Uncertain Times Make Financial Choices Difficult
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The markets bounced back some today, at least so far. A moment ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 352 points. But by this point, the dizzying ups and the scary downs are enough to leave anybody facing a major financial decision feeling a little nauseated.
If you're deciding to expand your business or to cut back, start a new enterprise, buy a car or a house, how have the events of the past week affected your thinking? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We want to hear your stories. We'll also check to see how the volatility affects three important economic sectors: manufacturing, housing and technology. Later in the program, actor Martin Clunes on his role as Doc Martin. But first we want to hear your stories about the decisions you're making in the economy.
We have this email from Stephanie(ph) in Lansing, Michigan: My husband and I are using money from my 401(k) for a down payment on our first home. The past few days have been unnerving as I see thousands of dollars flow in and out of my account. Now we're just waiting for the right time to take some of the money out. I don't know when that right time will be, given the week's market fluctuations.
And joining us on the line from Newton, Massachusetts, is Maryanne(ph). Nice to have you on the program.
MARYANNE: Thank you. My husband and I just last night locked into a new mortgage rate because the rates dropped so quickly. So we were able to - we're going to refinance our mortgage, which we'd not been planning on doing because we were able to make our payments, and we had 27 years left on a 30-year mortgage.
But because the rates dropped, we were able to get a 20-year mortgage for about $100 more per month. So we'll be able to pay off our mortgage, assuming all goes well, over the next 20 years, seven years sooner than we had planned.
CONAN: And you'll forgive my asking, what rate did you get?
CONAN: Wow, 3.7 - that's fantastic.
MARYANNE: It is. And it's up higher this morning. So my husband's quick action was very smart.
CONAN: But you're actually going to be paying $100 more a month.
MARYANNE: Right, right.
CONAN: But paying it off a lot quicker.
MARYANNE: A lot faster.
CONAN: Well, congratulations, Maryanne.
MARYANNE: Why, thank you.
CONAN: And joining us now on the line is Micheline Maynard, the friend of our program who's the contributing editor - excuse me, is the editor, chief editor, senior editor of Changing Gears, a new public radio project that looks at reinventing the Rust Belt. She's with us from WBEZ, our member station in Chicago. Mickey, nice to have you back on the show.
MICHELINE MAYNARD: Oh, it's always a pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And we're talking to you about the manufacturing sector, of which of course automobiles are a major part, and carmakers must be happy that, like mortgage rates, interest rates to buy a car are now low, going to stay low, they think, for a couple of years. But I wonder if they're worried about if anybody's going to be buying.
MAYNARD: Well, and that is a big worry. Daniel Akerson, who's the CEO of General Motors, gave a speech a couple weeks ago, and they've been expecting that car sales would average about 13 million car and trucks this year. And what he was saying is, boy, I hope we get there, but I'm not sure that we will.
So they're - there were conservative forecasts for the year, and now they're backing off a little bit even from that.
CONAN: And as they look at the future, obviously they've been through a major restructuring of the entire industry in these past couple of years, and it has been extremely painful. They were hoping that they'd be reaping the benefits by now.
MAYNARD: Right if you look at - the UAW is in contract talks with the big three automakers in Detroit, and the last set of contract talks was in 2007. There were about 165,000 hourly workers at that time. This year, the contract talks are covering about 112,000 people. So just in that one example, you can see what's going on to the Detroit carmakers.
CONAN: And carmakers are - well, Detroit is exporting, is doing pretty well in China and some other markets, and the dollar is pretty weak right now.
MAYNARD: That's right. I think exports are a big key for the Detroit companies. But, you know, you're starting to hear some announcements of jobs being added back in the United States as well.
There's a report in today's Toledo Blade that Chrysler may add a second shift of about 1,100 people down there. But that's going to rely on a state incentive package, which hasn't been approved yet.
The state of Missouri actually just passed $150 million incentive package for Ford in hopes that Ford will change its mind about cutting a shift at a factory there, and you're seeing just great interest in any auto jobs that come open. Ford wants to hire about 1,800 people in Louisville, and they had something like 16,000 people apply for those jobs.
CONAN: That's pretty impressive. Cars are a big part of the manufacturing sector, hardly the only part of the manufacturing sector.
MAYNARD: That's right. We have - you know, the manufacturing sector is huge, and cars fall under what's called durable goods, but those are also things like refrigerators and stoves and the things that go into new housing.
And you know, manufacturing really got slammed in this recession. We lost over two million jobs since 2007, basically, and they're creeping back. We've gained back almost 300,000 jobs in manufacturing, but you can see that we have a long, long way to go to get all those jobs back.
CONAN: And are those manufactured items sold mostly in this country, or might they benefit too from the weak dollar and the ability to export more easily?
MAYNARD: Indeed, I think exports are leading the manufacturing recovery that we're seeing. And I think that was the one bright spot for manufacturers. But if global economies take a hit, and people are very worried about China right now, then that could slow any manufacturing growth that we've seen.
We still have an unemployment rate in manufacturing of about 10 percent.
CONAN: And as we look at the stock market, it's not just the values of these particular companies that are are making people nervous. It's volatility of the economy.
MAYNARD: That's right, Neal, and it's very interesting because I think there are people who would get out there and buy. It was so interesting to hear the example of the lady who took money out of her 401(k) to go and do that. And I certainly applaud her for being willing to take a risk. But I think there are a lot of people who are sitting on their hands right now and saying, you know what, I can make this car last a little longer, we can stay in this house longer, we can get by with the washing machine we bought 10 years ago.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is John(ph), John with us from Salt Lake City.
JOHN: Hi, Neal.
JOHN: So I run a small business here in Salt Lake. We are a computer repair company, and we have about five employees. And one thing that I've always kind of viewed the stock market and that kind of stuff is you either have people that are freaking out like they are now and trying to sell a whole bunch, or you have the other people that kind of know that, you know, it's going to rise, it's going to crash, and it's going to rise again.
And that's kind of how we've always ran our business. You know, we've grown our business over the last two years about 200 percent. And over the next year or two we plan on adding on probably another three to five employees. But we always do things slowly and kind of make sure that the things we're doing with our business are going to match kind of the business that we have.
And what I've noticed as well is that, you know, we work specifically with small businesses and have noticed kind of an upswing in a lot of small businesses starting to purchase more technology now. There was a lag over the last year, but it seems like it's starting to rise a little bit.
CONAN: So your business is beginning to pick up just a little bit, and are you hiring more?
JOHN: Yeah, we are hiring more. And like I said, the small businesses that we work with are seeming to purchase more technology, more hardware. So it seems like they are starting to swing up a little bit as well.
CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much, and good luck to you.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: I guess that would be - I'm not sure computer repair, is that the service sector of the economy? Anyway, Mickey Maynard, what kinds of products could take a hit as - if they don't take the long view that small business operator in Salt Lake City does?
MAYNARD: Well, you know, I was always taught in all the econ classes that I took that you shouldn't put any money into the stock market that you can't afford to lose. However, a lot of us have 401(k), 403(b), those kinds of retirement funds, and those are invested in stocks and bonds and other kinds of international funds.
So it does make you a little sick to watch your numbers go up and down, but as far as the other kind of businesses that could get hit by this, I mean, anything that you would go and spend money on, and you know, we're going to have fall retail and Christmas retailing, and that's got to make the retailers very nervous because I would think everyone was hoping that we would glide through this year and we would see a little bit of an uptick.
And here we are again where we were last summer and the summer before, worried about what are things going to look like.
CONAN: Fundamentals, big fundamentals.
CONAN: Mickey Maynard, thanks very much for your time.
MAYNARD: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Mickey Maynard, senior editor for Changing Gears, a public radio project that looks at the reinvention of the Rust Belt, and a regular contributor to the New York Times, with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Steve's(ph) on the line, Steve calling us from Oklahoma City.
STEVE: Hello, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
STEVE: Fantastic show as usual.
CONAN: Thank you.
STEVE: Yeah, we've made the decision as of today, with what the market conditions are and the way the administration is mishandling the economy, that we've postponed our plans of expansion from Oklahoma City to Tulsa. We had tentatively planned to hire 164 associates in our medium-size business. Last year our volume was $22 million. And it's just too risky.
I've got to take care of my wife and my family, and with the way Barry(ph) is handling the economy, it's just not worth it. So we're just going to postpone it till maybe 2013.
CONAN: And what kind of business is this?
STEVE: We do personal family security, personal concierge, and some personal service business.
CONAN: And you were planning to open it sounds like a pretty substantial office in Tampa, or Tulsa?
STEVE: We had a $3.5 million lease signed, and I just instructed my attorneys to vacate that lease.
CONAN: And again, you're going to re-evaluate in a couple of years' time?
STEVE: Absolutely. It's just too risky now.
CONAN: And what in particular - too risky because you just don't know what's going to happen?
STEVE: Well, the way the current administration is, you know, one day they talk about one thing, and the other day they talk about big trucks, and it's just a mess. So there's no leadership there, and I don't have any confidence in what the economy's going to do.
Again, I've got everything I've worked for for 30 years on the line, and I'm not willing to risk it on some guy that is up there that never had - ever has held a business, never met a payroll, and doesn't know what he's doing, obviously. So we're just going to put everything on hold and pray for the best.
CONAN: Well, Steve, good luck to you and your company, and I hope you can make that move in a couple of years' time.
STEVE: Take care, Neal.
CONAN: After a short break, more of your calls. We'll check in on the technology and housing sectors, how last week's mercurial market affected how you think about making big purchases or expanding or contracting your business. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Worldwide markets are still trying to figure out what to make of the U.S. economy. Today, the Dow's up 350 points, but as we've seen over the past week, anything can happen.
The dollar's weak against the yen and the euro, which is bad news for Americans traveling abroad but sounds pretty good to American exporters like those in the tech industry. We're going to hear more about them in a moment.
If you're weighing a major financial decision - expanding your business, selling your home, private school tuition - how have the events of the past week affected your thinking? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Josh Smith, a reporter who covers technology for the National Journal. He's with us from a studio at the magazine's offices. Nice to have you with us today.
JOSH SMITH: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And how is the tech sector faring amidst this volatility?
SMITH: Well, the short answer is they got hit like everybody else. The good news is, though, is that some good news from Cisco on their earnings seems to be helping the stock market recover a little bit today. Across the entire sector, it was a mixed bag, though, with some companies doing much better than others.
CONAN: Just the other day, Apple was briefly the most valuable company in the country.
SMITH: Exactly, and I believe the latest I saw was that they still were. So Apple seems to have proven at least that they - or to investors anyway that they know how to make money. The news was not so good with - for a lot of newer companies that are new to the stock market, took some pretty big hits.
CONAN: And Cisco was, just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed, a little more shaky.
SMITH: That's right. And I guess - I think it seems like the news today is all relative. In Cisco's case, they were helped out by the fact that their earnings report was not as bad as people expected it to be.
CONAN: So it's always a war of expectations. As - the tech sector is a big American export. The weak dollar must be very good for them.
SMITH: It depends. Over the past couple days, in fact, it was actually some of the companies that did most of their businesses overseas, for example IBM and HP, because of their business in Europe, were hit kind of doubly, by both the concerns here in the United States, as well as the market problems overseas. So it can go both ways.
CONAN: So the dollar's cheap, but you may not have any customers.
CONAN: Same I guess in Japan, which is still in the midst of recovery from the earthquake and tsunami.
SMITH: Exactly. There's been some concern about supply coming from them, as well as I know there was some concern over, you know, having enough smartphones, et cetera, that Japan had typically supplied to the United States.
CONAN: One particular company, Verizon, it's in the middle of a big labor contract dispute right now. There's a major strike underway.
SMITH: That's correct. I believe 45,000 or so of its employees have walked out. This is the first strike for Verizon in 11 years. So it's I guess a sign again of kind of the times we're in that these companies are facing some of these challenges, both at the corporate level, as well as the workforce level, facing some challenges that they have not faced in, you know, decades.
CONAN: And as they look out over the long term, does the future look sunny, or are people beginning to say wait a minute, maybe you ought to scale back a little?
SMITH: Well, overall, I wrote a piece earlier this week looking at the impact of the market on initial public offerings. A lot of these tech companies, especially online companies like LinkedIn and Pandora that came our earlier this year. And there was a lot of buzz, and they made a lot of money off it, in fact, you know, exciting people and making them think, you know, maybe we're getting back on track.
That has slowed down. I believe nine out of the dozen or so companies that were going to go public this week have now postponed...
CONAN: You can understand that decision: You pick the wrong day, and you're going to take a hammering.
SMITH: Exactly, and so on that front, there's obviously some thinking twice about what things are going on. But many of the analysts that I talked to still said that they saw, you know, tech as a relative bright spot, you know, going down the road. And again as Cisco showed today, you know, that can happen.
CONAN: Josh Smith, thanks very much for your time.
SMITH: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Josh Smith, a reporter who covers technology for the National Journal, with us from the studios at National Journal here in Washington, D.C. Let's go next to Scott(ph), and Scott's on the line with us from Lawrence in Kansas.
SCOTT: Yeah, hi. Oh, gosh, well, first off, I like your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
SCOTT: It's great. I listen to it all the time. But, you know, I just wanted to say I'm a young farmer, just started up a farm just a few years ago, first generation. And we do, oh, about 10,000 square bales and a whole bunch of round bales every year.
And really we're kind of taking - you know, in this down economy, we're kind of making the best of it. We - I've secured a very low interest rate through the USDA, 2.75 percent on a loan to purchase some more equipment. And so we're really just trying to take advantage of kind of this local food movement. And, I mean, the drought Texas as unfortunate as it is for them, has really benefitted our business oh, on the hay side, really raising demand.
And it's really - you know, this down economy has really helped me as a small business owner. I have one fulltime employee now, and we'll be looking to add two or three next year.
CONAN: The farm economy in general has been pretty good unless you're one of those unfortunates in Texas or Oklahoma.
SCOTT: Oh, exactly. I mean, it's been definitely an eye-opener this year because, you know, I've really just started doing business with Texas. But, you know, as bad as the economy is in some industries, it really has not been terrible on the farm industry, and I think we're really - you know, I'm not the only one in the area that is looking to upgrade equipment and, you know, with my local food, it's hard to offer low prices to everybody in the community when you have to do it all by hand.
And so we're looking to help mechanize, and as we grow our acreage, you know, more employees will be on the way.
CONAN: And economies of scale, too. When you're talking about buying new equipment, do you look at specific - what's best for you? Do you think about buying American?
SCOTT: Oh yes. I mean, I would say, you know, if I have to pay a little bit more to buy American and know that I'm putting, you know, other Americans in this country to work, it is something I definitely do.
So instance, all of our bailing twine, I can get it for a little bit cheaper from a place down the road, but it's made in Portugal. Or I can go to another store and buy American-made, and it's actually made about 200 miles away from Lawrence.
And so it's - and so, you know, to know that I'm putting other Kansans to work to help, you know, the industry, it's a really good feeling. So definitely we try to buy as many American products as we can.
CONAN: Well, Scott, thanks very much. Good luck to you.
SCOTT: All right, thank you.
CONAN: So long. Let's go next to Natalie(ph), and Natalie's with us from Trenton in New Jersey.
NATALIE: Hey, how are you? Thanks for taking my call.
NATALIE: My husband and I actually just finished a kitchen remodel, and in fact my carpenter is here today installing the stove.
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NATALIE: But we had actually planned to do the remodel back in 2008, right before the big recession hit. So, you know, at the time we were really pleased that we waited four years. We're like OK, we'll hold off. It's not that bad. It was put in in 1952. We can wait.
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NATALIE: So we started it in April, and, you know, instead of doing this huge, you know, six-figure remodel, we ended up doing a facelift, which was worked out really well for us. It's been a fraction of the cost. You know, and now my carpenter's here, and we're trying to finish up, and I'm really glad that we're done and that the last bits that we have to do on our kitchen, we're probably going to push off for another month or two and just wait until we have a little more money to get it finished, so yeah.
CONAN: So you're glad you went ahead in the long run?
NATALIE: I am. I mean, it - our house is old. It was built in 1907. And the kitchen was put in in the '50s. So we were down to like one dangling light bulb and no working appliances. So it was more of one of those things that we knew we would have to do when we bought the house.
But in hindsight, I'm really glad we did the much smaller facelift than, you know, shuck out a bucket of money.
CONAN: And did you get - did you have to take out a loan for this, or this is on a credit card?
NATALIE: We didn't. No, no, no, we had all the money, you know, set aside for this. We went over-budget...
CONAN: Of course, it's a remodel, of course you went over-budget.
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NATALIE: So, you know, that part of it's been a little tough. You know, I think if we were starting it right now and knowing we were probably going to go, you know, 20 percent over-budget, I don't know, I'm not sure I would be sleeping all that well. But it's worked out.
CONAN: Well, good, and I hope you enjoy your new kitchen.
NATALIE: I will, thank you so much.
CONAN: So long.
CONAN: Here's email from Ann(ph) in Detroit: We just put in a new driveway. We're painting our house and about to start in a new roof. We went through extreme research to find the right companies and the best deals. There's no turning back now. I thank God we don't need a new car or have any other large financial burdens because there is no way - in capital letters - no way we are doing anything else with what's happening with the markets.
Let's turn now to what all this means for the housing market and how it's changing things there. NPR correspondent Chris Arnold follows the housing market and joins us now. Nice to have you with us again.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Thanks a lot, Neal.
CONAN: And mortgage rates are low, historically low as we heard earlier. Is that going to revitalize the housing sector?
ARNOLD: Well, I don't know - probably not is the short answer. Yeah, I think right now mortgage rates are falling as sort of an unusual consequence of all the crazy market activity that we're seeing. I mean, you know, the economy seems to be slowing and that means the threat of inflation is probably pretty low, and therefore, interest rates at the moment are down. And they're down, but the lowest rate they've been all year. So that's right now sparking a big increase in refinancing, so those are up 30 percent. But we're not seeing that result so far in any kind of pickup in home sales.
CONAN: And we hear that mortgage foreclosures are down, but that may be more, again, a process of, you know, a function of slowness in processing paperwork rather than the strengthening housing market.
ARNOLD: Exactly. I mean, there's all kinds of lawsuits all over the place against the banks for the way that they're foreclosing. And, yeah, I think that's more - there's a huge backlog of foreclosures. It's more logistical, unfortunately, than it is a sign that things are getting better.
CONAN: And any movement in construction.
ARNOLD: No. Construction is really the eye-popper in this whole thing. I mean, we haven't built this few homes in the United States since the end of World War II, and it's really - I mean, you know, think of the population increase, you know, it's just - there are a lot of people who swung hammers and did construction work who are out of work, and that is not get any better.
CONAN: And they're - of course, since they're not at work, not buying houses themselves.
ARNOLD: Yeah. You know, the housing market, again, in the short term, with all this volatility, means, hey, look, there's a little window to refinance here if you haven't done it already. But the housing market, it's just, you know, stuck in low gear, and it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. You know, it's got a lot to do with jobs. It's got to be - until things start picking up in the broader economy, it's just very hard for the housing market to pick up.
CONAN: Let's get Ken on the line. Ken calling us from Charleston, South Carolina.
KEN: How are you doing, Neal? I love your show. I listen to you all the time.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
KEN: In respect to your last caller, I don't think the administration has any bearing. It has a lot to do with the banks. The banks are not lending the kind of money they were six, seven years ago, either for house or business loans. And we're trying to do something with a house, and we have a good Beacon Score, and the banks are just stalling. And some of the banks are the worst banks. I'm not going to give the bank name, of course. Bank of America is very bad about...
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KEN: ...how they loan.
CONAN: And so you would like to buy a house, but you can't get a loan?
KEN: Right. Have the Beacon Score and everything, have the job stability, and we have the percentage to put down, but they're just not lending like they did five, six years - five, six, seven years ago.
CONAN: And Ken is referring to an earlier call we've got from a business operator in Oklahoma City who said he was putting off for a couple of years plans to establish branch offices in Tulsa because he put the blame on the president, and Ken is saying it's not on the president. But I think he's right, Chris Arnold, that the banks are certainly a lot more cautious these days than they were seven or eight years ago?
ARNOLD: Right. Yeah. And that's something, you know, we do stories saying, hey, you know, interest rates are at historic lows. This is amazing. You know, you can save all this money, but, you know, I don't know exactly what the numbers, but, you know, probably half of homeowners out there would have a lot of trouble getting those rates because, look, you've got to have 20 percent equity in your house. You've got to have a very good credit score, and the stars have to kind of align for the bank to give you the money. And there's other problems, too. I mean, even people who should be getting loans. I had this...
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ARNOLD: ...experience myself when I was trying to refinance because of some structural changes in the way that home appraisals are done, instead of getting an experienced appraiser in your area, oftentimes you'll get somebody coming from, you know, 50 miles away who was the low bid, you know, kind of thing, and he doesn't know the area at all. And, you know, you just get appraisals that are all over the map, and you end up with - in wrestling matches with, you know, what the house is really worth.
And, you know, people want to just refinance. They don't want to go through a month of headaches. And, you know, even with people who are willing to go a month of headaches, even a lot of them can't. So that's absolutely true. And given all the trouble we're seeing, I can't imagine it's going to get any easier. I mean, if the economy is slowing down, you can't think that banks are going to get more willing to loan money.
CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call.
KEN: Yes, sir.
CONAN: And, Chris Arnold, thank you for your time.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: NPR correspondent Chris Arnold joining us from his home in Boston, Massachusetts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Max, and Max is on the line from Roy in Utah.
MAX: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Roy. Hi - excuse me, Max. You're in Roy. Go ahead.
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MAX: Yeah. We had some personal money that we paid off our house because of the economy went south and drive my 20-year-old cars. And anyway, I had some money that we decide to put in the stock market. Well, I was doing OK there two, three weeks ago until the government can't do their work. So we - since we have a loss now, we're set to sell that stock that we had. We'll take the write-off. And a quick calculation, we get about $3,000 back on our taxes because of what the government did. And we'll take part of that, and we'll maximize our Roths. My wife and I Roth IRAs for this year's contribution, and that will go tax free.
CONAN: So you're, again, sort of punting that money down the road a little bit?
MAX: Well, actually, we'll get some of it back because we don't have to pay as much on taxes because of the capital loss, capital gains loss.
CONAN: OK. But you're taking the stock market loss because it's gone back some today but not a lot.
MAX: Yeah. Well, yeah, up today. Well, actually, we did this just earlier, so before it was actually coming up but...
CONAN: All right. Max, thanks very much for the call.
MAX: OK. Bye.
CONAN: Here's an email from Amy in Syracuse. I'm a 65-year-old retired teacher. I just booked a trip to Costa Rica for myself and my two sons because I would rather have wonderful memories than worry about losing my money in the stock market, which I have done with regularity.
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CONAN: This is from So Yan Lee(ph). Three months ago, I made the decision to travel to South Korea and work for six months teaching English. Due to recent market conditions, the exchange rate for the Korean won to dollars has me at an incredible disadvantage. I don't know if I should cash in my chips now or wait for clearer skies. This from Cindy in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite worries about the economy, I've been waiting a long time for my dream table that would seat 10.
We're taking a leap of faith that things will eventually get better, and the table comes from Ethan Allen. Most of their products are American made, and that is the reason we went ahead with the decision. Thanks to all of you who emailed us and sent us tweets and called us to tell us about your economic decisions. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody's call. Coming up, a world-class grump will join us. Martin Clunes, star of the British TV series "Doc Martin," will be here. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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