American Airlines: Going for Great or Going for Racial Insensitivity?; Congress Lets Banks Off the Hook. For Now; Things Aren’t Looking Sunny at Tesla Lately

Something racially insensitive in the air…

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Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity but I’m skeptical about that. Take for example American Airlines. The NAACP just issued an advisory cautioning African Americans about traveling on American Airlines because the organization found an alarming pattern of “disturbing incidents” by the airline where black passengers were removed from flights. And the NAACP might just be onto something since it listed four distinct incidents where African American passengers were either taken off flights or moved to other sections of the aircraft despite holding tickets for higher class cabins. The NAACP said that the incidents “suggest a corporate culture of racial insensitivity” which I am pretty certain counts as bad publicity no matter how you slice it. Of course, American Airlines is “disappointed” about the advisory, and not just because it looks sooooooo bad. However, it still plans to reach out to the NAACP and invite representatives to its corporate offices in Texas to discuss the situation. Of course, just like with any bad publicity, American Airlines shares are down over 2%. Rightfully so, I suppose.

Don’t bank on it…

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You might not remember when, during President Obama’s presidency, a regulation was passed that allowed consumers to file class-action suits against banks.  But Congress remembered and today duly killed the regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was established back in July. Just. Like. That.  The rule went like so: If a consumer was unhappy with a financial product or service, think of Wells Fargo or Equifax, and wanted action and accountability from the institution, the said financial institutions could not force a consumer into mandatory arbitration. And if a consumer wanted to participate in a class-action lawsuit, they could. Financial institutions had to nix clauses in their contracts that effectively forced consumers into arbitration. Before that rule came about, consumers could not sue. Could. Not. Sue. There was no option to settle lawsuits. Dems are hopping mad because they wanted that rule to stay put arguing that it allowed consumers to hold banks and financial institutions accountable and that arbitration always seemed to go more in favor of the banks. Republicans argued that class-action suits do not benefit the consumers anyway and have the potential to greatly harm businesses that ultimately and adversely affect the economy. Consumers are no better off, they argued, whether they go through arbitration or are part of a class-action lawsuit. Republicans even cited information from a Treasury report supporting those claims.  Of course, the recent scandals at Wells Fargo and Equifax didn’t exactly help the Republicans argument. Yet miraculously, Congress still managed to put the kibosh on the rule. Consumer advocates are all over this and insist that the war is not over. Except that a key battle was just lost.

Rolling heads…

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While the ranks at Tesla continue to get smaller by the hundreds following an ugly recall of 11,000 Model X SUV’s, employees at Tesla-owned SolarCity are starting to smell the stench of unemployment too.  Over 200 employees were dismissed from their jobs at SolarCity with the dismissed being told that they lost their jobs for performance reasons, or lack thereof. However,  that proved to be an awfully strange excuse considering that several of the aforementioned employees said they hadn’t even received performance reviews since Tesla acquired SolarCity last November for $2.6 billion. Things that make you go hmmm.Tesla did announce it would be firing employees from SolarCity’s Roseville, California office. And it did. Except the carnage didn’t stop there. Apparently, SolarCity employees all over the country were also fired.  As for the Roseville office, some say the office will stay open with 50 employees while others insist that the whole office is being shut down.  In any case, I’m guessing the holidays are going to be awkward this year for Elon Musk and his family since SolarCity was founded by his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive back in 2006. Critics of Musk’s plan to buy the solar company felt that it would distract the CEO from making great cars.  Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for sure: A lot of people are wondering how much longer it is going to be until Elon Musk finally rolls out the super-hyped but affordable Model 3.

 

You Bacon Believe It! It’s Getting A Lot More Expensive; Tesla’s Going Through Some Changes – Whether You Care or Not; Hip-Hop Mogul Takes Rap for Debit Card Glitch;

This little piggy…

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Savor that bacon while you can. Or rather the price of it. The price of pork belly increased 20% just in the first three weeks of January. It seems the supply of frozen pork belly, which is essentially bacon, is shrinking. Rapidly. In fact, according to U.S. agricultural data, pork belly levels are at a fifty year low, having fallen from 53.4 million pounds in December of 2015 to 17.8 million pounds in December of 2016. But what’s weird is that pig farmers are actually producing more pigs.  Apparently, supply is dwindling because demand is pretty big, not just in the U.S., but also outside the U.S., as pig farmers here find themselves exporting 26% of their product. Bon appetite!

Say my name…

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A Tesla by any other name might not be a Tesla. Or might it? Hmmm. According to a regulatory filing, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk changed the name of his company from Tesla Motors to…wait for it… Tesla Inc. Really. That’s it. Anti-climactic, huh? Musk decided to drop the word “Motors” lest people think the company only makes cars. Because it doesn’t. It also has a whole big solar power business too. If you recall, Musk brought in his other company, SolarCity, into the Tesla family back in November, to the tune of $2 billion. It was undoubtedly a big bonus for Musk that he already owned 20% of both companies, which probably helped the deal close more swiftly. He wants Tesla to be the known as a one-stop shop for products that utilize clean, renewable energy.  And he’s well on his way towards achieving that goal.

No need to rush…

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Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons is making some headlines today in the finance world. It seems the debit card company he founded called “RushCard” was just slapped with a very nasty $3 million fine following a 2015 outage that left its customers unable to access their cash.  But RushCard, together with its payment processor, MasterCard, also has to pay about $10 million in restitution to the customers who were left in a very big lurch because of the system failure.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explained that back in 2015, RushCard wanted to switch its payment processor to MasterCard which would require a simple software upgrade. Except it didn’t work out so simply and the system went down leaving thousands of RushCard holders unable to access their cash, make deposits or get their balance information. What’s worse is that because many RushCard holders tended to be in a low-income bracket, and they couldn’t even afford to buy basic necessities nor access their money for days, or in some cases, weeks.  Of course, nobody should point the finger at Russell Simmons because it’s not like he was the one installing the software. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking personal responsibility and even using his own funds to help out some of the affected RushCard customers. Affected customers will receive awards based on the transactions they made, deposit delays, returned deposits and incorrect balance information.  In the meantime, RushCard has since been scooped up by pre-paid debit card company GreenDot for $147 million. And no, GreenDot will not be paying any of  RushCard’s fees and fines.

EpiPen Getting Dose of Competition; Gaping Gender Gap; Wells Fargo So Very Sorry Indeed

Shot to the heart…

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EpiPen, which currently controls 95% of the auto-injector epinephrine market, now has to scoot its greedy butt over to make way for a much-needed competitor. Privately-held Kaleo Pharma is bringing back Auvi-Q, the auto-injector device that was taken off the market back in 2015 because of dosage delivery problems. Apparently the problems have been fixed and you can expect to see Auvi-Q back on the shelves in the first half of 2017. However, before you breathe a sigh of relief, experts have said that the price for Auvi-Q might not be all that competitive. In fact, between 2013 – 2015, Kaleo’s price hikes matched Mylan’s and the cost for the auto-injector might go for $500, just $100 less than EpiPen’s highly-criticized $600 2-pack. Make no mistake. Kaleo’s no more an angel in the pharmaceutical industry than Mylan is. The company is also known for making Evzio injectors which use naloxone to treat opioid-overdoses. Once upon a very short time ago – like a few years – the devices cost $690. But not anymore, as the devices go for $4,500 per two-pack. Kaleo has promised that its Auvi-Q device will be affordable and expects insurance companies to help see that promise through. In the meantime, as Mylan’s generic version of its EpiPen is expected to go for $300, the FDA nixed Teva Pharmaceuticals application for a generic version of the EpiPen citing “major deficiencies.” Yikes.

Rock on, Rwanda!

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Just when you thought the gender pay gap couldn’t get any worse, along comes the World Economic Forum to tell us otherwise in its Global Gender Gap Report. The study examined 144 countries and took into account all kinds of factors like economic opportunities, political empowerment and education. The study disconcertingly found that if we wait 170 years, that pesky gender gap might actually close. But who wants to stick around until the year 2186? Sadly, last year’s projection had us holding our collective breath until 2133 but in all fairness, if we actually start to do things correctly, the gender gap could “could be reduced to parity within the next 10 years.” That’s got to be somewhat reassuring, right? One of the more unpleasant nuggets in the report illustrated that average female salaries were half those of men and disturbingly enough, education gains didn’t necessarily help women increase their salaries. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Rwanda took the top five spots in that order. (Yes, Rwanda).  I’m thinking maybe it’s time to start poaching our political leaders from those countries. Just a thought. The United Kingdom ranked twentieth, even with a female Prime Minister. Go figure. And even though the U.S. ranked twenty-eighth last year, this year the Land of the Free fell to spot number 45, apparently due to a decline of women in the labor force. At least the U.S.’s ranking wasn’t as bad as Yemen, which ranked dead last. Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan also claimed the loser spots which I suppose makes sense considering those countries tend to treat women as property instead of human beings.

 

It still hurts…

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After just 13 days into his tenure, Wells Fargo already has its latest CEO, Tim Sloan, apologizing. Of course, that apology is over the account scandal that already cost the bank $185 million in fines from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But what’s different about this apology is that Sloan was actually addressing the bank’s 260,000 employees. Which is a step up from last month when former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf took to blaming 5,300 lower-level employees instead. However, karma is not done with the bank just yet as Wells Fargo could end up eating $8 billion in lost business in the next 12-18 months since approximately 14% of its current customers are looking to switch to more trust-worthy competitors.  As Sloan noted in his apology,“many felt we blamed our team members. That one still hurts, and I am committed to rectifying it.” And so the bank is hiring culture experts to fix the weaknesses that led to this ugly episode. Of course, cultural weaknesses aside, the bank can look forward to both criminal investigations and class-actions suits. Which is only fair considering that the wrongfully blamed lower-level employees – many whom made less than $15 per hour – were met with retaliation after they dared to call in to the bank’s internal ethics hotline.

Airbnb Apologizes for Slow Reaction to Site’s Racists; Wells Fargo Eats $185 Million for Ridiculous Sales Quotas; Apple’s Latest Bites Wall Street

Diss-crminate…

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Airbnb said sorry. Not because of all the discrimination that occurs on its site but because Airbnb was on the slow side when it came to responding to complaints about racist hosts and all the horrible stories surrounding #AirbnbWhileBlack. So, like any major company hit with a scandalous fiasco, Airbnb, which has a valuation around $26 billion and hosts in more than 30,000 cities, has come up with a new set of policies it hopes will act as a deterrent to those who wish to practice discrimination. Now, if would-be hosts claim that their lodgings are unavailable for certain dates, Airbnb will not allow those users to re-list their lodgings at a later time for the same-exact dates. While the site plans to reduce the significance of profile photos, critics argue that there shouldn’t even be any photos of hosts and guests. That way host discriminators can’t claim their lodgings are “unavailable” based on the color of a guest’s skin and guests wouldn’t be able to choose accommodations based on a host’s race and/or ethinicity. Airbnb, however, disagrees and feels that photos are a security measure that allows hosts and guests to recognize each other. Just for good measure, former ACLU head Laura Murphy and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder were brought in to consult and institute the new company policies.

No credit to you…

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Fraud hurts. Just ask Wells Fargo, now that it will be choking down more than $185 million in the form of fines and penalties for pushing customers to open accounts that they didn’t want. According to the Consumer  Financial Protection Bureau, the largest U.S. bank opened some 2 million fee-generating accounts that were probably not authorized. Of those, 565,00 unwanted credit card accounts were opened. This was the largest fine ever imposed by this agency. Some employees took the liberty of opening accounts for unwilling customers and when that failed, made up fake accounts and even forged signatures. All in the name of sales quotas. The complaint was filed following an investigation that began back in 2013. The employees said they took those measures because of the intense pressure of meeting some very strict and unreasonable sales quotas. Wells Fargo has set aside $5 million to cover refunds to customers.  As part of the settlement, Wells Fargo doesn’t have to admit wrongdoing. I guess the $185 million says it anyway. But be sure to stop by your local Well Fargo. Employees there are eager to help you close up any accounts customers don’t want. Well, maybe eager is not the right word.

Overripe…

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Wall Street is not sweet on Apple today as the latest iPhone 7 failed to impress the masses and the analysts. The lackluster reception for the device put a drag on the Street sending the stock down 2.3% at one point. That was its biggest one day fall since June 24th’s Brexit vote, when investors scrambled to unload their Apple shares. Gone is the headphone jack, replaced by the aptly named AirBuds, which are sold separately for a cool $159. How very shrewd – or callous? – of Apple to take that route. The AirBuds innovation sheds a whole new light on Apple’s $3 billion deal to pick up Beats and their headphone technology. But, to be fair, the phone is water and dust-resistant and I’ll be the first to admit that the water-resistant feature speaks to me. Apple has a market value of around $680 billion, but brass at the company have no plans on sharing how many iPhones will have been sold by the weekend’s end. That’s presumably because of the gadget’s less than impressive…impression.

Debt Collectors Are on the Hook Now; Oracle Pays Big for NetSuite; VW’s Surprising Return to the Top of the Heap

Karma time…

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The tables are turning on debt collectors and after forty years it’s about time. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has got big plans that involve some major federal oversight for an industry that has plagued tens of millions of Americans for decades. In 2015, the CFPB received a mind-blowing 85,000 complaints against the industry. So you might just find it comforting to know that debt collection agencies had to pay $136 million to the CFPB and several states over debt collection issues and sales of credit card debt. Now, before debt collectors make their first, sometimes-harrassing, phone call, they are required to substantiate the debt and gather information so as not to try and collect anything that they are not entitled to collect. Speaking of harassment, the industry will need to put the kibosh on their “excessive and disruptive” debt collection tactics or face consequences. Consumers will now even be able to request that debt collectors not contact them at work or during certain hours. Debt collectors will also be required to wait thirty days before contacting family members of a deceased consumer from whom they wish to collect. Some of the 9,000 debt collection agencies are pleased with the new regulations because they feel they will clear up ambiguities. But these are, after all, debt collectors we are talking about, and they are primarily concerned with how their costs will go up for compliance. However, they can probably afford a few upgrades given that the industry sees $13.7 billion in annual revenue with about 70 million Americans in the throes of debt collection. You see, sometimes there are happy endings. Sort of.

Silver lining…

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Oracle is throwing down some major cash to pick up cloud computing business, NetSuite. Not that industry experts are particularly surprised. After all, Larry Ellison and his family already own about 40% of NetSuite shares. The deal is valued at $9.3 billion, which comes out to approximately $109 per share with a 20% premium on Wednesday’s closing price.  Larry Ellison will get about $3.5 billion out of it. So no doubt he’s celebrating. It’s one of Oracle’s biggest deals, with one just other ahead of it. NetSuite, which was founded in 1998,  supplies cloud-based business management services for about 30,000 companies in 100 countries. The company is touted as having paved the way for cloud-based computing and was the first company to offer business web-based applications. But the time now was ripe for some change and NetSuite apparently needed a little assistance from Oracle and its global reach to grow even greater. The official press release touted the companies as complementary to each other and that they will coexist in the marketplace forever. And that is just a beautiful and moving sentiment. Naturally, shares of both NetSuite and Oracle rose today, and why shouldn’t they. When the tide is high, all boats rise.

Winner winner…

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Diesel-gate be damned. Volkswagen is now the world’s largest automaker and there’s nothing you can do about it but scratch your head and drop your jaw. Even though sales in the U.S. continue to slump – though not as bad as you might think  – the German automaker sold more cars in the first six months of 2016 than Toyota, who is used to holding the title of world’s largest automaker. Volkswagen was poised to earn the title for the full year except the unfortunate emissions scandal put the kibosh on that goal. For four years in a row, Toyota was the world’s best-selling automaker through 2015. So it’s ego is probably feeling a bit bruised right about now. GM is in third place and experts don’t think it’ll ever win the top slot. Volkswagen sold 5.12 million cars to Toyota’s 4.99 million vehicles. Toyota’s sales were down by .6% over the same period last year while Volkswagen’s sales were miraculously up 1.5%.  To be fair, an earthquake in Japan damaged one of Toyota’s plants and that incident is being blamed for its shortfall in production. But apparently U.S. consumers seem to be more offended by the emissions rigging than the rest of the world with falling U.S. sales by 7%. However, the U.S. is a relatively small market for VW who counts Europe and China as its key markets. The question, though, remains if VW can keep it up and reclaim some glory.

 

 

Google Spits in the Face of Online Payday Lenders; This Trump’s For You; Mega Merger Nixed

Well if Google’s doing it…

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Google has been able to do what politicians couldn’t. Which might mean that its up to Google to Make America Great Again. In any case, online payday lenders are officially getting the boot from Google.  Come July 13, companies that deal in online payday loans wont get their ads displayed above search results under Google’s AdWords program. If you think that’s awfully harsh, then consider that payday loans are often due in 60 days and carry annual interest rates of at least 36%. Other types of loans and lenders will still be able to keep their ads in place, though. For now. Facebook has been banning payday loan ads since last summer, while Yahoo has still yet to catch on. A payday lender trade group called Google’s new policy “discriminatory and a form of censorship.” However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has its own thoughts about the online payday lending industry. The CFPB’s cold hard research highlights the numerous hidden risks, costly banking fees and account closures resulting from these loans. The industry also tends to disproportionately target minorities. The CFPB found that a staggering one third of borrowers had their accounts closed by their banks while half of the borrowers paid an average of $185 in back penalties. And that’s before you even get to the annual percentage rate of 391% that are placed on these types of loans

 

This America’s for you…

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Next time you reach for an icy cold brew, you might just be wondering why it looks a little different. Riding the fiscal wave of patriotism, Budweiser will be rebranding its cans “America.” Instead of the slogan “King of Beers,” beer drinkers will find the slogan “E Pluribus Unum” on the cans. And in case it matters, Donald Trump is taking the credit that companies are inspired by his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Really. During an interview on Fox News, Trump said, “They’re so impressed with what our country will become. They decided to do this before the fact.” Never mind that Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser Busch InBev is Belgian. That’s just a minor detail. Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, along with Hershey’s, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart and even Carl’s Jr. are using patriotic marketing campaigns that are expected to last well past election season. To be fair, Hershey is utilizing this tactic because the company is an official sponsor of the Olympic U.S. team. For the first time in 122 years, the coloring on Hershey bars will be different , as red, white and blue will feature prominently on the confection’s wrappers. As for Wal-Mart, the gigantic retailer made a pledge back in 2013 to buy $250 billion worth of products that are “made in the U.S.A.” And let’s forget that minor hiccup when the chain was investigated by the FTC for mislabeling products that were, in fact, not made domestically.

Lay off my stapler!

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Shares of Staples and Office Depot took a nasty beating after a Federal judge ruled that the two companies cannot merge in fiscal blissful matrimony. The $6.3 billion merger was nixed since the judge felt that a huge merger between the two largest office supplies suppliers would be a horrible thing for consumers. The Federal Trade Commission thought the merger was as anti-competitive as it gets and couldn’t be more pleased with the judge’s ruling. Both the judge and the FTC felt competitive pricing, quality and service would be tossed aside as consumers would look on helplessly as they handed over their hard-earned cash. Office Depot said it won’t appeal the ruling. And why should it? It’s now going to get a $250 million break up fee from Staples. But that $250 million pales in comparison to the revenue it would have seen and the money it would have saved had the merger gone through. This was the second time, since 1997, that the two companies tried to merge. Shares of Staples fell 20% on the news at one point during the day, while Office Depot tanked about 40%. Staples and Office Depot continue to take massive hits from the other competition, Amazon. Amazon’s business to business division is but a year old, yet it already racked up more than a billion dollars in sales. And that’s while Staples and Office Depot were hit with massive losses.

Get Your Resume Ready – The List of Highest Paying Companies is Out; Online Lending Risks Exposed; Home Sales Spring Forward

Benefits and all…

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Glassdoor just put out its latest list of companies that are better than yours. This time you get to hear the list of highest paying companies in America for 2016. In order to even be considered for the list, companies had to have at least 50 salary reports on Glassdoor. The top spot goes to Chicago-based business consulting firm A.T. Kearney who pays its employees a median salary of $167,534. Strategy&, another consulting firm, ranked number two while tech firm Juniper Networks took the number three spot. With the exception of Visa, which came in at number 11, no other financial firms made the list of twenty five companies. Instead consulting firms and tech companies dominated the list. Consulting firms are all about contacts, connections and a ” who you know”culture. Other “barriers of entry” include a good reputation and specialized skills and knowledge. Which explains why they are willing to shell out big bucks for sky-high salaries. Tech companies, however, value”what you know” that leads to a “war for talent” in that industry. Incidentally, there’s a big shortage of skilled workers in tech. Just saying. As for other notable companies who made the list, Google weighed in at number 5, Facebook ranked twelfth and Twitter appeared at number 13.

Borrower’s remorse…

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Online payday loans might seem like a great idea to many, but have actually turned into a major nightmare after borrowers were hit hard with major bank fees and account closures. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau conducted a study – its third in the industry – and found that about half of the borrowers who took out these high-interest loans had to eat a $185 bank penalty for overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees.  In case you were wondering, that high-interest rate is 300% – 500% on an unsecured loan.  Ironically, and tragically, I might add, this type of loan is favored by low-income consumers who use the method to pay off expenses in between paychecks. The penalties were incurred when the online lenders submitted repayment requests to the borrower’s bank. But if the accounts were low, and they usually were, the borrower got slapped with heavy fees. Online lenders would make repeated debit attempts on borrowers accounts, adding their own fees on top of the bank fees incurred. For the first unsuccessful debit repayment, the online lender would hit the borrower with a $97 penalty. A second unsuccessful debit repayment resulted in a $50 penalty. If multiple requests were made in a single day, the borrower would have to eat another $39. As a result, 23% of borrowers in the study had their accounts closed at the end of the 18 month period of the study. Fortunately, new regulations are on the horizon. It’s just too bad that no one is discussing the possibility of any retroactive recourse for the credit-scarred borrowers.

Home run…

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Existing home sales are up for March, according to the National Association of Realtors and Wall Street is rejoicing since February’s 7% decrease still induces cringing . Economists only predicted that sales would go up around 4% at an annual rate of 5.28 million, but instead they were up over 5% at an annual rate of 5.33 million homes. No doubt a healthy labor market and low mortgage rates contributed to those lovely figures and analysts feel secure in saying that it signals a strong start to the spring selling season. The median sale price of a home is sitting at $222,700, a 5.7% increase over last year at this time. Sales are up in all four of the country’s regions, with a big 11% boost in the Northeast. Unfortunately, sales at both the low and high ends weren’t as impressive, with a big shortage plaguing the low-end. The homes that sold in March sat on the market for an average of 47 days as opposed to February’s home sales that sat on the market for an average of 59 days.  Approximately 30% of the homes sold in March were purchased by first-time homebuyers while mortgage applications rose to their highest levels in nine weeks.