economy

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From the Associated Press:

An auto industry group says Japanese automakers have begun checking the level of radiation on cars to be exported from Japan amid a nuclear leak crisis.

Hirokazu Furukawa, a spokesman for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, said Friday the move was to ease worries among foreign consumers about radiation leaking from a tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant in northern Japan.

The automakers will inspect radiation inside a car and on its tires before shipment.

No radiation has been detected on cars to be exported from Japan, Furukawa said. Automakers are currently checking the level of radiation on cars to be shipped from eight ports.

Furukawa said around 10 cars out every 5,000 are being checked for radiation.

Manoli Katakis / creative commons

A final decision has not been made, but Warren Mayor Jim Fouts released a statement saying GM is considering two investments in its Technical Center and Powertrain Facility in Warren.

Fouts says the investments add up to $450 million and would create 426 new jobs.

From Fouts' statement:

"These possible projects are the result of several meetings between city representatives, including me, and GM officials. I cannot stress too much how important these new investments would be to our city. They mean more jobs and ultimately more tax revenues for Warren. I am confident GM will choose these locations for new investments because the corporation realizes Warren is a business-friendly community that will go the extra mile to encourage businesses to expand or relocate here."

The mayor said Warren became a city in 1957 because of the construction of GM's Tech Center in the city. And he encouraged other business to move there.

user eflon / Flickr

Two retirees from Fowlerville, Michigan, Nancy Kinder and Ray Harrison, have filed several lawsuits challenging banks on ATM fee notifications.

The Electronic Fund Transfer Act says the amount the bank will charge for use of the ATM machine "shall be posted in a prominent and conspicuous location on or at the automated teller machine at which the electronic fund transfer is initiated by the consumer."

Tresa Baldas reports in the Detroit Free Press that the retirees have been taking advantage of this part of the law:

Kinder and Harrison have been "combing the state by car, looking for ATMs that don't have the notification sign, records show. When they spot one, they make a withdrawal, take a picture of the ATM, and then it's off to court."

They've sued 36 banks in two years and they recently filed five lawsuits in one day.

user fiatontheweb / creative commons

Updated: 

News that Fiat will soon acquire a bigger stake in Chrysler is another sign the merger is working.

Jim Hall is president of  the auto consulting firm 2953 Analytics.  He says the merger benefits both companies.  Fiat gets access to the U.S. market and to Chrysler’s more profitable vehicles, and Chrysler gets access to Fiat's global markets and its fuel-saving technology. 

And the merger could save the companies money on parts.

user Orin Zebest / Flickr

Gas prices in Michigan are expected to go higher, according to an online service that shares information on fuel prices. GasBuddy.com collects data on gasoline prices all across Michigan and the rest of the country.  The company says average gas prices in Michigan are about to jump up  to between $4.05 and $4.15 a gallon.

This from an e-mail sent out by Gasbuddy.com:

We're at increasing odds for a price hike. Oil prices have continued to rally this week, meaning it may be price hike time. With the rise in wholesale costs already being passed on to stations, odds are this hike will occur any time in the next 48 hours.

Patrick DeHaan, the senior petroleum analyst with Gas Buddy, says several factors, including refineries switching to summer blends of gasoline,  are behind rising gas prices. 

“Unfortunately, until these refineries get going and finish their maintenance and boost production…we will continue to see supply dwindle and that will continue to impact prices.”  

DeHaan predicts Michigan gasoline prices will continue to edge higher between now and Memorial Day.

The White House says speculators on Wall Street are driving oil prices up. President Obama made some remarks on speculation in Virginia accoring to UPI:

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a speech in Virginia, said it's not a lack of supply that is driving oil prices up on the commodity markets.

"The problem is, is that oil is sold on these world markets, and speculators and people make various bets, and they say, you know what, we think that maybe there's a 20 percent chance that something might happen in the Middle East that might disrupt oil supply, so we're going to bet that oil is going to go up real high," he said. "And that spikes up prices significantly."

In the article, Bart Chilton, a member of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, says speculation makes up part of the price at the pump, "there is a Wall Street premium on gas prices today. Every time folks fill up their tanks, they can expect that several dollars are due to speculation."

Speculation was a big driver of the skyrocketing oil prices back in 2009.

Takashi Nakano vis user tex texin / Flickr

Parts shortages from Japan continue as Toyota announces more production cuts - from the Associated Press:

Toyota is extending production cuts at its North American factories through May because of parts shortages from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The company says production will be suspended in North America on Mondays and Fridays from April 26 through June 3. During the same period, plants will run at half capacity on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Toyota also said Tuesday that U.S. production will be suspended the week of May 30 after the Memorial Day holiday. Canadian production will be suspended the week of May 23 in conjunction with Victoria Day.

Plans after June 3 will be announced later. Toyota says no workers will be laid off.

The company last week announced Monday and Friday suspensions from April 15 to 25.

Detroit has the "Big Three," but Japan has the "Big Five" (Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Suzuki, and Mazda).

This info-graphic from the Globe and Mail captures how interconnected the Japanese auto economy is to the rest of the world.

Miguel Vaca / Flickr

"Would you like some fries with that?"

That’s the phrase many are perfecting for McDonald's National Hiring Day tomorrow. Many of the McDonald’s  jobs will be in the Midwest.

McDonald's got its start here in the Midwest, and it has a substantial presence throughout the Great Lakes states.

That’s why 10,000 of the 50,000 new workers, the company wants will be based across the region.

The McDonald's in downtown Chicago (on Chicago and State) is one location that is hiring. Nick Karavites and his family own that restaurants and 18 others across the city.

"Not only are we looking to hire cashiers but also hospitality staff and kitchen staff," says Karavites.

As the employment market improves, job seekers can get more selective about where they work.

Karavites said pay at their restaurants averages $9 an hour, and that all workers can participate in a McDonald’s Insurance program.

McDonald’s says the company needs more workers because last year’s sales were up five percent and continues to grow.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

"We ain't cops anymore. We're librarians. We take reports. We don't fight crime."

That's what officer Steve Howe told New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff.

LeDuff rode along with Howe and wrote about the experience in his Sunday Magazine article "Riding Along With the Cops in Murdertown, U.S.A."

The desperation in Flint is well known. After several years of cuts to vital city services, the city is still looking at a projected budget deficit of $17 million.

LeDuff writes that the sign on the door of Flint's Police Headquarters says it all "Closed weekends and holidays."

LeDuff writes that another sign in town is a lie. He's talking about the sign on an archway that names Flint "Vehicle City."

But the name is a lie. Flint isn’t Vehicle City anymore. The Buick City complex is gone. The spark-plug plant is gone. Fisher Body is gone.

What Flint is now is one of America’s murder capitals. Last year in Flint, population 102,000, there were 66 documented murders. The murder rate here is worse than those in Newark and St. Louis and New Orleans. It’s even worse than Baghdad’s.

The murders in Flint continue to pile up. More than 20 so far this year.

Mayor Dayne Walling held a press conference recently saying "the killings and criminals must be stopped."

But who's going to stop them? LeDuff reports there are only six patrolmen working on a Saturday night in Flint and the city has laid off two-thirds of its police force in the last three years.

Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reported that Flint's Public Safety Director Alvern Lock denied "that cuts to Flint’s police department have played a role in the increase in the city’s increase homicide rate."

But when reading LeDuff's piece, you have to wonder.

Photo courtesy of the Murphys

In 1950, more than half of Americans owned their homes free and clear. No surprise that number has shrunk over the years.  But those who count themselves mortgage-free are still out there. The 2010 U.S. Census shows 1 out of every 3 homeowners owns their home free and clear. In a story produced for Marketplace Money, we look at what it takes to become mortgage-free.

Meet the Murphys

Mike and Kate Murphy live in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago, with two of their kids, Becky and Tommy, and their pet fish. They bought their charming, 3-bedroom brick house in 1996 for $156,000.

They originally started with a $110,000 mortgage. Mike Murphy says it was " obviously the largest mortgage we had ever taken out."

At the time, Kate brought in $30,000 a year, designing theater costumes part time. Mike was making $50,000 as a public school teacher:

At first they paid $1,100 a month on the mortgage. Refinancing dropped the payment to just under a $1,000. But they decided to pay a little more each month -- first $100, then $150 more.

Fast forward 13 years and they owned their house free and clear.

Fiat USA

During the U.S. government led bailout in 2009, Fiat took over management control of Chrysler and was given a 20% stake in the company.

The government said Fiat's stake in Chrysler could increase to as much as 35% so long as they met three milestones.

Now, the Italian company now controls 30% of Chrysler after meeting the second milestone set forth by the U.S. government.

From the Detroit News:

Fiat SpA announced today it has increased its share in partner Chrysler Group LLC to 30 percent effective immediately.

The additional 5 percent stake is triggered automatically with Fiat's completion of the second of three performance-related conditions.

The first, achieved in January, was awarded for Chrysler's assembly in Dundee of a fuel-efficient Fiat engine.

The second condition was that the Italian automaker help Chrysler generate cumulative revenue of $1.5 billion outside North America and use Fiat's dealer network in Latin America to distribute Chrysler vehicles.

The third milestone, according to the Globe and Mail, is the development of a 40 mpg Dodge car built on a Fiat platform.

Once that milestone is reached, Fiat could solidify its ownership of Chrysler. From the Globe and Mail:

Dodge is developing a compact car on a Fiat platform that will reach 40 miles per gallon, which would satisfy the third test set by Treasury in 2009.

Mr. Marchionne told analysts on a conference call in October that he expected Fiat would meet all of the Treasury’s hurdles by the end of 2011.

The indications of progress are significant because the sooner Fiat can raise its Chrysler stake to 35 per cent, the quicker it could exercise an option to take majority ownership of the U.S. automaker.

The Detroit News reports that the current ownership of Chrysler breaks down this way:

  1. 59.2% - United Auto Workers retiree health care trust
  2. 30% - Fiat
  3. 8.6% - U.S. government
  4. 2.2% - Canada and Ontario governments combined
Michael Gil / wikimedia commons

Last year, many automakers brought in profits and announced that they would open up new factories and add new jobs.

But the industry is adding new jobs at a time when qualified candidates are hard to come by.

David Shepardson wrote about the shortage in the Detroit News today:

From the Rapid Growth Media video

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith hopped on a bus with community leaders from the Grand Rapids area this past Wednesday.

Their destination was Detroit. And their goal for the trip was "to build stronger bonds between Michigan’s two major population centers."

They left in the wee hours of the morning and arrived back in Grand Rapids around 2:30 a.m.

The trip organizers put this video together:

Consumers spent more on retail goods in the first quarter than they did during the same time last year. That's despite higher gas prices, bad weather and a late Easter holiday.

Luxury retailers were the winners.

Retail analyst Marshal Cohen says the recession has left the consumer with "frugal fatigue."

"We're tired of being so frugal with what we're spending and at the least expensive place," he says.

A bunch retailers released their first quarter numbers this week.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Property values have plummeted across the region.

That means cities and towns have watched their tax revenue plunge as well. But many homeowners and businesses think their property taxes are still too high.

The result is a double hit.

Local governments are in fiscal crisis, and the tax courts of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are clogged with people who want refunds.

People like Donald Betlem.

Photo by David Sommerstein

Another sure sign of spring: the Great Lakes shipping season kicked off this week.

Millions of tons of cargo travel by boat on the Great Lakes every year– freighters from the Atlantic Ocean that enter the Lakes by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The first freighter of the 53rd Seaway season eased through the locks in Montreal on Tuesday. David Sommerstein visited Montreal for the opening ceremonies.  He found out that Seaway officials are trying to rebrand the Seaway:

The first freighter rumbling into the St. Lambert Lock was the Dutch-flagged "Avonborg."  It was loaded up with wind turbine parts.

David spoke with Terry Johnson, the U.S. chief of the St. Lawrence Seaway:

"Wind turbines have been increasingly coming in and it’s nice to be able to see something that is visual. This is good."

The windmill parts bound for Indiana aren’t just a good photo opp. They’re the perfect image the Seaway wants to project these days – that it’s the greenest, cheapest way to transport goods. Shipping is far more fuel efficient than trucking.

Ross Fletcher of BBC Chartering contracted this ship.

"Those 75 blades represent 75 truckloads that aren’t going to travel between Montreal and the U.S. Midwest, so we’re taking 75 truckloads off the highways."

The Seaway’s been trying to reinvent itself since it was built in the 1950s.

(Flickr ziggy fresh)

Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped slightly in February. Michigan’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined by 3 tenths of one percent last month to 10.4%.

The state’s jobless number was still one and a half percentage points above the national unemployment rate of 8.9%.  

Michigan’s unemployment rate has been falling since September 2009. And last month, the number of jobless Michiganders fell below a half million for the first time since November 2008.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

The Downtown Detroit Partnership is holding its annual meeting and luncheon today from noon to 1:30 p.m..

Mayor Dave Bing and others are expected to highlight progress made in developing Detroit's downtown.

From the Associated Press:

Mayor Dave Bing and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano are scheduled to discuss the progress made over the past year in improving Detroit's downtown.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

In one study, Michigan had the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. In another, Michigan ranked 11th in the nation.

That's according to a piece from Dawson Bell at the Detroit Free Press. Bell writes both studies cited "the state's unique mandate for unlimited coverage for personal injuries as a primary cause for high rates."

From the article:

Michigan auto insurance rates led the country -- $2,541 a year for a hypothetical 40-year-old man with a clean driving record -- in an annual survey released last week by the consumer insurance information site insure.com.

The Michigan rate jumped more than 21% from the same survey a year earlier, overtaking Louisiana, which topped the list last year.

Vermont, at $995 a year, was the cheapest place to buy auto insurance, the survey found.

Allan Cleaver / Flickr

Ever since Governor Rick Snyder released his budget plan last month, people have been looking at the details and wondering how they might be affected by the plans.

For people with pensions and the working poor, it's been clear, you would pay more if Snyder's plan is approved. But how much more?

The Detroit Free Press, in a series of reports, is seeking to break down the numbers. In their first report What Snyder's income tax plan means for you they summarize their findings this way:

Parents with low-paying jobs would stop getting state income supplements worth as much as $1,000.

High-income retirees with generous pensions would pay thousands of dollars more.

But taxpayers in brackets that cover most Michiganders would see little change in their state income tax bill under Gov. Rick Snyder's sweeping proposals.

The Freep provides some detailed examples of how the tax proposals might affect certain people.

Marelco Power Systems, Inc. told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus that is will stop production at its plant in Howell.

The company makes transformers, inductors, and control systems, among other things, for the auto companies and other manufacturers.

From the Associated Press:

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