Friday, August 17, 2018

Cryptocurrency as Funds in Escrow Transactions?

Image result for bitcoin for real estate

An escrow officer's main duty in any transaction, be it a real estate sale, liquor license transfer, or hard money loan, is to act as a neutral third party between the buyer and seller (or lender and borrower). The escrow officer holds funds in a trust account and only disburses those funds once both parties have fulfilled all of their obligations in the transaction. Sometimes those obligations entail performing repairs or professional inspections, and sometimes it's just a short period (often 30 or 60 days) in which the escrow officer can get all of the necessities taken care of (Grant Deed, Change of Title, insurance, property liens, etc). Throughout this process, the escrow agent has a fiduciary duty to safeguard the funds in the trust account until such time as they can be disbursed.

Because an escrow officer almost always has to hold onto funds for some amount of time (even in all-cash offers), the funds need to be in the form of a currency that will retain its value. Until recently, that was simple. In the United States, the value of the dollar fluctuates very slightly each year with respect to the currency of other nations, but will generally be worth approximately the same amount from one day to the next. An issue may arise if the buyer wants to pay with funds that are not American currency, or even any type of national currency. In some cases, buyers want to make a purchase using Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a well-known type of blockchain-based cryptocurrency. A blockchain is a decentralized record of all transactions happening within an online peer-to-peer network. The benefit of such an innovation is to allow users to confirm the transfer of funds without the need for a third-party like a bank to wire the funds. Cryptocurrency is the "currency" that is being transferred through the online blockchain. In a general sense, cryptocurrency is a chunk of data that can be easily transferred between users. While cryptocurrency is a convenient way to transfer funds, there are several downsides. First, cryptocurrency has no intrinsic value. One Bitcoin is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay you for it. There is no guaranteed trade-in value for paper currency or other commodities such as gold or diamonds. Second, cryptocurrency has no physical form. There are no bills or coins -- nothing except a block of data that says how much currency a user owns.

Unlike the U.S. dollar, cryptocurrency doesn't have a stable value. There are owners of Bitcoin who put in thousands of dollars just to lose it all in days, and there are users who saw their Bitcoin investment increase a thousand-fold over the course of a year. There's no way of predicting if the value of a cryptocurrency will go up or down, as the value is determined by how much people want it. It is a currency that exists in the minds of its users. If all buyers are willing to pay $10,000 for one Bitcoin, then that's the value of the Bitcoin. If all buyers are only willing to pay $100 per Bitcoin, then that's its value. Such an unstable currency is unusable by an escrow officer because there's no guarantee that the seller will receive the amount of real money (U.S. dollars) that they had assumed based on the price of the cryptocurrency at the time when the purchase agreement was signed. During the 30 or 60 day escrow, while the currency is sitting in a trust account, it could just as easily go up in value as it could go down. That kind of volatility is bad for business, so even if a buyer can find a seller willing to accept the cryptocurrency, Escrow companies cannot accept this as currency as Bitcoin does not qualify as verified “good funds”.

Finally, there's the major issue that blockchain is decentralized, which means it doesn't have any official (governmental or otherwise) institutions backing up the currency. The decentralization is a good aspect to many users since it makes the transfer of funds relatively inexpensive, fast, and painless. However, decentralization also means that if your blockchain account gets hacked and you lose your cryptocurrency, you're on your own. With centralized systems (such as banks or credit cards), if you are the victim of cybercrime, your funds will generally still be safe, and the financial institution will take the burden of dealing with law enforcement in tracking down the criminal and getting the money back. With blockchain, there's nothing proving that a piece of cryptocurrency belongs to you. It's just a chunk of online data associated with an online account that someone else might gain access to. This is why the inherent instability of cryptocurrency in its current form is not an acceptable means of funding an escrow transaction. Perhaps in time, and with more regulation and security this could be the way of the future, though for now, escrow companies do not accept Bitcoin in lieu of U.S. currency.

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Friday, August 3, 2018

Disney's California Adventures to Remove "A Bug's Land" in Favor of Marvel Superheroes

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Disneyland is the most popular theme park in Southern California (based on attendance), and the majority of its visitors (over 18 million per year) are California residents. Because most of the visitors to Disneyland and Disney's California Adventures are from California, they tend to be repeat visitors, many with annual passes who come several times per year. That being said, they have strong opinions on what they want to see at the park. Some feel like Disney should change things up every once in a while to stop things from getting boring, while others prefer the nostalgia of seeing the same rides they enjoyed as a child. Well, according to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, Disney announced an impending change at their California Adventures theme park.

"A Bug's Land," an area of California Adventures themed around "A Bug's Life," one of Pixar's earliest animated features, is being closed down to make room for a Marvel-themed area, featuring superheroes from various comic books and movies owned by Disney since their purchase of the company in 2009. While "A Bug's Land" is popular among Disney's younger visitors, it's likely that the shift to Marvel will draw in more visitors, as superheroes tend to be more universal across age groups. However, since this change comes almost immediately after Disney opted to get rid of a classic and popular ride, "Tower of Terror," for a Marvel-themed attraction, "Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: Breakout," they are likely to face many upset fans.

Marvel is a very popular franchise, and so far, the various movies that Disney has created under the Marvel brand have been well-received and have made a lot of money. However, people are generally resistant to change. They tend to be set in their ways and take a while to get used to new updates, especially in theme parks they have emotional attachments to. Because this shift is such a big one for California Adventures, some parents may choose to visit other theme parks, like Universal Studios, that provide more attractions for young children, like the "Despicable Me" ride. However, once the Marvel area has been completed and people have had a chance to enjoy the attractions, it is unlikely that Disney will suffer a loss of overall visitors.

Disney has released almost no information about what visitors can expect to see in the new area. It may have a focus on the Avengers, or the X-Men, or some other group of famous superheroes, or it may just be a general hub for all Marvel characters. Interestingly, the area will not be named "Marvel Land," or anything similar, as Disney's agreement when purchasing rights limits the company from using the word "Marvel" in any theme park names. It will probably be at least a few years before the area is fully up and running, enough time for Disney to come out with several more popular additions to their Marvel cinematic universe, so it's hard to tell what the park will really look like when all is said and done.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Federal Law Prohibits Banks, Escrow, and Title Companies from Participating in the Sale of Marijuana-Related Businesses

The sale and consumption of marijuana, both medicinally and recreationally, is a pretty controversial topic throughout the United States. Some view marijuana as a dangerous substance that should be banned, comparable to hard narcotics like cocaine or methamphetamine. Many others view marijuana as a substance that should have limitations (similar to the sale of alcohol and tobacco), but not be completely illegal. Then, there's the even deeper issue of medicinal versus recreational usage. Some believe that marijuana should only be used when absolutely necessary (i.e. as a diagnosed treatment for a legitimate medical condition like glaucoma or nausea caused by chemotherapy), and some believe that cannabis isn't dangerous enough to be limited much, if at all.

The main difference between cannabis and substances like tobacco and alcohol is a lack of information. While there has been plenty of research done on the health effects of tobacco (cancer, asthma, etc.) and alcohol (impaired motor skills, liver disease, etc.) and even the effects on a fetus, there really isn't enough evidence to make a conclusive ruling on marijuana. However, for a while, it didn't matter whether marijuana was healthy or not. It didn't matter if it could impair motor skills or give a smoker asthma, because the sale and/or consumption of marijuana was illegal in the U.S., both on a federal and state level.

Over a decade ago, several states (California being one of the first) began to legalize medical marijuana, which could only be purchased from a licensed dispensary with a prescription from a doctor. Then, much more recently, states began legalizing recreational marijuana usage. However, that doesn't mean much from a business standpoint, because although marijuana is now legal in California, it's still illegal according to federal law. That may change within the next several years, but as of this moment, the law is the law, and that's all there is to it.

Because marijuana is still illegal federally, many businesses that must comply with state law (such as escrow/title companies), are not permitted to participate in any transactions regarding businesses that handle the sale of marijuana. In fact, in April of 2017, several national title companies received a memorandum from the Office of the Chief Underwriting Counsel that if the title company gets any indication from a buyer, seller, or broker that the Land will be used for growing, processing, distributing, or dispensing any types of marijuana-based products, they aren't allowed to be involved in the handling of any escrow or other funds of any type, issue any type of zoning coverage, or issue title insurance (except with the inclusion of an exception related to violation of federal law). This policy even applies to an entrepreneur looking to buy property that they will then rent out to tenants who may be involved in the marijuana industry,

Federal laws are taken very seriously by businesses involved in escrow and the transfer of funds, including banks. Banks are federally chartered, insured by the FDI, and use the Federal Reserve wire system. If those banks start breaking federal laws (even laws that don't exist at the state level), the bank can lose its charter and FDIC insurance, and eventually get shut down altogether. Just like banks, escrow companies lose their legal ability to operate if they break federal laws, especially in the financial realm, and for most of those businesses, it simply isn't worth the risk of getting involved in any transaction that might violate federal law.

For that reason, escrow companies (just like title companies and banks) don't take part in transactions involving property (or businesses) that are connected to the marijuana industry. It can be next to impossible for an entrepreneur to start that kind of business with a loan from a bank, because banks won't provide the loans and title companies won't close the sale (a closing is usually required by a lender). However, in some situations (where the sale is an all-cash offer, with no financing), there are law firms with real estate experience that can close real estate transactions. As of now, federal law makes it nearly impossible to do business in the cannabis industry if you need bank financing or plan to go through an escrow company. The laws may change in the future, but for now, it is what it is.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Amazon to Enter Prescription Pharmaceuticals Market with Purchase of PillPack

Image result for amazon pillpack

Amazon Inc. has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades since it was first founded. What started as an online bookstore has since become a platform so broad that it can't really be classified as any one type of store. Especially over the past couple of years, Amazon has continued to expand into new areas as it consumes all kinds of different businesses. Whole Foods helped them to get a grip on the groceries industry, and various entertainment sources have allowed Amazon to build a sizable streaming platform. Most recently, according to a recent Bloomberg article, Amazon is looking to expand into prescription pharmaceuticals and has already begun to make a name in the generic drugs industry.

Amazon is such a large company that sells such a large quantity per day that it is able to easily lower item prices just enough to undercut competitors while still making a healthy profit. For every industry into which Amazon expands, there are dozens of brick-and-mortar chains losing business because many consumers choose the convenience of online shopping. Last August, Amazon introduced its line of generic drugs last August, and has since expanded from about 35 to 65 different products, all items that someone could buy at their local drugstore. The upshot is that the drugs Amazon is selling are not a store brand, which means the online retailer can charge much less, making the choice much more enticing to potential customers.

While Amazon already has better prices on over 70% their Basic Care products than the same products at local stores like Walgreens and CVS, those drugs are all non-prescription, which means that many consumers still have to go in to a physical pharmacist to pick up many of their medications. Many of those same customers would get their prescription drugs online if it were possible, where it could be shipped directly to their home without having to wait in long lines or deal with other customers at a brick-and-mortar store.

Well, those customers are in luck, since Amazon just announced that they will be purchasing a company called PillPack, a pharmacy company. Almost immediately after the announcement, the stock prices for companies like CVS dropped, likely correlated with investors' expectation that many consumers will choose Amazon over their local stores for filling prescriptions. Amazon may run into some legal snags when it comes to selling prescription drugs online, but it is very likely that very soon, you too will be able to get your prescriptions delivered right to your door (possibly with free delivery if included on Amazon Prime!).

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Twitter and Facebook Introduce "Ads Transparency" Tools

Facebook Pages ad transparency tool

In this day and age, it's difficult to get around without utilizing online resources, but in many cases, using those resources require the user to give up quite a bit of their personal information, from names and birthdates to shopping preferences. Because of this, private companies have access to a lot of their customers' personal information.  Yet, although that personal data is being sold to companies to enable their "targeted advertisements" to work better, the customers being targeted rarely receive any information in return about the organizations trying to target them, especially when those organizations are political in nature. Fortunately, according to a recent Bloomberg article, both Twitter and Facebook are in the process of revamping their advertisement policies to make it apparent to all users where the ads are coming from, who paid for them, and how much they paid.

While understanding the identities and motivations of the companies and organizations trying to target you through social media can be nice, that kind of data isn't nearly on the same level as the browsing history and other product-preference data the companies have on you. But, since many of their customers have recently opted to discontinue use of several social media sites after various data scandals, the social media platforms had to make some sort of gesture to try to regain their customers' trust. Twitter was also recently under fire by US lawmakers for not having a system in place to identify and deal with fake accounts that are used for spam or scams, especially in the political arena, as that's the category on which lawmakers tend to focus.

The new Twitter tool, called the Ads Transparency Center tool, lets users search for any Twitter account and see all advertisements run by the account over the past week. For politically-related advertisers, even more data will be released: demographic-targeting data, the amount spent, billing information, etc. All of that data should help lawmakers and analysts determine if certain accounts are being designed specifically to produce misleading or false advertisements for the purpose of impacting US political races.

It's an interesting change in policies. Until now, there was very little oversight regarding advertisements on social media. But, it does make sense that there should be just as much regulation for a Facebook political message as for one that is played over the radio or on the television. Some lawmakers are even putting forward bills to require that social media advertisements meet the same honesty requirements as any other ads. Overall, these changes seem to have little to do with making the individual customers happy, and more to do with obliging with the wishes of lawmakers, but sometimes the two categories overlap.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

AMC Theatres Unveils "Stubs A-List" Subscription in Response to MoviePass

MoviePass, the service that allows users to view one movie per day in theaters for only $10 per month, has had a controversial history. Although the company is relatively young, its existence has caused plenty of drama within the movie theater industry. To some theaters, the subscription service is great in that they make money off of the movie tickets either way and can encourage greater concessions sales due to the lower ticket prices. To others, most notably AMC Theaters, MoviePass is giving customers unrealistic expectations of future ticket prices, which could cause issues for AMC if or when MoviePass eventually goes out of business. According to an LA Times article, AMC is looking to address those concerns by coming out with their own, similar, service, called AMC Stubs A-List.

Where MoviePass enables users to view up to 7 movies per week at pretty much every local theater, AMC A-List costs double the price and limits viewership to 3 per week, and only at AMC theaters. To the average MpviePass customer, this may seem like a terrible deal. Why would anyone pay double the price to see fewer movies per month at a smaller range of theaters? Well, it all ties into the economics of the subscription service. Yes, on a basic level, MoviePass is a much better deal in the short run. However, if you take into account that MoviePass is running a loss on every customer, it seems to be just a matter of time before the company has to either raise their prices or go out of business.

AMC's planned subscription service isn't as great of a deal initially, but because their pricing scheme is much more reasonable, AMC is much more likely to survive in the long run, from an economic perspective. So, if MoviePass were to one day go out of business, the A-list customers would not regret spending a little more per month for a better guarantee at a lasting service. Then again, MoviePass may survive after all, in which case their loyal customers will continue to reap the rewards.

It's not like AMC Stubs A-List is a bad deal. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The ability to watch up to 12 AMC movies for only $20 is a great deal, especially when the normal price for an AMC theater can be up to $16 for general admission, is incredible. Consumers are only looking down on AMC's subscription service compared to MoviePass' because MoviePass is just so great of a deal. However, AMC's subscription will be about more than basic movie tickets. It will also enable viewers to see IMAX or 3D movies and will provide discounts on various concessions. To many, this deal will seem worthwhile and could trigger a change. AMC's best bet in really capturing that market could be to focus on providing a better service than MoviePass. Many customers are upset with MoviePass that they not require uploaded images of purchased tickets, and by focusing on those complaints, AMC could really make a dent.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Boring Co. Lands Contract for Chicago Underground Bullet Train

Image result for boring co chicago train

Elon Musk, the CEO of such companies as Solar City, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has recently been expanding his reach from outer space and green electricity to various other industries. One of his other companies, Boring Co., has become known for two main things: flamethrowers and high-speed tunnel travel. Musk's "Temperature Enhancement Device" (the name given to the flamethrower to avoid shipping regulations) has amassed huge popularity and thousands of the devices have already gone out to customers around the world. However, Boring Co.'s most exciting future development is a high-speed underground bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If the project ever reaches fruition, it could drastically improve the housing markets throughout the state. According to a Bloomberg article, Boring Co. just won a bid to develop a similar bullet train in Chicago, which could be a huge stepping stone for the future of Boring Co.

In working out the plans for this high-speed train, Musk has come to some sobering realizations. Where his original plan featured speeds of over 700 mph, designed for connecting cities that are a few hundred miles apart. After more research, it was concluded that the underground train from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport will travel at speeds of roughly 150 mph, still much faster than any other options, but not nearly as fast as Musk had dreamed. Even after the disappointing results, Musk still seems certain that his planned Hyperloop system will one day reach his high-speed goals, but for longer trips, such as Chicago to New York.

Even though Musk won't be able to get the Hyperloop design he wants, this Chicago project will still be great practice for the 18-month-old Boring Co. Many investors believe strongly in Musk's ability to get things done, but as the company has very little construction experience, it is good that they have the opportunities to figure out how to meet their promises of faster, cheaper, and less disruptive tunnel creation when compared to current technological options. So far, Boring Co.'s tech has only been tested in Hawthorne, but if it shows promising results in Chicago, that could be the kickstart the company needs to get its other projects in LA, New York, and Washington DC fully funded and moving forward.

Boring Co. won the Chicago bid partly because of the CEO's notoriety, but also because its bid was so much lower than all other competitor offers. In fact, because this is sort of a practice run for Boring Co., and a way to get more publicity, Musk's bid was to do the entire project for free. He predicts that it will cost somewhere around $1 billion, but is confident that he will have no problems in securing the necessary funding. Some Chicago officials have welcomed Musk with open arms, excited for the upcoming project, while others have loudly criticized the project as a bold political ploy by the current Chicago mayor. It may take a little time until the project officially gets underway, as the specifications and details of the project still need to be negotiated, but based on Musk's previous projects, the Chicago transportation arena has an exciting future.

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