By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

Once again, the Answer Desk mailbag is busting with questions about the widening scandal over sleazy mutual fund trading practices. Cyndy in Milwaukee wants to know why the government doesn't just start seizing assets they way they do with drug dealers. (Good question, Cyndy.) Anne in Parsippany is trying to figure out how to get her money back from Morgan Stanley. And Bill in Georgia is having a hard time finding out how much of his investment winds up in his fund manager's paycheck. As always, if you'd like to write to us, please include your first name and hometown.

SEIZE THEIR ASSETS

If these mutual fund companies made their money illegally, why aren’t the assets frozen? If you’re a drug dealer, you made your money illegally and the government takes everything because you made the money illegally, right? So, tell me the difference between the two? And when these companies are found guilty and fined, what about the people who invested in these companies? Do they get their money back? Where does that money go?
Cyndy H., — Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I nominate you to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Your way of thinking would go a long way to preventing mutual fund managers from ever stealing from their customers again.

Unfortunately, the SEC is run by lawyers, and they have a way of making things a little more complicated.

First of all, the there’s a big difference between the laws currently on the books that cover securities fraud and those governing the sale of drugs on a street corner. Most securities cases handled by the SEC involve civil, not criminal, charges. When the SEC wants to press criminal charges, they refer the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York.

The SEC almost always, however, slaps fines on people who break those civil laws. When a company settles and agrees to pay it (or fights it and loses in court), that money goes directly to Uncle Sam, specifically the U.S. Treasury Dept. The idea is to make it costly for someone to commit fraud.

The SEC can also ask for “disgorgement” of money that was stolen (known in SEC-speak as “ill-gotten gains”) and then try to give it back to the people who were defrauded. Unfortunately, returning the money to people who were bilked is a little more complicated than giving a stolen wallet back to its rightful owner. How do you prove who lost money? And how much should they get back? With stocks and mutual funds, a lot depends on when you bought and sold and how long you held the shares. The cost of accounting for all those transactions can quickly eat up a lot of the money that’s supposed to go to the fraud’s victims.

When the SEC sets up a “restitution” fund to pay back investors who were scammed, each fund is managed separately. Unfortunately, there’s no Restitution Hotline you can call.

You can, however, go to the SEC’s Web site, where you’ll find a list of current claims being paid to investors. If you don’t see your investment there, call the SEC Investor Assistance line at 202-942-7040 or email them at help@sec.gov. If that doesn’t work, contact the regional SEC office in your area.

MORGAN STANLEY REFUNDS?

Major Market Indices

Please advise who I should contact regarding funds I have with Morgan Stanley in Red Bank, N.J. I do not have a lot invested, but the fees I have been charged are not to my understanding.
Anne P. — Parsippany N.J.

In the case of Morgan Stanley, which paid its brokers bonuses to steer investors to high-priced funds without telling those customers, you may be in luck. The $50 million fine the company agreed to pay to settle charges will go into a so-called Fair Fund — all of which will be paid customers who bought “preferred” fund shares from January 1, 2000 through the present.

These shares were not Morgan Stanley funds; they were part of a “partners” program involving 16 other mutual fund companies. Unfortunately, the SEC won’t name those funds because the companies are still under investigation. So how, then, can you know if you qualify for a refund?

For now, you don’t. The SEC has ordered Morgan Stanley to set up a distribution plan, which will then pay investors who qualify. The odds of collecting are pretty good: some 7 million transactions involving about 2.7 million customers are covered by the plan.

(A smaller group of investors, about 7,000, will be eligible to convert higher-priced B shares for A shares. But you only qualify if you bought $100,000 worth of those shares.)

Merri-Jo Gillette, who oversees enforcement actions in the SEC’s Philadelphia office, says the best you can do for now is to contact Morgan Stanley, make sure they have your current address, and then sit tight until the distribution plan is worked out. Since they’ll be handling the distribution, you’ll want to make sure they know where to find you.

FUND MANAGER PAYCHECKS

Is there any way to determine the compensation, direct and indirect, of mutual fund officers and managers of particular funds? That information does not appear in their prospectuses or on their Web pages or any of the annual reports they provide. Does the new House legislation require such disclosures?
Bill — Albany, GA

No, it doesn’t. As you point out, mutual fund investors are completely in the dark when they try to find out how well their fund’s manager is getting paid.

“To me, the really appalling part is that we can’t find out what the manager’s bonus is based on and how much they have in their funds,” said Russel Kinnel, a mutual fund analyst at Morningstar. “We’ll know Congress and the SEC are serious about reforming funds when they start to require this information.”

Apparently, Congress isn’t there yet. The Mutual Funds Integrity and Fee Transparency Act (H.R. 2420), passed by the House this week, makes a half-hearted attempt to address this issue - by requiring funds to disclose how they decided how much to pay their fund managers. But they don’t have to come clean with the size of those paychecks. The Senate is just getting started on its version of the bill, S.1822, which has similar language which talks only about disclosing the “structure” of fund mangers’ compensation.

And even if Congress hears from all of you Answer Desk readers demanding tougher disclosure requirements, any such law has to get past the mutual fund lobby, one of the nation’s most powerful.

“They will be out in full force,” said Sally Greenburg at Consumers Union, “although they’re running for cover now.”

For more on HR 2420, check out the House Financial Services Committee Web site.

EARLIER ANSWERS

ARE MY FUNDS OK?

I’d like to know if any of the mutual funds in my 401(k) plan are under investigation. The record keeper for our plan is Prudential. Here is a list of the funds: [fund names deleted].
Robin D. — Manchester, NH.

At the moment, it’s impossible to say. The SEC and New York Attorney General’s office have sent warning letters to hundreds of funds saying they may be a target, but until formal charges are filed — let alone proven to be true — you have no way of knowing whether your fund will be dragged into the mess. The risk now is that, if you shift money to a new fund, that fund could end up in the headlines tomorrow.

The SEC says it believes about 1 in every 4 funds may be involved in one of the abusive trading schemes that are the focus of the broad investigation. But since federal regulators were so far behind the curve, Washington has a lot of catching up to do. It may be awhile before it can sift through all the evidence to determine which funds are guilty and which ones aren’t.

If you’re invested in one of the funds that has already admitted they let professional traders profit at the expense of small, long-term investors, you may want to sell your shares just to be rid of the bums. If you’re considering moving your money, but still believe mutual funds are the way to go, the safest thing is to stick to basics. Look for mutual funds with the lowest fees and consistent management (recent changes are a red flag). And avoid funds that have a high “turnover” rate — they drive up fees by moving in and out of stocks.

What is the risk of holding on? If other shareholders bail out of your tarnished fund in large numbers, the fund manager may have to sell stocks faster than they’d like. That means you may get hit with a bigger capital gain that you wanted or expected. And tarnished funds that lose assets quickly will have to spread costs over fewer shareholders, so the your fees may go up. Funds with a bad name will also probably have trouble getting — and keeping — their top performers.

But keep in mind that you’re much less likely to lose a bundle holding a fund that’s the target of the current investigation than you would have lost by holding, say, Enron or Lucent stock. That’s because, for most of these funds, there’s still nothing wrong with the stocks they hold. Even if the fund has to liquidate, it should still be able to raise plenty of cash to pay shareholders.

FINDING FUND FEES

Why, whenever I have a transaction for either a mutual fund or stock, do I buy it for the high price of the day and sell it for the low price of the day. Is the SEC monitoring these specifics or is this something that the government should also look at? Is this another can of worms for the worms?
Duane R. — Chicago

The difference in the two prices you’re referring to is the “spread,” and it represents the commission that is paid to the broker who executes your trade. In theory, buyers and sellers could be matched electronically. But as long as the trades are handled by human beings, they have to get paid somehow.

While fees are regulated, they vary a great deal, and high fees can quickly sap your fund of any investment gains. The NASD limits sales loads to 8.5 percent, for example, which is more than many funds are making these days.

The “spread” is one of the most visible fees: You just compare the “bid” (the price you’ll pay to buy a share) and the “ask” (the price the seller gets) and the difference represents a commission you pay. You may pay a “sales load” — the broker’s commission — on the front-end (when you buy) or back-end (when you sell) or both.

But the “spread” is only one of the costs you’ll encounter when you invest in mutual funds. The problem many individual investors have is figuring out just how much they’re paying — and where all these fees are going. That’s one of the ways that New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wants the industry to clean up its act — by making it much easier to figure out what you’re paying.

Until that happens, you’ll just have to dig further to find the other fees and expenses buried in the fund’s prospectus — that mind-numbing document written by lawyers that fund companies know you’re just going to throw away.

Each time the fund manager buys or sells a stock in your fund, for example, there’s a commission paid to whoever executed that trade. Funds with high “turnover” — heavy trading of its portfolio — will pay more in commissions that more stable funds. You may also be charged so-called 12b-1 fees for expenses like advertising and marketing — for all that useless junk mail your fund sends you every month trying to get you to buy other funds from the same company.

The list goes on; for details on other fund fees you may be paying, check out the Securities & Exchange Commission’s explanation.

One of the easiest ways to compare funds is to look at the so-called “expense ratio.” Though not all fees are covered, this is supposed to tell you what percentage of the funds assets are being used to pay fees and commissions to the fund manager and the various traders and brokers who get their cut. The higher the expense ratio, the more likely your fund is to lag other funds in its category, because there’s no connection between the level of fees you pay and the funds performance. In this case, you don’t necessarily “get what you pay for.”

AM I TRAPPED?

What do you think of letting victims of the current mutual fund scandal pull their money out (even if it’s an IRA) with no penalties? Otherwise, they are somewhat trapped in a no-win situation.
Donna — San Antonio, Tex.

You can move money from one mutual fund to another without penalty as long as you keep the money within an IRA. Some brokerage IRA accounts let you to buy and sell from a variety of fund families within that account. If your IRA account is “captive” to a single fund family, you can “roll over” the money into a new fund IRA within 60 days and not owe any taxes or penalties.

For more on how to roll over your money to a new fund, check out IRS Publication 590.

FORCED ‘VACATION’

My company is forcing its employees to take 6 days vacation in order to affect the bottom line. Many employees must take the time without pay because they do not have enough vacation hours accrued. Did the company break its contract with the salaried employees and revert them to hourly ones? If so, are the employees entitled to be compensation for overtime since their date of hire?
Tres H. — Columbus, Ohio

When looking for answers to legal questions, we usually turn to the lawyers. Unfortunately, that means the answer isn’t simple, but this one may help you to get paid after all.

First off, is the “contract” you refer to a personal services contract? A collective bargaining agreement? If so, you need to check and see if the issue of involuntary, unpaid “vacation” is covered under those agreements.

If not, the question of whether you’re an hourly or salaried worker really doesn’t apply, according James Katz, a Philadelphia labor lawyer. And neither you nor your employer are free to designate you arbitrarily as an hourly worker, and thus eligible for overtime. That status, says Katz, is determined by the Fair Labor Standards Act and depends on a host of job characteristics, including how much you make, your level of skill or education and how closely you are supervised by a manager.

There may also be state laws that apply to the issue of involuntarily, unpaid “vacation.” (We made several calls to the Ohio Dept. of Labor but were unable to get an answer.)

But if you want to get paid for your “vacation,” Katz suggests you try filing for unemployment insurance.

“You can call it what you want,” he said, “but it’s really a layoff.”

You may be ineligible for payment if the waiting period is longer than a week. But it’s worth a try: If your claim is accepted, your employer will have to kick in to cover part of the cost of your claim.

And if you’re successful, it might discourage the company from pulling this stunt again, said Katz.

“If an employer decides to shut down a plant to save money, they may think twice about it if it’s going to increase their unemployment insurance costs,” he said.

OLD $20 BILLS

I heard that the old $20’s would be unusable. Is this true? Are the old $20 bills still going to be in circulation, or will we have to change any old bills for new ones? If so, do we have a time limit?
Dawn S. —- Denver

Not true. The old $20s are good forever. Over time, the Treasury will pull the old ones out of circulation, but you don’t need to trade them before any set deadline. The average “lifespan” of a $20 bill is about two years, but you’ll no doubt still see them in circulation for years.

NO HOMEWORK, PLEASE

What is the average inflation rate for the last five years, per year? Please respond quickly as I need this answer before class in the morning.
Angela R. — Woodstock, VA

Sorry, Angela: we have two rules here at the Answer Desk. We don’t making recommendations on specific investments. And we don’t do other people’s homework. That would be cheating, wouldn’t it?

ARE YOU UNDERPAID?

I WAS TRYING to find information on annual income for the U.S. population. How many people working in the United States of America gross $25,000? Is that information available for a national standard, or is it broken down state, by state?
Kathy R. — Kansas City, MO

You can get these numbers sliced and diced just about any way you want, thanks to the hard-working — and probably underpaid — folks at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their Web site is a marvel of statistical minutiae — good for everything from settling bar bets to asking your boss for a raise.

According to the bureau’s July 2002 survey (the latest comprehensive data available), the average salary of a U.S. worker was $17.18 an hour, and that worker put in 35.8 hours a week on the job. So, if my calculator is working right, our average worker pulled down $31,982.28 for the year. (That figure, of course, doesn’t include overtime or the value of benefits like health insurance.)

As your math teacher may have told you, the average doesn’t tell you that half of all U.S. workers made more, and half made less. That number is the median. According to the bureau, the median paycheck for men who were full-time wage and salary workers was $680 a week, or $35,360 a year. For women, the figure was $530, or $27,560 a year — some 22 percent less than men. (No one ever said salaries are fair. A recent study by a University of Florida professor found that tall people make more than short people; after controlling for gender, weight and age, he found that each inch in height added an average of $789 a year in pay.)

The BLS also serves up wage data state-by-state, and even city-by-city for over 85 areas within the 50 states. There’s a handy calculator that break down wages by occupation, region, and work level.

Work levels - similar to the “GS” scale used to calculate pay for federal government workers - take into account a specific job’s responsibilities using 9 factors. This is extremely useful in comparing how well you’re paid. A news reporter in your area with a “grade level” 10 makes $28.48 a hour, according to the BLS. That same job in New York city pays $31.60 an hour. The numbers can be especially useful if you’re thinking of changing careers or taking a new job in another part of the country.

And even if you decide to stay put, check the data the next time you decide you’re underpaid. If you’re right, you can take the report to your boss and make better case for a raise.

QUIET PAY CUTS

Why don’t we hear in the news about the companies reducing the salaries of their employees? I’ve heard of two such companies in the last month, yet nothing was ever reported on this.
Glenn S. — Suwanee, GA

Probably because those salary cuts are made quietly, meaning the company tells individual workers, but doesn’t make a formal public announcement.

But if you listen carefully to the quarterly earnings reports that are now hitting the news, you’ll hear lots of companies touting their success in “cost cutting” as a key reason for better profits. Much of that cost cutting is wages - whether from outright layoffs or salary cuts.

On average, wages are still rising; as of September 2003, the average weekly paycheck was $523.22 — up from $516.76 the year before, according to the BLS. But that statistic is little comfort to you if your paycheck starts shrinking — or disappears entirely.

EARLIER ANSWERS

THECOST OF COLOR

Why in the world is our government spending $30 million to advertise new graphics on twenty dollar bills? The national news media will cover the story without wasting all that freaking money. What a crock!
Randy K. — Fresno, CA

Thirty million dollars does seem like a lot of cash, but when you change something as important as the color of money, you need to do at least some hand-holding. That’s why the Treasury and Federal Reserve is going to great lengths to reassure us all not only that the new bills are real - but that the old ones are still good, according to Marsha Reidhill. She’s the Federal Reserve Board’s “assistant director for cash” (what a great job.)

In fact, it sounds like the government got its money’s worth. According to the New Color of Money Hotline, more than 37 million training items (brochures, posters, training videos and CD-ROMS) are being sent to businesses to train people who handle cash. (You wouldn’t want to go into a store to make a purchase and have the clerk behind the counter say, “I’m not going to take that money.”)

It would also defeat the purpose of redesigning the bill (cutting down on counterfeiting) if people who handle cash don’t know what to look for on the new bills. To learn more, check out the Web site about the new $20 bill - which as already attracted some 2 million visitors.

And because some 60 percent of the $650 billion in U.S. currency is held outside the U.S., designers of the new money had to get their message out around the world — in 14 different languages — especially in countries where dollars are widely used like Russia and Latin American countries.

And some of the new publicity was free: the new $20 has already made cameo appearances (playing itself) on “Wheel of Fortune” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

MONEY MACHINES

Since I am in the game room business, we had already had to change all the money transports in the games. (This is the mechanism in the games that accept the money, commonly know as a bill validator.) The money transports are not cheap will we have to change the validators again with the new bill.
Raymond M. —- Old Mill Creek, IL.

You’re not alone. In 1998, the last time the $20 bill was redesigned, the Postal Service had to replace hardware on all of its 12,000 stamp vending machines. Transit systems had to replace hardware and software for its ticket machines: in Washington, D.C., the bill came to $2.2 million.

This time around, the Treasury began working with vending machine manufacturers and transit systems about a year ago to help them get ready for the switch.

Fortunately, you still have some time. The rollout of the new currency is going to happen gradually, so most people will still use the old $20 bills for some time. (The average life span of a new $20 is about two years.)

And, depending on what you’re selling, it may not even be worth replacing all those validators just for the new $20s. New or old, the $20 bill is doesn’t show up all that much at vending machines. In 1998, the Atlanta transit system, for example, shelled out $21,500 to change it machines fore the new $20s. But they only made up about 3 percent of the bills used at its fare machines.

A READING TAX?

I have heard that if there was a reading tax on every type of reading material (religion included) that it would raise $800 billion a year. And if we strictly held it to pay the debt, it would help our children. So why do we not bite the bullet and do something with this idea? This example is based on a 5-cent tax per dollar ratio. Are we so uptight that we can’t ask for help from every tax-exempt business, and make the results of the question public?
David B. — Alturas, Calif.

There’s no shortage of ideas about how the government could raise more taxes — just look at the list of recent proposals in your state.) The question most people in California (and the rest of the country) are asking is: Are current deficits the result of government not having raised enough in taxes — or the result of government spending too much money? It’s an old question, and if there was an easy answer, we wouldn’t still be arguing about it.

Still, even the most die-hard tax-cutter will acknowledge that — no matter how much you cut spending — you need some form of taxation if you want to retain some form of government. So what should you tax? The simplest strategy is to tax income (the money that’s missing from your paycheck every week) or spending (the sales tax).

But tax policy turns out to be a very powerful “carrot and stick,” which the government uses to try to influence people’s behavior. Over the years, our tax system has grown to include a variety of incentives (tax breaks for things like home ownership) and penalties (“sin” taxes on products like alcohol and cigarettes are very popular these days). More recently, tax policy has been shaped by companies, industries and interest groups that are willing and able to pay Congressional candidates to give them a tax break. Everyone agrees the system is busted, but no one can agree on how to go about fixing it.

Slapping a tax on reading may sound appealing because it would spread the cost of government so widely — reducing the impact to almost nothing on, say, a “per word” basis. But, for starters, the mechanics might be difficult to work out. Would you tax everything we read? Road signs? What about restaurant menus? (Web sites wouldn’t count, of course.) If just just tax books, would paperbacks be taxed less than hardcover? Why?

Heavy readers, naturally, would bear a much heavier burden than those who get all their information and entertainment from television and movies — regardless of how much the couch potatoes can afford or how much they use government services. How is that “fair”?

And is reading an activity that — by taxing — we want to discourage people from doing? In a world where education is a leading cause of health and wealth, maybe we should change our tax laws to encourage reading.

RAISING OIL PRICES

Which OPEC nation did not raise its oil prices, when the other OPEC nations raised their prices? Why?
Emily (tenth grade student) — Michigan

It may seem like OPEC countries can just raise oil prices whenever they want to — and in a way they do. But oil prices are set every day (every minute, actually) by oil traders in commodities exchanges in places like London, Chicago and New York. (You may have seen pictures of them jumping up and down waving their arms and yelling at each other.) They’re buying oil for people who actually use it. But they’re also betting on where prices will head next — buying and selling contracts to buy oil. And those contracts rise and fall in price based on all sorts of news.

The news traders care about most all boils down to a basic question: Is there more oil out there — or less — than there are people who need it? When there’s lots of oil, and demand is low, it’s harder to sell those contracts — so the price goes down. (Just like trying to sell that Beanie Baby on eBay that everyone already has.) When there’s not enough oil to go around, demand gets bigger than supply, so the price goes up. (If you’ve got something everyone wants — like the last two tickets to a Beyonce concert — you can get top dollar.)

That’s why OPEC meets and decides, several times a year, how much oil each member is going to pump out of the ground. By adding or cutting back on supply, they try to control prices. (Sometimes, just the news that OPEC decided to cut production makes prices jump.) Over time, oil traders watch for government and industry reports showing just how much oil is really out there. Often, OPEC countries don’t do what they say they’re going to do: They’re notorious for “cheating” and pumping more oil than they said they would. And there are all sorts of forces that OPEC can’t control: How cold the weather is, say, or what other non-OPEC countries like Russia decide to produce.

The OPEC country most people watch (and listen to) closely is Saudi Arabia — because it has the biggest pool of oil in the ground and produces the most every day. Most other OPEC countries are already pumping as much as they can, so Saudi Arabia has the greatest influence on the flow of oil. If and when Iraq develops it oil industry, that could change. But that’s a subject for another day.

CANADA TO THE RESCUE

You know, there is more oil in Alberta, Canada than Saudi Arabia. Why do you go to the bandits to get your oil when you can do business with a reputable country such as Canada?
Don — Alberta, Canada

Actually, that’s not true. According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, Canada has about 180 billion barrels of proven reserves — compared to Saudi Arabia’s 264.2 billion. The problem is that most of that Canadian oil is in oil sands. It’s much more expensive to get out of the ground than Saudi crude — where you can pretty much get at oil by sticking a pipe in the ground.

Canada is already one of the biggest sources of U.S. energy — especially natural gas. If the U.S. could use those supplies to “replace” Saudi oil, it would have done so long ago. Iraq, by the way, is sitting on at least 112 billion barrels — and probably a lot more because much of it has not been fully explored. (By way of comparison, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, if developed, would yield between 9 and 16 billion barrels.)

PRICE PUZZLE

I am wondering how it is that OPEC is citing falling oil prices for the reason behind them cutting production for the 4th quarter, yet I’m still paying over $2.00 a gallon at the pumps here?
Justin K. — Chicago, Ill.

OPEC can use whatever excuse they want to cut production and force prices higher. But the fact is, oil prices have fallen since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.

Higher crude oil prices do contribute to higher gasoline prices. But that’s only part of the story: The cost of crude makes up less than half the price of a gallon of gas at the pump. Twelve cents of every dollar goes to marketing cost and profit, another 14 cents pays for the cost of refining (and profit for the refiner.) And you pay, on average, about 28 cents in taxes for every dollar’s worth of gas you buy. (Illinois charges you 48.4 cents per gallon, one of the highest taxes in the nation.)

Gas price spikes also occur when gasoline supplies run low — no matter what crude oil costs. This is especially true in regions of the country that require specially “reformulated” gasoline — designed to burn cleaner and cut pollution. If there’s a shortage of the additive used to make that blend, gasoline supplies get tight and prices go up. To make matters worse in the Midwest, your reformulated gasoline uses ethanol (made from all that corn grown by Illinois farmers) — but most refineries outside the region uses another additive (called MTBE) in their formulations. So if anything goes wrong — a refinery catches fire or ethanol supplies run short — prices in your area go up.

There are a host of other reasons why gasoline prices go up and down. For more information, check out the Department of Energy’s primer on the subject.

UTILITY IMPACT?

Would OPEC’s holding back on production cause harm to electric utilities? How will it effect the value of the stocks?
Gerry — Pittsburgh, Penn.

We have to answer your question with another one: What do you mean by utility? In the old days, one company made power, transmitted it and sold it to customers. Deregulation has split the industry into sub-industries, so higher fuel costs are most likely to hurt only those companies that make electricity. If you own these stocks, you need to check carefully to see exactly what business they’re in.

But even if OPEC succeeds in raising oil prices, the impact would likely be indirect. Though most of the electricity in the U.S. is made by burning fossil fuels, oil is pretty far down the list. The biggest source — which last year produced 1.9 billion megawatts — is coal. Next on the list is nuclear (780 million megawatts), natural gas (686 million), hydro (255 million) and then oil (90 million). (Only 85 million megawatts came from renewables like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.) Here’s the breakdown on the Dept. of Energy’s Web site

OPEC’s move can have an impact on natural gas prices if higher oil prices prompt energy consumers to switch to gas. But natural gas is no bargain these days, due largely to a shortage of new supplies and the pipelines needed to bring them to market. That squeeze will likely increase — most new electric plants built today use natural gas because of the higher cost of making coal burn cleanly.

If you want to follow the impact of rising and falling energy prices on utilities, you can watch what’s called the daily “spark spread.” This favorite statistic of energy analysts is the theoretical profit margin for a power plant: It’s the difference between the cost of the fuel and the value of the electricity generated. To crunch the numbers, check out the spark spread page on the New York Mercantile Exchange’s Web site.

GOT A QUESTION?

Ever wonder what a P/E ratio is and why it's so important? Are you confused about the official definition of a recession? And just what the heck is a derivative? We're here to give you the answers. MSNBC.com's weekly feature "The Answer Desk" helps you make sense of business, the economy and investing. So send along your questions to answerdesk@msnbc.com and we'll try to get you the answer. (Please include your home town with your question; we'll only include your first name if we use your question.)

Any question is fair game, with one exception: no questions about specific investment recommendations, please -- we'll leave the stock picking to the "pros."

Each week, we'll take some of the most-frequently-asked questions and answer them here. We may not be able to answer every question, but over the weeks and months we will provide a comprehensive resource for you, explaining some more puzzling aspects of business and finance.

You can mail in questions at any time and then check this column every Friday for the answers.

(All information will remain confidential in accordance with MSNBC's privacy policy.)

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