, but it said in December that it has "tens of millions" of members worldwide.

Cowen & Co. analyst John Blackledge estimates there are about 23 million U.S. prime members. Blackledge said that since the bulk of new memberships occur in the fourth quarter, around the holidays, the benefit of the price hike will probably be felt next year.

He added that he doesn't expect the continued growth of Prime members to slow down despite the price increase.

The announcement was an immediate hit with investors.

Shares rose $10.05, or 2.7 percent, to $380.69 during morning trading. The stock is down 7 percent since the beginning of the year.

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Written on 07/22/2014, 1:56 pm by The Associated Press
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Written on 07/22/2014, 1:49 pm by The Associated Press
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Written on 07/22/2014, 1:44 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — Senate Democrats on Tuesday circulated legislation to significantly cut President Barack Obama's request for emergency funding to deal with an influx of Central American children streaming across the U.S. border with Mexico. Struggling to deal with the issue before Congress' August break, Democrats floated a measure that also would provide immediate aid to Israel for the Iron Dome missile defense system as well as money needed to fight wildfires in Western states. Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is scheduled to release the measure on Wednesday. The legislation cuts Obama's $3.7 billion request for sheltering and processing unaccompanied immigrant children by $1 billion. It includes $225 million for Iron Dome, designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, as Israel battles Hamas militants, and $615 million for wildfires. The proposal puts Democrats on a collision course with Republicans who insist on coupling the additional money with policy changes to a 2008 law that guarantees these unaccompanied minors, many of whom are fleeing violence, a hearing before an immigration judge. Progress has been decidedly mixed on several must-past items in Congress due to Capitol Hill partisanship, heightened by midterm elections and the Obama administration's conflicting signals. Lawmakers have been struggling to find about $10 billion to keep highway projects on track through next spring, ease long wait times for veterans seeking health care and deal with a humanitarian crisis of some 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have entered the U.S. along the Southern border since last fall. Looming large is legislation to keep the government operating beyond the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1; the House has completed seven of the 12 spending bills while the Senate has done none. A once-promising effort to revive the appropriations process in the Senate appears to have derailed in a test of wills between top Senate leaders over the rights of Republicans to offer amendments to legislation. "You have to be optimistic and you have to keep on working," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on MSNBC. "It's just a stunning thing that no matter what it is, the president is for it, the Republicans are against it." The California Democrat said congressional critics are not "overstating" the severity of gridlock on Capitol Hill. Congressional aides in both parties say the politics over changing the 2008 law to make it easier for the Border Patrol to immediately send back unaccompanied minors to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has all but sunk Obama's request. The administration has sent contradictory signals on whether it would be open to toughening the law — a non-negotiable demand of Republicans. Congressional Democrats are balking at using the emergency funding bill to advance changes to the 2008 statute. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans on Monday of "resorting to ransoming children to get their way." House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement on Tuesday that the public won't support billions of dollars more for the border unless Congress makes policy changes to return migrant kids home faster. Boehner said Obama's unwillingness to stand up to Democrats jeopardizes "our ability to find common ground and help the kids who are caught in the middle of this crisis." And in what seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, aides say it's looking like negotiations over House- and Senate-passed veterans' health legislation have bogged down after the administration upped the ante with a demand for almost $18 billion to hire 10,000 doctors, nurses and other health care aides, and lease new facilities to create additional capacity over the coming three years. That request, on top of about $30 billion to permit veterans facing long waits to seek treatment outside the Veterans Affairs system, has unnerved GOP negotiators. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, said, "It is clear the VA needs more doctors, need more nurses and in many cases they need more space," and it would be a mistake not to deal with the issue in legislation. The panel's top Republican, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, said the nearly $18 billion doesn't have to be part of any agreement worked out with the House, and he remained optimistic that something could be done in two weeks. Said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.: "If we can't come together on a veterans' bill, it certainly highlights the problems we've had in getting anything done here. One would think veterans would overcome any of those challenges." The pressure is on. "Pass a bill or don't come back from recess," said William A. Thien, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Things are looking more promising for legislation to "patch" the highway trust fund after an overwhelming House vote last week. Both Republicans and Democrats predict the Senate will end up simply accepting the House measure, which will keep highway and transit money flowing through May 2015. Republicans eager to avert a politically disastrous partial government shutdown may try to move a short-term spending measure to keep the government open until after the November elections. The legislation could come as early as next week, or be put off until September, when the House is scheduled to be in session just 12 days. Either way, GOP conservatives no longer want a shutdown showdown over implementing Obama's signature health care law close to the midterm elections, especially with a legitimate shot at winning a Senate majority.
Written on 07/22/2014, 1:43 pm by Associated Press
(AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated a Mexican-born Stanford law professor to the California Supreme Court. Brown on Tuesday nominated 41-year-old Mariano-Florentino Cuellar (KWAY'-ahr) to be an associate justice of the state's highest court. If approved, the registered Democrat would fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Marvin Baxter, a reliably conservative member of the court, in January. This is Brown's second nomination since returning to the governor's office. In 2011, he filled a vacancy by appointing University of California, Berkeley, law professor Goodwin Liu to the California Supreme Court after Senate Republicans blocked his nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Cuellar has taught administrative law, criminal law and international law, among other subjects. He also served as an adviser in the Obama White House.   Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/19/4029302/emphasis-on-upcycling-new-stores.html?sp=/99/1355/#storylink=cpy
Written on 07/22/2014, 1:41 pm by LINDA DEUTSCH, AP Special Correspondent
(AP) — Richard Parsons, the interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers, is due to step into the battle of billionaires in probate court over the proposed sale of the NBA team. Parsons, once known as "Mr. Fixit" in the business world during his tenure as CEO of Time Warner and Citigroup, is expected to be called as a witness Tuesday to support Shelly Sterling's bid to sell the team for $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Donald Sterling, who owns the team along with estranged wife Shelly, is resisting the sale. The NBA banned Donald Sterling for life for making racist statements after the release of recorded conversations. Sterling has denied he is a racist from the witness stand and vowed he'll never sell the team, claiming he is the victim of illegally recorded conversations that invaded his privacy. Parsons took over leadership of the Clippers in May during the media blitz surrounding the banishment of Sterling, who seemed to accept the idea of a sale until he rescinded his agreement for his wife to make a deal. By then, she had the offer from Ballmer. Ballmer met with Donald Sterling on Monday at Sterling's Beverly Hills home, according to a person close to the case who was not authorized to speak publicly about it and talked with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. Niceties were exchanged but no agreement was reached during the meeting, the person said. Shelly Sterling also is on the witness list Tuesday along with Dean Bonham, an expert on sponsorship and marketing issues who is also the president of an NBA franchise. The high-stakes financial fight centers on whether Shelly Sterling was authorized to make a deal with Ballmer on behalf of the Sterling Family Trust. While she was negotiating, Donald Sterling revoked the trust, a move designed to rescind his signed agreement for the sale of the Clippers, a team he bought for just $12 million. He announced from the witness stand earlier in the trial that he would never sell the team and would be suing the NBA for the rest of his life. Shelley Sterling says her estranged husband has the onset of Alzheimer's disease and is not competent to handle his own business affairs. But that issue is not being litigated. On Monday, the chief financial officer of Sterling's properties said the billionaire might be forced to sell a large portion of his real estate empire to cover $500 million in real estate loans if the sale does not go through. Darren Schield, who oversees the finances of the trust, testified that three banks are ready to recall their loans to Sterling because of his decision to dissolve the trust. Sterling attorney Maxwell Blecher suggested that Sterling could take the real estate company public in order to raise funds. But Shelly Sterling's lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell, suggested it would be a tough sell because of Donald Sterling's reputation. If the sale of the team doesn't go through by Sept. 15, the NBA can seize the team and sell it at auction. ___AP writer Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.
Written on 07/22/2014, 1:39 pm by The Associated Press
In a sign of increased caution about flying near combat zones, U.S. and European airlines halted flights to Israel Tuesday after a rocket landed near Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines suspended service between the U.S. and Israel indefinitely. US Airways scrapped its one flight to Tel Aviv Tuesday. Germany's Lufthansa and Air France also suspended flights. The actions come days after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. Following the action by the U.S. airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited U.S. airlines from flying to the Tel Aviv airport for 24 hours. The Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in the third war in just over 5 years. Israeli police confirmed that a rocket from Gaza landed in an area near the airport. Police spokeswomen Luba Samri said Tuesday's rocket landing was the closest to the airport since fighting began on July 8. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday while flying at 33,000 feet. Some experts have second-guessed the airline's decision to fly over an area where pro-Russian separatists are battling the Ukrainian army. But Malaysian officials have countered that the plane's path from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was approved by international regulators. Aviation and legal experts said Tuesday that airlines are now taking risk assessment into their own hands, both for the safety of passengers and to avoid claims of negligence. Aviation consultant Robert Mann said airlines are becoming more proactive in the wake of the Flight 17 disaster. "It's really forcing every carrier, every business jet operator to do their own due diligence, do their own risk assessment, given the geopolitical situation," Mann said. Jonathan Reiter, a prominent New York aviation-accident attorney, said flying into an airport after a near-miss by a rocket could be used to show that the airline was negligent. That explains why airlines are suspending service to Israel. "I'm sure it is human concern as well," Reiter said, "but I think (the airlines) feel it is wise to err on the side of caution because it is their burden to prove they are doing everything possible to avoid injuries and deaths." Delta's one daily flight was already in the air. A Delta Boeing 747 from New York was flying over the Mediterranean headed for Tel Aviv when it turned around and flew to Paris instead. Flight 468 had 273 passengers and 17 crew on board. US Airways and United flights that were scheduled to take off later in the day. A Delta spokesman declined to go beyond the details released in a statement. Israel's Transportation Ministry called on the airlines to reverse their decision and said it was trying to explain that the airport was "safe for landings and departures." "Ben-Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded and there is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize," it said in a statement. Casey Norton, a spokesman for US Airways' parent company American Airlines, said the airline is "in constant contact with the FAA and are monitoring the situation closely." The airline has not yet made a decision about flights to Israel scheduled for Wednesday and beyond, he said.
Written on 07/22/2014, 1:33 pm by KEN SWEET, AP Markets Writer
(AP) — Activist investor Bill Ackman fired his latest salvo at the weight loss and nutritional supplements company Herbalife on Tuesday, alleging that one of the business models used by its distributors is evidence that the company operates as an illegal pyramid scheme. Ackman's presentation focused Herbalife's "nutrition clubs," private settings where Herbalife's distributors sell the company's products like weight-loss shakes and also recruit others to sell Herbalife's products. In a three-hour presentation, Ackman laid out a case that because Herbalife's nutrition clubs focus heavily on recruiting new members instead of selling products to consumers, the clubs are by definition functioning as a pyramid scheme. Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital Management, an activist hedge fund, has bet heavily against Herbalife by using "short" trades that will be profitable if the value of the company's stock falls. Ackman has been trying to convince other investors to take similar positions, most memorably in a shouting match he got into with Carl Icahn, a rival investor, on live television in January 2013. Icahn has taken the opposite position from Ackman and has defended Herbalife. The company has not been accused of any crime and insists that its operations are legal. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Attorneys General of New York and Illinois are investigating Herbalife, but no charges have been brought against the company since Ackman announced his short position in 2012. Investors appeared to dismiss Ackman's latest allegations and sent the company's stock soaring. Herbalife shot up $13.15, or 25 percent, to $67.54. Trading volume was more than 15 times the daily average. The stock is still down 14 percent so far this year. Nutrition clubs have become an increasingly lucrative business model for Herbalife in the last 10 years, with more than 4,000 operating in the U.S. alone, according to the company. However, Ackman alleged that nutrition club attendees were not actually end consumers of the product. Instead nutrition club attendees were often recruits to become nutrition club operators of their own. These recruits should not be thought of as retail users of the product, but instead thought of as the next layer in the pyramid. A pyramid scheme occurs when a company's primary mode of doing business is not selling a product or service to a consumer, but instead recruiting new participants to the company who in turn try to recruit new members. Pyramid schemes are illegal because they eventually collapse once there are no more people to recruit. They are similar to Ponzi schemes. Herbalife has vigorously and repeatedly denied Ackman's arguments, and says it operates like a multi-level marketing company similar to Avon, Amway and Mary Kay. "Once again, Bill Ackman has over-promised and under-delivered on his $1 billion bet against our company," Herbalife said in a statement. Ackman bet $1 billion against Herbalife back in 2012, alleging that the company is a pyramid scheme and should be shut down by the government. Ackman said he spent $50 million of investors' money and two years investigating Herbalife. Ackman argues he is in it for "the long haul" when it comes to Herbalife. He has also repeatedly said that any personal profits he would make from the collapse of Herbalife would be donated to charity. At the end of his presentation in midtown Manhattan, Ackman appeared to tear up when discussing his campaign against the company. Ackman alleged that Herbalife's business model takes advantage of often poor people with minimal educations who are trying to find a way to start a business. Ackman called Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson "a predator." "I hope he is listening," Ackman said.
Written on 07/22/2014, 1:30 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — Target is introducing an app that lets users purchase items after scanning magazine ads with their smartphones. It's the latest offering from retailers looking to boost sales with the use of improving image-recognition technology. Starting this month, the app, called "In a Snap," will recognize images for Target's Room Essentials products in 10 home decor magazines including Architecture and Real Simple. A user can simply scan an image and when it is recognized by the app, the item gets added to a shopping cart for potential purchase. Apps that scan codes, such as QSR codes and UPC symbols, are fairly common, but an app that consistently recognizes images or objects has proven more difficult. Retailers are anticipating competition from Firefly, a service Amazon is launching this week with the debut of its Fire smartphone. The company claims Firefly can recognize 100 million items. Amazon's current app for iPhones and iPads has a similar service called Flow that scans barcodes, grocery labels, books and DVDs. Target's app, on the other hand, is limited to recognizing products in ads. It is free to download but still in test mode, and it offers users the ability to send feedback to the Minneapolis retailer. ComScore vice president of marketing and insight Andrew Lipsman said Firefly is something rival retailers should keep an eye on, but consumer behavior is not likely to change overnight. "It's easy for technology to wow us, but it only matters as much as it is useful to the consumer," he said. "There are plenty of examples of really cool technology, but if it doesn't become engrained in regular behavior, it is not going to represent a sea change in e-commerce." Target says it spent a year researching its app and its Rapid Accelerated Development technology team took about six to eight weeks to build the app.
Written on 07/22/2014, 12:27 pm by Business Journal staff
The City of Fresno has stepped up its conservation measures in response to the ever-receding groundwater levels. Speaking at a well site on Ventura Street east of downtown, City Manger Bruce Rudd announced the initiation of Fresno's Stage 2 water shortage contingency plan. As part of Stage 2, outdoor irrigation will be limited to two days a week during the summer for residents and prohibited during winter months. Fresno officials will also increase water waste monitoring to ensure that city watering schedules for buildings, parks and medians follow the new Stage 2 rules. As well, the city will intensify its conservation public awareness efforts and media campaigns to prepare the community for the Stage 2 restrictions directed by the State Water Resources Control Board. Fines for outdoor overwatering will remain at $45 per day, although the city has the authority to discontinue water services after the fifth citation. That's still not as stringent as it could be, as the State Water Board last week gave cities the ability to levy fines of up to $500 a day for water wasters, along with several other restrictions. "While we have already implemented a strong water conservation program, we continue to experience a dramatic drop in our groundwater level," Rudd said. "This ongoing reduction, combined with elimination or reduction of our surface water allocations and coupled with the State Water Board's directive, requires that we elevate our Water Shortage Contingency Plan to a Stage 2 level." The new rules, which go into effect Aug. 1, supersede the city's current Stage 1 water conservation plan, which restricts outdoor irrigation to three days per week in the summer and one day per week in the winter. Car washing under Stage 1 is also limited to a bucket only with a hose equipped with a shut-off nozzle for quick rinsing. Thanks to the city's year-round conservation policy, water usage in Fresno has dropped by more than 20 percent since 2008. Water usage dropped by 10 percent alone from January to May this year over the same period in 2013. Even still, Fresno's groundwater table continues to recede, having already dropped by more than 300 percent in the last 70 years.
Written on 07/22/2014, 10:48 am by LINDA DEUTSCH, TAMI ABDOLLAH, AP Special Correspondent
(AP) — A person close to the case says Steve Ballmer has met with Donald Sterling, who is resisting selling the Los Angeles Clippers to the former Microsoft CEO for $2 billion. The person spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The person says the meeting Monday afternoon lasted 90 minutes at Donald Sterling's Beverly Hills home and was held at his request. Sterling's attorneys, an attorney for his estranged wife Shelly Sterling and Ballmer's attorney were also present. The person says niceties were exchanged but no agreement was reached. The meeting came as the parties prepared to return to a trial over whether Shelly Sterling has sole authority to sell the team.

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