Fake News Websites Proliferating

Beware of a growing trend in politics—websites masquerading as unbiased news organizations that are run by politicians, political parties or activists created to tout their partisan views.

Republicans have been particularly savvy in utilizing this technique to spread their messages and discredit Democrats. Continue reading “Fake News Websites Proliferating”

Can Online Shoppers Ever Get Both Personalization and Privacy?

“Anonymous personalization,” or the ability to offer online shoppers personalized promotions while letting them remain anonymous to the seller, is the Holy Grail of online retailers, according to Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner of RSR Research. Retailers like personalization because it can win new customers and make their marketing more cost-effective. Plus many shoppers do not like having to go to multiple locations and would welcome having items of interest to them all in one place online. Apparel shoppers, especially, want to see in one place ensembles that reflect their preferences, size and style. Retailers would love to provide all this, if customers would be willing to share their personal information.

Some customers are willing to share their data: The online clothier Stitch Fix has two million clients who have taken a 15-minute personal profile survey. Other online apparel sellers following the same model are Wantable and Indochino. Continue reading “Can Online Shoppers Ever Get Both Personalization and Privacy?”

Don’t Believe The Hype. Congress Can’t Play Nice.

Next time congressional leaders suggest they’re ready to bury the political hatchet and work together in good faith toward a common goal, take their words with a grain of salt. In fact, make it a block.

Take this week’s immigration “debate.” When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) agreed to reopen the government last month, he did so on a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to debate a key Democratic agenda item: Legislation to protect the 1.8 million “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as minors. McConnell vowed an “amendment process that is fair to all sides.” Continue reading “Don’t Believe The Hype. Congress Can’t Play Nice.”

U.S. at Odds with Friends and Foes in Syria

As the fight against ISIS winds down, America is deepening its involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war, risking conflict with friends and foes alike.

The Trump administration has committed the U.S. to Syria for the long haul, despite President Trump’s apparent misgivings about U.S. military spending in the Middle East.

Continue reading “U.S. at Odds with Friends and Foes in Syria”

Will Tech Companies Have to Divulge AI Secrets?

Tech companies are facing mounting pressure to show what’s under the hood of their artificial intelligence tools, which guide driverless cars, enable facial recognition apps, decide what ads to show internet users and much more. The decision-making software that automates such tasks is usually a closely guarded secret. Advocates for transparency say that tech companies should reveal more information about how these systems work when they are used to guide public policy. Continue reading “Will Tech Companies Have to Divulge AI Secrets?”

What To Make Of the Oil Market Stumble

It’s not just the stock market that tumbled this week. Crude oil prices are down sharply, too. But is this the end of the “epic price rally” that I wrote about two weeks ago?

Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude has fallen by more than 10% from its Jan. 26th peak of $66 per barrel. Much of that selloff has coincided with the sudden drop in stock prices that began a week ago. This week, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its two biggest single-day point drops in history, WTI came along for the ride.

It might be tempting to assume that oil was simply part of the stock market carnage’s collateral damage. After all, as my colleagues at The Kiplinger Letter write in this week’s issue, “the economy remains on solid footing,” despite the mayhem on Wall Street. The outlook for GDP growth is solid; the economy is creating jobs at a steady clip; and most of the world’s major economies are perking up, too. So, argue the oil bulls, crude prices should bounce back as strong oil demand around the world keeps pushing up prices.

But some supply and demand data paint a less rosy picture for the oil market. For starters, the U.S.’s oil stockpile is growing again as refineries that had been running full-tilt earlier this winter to churn out gasoline and other products have slowed their operations a bit. Bigger stockpiles point to less demand for oil, which is bearish for prices.

More significantly, the U.S. is pumping more oil than ever before. The latest Energy Department data peg U.S. production at a record 10.3 million barrels per day. That vaulted the U.S. past Saudi Arabia as the world’s second-largest crude producer and to within reach of overtaking Russia for the top spot. It is highly likely that America will become the world’s largest producer of crude oil in 2018.

Let that sink in for a moment. Less than 10 years ago, U.S. output, which had been sliding for decades, was about 5 million barrels a day. Production has since doubled and is expanding rapidly. Improved drilling techniques—specifically hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—have powered the turnaround and turned the U.S. into an energy superpower. Texas alone now pumps more crude oil than every OPEC member except Saudi Arabia and Iraq. If North Dakota joined the cartel, it would out-produce half of its membership. Even some lesser-known U.S. oil states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, now dwarf OPEC’s smaller countries. Expect these trends to continue as energy companies put more drilling rigs to work. (Baker Hughes, the oilfield services company, reported a sharp rise in drilling this week, with 26 additional rigs drilling for oil, plus three gas rigs.)

What does this all mean for prices? I expect extremely volatile markets in the near term. Commodities such as oil figure to get buffeted by all the stock-and-bond turmoil. But the long rally in oil that began last summer may be over. If the U.S. keeps stockpiling crude, and if output keeps ticking higher, it will be hard for WTI to surpass that $66-per-barrel peak. I look for a price closer to $60 per barrel this spring, which might be a sweet spot of sorts: High enough to encourage plenty of drilling in the U.S., but not so high that consumers feel a major pinch from rising gasoline prices.

Nunes Memo Won’t Hinder Trump-Russia Probe

The controversial “Nunes memo” – named for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), who spearheaded it – has been made public, and Washington is in a frenzy trying to prove or disprove its explosive allegations of bias against President Trump at the top levels of the FBI and Justice Dept. (For our take, check out the latest issue of The Kiplinger Letter).

Further muddying the waters is the potential release of committee Democrats’ rebuttal memo, which Trump would also have to authorize.

Continue reading “Nunes Memo Won’t Hinder Trump-Russia Probe”

Higher Shipping Rates Will Have Staying Power

Shippers will pay more to trucking companies for a while. A “perfect storm” of surging demand, a driver shortage, cold weather, and tighter safety regulations boosted rates in January by as much as 40% from a year ago. Although the extremely cold weather requiring temperature-controlled trucks has eased, the other factors are still pressuring shipping costs. Spot rates will keep rising, though at a slower pace, until mid-year, but contract rates will rise until mid-2019, according to Avery Vise, vice president for trucking research at FtrIntel.com.

The driver shortage is worsening, when the country is already down approximately 50,000 drivers, as estimated by the American Trucking Association. New safety regulations requiring electronic logging devices (ELDs) on trucks that record actual driver hours, which make it easier to enforce hour limits, are one factor. Larger trucking companies have already adopted these, but many independent truckers will delay until enforcement starts in April. This additional squeeze on driver availability is the reason the shortage may get worse before it gets better. Continue reading “Higher Shipping Rates Will Have Staying Power”

Trump’s State of the Union Charts Uncertain Path

Presidents come and go, but the annual State of the Union address endures. It’s mostly an opportunity for political grandstanding but can offer insight into an administration’s goals for the year.

President Trump delivered his first official entry into this historic canon Tuesday. In typical fashion, he took the occasion to celebrate his achievements—major tax legislation, extensive deregulation, the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq—and call for national unity and bipartisanship.

Continue reading “Trump’s State of the Union Charts Uncertain Path”