Financial Freedom. Best business news.

June 30, 2011

Maple Leaf Foods names Purdy Crawford as non-executive chairman

Filed under: business, loans — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 6:24 am

TORONTO

June 28, 2011

Germany, China stress support for euro

Filed under: online, small business — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 3:52 pm

Premier Wen Jiabao has underlined China’s support for Europe and the euro as it grapples with its debt crisis, insisting that Beijing has confidence in the 17-nation currency.

Wen said after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday that if Europe has difficulties, China will “reach out our helping hand.” He pointed to Chinese purchases of European bonds.

Wen says China is confident in Europe because it includes countries such as economically strong Germany and it has a skilled work force, among other reasons. He says the current difficulties are “only of temporary nature.”

Merkel says she assured Wen that Germany will do everything to ensure eurozone countries’ competitiveness but also the “necessary degree of solidarity.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BERLIN (AP) _ German and Chinese leaders on Tuesday pledged a big increase over the next few years in trade between their countries, the biggest economies of Europe and Asia, while China’s premier downplayed Europe’s current economic woes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Premier Wen Jiabao and many of his ministers to Berlin, a reception that underlined Germany’s hopes of deepening political and economic ties with fast-rising China.

Merkel said at a joint economic forum that Germany and China want to increase their annual bilateral trade volume to euro200 billion ($284 billion) by 2015.

Trade between China and Germany totaled just over euro130 billion last year, a 38.5 percent increase compared with 2009. China was the No. 7 buyer of German exports, at euro53.6 billion; and it led the list of importers to Germany, which bought Chinese goods and services worth euro76.5 billion.

Wen, speaking after Merkel, voiced hopes that the countries could even double their trade volume over five years.

China, which overtook Germany as the world’s biggest exporter in 2009, is now Germany’s third-biggest trading partner _ after France and the Netherlands, and ahead of the United States low interest rate personal loans.

“We both take the view that what is good can become better,” Merkel said. She added that China and Germany are “ideal partners” to develop electric cars for the future, for example, and said both sides want to “deepen our investment relationship.”

Germany has led growth in the 17-nation eurozone over the past year, posting an increase in output of 3.6 percent last year. It has “great opportunities for powerful growth this year” as well, Merkel said. Officials and economists say this year’s growth could total 3 percent or more.

Wen, whose visit to Germany followed stops in Hungary and Britain, stressed that ties with the European Union are of strategic importance to Beijing.

“Some EU countries are currently in economic difficulties,” Wen said in a reference to the debt crisis weighing on countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. “But these are of temporary character.”

China, he said, is “full of confidence” in the EU’s development.

Wen said China is prepared to buy more high-quality German goods but also called for Berlin to quickly grant it formal recognition as a full market economy to help remove obstacles to trade.

He said that “we are not forcing anyone into technology transfer” but urged Germany to seek a loosening of EU export restrictions which, he argued, “significantly limit the export of Germany’s new technologies to China and the international competitiveness of German companies on the Chinese market.”

Merkel, Wen and their ministers were meeting at the chancellery later Tuesday.

Source

June 26, 2011

State cautious on smart grid

Filed under: Canada, technology — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 7:56 pm

In an effort to modernize the Illinois electric grid, state legislators approved a controversial bill last month to jump-start more than $3 billion of investment by the two largest utilities.

Led by Chicago-based ComEd, the utilities lobbied hard for the ’smart grid” measure, which would jolt the state’s electric distribution network into the 21st century and impose sweeping regulatory changes. Environmental groups have embraced the measure. Consumer advocates have condemned parts of it as a ploy to boost profit. Gov. Pat Quinn has vowed to veto it.

Regardless of how the drama plays out in Illinois, there’s no rush to follow suit on the other side of the Mississippi River. As with electric deregulation a decade ago, the Missouri utility industry would rather watch and wait. Regulators, utility executives and consumer advocates in Missouri see peril in rushing to spend billions of dollars on new technology that may not pay immediate dividends.

“Everybody agrees we’re using way-old technology and older infrastructure, and we have to move toward upgrading and updating our electrical grid,” said Missouri Public Service Commission Chairman Kevin Gunn. But “this is the perfect example where the Show-Me state motto is the right way to go.”

The term smart grid generally refers to technological upgrades designed to improve reliability and efficiency of the nation’s power grid. Most attention has focused on new digital meters, but other infrastructure aims to minimize outages, allow for increased use of renewable energy and allow consumers to buy cheaper power during off-peak hours.

“This is a major transformation of the power grid that’s going to take a numbers of years, it’s going to occur in stages, piece by piece,” said Peter Fox-Penner, a principal at the consulting firm Brattle Group.

national backlash

Across the country, smart grid projects, especially those involving new digital smart meters, have sparked a backlash. In Texas, regulators were asked to investigate the accuracy of the new meters. In San Francisco, customers are worried about electromagnetic radiation. A few California cities have declared moratoriums on the new meters. Privacy advocates worry about what utilities will do with the data they collect on consumer energy use.

All of this provided fodder for discussion last summer as the Missouri PSC held a smart grid workshop with representatives from utilities, the Energy Department and smart grid vendors. Regulators and utilities continue to closely watch demonstration projects in Fulton and Kansas City that are paid for partly with stimulus grants.

In Illinois, it’s the debate over the regulatory framework being proposed by utilities that’s raising second thoughts. David Kolata, executive director at Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based utility watchdog, said the group backs the bill’s smart grid provisions. What it objects to are more sweeping changes in the legislation that could expose consumers to higher rates.

“It’s increasingly clear that we’re not going to build our way out of future energy issues” by adding new power plants, he said. “But there cannot be a blank check” for utilities.

Whatever the cost, the benefits of a smart grid could be enormous. Some say it could do for the nation’s patchwork electric grid what the Interstate highway system did for car travel, and revolutionize energy use the way the Internet changed the flow of information.

Today’s grid is a giant one-way road where electricity is pushed from a few large generating plants to millions of customers. Utilities charge the same rate for every kilowatt-hour, even though electricity costs vary widely throughout the day. And consumers have little idea how much power they’re using, and so they have little incentive to use less at peak times when electricity prices are high.

The smart grid would make better use of intermittent power sources such as windmills and solar arrays. New meters could make it possible for utilities to charge different rates for electricity at different times of the day, so consumers can run the dishwasher or clothes drier at night to save money. And new smart thermostats and appliances would be able to automatically adjust power use in response to changing prices.

Such improvements would help utilities avoid building expensive new power plants that run only a few hours on hot summer afternoons to help meet peak demand. They would improve air quality and cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

barriers to entry

But getting from here to there won’t be easy or cheap. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates implementation of a nationwide smart grid will require investment of as much as $476 billion.

Advancing the smart grid also requires consumers to buy in. And it has been a tough sell so far. Earlier this month, Kansas City-based Black & Veatch released results of an industry survey showing the main impediment to smart grid implementation is a lack of customer interest and knowledge.

Much of the controversy has focused on the new digital meters. Some consumer advocates, like John Coffman, an attorney for the Consumers Council of Missouri and AARP, worry the devices will prove too expensive and need replacement too quickly. Coffman also worries it could make it too easy for utilities to disconnect customers who fall behind on bills.

For now, the new meters aren’t in Ameren Missouri’s plans. The cost of smart meters

June 25, 2011

Judge sends unapologetic Black back to prison

Filed under: business, economics — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 5:24 am

Conrad Black, once a media mogul whose newspaper empire spanned several continents, is headed back to prison after a federal judge ruled Friday that he had not served enough time for defrauding investors.

Judge Amy St. Eve sentenced Black to 3 1/2 years in prison after berating and then praising him. But prosecutors say he will be given credit for more than two years he already had served, meaning the 66-year-old will go back for a little more than a year.

As St. Eve announced the sentence with Black standing expressionless before her, his 70-year-old wife, Barbara Amiel, fainted on a wooden courtroom bench. As she sprawled across the laps of other spectators, medics rushed in to attend to her.

In a 20-minute statement before he was sentenced, Black spoke confidently and philosophically, citing poetry and maintaining he had been falsely accused. At no point did he apologize.

His final words to St. Eve were to ask for a lesser sentence.

“I never ask for mercy,” he said, standing with his hands on the podium, “but I do ask for avoidance of injustice.”

St. Eve had originally sentenced Black to 6 1/2 years in prison after he was convicted in 2007 of defrauding investors in Hollinger International Inc.

Black, whose empire once included the Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Telegraph of London, The Jerusalem Post and small papers across the U.S. and Canada, served part of the sentence before being freed on bail to pursue what would be partially successful appeals.

St. Eve said Friday that Black had “violated the trust” of his shareholders.

“As you stand before me today, I still scratch my head as to why you engaged in this conduct,” she said.

The judge said she rejected the option of sending Black back to prison for more than four years in part because of dozens of letters she had received from inmates saying Black had changed their lives through lectures he gave on writing, history, economics and other subjects.

Prosecutor Julie Porter said the government, which had sought a longer sentence, was pleased with the result.

It “sends a very strong message to corporate executives,” she said.

After the hearing, the Blacks walked out of the federal courthouse together, his arm around her. They got into a chauffeured vehicle and drove away.

Eddie Greenspan, Black’s Canadian lawyer, said it’s too early to say if defense attorneys will appeal the new sentence, though he added they will consider all their options.

Black will have to report to prison in about six weeks, though a fixed date hadn’t been set, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Randall Samborn said instant payday loan.

The former mogul had been in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in central Florida, and he could return there. But a final decision on where he serves the additional year will be made later.

George Tombs, author of “Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour,” said another prison stint will be rough for Black, who received his title when he became a member of the British House of Lords.

“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Tombs said. “He’s a lawmaker in Great Britain for goodness sakes.

Tombs said Black lives in a bubble.

“He doesn’t realize that he did anything wrong,” he said. “He does not acknowledge anything.”

Black’s big chance to squash his convictions arose in June 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court sharply curtailed the disputed “honest services” laws that underpinned part of his case.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago tossed out two of Black’s fraud convictions last year, citing that landmark ruling.

But it said one conviction for fraud and one for obstruction of justice were not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling. The fraud conviction, the judges concluded, involved Black and others taking $600,000 and had nothing to do with honest services: It was, they asserted, straightforward theft.

The appeals court said St. Eve would have to sentence Black again for those two standing counts.

Despite the nullified counts, prosecutors had asked St. Eve to hand Black the same sentence she originally meted out.

“He fails to acknowledge his central role in destroying Hollinger International through greed and lies, instead blaming the government and others for what he describes as an unjust persecution,” prosecutors said in a recent filing.

At Friday’s hearing, Black said obliquely that, “It is not the case that I have no remorse.” But he didn’t say those feelings had anything to do with any wrongdoing on his part, rather that he had been too trusting of others.

Black’s lawyers argued that he was a model prisoner who gladly offered advice about business and other matters to prisoners who constantly approached him.

Prosecutors say the defense painted too rosy a picture.

One prison employee, Tammy Padgett, claimed in an affidavit filed by prosecutors that Black had arranged for inmates _ “acting like servants” _ to iron his clothes, mop his floor and perform other chores. Another employee told her Black once insisted she address him as “Lord Black,” Padgett added.

Source

June 23, 2011

Greece meltdown is top issue at EU leaders summit

Filed under: Uncategorized, finance — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 2:28 pm

Greece’s financial meltdown overshadowed yet another European Union summit on Thursday, forcing leaders to discuss new ways to get the country back on its feet and protect the euro.

Eurozone governments earlier this week delayed any final decision on new aid for Greece until July 3, when they will know whether the parliament in Athens backs massive new budget cuts, government asset sales and economic reforms.

But the first victim of Europe’s debt crisis will still dominate discussions Thursday, for without the next euro12 billion ($17 billion) bailout installment Greece will default in mid-July.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will urge leaders to help Greece access billions in EU development funds to create jobs and make its businesses more competitive.

The funds are designed to help underdeveloped regions catch up with richer parts of the 27-nation bloc. About euro15 billion ($22 billion) is still available for Greece until 2013, but the country is struggling to prove it can use the funds well and come up with matching financing.

However, Barroso’s last-ditch attempt to sweeten the new austerity measures Greece must pass faces serious resistance, as some countries are reluctant to make any concessions to Greece before the parliament vote.

“We are ready to look into it in a constructive way, how we can do something in a wise manner?” said a German government official. “But the precondition is that the austerity measures pass the Greek parliament before.”

The official declined to be named in line with department policy.

Other, poorer countries are likely to frown at easing the rules for just one country.

Leaders will also take another look at finance ministers’ decision to ask banks and other private creditors to share the burden of a second massive bailout for Greece, on top of the euro110 billion ($158 billion) the country was granted a year ago.

The German official said discussions with banks have already started, adding that the eurozone was in close talks with rating agencies and the European Central Bank to avoid triggering a negative rating.

If rating agencies declared Greece to be in partial default of its debts that could spark panic on financial markets, hurt Greek and European banks and endanger other EU nations struggling with heavy debt.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy will also make a push for eurozone leaders to give an even clearer sign they will fund a second rescue package for Greece as long as Greece manages to push through the new austerity measures in a June 28 vote.

The International Monetary Fund, which has provided about one-third of the European bailouts, has made continued financing for Greece a precondition to paying out its share of a euro12 billion ($17 billion) installment of Greece’s first rescue package.

Despite all these efforts, however, many financial experts believe that Greece’s debt burden is too great in the long term and the country is heading for an eventual default.

The divisions among EU countries are reaching beyond the problems of Greece. Another key item planned for the summit _ the formal appointment of Mario Draghi as the new president of the ECB _ may be put off as fellow Italian executive board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi has so far refused to leave his post.

The French, who with the departure of current ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet on Oct. 31 would not have a representative on the board, will only support Draghi if a Frenchman or a woman takes over Smaghi’s spot.

European finance ministers, the European Parliament and the board of the ECB have already backed Draghi, but without the formal approval of the leaders his appointment will not be valid.

Source

June 21, 2011

PNC buys Royal Bank of Canada U.S. banks for $3.45 billion

Filed under: Canada, mortgage — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 11:20 pm

PNC Financial Services Group Inc. said Monday that it is buying the U.S. retail operations of Royal Bank of Canada for $3.45 billion.

PNC said that the transaction will bring its total to 2,870 branches and make it the fifth biggest among U.S. banks. RBC Bank (USA), based in Raleigh, N.C., has 424 branches and about $25 billion of assets.

PNC Chairman and CEO James Rohr said in a statement that the RBC acquisition will give PNC access to “attractive southeast markets in a way that will create value for our shareholders.”

The deal adds about $19 billion of deposits and $16 billion of loans based on RBC Bank (USA) balances as of April 30.

The deal does not include Royal Bank of Canada’s other U.S. operations providing capital markets and wealth management services.

RBC President and CEO Gordon Nixon said in a statement that RBC is fully committed to the U.S. market. He said the deal allows it to concentrate efforts on growing its wealth management and capital market services, which are the two largest components of its U.S. businesses.

PNC has also agreed to buy certain credit card assets of RBC Bank, (Georgia) National Association. RBC says that it will receive$165 million for the credit card assets.

It is the second big banking transaction in recent days following the announcement that U.S. bank Capital One Financial Corp. struck a $9 billion deal to buy the online bank of the Dutch financial services company ING.

A Wall Street Journal report on Sunday said that Pittsburgh-based PNC beat out rival regional bank BB&T Corp. for the RBC operations.

PNC has the option to pay for the deal with up to $1 billion in common stock. The company expects to pay for the cash portion of the transaction with available cash, debt issuance and a preferred stock offering.

It expects the buyout to add to its earnings by the end of 2013 or sooner depending on if any of the purchase price is paid for with its common stock.

PNC anticipates acquisition-related costs of approximately $322 million.

RBC expects the deal to result in a loss of about 1.6 billion Canadian dollars ($1.63 billion), which will be recorded in the current quarter. The transaction is expected to add to earnings in 2012.

The acquisition, which has been approved by both companies’ boards, is expected to close in March.

Source

June 20, 2011

Asian markets higher on Greek bailout hopes

Filed under: money, online — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 8:32 am

Asian stocks were mostly higher on hopes that a solution to Greece’s debt problems could be near even as talks between eurozone finance ministers broke up early Monday without an agreement.

Oil slipped below $93 a barrel while the dollar strengthened against the euro and yen.

Global stock markets were hammered for most of last week by fears that a default by Greece seemed imminent before rising Friday as hopes grew for a bailout deal. Investors fear a Greek default could set off a domino effect with other weak European economies.

Greece’s prime minister confirmed Sunday his nation was talking with world lenders about a second financial rescue package “roughly equal” to what it received last year. Meanwhile, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, chair of the regular meetings of the 17 eurozone finance ministers, said Greece will get the next euro12 billion of its existing euro110 billion bailout package in early July, but only if it manages to pass new spending cuts and economic reforms by the end of the month.

But he said as long as parliament supports the new measures, he was certain that Greece would also get a second bailout that will keep it afloat over the coming years as it works to restore its struggling economy.

“All eyes remain on Greece,” strategists at Credit Agricole CIB wrote in a research note. They added that “news this morning that the Eurogroup’s final decision on the country’s second bailout package has been delayed until early July will result in more uncertainty filtering through markets no fax payday loan.”

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index was 0.6 percent higher at 9,406.84 while South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.3 percent to 2,038.45. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was 0.4 percent higher at 4,492.60 while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.6 percent to 21,823.18. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand also rose while mainland Chinese shares were lower.

On Wall Street last week, the U.S. stock market eked out its first week of gains since April, helped by signs a solution to Greece’s debt problems were near.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 0.4 percent at 12,004.36. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.3 percent to 1,271.50. The technology-focused Nasdaq composite index lost 0.3 percent to 2,616.48.

Oil prices fell below $93 a barrel in Asia as a stronger U.S. dollar made commodities priced in the greenback more expensive to investors spending foreign currencies.

Benchmark oil for July delivery was down 64 cents to $92.37 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.94, or 2 percent, to settle at $93.01 on Friday.

In London, Brent crude for August delivery was down 95 cents to $112.26 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In currencies, the euro slipped to $1.4271 from $1.4315 in late trading Friday in New York. The dollar edged up to 80.13 yen from 80.06 yen.

Source

June 18, 2011

IMF reduces forecast for US, global growth

Filed under: online, technology — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 3:48 am

The International Monetary Fund said Friday that it expects the U.S. economy to grow at slower pace this year than previously estimated, dragged down by higher oil prices and lower factory output.

The lending organization also warned that the European debt crisis poses a growing threat to the global economy. It cited investors’ increasing concerns that Greece’s government won’t be able to implement the changes necessary to avoid defaulting on its debt.

The U.S. is forecast to grow 2.5 percent this year, down from the IMF’s April estimate of 2.8 percent. Growth will likely be 2.7 percent next year, the IMF said, rather than 2.9 percent. Both estimates are below the 2.9 percent growth the U.S. recorded in 2010. The global economy will likely grow 4.3 percent this year, down from an earlier estimate of 4.4 percent.

The lower U.S. forecast is similar to many recent downgrades by private economists. A survey this month of 38 economists by The Associated Press found that they expect growth of 2.6 percent this year, down from an earlier estimate of 2.9 percent.

By contrast, the IMF boosted its forecast for the 17-nation euro area, which it said it expects to grow 2 percent this year. That’s compared to a previous forecast of 1.6 percent Low fee payday loans. The improved outlook is largely due to higher business investment spending in Germany and France.

Large budget deficits in the U.S. and Japan could threaten their economies, the IMF said.

Both countries should take steps to cut their deficits, but at a gradual pace, the IMF said. Rapid spending cuts or tax increases could threaten the two countries’ “tepid recoveries.”

“For the U.S., it is critical to immediately address the debt ceiling and launch a deficit reduction plan that includes entitlement reform and revenue-raising tax reform,” the fund said.

The Obama administration and Republican lawmakers are negotiating over how to raise the nation’s legal debt limit of $14.3 trillion, which the administration says it will reach Aug. 2. Republicans are insisting on about $2 trillion in cuts over 10 to 12 years before agreeing to raise the ceiling.

The Washington-based fund has 187 member nations and lends money to countries in financial distress. It has played a key role in negotiating and financing European Union bailout packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Source

Labor board lawyer: Boeing suit helps all workers

Filed under: online, term — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 2:16 am

The top lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board told a congressional committee Friday that while an NLRB complaint against Boeing Co. may make South Carolina workers feel vulnerable and anxious, the legal action is aimed at protecting the rights of workers everywhere.

The NLRB is suing the aeronautics giant alleging the manufacturer located its new 787 jet assembly line in South Carolina to retaliate against union workers in Washington state who went on strike in 2008.

The congressional hearing is the latest episode in a dispute between the NLRB, which has a majority of Democratic appointees, and GOP lawmakers and Boeing. The NLRB wants that work returned to Washington state, even though the company opened its $750 million South Carolina plant last week.

“Boeing has every right to manufacture planes in South Carolina, or anywhere else, for that matter, as long as those decisions are based on legitimate business considerations,” Lafe Solomon, the agency’s acting general counsel, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Relations meeting in South Carolina.

South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who with 15 other GOP governors asked that the complaint be dismissed, called the complaint “an attack on our employers trying to keep business in America.”

The plant represents the single largest industrial investment in the history of South Carolina, a right-to-work state.

The NLRB complaint went before a judge in Seattle earlier in the week and an attorney for Boeing asked that it be dismissed, adding it had cast a shadow over the company’s employees, supplies and investments. The company said that no one has lost a job in Washington state and that Boeing has added more than 3,000 jobs at its assembly site in Everett, Wash.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the complaint “the shot heard around the business world” and said it could allow the NLRB to decide where companies invest business capital loan for people with bad credit.

Haley warned that workers across the nation could suffer if companies take business overseas.

“The retaliation is coming from the president. The retaliation is coming from the NLRB. It is not coming from Boeing,” she said.

Solomon told the panel’s Republican chairman, Darrell Issa of California, that the White House played no role in his decision to bring the complaint.

Before the hearing began, a small group of protesters gathered outside holding signs saying Chicago-based Boeing must create jobs legally.

Georgette Carr, who has worked as a union dock worker for 10 years, said South Carolina needs good jobs but “companies that come here need to play by the rules.”

Democrats on the committee strongly questioned why the panel was holding a field hearing the same week the NLRB complaint went to court.

“I am very concerned about the timing. His (Solomon’s) testimony today raises questions about the due process rights of litigants,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Malony of New York.

Haley has made no secret she opposes unions.

The International Association of Machinists and AFL-CIO sued earlier this year, asking for a court order telling Haley and state Department of Labor director Catherine Templeton to remain neutral in union matters in South Carolina.

The lawsuit stemmed from several remarks, including those Haley made last December when she nominated Templeton. Haley said her background would be helpful in state fights against unions, particularly at the new Boeing plant.

A federal judge is expected to rule next week on a motion to dismiss that case.

Source

June 16, 2011

Rising popularity of prepaid debit cards belies problems

Filed under: legal, management — Tags: , , , — ManInBlack @ 1:22 pm

Rising fees have chased millions of people away from banks and into prepaid debit cards.

In just a handful of years, prepaid cards have become the fastest growing payment method in the U.S. Just this week, American Express became the first mainstream financial company to offer a prepaid card.

But the cards have problems of their own. Complex fee schedules. Few of the protections afforded to bank and credit card customers. No ability to build credit history.

Consumer advocates are raising concerns and demanding more oversight, and at least one state is investigating prepaid card issuers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is expected to step up oversight of the industry when it launches in July free credit report and score.

“People are using prepaid cards as checking accounts and the government ought to regulate it similarly,” says Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group that is concerned about unfair prepaid card fees.

Even so, Americans spent $140 billion using prepaid cards in 2009, according to the latest data available from the Federal Reserve. That’s a 21.5 percent increase each year over four years. The amount of money loaded onto the cards is expected to reach $552 billion in 2012 from $330 million three years ago, according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a research firm.

Prepaid cards have gone mainstream by catering to the ranks of the unbanked

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