Thursday, January 29, 2009

Governor Perdue Announces Bond Sale, Confirms AAA Ratings

Governor Sonny Perdue today announced the upcoming sale of up to $613,850,000 tax-exempt bonds, currently scheduled for Feb. 2 and 3, through negotiated sale. This method of sale gives retail investors the ability to buy Georgia bonds directly by placing orders on the day of the sale with their brokerage firm. By expanding the investor base and increasing demand, the state expects the transaction to result in a favorable outcome for both the buyers and the state.

“In these challenging economic times, this bond offering gives Georgians the opportunity to invest in their own state while strengthening their portfolio,” said Governor Perdue. “At the same time Georgia investors add a stable investment and tax-free interest to their collection of investments, they will also help to build schools, roads and other projects that put their neighbors to work.”

The Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission (GSFIC) approved the sale of the bonds at its Dec. 3 meeting.

Moody's, Fitch, and Standard & Poor's have assigned their triple-A bond rating with a stable outlook to the State's General Obligation Bonds. The rating firms' individual ratings are Aaa, AAA and AAA, respectively. The triple-A ratings reflect the highest rating available to government issuers and demonstrate what a great value Georgia municipal bonds are to investors. The bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the state of Georgia and, subject to the limitations and conditions described in the Official Statement relating to the Bonds, interest on the bonds is, in the opinion of bond counsel, excludable from gross income for federal and Georgia state income tax purposes.

Individuals can learn more about the Series 2009A and Series 2009B General Obligation Bonds at

The bond sale is a part of the capital outlay program approved in the state’s 2009 budget. In his 2010 budget proposal, Governor Perdue recommended an additional $1.2 billion in bond projects, which will create approximately 20,000 jobs. While that amount is higher than previous years, it also keeps the state in line with its debt management plan and well below the state’s bond capacity and debt ceiling.

“These top bond ratings affirm that our proactive, conservative fiscal practices and our good management of the state’s debt structure put Georgia in better shape than most states,” Governor Perdue added. “These ratings will save the state in the form of lower interest rates, and will generate attention from potential buyers looking for a stable, low-risk investment option.”
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Economic Stimulus Package Would Place Social Security Trust Fund in Deficit for First Time Ever Next Year

/PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Congressional economic stimulus plan would place the Social Security Trust Fund into deficit for the first time ever next year, if the current economic stimulus package is passed by both Houses of Congress.

Social Security is funded by payroll taxes that employees and their employers pay into the system. Money that comes into the Social Security Trust Fund is used to pay the Social Security checks retirees receive each month, and since the creation of the Trust Fund in 1983, the program has always had more money coming in than going out.

However, that may change as soon as next year, due to a proposed refundable payroll tax credit which would offer workers a refund on their portion of Social Security taxes, meaning there would be insufficient cash to pay benefits. The $145.3 billion refundable payroll tax credit proposal would give individual workers up to $500 and couples up to $1,000.

According to the 2008 Social Security Trustees Report, the estimated surplus under "high cost," or bad economic conditions, is as follows:

Year Social Security Trust *Payroll Credit Costs,
Fund Projected Surplus Proposed Legislation
(Billions) (Billions)
2009 $54 $24
2010 $57 $80.8
2011 $43 $37
2012 $26
2013 $5

* Source: Joint Committee on Taxation

"A sufficiently funded Social Security Trust Fund is critical in ensuring that seniors don't have to endure benefits cuts," said Daniel O'Connell, chairman of The Senior Citizens League. "Although we recognize the economy is in bad shape, we don't think putting the Trust Fund into the red is a responsible response."

The Senior Citizens League is advocating for any decrease in payroll taxes to be taken from the general treasury, not the Social Security Trust Fund.

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A Dozen New Items to Consider When Filing Your 2008 Return

/PRNewswire/ -- First Quarter, 2009 - While the process of filing your return each year is pretty much the same, it will be important to watch the details and consider new options when rounding up your statements of income, figuring out your standard or itemized deductions, subtracting your credits, and making your choices on payment. According to William E. Massey, Senior Tax Analyst for the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, "If you just ease into the same routine when doing your 2008 taxes, you may miss out on big tax savings that could result from a number of key changes that first apply for the 2008 tax year."

To help you take advantage of the new tax saving opportunities, he has put together this list of a dozen key items to consider when filing the form 1040 for 2008:

1. Economic stimulus payment. You may have received an economic stimulus payment in 2008, based on your 2007 taxes. If so, don't include it as income on your return. It's not taxable. If you didn't receive a payment, you may be eligible for the recovery rebate credit, as explained below. You may even qualify for that credit if you did receive an economic stimulus payment.

2. Recovery rebate credit. This credit is figured like last year's economic stimulus payment, except that the amounts are based on tax year 2008 instead of tax year 2007. The maximum credit is $600 ($1,200 if married filing jointly) plus $300 for each qualifying child. You may be able to take this credit only if you did not get an economic stimulus payment, or your economic stimulus payment was less than $600 ($1,200 if married filing jointly for 2007) plus $300 for each qualifying child you had for 2008.

Massey notes, "Many individuals may have received a zero or reduced economic stimulus payment because of the phase out rules. Under those rules, the amount of an economic stimulus payment (both the basic and the child's amount) was reduced by 5% of a taxpayer's adjusted gross income (AGI) above $75,000 ($150,000 for joint returns). Since the time when IRS first started sending out economic stimulus payments, economic conditions have drastically worsened. As a result, many individuals who lost all or a portion of their economic stimulus payment because of the phase out rules may now be in a position to claim a recovery rebate credit on the 2008 return they file in 2009. This would be relevant to a taxpayer who, for example, experienced a job layoff, cutback in hours or reduction of salary. A recovery rebate credit may also be allowed on account of a child being born in 2008 or to someone first entering the workforce in 2008."

3. Withdrawal of economic stimulus payment from certain accounts. You may have opted to have your economic stimulus payment directly deposited to a tax-favored account, such as an IRA, and you now realize you need the money. Don't worry about being penalized for taking the payment back. If you withdraw it by the due date of your return (including extensions), the amount withdrawn will not be taxed and no additional tax or penalty will apply. For stimulus payments deposited into a Coverdell education savings account (CESA), the withdrawal can be made by the later of the above date or May 31, 2009.

4. Alternative minimum tax (AMT) exemption amount increased. For 2007, you may have owed AMT or come close to owing it. That's the added tax that arises when your income is refigured in a special way to tax you on certain items that aren't taxed under the regular rules and to deny certain deductions that are allowed under the regular rules. Some individuals may not be hit with the tax for 2008 because the AMT exemption has increased to $46,200 ($69,950 if married filing jointly or a surviving spouse; $34,975 if married filing separately).

5. Standard deduction increased by real estate taxes. Suppose you own a home and pay real estate taxes but don't have enough total deductions to be able to itemize. There is good news for you. You can increase your standard deduction by the state and local real estates taxes you paid, up to $500 ($1,000 if married filing jointly).

6. Standard deduction increased by net disaster loss. There have been many natural disasters in 2008. If you were one of the unfortunate individuals who was victimized by a hurricane, flood, fire or other natural disaster last year, there is some new tax help for you. You can increase your standard deduction by your net disaster loss. This amount is your personal casualty losses from a federally declared disaster in a disaster area less any personal casualty gains from it.

7. First-time homebuyer credit. There's a new credit for "first-time" homebuyers. Actually, that term is misleading because, as we demonstrate below, you may qualify even if you previously owned a home. Qualified homebuyers can subtract the credit amount from their federal income tax when they buy the home and even get a refund if the credit exceeds the tax. However, they are then required to pay the credit back over 15 years. The result is that the credit resembles an interest-free loan that must be repaid to the government. Here are the details:

-- The home must be located in the U.S. and must be your principal
residence (main home). You (and if married, your spouse) must not have
owned another principal residence in the U.S. in the three-year period
before purchasing the new home. Thus, the home doesn't literally have
to be your first home.
-- The home must have been purchased from April 9, 2008 through June 30,
2009, inclusive.
-- A special rule allows taxpayers who purchase a principal residence in
the first six months of 2009 to treat the purchase as if made on
December 31, 2008. This allows the taxpayer to claim the credit for
2008 rather than 2009.
-- The credit is equal to 10% of the price paid for the home, up to a
maximum of $7,500. The $7,500 maximum credit applies both to
individuals and married couples filing a joint return. A married
individual filing separately can claim a maximum credit of $3,750.
-- The credit is phased out for individual taxpayers with modified
adjusted gross income (AGI) between $75,000 and $95,000 ($150,000 and
$170,000 for joint filers) for the year of purchase. Taxpayers with
modified AGI over $95,000 ($170,000 for joint filers) can't claim the
-- In the second year after purchase, taxpayers who took the credit must
start paying back the credit in equal installments over 15 years, with
no interest charge.
-- No credit is allowed if: the taxpayer or the taxpayer's spouse was
ever entitled to a D.C. homebuyer credit; the home purchase was
financed through tax-exempt mortgage revenue bonds; the taxpayer is a
nonresident alien; or the taxpayer disposes of the residence (or it
ceases to be a principal residence) in the year of purchase.

8. Rollovers to Roth IRAs. Subject to conditions, you can roll over distributions from an eligible retirement plan to a Roth IRA. The rollover is not tax-free. But with lowered account values, the tax may not be onerous. Also, you may be able to use other available tax breaks to eliminate or reduce the tax arising from the rollover. "You may be thinking, why would I want to do something that causes me to pay tax? You would do this to gain the advantages of a Roth IRA," says Massey.

9. Standard mileage rates. The 2008 rate for business use of one's vehicle is 50 1/2 cents a mile (58 1/2 cents a mile after June 30, 2008). The 2008 rate for use of one's vehicle to get medical care or to move is 19 cents a mile (27 cents a mile after June 30, 2008).

10. Personal exemption and itemized deduction phaseouts reduced. Taxpayers with adjusted gross income above a certain amount may lose part of their deduction for personal exemptions and certain itemized deductions. The amount by which these deductions are reduced in 2008 is only 1/2 of the amount of the reduction that otherwise would have applied in 2007.

11. Tax rate on qualified dividends and net capital gain reduced. The 5% tax rate on qualified dividends and net capital gain that applied for 2007 is reduced to zero for 2008.

12. Tax on child's investment income. Form 8615 is required to figure the tax for a child with investment income of more than $1,800 if the child: (1) was under age 18 at the end of 2008; (2) was age 18 at the end of 2008 and did not have earned income that was more than half of the child's support; or (3) was a full-time student over age 18 and under age 24 at the end of 2008 and did not have earned income that was more than half of the child's support.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Southern Company Reports Solid 2008 Earnings Despite Weak Economy, Mild Weather

/PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Southern Company today reported full-year 2008 earnings of $1.74 billion, or $2.26 a share, compared with earnings for 2007 of $1.73 billion, or $2.29 a share.

Southern Company also reported fourth quarter earnings of $185.6 million, or 24 cents a share, compared with earnings of $204.1 million, or 27 cents a share, in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Earnings for the fourth quarter and year ended Dec. 31, 2008, included charges of 2 cents a share and 11 cents a share, respectively, related to three leveraged leases from the 1990s when Southern Company pursued development of international energy projects. Earnings for the fourth quarter and year ended Dec. 31, 2007, included synthetic fuel earnings of 1 cent per share and 8 cents per share, respectively.

Excluding the impact of synthetic fuel investments and charges related to the leveraged leases, Southern Company earned $2.37 a share for the full-year 2008, compared with $2.21 a share for the same period in 2007. Excluding the impact of synthetic fuel investments and charges related to the leveraged leases, earnings for the fourth quarter of 2008 were 26 cents a share, compared with 26 cents a share for the same period in 2007.

For most of 2008, the Southeast experienced less of an economic downturn than the rest of the nation. The region is now experiencing the same economic stresses that have been plaguing the rest of the nation for some time, as evidenced in part by the continued decline in electricity sales and usage.

"Just as our customers are finding ways to manage through this economic recession, we are working to take the necessary steps to manage costs in our business and maintain the level of customer satisfaction and reliability our customers have come to expect," said CEO David M. Ratcliffe. "While we expect these economic challenges to continue through 2009, we're optimistic that the long-term viability of the region remains strong. We continue to execute our proven business strategy while preparing for the future growth of the Southeast," Ratcliffe said.

Positive earnings drivers in 2008 include increased retail rates, revenues from market-response rates offered to commercial and industrial customers, and revenues associated with the recovery of investments in environmental equipment. These positive drivers were primarily offset by the weak economy, mild summer temperatures as compared with 2007, higher non-fuel operations and maintenance expenses, and asset depreciation primarily associated with increased investment in environmental equipment and transmission and distribution equipment. These investments are needed to produce cleaner energy and maintain reliability.

Revenues for the full year were $17.13 billion, compared with $15.35 billion in 2007, an 11.6 percent increase. Fourth quarter revenues were $3.80 billion, compared with $3.34 billion in the same period a year earlier, an increase of 13.8 percent.

Kilowatt-hour sales to retail customers in Southern Company's four-state service area decreased 2.1 percent in 2008, compared with 2007. Residential energy sales decreased 2.0 percent. Commercial energy sales decreased 0.4 percent. Industrial energy sales declined 3.7 percent.

Total energy sales to Southern Company's customers in the Southeast, including wholesale sales, decreased 0.8 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.

In conjunction with this earnings announcement, Southern Company has posted on its Web site detailed financial information on its fourth quarter and 2008 performance. These materials are available at

Southern Company's financial analyst call will be at 1 p.m. Eastern time Jan. 28, at which time Ratcliffe and Chief Financial Officer Paul Bowers will discuss earnings and earnings guidance as well as a general business update. Investors, media and the public may listen to a live Webcast of the call at A replay of the Webcast will be available at the site for 12 months.

With 4.4 million customers and more than 42,000 megawatts of generating capacity, Atlanta-based Southern Company (NYSE:SO) is the premier energy company serving the Southeast. A leading U.S. producer of electricity, Southern Company owns electric utilities in four states and a growing competitive generation company, as well as fiber optics and wireless communications. Southern Company brands are known for excellent customer service, high reliability and retail electric prices that are significantly below the national average. Southern Company has been listed the top ranking U.S. electric service provider in customer satisfaction for nine consecutive years by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Visit our Web site at

Cautionary Note Regarding Forward-Looking Statements:

Certain information contained in this release is forward-looking information based on current expectations and plans that involve risks and uncertainties. Forward-looking information includes, among other things, statements concerning results of operations and customer and economic growth. Southern Company cautions that there are certain factors that can cause actual results to differ materially from the forward-looking information that has been provided. The reader is cautioned not to put undue reliance on this forward-looking information, which is not a guarantee of future performance and is subject to a number of uncertainties and other factors, many of which are outside the control of Southern Company; accordingly, there can be no assurance that such suggested results will be realized. The following factors, in addition to those discussed in Southern Company's Annual Report on Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2007, and subsequent securities filings, could cause results to differ materially from management expectations as suggested by such forward-looking information: the impact of recent and future federal and state regulatory change, including legislative and regulatory initiatives regarding deregulation and restructuring of the electric utility industry, implementation of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, environmental laws including regulation of water quality and emissions of sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, carbon, soot, or particulate matter and other substances, and also changes in tax and other laws and regulations to which Southern Company and its subsidiaries are subject, as well as changes in application of existing laws and regulations; current and future litigation, regulatory investigations, proceedings, or inquiries, including the pending EPA civil actions against certain Southern Company subsidiaries, FERC matters, IRS audits, and Mirant matters; the effects, extent, and timing of the entry of additional competition in the markets in which Southern Company's subsidiaries operate; variations in demand for electricity, including those relating to weather, the general economy, population and business growth (and declines), and the effects of energy conservation measures; available sources and costs of fuels; effects of inflation; ability to control costs; investment performance of Southern Company's employee benefit plans; advances in technology; state and federal rate regulations and the impact of pending and future rate cases and negotiations, including rate actions relating to fuel and storm restoration cost recovery; regulatory approvals related to the potential Plant Vogtle expansion, including Georgia PSC and NRC approvals; the performance of projects undertaken by the non-utility businesses and the success of efforts to invest in and develop new opportunities; internal restructuring or other restructuring options that may be pursued; potential business strategies, including acquisitions or dispositions of assets or businesses, which cannot be assured to be completed or beneficial to Southern Company or its subsidiaries; the ability of counterparties of Southern Company and its subsidiaries to make payments as and when due and to perform as required; the ability to obtain new short- and long-term contracts with neighboring utilities; the direct or indirect effect on Southern Company's business resulting from terrorist incidents and the threat of terrorist incidents; interest rate fluctuations and financial market conditions and the results of financing efforts, including Southern Company's and its subsidiaries' credit ratings; the ability of Southern Company and its subsidiaries to obtain additional generating capacity at competitive prices; catastrophic events such as fires, earthquakes, explosions, floods, hurricanes, droughts, pandemic health events such as an avian influenza, or other similar occurrences; the direct or indirect effects on Southern Company's business resulting from incidents similar to the August 2003 power outage in the Northeast; and the effect of accounting pronouncements issued periodically by standard setting bodies. Southern Company and its subsidiaries expressly disclaim any obligation to update any forward-looking information.

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New Online Treasury Management Course Available

/PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Government Finance Treasury Management course is now available online through a collaborative effort between the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education. Treasury Management is a self-study, 30-day, CEU-awarding course offering the basics of treasury management in a governmental environment.

Treasury Management is one of several online Government Financial Management programs offered by UGA. The course will familiarize you with the legal and political considerations and parameters within which a treasury management system functions.

"The Treasury Management class becomes the fifth online class we've launched in governmental finance to keep meeting our client demands for distance learning. We feel participants will gain a great overall understanding of treasury in a government setting by participating in the online Treasury Management Course," said Sabrina Wiley Cape at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

You will also learn how governments utilize investment economics and various investment alternatives, banking systems and how they affect local government treasury management and the concepts of contracting for banking services.

Online lessons include:
-- Cash Management
-- Banking Services
-- Forecasting
-- Collections
-- Disbursements
-- Investments
-- Internal Controls
-- Staffing and Supervision
-- Accounting and Reporting

For more information or to register, please contact Bob Wells at the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education at (706) 542-6692, (800) 325-2090 or e-mail The Online Treasury Management course can be viewed at

For more information on other online Governmental Finance courses offered, please visit and Additionally, new Governmental Finance courses are being developed and will be available in 2009.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Back to Basics: CornerCap's 10 Investment Principles to Follow, Whether Times Are Tough or Lush

/PRNewswire/ -- With so much volatility in the market and fears about the economy's outlook as the nation moves into a period of new national leadership, CornerCap Investment Counsel President James C. Carr outlined 10 Commandments of Investing he believes should ensure success, whether the times are 'tough' or 'lush'.

The full text of Carr's 10 Commandments, along with additional commentary on each, is published in the Winter edition of the firm's news letter. It is also available online and may be downloaded at no cost from .

The 10 Commandments of Investing

1. The minimum investment horizon is 10 years. "If you don't stay in the market for 10 years, don't get into it at all," Carr says.

2. Have a disciplined and consistent investment philosophy and process.

3. The asset allocation in an investment portfolio controls most of the volatility in your investment returns. According to Carr, asset allocation has everything to do with personal goals, income needs, risk profile and the ability to accept risk. It has nothing to do with stock selection, market timing, or strategy to vary with market conditions.

4. Do not attempt to time the market or strategically allocate your investment mix because of what you think the market might do. "One thing is absolutely certain," Carr notes, "the market is dominated in the short term by hope, greed, and fear! There is commonly a disconnect between a company's valuation and the current market jawboning."

5. Don't tinker. "Stay with the plan once you have established your asset allocation and your investment horizon," Carr counsels.

6. Have a clear view of what financial success means to you.

7. Control your emotions. "Human emotions can cause you to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time," Carr advises.

8. The home repair industry gets most of its revenue from those at home who try to fix it themselves. Carr recommends getting an expert to help you implement your investment objectives. Know the four critical P's for selecting an investment advisor. They are People, Process, Philosophy and Performance.

9. Do not retain an investment advisor who doesn't fully agree with and implement the commandments set forth here.

10. Having done all of this, the key to success thereafter is benign neglect.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Isakson, Conrad Introduce Legislation to Investigate Near Collapse of Banking System

U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., today introduced legislation to create a Financial Markets Commission that will be charged with fully investigating the near collapse of the banking system and the loss of tens of trillions of dollars.“When Enron and WorldCom failed at the start of this decade, Congress rushed to legislate and regulate without all the facts,” Isakson said. “We need to make sure we don’t repeat that reaction as we seek to recover from today’s financial crisis.”

“If our nation is going to learn from history, we must know exactly what happened and why. We need to take a long hard look at how our financial system spiraled downward so far so fast. And if there was any criminal wrongdoing, people need to be held accountable,” Conrad said. “The final report of this commission will help create the rules that will help shore up our national economy and help make sure this does not happen again.”
The seven-member, bipartisan Financial Markets Commission will be modeled after the 9-11 Commission, which thoroughly and independently investigated the failures leading up to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and made sound recommendations on where we needed to improve to prevent another attack in the future.

Likewise, the Financial Markets Commission will have one year to investigate all the circumstances that led to this financial crisis. The panel will have the authority to refer to the U.S. Attorney General and state attorneys general any evidence that institutions or individuals may have violated existing laws. At the end of its investigation, the Commission will report to the President and to the Congress its recommendations for statutory or regulatory changes necessary to protect our country from a repeat of this financial collapse.

This bipartisan Commission shall include two appointees by the President and one appointee each from the Speaker of the House, the House Republican Leader, the Senate Democratic Leader, the Senate Republican Leader and the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

College Students, Parents May Reduce Taxes Based on College Expenses

/PRNewswire/ -- USA Funds(R), the nation's leading education loan guarantor, advises families that paid college expenses during 2008 that they may qualify for deductions or credits when they file their federal income tax returns.

"In recent years the U.S. Congress has enacted and extended measures to provide federal income tax benefits for families that pay tuition, fees and other higher education expenses," said Carl C. Dalstrom, USA Funds president and CEO. "USA Funds urges taxpayers to consider potential tax benefits that may apply to them as they prepare their 2008 income tax returns."

Among changes in the higher education tax benefits for the 2008 tax year are the following items:

Deduction for higher education expenses. Late last year Congress extended for the 2008 and 2009 tax years this deduction, which was scheduled to expire. Taxpayers may qualify to deduct from their taxable income up to $4,000 in tuition and fees that they paid during the year. Taxpayers do not have to itemize deductions to claim this benefit, but their modified adjusted gross income must be $80,000 or less -- $160,000 or less for married taxpayers filing joint returns -- to qualify for this deduction.

Hope and Lifetime Learning credits. The maximum Hope credit has increased to $1,800, up from $1,650 for the previous tax year. In addition, the maximum income permitted to qualify for the Hope and Lifetime Learning tax credits has been increased by $1,000 for single taxpayers and by $2,000 for joint filers. Single taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes of less than $58,000, and married taxpayers filing jointly with incomes of less than $116,000, now qualify for at least a partial credit. The Hope credit permits taxpayers to reduce their taxes for out-of-pocket tuition and fees for each of the first two years of postsecondary study. The Lifetime Learning credit provides a maximum $2,000 credit based on qualified tuition and related expenses paid for any year of postsecondary study. Taxpayers in portions of 10 Midwestern states that were declared federal disaster areas last summer may quality for higher Hope and Lifetime Learning credits.

Higher income limits for joint filers to qualify for student loan interest deduction. Taxpayers who paid interest on qualified student loans during 2008 may be eligible to deduct up to $2,500 from their taxable income. The income limits for married couples filing joint returns to qualify for this deduction have increased by $5,000. Single taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes of less than $70,000, and married taxpayers who file joint tax returns reporting modified adjusted incomes of less than $145,000, may qualify for at least a partial deduction.

Other higher education tax benefits. Taxpayers also should consider potential tax savings based on earnings from so-called 529 college savings plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, as well as employer-paid education benefits.

To help students and parents take advantage of these benefits, USA Funds offers a summary of these higher education tax benefits on its Web site at USA Funds also provides a brochure "Higher Education Tax Benefits - Expanded Taxpayer Savings," which is available free of charge from many colleges, universities and private career colleges.

USA Funds recommends that taxpayers consult with a qualified tax adviser or the Internal Revenue Service to determine their eligibility for any of these tax benefits.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fiduciary Obligations Related to Estate Planning and Administration

/24-7/ -- When an individual dies, his or her estate has to be administered, debts settled and assets distributed. Often these duties fall to a fiduciary such as an attorney, a trustee, a personal representative, an administrator or an executor. In the context of wills and trusts, a fiduciary holds a position of trust and is responsible for holding and managing property that belongs to the beneficiaries.

Fiduciaries have certain legal obligations to the estate's beneficiaries, including a duty of care and duty of loyalty. If a fiduciary violates these duties, he or she may face civil or disciplinary action. If you are a beneficiary of a trust or will, you should know what obligations a fiduciary owes you and what constitutes breaches of those duties under Michigan law.

If a will appoints a personal representative, that personal representative has a fiduciary obligation to the decedent's devisees (often referred to as beneficiaries). The personal representative's basic duties are to distribute the assets and pay any debts. Often, the personal representative will open a checking account in the name of the estate to better effectuate distributions and payments, as well as to keep an accurate accounting record. The personal representative has to assess the fair market value of the assets in case of an estate sale. Also, the personal representative should file any required tax returns on behalf of the estate.

Personal representatives must maintain reasonable communication with the beneficiaries regarding estate issues. If the personal representative mismanages the estate through failure to timely settle debts, self-dealing or failure to assess and receive fair market value for estate assets, the beneficiaries may be able to have a court legally discharge the personal representative and go after the personal representative's personal assets to cover any losses to the estate's value.

In the cases of trusts, trustees must manage the trust assets according to the trust's terms and for the benefit of the beneficiaries. A trustee owes the duties of loyalty and impartiality to all beneficiaries. An individual or a trust company can act as trustee, and the fiduciary obligations may vary depending upon the size and extent of the estate. Trust assets may be tangible property, financial holdings or real estate, but just as in the case of an estate executor, the trustee is obligated to assess the overall value of these assets. Usually, the trustee obtains a tax identification number for the estate and files the requisite tax returns.

The trust administrator must also make prudent investments with trust funds to avoid loss and increase income to cover expenses and taxes. Whereas the execution of an estate may continue for a certain length of time, trust administration may be terminated based on a specified termination date or when a beneficiary reaches a certain age. During the tenure of the trust, the trustee must provide an annual income statement (Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who receives taxable income from the trust. Also, each beneficiary is due a trust accounting. If the trustee neglects any of his prescribed duties, or causes a loss of trust value, he or she may be liable for breach of fiduciary duties. The trust beneficiaries can attempt to hold the trustee liable and go after his or her personal assets to satisfy any loss.

Attorneys are subject to codes of ethics and professional conduct, and if they violate these codes, they may face disciplinary actions, including possible disbarment. Generally speaking, estate planning attorneys must be reasonably competent enough to handle entrusted legal matters such as drafting testamentary and estate documents (including wills and trusts) and providing the requisite preparedness and administration to carry out the goals of their clients as well as to protect the rights of the beneficiaries. Falling short of these minimum competencies may amount to malpractice. Estate attorneys are obligated to keep the estate assets safe.

Additionally, in most cases, an estate lawyer has to divulge any conflict of interest that adversely affects the beneficiary, particularly if the attorney will receive any gifts or remunerations under the decedent's instrument. Fraud or other illegal acts such as commingling estate assets with the attorney's own assets amount to misconduct which can subject the attorney to disbarment. A beneficiary can request an accounting of assets and how these assets are to be distributed. If the beneficiary believes that the attorney has violated any professional or ethical code, he or she can generally file an ethics complaint against the attorney. In addition, it may be possible to sue the attorney for legal malpractice.

Article provided by the Prince Law Firm. Please visit us at

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Monday, January 19, 2009

History and Overview of the Federal Estate Tax

/24-7/ -- The federal estate tax is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax on the right to transfer property at death. The tax is imposed on the taxable estate, which is the total fair market value of the property transferred at death (called the gross estate) minus allowable deductions. Deductions allowed under the Internal Revenue Code include administration expenses, funeral expenses, charitable transfers and property that will be passed on to a surviving spouse.

History of the Estate Tax

Prior to 1916, death taxes were enacted temporarily to raise funds for a specific purpose. For example, the first version of the estate tax was enacted by Congress in 1797 to fund the formation of the American Navy. The Revenue Act of 1862 enacted an inheritance tax and introduced a gift tax for the first time in order to fund the Civil War effort. The War Revenue Act of 1898 implemented an inheritance tax of 15%, which was used to fund the Spanish-American War.

The Revenue Act of 1916 assessed taxes on estates based on their value as of the date of death. An exemption of $50,000 was allowed. Rates ranged from 1% for estates with a net value below $50,000 to 10% for estates over $5,000,000. These rates were increased in 1917 to 2% for estates valued at less than $50,000 and 25% for estates over $10,000,000. The Revenue Act of 1918 cut the rates on estates valued below $1,000,000 and expanded the estate tax base by including life insurance proceeds and the value of the surviving spouse's interest in the estate above $40,000 of the estate's value.

The Revenue Act of 1924 raised the tax rate to 40% on estates over $10,000,000 and added a gift tax. The gift tax was repealed in 1926 and the estate tax rate was lowered to 1% for estates below $50,000 and set at 20% for estates over $10,000,000. Between 1932 and 1942, estate and gift taxes were increased several times and exemption amounts were lowered. Estate tax rates were at their highest rate in 1941 - 77% for estates over $50,000,000.

The Tax Reform Act of 1976 brought sweeping changes to the estate and gift tax laws. The reform included a generation-skipping tax. The three separate taxes became part of a unified system for the first time. Estate and gift taxes were capped at 70% for estates over $5,000,000.

The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 phased in an increase in the unified tax transfer credit from $47,000 to $192,000 and a decrease in the maximum tax rate from 70% to 50%. The limits on estate and gift tax marital deductions were eliminated. The Taxpayer Protection Act of 1997 phased in an increase in the amount excluded from taxes from $600,000 in 1997 to $1,000,000 in 2006.

Current Law

The current estate taxes are nearing the end of the phased changes set forth in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 ("2001 Act"). The 2001 Act gradually reduced the maximum estate tax rates from 50% in 2002, to the current rate of 45%, where it will remain through 2009. The amounts exempt from estate taxes increased from $1,000,000 in 2002 to $2,000,000 for 2008. This amount increases to $3,500,000 for 2009. The 2001 Act repeals the federal estate tax in 2010. Unless Congress acts to extend the tax relief offered by the 2001 Act, the rates will return to pre-2001 Act levels in 2011.

The history of federal estate taxes indicates that the U.S. government has used estate taxes as a source of revenue during tough economic times and war. With the war in Iraq draining resources and the current economic recession, it seems possible that Congress will not extend the estate tax relief provided in the 2001 Act.

Article provided by the Prince Law Firm. Please visit us at

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Friday, January 16, 2009

U.S. Labor Department finalizes rule on investment advice for 401(k) plans and IRAs

/PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The U.S. Department of Labor today announced publication of a final rule to make investment advice more accessible for millions of Americans in 401(k) type plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). The final rule will be published in the Jan. 21, 2009, edition of the Federal Register. The rule includes a regulation that implements the new statutory exemption for investment advice added to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by the Pension Protection Act (PPA) and a related class exemption.

"Access to professional investment advice is particularly important now for workers as they manage their 401(k) plans and IRAs in changing and volatile financial markets," said Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.

The final rule provides general guidance on the exemption's requirements, including computer model certification and disclosures by fiduciaries. The regulation also includes a model form to assist advisers in satisfying the exemption's fee disclosure requirement. In addition, the final rule includes a class exemption expanding the availability of investment advice.

The PPA amended ERISA by adding a new prohibited transaction exemption that allows greater flexibility for participants of 401(k) plans and IRAs to obtain investment advice. One of the ways in which investment advice may be given under the exemption is through the use of a computer model certified as unbiased. The other way is through an adviser compensated on a "level-fee" basis. Several other requirements also must be satisfied, including disclosure of fees the adviser is to receive.

"Millions of American workers are responsible for managing their 401(k) and IRA accounts. The department took extraordinary steps to engage a broad spectrum of participants, employers, plan fiduciaries and others throughout the rulemaking process," said Bradford P. Campbell, assistant secretary of the Labor Department's Employee Benefits Security Administration. "The final rule expands access to investment advice without compromising the critical protections for plan participants and beneficiaries."

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Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta Awards $43 Million for Affordable Housing Development

/PRNewswire/ -- Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta (FHLBank Atlanta) announced today that it will award more than $43 million to fund 85 affordable housing projects in ten states.

Local community developers, in partnership with FHLBank Atlanta member institutions, will use $38.6 million of the funds to buy, build, or preserve 4,040 affordable housing units in seven states within its district including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Partnerships in three states (Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana) outside the Bank's district will receive funds totaling $4.4 million to develop 474 housing units.

FHLBank Atlanta has awarded the funds as part of its 2008 Affordable Housing Program (AHP) offering. In addition, the 2008 AHP funds will be combined with other funding sources to develop more than $330 million of affordable housing.

"Now more than ever, the private investment capital provided by our Community Investment Programs stimulates much needed growth in communities by revitalizing neighborhoods, creating jobs, and supporting economic development," President and Chief Executive Officer of FHLBank Atlanta Richard Dorfman said. "AHP funds leverage lending by our member banks and other financial partners during a time when credit availability has been limited. By focusing our resources on preserving existing affordable housing and financing new affordable housing, our aim is to be a critical resource in confronting the housing and economic challenges many communities within our region are facing during these difficult economic times."

FHLBank Atlanta-AHP awards range from $30,000 to $1 million and will be made in the following states in FHLBank Atlanta's district:

-- Alabama ($3,557,941 for 351 units)
-- Florida ($9,247,136 for 666 units)
-- Georgia ($12,430,908 for 1,359 units)
-- Maryland ($1,490,000 for 178 units)
-- North Carolina ($5,885,815 for 541 units)
-- South Carolina ($4,047,116 for 603 units)
-- Virginia ($1,947,810 for 308 units)

AHP is a competitive funding program that helps develop owner-occupied and rental housing for very low-, low-, and moderate-income families. FHLBank Atlanta awards the funds annually to member financial institutions and their community housing partners. AHP is a component of FHLBank Atlanta's affordable housing, economic development, and down-payment assistance initiatives. For the complete list of winners, visit

Some of the statements made in this press release may be "forward-looking statements," which include statements with respect to the Bank's beliefs, plans, objectives, goals, expectations, anticipations, assumptions, estimates, intentions, and future performance, and involve known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors, many of which may be beyond the Bank's control, and which may cause the Bank's actual results, performance or achievements to be materially different from future results, performance or achievements expressed or implied by the forward-looking statements.

The forward-looking statements may not be realized due to a variety of factors, including: future economic and market conditions; changes in demand for advances or consolidated obligation; changes in interest rates; legislative and regulatory changes; political, national and world events; and adverse developments or events affecting or involving other FHLBanks or the FHLBank System in general. Additional factors that might cause the Bank's results to differ from these forward-looking statements are contained in the Bank's annual and quarterly reports, available on the Bank's website at

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AGL Resources to Host Fourth-Quarter and Year-End 2008 Earnings Conference Call and Webcast

/PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- AGL Resources Inc. (NYSE:ATG) will release its fourth-quarter and year-end 2008 earnings results before the market opens on Thursday, February 5, 2009. The company will hold a conference call to discuss its results on the same day at 9 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time).

The conference call will be webcast, and can be accessed via the investor relations section of the company's Web site (, or by dialing 866/730-5767 in the United States or 857/350-1591 outside the United States. The confirmation code is 97438877. A replay of the conference call will be available by dialing 888/286-8010 in the United States or 617/801-6888 outside the United States, with a confirmation code of 64630445. A replay of the call also will be available on the investor relations section of the company's Web site for seven days following the call.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Experts Who Predicted US Economy Crisis See Recovery in 2010

/PRNewswire/ -- International Institute of Management (IIM), today announced that its President, Med Yones, was recognized by World Finance Magazine as "One of the few who predicted the current US economic crisis before it happened. IIM challenged the US President's State of the Union Address in January 2007, the Federal Reserve Chairman and the popular opinion of US economists and media analysts at the time. IIM published a policy white paper outlining US economic risks and strategies for the next decade." The paper can be found at

Following the publication of the policy paper, Med Yones was quoted in worldwide media including Reuters, Fox News, Financial Post Canada, Handelsblatt Germany, Le Point France, China Times, Malaysia Sun, and New Zealand Herald.

According to Fortune Magazine, the list of prominent experts and business leaders who missed the signs of the crisis includes Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman; Ben Bernanke, the current Federal Reserve Chairman; Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary; the financial industry analysts of Moody's, Fitch, Standard & Poor's; Wall Street CEOs including Stan O'Neal, the CEO of Merrill Lynch; James Cayne, CEO of Bear Stearns; Chuck Prince, CEO of Citigroup; Zoe Cruz, CEO of Morgan Stanley; and Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial.

According to Med Yones, "We warned most of them about 2 years ago, yet no one was willing to listen until the markets took their first big hit in early 2007. Since that time, the policy paper was viewed more than 250,000 times by researchers, media analysts, and investors. The 3 most common questions are: (1) How did we get here? (2) Why did our top experts miss it? (3) When do you think the economy will recover? The short answers are: (1) Spending on credit without enough production to pay it back (2) Groupthink mindset, and (3) We'll experience more volatility in 2009 on the way to the bottom of the correction cycle. A modest recovery will start in 2010/2011. The more detailed answers can be found at: .

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Keeping Your Balance as Markets Wobble: Advisor Suggests Re-Jigging Your Portfolio Now to Help Your Outcome When Shares Pick Up Again

/PRNewswire/ -- For many investors, the market's recent swoon has not only shaken their confidence, but thrown their portfolio out of alignment. According to Don Patrick, an independent financial professional, over time, even the most carefully constructed portfolio can become unbalanced as the riskier asset classes outperform the more conservative ones, but serious unbalancing can occur more quickly in sudden, steep declines like we've seen in recent months.

"Having an unbalanced portfolio can be very harmful," says Patrick. "Think of a car when it's out of alignment. Sure, it still works, but that tug to the side inhibits its optimal operation. So, just as taking in the car for a routine tune-up, the process of rebalancing can bring a portfolio back to original asset allocation to both maintain a comfortable risk level and provide a better chance of meeting short- and long-term goals."

According to Patrick, getting a portfolio back in sync is simple. Patrick says the first step is to identify the winners that occupy a larger piece of the overall portfolio and sell some. "Then, buy the poorest performing asset class-probably equities in this market," Patrick says. "Rebalancing seems counterintuitive in a stable market -- and it can be downright frightening in a volatile market. But experienced investors buy when the market seems at its lowest."

Even with current declines, Patrick believes there's reason to assume that, over the long-term, stocks will continue to produce the inflation- and bond-beating returns they have for more than a century. "We read the same 'This time it's different' headlines in 1974 but the market eventually recovered from the damaging stagflation of the 1970s, as well as the more than 20% one-day decline in 1987, the savings-and-loan crisis of the early 1990s, the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, and the tech bubble."

Using history as a guide, Patrick also warns that the market gets better before the news gets better. So, Patrick says, it's good to rebalance and prepare for the inevitable turnaround now.

"There are a number of ways to rebalance," says Patrick. "If an investor has a surplus of cash, it may be a good idea to purchase new investments for the under-weighted asset categories. For those making continuous, automatic contributions to the portfolio, consider altering the contribution percentages so that more of those dollars are directed into the under-weighted asset categories until the portfolio is back into balance."

Because, as the behavioral finance literature suggests, investors experience more extreme negative emotions when they suffer investment losses than they do positive emotions when they enjoy investment gains, volatility can destroy the discipline necessary for successful investing. Rebalancing the portfolio according to an individual plan can help investors make investment decisions based on reason, not emotions, and maintain the diversification necessary for the best chance at meeting personal goals.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bankrate: Mortgage Rates Flirt with Record Lows

PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Mortgage rates fell sharply in the first week of 2009, with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate plummeting to 5.33 percent. According to's weekly national survey, the average 30-year fixed mortgage has an average of 0.39 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed rate mortgage dropped to 4.85 percent, while the average jumbo 30-year fixed rate slumped to 6.91 percent. Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the average 1-year ARM inching higher to 5.98 percent and the average 5/1 ARM pulling back to 5.72 percent.

Mortgage rates fell sharply as the Federal Reserve initiated a program of mortgage bond purchases. The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is at the third lowest point ever, 5.33 percent. The two prior occasions when rates were lower both occurred in June 2003. Low mortgage rates will be a theme in 2009 as Fed and Treasury policies aim to stabilize the housing market by facilitating refinancing and enticing home buyers into the marketplace.

The sharp decline in mortgage rates since Halloween has sparked a refinancing frenzy. In late October, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 6.77 percent, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,299.86. With the average rate having since fallen to 5.33 percent, the monthly payment on a $200,000 loan is now $1,114.34.

30-year fixed: 5.33% -- down from 5.64% last week (avg. points: 0.39)
15-year fixed: 4.85% -- down from 5.16% last week (avg. points: 0.38)
5/1 ARM: 5.72% -- down from 5.86% last week (avg. points: 0.47)

Bankrate's national weekly mortgage survey is conducted each Wednesday from data provided by the top 10 banks and thrifts in the top 10 markets.

For a full analysis of this week's move in mortgage rates, go to

The survey is complemented by Bankrate's weekly forward-looking Rate Trend Index, in which a panel of mortgage experts predicts which way the rates are headed over the next 30 to 45 days. A plurality of panelists, 42 percent, predict rates will continue falling. One in three expect rates to rebound, while the remaining 25 percent believe rates will remain more or less unchanged.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Delta Community Credit Union Shares Earnings with Customers

/PRNewswire/ -- Delta Community Credit Union, Georgia's largest credit union, believes in sharing its financial successes with its customers. A strong capital base and solid financial results in 2008 enabled the credit union to give back approximately $5.0 million to its members as a Patronage Reward and to further strengthen its capital position, which remains significantly above the regulatory target for well-capitalized status.

Under the Patronage Reward, customers earned additional deposit dividends or loan rate rebates based on the amount of business they conducted with the credit union last year. Customers who maintained positive balances in checking, savings, money market and IRAs received a bonus equal to 4.50 percent of the total dividends they earned on those accounts during 2008. Borrowers in good standing received a rebate equal to 2.50 percent of the interest they paid on their loans during the same period.

"The Patronage Reward is just one of the many ways Delta Community gives back to our customers and the communities we serve," said Rick Foley, President and CEO. "In 2008, we opened six new branches and introduced several new products, including the well received 4.50 percent APY StandingStrong CD. We also awarded three scholarships to high school seniors, honored ten young 'Hometown Heroes' for their contributions to the community and gave more than $200,000 to Children's Miracle Network."

"Sharing our earnings with our members is one important difference between Delta Community Credit Union and other financial institutions," Foley continued. "In light of the current economic climate, we believe it's a difference that is more important than ever."

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Friday, January 2, 2009

U.S. Venture-Backed Liquidity Reaches Lowest Point in 5 Years, Down 58% to $24.1 Billion in 2008

/PRNewswire/ -- With no initial public offerings (IPOs) and just $3.9 billion generated via mergers and acquisitions (M&As) of 65 venture-backed companies in the fourth quarter, 2008 proved to be the worst year in terms of liquidity for U.S. venture capitalists since the post-tech-bust doldrums of 2003, according to official statistics released today by Dow Jones VentureSource ( Overall, U.S. venture-backed companies generated $24.1 billion in liquidity through IPOs and M&As in 2008, down 58% from the $57.6 billion in liquidity produced in 2007. Just seven companies completed public offerings in 2008, raising $551 million -- a far cry from the $6.8 billion generated through the public listings of 76 companies in 2007 and the lowest totals recorded since VentureSource began tracking the industry in 1992.

"2008 proved to be a very rough year for the U.S. venture capital industry," said Jessica Canning, Global Research Director for VentureSource. "With virtually no IPOs and corporations only making choice acquisitions, the liquidity markets have essentially been cut off for venture investors. Additionally, the ever-increasing amount of time it takes for a company to go public or get acquired is stretching out the lifecycle of venture funds and therefore returns to venture firms and their limited partners."

M&As: Downward Trajectory

After peaking in 2007 at a seven-year high of $50.9 billion, liquidity generated through the sale (M&As) of venture-backed companies fell 54% to $23.5 billion in 2008. According to the statistics, only 325 venture-backed companies merged or were acquired in 2008, the lowest number of M&A tractions since 1999, and down 29% from the 457 companies sold in 2007. In particular, the 65 venture-backed companies sold for an aggregate $3.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 marked the lowest quarterly transaction number since 1999 and far below the 123 companies sold for $16.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2007.

"Overall, the median amount paid for a VC-backed company in 2008 was roughly $45 million -- half of the median $90 million paid in 2007," said Ms. Canning. "Since the fourth quarter of 2007, we've seen the median acquisition price drop steadily from quarter to quarter in lock-step with the decline of M&A transactions."

According to VentureSource, the largest M&A for the fourth quarter was eBay's $945 million acquisition of Timonium, Maryland-based transaction service provider Bill Me Later. The largest M&A deal of 2008 was Dell's $1.4 billion acquisition data storage company Equalogic -- a deal that was announced in the fourth quarter of 2007 but closed in January 2008.

The IPO Market: The Door is Closed

The data shows that only seven venture-backed companies completed initial public offerings in 2008, generating $551 million in liquidity. There were no public offerings completed by venture-backed companies in the second and fourth quarters of the year.

Ms. Canning added: "There are currently 18 venture-backed companies in IPO registration but nearly all of these companies filed before the stock market fell in October and will likely remain in a holding pattern or withdraw their offerings until the market recovers."

The largest IPO of the year belonged to RiskMetrics Group of New York City, a provider of financial and wealth management software, which raised $174 million in its January IPO.

More Money, More Time Go Into Reaching Liquidity

Dow Jones VentureSource also found that it's taking more time and money for venture-financed companies to achieve liquidity. In 2008, companies raised a record median of $22.6 million in venture capital and took a record median of 6.5 years to reach liquidity via M&A.

In terms of IPO companies, the median amount of venture capital raised prior to IPO fell 19% from $69 million in 2007 to $56 million in 2008. The median amount of time it took a company to reach liquidity hit a record 8.3 years, more than a year longer than reported in 2007 when it was 7.2 years.

For more information or to request a demonstration of Dow Jones VentureSource, visit or call 866-291-1800.

The investment figures included in this release are based on aggregate findings of Dow Jones VentureSource's proprietary U.S. research. This data was collected by surveying professional venture capital firms, through in-depth interviews with company CEOs and CFOs, and from secondary sources. These venture capital statistics are for equity investments into early-stage, innovative companies and do not include companies receiving funding solely from corporate, individual, and/or government investors. No statement herein is to be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell securities or to provide investment advice.

Copyright (C) 2009, Dow Jones VentureSource

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Weathering Tough Financial Times: Nine Tips For 2009

(NAPSI)-The financial crisis of 2008 battered the wallets of many Americans, leaving them unable to make ends meet. While saving and investing may be difficult, it's critical to weathering tough financial times. These nine tips from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) can help:

1. Pay down credit card debt. Banks are increasing interest rates and late fees, leading to higher borrowing costs. They're also reducing limits on credit cards, which can lead to lower credit scores if you don't pay down your balance.

2. Check your credit report. With credit becoming harder to get, make sure your credit history is accurate-and correct problems that may hurt your credit score. For your free credit report, call (877) 322-8228 or visit

3. Create a rainy-day fund. One in three Americans has no emergency savings. Aim to save at least one month (preferably three to six months) of your current salary in a federally insured savings account.

4. Open account statements. Although you may be tempted to avoid the trauma of seeing losses in your portfolio, ignoring your 401(k), IRA or brokerage accounts can blind you to problems in your accounts other than performance.

5. Avoid raiding your 401(k). One in five workers over age 45 stopped saving for retirement in 2008 because of economic conditions. Before cutting contributions or borrowing against your 401(k), reduce spending wherever possible.

6. Diversify. If your portfolio declined more than broad market indices, make sure you are well diversified. Spread your risk by distributing your investments both among different asset classes-stocks, bonds and cash-and within each class.

7. Know that fees matter. Find out what each investment costs. The higher the fees and expenses, the less real return you make. Compare mutual fund costs using FINRA's Fund Analyzer at

8. Protect yourself from identity theft. Phishing attacks surged in October 2008 by 103 percent following stock market drops. To avoid taking the bait, visit FINRA's Identity Theft resource at

9. Invest for the long term. Investors with a short-term outlook often jump ship just as a bear market bottoms out or jump in as a bull market peaks. Investing incrementally, in good times and in bad, is a tried-and-true way of bearing up in a bear market.

As you start the New Year, take time to set fresh financial goals and stick with your long-term plan. For more resources and tools, visit

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