By Scott A. Shay
Econgularity, shorthand for economic singularity, is an ugly word I created to describe an unfortunate approaching moment in time when our current technological snooping prowess, the ease of big data manipulation and our sprint to a cashless economy will converge. This will happen in such a way as to permit governments to exercise incredibly powerful control over all human behavior.
Tune in to CNBC's "Closing Bell" Friday at 3pm ET. Signature Bank Chairman Scott Shay will be on, talking about how close we are to becoming a cashless society and the huge threat it is to our freedom.
By Krista Braun
Who is to blame for the housing-bubble bust that led to the worst financial crisis in U.S. history since the Great Depression?
Stanford economist and former Treasury Undersecretary John Taylor said former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan kept rates too low for too long.
Alan Greenspan said Taylor's wrong.
It's a debate the two famed economists have carried out in print since Taylor presented his theory at a 2007 Jackson Hole conference. Greenspan and Taylor met to debate in person for the first time Tuesday night on CNBC's "The Kudlow Report."
In late 2001, Greenspan lowered the federal-funds rate to 1.75 percent from 6.5 percent and lowered the rate again to 1 percent in mid-2003, where it held for a year. The Federal Reserve began raising the fed-funds rate incrementally for the next two years before beginning to lower them again in 2007.
(Read more: Get ready, here it comes: A December taper)
According to Taylor's eponymous rule, the Fed would have moved rates up earlier and by a larger amount. Greenspan's then-unconventional policy exacerbated the housing bubble that saw home prices "going through the roof," Taylor said. "You can see the bubble started to increase at a more rapid rate around that time."
Taylor also said rising inflation was another sign the funds rate was being held too low: "The funds rate was 1 percent when the inflation rate was already 2 [percent]. In 1997, Alan was also the chair, the funds rate was about 5 percent when the inflation rate was 2 percent. You don't have to have a Taylor Rule to see it was too low by that time."
(Read more: Cantor: Budget deal 'maintains savings')
Greenspan said it was exactly the right thing to do and if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't change a thing.
"There is no evidence that the actual price levels of homes was significantly affected by the action which we took," Greenspan said. "Human nature being what it is, if you have very successful policy of stabilizing the economy, you are invariably rewarded with a bubble."
The former Fed chairman said that, prior to 2003, there was a high correlation between short-term rates determined by the Fed and the long-term rates that effectively determine home prices. However, he said the correlation since then is zero.
"There's been a complete disconnect between what the Federal Reserve is doing in monetary policy, and the long- and short-term rates," Greenspan said.
(Read more: DC squabbling could still wreck the economy in 2014)
But Taylor said there's really no evidence that suggests there is a disconnect between long-term rates and the Fed's short-term target.
"If there was any disconnect, it was because of the policy of these very low rates, so unusual, so different than the policy that worked well in the '80s and '90s," Taylor said.
On one point, the two economists agree: It's time to unwind the current Fed's policy of bond buying, known as quantitative easing.
"I think they should slow down," Taylor said. "This is a good opportunity. I don't think it's been much good, so it's time to get back as quickly as possible to normal policy."
"I think it's about time," Greenspan agreed. But, he said, the policy's full economic impact will only be known in time: "Overall, it's going to be history's evaluation as to whether this particular, very innovative procedure has worked," Greenspan said.
You probably have some gift cards on your holiday shopping list. Once again, this year they're the most-requested present. Here are seven simple ways to get more for your gift-card dollars.
1. Buy discounted cards
You shop the sales for your holiday gifts, right? So, why pay full price for those gift cards?
"You'll pay less than face value, so you're actually getting free money on each purchase," said Marc Ackerman, co-founder of CardCash.com.
Right now, the discounts offered by CardCash range from 1 to 35 percent, based on supply and demand. For example, a Wal-Mart gift card is only discounted 2 percent, while a card for Patagonia is 20 percent off. Ackerman said the average savings is about 12 percent.
2. Shop with reward points
Reward points can be used to buy all sorts of things, including gift cards. And right now, some credit card issuers are selling them at a sizeable discount.
(Read more: 10 tips for shipping holiday gifts)
For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards members can buy certain gift cards for 10 to 20 percent fewer points than typically required. And these are cards from well-known stores, such as Bloomingdale's, Kohl's, Lands' End, Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Old Navy.
"This is a great untapped resource for savings," said Janna Herron, credit card analyst at Bankrate.com. "It's an easy way to stretch your rewards and your holiday budget, and maybe use up points or miles that are about to expire."
3. Look for special discounts from local retailers
Gift cards are good for business. They boost sales and create loyal customers. That's why many merchants, especially restaurants, run holiday gift card promotions.
For example, buy a $100 gift card at Salty's Waterfront Seafood Grills in Seattle right now and they'll give you a $20 promotional gift card. The cards are sent to the gift recipient in special packaging and there's no shipping charge.
(Read more: Holiday tips: 20% is the new 15%)
You'd be smart to go online and see if any of your favorite restaurants or stores have holiday specials on their gift cards.
4. Watch out for fees
There are two types of gift cards: Store-specific cards can only be used at one merchant—you can only use a Staples gift card at Staples. General purpose gift cards, sold by banks and credit card companies, can be used at any retailer that accepts that credit card.
Surveys show most people prefer to get the general purpose cards because they're so convenient, but they're more expensive for the person who buys them.
"While store-specific cards almost never have a fee, general purpose gift cards always charge an upfront purchase fee, which averages $3.95," said Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research at CreditCards.com. "General use gift cards can also charge dormancy fees on the back end for the recipient in case they are not used for a year or longer."
5. Don't pay for shipping
Order a gift card via the Web and you could get dinged for shipping. A survey by CardHub found that a third of the cards sold online have a shipping charge.
"The average shipping charge is $4.44," said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. "Don't waste your money on that."
See if you can find a store that your recipient will like that doesn't have a shipping charge. Or send an electronic gift card, if the company offers it. There's no shipping charge for that. A lot of young people actually prefer a digital gift card because it's so easy to use it to shop online.
6. Regift your unwanted cards
Chances are you have a few unused gift cards in your purse or wallet or sitting in a drawer just collecting dust. Why not regift them? You might be able to do it without getting caught.
Don't be discouraged if the plastic is dirty or looks old. Just use the money loaded on that card to buy a new one from that same merchant. Do this online and they may gift wrap the card and send it in a nice box.
(Read more: Tips for snagging luxury gifts at deep discounts)
If there's an odd amount of money left on the card, add a little bit more. You can also take a big card and have it divided into several smaller ones to give to different people.
7. Sell unwanted cards
It's easy to turn that plastic into cash. The sites that resell gift cards also buy them.
"If you have a gift card that you don't plan to use, and you can turn that into cash, why not? It's a no-brainer," said Kendal Perez, marketing manager with Gift Card Granny.
The average payout is about 75 percent of the card's value. It's higher (about 92 percent) on popular cards, like Target and Amazon, and lower (about 40 percent) on cards for boutique shops or restaurants with just a few locations.
The sites that buy gift cards typically offer several ways to get your money, such as check and PayPal. There's often a bonus if you take payment in the form of an Amazon gift card. At Gift Card Granny, you get an extra 4.5 to 5 percent.
There's been a lot of fraud associated with gift cards. A stolen card can be used like cash, no ID required. ID thieves create bogus websites that offer huge discounts on preowned cards. They hope to use that lure to steal your personal information. My advice: Be safe and stick to well-known reputable sites.
To reduce your risk of fraud, don't buy gift cards from online classified websites, such as craigslist. There's no way for you to know if that card is a counterfeit or has been stolen. And there's no way to know for sure how much money is really stored on that card. If you get burned, there may be no recourse.
The big resale sites, like CardHub, CardCash and Gift Card Granny, all offer a money-back guarantee should there be a problem after the sale. Stick with them.
If you get a gift card, treat it like cash. Only 69 percent of the companies surveyed by Bankrate.com for its 2013 Gift Card study will replace the money on a lost or stolen card. And typically, you must have registered the card ahead of time or have certain information on hand, such as the PIN or sales receipt.
By Karma Allen
If you are shipping holiday gifts to loved ones who are miles away, buying a present may be the easy part.
But making sure your holiday packages arrive at their destinations safely before Christmas shouldn't drain your bank account or be a big hassle, if you keep these tips in mind.
1. Pick the right gift: Not only do you want to buy gift that they will like, you need to buy something you can mail easily. Even with the right packing precautions, it's always safer to buy items you know can survive a bumpy trip through the mail. Apparel, shoes and most toys are a safe bet.
Also, remember some states restrict what items you can send in the mail. Pay attention to these rules, especially if you are shipping fruits and veggies. Also, certain batteries, liquids and plants may be restricted depending on the package's destination, so be sure to ask about prohibited items before you ship your gifts.
2. Pay attention to the box: Make sure to use a box that's in good condition. "Use a new, sturdy box that's a few inches larger than your gift on all sides to allow for plenty of cushioning," FedEx spokesperson Bonny Harrison said.
(Read more: What NOT to buy your boss this holiday)
In an attempt to save money, "many inexperienced shippers—people who ship one or two packages a year—often make the mistake of using the wrong size box, or an old box, which can easily result in damaged gifts," said Scott Harkins, senior vice president of global marketing at FedEx.
Using an old box can cause problems down the line. Make sure it's free of torn flaps, holes, corner dents, or water-damage. UPS said a crease can reduce a box's strength by as much as 70 percent.
"The more times a box is used, the more it loses its strength and protective quality," UPS spokesperson Natalie Black said.
Leftover shipping labels also can cause a lot confusion about a package's destination, so if you need to reuse a box be sure to completely remove the old label. Simply placing the new label over the old one will not suffice.
3. Splurge on high-quality cushioning: UPS said it's better to spend a bit more and use higher-performing cushioning materials made of polyethylene or polyurethane, because the most basic polystyrene cushion can endure only one impact.
Using stronger, but thinner cushioning is better because you can use a smaller box and save on shipping costs if the price is based on the package's dimensions and weight.
4. Take the shake test: Be sure to pack it right. Use at least 1 inch of cushioning around the item—top, bottom and all four sides—to fill in any air spaces. There should be very little movement when you shake the box.
Watch the newspaper. It's not a good choice for cushioning, since it may flatten while the box is in transit, but it's great for wrapping fragile items.
"When you've got a super-breakable item to ship, use two boxes," Harrison said. "Then cushion around [the second box] with at least 3 inches of packing peanuts or other cushioning material."
The key point is to keep the gift items as far away from the box's walls as possible.
5. Mind these deadlines: Ship your gifts by the dates below to get them there on, or before Christmas.
6. Don't forget flat-rate boxes: Flat-rate boxes come in a variety of sizes and can be a money-saver when shipping small, but heavy gifts.
(Read more: A peek inside the Black Friday numbers)
FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service both offer this option, which allows you to pack as much as you can into a box and pay one price. Weight doesn't matter.
7. Know when to call for help: If you're shipping an odd-shaped item and you're not sure of how to pack it, you may want to consider talking to a shipping expert. USPS, FedEx and UPS offer packing services for a fee.
The service cost varies and restrictions may apply, but if FedEx or UPS packs and ships your item, you will be automatically protected if the package is lost in transit or damaged.
(Slideshow: Six wearable tech gift ideas)
One thing to watch is that your maximum reimbursement may be limited unless you pay extra to declare the value of your items ahead of time.
8. Consider insurance: There is always a chance that your package might get lost or damaged. Ask your shipper about insurance or a declared-value option.
FedEx does not offer insurance, but you can pay extra to declare a value on your package—up to $1,000—before you ship it. With UPS, liability for loss or damaged is limited to $100 unless a higher value is declared and paid for. UPS' declared value limit is $50,000.
Ask plenty of questions before declaring the value of your package. If your package ends up being damaged in transit, but the shipping company determines that you packed it improperly, or did not follow proper packing procedures, they may have grounds to deny your claim.
9. Look for deals: Bargain-hunting shouldn't end when you buy your gift. If you have time try to shop around, you could find a cheaper shipping rate.
If you're near one of the 800 or so PostNet locations you can stop in and have them compare shipping prices from USPS, FedEx, UPS and DHL free of charge. Otherwise, USPS, FedEx and UPS have tools on their websites to estimate shipping costs.
10. Avoid missed packages: If package recipients miss delivery more than once, they may be forced to pick up the package at a shipping hub. To avoid the potential inconvenience, consider sending the gift to their place of employment. This also helps avoid unwanted snooping from children, or even neighbors.
(Read more: Wal-Mart's hottest Black Friday item: A towel)
Also, keep your tracking numbers handy. This makes it easier to pinpoint the package's destination and lets its recipients know when to look out for it.
Many Americans are still skittish to buy a home but Chinese investors are snapping up U.S. real estate, Dolly Lenz, a real-estate broker to New York's rich and famous, said Wednesday.
Americans "are still lacking that confidence to jump in — and they're doing that buy-versus-rent analysis," Lenz said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." They're saying, "How much does it cost me to do this or do this? And every time there's an interest-rate jump, guess what? Rent wins."
(Read more: Robert Shiller on housing: Don't trust momentum)
The Chinese, on the other hand, are finding high-value properties in the U.S. a relatively stable place to park money long-term.
Top markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and ski resort towns like Park City in Utah where demand remains sky-high, have all become top choices for Chinese buyers.
The Chinese impact on U.S. real estate is "very strong and, I believe, getting stronger ... picking up steam as we go along," Lenz said.
Americans tend to have a "money under the mattress" culture, Lenz said, while the Chinese "are a true investor group" when it comes to real estate.
One market still a bit light on Chinese buyers is New York City — mostly due to the large number of co-op apartments there, Lenz said. These typically come with rules and restrictions on who can buy into the building and boards can reject an application for any reason.
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