Plagued by Killer Smog and Overpriced Coffee, & 4 More Things to Know Today

AlamyA Starbucks coffee shop in downtown Beijing, China.Here’s a quick rundown from the world of business and economics this morning: the things you need to know, and some you’ll just want to know.

• There are prices to be paid for expanding your economy at a gallop, and China pays plenty of them. Today, anyone looking out across that nation’s northern cities can see that winter has arrived there — or rather, they can’t, because the smog is so appallingly bad. In the city of Harbin, for example, visibility dropped to around 11 yards Monday, and small-particle pollution soared to 40 times higher than the international safety standard — a record, by the way, though one we’re sure nobody would want to break. It’s a pretty clear case of cause and effect: Harbin’s city heating systems were fired up on Sunday, and by Monday, you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

• While we’re on the subject of the world’s rising economic superpower, China has a big complaint with Starbucks (SBUX) — and it’s probably the same one you have: Why does it charge so much for coffee? This may shock those of us in the U.S. who feel we’re paying through the nose for our lattes, but Starbucks charges more in China than it does elsewhere — about a third more than in the United States.

• But back in America, the biggest news involving your money today is a no-brainer: the continuing glitches in the Obamacare websites. The administration has called out the computer cavalry, expanding the team that’s trying to get the system working properly. And President Obama plans to speak publicly about the problems Monday. But in the meantime, the website is producing far more complaints than anything else.

• We all know that taking out a student loan requires filling out a raft of complicated paperwork, but paying it back, at least, ought to be simple. Unfortunately, it’s not, the advocates over at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau inform us in a new report. Some loan servicers — the companies lenders hire to collect payments on private student loans — make a concerted effort to maximize fees and penalties for borrowers, making the already expensive endeavor of getting an education that much costlier.

• The Federal Trade Commission is on the verge of giving the thumbs up to Office Depot’s (ODP) merger with Office Max (OMX). Though the marriage of the two big brick-and-mortar office supply stores might seem at first glance to raise an antitrust issue, the FTC doesn’t see that as a problem, because Amazon (AMZN) and the rest of the e-commerce crowd will keep competition robust and prices reasonable.

• And finally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into reports about brake problems on the 2009 Hyundai Genesis. The agency has seen 23 complaints from owners about incidents when they had to push much harder than normal on the brakes to get their cars to stop. The probe, which will decide whether a recall is warranted, involves about 40,000 cars. (Troubling yes, but at least it’s not spiders making the airbags randomly deploy.)

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