MONEY alternative assets

New York Proposes Bitcoin Regulations

Bitcoin (virtual currency) coins
Benoit Tessier—Reuters

New regulations may make Bitcoin safer. But some people think they will also ruin what made virtual currencies attractive.

Bitcoin may have just taken a huge step toward entering the financial mainstream.

On Thursday, Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent for New York’s Department of Financial Services, proposed new rules for virtual currency businesses. The “BitLicense” plan, which if approved would apply to all companies that store, control, buy, sell, transfer, or exchange Bitcoins (or other cryptocurrency), makes New York the first state to attempt virtual currency regulation.

“In developing this regulatory framework, we have sought to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity—without stifling beneficial innovation,” wrote Lawsky in a post on Reddit.com’s Bitcoin discussion board, a popular gathering places for the currency’s advocates.

“These regulations include provisions to help safeguard customer assets, protect against cyber hacking, and prevent the abuse of virtual currencies for illegal activity, such as money laundering.”

The proposed rules won’t take effect yet. First is a public comment period of 45 days, starting on July 23rd. After that, the department will revise the proposal and release it for another round of review.

Regulation represents a turning point in Bitcoin’s history. The currency is perhaps best known for not being subject to government oversight and has been championed (and vilified) for its freedom from official scrutiny. Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, providing a new level of privacy to online commerce. Unfortunately, this feature has also proven attractive to criminals. Detractors frequently cite the currency’s widely publicized use as a means to sell drugs, launder money, and allegedly fund murder-for-hire.

The failure of Mt. Gox, one of Bitcoin’s largest exchanges, following the theft of more than $450 million in virtual currency, also drew attention to Bitcoin’s lack of consumer protections. In his Reddit post, Lawsky specifically referenced Mt. Gox as a reason why “setting up common sense rules of the road is vital to the long-term future of the virtual currency industry, as well as the safety and soundness of customer assets.”

New York’s proposed regulations require digital currency companies operating within the state to record the identity of their customers, including their name and physical address. All Bitcoin transactions must be recorded, and companies would be required to inform regulators if they observe any activity involving Bitcoins worth $10,000 or more.

The proposal also places a strong emphasis on protecting legitimate users of virtual currency. New York is seeking to require that Bitcoin businesses explain “all material risks” associated with Bitcoin use to their customers, as well as provide strong cybersecurity to shield their virtual vaults from hackers. In order to ensure companies remain solvent, Bitcoin licensees would have to hold as much Bitcoin as they owe in some combination of virtual currency and actual dollars.

Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, two of Bitcoin’s largest investors, endorsed the new proposal. “We are pleased that Superintendent Lawsky and the Department of Financial Services have embraced bitcoin and digital assets and created a regulatory framework that protects consumers,” Cameron Winklevoss said in an email to the Wall Street Journal. “We look forward to New York State becoming the hub of this exciting new technology.”

Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, also saw the regulations as beneficial for companies built around virtual currency. “Bitcoin businesses in the U.S. have been looking forward to being regulated,” Luria told the New York Times. “This is a very big important first step, but it’s not the ultimate step.”

However, this excitement was not universally shared by the internet Bitcoin community. Soon after posting a statement on Reddit, Lawsky was inundated with comments calling his proposal everything from misguided to fascist. “These rules and regulations are so totalitarian it’s almost hilarious,” wrote one user. Others suggested New York’s proposal would increase the value of Bitcoins not tied to a known identity or push major Bitcoin operations outside the United States.

One particularly controversial aspect of the law appears to ban the creation of any new cryptocurrency by an unlicensed entity. This would not only put a stop to virtual currency innovation (other Bitcoin-like monies include Litecoin, Peercoin, and the mostly satirical Dogecoin) but could theoretically put Bitcoin’s anonymous creator, known by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, in danger of prosecution if he failed to apply for a BitLicense.

One major issue not yet settled is whether other states, or the federal government, will use this proposal as a model for their own regulations. Until some form of regulation is widely adopted, New York’s effort will have a limited effect on Bitcoin business. “I think ultimately, these rules are going to be good for the industry,” Lawsky told the Times. “The question is if this will spread further.”

TIME Economy

Global Markets Suffer After Ukraine Crash, Unrest Elsewhere

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange July 17, 2014. U.S. stocks fell sharply lower on Thursday. © Brendan McDermid / Reuters—REUTERS

Stock markets report losses around the world as investors take fright at the broader geopolitical implications of the MH17 tragedy

Markets across the world took a conspicuous dive on Thursday in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17’s catastrophic crash in Ukraine — an event that came toward the end of a week marked by political unrest across Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Boeing 777 crashed in a rural area controlled by pro-Russian insurgency forces, believed by Ukrainian authorities to have shot down the plane, killing all 298 people on board.

As governments mobilized to make sense of the tragedy, which a spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denounced as an unequivocal act of terrorism, equity and currency traders anxiously rushed to sell their shares, eyeing the crash as indicative of a broader geopolitical tumult that could threaten global economic stability.

“What happened with the plane today and things swirling around with what may have actually happened with the plane caused a bit of a sell-off,” J.J. Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade, told the Associated Press. “The geopolitical risk is always the first one that people look for because it’s the one that changes the fastest. The market always hates uncertainty.”

Things had been economically rocky in Russia on Thursday morning even prior to the incident, with new sanctions against the country being imposed by the U.S. and E.U. — a response to Vladimir Putin’s support for the very rebels believed to have downed the Malaysia Airlines flight. That knocked the MICEX, Moscow’s primary stock exchange, down 2.9% by the day’s end. The ruble was down 1.1% against the dollar.

Things were relatively secure elsewhere until news of the crash broke around 10:30 a.m. E.T., shortly after markets opened on Wall Street. Emerging headlines on the tragedy, compounded with reports of Israel launching a ground offensive against Hamas forces in Gaza, jump-started the panic. The New York Stock Exchange had fallen by more than 127 points by the time it closed on Thursday evening; the S&P 500 reported its largest one-day percentage drop since April; prices of gold and oil had risen globally.

Friday has so far proved grim for stock markets in Asia, with both the Hang Seng in Hong Kong and the Nikkei 225 reporting notable slides by mid-afternoon.

In Kuala Lumpur, the price of Malaysia Airlines stock has been on the decline — not only in the aftermath of Thursday’s incident but for the past several months after the disappearance of Flight 370 in March, which has placed a significant financial burden on the company.

TIME Ask the Expert

How to Stop Your Child From Spending a Fortune on Mobile Games

A few taps and swipes, and the costs can start to add up

Forget huge voice and texting bills. Kids these days are racking up massive charges on their parents’ phones without making a single call. Popular children’s games for devices like Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle Fire are allowing kids to spend disconcerting sums buying in-game items, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The titles are often free to download, but the games then entice users to spend real dollars to purchase access to new levels and prizes.

Now the FTC is targeting Apple and Amazon, claiming the companies’ confusing billing systems have made it too easy for years for kids to make unauthorized purchases. (In one complaint, a consumer told the FTC her daughter spent $2,600 by repeatedly tapping on a single iOS game.) “There was a blurring of the line between real money and virtual money in these games,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Parents were not given the information to oversee their kids and make sure this didn’t happen.”

Apple agreed to pay at least $32.5 million in refunds to consumers earlier this year for such charges, but Amazon has resisted FTC appeals for a settlement, arguing that its practices are not deceptive. “Our experience at launch was responsible, customer-focused and lawful,” Amazon wrote in a July letter to the FTC. The dispute will be settled by a federal court. Meanwhile, parents will need to monitor their kids more closely.

FOR MORE FROM EXPERTS, GO TO time.com/asktheexpert

TIME Money

How Much Is a Bitcoin Worth? Let Google Tell You

Google Search now includes Bitcoin in its currency calculator, lending a little more legitimacy to the cryptocurrency.

If you need to know the current value of a Bitcoin, it’s now faster than ever to figure out through Google.

The search engine’s currency calculator now supports Bitcoin, so you can type “1 Bitcoin to dollars,” “10000 yen to BTC” or “How much is 500 Bitcoin worth?”

As Coindesk points out, Google added a Bitcoin currency tracker to its finance searches last month. Currency conversion is the next logical step, given that Microsoft’s Bing started calculating Bitcoin values in February. Though Bitcoin has struggled to gain recognition from some governments, support from the major search engines may help lend some legitimacy to the cryptocurrency.

Google does caution that conversion rates may not be accurate down to the minute, but you can always consult other sources like Coindesk if you need more detailed data.

TIME real estate

You’re Not the Only One Who’s Having Trouble Paying Rent

Condo Towers Rise From Boston to Los Angeles in U.S. Rebound
The EVO condominium building stands in downtown Los Angeles on June 23, 2014. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Average rents in big cities rose more than 5% in the 12-month period ending in June 2013, while wages rose a measly 1%

Rent prices are going up in cities across the country even as wages stagnate, making it ever harder to afford to live in big cities.

In the 25 largest rental markets in the country, rents rose faster than wages, according to the latest data published by the real estate website Trulia.

Miami, New York, Dallas and Phoenix and 21 other big cities saw average rent increases of 5.5% in June compared with the same month last year. Meanwhile, annual average wages increased nationwide just 1.0% in 2013 compared with 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The two data sets reflect slightly different time periods, but the trend is clear, said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia: affordability is worsening.

“Wage data is up one percent,” said Kolko. “Rent is rising at a pace much faster than that.”

San Francisco had the highest median rent for 2-bedroom apartments, at $3,550, according to Trulia, while Miami residents paid the highest percentage of their wages on rent for an average 2-bedroom, or 62% of wages. New Yorkers paid 56% of their wages on rent, while on the other and of the spectrum, St. Louis residents forked out just 24%.

Rents are soaring in smaller cities like Denver (10.8% increase) and Atlanta (8.6% increase) as well.

San Francisco saw the highest increase in rents in June compared with last year at 13.8%.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Ways to Access Cash Abroad

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My 23-year-old daughter will be leaving for France and Spain next week. What is the best and safest way for her to carry money? —K. Bird, Charlotte, N.C.

A: Assuming she’s going for a short time—anywhere from few weeks to several months—her best option will be to carry a debit and credit card issued by an American bank, says John Gower, senior banking analyst at NerdWallet. But she’ll want to be strategic about which institutions she gets these cards from and how she deploys them.

Typically, U.S. banks charge a fee of 1 to 3% of the total transaction amount each time you use a debit or credit card internationally. If you use your debit card to pull out funds from ATMs abroad, you’ll also get hit with an international ATM fee that’s typically around $2, though Gower has seen banks charge upwards of $5. That’s in addition to whatever the ATM you use will charge. So your daughter could be looking at costs of $10 or so each time she takes out $100. This may tempt her to just take out large sums at once, but carrying large amounts of cash through foreign cities isn’t ideal either.

Instead, to cut down on those ATM fees, consider having her open an account with a U.S. bank that has international branches in her destination so she can avoid the international ATM fee. (Citibank is one with many branches overseas.) Or she could open an account with a bank that has international partnerships. Bank of America, for example, is part of the Global ATM Alliance and because of this allows its customers to use their cards at any member banks’ ATMs for free.

Since credit cards offer greater fraud protection than debit cards, Gower recommends that she have a credit card with her as well. The best choice: A card aimed at international travelers that waives foreign transaction fees and has “chip and pin” technology, meaning a microchip is embedded in the card. Because most European countries use this style of card, she will decrease the chances that stores will have trouble reading her card. MONEY likes the GlobeTrek Rewards Visa from Andrews Federal Credit Union, which she can join by signing up for free with the American Consumer Council. This chip-and-pin card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

If your daughter gets this card, she’d be well advised to use it for her everyday purchases—rather than paying the 3% foreign transaction fee her debit card will charge. Of course, this only makes sense if she’s responsible enough to pay her bill off in full every month.

Does she have plans to be away for quite a while—maybe studying abroad for a year? In that case, she should consider opening an account with a local bank. While there can be hassles involved with understanding another country’s banking rules, she will avoid out-of-network ATM fees and have a debit/credit card that is more universally accepted than an American card might be, says Gower. But she should also keep a U.S. account active in case of emergency, so that someone at home can easily transfer funds to her.

No matter which option your daughter goes with, she’ll want to bring at least two different types of electronic payment. That way if her debit or credit card isn’t accepted by a store or is stolen she has a backup option. She’ll also want to alert her financial institutions prior to departure of where she’ll be going and how long she’ll be there so that the provider doesn’t cancel or halt her card thinking the charges are fraudulent activity.

TIME Money

Stocks Close at Record Highs as U.S. Hiring Surges

A trader points to a stock chart on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly before the closing bell in New York on July 2, 2014.
A trader points to a stock chart on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly before the closing bell in New York on July 2, 2014. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

(NEW YORK) — Stocks are closing at record levels following news that business hiring surged in June.

Constellation Brands, the owner of Corona and Negra Modelo beer, rose 2 percent after the company said its income soared in the latest quarter.

Delta Air Lines dropped 5 percent after the company said growth in a key revenue figure slowed in June.

The Dow rose 20 points, or 0.1 percent, to close at 16,976 Wednesday.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose a point to 1,974. The Nasdaq composite edged down a point to 4,457.

Payroll processer ADP said U.S. businesses added 281,000 jobs last month, up from 179,000 in the previous month.

Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.62 percent.

TIME technology

California Lifts Ban on Bitcoin

California Legalizes Bitcoin
California Gov. Jerry Brown looks on during a news conference at Google headquarters on September 25, 2012. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Technically, all transactions using digital or alternative currencies had been illegal in California until Monday

California lawmakers approved a bill Monday that lifted an outdated ban on the use of bitcoin and other alternative currencies, as more states seek to clarify and revise virtual currency laws.

AB 129, which Governor Jerry Brown had signed on Saturday, will ensure that “various forms of alternative currency such as digital currency” will be legal in purchasing goods and transmitting payments, according to the bill’s text. The bill reflects the growing use of digital currencies, revising Section 107 of California’s Corporations Code that prohibits use of “anything but the lawful money of the United States.”

“In an era of evolving payment methods, from Amazon Coins to Starbucks Stars, it is impractical to ignore the growing use of cash alternatives,” Democratic Assemblyman and the bill’s author Roger Dickinson said in a recent statement.

Dickinson noted that points and rewards programs function as digital currencies, and thus would not have been legal without the passage of AB 129, which legalizes these “community currencies,” that is, alternative payment systems between businesses and customers.

Other states have similarly sought to clarify their bitcoin laws. In March, the Texas Department of Banking stated that bitcoin transmissions, while permitted, are not technically “currency” transmissions. That month, the New York State Department of Financial Services announced the state will accept proposals for a virtual currency regulation system.

While bitcoin use is now legal in California, it is not technically legal tender, a status reserved for and defined federally as “United States coins and currency” under the Coinage Act of 1965. The IRS clarified in March that bitcoin functions more like property than currency, which means that taxes applying to property transactions also apply to bitcoin transactions.

Elsewhere in the world, only very few countries, notably Brazil and China, have specific regulations of bitcoin use.

TIME Money

Study: Everyone Despises Overdraft Fees, Except Banks

ATM Overdraft Fees
Getty Images

Customers are confused and angry

Bank customers are angry and confused by overdraft fees, research confirmed recently, an indication that effort four years ago to implement transparent rules about when banks are allowed to charge customers has not worked.

Roughly 41% of consumers have taken action against their bank after being charged for overdrawing from their checking accounts using their debit cards in the past year, a new study by Pew Charitable Trusts found.

Regulations in place since 2010 require banks to ask customers to opt into overdraft protection—when banks cover a shortage on your balance with a temporary advance, in exchange for a fee. But the study found more than half of those charged an overdraft fee don’t remember ever agreeing to the protection.

If the rules are vague, the banks are reaping the benefits: banks earned an estimated $16.7 billion for such overdraft fees in 2011, according to the New York Times.

Young people were the most likely to have to pay. A 25-year-old had a 133% higher chance of being charged an overdraft fee than a 65-year-old, the survey of 1,800 found.

Some peeved customers have reportedly closed their accounts in retaliation. According to the survey, 13% of people who paid an overdraft penalty last year say they no longer have a checking account, 19% of people discontinued their overdraft coverage and 28% of people closed their checking accounts. The median overdraft fee was $35, but 25% of customers were charged $90 or more.

TIME Retirement

Americans Are Totally Unprepared for This Shock

Sad piggy bank
Simon Critchley—Ikon Images/Getty Images

Never mind saving for retirement: Americans today face the bleak prospect of poverty in their golden years because they have no idea how much nursing homes cost and they wildly underestimate how much they’ll need.

In a new survey by MoneyRates.com, 40% of respondents say they’ve set aside nothing — zilch — towards paying for the care they’ll most likely need in their final years.

“Over two-thirds of individuals who reach age 65 will need long-term care services during their lifetime,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns.

Two-thirds of survey respondents have less than $75,000 saved. More than half think $75,000 is more than they’ll need for a year in a nursing home, but they could be in for a rude awakening: The average cost for a semi-private room in a nursing home is more than $81,000 a year, and that can soar to nearly $142,000 in pricey locations like New York City.

“It’s scary how quickly nursing care can run through your savings,” says Richard Barrington, senior financial analyst for MoneyRates.com. Barrington says even people who think they’re being diligent about saving for their retirement years can be led astray by the assumption that they’ll be able to live on less money after they exit the workforce.

“You may have a fair amount of discretion in the early years of your retirement, but then your financial needs may accelerate sharply,” he says. “People need to plan their savings and conserve their resources accordingly.”

A new brief from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research illustrates what happens when people fail to plan for this possibility. It finds that even high-income retirees run out of money and need to use Medicaid to cover nursing home care.

“Medicaid… serves not just the poor, but also relatively well- off retirees impoverished by costly medical expenses,” the brief says, an outcome that has serious implications not just for these people, but for their heirs.

The eligibility rules for Medicaid are strict, with a cap of only $2,000 on what are termed “countable assets” and a five-year lookback period that essentially forces people to burn through the wealth they’ve accumulated. The government says about half of people who enter nursing homes start off paying for it themselves, but many of them spend down their assets — leaving little or nothing for their heirs — and end up on Medicaid.

The Boston College researchers looked at single seniors by income group as they aged and tracked who was covered by Medicaid. While Medicare covers all Americans once they hit the age of 65, the coverage doesn’t cover long-term care like nursing homes. For people without enough savings or who didn’t plan ahead and take out a long-term care insurance policy, the high cost of nursing homes can force even well-off seniors into poverty, at which point they’re eligible for Medicaid, which does cover nursing home care.

Although the percentage of high-income elderly who get Medicaid assistance starts out at zero when they’re 60 years old, it climbs steadily as they age, and around 20% of this population needs and qualifies for Medicaid by the time they hit their late 90s. “Higher income retirees… tend to live longer and face higher medical needs in very old age, which can result in them ending up on Medicaid,” the brief says.

Granted, many don’t live that long, but Americans are experiencing longer retirements and life spans. The CDC says the number of people 85 and older will rise from about 6 million in 2015 to almost 18 million by 2050.

“Medicaid is a safety net and it’s great that it’s there, but… you have to understand it’s likely to limit your options,” Barrington says. “If you want to leave behind any kind of legacy to your heirs or to charity, if you end up going on Medicaid, you can essentially forget about it.
A 2012 study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that people who lived in a nursing home for six months or more had median household wealth of only about $5,500. “For nursing home entrants, median housing wealth falls to zero within six years after the initial nursing home entry,” the study says.

“That safety net does come with strings attached,” Barrington cautions. “It’s going to sharply limit what you’re able to pass on.”

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