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Stacey Vanek Smith

We've been pulling out of a recession for so long now that a lot of people are wondering whether we're on the brink of going back in.

There's no easy way to tell, but there's an Indicator the Conference Board uses, called the Leading Economic Index. It's kind of like the dashboard on a car, with ten dials and gauges flickering away that the Conference Board economists use to tell how the economy is doing overall, and whether we're running into trouble (it is the dismal science, after all).

The price of oil had climbed aggressively from the summer of 2017 through the end of last month — but then it started falling. And falling. And falling. The price of Brent crude fell from $86 to about $66 yesterday, an astonishing decline of 23 percent.

What changed? We look at four potential reasons: U.S. output, exemptions to the sanctions on Iran, decelerating global economic growth, and the strengthening U.S. dollar.

New York City recently produced a report on the gender price differential in some consumer goods. The so-called Pink Tax. It turns out, women pay more than men for certain goods, like clothes and home health products and personal care products. The study found that women pay as much as 13 percent more for some categories of products.

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40 years ago, the 401(k) was plucked from deep within the tax code and brought into the world. Today, it's the most common retirement plan in the country with millions of people contributing trillions of dollars. But it's not without its critics. Today on the show, The Indicator and Planet Money come together to celebrate the mighty 401(k).

All Aboard The Bankmobile!

Nov 8, 2018

The Bank of Bird-In-Hand — based in Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania — had a problem: a lot of its customers were Amish and couldn't make it to the bank in their horse-drawn buggies. So they decided to bring the bank to them.

Today on the show, we take a ride on the bankmobile, and see how the bank-on-wheels model is changing the way people access financial services far beyond Amish country.

How long do you spend on hold? What kind of discounts do you get? These things could be determined by something called a Customer Lifetime Value score. This score is being used by companies across the economy and the results of those scores can be powerful.

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We love our listeners, and we especially love getting your questions. So today on the show, we answer a few of them — about luxury real estate markets, money and wealth, and our favorite ways to learn about economics and markets.

And as promised on the show, we reference these three articles:

-- Visual Capitalist

-- The Credit Suisse Wealth report

Taxes have been around for thousands of years. Governments want your money! But the relationship between taxes and representative government is particularly interesting. Today, The Indicator talks with financial historian William N. Goetzmann about the relationship between democracy and taxes.

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Friday's jobs report tells the story of a healthy labor market — fast jobs growth, fast wage growth, low unemployment.

But we've been fascinated by stories of what else, besides raising wages and salaries, companies have been doing to bid for workers in an increasingly tightening

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Bianca Beryl is a 9-year-old South Florida listener that came to us with a few interesting questions on Ecuador's currency:

Why did Ecuador change from the sucre to the dollar? Does it affect the money supply in the U.S.? How did they get the dollars there? And why aren't other countries using the U.S. dollar?

We spoke with economist Sebastián Edwards to answer Bianca's questions.

Note: If you have any questions you would like to share with us, email us at indicator@npr.org.

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The movie business is terrifying--most movies lose money. One genre where that does not hold true: horror movies. Today on the show, we look at why horror movies are more likely to make money than any other kind of movies. Part of the reason: fear itself.

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Judgment Bonds

Oct 29, 2018

Municipalities — that's towns, cities, states and even universities — have been in the news a lot this year, thanks to a number of high-profile court cases and some big settlements. Like the ruling against Michigan State University, where the court said the college has to pay large sums of money to women and girls abused by doctor Larry Nassar. Or the ruling against the City of Dallas, which has to pay large sums to police and firefighters.

Today on The Indicator, the hedonic treadmill. This is the idea that when something really great happens to us, like winning the lottery, we might be really happy at first. But eventually we just get used to our new life — and we go back to our baseline level of happiness. Researchers in Sweden have concluded that that does happen, but it's only part of the story.

Companies estimate that in just six years, humans will be working the same number of hours as machines and algorithms. That means robots will be taking over human jobs in all sorts of sectors, including clerical and legal and other white collar professions. This will usher in a period of great pain and anxiety for humanity, as jobs are lost and people have to retrain to gain new skills in a new reality. But it's not all doom and gloom. Robots will create jobs, too.

Just like Siri and Alexa trying to host a podcast:

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Companies know that when they screw up big time they need to issue an immediate and comprehensive apology. But what about the smaller stuff? If a company gets your order wrong or sends you a faulty product, what should they do? That's the topic of a new paper on the economics of apologies. A group of economists partnered with the ride-sharing app Uber to try and figure out the most effective way for a company to apologize to a wronged customer.

Life On China's Blacklist

Oct 10, 2018

In America, default and bankruptcy is almost a rite of passage for people in business. It's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. In China, however, failure to pay your debts is a cardinal sin. Offenders are banished to a blacklist. If you're on the blacklist, you can't buy a plane ticket or stay in many hotels. And your face may be plastered on billboards throughout the city, naming you as untrustworthy. Today on the Indicator, we talk with a coal broker who has been on the list for more than two years.

Who can you trust? How can you tell whether someone who borrows money from you will pay it back? In the U.S., we have a credit score to help make these calls. But in China, no such system exists.

So the government came up with its own equivalent: it will score peoples' trustworthiness using not just court and bank records, but also data from the online shopping companies. Today on the Indicator: China's social credit system and what it might mean for citizens.

The Iron Lotus

Oct 8, 2018

Today on The Indicator, we answer your questions. Well, one of them anyway. Listener Sam Spear wrote to us to ask us about the mysterious financial contortions performed by a company called Helios and Matheson, which owns a company called Moviepass. Specifically, Helios and Matheson performed a reverse stock split, after which they diluted their stock an extraordinary amount. Sam asked us to explain what happened, and why, and whether what Helios and Matheson was even legal.

The jobs news this week continues to be good: at 3.7 percent, the jobless rate is the lowest it's been since late 1969. But the number doesn't tell the whole story about the state of employment in America today.

Today on the Indicator, we steal from our econ pals to look at the jobs numbers through a few separate lenses. We look at the average number of jobs created over the last six months, which industries are hiring the fastest — and which are shedding jobs the fastest. Plus we look at the unemployment rates for certain demographics.

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Team Indicator shares its reactions to the new NAFTA, now known as the USMCA. The deal probably does not represent a huge change to the way these countries trade with each other, but it could have intriguing consequences for America's approach to trade with China.

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For almost a century, General Electric was a powerhouse of the American economy, a byword for progress, innovation, and excellence.

GE did everything, from light bulbs to jet engines to medical devices to banking. And it was that last little venture that turned out to be a bridge too far. GE got into the business just ahead of the financial crisis, and once the dust from that debacle had settled, GE found itself more than a little dinged up. A decade later, the company still hasn't recovered. Today on The Indicator, we find out what brought GE to its knees.

NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley asked us to solve a mystery for him: He's been reporting on corn prices, which have been falling lately, but when he went to get a snack from the vending machine in the press corps break room in the White House, he discovered the price of a bag of Fritos had risen 20% (a quarter!) Today on the Indicator, the case of the pricey Frito! A tale of transportation costs, tariff penalties, and our deep love of salty snacks.

Archival tape from Suspense

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One of the toughest parts of living in a big city is finding an affordable place to live. That might be getting a bit easier. Here's Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from NPR's economics podcast The Indicator.

Companies buy back their stock from shareholders when they have excess cash lying around, and they want to hand some of it over to the owners. And they've been doing it a lot more recently: companies are on track to spend more than a trillion dollars on buybacks this year. Today on the Indicator, dueling opinions on buybacks. One economist says they're a way to get cash to companies that need it; another argues they're a brake on the economy.

Music: "Break Me"

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