Why Some Business Owners Think Now Is the Time to Sell

This article was originally published by the New York Times on Wed., Dec. 21, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Looking back, Cyndi Finkle wishes she had sold her craft services company, Sunday Night Dinner, early in 2008 when the economy was booming. With a track record of 30 to 50 percent annual growth for each of the previous five years, it could have been a compelling transaction.

At the time, however, she was not emotionally ready to part with a business she had started in 1997 and built into one of the largest suppliers of services to television crews and casts in Los Angeles. When her husband suggested selling, “I burst into tears and looked at him as if he were telling me to cut off my arm,” Ms. Finkle said. “Then everything changed, and I realized he was right.”

But the recession hit, and Ms. Finkle’s annual revenue dropped sharply along with declining television advertising and production budgets — making it impossible for her to sell. “I’ve had to work really hard the last three years to save my company and get it back, a lot of times working for free,” she said. “It was no longer about building it, it was about keeping it going until things got better.”

When working from home just doesn't work

There's no denying that working remotely provides tremendous benefits, but more organizations are finding that virtual collaboration also comes with significant limitations.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE – Once a year, leaders of Community Options come together from its 35 locations for a retreat. The nonprofit organization runs a variety of entrepreneurial ventures that create job opportunities and provide housing for people with disabilities.

At the most recent summit, the chief financial officer was bemoaning the wasted flowers at the organization's New Brunswick, N.J. floral store, due to the inevitable difficulty in managing inventory to meet customer orders.

Listening in, a graphic designer from Community Options' Daily Plan It, which rents shared office space and provides support services such as document shredding, thought they could use the dead, unsold flowers to create potpourri. As a result, Community Options is now launching a line of potpourri, which will be packaged and sold by people with disabilities.

"It's all because a group of people got together and came up with this idea," says Robert Stack, founder and chief executive of Princeton, N.J.-based Community Options. "People play off each other."

How to groom Gen Y to take the company reins

Start talking about younger workers, and pretty soon the word "entitled" comes up. But several companies have started programs to help the younger set learn the corporate ropes.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- If you want to liven up a group of senior managers, raise the topic of the youngest employees in the workforce. Suddenly, the conversation turns animated, with strong opinions on everything from their flip-flops to their conversational style. "They are always multitasking," managers complain. "And why do they need so much feedback? Can't they just figure it out?"

Sooner or later, the word "entitled" is bound to come up, as executives compare the way they behaved as new workers with the attitudes of the Millennial Generation, those employees born between 1978 and 2000, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an inter-generational consultant and author of a new report on Millennial leadership for the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

Volcker rule: Why it matters to consumers

This article was originally published by Bankrate.com on Friday November 11, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis • Bankrate.com

Halting proprietary stock trading

Federal regulators in early October proposed new regulations aimed at stopping banks from trading for their own profit.

The so-called Volcker rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is part of last year's Dodd-Frank Act, the sweeping financial reform law approved by Congress last year.

While high finance and hedge fund investments may seem far removed from your everyday life, consumer advocates and analysts say the stakes for the new law are high. Ultimately, the outcome matters to your pocketbook. Already, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have closed or announced plans to shut down their proprietary trading divisions in anticipation of those activities being banned.

With the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency accepting comments on the proposal through Jan. 13, 2012, here's your chance to weigh in on guidelines for the U.S. financial system. The Volcker rule could affect your financial life in several ways.

Promoting bank stability

The overriding aim of the Volcker rule is to promote stability in the banking system and help to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis in 2008. The near-collapse of Lehman Brothers and American International Group, or AIG, prompted Congress to pass an unprecedented $700 billion government bailout in 2008.

How flexible work actually works

Imagine unlimited paid vacation and sick leave, with no mandated office hours. Chaos, right? Not according to a handful of award-winning employers profiled in a new report on effective workplaces.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- At MeetingMatrix International, a communications firm based in Portsmouth, N.H., employees have no defined work schedules, unlimited paid time off, and meetings are optional. How do they ever get any work done? That's actually the only thing that matters: results.

MeetingMatrix executives point to longer customer support hours, increased sales during a down economy, and 100% retention as evidence that their focus on the end results -- and not hours in the office -- works.

"When you start treating people like adults, they start acting like it," says the company's CEO Jmichaele Keller, who in 2008 shelved his company's employee monitoring systems in favor of a more flexible approach. Under the new regime, "people have a lot of ability to shape what is going on in their world and not a lot of micromanaging.... There really is no direct tie in an office environment between the amount of time spent and the productivity of that individual."

D.C. area housing market feels the pinch from lower jumbo mortgage limits

This article was first published on Saturday, November 5, by the Washington Post.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Srinivasan Soundararajan and Jennifer Nordin have been thinking about selling their Potomac townhouse and moving into a detached house for some time. With two small children, 1 and 3 years old, they are beginning to outgrow their three-bedroom house.

This past summer, the couple stayed out of the market because of Congress’s gridlock over the U.S. debt ceiling; they feared that a spike in interest rates could disrupt a pending house purchase. Once lawmakers agreed to raise the ceiling, they started looking at houses again.

Now that they’re close to making an offer on a property, a change in federal housing policy has hampered their plans.

On Oct. 1, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lowered the maximum size of so-called jumbo mortgages that they would back to $625,500. Before Oct. 1, Washington-area mortgages as big as $729,750 could be purchased by Fannie and Freddie and repackaged to sell to bond investors, or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. The change was the result of a law Congress passed in 2008 to stimulate the housing market in the depths of the crisis.

As a result, the upper end of the Washington real estate market is feeling the pain as buyers have fewer options to finance the purchase of a house. And sellers, like Soundararajan and Nordin, feel the change constrains the pool of potential buyers for their townhouse, which they expect to list at $725,000.

“It would definitely affect the ability of someone to buy our house,” said Soundararajan, a 43-year-old attorney, noting that his sale price equals the new cap plus a down payment of $100,000. “That’s not a first-time buyer. We’re going to lose that market.”

Fed: Drags on economy worse than thought

This article was originally published by Bankrate.com on Wednesday November 2, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis • Bankrate.com

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the central bank's efforts to stimulate the economy and encourage job creation while expressing sympathy for the frustration many Americans feel at the slow pace of economic recovery.

At a press conference following the regular Federal Open Market Committee meeting today, Bernanke acknowledged criticism from Republicans in Congress, GOP presidential candidates and Occupy Wall Street protesters.

"I certainly understand that many people are dissatisfied with the state of the economy. I am dissatisfied with the state of the economy," Bernanke said. "Increased inequality has been going on for at least 30 years."

The Fed intervened in 2008 to prevent the dire consequences of a financial sector collapse, not simply to shore up investment bankers' salaries as some protesters claim. "We were trying to protect the financial system to prevent a serious collapse of the financial system and the American economy," he said.

Bernanke's remarks came after the FOMC members voted to keep the federal funds rate near zero and maintain the current levels of monetary policy accommodation, while noting that more policy options remain if economic conditions worsen.


Should you include volunteer work on a resume?

With many talented workers experiencing stretches of unemployment, employers are taking a harder look at unpaid experience. Here's what to include -- and what to leave out.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2012.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- Scale Computing chief executive Jeff Ready recently was interviewing job candidates for a position whose duties included coordinating all-hands meetings at the Indianapolis-based manufacturer. One prospective employee's resume included her experience planning an annual fundraiser for a local charity, several years in a row.

"To me, that experience was awesome. She had done it for four to five years; she obviously liked doing it, or she wouldn't have done it for free," says Ready.

The volunteer work stood out because her resume described the event planning experience and how many attendees were involved, making it clear that it was a substantial amount of responsibility. "You've got that four or five-second opportunity to say something that's going to grab my attention," Ready says. "In that case it was that I'm the lead event planner for the big charity event."

Increasingly, corporate bosses like Ready are taking note of job candidates' volunteer efforts. They recognize that in the recent recession, talented employees may have had stretches of unemployment that they filled with unpaid work. A recent LinkedIn (LNKD) survey found that 41% of hiring managers consider volunteer experience equally valuable as paid work.

But workers still feel nervous about what experience to include and how to be honest while also presenting in the best light. LinkedIn found that 89% of professionals surveyed had volunteer experience, but only 45% included it on their resume.

4 Reasons the Mortgage Mess Won't Get Fixed

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, Oct. 14, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Fiscal Times

Every day seems to bring fresh bad news about the housing market. Sales are down, foreclosures are up, mortgages are harder to obtain. Americans had better get used to it -- the housing mess is unlikely to see a near-term fix.

Since taking over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the heat of the 2008 financial crisis, the government now stands behind about 95 percent of U.S. residential mortgages. Without any policy changes, this course will push the national debt to $30 trillion in ten years, according to Peter J. Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

It could get even worse. CoreLogic estimates that 10.9 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than the property is worth, or 22.5 percent of all outstanding loans. Amherst Securities Group projects that without further policy changes, 10.4 million additional borrowers are likely to default on their mortgages.

Policy experts agree that the situation poses unacceptably high risks to taxpayers and that private investors must eventually replace the federal government in housing finance -- but they disagree on both the path forward and how the future system will be structured.

"It certainly feels as though we are stalled," said Susan Wachter, professor of financial management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, before testifying to Congress on housing finance on Thursday morning. "The most important thing that has to happen is that there needs to be consensus."

Unfortunately for U.S. taxpayers and homeowners, there's little hope that the deadlock will break. Here are four reasons that the mortgage mess won't get fixed any time soon.

Congressional Reform is for Dreamers: When Congress passed comprehensive financial reform last year, the future of Fannie and Freddie was the biggest piece that lawmakers failed to address, largely for lack of political will. But with presidential election season in full swing, experts predict housing finance legislation will have to wait at least until 2013, at the earliest.
"Ultimately you need legislation to have a defined role for the future of Fannie and Freddie," said Phillip Swagel, public policy professor at the University of Maryland. "I don't see that happening in 2011 or 2012."

A software company takes a page from Toyota's playbook

Using a combination of Toyota-inspired lean manufacturing principles and an open office atmosphere, Menlo Innovations' work environment is attracting attention.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE – At most white-collar job offices around the country, workers scurry from cubicle to cubicle, speaking in hushed tones. Take a step into software firm Menlo Innovation's offices in Ann Arbor, Mich., and it's clear that this firm is more cotton mill factory floor than monastery.

Instead of rows of cubicles, visitors enter an open space that calls to mind an artist's loft or an industrial warehouse that is filled with the sound of a dozen overlapping conversations.

"A lot of people don't believe software development can be done in anything but library quiet," says CEO Rich Sheridan, during a tour of his company's space. "I have 12 years of experience that says differently."

Sheridan and his co-founders built Menlo's work culture with a great deal of intention, and with the modest aim "to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology." The free-form floor plan was inspired by Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory, which had an open and collaborative workspace that in turn drew inspiration from the machine shops of the day.

The back-up plan

It's not sexy, but it can save your bacon. Get to know your emergency fund.

This article was originally published by USA Today in the fall 2011 issue of Men's Health Magazine.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

The emergency fund: it's that pile of cash that's just sitting there, ready for you to lose your job. The traditional advice is to save six to 12 months' living expenses.

How could you possibly save that much -- and why would you want to keep such a large chunk of change in an account earning 0.1 percent annual interest anyway?

Don't sweat it.

By rethinking the very nature of the emergency fund, you can piece together enough cash, safe investments, credit, and other resources to carry you through a job loss, illness, or other unexpected emergency.

And if you're not there yet: Read on, so that you'll know what to do when those paychecks get a little fatter. Read the entire article (page down after you click through).

Invest like a girl

This article was originally published by USA Today in the fall 2011 issue of Men's Health Magazine.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Given how the world of high finances is dominated by men, you'd be forgiven for thinking that they make better investors than women. But the fact is piles of research show that it's men's better halves who produce better returns.

Female hedge fund managers achieve higher returns than their male counterparts, according to industry tracker Hedge Fund Research. During the 2008 financial collapse, men were more likely to abandon equities, missing out on the stock market's rally since then, according to Vanguard. And University of California researchers studying 35,000 households over six years found that men traded 45 percent more frequently than women, reducing their net returns.

So it might be time to buck up and figure out what women are doing right. Read the full article.

Protect your home (and finances) from disaster

This article was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Money Magazine.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

(MONEY Magazine) -- The season for natural disasters, it seems, is now year-round. Floods and a record number of tornadoes have already caused billions of dollars of property damage across the nation in 2011. Come fall, forecasters expect an unusually active hurricane season. Moreover, experts believe crazy weather is here to stay.

"Climate change is intensifying the extremes of rain and snow as well as drought," says Robert Henson of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Think homeowners insurance will cover your tab if your property is walloped by Mother Nature? Think again.

A 2008 study found almost two-thirds of homes were under-insured for disasters. Worse, about a third of homeowners have recently lowered their home or auto coverage to save money, according to a 2011 survey by the Insurance Information Institute. Finally, even if your insurance is adequate it may not have the right coverage for the risks you face. Below, key steps to limit the damage.

Shore up your property

For earthquakes. The roof is a key vulnerability. You'll spend 2% to 3% of your home's value to firmly strap down the roof to the walls and foundation, says Timothy Reinhold, senior vice president of research for the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

For tornadoes. Again, your roof is at greatest risk of being damaged by high winds, says Robert Schneller, a risk-management expert at the University of Houston. Spend $50 to $100 per hour to have a roofer secure loose shingles or flashing that a gust of wind could pull loose. Also install roof clips to better attach your roof to the walls ($1 per clip, plus labor).

The garage door is another weak spot. An impact-rated pressurized door will run you $1,300, but you can also retrofit your existing door with pressurized equipment, which will cost just $450 and provide reasonable protection, says Reinhold.
Worried about your finances? Send the Help Desk your questions.

Can you rehabilitate a passive aggressive employee?

They're awfully hard to spot because they seem agreeable to your face, but they drag their feet or sabotage projects behind your back. Is there an antidote?

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- During a month-long household move, Patty Shore, director of marketing at Creative Energy Options, asked to bring her dog to the consulting firm's White Haven, Pa. offices. Everyone at the company expressed enthusiasm, president Sylvia Lafair recalls, but before long, one employee began complaining that the dog, a mixed-breed collie named Mr. Ray, hovered outside her office and wouldn't leave her alone.

Shore tried to restrict Mr. Ray to the other end of the office, but couldn't keep the pup away from the complainer. "Finally, two people came to me and said, 'She has dog biscuits in the drawer of her desk and feeds the dog when nobody is looking,'" says Lafair. "It was very devious."

Lafair confronted the employee about her passive aggressive behavior and received a wide-eyed response: she just felt sorry for the dog. After a few more incidents of underhanded behavior and performance issues, Lafair had to fire the problem employee.
"Passive aggressive people will say yes to your face and stab you in the back," she says. "Sometimes you can't help.... They need to be asked to leave."

Passive-aggressive employees present one of the toughest workplace challenges to both managers and coworkers. The behavior can be difficult to identify, and even tougher to change. Left unaddressed, passive-aggressive actions can spread to other employees and create a culture of heel dragging and mute rebellion.

"The passive aggressive stuff is like a cancer. It's insidious and if you walk by it, you're saying it's acceptable and it will spread to others," says George Bradt, a consultant and author of The New Leader's 100 Day Action Plan. "The prescription is, head it off at the pass." Read more at Fortune.com

How short-staffed companies are saving vacation this summer

With thin staffs and a slowly improving job market, employers can't just let employees take vacation whenever they want, but they also can't risk damaging morale. This summer, a few firms are getting creative.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, July 21, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- This summer, most of the outdoorsy employees at ski manufacturer Epic Planks will be getting their hands dirty in the shop, where they compress fiberglass and plastic into custom-made skis, with nary a vacation day.

But rather than cursing the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company for their dearth of long-weekend camping trips, they're gleefully anticipating taking extra time off in the winter.

That's because founder Bill Wanrooy and his partner will double up to two weeks of vacation time that workers decide not to take in the summer, which is Epic Planks' busy time for building skis and snowboards to be sold in the fall.

Those who accepted the offer will instead enjoy up to four weeks of vacation in the winter. The idea stemmed from last summer's experience, when last-minute vacation requests left the small business so short-staffed that Wanrooy and his co-founder had to work 12-hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, to keep up with production demand.

"For all of our employees, skiing and snowboarding is their passion, so that allows them to maybe sacrifice a little bit now, but the rewards pay off later," says Wanrooy. "This is our first summer of doing it, but the reception has been great. Everybody loves it."

Epic Planks isn't the only company getting creative with summer staffing. Companies are asking employees to plan their own vacation coverage, requesting that vacationers send out memos to avoid any unwanted surprises, says Michael Erwin, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder.com. They're also cross-training employees to cover for their colleagues during time off, and bringing in temporary staff when needed.

Financial regulation lags after Dodd-Frank

It's been a year since Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the most sweeping financial reform since the Great Depression. But as of the Dodd-Frank Act's July 21 anniversary, regulators had completed only 49 of the hundreds of rules mandated by the 2,000-plus page law.

This article was originally published by Bankrate.com on Thursday, July 21, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis • Bankrate.com

Are you any better off now than before new financial regulations became law? When it was signed into law, Dodd-Frank drew a line in the sand on mortgage abuses, predatory lending, credit information and other vital issues for consumers. But since then, the dozen-plus regulators writing the rules under the new FinReg law have struggled to work out most of the specifics. The law sets more than 240 deadlines for 22 different regulators to write rules, issue recommendations and write reports in the implementation of Dodd-Frank. Most deadlines must be met by only 10 regulators.

"In one sense, everything's different because financial institutions know what's coming, so they're already anticipating and making business changes," says Margaret Tahyar, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, a New York law firm tracking Dodd-Frank for its clients. "In another sense, there's still a great deal of uncertainty."

As for the handful of rules that have been written, here is a closer look at the financial regulations that have been implemented and how they affect you.
A new consumer watchdog
The Dodd-Frank Act created a new federal agency to protect consumers who use a range of financial products. The agency is financed out of the federal budget. FinReg advocates hail that as an important development because the regulator won't be as beholden to the private sector as other agencies that rely on institutions they regulate for their budget.

On July 21, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received responsibility for enforcing laws meant to regulate consumer finance in the following areas:

The 5 Best and 5 Worst Regulations in Dodd-Frank

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Tuesday, July 19, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Fiscal Times

Next to health care reform, no other recent legislation has caught as much heat as financial regulation. Born of the subprime housing mortgage scandal and financial meltdown three years ago, the Dodd-Frank legislation provokes either glowing praise from consumers and reformists or angry diatribes from industry officials and Republican lawmakers.

In the year since President Obama signed the financial regulatory overhaul into law, the debate has largely shifted from the halls of Congress to the offices of the regulators who are writing some 250 new rules and delivering reports and guidance ordered by the law.

But Republicans and their industry allies are still pressing for changes to dilute the impact of the legislation. Their opposition forced Obama over the weekend to abandon plans to nominate former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, a harsh critic of the financial industry and darling of liberal groups, to head a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and instead choose former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray.

As the new financial regulatory landscape begins to take shape, supporters of the legislation crafted by former Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, and Rep. Barney Frank D-Mass., say the government and industry are better positioned to withstand a new crisis. "The reforms put in place in Dodd-Frank will help to provide for a more resilient and strong financial system that can help to grow the economy and create jobs," said Michael S. Barr, law professor at the University of Michigan.

Detractors claim the measure actually hurts the already troubled economy and job growth, leaving the financial system less stable than it was in 2008. "While it may have increased transparency, it has increased the amount of uncertainty. We've created a new cost of capital, called regulatory risk," said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Tex., chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

With Dodd-Frank's one-year anniversary this Thursday, The Fiscal Times assessed the best and worst effects of the landmark law, for consumers and business .

The 5 Best According to Consumer and Reform Advocates

7 Myths That Could Wreck Your Retirement Savings

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Tuesday, July 19, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Fiscal Times

Despite the sluggish recovery, Americans are starting to feel a little better about their prospects. But that may not be good news for retirement savings. While the recession shocked us into boosting our near-zero savings levels, we’re already being less frugal.

After climbing to 7.2 percent in the second quarter of 2009, the U.S. savings rate dipped to 5.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, the lowest level since the financial meltdown, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Meanwhile, the average 401(k) balance hit $74,900, according to Fidelity Investments. That’s only enough to cover about three years of retirement expenses.

Are you ready for retirement? Investment advisers like to trot out handy rules for savings plan. But some of this conventional wisdom makes it easy to slide off the thrifty path. Here are seven myths about retirement that can trip you up.

Myth No. 1: Max out your 401(k) contribution and you’re set.

Group job interview or cattle call?

Employers who use group job interviews say they're great for spotting team-oriented employees without wasting time. But some job-seekers say the whole process is nerve-wracking and even demeaning.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor, Fortune

When ActionCOACH tells job candidates they'll be evaluated in a group when they come in for an interview, most react with surprise. Some even ask if the business coaching company is going to try to sell them something, says Jodie Shaw, CEO of the firm's operations in the U.S. and Canada.

"For the majority of the people, it is their first group interview," she says. "They're a little bit bewildered still, giving sideways glances at the next candidate."

Despite job-seekers' initial anxiety, ActionCOACH and other companies that use group interviews believe they're the most efficient way to honestly compare qualified candidates for a job opening, because they give hiring managers unique insights into how potential employees would work on a team and function under stress. But critics of group interviews find them demeaning and say they add unnecessary stress and competition in an already-difficult job-hunting process.

Saving time, being fair
Shaw finds department heads much more willing to spend one hour in a group interview of 12 candidates than to set aside 12 hours for one-on-one conversations. Moreover, by comparing applicants side-by-side, she says managers eliminate bias from their mood of the day or trouble from comparing a long-ago interview with one that occurred yesterday.

"The reason group interviews are so effective is you get to see the entire group at one time and are able to rank those candidates," Shaw explains. "If they're in the room, they've met minimum expectations for what we're looking for in the role ... I'm really looking for cultural fit."

Read the full story at Fortune's Web site.

The changing face of the American working dad

More American fathers are assuming an increasingly active role in raising their children, but many employers haven't adequately responded to their changing needs.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Friday, June 17, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor, Fortune

Who's going to pick the kids up from soccer practice? Or how about when junior is feeling sick and needs to be collected from the nurse's office? While the answer to these questions would have been obvious years ago, it certainly isn't today. But have employers actually kept up with this shift?

Take the flexible work policies that many employers have developed over the last few decades, as the flood of women entering the workforce demanded a departure from the standard 9-to-5 schedule, in order to handle children's emergencies. It turns out that men are five times as likely to work flexibly on an informal basis, rather than adopting a manager-approved flexible work plan, according to a new study of fathers and work by Boston College's Center for Work and Family.

When your spouse is also your coworker

Sometimes you're married to work; other times you are married at work. The ups and downs of working at the same office as -- or alongside -- your spouse.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Thursday, June 9, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor, Fortune

When Tom Corwin is done with his workday, he knocks on the wall. That signals his wife Carol -- who works in the neighboring office at the U.S. Education Department's budget office -- that he's ready to go home.

"We've been married 27 years now, and we've been working together longer than that. I can't imagine not working with her," says Corwin, 59, who met his wife on the job. "We always know what one another is going through professionally."

The couple enjoys talking out work challenges during their commute home, and often will brainstorm a solution to an assignment that seemed pointless at first blush. They contribute to each other's careers, and probably end up giving more time and energy to their employer than they would otherwise, he says.

With June kicking off the start of wedding season, newlyweds who work in the same office will embark on a delicate balancing act between their relationship at work and at home. Long-time married couples sharing an employer say it helps to have separate roles, respect your spouse's contributions at home and work, shift into professional mode when needed and zealously guard your personal time.

The ‘Warren Report’ - GOP Attacks Consumer Agency

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, May 19, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Even before it formally opens its doors this summer, the new federal agency created to protect consumers from unscrupulous financial industry practices is coming under withering attack by Wall Street and Republican lawmakers. And despite a months-long charm offensive by Elizabeth Warren, the former Harvard professor and chief architect of the new agency, Warren has been unable to win over many of her critics on Wall Street and within the GOP.

Bills pending in the House would curb the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, while 44 Republican senators have promised to block confirmation of a director for the new agency unless those restrictive measures are approved.

With Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, but not of the House, the legislation is unlikely to become law. But between the Senate GOP ultimatum and financial industry criticism of Warren, few believe she could be confirmed if President Obama nominates her as the director.

As a result, Obama may have little choice but to name Warren as director during a congressional recess in order for the agency to have someone at the helm when it begins to wield regulatory power this summer. Warren currently is overseeing the creation of the consumer protection bureau as a special assistant to the president. If she is made director through a recess appointment that would all but assure a politically bumpy future for the agency.

The Senate GOP pledge "creates a climate that is ugly. That is an in-your-face kind of attack that I haven't seen in 20 years in Washington," said Ed Mierzwinski, director of the consumer program at the advocacy organization U.S. PIRG. "Elizabeth Warren wants to come in and make that marketplace fair. Wall Street would prefer to decide on their own how to make money."

What if you had to buy American?

This article was originally published by MSN Money on Thursday, May 12, 2011.

It might be supremely patriotic to stop purchasing imports, but the consequences for US consumers and the economy would be devastating.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Legions of patriotic Americans look for "made in USA" stickers before buying products, out of a desire to support the country's economy.

But what if we all were restricted to purchasing only those goods that were made in America?

Our homes would be stripped virtually bare of telephones, televisions, toasters and other electronics, and many of our favorite foods and toys would be gone, too. Say goodbye to your coffee or tea, and forget about slicing bananas into your breakfast cereal -- all three would become prohibitively expensive if we relied on only Hawaii to grow tropical crops.

We'd have to trash our beloved Apple products because the iPod, iPad and MacBook aren't made in the U.S. Gasoline would double or triple in price, given that we now import more than 60% of our oil. And you couldn't propose to your true love with a diamond ring: There are no working diamond mines in the U.S.

Moreover, a complete end to imports would actually hurt the U.S. economy, because consumers and domestic companies would lose access to cheap goods. Trade protections, whether through tariffs or quotas, cost the economy roughly $2 for every $1 in additional profit for domestic producers, said Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"If we restricted trade to just the 50 states, what would happen immediately -- and would increase over time -- would be a huge reduction in our standard of living, because we wouldn't have access to the cheap goods we get from other countries," Perry said. "We also wouldn't have any export markets, so companies like Caterpillar and Microsoft would have a huge reduction in sales and workforce." (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)

Saying no to the boss

It's all too easy for companies to fall into a yes-man culture, but managers that encourage loyal opposition are best suited to avoid corporate disaster.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

Imagine going to your boss with news of a delayed project or cost overrun, and hearing"thank you" in response.

That's the rule at Menlo Innovations, a software company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., which trains project managers to smile and thank employees even when they're bearing bad news.

"My job is to say, 'Thank you for letting me know,' not 'I need you to work an extra 10 hours tonight,'" says Lisa Ho, 26, a Menlo project manager. "Sometimes it's hard to do because we have this deadline we're trying to meet. But I respect them for telling me and as long as we're very transparent… I can call the client."

In corporate America, many employees are afraid to report bad news because they're essentially saying no to the boss -- telling her that a business goal hasn't been met. But companies that foster a fear-free culture enjoy better decision-making, more ethical behavior and the ability to truly harness the collective brainpower of the workforce, according to Menlo CEO Rich Sheridan and other business leaders.

Encouraging employees to say no to the boss ensures that smart new ideas bubble to the top levels of an organization, Sheridan says. He sets such a high priority on healthy dissent that he's baked it into the corporate culture through training, procedures, regular communications to employees and a willingness to take risks based on staff suggestions.

National Debt: Budget Turmoil Slams Treasuries

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Tuesday, May 3, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Until recently, countries like Canada, Australia, and Norway could expect little more than scraps off the table after global investors parked most of their cash in U.S. Treasurys — long considered the gold standard for government securities. Throughout much of the past decade, more than two-thirds of the world’s cash reserves were held in dollars.

But all of that is changing as Wall Street, sovereign wealth funds, and other global financial concerns are looking askance at Washington’s long-term deficit problems and tumultuous political wrangling over the debt ceiling – and are scouting out more stable investments. The signs of this souring on U.S. debt are everywhere:

-- Major investors from PIMCO's Bill Gross to the central bank of China have pulled back on purchasing Treasury securities or have outright sold their Treasury bonds. Nine months ago, U.S. Treasuries accounted for half of the assets of Gross’s flagship Pimco Total Return, but that has shrunk to 30 percent now — the lowest ever in the fund’s 23-year history.

-- Individual investors have begun fleeing Treasurys as well. In March, the three worst-performing investment categories were U.S. short, medium and long-term debt, which lost $1.1 billion, according to Kevin McDevitt, analyst for Morningstar, which tracks mutual funds. Over the last 12 months, intermediate government bond funds lost 5.7 percent of their assets and long-term funds lost 14.5 percent.

-- And some sovereign wealth funds have shifted their focus from Treasurys to government debt in countries as diverse and disparate as Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavian region — which while tiny markets compared with the United States have the advantage of appearing more stable.

Bernanke faces press, makes history

This article was originally published by Bankrate.com on Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke made history by facing nearly five dozen reporters in an hour-long press conference, the first ever for the U.S. central bank.

With his usual unruffled delivery, Bernanke answered a dozen and a half questions ranging from the effects of long-term unemployment, the value of the dollar and gas prices to his personal feelings about staring down the media corps.

Bernanke reassured the press, and the public watching via Web cast, that the Fed is closely monitoring all indicators to balance economic growth against the threat of inflation.

"It's very hard to blame the American public for being impatient," he said. "The combination of high unemployment, high gas prices and high foreclosure rates is a terrible combination. ... I am very confident that in the long run, the U.S. will return to being the most productive, fastest-growing and most dynamic economy in the world."http://www.bankrate.com/financing/federal-reserve/bernanke-faces-press-makes-history/

The Fed is watching carefully to see the current "moderate recovery" continue and strengthen, with particular hope that the labor market will improve further. For now, the major concern is to establish a sustained recovery, with inflation being of little immediate threat, he said. The central bank has a dual mission to support employment and keep inflation under control.


Flexible jobs = happy worker bees?

While it's no magic bullet and comes with sacrifices from both sides, more offices across the country are offering flexible working arrangements to increase retention, productivity and morale.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

When John Parry, CEO at Solix, Inc., arrives at work at around 7 a.m., the office parking lot already has some 80 cars, a testament to his employees' desire to beat rush hour by shifting their work hours earlier than the typical 9-to-5.

But none of those workers had to apply for a flexible work arrangement or win supervisory approval for a schedule change.

"We don't really care when people come in," explains Parry. "We trust Solix staff with million-dollar funding decisions, so we should trust them to work flexibly."

The Parsippany, N.J.-based process outsourcer is among a growing wave of employers that have discovered how workplaces that accommodate employees' desires for flexibility enjoy superior business results, higher productivity and greater retention.

"You see company after company that says, 'We created a more flexible workplace because the turnover level was really high,'" says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a research and advocacy nonprofit that recently released a report on flexible workplaces in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management.

Flexibility is almost mandatory in a 24-7 global economy, when people may be called on to work evenings in an emergency or to connect with international colleagues, says Galinsky.

Moreover, with 87% of people surveyed by FWI saying that flexibility would be important in their evaluation of a new job, it's a key element of any human resources package. That's not to say that flexibility is a magic bullet or is universally embraced in corporate America -- a whopping 60% of employees feel they don't have enough time for themselves, according to the institute's research.

Crowdfunding Promoted to Help Small Businesses

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Sunday, April 17, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Many small businesses are still struggling to raise capital in the wake of the Great Recession, despite a flurry of government and private initiatives.

President Obama launched Startup America to encourage entrepreneurship, stressing that small businesses traditionally have been the engine of job creation, and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke regularly talks up his concern for small businesses and keep tabs on small business funding.

Now there's an effort to exempt startup businesses from the complex U.S. securities registration and filing requirements when they acquire relatively small amounts of loans and equity.

The founder of Startupexemption.com, Sherwood Neiss, says the proposal would facilitate the growth of crowd funding by letting small businesses offer returns to small investors with less paperwork and expense. Crowd funders network and pool money and other resources, usually via the Internet, to support businesses or causes initiated by other people or organizations.

The financial crisis and slow economic recovery have exacerbated the perennial difficulty small businesses face in raising startup capital, experts say. Banks and institutional lenders cut back dramatically on loans, not only because of their losses in the crisis, but also because regulators forced them to hold more capital. And even under normal circumstances, angel investors and venture capital firms tend to offer only large investments -- beyond the needs of many small businesses.

TARP’s $24 Billion Profit: Some Demand a Recount

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, April 1, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

The Treasury Department is crowing about a new analysis that claims the government’s massive bank bailout in response to the 2008 financial crisis will actually end up turning a profit of nearly $24 billion.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that while the government’s overriding objective was to “break the back of the financial crisis and save American jobs,” it didn’t hurt that the TARP investments in U.S. banks “delivered a significant profit for taxpayers.”

But whether the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program will ultimately end up in the black or red is still an open question. And the Obama administration has been slammed by congressional Republicans and some financial experts for restoring Wall Street to profitability through TARP while millions of homeowners continue to struggle with foreclosures and more than 13 million people remain unemployed.

Stripper ‘Consultant’ Strikes Back against Boss

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, March 31, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

When Ramona Cruz worked as a stripper at three different clubs in Massachusetts, her bosses dictated everything, from her skimpy attire, hair and makeup to the long hours she performed on stage and when she could participate in more lucrative private dances with customers.

Because she was eager for a job, Cruz agreed to work for no wages or benefits, just tips from her customers. Moreover, she had to share part of her tips with the club's other workers. Last fall, Cruz was stunned to learn from a friend that by law she should have been treated as an employee entitled to a minimum wage, overtime and other protections.

Instead, the club owners had gotten around federal and state labor laws for over a decade by classifying her and other exotic dancers as “independent contractors” who were entitled to none of those benefits. Last September, Cruz, 35, the mother of an eight-year-old girl, sued to recover the lost wages, tips and fees she was required to pay to work in the clubs, in three pending class-action suits challenging the classification of strippers as independent contractors.

"You don't feel like an independent contractor because you have to follow all their rules," Cruz, who now works as a home health aide in Boston, told The Fiscal Times. "We had to be there or we got late fees. Whatever they said went."

Unpaid jobs: The new normal?

While businesses are generally wary of the risks of using unpaid labor, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Friday, March 25, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

With nearly 14 million unemployed workers in America, many have gotten so desperate that they're willing to work for free. While some businesses are wary of the legal risks and supervision such an arrangement might require, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

"People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they're going to outperform, they're going to try to please, they're going to be creative," says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. "From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it's huge. Especially if you're a small business."

In the last three years, Fallis has used about 50 unpaid interns for duties in marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations. She's convinced it's the wave of the future in human resources. "Ten years from now, this is going to be the norm," she says.


Economy Grows, But Jobs Don’t

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Of all the woes of the Great Recession, one anomaly is the most troubling: How can the economy be growing while unemployment remains so high? The breakdown in the historic relationship between GDP growth and jobs has confounded experts ranging from White House Chief Economist Austan Goolsbee to Cato Institute scholar Mark Calabria.

Under the principle known as Okun's law, named for Arthur M. Okun, an economist who worked for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, a 3 percent increase in U.S. gross domestic product should lead to a 1 percent drop in the unemployment rate. Yet as the U.S. economy rebounds from the latest downturn, the jobless rate remains stubbornly high — as much as 2 percentage points higher than economic theory predicted. Possible explanations include overly cautious employers, a lack of worker mobility and simple measurement error.

New Tax Laws Make Filing a Bureaucratic Nightmare

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, March 18, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Taxes are never fun, but this year is proving especially painful. Not only did the Internal Revenue Service fail to finalize all its systems and forms until mid-February, some popular tax breaks expired in 2010.

It wasn’t until mid-December that Congress reached a compromise for legislation to extend tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush that were set to expire at the end of last year. As a result, the IRS wouldn’t accept tax returns filed electronically until mid-February, as it updated its tax guidance, instructions and software, and many tax preparers waited until that point to begin work on clients' returns.

The delay was unavoidable because of the late action by Congress, said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. "Some returns could not be actually sent electronically until mid-February."

This year's headaches reflect the increasingly complicated tax code and contentious debate over tax legislation, which leads to last-minute legislation with short-term compromises. In the near term, lawmakers struggling to agree on a budget -- and pare a projected $1.6 trillion deficit -- are in their fifth month of stop-gap measures to keep the government operating. In the long term, they hope to reduce the federal debt and deficit without sending tax rates through the roof or eliminating cherished federal programs.

"We've had so many changes in tax law in the last 18 months that people are genuinely confused about what the rules are," said Joseph McLeod, tax partner in the Raleigh, N.C. office of Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, a certified public accounting firm. "Tax-return preparation has gotten more lengthy, more complicated. It takes more of our time, so we have to bill more at the very point in time when people want to pay less."

Investors Beware: Return to Stocks May Be Too Late

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, March 7, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Investors are worried about the federal deficit, still-high unemployment and rising oil prices, which are raising the specter of inflation. But they’re buying stocks, afraid of being left out as major indexes rise to their highest levels in nearly three years. They may be too late.

Individuals tend to sell out of the market near the bottom and buy back close to the top — realizing their losses and missing out on potential gains, experts say. After the flash crash in May 2010, massive amounts of money flowed out of stock mutual funds: $82.3 billion in the eight following months, according to Chicago-based research firm Morningstar. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index went on to double from its low in March 2009, the fastest such increase in the index's history.

The financial crisis and Great Recession shook Americans' confidence in the markets, and investors withdrew $216 billion from stock mutual funds from 2007 through 2010, according to Morningstar. "This was fundamentally different from past bear markets," said Morningstar analyst Kevin McDevitt. "There are a lot of people who felt they didn’t want to play this game anymore and felt the whole system was rigged against them." The S&P is still down about 5 percent from the start of 2007.

Sentiment started to change this January, when $15.8 billion flowed into U.S. equity funds, the biggest January since 2004, though small relative to the $3.5 trillion in overall assets held in the funds. A new Wells Fargo-Gallup poll found that retail investors remain wary of investing in stocks, but the market's climb is pulling many back in. The federal budget deficit — tied with unemployment — is the top worry of individual investors, a concern for 71 percent of those surveyed.

"It's shocking to me that the federal budget deficit would rank ahead of energy prices, ahead of access to credit, ahead of the questions that have dominated the media," said David M. Carroll, a senior executive vice president at Wells Fargo. "It's food for thought for our representatives in Washington."

State Debt Crisis: Preview of Federal Pain to Come

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, Feb. 28, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

As Illinois lawmakers wrestle with a $13 billion budget deficit – the equivalent of half the overall budget for the year – they are finding that simply keeping up with the interest payments on the debt is an onerous task. This year’s price tag: a crippling penalty of more than a half-billion dollars on debt issued in 2010.

Nevada, California and Texas are struggling with deficits as large as 44 percent, 29 percent and 32 percent, respectively, and these and other states will feel the impact of rising borrowing costs. So far, the solutions from both Democratic and Republican governors, including proposals for sharp cuts in government workers' benefits and a scaling back of bargaining rights, have sparked protests in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Beyond the grim implications for cash-strapped states, this scenario offers a preview of the pain that might befall the federal government if investors in U.S. Treasuries start to demand a premium because of uncertainty over the federal fiscal situation. Already, the Obama administration's budget proposal for 2012 projects that interest payments on the national debt will quadruple over the next decade, from $207 billion in 2011to $844 billion in 2021. Interest on debt held by the public is estimated to climb from 7.7 percent of total federal outlays in 2011, to 15.8 percent in 2016. If interest rates rise, those debt costs will climb even higher.

"If we don’t get a handle on our fiscal situation, investors will grow more nervous and demand a higher interest rate to buy our debt," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "That, combined with deficits, will start to gobble up our budget and resources and ultimately will swamp us, much like rising interest payments swamped a number of European countries."

Sometimes it's good to be a sellout

Sometimes it's not. How to know when to be true to your vision, and when to grow your company at any cost.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

Company founders fall into two categories, according to Noam Wasserman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. The "king" wants to build an empire and change the world, while a "rich" founder is motivated by financial gains and unleashing a company's growth potential.

Many entrepreneurs look at company founders like Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs -- who managed to grow his company into a behemoth while also maintaining control -- and assume it's possible to be both a king and rich. In reality, "99% of those founders are going to be facing, at some point, a choice between one and the other," Wasserman says. "Hopefully they're picking the fork in the road that is much more consistent with what their goals and aspirations are."

It's important to understand what type you identify with most to navigate the key decisions that will arise during any entrepreneurial venture, Wasserman says. King founders find it difficult to share control and can be very stubborn when facts on the ground challenge their vision. Rich founders are motivated by the practical rewards of entrepreneurship, whether it's money or freedom, and are more likely to share control as their venture grows and changes.

In fact, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a better example than Jobs of a king, motivated by a dream of bringing computing power to the masses. When Apple was about to go public, he sold his own shares below-market to the key early employees he thought should be rewarded financially, Wasserman says.

"Every entrepreneur thinks they're unique and idiosyncratic," he says. "Those very diverse people are consistently facing the same issues and same potential missteps."

Homeowners Exhale as Fed Reverses Course on Mortgages

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Millions of homeowners facing foreclosure dodged a bullet when the Federal Reserve Board changed course on proposed changes to mortgage rules, instead deferring to the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the first skirmish over regulatory authority under last year’s sweeping financial reform legislation.

A coalition of consumer groups took the unprecedented step of asking the Fed to withdraw two sets of rule proposals on consumer mortgages and turn them over to the new bureau created by the Dodd-Frank Act. In a brief statement this month, the Fed cited more than 5,000 comments received on the matter and said it plans to wait for the bureau, which will take over authority on consumer mortgage rules in July 2011.

If the Fed had finalized the rule proposals, it would have eliminated a longtime consumer right to void a mortgage under certain circumstances, one of the best tools homeowners have to halt foreclosure. Consumer advocates say the rule also would have opened the door to risky reverse mortgages, and would allow changes in advertising that would permit false statements.

Nearly 11 million Americans owe more on their homes than the properties are worth, and 3.4 million homes have been lost to foreclosure since the recession began, according to CoreLogic. The foreclosure crisis has spawned accusations that lenders used improper documentation and procedures to seize homes, prompting investigations by state attorneys general and members of Congress, as well as lawsuits estimated to end up costing banks as much as $52 billion.

The Fed’s proposed rules "would have been disastrous for homeowners … At the time of the worst foreclosure crisis in anyone's memory, they were pulling the rug out from the most vulnerable consumers this law intended to protect," said Nina Simon, director of litigation at the Center for Responsible Lending, which filed joint comments with the National Consumer Law Center, the National Fair Housing Alliance, Consumers Union, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and other consumer groups.

Treasury Plan to Wind Down Fannie and Freddie

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.

The Obama administration released a white paper proposing the gradual winding down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and overhauling the mortgage securities market.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

The Obama administration Friday laid out an ambitious vision for U.S. housing finance reform, in which the government gradually diminishes its role and private investors return to the mortgage securities market.

But the plan doesn't specify how to overhaul or eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, instead setting out three possible options for the mortgage giants, which have been operating under government conservatorship since September 2008. Under the landmark Dodd-Frank financial overhaul legislation approved last year, the Treasury Department was supposed to present to Congress by Jan. 31 a report on the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) to help lawmakers write legislation to reform the agencies.

"This is a plan for fundamental reform — to wind down the GSEs, strengthen consumer protection, and preserve access to affordable housing for people who need it," said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a statement. "We are going to start the process of reform now, but we are going to do it responsibly and carefully so that we support the recovery and the process of repair of the housing market."

At stake are the health of the real estate market, economic growth and, some argue, the future of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. The challenge for policymakers is to attract private investors back into the mortgage market while retaining the benefits that Fannie and Freddie established — a liquid secondary mortgage market and greater access to homeownership. The administration and lawmakers are also attempting to prevent a repeat of the excessive risk-taking and inadequate supervision of the housing market that led to the 2008 financial crisis, while reassuring foreign investors in housing bonds and U.S. government debt.


Whistleblower Rule: Business Leaders Want it Changed

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011.

The SEC will soon issue a rule giving corporate whistleblowers the chance to collect big money for reporting securities violations, but the business community fears a wave of frivolous claims.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

In his continuing outreach to business leaders, President Obama spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this morning about global competition, technological innovation and the outdated or unnecessary government regulations. But a major concern of many corporate leaders is a proposed federal rule giving corporate whistleblowers an opportunity to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for reporting securities law violations. The rule has alarmed the business community, which argues that the plan would encourage frivolous claims and undermine a decade of work to provide safe reporting channels for whistleblowers.

By April 17, the Securities and Exchange Commission must give final approval to the rule, which Congress ordered as part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law aiming to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

Corporate lawyers and lobbyists have asked the SEC to require whistleblowers to report problems internally before going to the government, to limit the people eligible to collect a bounty and to extend the time a company has to correct violations. On the other side, lawyers who represent whistleblowers say the provisions the SEC proposed are needed to protect tipsters from retaliation and prevent corporate cover-ups.

The rulemaking is the latest in a series of government attempts to encourage corporate employees with knowledge of fraud or other violations to come forward. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — which Congress passed in response to accounting fraud at Enron, WorldCom and other corporate giants — required companies to establish internal reporting programs and made boards of directors and top executives personally liable for neglecting to investigate fraud complaints. In both 2001 and 2008, scandals over the activities of publicly traded companies quickly spread from the stock market to the broader economy, affecting everyday Americans as well as shareholders.

"This is one of the most explosive issues that has come up in a while for such a broad group of companies," said Alice Joe, a senior director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than three million businesses. "Our companies have spent millions of dollars over the past 10 years trying to build up these compliance programs. Now you've got a rule that the SEC has proposed that is going to incentivize whistleblowers to completely bypass these systems."

Use the Web to save $8,000 a year

This article was originally published by MSN Money on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011.

Smart shoppers use the Internet to save a bundle through comparison sites, coupons and online services. Just be sure you're not wasting time and money to save a buck.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Savvy Internet users can save nearly $8,000 a year through smarter shopping, online discounts and Web-based services such as bill paying, according to a report compiled for the Internet Innovation Alliance.

Gale Swanson, 53, can attest to the value of an Internet connection. Since her children gave her a computer in 2009, her Web usage has saved her more than $5,000 on gifts, entertainment, food and travel purchased through the Internet -- and ended her weekly trips to Big Lots and Wal-Mart.

"Because I'm on a fixed income and a budget, I have to make sure I don't spend my money frivolously," said Swanson, a retired office manager in Van Nuys, Calif. "The ease of being able to find things that are discounted is great."

Expanding management: The delicate art of sharing control

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011.

While the thought of sharing control of your company can be nerve-wracking, those who have been through the transition swear by having a second set of hands. As long as they're the right hands.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Since founding Secure Enterprise Computing in 1998, chairman Randall Bennett has seen business boom -- and bust. But when the demand for security technology began to crest a couple years ago, he knew that he didn't want to miss the opportunity to grow his company. He also knew that to ride the wave, he'd need to expand his leadership team and share control of the business.


"You can have 100% of nothing or 50% of millions," Bennett says. "I've seen a lot of entrepreneurs fail over the years. They're not able to give up [control]."
The solution: bringing on Robert Pickens as president and chief operating officer of the Morrisville, N.C.-based firm last year. Pickens advocated a narrower strategic focus and implemented quarterly reports and a suite of metrics that give top managers an up-to-date picture of how the business is doing. With Pickens heading up operations, Bennett now has more time to develop new business and serve as the face of the company at community and industry gatherings.
Expanding the leadership team is a natural step when a company's growth outpaces the skill set or capacity of its original founders. Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked to Eric Schmidt when the time was right (The company has entered a new phase, with Page soon taking the CEO reins and Schmidt moving into the executive chairman role.). Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg sought out Sheryl Sandberg. It's a tried and true part of a start-up's growth path, but it's no simple task.
"How do we make sure we preserve the culture and all the wonderful insights and talents that our founding team members were able to inject, while making sure we have a management bench that will maximize our chances of success?" asks Phil Dur, managing director at Investor Growth Capital, an expansion-stage venture firm. "You can have a good product and good market opportunity but if you don't have good management, you don't have much at all."

Reforming Fannie and Freddie: a $6 Trillion Dollar Problem

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011.

As the administration prepares its proposals for overhauling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing industry and public interest groups are floating ideas of their own.


By Katherine Reynolds Lewis


As the Obama administration struggles to draft a report to Congress on how best to overhaul Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, industry and public interest groups are promoting plans of their own for the two mortgage giants.


The proposals range from replacing Fannie and Freddie with new, chartered private firms to gradually shrinking and privatizing them. After the housing bubble burst, leading to the worst recession since the Depression, the government stepped in to secure the companies’ $6 trillion worth of U.S. mortgages in order to avoid an even worse financial calamity.

The Treasury faces a Jan. 31 deadline under the Dodd-Frank law to make recommendations on the future of Fannie and Freddie, although the Fiscal Times reported last week that they may miss the deadline because of sharp divisions within the administration. The stakes are high: Economic growth, return of private capital to the housing market, resilience in the event of future crises and continued consumer access to 30-year fixed-rate mortgages all hinge on the right strategy.

Most interested parties agree on the basic outline of a new structure that would divide the functions of Fannie and Freddie between government and the private sector in order to shift the mortgage securities market back to private investors while ensuring Americans' access to affordable housing and credit.

Administration Split Over Fannie Freddie Strategy

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011.

With a Jan. 31 deadline looming for making recommendations, the Obama administration is badly divided over how to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the financially strapped and controversial mortgage giants.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

The Obama administration is sorely divided over how to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the controversial mortgage giants. Sources familiar with the discussions raise the possibility that the White House will miss its statutory deadline for submitting recommendations to Congress.

The dispute pits White House economic advisers, who favor merely offering lawmakers a menu of possible next steps without committing to a specific direction, against officials at the Treasury and Department of Housing and Urban Development, who want to endorse an explicit federal guarantee for the mortgage companies and throw the administration's support behind it, the sources said.

The controversy is as much over strategy as substance. White House advisers aren’t certain whether going out on a limb with a specific plan will drive reforms of the federal housing finance program in a constructive way, or present an easy target for opponents. Administration officials who object to offering an explicit guarantee so early in the process say it would make it harder to negotiate a compromise. Instead, they argue, the administration would be better off laying out a range of options, to give them maximum flexibility in talks with Democratic and Republican lawmakers and industry officials.

The government currently supports 97 percent of the mortgage market, and the two entities own or guarantee nearly three quarters of that amount, or $6 trillion in debt, which policy experts and stakeholders agree can’t be indefinitely sustained.