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Credit Card Usage Declines, Bitcoin Payment Systems Rise

More than half of U.S. consumers are aware of technologies that would allow them to make payments via apps. Credit Card Usage Declines As Bitcoin & Digital Payment Systems Reach Mass Adoption

An evolution is under way in the global payment system. Advances in mobile phones and internet technology are giving rise to apps and other digital platforms that allow people to pay for goods and services with their smartphones instead of with cash or traditional credit and debit cards.

Credit cards won’t be needed in five years because mobile payments are more convenient, cheaper and more secure.

Credit Card Slaves

Credit Card Usage Declines As Bitcoin & Digital Payment Systems Reach Mass Adoption

Some 44% of U.S. families carry balances month to month, and among families that do maintain this kind of debt, the average balance is roughly $5,700, according to a survey from the Fed’s Board of Governors.

New Internet technologies are giving rise to new online payment networks and lending platforms that some say will reduce transaction costs and the cost of supplying unsecured credit to borrowers.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Credit Cards

Credit cards have played a vital role in our economy, but the need for them will fade away in the next five years. Electronic payments are more convenient, cheaper and more secure, and adoption of these technologies is going to accelerate as a result.

The credit cards of today perform two key functions. They facilitate commerce by allowing consumers and businesses to quickly and easily pay for goods and services. They also are the primary method for delivering unsecured credit to consumers. The economy will still need a system to perform these roles, but credit cards won’t have to be that system.

Given high barriers to entry and large economies of scale, only a few credit-card networks exist, leading to relatively high transaction fees of 1% to 4% on every purchase. Mobile phones and the internet are quickly disrupting this model as the cost of establishing a new, online payment network plummets.

Consumers can now make payments with Bitcoin, text messages and online services, bypassing the proprietary networks of the credit-card processors. Smartphone applications such as Apple Pay and Google Pay are also bringing down transaction costs by incorporating biometric security, geolocation technology and other tools that can sharply decrease fraudulent transactions relative to physical cards.

While credit cards won’t be needed in five years, some people will still want to use them, just as some people still prefer paper checks even though better alternatives exist. Still, there are signs the momentum is shifting.

Millennials are adopting services such as Venmo and PayPal at fast rates, and survey data suggest that nearly 40% of smartphone users have at least one payment app.

Meanwhile, generational attitudes toward credit cards are rapidly shifting. Younger millennials don’t have the same affinity for credit cards as their parents, partly due to a 2009 law that makes it difficult for borrowers under age 21 to get a credit card without a cosigner. Many of them will bypass cards altogether as digital-payment options expand.

Having an unsecured line of credit for emergencies and to smooth out fluctuations in income and savings is what many people value about credit cards. But this flexibility comes at a cost. Credit-card interest rates are high due to the default risk posed by borrowers.

Here again, internet technologies are giving rise to services that can fulfill this role, but at a cheaper cost. Online lending platforms such as LendingClub and Prosper connect individual borrowers with a wider range of potential lenders, reducing the interest rates some borrowers face to consolidate existing debts or finance new purchases.

The next generation of consumer lending may include more “sale-based” financing, where lenders use real-time spending and income data to price default risk on a purchase-by-purchase basis.

Consumers will still demand and need sources of unsecured credit. They just won’t need to carry around slips of plastic to get it.

 

Updated: 5-26-2019

The Swiss Surfer Behind $2 Billion Payments Startup Checkout.com

Guillaume Pousaz, chief of transaction processor with soaring valuation, says future of banking will be built on payments companies.

The newest face of the payments frenzy that has investors cheering and bank bosses scrambling is a 37-year-old Swiss surfer who dropped out of college to ride waves up and down the California coast.

Guillaume Pousaz spent roughly a decade transforming a low-tech payments firm he acquired into Checkout.com, a London-based transaction processor for fast-growing internet companies. Fresh off a nine-figure fundraising, the company is beefing up its presence in the U.S. and getting into other financial services, such as issuing cards.

With more commerce migrating to the internet and smartphones, merchants want payments providers with the technology to siphon better data from transactions and to integrate easily with popular apps. Online marketplaces that operate across multiple geographies and currencies also are looking for payments companies that can coordinate the flow of money between, say, a ride-hailing platform, a driver and a passenger.

At stake is $1.9 trillion in global payments revenue, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Banks, after a slow start, are trying to keep up with tech startups. JPMorgan Chase & Co. acquired an internet payment-processing startup in 2017 and a medical payment-technology company this month. Citigroup Inc. in March said it was starting a new unit to provide merchant-processing services for big clients. Bank of America Corp. is considering pulling out of a decade-old payments-processing venture with First Data Corp. in favor of building its own merchant payments business, The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

“Companies like Square and PayPal have done things that we could have done but did not,” JPMorgan Chief Executive James Dimon wrote in his annual letter to shareholders in April.

There is no guarantee that the payments business will live up to the hype. Online lending startups, once hailed as the future of finance, have struggled with rising defaults and governance scandals. Cryptocurrency startups attracted billions of dollars from Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors, with little to show for it.

Still, investors are enamored with payments. More than $22 billion in venture capital went into payments startups globally in 2018, over four times the total for 2017, according to Dow Jones VentureSource.

Earlier this month Checkout.com said it sold a $230 million stake to investors including Insight Partners and Yuri Milner’s DST Global. That deal—Checkout.com’s first—valued the company at nearly $2 billion, a higher mark than all but three other companies achieved on their first-ever venture rounds going back to 2002, according to research firm PitchBook.

“The future of banking is going to come out of payment companies,” Mr. Pousaz said. “I believe that 50% of financial-services brands that we know today will not be here in 20 years, and maybe 10 years.”

Mr. Pousaz, a Swiss national, got his first job in the payments business in 2006. He left an economics program at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland at the end of the previous year following a family member’s cancer diagnosis, and moved to the U.S. to live the life of a surf bum on beaches from San Francisco to San Diego. When he ran out of money, he took a job as an analyst at a payments firm that allowed him to catch waves around Malibu each day after work.

His employer was a firm that set up fledgling American e-commerce businesses with accounts at big banks that let them accept credit cards. Mr. Pousaz envisioned that, over time, such companies would use the internet to bulk up and go global.

“They were not thinking big enough,” Mr. Pousaz said of his former employer. “They weren’t thinking technology. They were not thinking other countries.”

Mr. Pousaz’s path to building an international payments player was an offbeat one. After briefly running a foreign-exchange business, he spent around $350,000 in 2009 to buy a payments company based in the island nation of Mauritius that was already authorized to work with the major credit-card networks. He hired engineers to upgrade the company’s “very bad” technology and started poaching Asian clients of bigger companies such as PayPal Holdings Inc. with offers of lower prices on foreign-currency transactions.

A few oceans away, Silicon Valley was starting to pay attention to payments. Jack Dorsey co-founded Square Inc. in 2009 to help small bricks-and-mortar businesses accept credit cards. Patrick and John Collison founded Stripe Inc. a year later to do the same for tech startups.

After setting up Checkout.com’s London headquarters in 2012, Mr. Pousaz sensed opportunity in the Middle East and moved his family to Dubai in 2014. He zeroed in on multinational merchants like food-delivery startup Deliveroo that were looking to expand in the area but needed to find a local payments provider, wagering that solving their payments problems in hard-to-crack markets could help Checkout.com win business in bigger ones, such as Europe and the U.S.

“You focus on the geographies where there is less competition,” said Deven Parekh, a managing director at Insight Partners, which led Checkout.com’s recent fundraising. “You prove your scalability that way.”

Checkout.com, now with roughly 375 employees, processes payments for a range of companies, from Getty Images Inc. and Samsung Electronic Co. to financial-tech startups such as TransferWise Ltd. It wants to be the financial-services provider of first resort for its customers, starting with giving them the ability to issue debit and prepaid cards to their own customers through Checkout.com.

“You build all these transactions on payment processing and control the revenue, and then you build incremental products on top of it,” Mr. Pousaz said. “There’s an emergence of new brands that are going to be actually distributing financial services, and a lot more than just payments.” Credit Card Usage Declines, Credit Card Usage Declines, Credit Card Usage Declines,Credit Card Usage Declines

Updated: 5-29-2019

2 Payment Company Stocks Are Rising On A Possible Merger, But Beware What Happens Next 

Payments companies Global Payments (ticker: GPN) and Total System Services (TSS) have talked about a potential deal, Bloomberg News reported Friday morning.

The news of another possible merger in the payments industry sent shares of Total System Services, known as TSYS, up more than 10% and Global Payments stock up more than 3%. Representatives for both companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Barron’s.

The back story. There have been two big payments deals already in 2019. In March, Fidelity National Information Services (FIS) agreed to a $34 billion deal for Worldpay (WP), and in January, Fiserv (FISV) bought First Data (FDC) for $22 billion.

Investors hunting for the next deal have helped push Global Payments stock up more than 49% and TSYS stock up 34% so far this year.

What’s new. Global Payments might find this deal attractive because its North American payments business growth has been lower than Visa’s, Nomura’s Dan Dolev said in a note to clients Friday morning.

For TSYS, on the other hand, Dolev points out that a tie-up “could be an elegant retirement strategy” for its CEO Troy Woods, who is 67 years old.

Looking ahead. If a deal is made, Dolev thinks that there are synergies to be had, but “the likely culture clash between a promotional and conservative management team could result in potential long-term friction.”

Updated: 5-13-2021

Cash Discounts Come Back As Small Businesses Tire of Swipe Fees

With the pandemic crimping sales, more merchants impose surcharges for plastic.

In Central Brooklyn, notices are appearing near the registers of a growing number of small businesses. “Dear Loyal Customers,” many of them begin, before announcing a “discount”: The displayed prices reflect a reduction for those paying with cash. Prices for credit and debit card sales are 4% higher.

As the economy marches away from cash—a trend hastened by the growth of digital alternatives and, more recently, by sanitary concerns over Covid-19—and electronic transaction fees take bigger bites out of retailers’ sales, a small but increasing number of businesses are nudging their customers in the other direction.

That’s in defiance of a hostile legal landscape and what’s always been assumed to be Consumer Psychology 101—don’t punish shoppers for their payment choice. Along a mile or so stretch of Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, for example, at least five businesses give preferential treatment to cash buyers. Several are getting help from, of all places, the payment industry itself.

Credit cards, of course, are extremely convenient for businesses and customers alike. But the convenience comes at a cost borne mostly by merchants. In 2019 swipe fees for credit card transactions amounted to $93 billion in the U.S., or 2.2% of credit card sales, according to Nilson Report.

Small merchants lack the muscle to negotiate lower rates with payment processors or ways to tweak the interchange fees that credit card companies themselves charge. For them, the transactions cost much more: 2.8% in stores and 3.1% online, according to consulting firm CMSPI.

“It’s unseen money,” says a Nostrand Avenue retailer who began adding a surcharge about six years ago and asked not to be identified so as not to draw the card networks’ attention. “I’d add up the monthly bill, and it would come to $600. It would be about 3% of my sales.”

Credit cards that reward consumers with cash back or travel points have higher transaction fees than other cards, which rubs some merchants the wrong way. “If you pay attention to the television commercials for these cards, you would think those rewards were coming from the producer of the credit card, when instead they’re coming from the retailer,” says Jerry Walsh, who owns Mayday Hardware in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. “If I’m the one paying for the reward, shouldn’t I get the credit for that?”

In Australia, merchants were first permitted to surcharge card transactions in 2003; by 2014, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia, 43% did so. In the U.S., retailers have tried over the past several decades to loosen the rules imposed by credit card companies, but the wins have been few.

Federal law has protected cash discounts since the 1980s, but card networks made it difficult to use them until Congress intervened again in 2010. Surcharging became possible only after major credit card companies, attempting to settle antitrust lawsuits, began to allow it in 2013.

Neither Visa Inc. nor Mastercard Inc. will disclose how many merchants have reported their intention to surcharge, and many other businesses never tell the credit card companies that they’re surcharging. According to the referral website Merchant Maverick, most payment processors in the U.S. offer a program that automatically calculates surcharges or discounts and properly displays them on receipts, and many now specialize in that.

More than 200 payment processors, including the giant payroll software firm, Paychex Inc., use software from technology company CardX LLC to provide surcharging capability to professional firms and online business-to-business companies, which incur higher transaction fees. From 2019 to 2020, CardX’s transaction volume nearly doubled, to about $5 billion.

But adding a surcharge remains chancy for merchants. For example, the notices appearing in Brooklyn, which were provided by a payment processor, are ambiguous, using the term “discount” to describe what sounds like a surcharge. Card network rules bar surcharges on debit cards.

(They may also violate New York law, which requires merchants to display separate cash and credit prices for every item.) Mayday Hardware has separate notices that describe two different programs. Other merchants don’t have any signs disclosing the surcharge at all.

“We actually discourage this practice,” says Leon Buck, the top lobbyist on financial issues for the National Retail Federation, which would rather save money for merchants and their customers by tightly regulating swipe fees. The surcharges, he says, “are adding to the problem rather than helping.”

Industry representatives and observers insist big merchants will never risk alienating their customers by making them pay their transaction costs. American Express Co., in an April 2020 study, found, among other things, that three-fourths of consumers would refuse to pay a surcharge—they’d pay cash, shop elsewhere, or leave empty-handed.

But on the ground, proprietors say they’re seeing something else. “In the beginning, there were complaints, but now everybody’s used to it,” says Angel Martinez, proprietor of the Mermaid Fish Market in Brooklyn.” Many say customers, to their surprise, are forgiving. “They understand, because I tell them about it,” says the Nostrand Avenue retailer. “It doesn’t just appear on their receipts.”

And while some merchants report a modest number of customers switching from credit to cash, at Mayday Hardware, Walsh says his credit card sales have actually increased. “We Americans have grown accustomed to low nuisance charges and simply accept them as a way of doing business,” he says. “I think it’s becoming the new norm.” If Walsh is right, it may not be long before his much larger competitors follow suit.

Payment processors are devising surcharging programs for small businesses, which means purchases made by credit cards cost up to 4% more.

Updated: 5-14-2021

Need A Credit Card Or Auto Loan? Banks Are Making Them Easier To Get

Some banks are reducing credit-score requirements and offering more generous loan terms, eager to lend after tightening up when the pandemic hit.

Banks are loosening the purse strings for consumer borrowers.

Credit cards, auto loans and other personal loans are all getting easier to come by, more than a year into a pandemic that spooked lenders and caused them to tighten lending standards significantly.

The net share of banks that loosened underwriting standards for credit cards hit a high in roughly the first quarter, according to a survey of loan officers conducted by the Federal Reserve.

The net share of banks relaxing underwriting on other consumer loans such as installment loans also notched a record. For auto loans, that share was the highest level in more than eight years.

For example, about 29% of banks eased their underwriting standards for credit cards in the first quarter, and only 2% tightened them, according to the Fed. About 19% of banks loosened auto underwriting, while less than 2% tightened standards.

The loosening reflects a pandemic about-face in consumer lending. A year ago, lenders expected people to stop paying their loans en masse, and they made loans harder to get.

But then the government stepped in with expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, and the expected flood of defaults never happened. Now banks have a different problem: Loan demand is down. Many people are even paying off their credit-card balances. And while that signals that Americans are faring well even in the pandemic, it is problematic for lenders looking to boost revenue.

Some banks are reducing minimum credit-score requirements and offering more generous loan terms to try to attract new customers. Borrowers who might have been denied loans this time last year could be more likely to get approved now. Many lenders are offering new customers the chance to transfer their credit-card balance from another lender at 0% interest.

“This is just the beginning of the reversion back,” said Warren Kornfeld, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. “The fact that consumers today are stronger than they were on average pre-Covid, as well as the expectation that the economy is going to improve, is very supportive of lenders beginning to loosen.”

One exception is mortgages. Some banks told the Fed that they had eased standards for government-backed mortgage loans this year. But for many people, mortgages are still hard to get. In a hot housing market, with multiple bidders competing for a limited number of homes for sale, many banks are lending only to people with pristine credit and sizable down payments.

Underwriting, where a lender assesses the risk of issuing a loan to a certain customer, fluctuates with the economy. When the economy is humming, lenders might be more willing to make loans to customers with less-than-stellar credit or higher levels of debt.

LendingClub Corp. , an online lender focused on personal loans, raised interest rates and restricted lending to existing customers last spring, Chief Executive Scott Sanborn said in an interview. Originations plummeted to $326 million in the second quarter of 2020 from $2.5 billion in the first.

LendingClub has since dialed back most of its stricter requirements, and it began marketing to new customers again toward the end of 2020. In the first quarter of this year, originations rose to $1.48 billion, a 63% increase from the fourth quarter.

But the San Francisco-based company hasn’t just gone back to its pre-Covid-19 playbook. One shift reflected in the company’s updated risk models: More LendingClub customers are using their personal loans for major purchases, Mr. Sanborn said.

“It’s a different economy now than it was then,” he said, “and the consumer is in a different place.”

Kabrina Boyd needed a car to make the move from Norfolk, Va., to Phoenix this summer for her job. Earlier this month, her credit union approved a loan of about $25,000 for a 2020 Hyundai Sonata.

“I thought I was going to have to get one from 2017 or 2018, and I was able to get something new,” Ms. Boyd said. “I was definitely shocked.”

Ms. Boyd, 25 years old, said she signed up for her first credit card last fall, so she had only a short credit history when she applied for the car loan.

Still, lending standards generally remain tighter than they were pre-pandemic. Most lenders said they didn’t alter their underwriting practices during the first quarter.

Brent Beardall, chief executive of WaFd Bank in Seattle, said his bank didn’t change its consumer-lending requirements in 2020.

“We’re conservative underwriters to begin with, so when the world looks like we’re falling off a cliff, we don’t tighten down and then loosen back up,” Mr. Beardall said. “We’re pretty darn consistent.”

Share Your Thoughts:
Who do you think will win the payments race: big banks or financial-technology startups? Join the conversation below.

Updated: 8-19-2021

Paying With A Credit Card? That’s Going To Cost You

More businesses are trying to offset transaction fees with cash discounts and credit-card surcharges; ‘My business is made on the pennies’.

It is getting more expensive to pay for things with a credit card.

More small businesses—and even some larger ones—are charging shoppers a fee for credit-card purchases or offering them discounts when they pay with debit cards, cash or checks. The moves are meant to offset the various fees businesses pay on credit-card transactions, costs that have grown alongside generous cash-back and travel rewards.

Data on cash discounting is hard to come by, and less than 5% of 8 million card-accepting small businesses in the U.S. charge fees for credit-card payments, according to estimates from payments consultancy the Strawhecker Group. But that share has risen steadily in recent years. Five years ago, an estimated 2% or less of businesses charged fees on credit-card purchases.

The coronavirus accelerated the shift, sending businesses in search of revenue to make up for sales lost in the pandemic’s early months. CardX LLC said more than 6,400 merchants—most of them online businesses—use its surcharge-calculating software, up from 4,030 a year ago and 2,380 in 2019.

“More merchants have turned toward making those costs transparent to the consumer,” said John Drechny, chief executive of the Merchant Advisory Group, which represents U.S. merchants on payments issues.

Karen’s Dairy Grove, an ice cream shop outside of Cleveland, Ohio, charges an extra quarter when customers use credit cards for purchases of less than $5. Owner Karen Morell said she made that decision after cash sales fell and credit-card purchases rose during the pandemic.

“My business is made on the pennies. If I do everything right I have a small margin,” she said. “On a $5 ice cream, 25 cents is a big chunk of the margin.”

Card networks like Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. set the interchange fees that businesses pay to credit-card issuers when consumers use credit cards. Merchants also pay fees to the networks and other intermediaries involved in processing the payments. The total dollar amount of these merchant fees from Visa and Mastercard credit cards more than doubled between 2012 and 2019 to $67.6 billion, according to the Nilson Report.

Credit-card usage declined in the pandemic, causing fees to fall 15% to $57.3 billion.

Westenbroek Mower Inc., which sells lawn mowers, snowblowers and other outdoor power equipment, began surcharging about two years ago.

Wendy Timmer said that she and her husband Travis, who owns the Holland, Mich., business, initially worried that customers would get upset. But the alternative was increasing prices for everyone, including those who pay with cash, she said. Credit-card fees were “one of the fastest increasing segments of our business cost wise,” she said.

A sign by the register says that customers paying with credit cards will be charged more. They also remind customers when they pull out a credit card that they will pass the card companies’ fees onto them. Many shoppers switch to paying with debit cards, Ms. Timmer said. Some go home to get their checkbooks.

Ms. Timmer said the company is saving tens of thousands of dollars a year as a result. “It was single-handedly one of the best decisions that our company has ever made,” she said.

The payments industry has long argued that consumers spend more when shopping with credit cards than when using cash. It says that credit cards and other digital-payments methods also helped small merchants stay in business during the pandemic, when shoppers eschewed cash and moved much of their buying online.

Card payments also benefit small businesses by “eliminating the substantial cost of counting, storing, safeguarding, and transporting cash,” said Jeff Tassey, board chairman of the Electronic Payments Coalition, which represents card networks and financial institutions.

“Every day, we help merchants of all sizes increase their sales by making it easy and secure for consumers to pay at any time, both in-store and online,” a Mastercard spokesman said. “Electronic payments became even more valuable over the past year as people looked for ways to continue to shop, while remaining socially distanced.”

A Visa spokeswoman declined to comment.

Visa and Mastercard lifted a long-running ban on credit-card surcharging in 2013 as part of a class-action settlement with merchants who had accused the networks and large banks of fixing fees and preventing businesses from steering customers to cheaper payment methods.

Surcharging didn’t take off right away, in part because some of the most populous states in the U.S. banned the practice. But in recent years, states including California, Florida, New York and Texas have lifted or substantially modified their surcharge bans. Colorado passed a law in July that will allow surcharging starting next year.

Large retailers generally don’t surcharge and instead pass credit-card fees along via price increases. They view surcharging as a way for card companies to keep high fees in place. A long-running lawsuit brought against Visa and Mastercard and several large banks by dozens of large merchants—including Lowe’s Cos., Gap Inc. and Starbucks Corp. —alleges that the networks and the card issuers collude to avoid competing over interchange fees.

But some bigger companies have embraced surcharges. Life Time Inc., which operates around 160 health clubs as well as co-working spaces and rental apartments in 29 states, implemented a credit-card surcharge last year, citing rising credit-card fees.

Credit-card companies view cash discounts and surcharges as two different things, though for shoppers the outcome is largely the same.

Bob Garner of Alabaster, Ala., prefers to use his USAA cash-back credit card on most purchases. The 70-year old often won’t shop in places that penalize card usage. He recently pulled his motorcycle into a gas station that charged a few cents less for cash payments than for credit cards. “It was one of those deals where it was ‘what the?’…I hopped on my bike and went off aggravated,” he said.

Getting shoppers to keep their credit cards in their wallets is tricky for another reason: Fewer people carry cash these days.

D’s Soul Full Cafe in Hoboken, N.J., has offered customers a 5% discount on cash payments for a few years, and had a $5 minimum purchase requirement for credit cards.

After the pandemic began, fewer customers were able to pay with cash simply because they weren’t carrying any, said owner Stephen Bailey. Many customers left the store without making a purchase, he said, prompting it to remove the $5 minimum.

“The pandemic has really changed everything,” Mr. Bailey said.

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