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"Those who protest free trade seek to deny [the poor] their best hope for escaping poverty." -- President George W. Bush, ahead of the G-8 summit The U.S. Treasury begins mailing out tax-refund checks in late July. While most Americans say they plan to save the money or pay bills with it (64%), a number of merchants are angling to get them to throw the extra cash their way.

Wal-Mart (WMT) is offering to cash the refund checks in its stores--the better to encourage a little shopping, my dear. Home Depot (HD) is running a TV ad urging consumers to spend the money on home improvements even before it arrives in the mail. "Why wait?" the ad asks. And rival Lowe's (LOW) is listing dozens of home projects on its Web site that cost under $300--roughly the amount of the rebate check.

Nonprofits are jockeying, too. Boston-based United for a Fair Economy has a site, RejectTheRebate.com, that urges sending the $300 to groups working to derail President Bush's tax policies.

Likewise, the nonpartisan Generation-X advocate Third Millennium, on the site DonateRebate.org, asks people to give the money to any of 700,000 charities. "This is your chance to fund a cause you think the government should be funding," explains Third Millennium President Richard Thau. So much for saving for a rainy day. Japan's sexiest man: the Prime Minister? If this sounds like a joke, talk to the throngs of women swooning over Junichiro Koizumi. With his passion for heavy metal and opera, the 59-year-old divorc? who perms his own hair is a national icon.

To build on his tremendous popularity, the recently elected leader has launched his own e-mail newsletter--and is shaking up Japan's political system with it. The weekly e-zine has 2.1 million subscribers and is now more popular than any online news site, including that of Japan's largest newspaper. Koizumi's musings, called Lion Heart, are downloadable on text-enabled cell phones. Japanese commuters read them on the way to work or first thing at the office and print them out to pass around.

In them, Koizumi speaks candidly: "I feel like a caged bird 24 hours a day," and "When there's new stress, I forget about the old stress." His Cabinet ministers also chime in, but on weightier topics such as the economy and the bad-loan crisis. Pundits say the Net lets Koizumi appeal directly to the people, but that ultimately he's still beholden to the usual politics. Comments Shigenori Okazaki, political analyst at UBS Warburg Securities: "Koizumi is behaving more like a U.S. President, but the rest of the system has not changed." Yet, that is. The economic boom of the '90s that left many flush with cash caused the opposite problem for the $5 billion pawn-shop industry. As Americans needed to hock fewer items and could afford to buy brand-new, foot traffic all but dried up in pawn shops like Michael Azzarella's Desert Jewelry Mart in Cathedral City, Calif. So Azzarella tapped a rich new vein of customers that helped boost his sales by more than 300%: eBay(EBAY). "I go online to buy or sell merchandise or to check prices 10 times a day, seven days a week," he says.

In fact, many pawn shops say eBay has reinvigorated their moribund businesses--particularly in this slow retail environment. (EBay says pawn shops are just a small fraction of overall sales.) Carroll Chrans, owner of Exchange West in Sioux Falls, S.D., has sold more than 5,500 hard-to-move items on eBay in the past two years--buffalo teeth, muskrat skulls, and jewelry from the nearby Native American community. "It has changed the way I look at my business," says Chrans. "The retail atmosphere is pretty bad, but eBay still seems to be good."

More than just broadening the customer base, eBay helps pawn pros become more efficient--and profitable--by eliminating the guesswork in valuing obscure items. Chrans says he uses eBay to price at "ground-level value"--the price real-world buyers are willing to pay.

MICKEY MANTLE BOBBING HEAD DOLL

Pawn Shop: G&G Pawnbrokers, Hyattsville, Md.

Price: $400

Who Brought It in: A fan who got it at a Yankees game years ago

SET OF DUELING PISTOLS

Pawn Shop: First National Pawn, Billings, Mont.

Price: $1,500

Who Brought It in: Nobody remembers

ARMORED BREASTPLATE, CIRCA 1700s

Pawn Shop: Village Pawn & Jewelry, Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Price: $300

Who Brought It in: The son of an antique dealer

WALK-IN STEAM CABINET

Pawn Shop: US Pawn and Auto, Longwood, Fla.

Price: $700-$800

Who Brought It in: Nobody remembers, but it sold quickly It's much like the movie Boiler Room, except that it takes place in the Philippines, not Queens. Acting on complaints from duped U.S. and European investors, Manila police on July 10 arrested 15 people in an alleged stock scam operation--including two Americans, 10 Brits, a Canadian, and an Australian.

This is far from the only boiler room in town: Philippine National Police Special Investigator Emeterio Armada figures that there are more than 150 such operations in the Philippines, the latest proof of how service industries have gone global. "They think they are immune here," Armada says. With its inexpensive but well-educated, English-speaking labor force, the Philippines has moved beyond call centers, back-office accounting, and software to rip-off stock schemes.

In this particular scam, more than 50 Filipino telemarketers had cold-called prospective clients from a tinted-glass building in Manila's financial district, Makati. The names came from lists purchased in Europe, Asia, and North America, according to police. When a client showed interest, the call was forwarded to a foreigner, who then allegedly used pressure tactics to promise the purchase of U.S.-listed stocks that were never delivered.

Eliminating the scams is going to take some doing. After a similar raid in February, the foreigners who were arrested jumped bail and fled the country. More than 25% of Americans who died last year were cremated, up from 10% in 1980. By 2020, the Cremation Association of North America predicts, 50% of the population will choose it over traditional burial. Experts say the trend reflects the increasing transience of Americans--who may lack ties to hometown cemeteries--as well as a growing gulf in costs: Standard cremation costs $1,500, vs. $9,000 for the average burial.

So companies seeking to aid that final artistic statement are cashing in. TheUrnStore.com sells mantlepiece statues in the shape of dolphins, eagles, or golfers ($550-$1,360). Canuck's Sportsman's Memorials in Des Moines, Iowa will sew ashes into a basketball ($800-$1,200) or insert them into a duck decoy (starting at $400). For $3,200, Eternal Reefs in Decatur, Ga., will put them into a "reef ball" to serve as a marine habitat for coral and fish. So far, the company has dropped 72 memorial reefs--expected to last 500 years--off three states. "People get excited about all the life that's created," says founder Don Brawley. Who says there isn't an afterlife? Cost-cutting in Corporate America is getting deeper. Even your ficus and dracaena are in danger, as shown by this memo from Dow Jones to employees at the World Financial Center in New York.

July 11, 2001

To: WFC Staff

From: [Names deleted]

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are discontinuing the ownership and maintenance of indoor plants throughout our office space in the World Financial Center. This, combined with a similar move in South Brunswick, will save Dow Jones more than $40,000 each year.

The WFC plants will be moved from the floor space to the reception areas for disposal late Friday, July 13, 2001. If you would like to take over the maintenance of any of the plants, please attach a yellow Post-It note with your name to a visible part of the plant container. Or, if you would like to take any of the plants home, please feel free to do so before this Friday, July 13th.

Best Regards,

[Names deleted]


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