Wonkbook: Five years later, Americans are still dealing with the effects of the recession

August 8, 2014

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara (@pkollipara). To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


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Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: Almost 40 percent. That's the percentage of Americans who report that their families are "just getting by" or are struggling, years after the recession ended.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: This map shows how Wall Street tobacco deals left states with billions in toxic debt.

Wonkbook's Top 4 Stories: (1) Many Americans are still in deep financial pain; (2) the unprecedented Ebola crisis; (3) Russia may have just shot itself in the foot; and (4) an ebbing migrant flow?

1. Top story: Just how many Americans are still dealing with the effects of the financial crisis? 

Fed survey: 40% of households show signs of financial stress. "The Fed study shows that the economy has made progress to the point where a majority of U.S. households said they were 'living comfortably' or doing OK financially. But almost 40% reported that their families were 'just getting by' or struggling to do so. And more people reported that their financial situation was worse rather than better off compared to five years earlier. The survey was taken in September 2013. Overall, the Fed's findings, reported Thursday, are consistent with many other studies and data depicting the deep and lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession. The recovery has been slow and uneven, skewed toward the wealthy." Don Lee in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: A breakdown of the findings by topic. Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal.

Almost 20 percent of people near retirement age have no retirement savings. "Yes, you read that correctly. The sobering statistic was one of many released by the Federal Reserve on Thursday....The study offered a stark reminder that as more Americans are made responsible for their own retirement, most are not saving nearly enough. Overall, 31 percent of people said they have zero money saved for retirement....What's going on here? A lot of people said they rarely thought about retirement, at least not until it was too late....But researchers said the dismal saving rates weren't fully explained by lack of caring. They also cited a combination of low resources and poor awareness." Jonnelle Marte in The Washington Post.

How the oil boom and the housing bust changed consumer spending. "North Dakotans, enriched by an oil boom, stepped up their spending at triple the national pace in the three years that followed the Great Recession. In Nevada, smacked hard by the housing bust, consumers barely increased their spending....The government's figures show that state-by-state spending patterns were radically different before the recession. In the three years leading up to the downturn, for example, spending in Arizona jumped 21.2 percent, the fourth-highest in the nation. Big home price gains during the housing bubble likely fueled more spending." Christopher S. Rugaber in the Associated Press.

ICYMI: Consumers are still skimping on spending as if the recession hadn't ended. Peter Coy in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Fed: Consumer-borrowing growth slows down. "Americans’ total outstanding debt — excluding home loans — rose at a 6.48% annual rate in June from a month earlier to $3.21 trillion....the slowest rise since February. The report reflects what Americans owe in credit-card debt, auto loans and student loans. Still, consumers are steadily adding debt over the longer run....The report sent mixed signals about the state of consumers. Americans added to their debt loads for the fourth consecutive month, indicating they may be feeling more secure as the labor market and broader economy strengthen. But the gains have eased in recent months, clouding the outlook for consumer spending in the fall." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

Your credit score could rise with FICO's new model. "The latest version of its score would no longer weigh medical debts — which account for about half of all unpaid collections on consumers’ credit reports — as heavily as it did in previous iterations. The newer FICO scores, available this fall, will also ignore any overdue payments that have already been made....Because of the new scoring model, individuals with a median score of 711 — and an otherwise clean credit history, except for unpaid medical debts — may see their FICO score rise by 25 points. As a result, many consumers may qualify for more attractive interest rates on various loans, potentially resulting in thousands of dollars in savings." Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times.

Foreclosure starts near pre-recession low. "The proportion of home loans that entered foreclosure in the second quarter of this year hit its lowest point since early 2006, before the crisis began, according to data released Thursday by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The low rate is another sign that higher home prices and an improving job market are helping to put the mortgage crisis in the rearview mirror, said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. At the crisis’s worst point, in the third quarter of 2009, servicers started foreclosures on 1.42% of home loans. Last quarter, they began foreclosures on only 0.4% of loans, the lowest rate since the second quarter of 2006." Joe Light in The Wall Street Journal.

Housing recovery more dependent on job, wage growth. "After more than two years, home prices in the nation's largest markets are rising at a slower rate making the continued housing recovery more dependent on wage and job growth. For the first time in 26 months, none of the largest 100 metro areas market had a year-over-year price increase of more than 15 percent, according to a new report released Thursday by Trulia. The rebound effect — where prices fell the most during the housing crash and have had larger price gains — is diminishing, shifting the future growth of the sector to more job growth, which is a more sustainable driver of housing demand." Vicki Needham in The Hill.

Charts: How weak is housing? Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Concern that housing relief avoids hardest-hit. "Several years after the financial crisis and the rounds of loan modifications that followed it is still unclear which communities across the US received mortgage relief from the government’s $50bn housing settlement. More than 600,000 US homeowners received an average $79,000 in housing relief through mortgage modifications, loan forgiveness and short-sales as part of a sweeping 2012 national mortgage settlement over foreclosure abuses....A lack of transparency in the process has drawn criticism from some investors and left housing advocates weary that it has not helped the hardest-hit communities. Housing groups are raising concerns as the programme becomes a template for other mortgage-litigation resolutions." Kara Scannell in The Financial Times.

US banks told to steer billions to hard-hit areas. "Big US banks will have to offer billions of dollars more in relief to the communities hardest hit by the financial crisis, as US authorities demand new terms for settling claims of mortgage sales abuses....The change of focus comes as US officials are moving closer to a record $16bn-plus deal with Bank of America over mis-selling mortgage securities that would steer as much as $7bn to homeowners, people familiar with the matter have said. Including the BofA deal, banks will have paid $59bn in fines and consumer relief since the crisis to settle mortgage cases." Kara Scannell in The Financial Times.

A rise in HELOC defaults on the horizon? "A wave of potential defaults on home equity lines of credit could start arriving in the next few years as Americans face a day of reckoning on their boom-era borrowing. Many homeowners who took out home equity lines, essentially second mortgages, during the housing bubble have been paying only interest. Now, as they are nearing their end-of-draw terms, shutting down further borrowing, they have to start paying back principal along with interest. That, credit rating firm TransUnion said Thursday, could lead to payment shock — and possible defaults." Andrew Khouri and E. Scott Reckard in the Los Angeles Times.

CFPB warns colleges about how banks market financial products to students. "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Wednesday sent letters to a dozen universities criticizing them for not fully disclosing the arrangements they have with companies to market financial products on their campuses....The CFPB has been probing campus debit cards since last year. Officials at the bureau have said they are concerned that arrangements between colleges and financial institutions to provide debit cards are insufficiently transparent and may have incentives that harm students." Inside Higher Ed.

Does student loan debt make people less healthy and happy? "People with student debt report worse health and greater financial stress long after they finish their degree, a new study from Gallup shows. The survey looked at 11,000 students who have graduated college since 1990 and found that people who took out more than $50,000 in loans rate their physical and financial status at least 10 points lower than their debt-free peers. The findings offer a window into the deeply personal impact debt may have on students across the country, who are taking out more and larger loans than ever. Some research suggests that college is nonetheless worth its rising ticket price." Natalie Kitroeff in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Other economic/financial reads:

How low can jobless claims go? Claims fall to 289,000. Josh Zumbrun in The Wall Street Journal.

Is it too early after the recession to roll back food-stamp programs? Kaveh Waddell in National Journal.

Long read: Paul Singer will make Argentina pay. Max Abelson and Katia Porzecanski in Bloomberg Businessweek.

LITAN: How millennials are poised to help the housing recovery. "Worrywarts are concerned that impending increases in interest rates will crimp housing prices and thus the rate of new single-family starts. But as Mark Carter, a senior researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, wrote earlier this year, the good news is that there is huge pent-up demand from millennials who have delayed buying a house until they believe the economy’s improvement is for real. It is for real." Robert Litan in The Wall Street Journal.

Top opinion

KRUGMAN: Inequality is a drag. "There’s now growing evidence...that there isn’t actually any trade-off between equity and inefficiency. Why? It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution...may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate. You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

STIGLITZ AND GUZMAN: Argentina's default will ultimately harm America. "Ultimately, though, the Griesafault will carry a high price — less for Argentina than for the global economy and countries needing access to foreign financing. America will suffer, too. Its courts have been a travesty: As one observer pointed out,it was clear that Griesa never really fathomed the issue’s complexity. The US financial system, already practiced at exploiting poor Americans, has extended its efforts globally. Sovereign borrowers will not — and should not — trust the fairness and competence of the US judiciary. The market for issuance of such bonds will move elsewhere." Joseph E. Stiglitz and Martin Guzman in Project Syndicate.

STRAIN: Why we should consider doing more for Central America. "President Obama has called this an 'urgent humanitarian situation,' and Americans have taken notice. We’ve clinically diagnosed the problems of poverty and violence in Central America and identified them as the root cause of today’s humanitarian crisis. But something has been missing from our reaction: a sense of outrage at the conditions in these countries. The modern world doesn’t like making moral judgments, but our national leaders should say clearly that the situation in these countries is unacceptable, and that leaders in these nations have a moral responsibility to make the situation measurably better. Also missing is a sense that we can help." Michael R. Strain in The Washington Post.

KLEIN: High-speed train wreck for Obama. "Liberals often argue that America is well behind Europe...but having a vast rail system in the United States makes a lot less sense. Europe is much more densely populated and its major cities aren’t as spread out....When Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida were taken over by Republican governors during the 2010 wave election, they smartly declined the federal money — recognizing that the short-term injection of funds would impose massive long-term costs and obligations on the states....The high-speed rail program was one of the ways in which Obama sought to show that government is capable of doing big things, but thus far he has proved just the opposite." Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner.

GOBRY: How conservatives can fight inequality. "An advanced market economy and sustainable political economy are dependent on the fact that most everyone doesn't feel like they're getting a raw deal, and doesn't feel like people who do get rich are getting rich at their expense. Moreover, as Jim Manzi points out, a vibrant market economy inevitably produces economic dislocation with its creative-destructive process — and making sure that the 'losers' of creative disruption can still have a productive share in the economy should surely be a prime goal of policymakers. What's more, from a pure political perspective, it doesn't seem wise for conservatives to simply brush off concerns about inequality. We must develop an agenda that would address these problems with less unintended consequences than the progressive recipe." Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week.

REIS: Will the US inflate away its public debt? "One way or another, budget constraints will always hold. This is true as much for a household or a firm as it is for the central bank or the government as a whole. If the US government is to pay its debt, then it must either raise fiscal surpluses or hope for higher economic growth; the former is painful and the latter is hard to depend on. It is therefore tempting to yield to the mystique of central banking and believe in a seemingly feasible and reliable alternative: expansionary monetary policy and higher inflation. Crunching through the numbers we find that this alternative is not really there." Ricardo Reis, Jens Hilscher and Alon Raviv in VoxEU.

Slinky interlude: This "human slinky" is one of the most weirdly fascinating things you'll see.

2. How unprecedented is the Ebola crisis?

Unprecedented enough for WHO to declare a global emergency — though we don't know yet what that means in practice. "The body, based in Geneva, stopped short of saying there should be general international travel or trade bans because of the outbreak, and the impact of the announcement was not immediately clear. The declaration nonetheless reflected a newly aggressive stance by the health organization. In the past, it has often bent to pressure from member states demanding no consequences even as epidemics raged inside their borders and sometimes slipped over them." Alan Cowell in The New York Times.

Technology aside: Meet the bots that alerted U.S. agencies about the Ebola outbreak days before WHO knew. Michael Scherer in Time Magazine.

It could take half a year, if not longer, to stem the outbreak, CDC's Frieden says. "The current Ebola crisis in West Africa is on pace to sicken more people than all other previous outbreaks of the disease combined...said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is sending more workers into the affected countries to help....He estimated it would take at least three to six months to end the outbreak, under what he called a best-case scenario....He said the outbreak's two main drivers are lack of infection control as both health workers and families care for the sick and risky burial practices." Lauran Neergaard in the Associated Press.

Why Frieden views the crisis as unprecedented. "It’s the largest Ebola outbreak in history, and the more than 1,700 people stricken will soon eclipse the total number of infected patients in all prior outbreaks combined, he said. In addition, the epicenters are moving between the affected countries — in areas the virus has never been experienced before — and infection is now spreading in urban areas where control is 'much more difficult,' he said." Jennifer Haberkorn in Politico.

Why you still shouldn't panic. "The short answer is that the virus could be brought to U.S. shores by someone flying in from an affected nation, but that such an incident would be highly unlikely to spark a major outbreak in this country, said...Frieden....First, the Ebola virus does not transmit easily, unlike a cold or flu virus, and people who have contracted it but are not yet sick are not dangerous....Second, although an Ebola-infected person not yet showing symptoms could certainly arrive in the United States and subsequently fall ill and infect another person, Frieden said U.S. medical facilities are well-prepared to deal with the illness." Michael McAuliff in The Huffington Post.

Also, why we may not be able to count on the experimental drugs. "'We don't know if [the drugs] work and we can't have them in significant numbers,' Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a House subcommittee hearing....Frieden said it wasn't clear whether ZMapp had helped them. The drug is not 'easy to use,' he said, and may cause unknown side effects. He said clinical trials and other studies must be conducted before the drug is proved to be safe and effective against Ebola." Rebecca Bratek and Robyn Dixon in the Los Angeles Times.

Administration setting up working group on experimental Ebola drugs. "The Obama administration is forming a special Ebola working group to consider setting policy for the potential use of experimental drugs to help the hundreds infected by the deadly disease in Africa, an official said on Thursday. The group will include scientists and other officials from such government health agencies as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)." David Morgan and Sharon Begley in Reuters.

Before it can even meet, the FDA OKs emergency use of a second experimental drug. "Canadian drugmaker Tekmira Pharmaceuticals said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration modified a hold recently placed on the company's drug after safety issues emerged in human testing. The company has a $140 million contract with the U.S. government to develop its drug TKM-Ebola....But last month the FDA halted a small study of the injection in adults to request additional safety information. Tekmira said Thursday the agency 'verbally confirmed' changes to the hold that may allow the company to make the drug available, although it has yet to be proven as safe and effective." Matthew Perrone in the Associated Press.

Yet another drug remains unused. "Sarepta’s president and CEO, Chris Garabedian, told Barron’s earlier this week that the company had a drug that could be deployed and shipped if a request was made of the company and all permits and authorizations were cleared." David Kroll in Forbes.

Other health care reads:

West Africans in the U.S. help Ebola-stricken homelands. Caelainn Hogan in The Washington Post.

AIDS patients fear discrimination in Obamacare exchanges. Kelli Kennedy in the Associated Press.

In ambitious bid, Walmart seeks foothold in primary care services. Rachel Abrams in The New York Times.

Almost 90 pct. of uninsured in 2016 won't pay individual-mandate penalty. Stephanie Armour in The Wall Street Journal.

FARRAR, HEYMANN AND PIOT: Experimental medicine in a time of Ebola. "There are antiviral drugs, monoclonal antibodies and vaccines under study that have shown varying degrees of effectiveness in animals that have been infected with or exposed to the Ebola virus. Medical agencies in rich counties affected by Ebola would begin discussions with companies and labs developing these products and then make rapid decisions about which of them might be appropriate for compassionate use. The African countries where the current outbreaks of Ebola are occurring should have the same opportunity. " Jeremy Farrar, David Heymann and Peter Piot in The Wall Street Journal.

GERSON: Ebola fever. "We are already seeing a corrosive, dangerous reduction in vaccination rates in some areas of the United States. But it would not take much to cause a serious U.S. flu outbreak....In this case, trust in public-health officials would be the only alternative to mass panic and self-destructive behavior. Significant public resistance to CDC plans during a communicable disease emergency could make all of us dramatically more vulnerable....Our way of life depends on extremely effective and respected public health systems. That is the useful, universal lesson of the Ebola outbreak of 2014." Michael Gerson in The Washington Post.

Technology interlude: Transformer paper turns itself into a robot.

3. What you need to know about Russia's retaliatory sanctions 

U.S. poultry, pork and nut industries will be hit hard — as will Russia itself. "The measure, which targets meat, fish, fruit, vegetable and milk products, and will last a year, is expected to hit food supplies and drive up Russian food prices....But it's also slated to negatively affect a number of U.S. food industries....Poultry exports, the largest in the food category, amounted to more than $[300] million in 2013; nut exports to Russia topped $173 million; and soy bean exports were over $156 million. No industry will be affected quite as immediately and widely as the U.S. poultry industry. Russia accounts for roughly 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports....While that isn't what it used [to] be...it's still a considerable chunk." Roberto A. Ferdman in The Washington Post.

White House response: facepalm. "'Retaliating against Western companies or countries will deepen Russia's international isolation, causing further damage to its own economy,' Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters....Furman said the bans would push up Russia's already-high inflation rate, hurting consumers. Conversely, U.S. sanctions on Russia have not affected oil prices or U.S. economic growth, he said....While Russia's exports to the United States and the European Union together constituted 13 percent of Russia's gross domestic product, Furman said U.S. exports to Russia constitute only 1/10th of 1 percent of U.S. GDP and only 8/10ths of 1 percent of European Union GDP." Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed in Reuters.

A full-fledged trade war brewing? "U.S. and European officials could ask the World Trade Organization to block Russia’s yearlong ban on food imports — a move that could spare farmers from losing all access to a massive market. The threat of an escalating trade war looms....Western governments have hoped to heap on enough economic pressure that Russian President Vladimir Putin will buckle, but the ban...is another signal that tensions won’t be eased soon. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman’s office said it views Moscow’s latest restrictions — unlike U.S. and European sanctions — as a break from the type of retaliation typically allowed by the international trade body." Eric Bradner in Politico.

How Russia could go even further: Barring European and American airlines from its airspace. "If Russia decides to restrict its airspace in retaliation for economic sanctions, European airlines stand to suffer the most and bear the highest costs from rerouting flights....Siberia is the most direct route for European airlines to reach Asia. U.S. carriers also overfly parts of Russia on some of their Asian routes over the North Pole but would be able to adjust more easily. Short of an outright ban on flights by EU-based carriers, Russia could restrict certain parts of Siberia and make flights to Asia longer, costing airlines more in terms of fuel and time." Justin Bachman in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Russia may be losing influence over European energy markets. "Europe has been reluctant to impose punitive sanctions on Russia. And when it did start clamping down on Russia’s energy industry late last month, the sanctions were carefully drafted to block the export of technology or equipment that might aid new oil projects in Russia, while not interfering with Russian gas, which Europe supposedly cannot live without. But the indicators so far are that these fears may be exaggerated and that it is executives at Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas export monopoly, who have reason to be uneasy....There are signs that Russia’s influence over European energy markets is weakening rather than growing stronger." Stanley Reed in The New York Times.

Other foreign-policy reads:

Russia gives Snowden 3 years of residency. Dustin Volz in National Journal.

Astronomy interlude: Stunning images that a spacecraft took as it was approaching the comet.

4. Is the migrant flow ebbing for good? 

Number of unaccompanied children crossing Texas border plummeted in July. "New figures from Border Patrol show that 5,508 foreign children were taken into federal custody last month, down from more than 10,000 in both May and June. The numbers of adults crossing illegally with their children also fell dramatically, from 16,330 in June to 7,410 in July, according to the data....Experts said the number of illegal crossings from Mexico into the United States traditionally drops in the summer, due to hot weather and other factors. But the sharp decline has given hopes that some of the Obama administration's efforts to dissuade Central Americans from coming north...is paying dividends." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Administration no longer seeks temporary shelters. "In a Tuesday afternoon letter, a federal Health and Human Services official thanked Massachusetts for its offer of assistance, writing that 'HHS is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at this time,' due to a decline in the number of unaccompanied children....HHS had earlier announced it was suspending operations at three temporary shelters....In her letter, Barson notes early signs of progress along the Southwest border since the start of July. Because it is too early to tell if the slowdown will last, HHS will continue processing the children through a combination of standard and surge-capacity shelters." Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

One possible consequence of migrant crisis? Americans worry of illegal immigration's impacts. "As President Barack Obama considers sidestepping Congress to loosen U.S. immigration policy...seventy percent of Americans — including 86 percent of Republicans — believe undocumented immigrants threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs, according to the poll. The findings suggest immigration could join Obamacare...and the economy as hot button issues that encourage more Republicans to vote in November's congressional election." Alistair Bell in Reuters.

Related: Why American opinion is split on the child-migrant crisis. Dan Hopkins in FiveThirtyEight.

Immigrants' job prospects are best in Switzerland, America. "As far as being the land of opportunity, America isn’t looking good. Politicians dither on the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, and each week another billionaire reminds us that America is turning away the high-skilled immigrants most countries would fight for. Germany seems so much more enlightened, with its open borders and Blue Card program; in just the last few years it’s become the second-most popular migration destination. America is still No. 1. Immigrating to a new country requires facing many different risks and, for most, the United States still offers the best shot at success, at least as defined by employment prospects." Allison Schrager in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Other immigration reads:

No, Hispanics are not turning on the Democratic Party. Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Monkey business interlude: How a selfie taken by a monkey turned into an intellectual property battle.

Wonkblog roundup

Russia’s ban on American food imports is going to hit the U.S. poultry, pork and nut industries the hardest. Roberto A. Ferdman.

Italy’s triple-dip recession has wiped out all its growth since 2000. Matt O'Brien.

Almost 20 percent of people near retirement age have no retirement savings. Jonnelle Marte.

Electronic health records were supposed to be everywhere this year. They’re not — but it’s okay. Jason Millman.

Europe’s low inflation is sending it into a lost decade. Matt O'Brien.

In most states, marijuana is a bargain compared to beer. Roberto A. Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham.

As U.S. firms flee to Europe, can Washington get its act together on tax reform? Lori Montgomery.

The latest, cheapest services from Uber and Lyft will upend transportation even more. Emily Badger.

White people are winning the war on whites. Christopher Ingraham.

Et Cetera

Why a global warming pact won't stop global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Ben Geman in National Journal.

Long read: How Wall St. tobacco deals left states with billions in toxic debt. Cezary Podkul in ProPublica.

Sen. Alexander fends off tea party challenger in primary. Tim Ghianni in Reuters.

Long read: Has the "libertarian moment" finally arrived? Robert Draper in The New York Times Magazine.

Marijuana farmers markets budding trend on West Coast. Cogan Schneier in USA Today.

Florida lawmakers propose minor changes to congressional maps. Bill Cotterell in Reuters.

TSA checkpoints vulnerable to hacks through backdoors. Dune Lawrence in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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Roberto A. Ferdman · August 7, 2014