China’s High-Tech Ambitions Take On 5G

Rising tensions between the U.S. and China extend far beyond trade. A battle over high-tech markets is ramping up as China seeks to lead the world in 5G, the latest version of cellular technology.

China’s 5G strategy increasingly worries U.S. officials, who see Chinese telecom gear as a national security threat that could allow Beijing to spy on communications or help developing nations censor parts of the web, as China does. There’s growing fear that China’s leading companies are poised to out-compete and out-innovate U.S. tech giants. That has riled U.S. lawmakers, who point to years of stolen intellectual property by China and unfair conditions imposed on U.S. firms doing business in the country. Continue reading “China’s High-Tech Ambitions Take On 5G”

Disaster Aid Disaster

Congress’ inability to follow through on a routine task with overwhelming bipartisan support—providing aid to areas hit by natural disaster—bodes ill for making the tough fiscal choices that lie ahead.

A proposed disaster relief package for areas hard-hit by flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has been stalled for months, largely over a squabble about how much money—if any—should go to Puerto Rico. President Trump claims that Puerto Rican officials have mismanaged the federal dollars it already received for 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria and is reluctant to approve more. Democrats disagree and are demanding significant aid for the island. Continue reading “Disaster Aid Disaster”

Shopping for a New Car? Here’s What to Know Now

If you’re going to be in the market for a new car this year, it pays to know what sort of shape the auto industry is in and what sort of deals you can expect to find. If you haven’t shopped for new wheels in a while, you might be surprised at just how much the market has changed.

U.S. auto sales are still going strong, but they’re showing signs of weakening, according to industry analysts. Every expert I spoke with recently expects total sales to come in a bit below 17 million this year, which would be good, but behind the recent pace. Combined sales of cars and light trucks hit a record 17.5 million in 2016 and stayed above the 17-million market in 2017 and 2018; 16.8 million or a bit lower seems like a reasonable bet for this year.

What’s selling these days? Pick-up trucks and SUVs. Traditional truck stalwarts such as the Ford F-150 and RAM 1500 still roll off dealer lots in large numbers. Big SUVs are popular, too, but automakers are also scrambling to make more small and midsize SUVs. “It’s across the board,” says Kelly Blue Book Senior Managing Editor Matt DeLorenzo of the popularity of trucks and SUVs. Midsize pick-ups such as the Chevy Colorado are selling well, as are small, crossover SUVs. A couple of automakers are planning new, compact pick-ups, too. To paraphrase Alfred Sloan, General Motors’ longtime president during the first half of the 20th Century, the U.S. auto industry is now bent on offering a truck or SUV “for every purse and purpose.”

Traditional sedans, meanwhile, have fallen out of favor. Many once-popular nameplates have been retired or will be soon, and some automakers are abandoning sedans entirely. Large sedans are a dying breed, notes KBB’s DeLorenzo.

The shift to trucks and SUVs has driven the prices of new vehicles into nosebleed territory. Car shopping website Edmunds.com notes that a new auto costs, on average, more than $36,000, largely because of all the pricey trucks and SUVs buyers are snapping up. At the same time, interest rates on auto loans are at their highest level in years after the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates a couple of times.

Given the lofty prices and financing costs, shoppers not bent on a truck or an SUV should check out a sedan. They’ll find some compelling values. Many sedans have had design overhauls and been upgraded with premium features such as advanced safety systems and lavish interiors. Yet, their price tags are much less eye-popping than similarly equipped SUVs.

In terms of price discounts or other incentives, you might be surprised to find better deals on trucks and SUVs than on sedans, even though the latter aren’t selling as well. The prices of the former are so high that dealers have room to make concessions while still netting a solid profit. Also, dealers generally have larger truck and SUV inventories. To keep the bigger vehicles moving, dealers and automakers need to be willing to offer some discounts.

Whatever sort of new vehicle you’re looking for, it’ll pay to shop strategically. Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds, says that August and September should be good times to score deals because dealerships will be more eager to sell off 2019 models to make room for the 2020s. Year-end sales, when manufacturers get their last shot to pump up their annual numbers, figure to feature plenty of bargains, too.

She also urges consumers to not overlook the used market. A record number of vehicles were leased in 2016, which means a ton of late-models will need to be sold. That spells lots of opportunities among carmakers’ certified preowned programs. (CPO cars must pass manufacturer inspections and come with extended warranties.) Caldwell also notes that the technology you’ll find in a three-year-old car isn’t far behind what’s in new cars. Automakers have struggled to come up with new “wow” features lately.

Industry Outlook

A decade after it emerged from the Great Recession, when sales collapsed and two of Detroit’s Big Three filed for bankruptcy, just how healthy is the U.S. auto industry?

All the truck and SUV sales are a major boon for automakers. Their profit margins are hefty, especially when it comes to full-sized pick-up trucks. The Big Three, which dominate truck sales, are raking in particularly fat profits these days.

Moving more-profitable vehicles will cushion the blow of declining sales, says Bill Visnic, editorial director at the Society of Automotive Engineers. Plus, automakers’ operations are leaner a decade after the recession, which means they are less dependent on keeping sales volumes sky-high, he notes. Automakers would gladly opt to sell a smaller number of lucrative trucks and SUVs than a larger number of small sedans, which usually have razor-thin margins.

But that reliance on trucks and SUVs is also a liability. Haig Stoddard, industry analyst at WardsAuto, thinks total sales will come in at 16.9 million this year, but warns there is a fair amount of downside risk in that forecast, especially if the economy softens later in 2019. In that scenario, he expects that truck and SUV sales would take the biggest hit, given their high prices. After years of robust sales, the industry can’t count on as much demand from customers who really need to replace their old vehicle, Stoddard notes. Most of the folks who had put off buying a new vehicle in the wake of the recession have done so by now.

SAE’s Visnic echoes those concerns. Prices are “really getting a little bit scary,” he warns. Consumers can handle them, but only because they feel good right now about the economy and their own finances. If that positive mood sours, watch out. “A car purchase is a fairly discretionary thing” for most consumers, he points out. If they start worrying about the economy, they’ll easily punt on buying a truck or SUV that costs $40,000.

Big Tech Won’t Be Broken Up, but Big Changes Are Coming

Calls are growing louder to split apart Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and other tech giants. A group of activists and scholars seek to use decades-old antitrust reasoning to regulate or break up today’s largest tech companies. “It’s definitely a new and much greater drumbeat today than it has been,” says Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy counsel at Public Knowledge, a public interest nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

The rising movement, known as hipster antitrust, “attacks ‘bigness’ per se, says Joe Kennedy, senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Kennedy points out in a report that a policy shift in that direction could produce more uncertainty, slow innovation and even reduce economic growth. That threat, however unlikely, strikes fear into some of the country’s biggest companies. Continue reading “Big Tech Won’t Be Broken Up, but Big Changes Are Coming”

Fight Back Against Time-Wasting Robocalls

The scourge of unwanted and often illegal robocalls isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, in the near term, it might even grow worse. Billions of robocalls are made each month, including fraudsters trying to steal your identity or raid your bank account by impersonating IRS or Social Security officials.

Some relief is on the horizon, though. Federal regulators and industry are beefing up efforts to penalize bad actors and roll out new preventative technologies. Software that blocks unwanted calls or better identifies who’s calling is improving quickly. And businesses are trying new text-based messaging services to reach customers who ignore voice calls. Continue reading “Fight Back Against Time-Wasting Robocalls”

Investing in Energy Efficiency

I recently gave some basic energy saving tips that may help consumers lower their utility bills. One of those tips was considering replacing conventional lightbulbs with light emitting diodes, or LEDs.

I figured advice isn’t very good if I wouldn’t take it myself, so I bought two LEDs to replace two old-fashioned incandescent bulbs in the light fixture above my dining room table. It may sound like a boring chore, but it promises to deliver a far better return on my investment than any stock or bond I’m likely to buy.

I won’t go into the physics of how LEDs work, because as a journalist who hasn’t seen the inside of a science classroom in a long time, I’m not qualified. Suffice it to say that LEDs generate light much more efficiently than Thomas Edison’s venerable incandescent bulbs do. And though LEDs were very expensive when they first hit the market, their prices have come down sharply. Plus, they have several advantages over spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs, which are also quite efficient: Unlike CFLs, LEDs don’t contain toxic mercury. They can be dimmed, which CFLs generally can’t, and they can produce many different colors and hues of light, whereas CFLs tend to cast a harsh, white glow.

More importantly for the cost-conscious, LEDs can save you a bundle.

Here’s the math in my case. I bought a two-pack of dimmable LED bulbs rated to produce the same amount of light as a conventional, 60-watt incandescent. They are the same familiar A19 bulb shape as the incandescents traditionally used in many residential fixtures. (Picture the “Eureka!” lightbulb that appears over cartoon characters’ heads when they think of a bright idea.)

The LEDs I bought consume 10 watts of electricity. So, two operating together at full brightness consume 20 watts, whereas the two old bulbs used 120 watts. Thus, every hour I use them, it saves me 100 watt-hours, or one-tenth of a kilowatt-hour (the unit of power the electric company uses on your bill). I estimate I use the light an average of two hours a day, so that’s two-tenths of a kWh per day, or 73 kWh per year.

In Virginia, where I live, residential electricity rates average 11.55 cents per kWh, so my savings of 73 kWh per year works out to $8.43 per year. That is almost exactly what I paid for the two bulbs.

In other words, I’ll earn back my initial investment in a year, and then save another $8 or so every year thereafter. Granted, that’s relatively small potatoes (though I’ll take a free $8 anytime you offer it to me). But in percentage terms, it’s hard to beat an investment that repays your upfront cost in a year and then pays you that amount again each year afterward. (The maker of the bulbs I bought estimate they’ll last more than 22 years at three hours per day, though cheaply made LEDs have been known to fail much sooner.)

The savings really add up if you replace more bulbs with LEDs, and/or use a given light for more hours per day. Multiply my $8 per year by a few high-use fixtures and you’re talking about some meaningful savings. That’s especially true if you live in a region with high electricity rates. The national average residential cost was recently about 12.9 cents per kWh, according to the Department of Energy. But consumers in New England pay more than 19 cents on average. In California: 18.3 cents. In Hawaii: An eye-watering 29.5 cents. The higher the rate you pay, the more potential savings you can realize.

One downside of switching to LEDs is the additional choices you’ll have to make. LEDs can be dimmable or not, and the dimmable kind often work best on a dimmer switch designed for LEDs. Their light output is measured in lumens, which is not a unit of measurement most consumers are familiar with (though LEDs are also generally marketed as having the light equivalent of conventional bulbs: 40 watts, 60 watts, 75 watts, 100 watts, etc.). You must decide what sort of light you want, such as soft white or daylight (the soft white bulbs I chose look like regular incandescent bulbs to me; they cast a pleasant, yellow glow). And if you’re installing the bulbs in an enclosed light fixture, you’ll want LEDs that are rated for that.

Luckily, all the specs are spelled out pretty clearly on the bulbs’ packaging. And many home improvement stores show different bulbs in display cases that let you see the difference between, say, soft white and daylight.

To me, those extra considerations seem like a small price to pay for a lower electric bill. Saving money doesn’t get much easier than screwing in a new light bulb.

States Blaze Trail for Marijuana Reform

Few industries operate in a stranger legal and political environment than marijuana. While 33 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized pot for recreational and/or medical use, the federal government still considers it an illicit, controlled substance. In short, pot is simultaneously legal and illegal in these states, depending on the governmental perspective.

The situation has partially handcuffed a nascent industry that otherwise is thriving and shows even greater potential. Legal cannabis sales in the U.S. are expected to top $13 billion this year – $3 billion more than 2018. Look for sales to spike to almost $26 billion in 2025. Continue reading “States Blaze Trail for Marijuana Reform”

Cannabis Industry Has Big but Uncertain Potential

The future is bright for legal marijuana, one of the fastest growing industries in North America. Look for the trade to build on a groundbreaking 2018 with rampant growth in the coming years.

Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized pot for medical purposes. And in December, Michigan became the 10th state to also allow recreational use by adults. More states will follow suit this year and beyond. Continue reading “Cannabis Industry Has Big but Uncertain Potential”

How Hollywood is Coping with the Rise of Netflix

With the flood of at-home streaming entertainment options, is the movie theater business toast? After all, films made solely for streaming services are grabbing larger audiences, threatening to curb box office sales down the road. Netflix’s film Birdbox was viewed by 80 million households in one month in 2018. Netflix has a bigger slate of movies this year, including The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese film with a $150-million budget. Continue reading “How Hollywood is Coping with the Rise of Netflix”