Stacey Vanek Smith

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; flew to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and spoke with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.

Prior to coming to NPR, Smith worked for Marketplace, where she was a correspondent and fill-in host. While there, Smith was part of a collaboration with The New York Times, where she explored the relationship between money and marriage. She was also part of Marketplace's live shows, where she produced a series of pieces on getting her data mined.

Smith is a native of Idaho and grew up working on her parents' cattle ranch. She is a graduate of Princeton University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and creative writing. She also holds a master's in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.

Interest rates had been falling for most of the past three decades – but two years ago, they started climbing. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note recently climbed above 3%, up from less 1.5% just a couple of years ago.

Among the reasons that rising rates matter is that they have numerous effects on the housing market. Some of these effects are obvious. As interest rates climb, so will mortgage rates, making houses relatively less affordable. Refinancing also becomes less attractive.

About three years ago, the Chinese government introduced an economic plan, Made in China 2025. The goal was for China to elevate itself from a middle-income country to a high-income country, upgrading its domestic companies so that they can compete with the most technologically advanced companies in the world. This meant reducing China's reliance on importing certain high-tech goods from abroad, including from the United States.

The wine scoring system was popularized by Robert Parker in the 70s. It has numerous critics. But whatever the system's merits, the scores themselves do make a big difference for a winery business. Today, we explore the weird world of wine ratings and test the system for ourselves.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been about 10 years since the housing crisis started. Home prices now are back up, even breaking records in some parts of the country. But is the market perhaps overheating? Here's Stacey Vanek Smith from Planet Money's Indicator podcast.

Failing College

May 10, 2018

Colleges have a problem: fewer people are applying every year. Universities are competing like crazy for any edge they can get. Some are offering more financial aid, others are building tiger habitats. But the economic impact of fewer universities could be large.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

How many possible shows could the Indicator do? How many indicators will there be? How many almost-indicators will never see the light of day? The answer to all of these questions is: infinity

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

When Republicans in Congress passed a big corporate tax cut in December, they hoped it would incentivize companies to invest more money in equipment, new buildings, research, and software.

This kind of investment would help workers be more productive, making it possible for them to receive bigger raises. Critics of the tax cut responded that companies would just give the money they saved to their shareholders, by buying back their own shares.

A few decades ago, nobody paid much attention to LIBOR. The London Interbank Offered Rate was just an interest rate for loans between banks. It was set by a group of low-level bankers in the bowels of major financial institutions, according to David Enrich, author of The Spider Network. Then banks started using the LIBOR rates to set interest rates for other loans, like mortgages and student loans. A huge scandal ensued, but replacing the infamous rate has proven to be difficult.

California is the largest U.S. state economy, and it's also one of the largest economies in the world. It's home to tons of agricultural production and to the country's biggest ports.

The U.S. economy is improving steadily. The unemployment rate continues to fall. Usually, when companies expand their workforces and start hiring, the supply of workers dries up and wages start to climb faster.

But that's not happening right now. Wages are rising at a measly 2.6 percent. That's barely higher than inflation.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says the way we classify workers misses a key part of the potential workforce. And there's a lot more slack in the labor market than you'd think just by looking at the unemployment rate.

Baby Bubbles

May 3, 2018

It's been more than a decade since a bursting housing bubble triggered the 2008 financial crisis. And, once again, the housing market is booming. Home prices are rising way faster than inflation. And that's got a lot of people worried about another bubble.

We talked to a developer in one of the hottest markets in the country about what he's seeing on the home front. And we asked an economist at the Urban Institute whether he thinks we're on the verge of another housing bust.

Aging Up

May 2, 2018

There's this perception that successful entrepreneurs are invariably youthful, full of ideas and energy, and unburdened by responsibilities that come with middle age. Pair that with the idea that as we get older we decline cognitively, and it makes sense that we think of entrepreneurship as a young person's deal, right?

Ben Jones at the Kellogg School of Management doesn't agree.

Every year, the average American buys a certain amount of goods and services. Inflation measures how the prices of those goods and services are changing.

The Federal Reserve has a target for inflation. It wants us at that sweet spot, where the economy is purring along, but not going so fast that it's in danger of overheating.

That sweet spot is two percent. And we hit that today. Which is great news. The question is, what does the Fed do now to keep us there?

The homeless population in most of the country has been declining for years, thanks to a strong economy and a low unemployment rate. But in Los Angeles County, the homeless population has been rising fast--nearly 25% in the last year.

A team from USC set out to figure out what was going on. They launched a big survey to ask people how they had ended up on the street. They found that the new homeless population has changed. A lot of homeless people are educated, have jobs, and many are elderly.

Half of them had become homeless for the first time in just the last 30 days.

Note: This episode originally ran in 2015.

California is looking at a drought again. The last drought in California made life inconvenient in a lot of ways, from water rationing to taps actually running dry.

The thing is, then and now, there's actually still water in the ground. There are water aquifers literally underneath many of those homes with empty faucets. But the water level has gotten so low that they can't reach it anymore.

A shortage of workers willing and able to do farm labor is forcing some big changes on California's agricultural sector.

On his farm in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, Tom Deardorff has increased wages to attract workers for the jobs that require manual labor, and he's switched to automation where he can.

He still can't find enough workers, however, so he's had to make some drastic changes. He's stopped growing certain fruits and vegetables. And he's moved a lot of production south. To Mexico.

The Port of Long Beach is one of the biggest ports in the country. It and its neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles, handle 390 billion dollars worth of goods every year.

And business has boomed as the economy has improved. U.S. consumers bought more stuff; ships started getting bigger to meet demand; the Port of Long Beach invested billions.

Seventy percent of the ships that dock at the port come from China. So talk of a trade war has everybody's attention down on the docks.

The 10-year Treasury note is used as a benchmark for all sorts of other loans, like mortgages. It's also used as a kind of forecast for the economy.

And right now, pundits and money managers are fretting about the yield on the 10-year. It's been hanging out just below three percent for a while, and people are worried that if it goes to three percent or higher it could hurt the economy.

But our guest today, Marilyn Cohen of bond investment manager Envision Capital, says those concerns are way overblown.

The U.S. loses as much as $600 billion a year through intellectual property theft: Semiconductors, self-driving cars, sunglasses, and software.

China is the biggest culprit. It has planted moles in U.S. companies and hacked into computer systems to steal secrets. Boeing, Apple, Dupont, Ford have all gone after China for intellectual property theft.

President Trump wants to punish China by throwing up tariffs, but economist Ken Rogoff says we'd do better to turn the other cheek. It may not be a satisfying strategy, he says, but it's a lot more profitable in the long run.

More than a hundred million taxpayers will get a refund from the Treasury this year, and the average refund is about three thousand dollars. Of tax filers who do get a refund, it's the biggest cash infusion of the year for forty percent of them.

That sounds cool, but it means the average American taxpayer has effectively lent the government three grand until the refund hit their bank account — interest free.

Meanwhile, many of those taxpayers are either paying high interest rates on debt of their own or putting off the healthcare they need.

The Loan Ranger

Apr 16, 2018

It's widely accepted that you cannot get rid of student loans in bankruptcy. They follow you around forever, like the Terminator. But it turns out they can be beat. Some of them, anyway.

Austin Smith is a bankruptcy litigator who discovered, while he was in law school, that the bankruptcy code has been misinterpreted for decades.

He says as much as 50 billion dollars of outstanding student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy after all.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Congress this week. Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman was watching.

He heard the senators' questions and wondered how many of our congressional representatives have any kind of computer background.

The answer? Not that many. Right around three percent. And, Kellman says, that's a problem for all of us.

The tax cuts, a government that almost shuts down before passing a big spending bill, a tanking stock market, the risk of trade wars (not to mention real wars), and even bad weather — it's been exhausting to keep up with the news flow these past few months.

But worry not. The Indicator goes back to its roots for this episode and presents you with three economic indicators that we think don't get enough attention — indicators that let you filter out the daily clatter and understand the trends that really matter.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The U.S. economy is not in a cyclical downturn right now. In fact, it is growing. So you might think that the deficit would be shrinking every year.

But no. The Congressional Budget Office says the deficit will be going up for the next 10 years. It will reach a trillion dollars by 2020.

Jared Bernstein joined us to talk about whether that's a bad thing.

There are essentially three reasons why women make, on average, 20 percent less than men in the U.S.

They are job choice, child care, and negotiation.

Francine Blau, an economist at Cornell, has done deep research into the gender pay gap, and joined us to dig into those reasons.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

China and the U.S. played tit-for-tat with tariffs this week. President Trump opened by proposing $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese products. China responded with a proposal to slap tariffs worth $50 billion on U.S. goods.

A lot of American companies have expressed worry about what this will mean for their business. And of course, for jobs.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, looked into which parts of the workforce might be negatively affected by these tariffs.

Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie — part of the team behind Our World In Data — specialize in looking at how the world has changed over the very long run; as in centuries and millennia.

Over the course of their research they tend to come across some non-intuitive statistics that tell strange and sometimes wonderful stories about our world. So we called them up and asked them about a few of their favorite bits of data.

Musical collaborations between artists who normally do their own thing have been around for a long time. Back in the 80s collaborations were rare enough that when one did become a hit, it was a big deal.

The trend began gathering pace in the 1990s, and hasn't stopped. Today, about 35 percent of the Billboard Hot 100 songs are now collaborations, up from just 5 percent in 1990.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest might be the rising popularity of hip hop.

Back in 1907, America's financial system was pretty unsophisticated. There was no central bank, barely any kind of regulatory framework, and no backstop in case of a crash.

Meanwhile, the economy was growing fast, with people borrowing and investing at a dizzying rate. And when people lost confidence in a kind of unregulated lending institution called a trust, panic spread through the economy.

Pages