Tesla’s Latest Solar Stumble: Big Price Increases

On an October evening five years ago, Elon Musk used a former set for “Desperate Housewives” to show off Tesla’s latest innovation: roof shingles that can generate electricity from the sun without unsightly solar panels.

After delays, Tesla began rolling out the shingles in a big way this year, but it is already encountering a major problem. The company is hitting some customers with price increases before installation that are tens of thousands of dollars higher than earlier quotes, angering early adopters and raising big questions about how Tesla, which is better known for its electric cars, is running its once dominant rooftop solar business.

Dr. Peter Quint was eager to install Tesla’s solar shingles on his 4,000-square-foot home in Portland, Ore., until the company raised the price to $112,000, from $75,000, in a terse email. When he called Tesla for an explanation, he was put on hold for more than three hours.

“I said, ‘This isn’t real, right?’” said Dr. Quint, whose specialty is pediatric critical care. “The price started inching up. We could deal with that. Then this. At that price, in our opinion, it’s highway robbery.”

slashing the price of panels in 2019 has done little to stem the slide.

At the “Housewives” set at Universal Studios in 2016, Mr. Musk, the company’s chief executive, promised that Tesla’s new shingles would turbocharge installations by attracting homeowners who found solar panels ugly. But shingles remain such a tiny segment of the solar market that few industry groups and analysts bother to track installations.

Tesla is not the only company to pursue the idea of embedding solar cells, which covert sunlight into electricity, in shingles. Dow Chemical, CertainTeed, Suntegra and Luma, among others, have offered similar products with limited success.

Tesla’s electric cars and SpaceX’s rockets, Tesla’s glass shingles attracted outsize attention. He promised that they would be much better than anything anybody else had come up with and come in a variety of styles so they could resemble asphalt, slate and Spanish barrel tiles to fit the aesthetic of each home.

solar ambitions date to 2015 when it announced that it would sell panels and home batteries alongside its electric cars. A year later, the company acquired SolarCity, a company run by Mr. Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive. SolarCity was the leading rooftop solar installer in the United States, but in the last five years Tesla has fallen far behind Sunrun, which became even bigger last year after buying another installer, Vivint.

Tesla has been losing market share even as demand for rooftop solar has increased sharply as panels have become more affordable. In terms of energy-generating capacity, annual installations are about 13 times as great as they were a decade ago, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

battery system would cost $63,000. But two weeks before installers were scheduled to show up, an email from the company raised the price to $85,000.

She wanted the system to protect her family from losing electricity when her utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, shuts off power to prevent its equipment from setting off wildfires. She also hoped to lower her electricity bills, which have jumped from about $200 a month to as much as $400 in the four years since her family moved to California from New York.

She sought out Tesla’s shingles because contractors had told her that they could not attach conventional solar panels to her composite roof.

Tesla never offered an adequate explanation for the price change, Ms. Bianchi said, so she canceled the job: “It’s just outrageous.”

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Consumer Goods Are Going to Get More Expensive

Procter & Gamble is raising prices on items like Pampers and Tampax in September. Kimberly-Clark said in March that it will raise prices on Scott toilet paper, Huggies and Pull-Ups in June, a move that is “necessary to help offset significant commodity cost inflation.”

And General Mills, which makes cereal brands including Cheerios, is facing increased supply-chain and freight costs “in this higher-demand environment,” the company’s chief financial officer, Kofi Bruce, said on a call with analysts.

These price increases reflect what some economists are calling a major shift in the way companies have responded to demand during the pandemic.

Before the virus hit, retailers often absorbed the cost when suppliers raised prices on goods, because stiff competition forced retailers to keep prices stable. The pandemic changed that.

It created chaos and confusion in global shipping markets, leading to shortages and price increases that have cascaded from factories to ports to stores to consumers. When the pandemic hit, Americans’ shopping habits shifted rapidly — with people spending money on treadmills and office furniture instead of going out to eat in restaurants and seeing movies at theaters.

This, in turn, put enormous pressure on factories in China to produce these goods and ship them across the Pacific in containers. But the demand for shipping outstripped the availability of containers in Asia, yielding shortages that resulted in higher shipping costs.

The Consumer Price Index, the measure of the average change in the prices paid by U.S. shoppers for consumer goods, increased 0.6 percent in March, the largest rise since August 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Higher costs aren’t affecting just the United States. British inflation hit 0.7 percent in March, fueled by the prices of oil and clothing.

In the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, companies were focused on responding to the surge brought on by panic buying, with people stocking up on items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, canned food and masks, said Greg Portell, a partner at Kearney, a consulting firm. The government was watching for price gouging, and customers were wary of being taken advantage of.

“When the pandemic first struck paper, toilet paper was like gold,” Mr. Portell said. “The optics of trying to take a price increase during that time just weren’t going to be good.”

Thus, despite the spike in demand, companies weren’t in a position to balance out the price-and-cost equation. Now that the economy is beginning to stabilize, companies are starting to make different economic calculations, rebalancing pricing so that it better fits their profit expectations and takes into account inflation, which will drive up prices.

“This isn’t an opportunistic profit-taking by companies,” Mr. Portell said. “This is a reset of the market.”

The government’s pumping of money into the economy through recent stimulus packages has also given retailers more room to raise prices. People who have received unemployment benefits or stimulus checks are able to spend that money on consumer goods like toilet paper and diapers.

Many of those who have kept their jobs during the pandemic also have been able to increase their savings. That means they have disposable income to spend on more expensive items like printers or desks for working at home, or on luxuries like televisions, hot tubs or kitchen remodels.

“Right now, demand is fiscally stimulated and very strong,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist for the firm Oxford Economics. “So even if you raise your prices, you’re not necessarily going to lose market share, because most other producers are doing the same thing and because people have the means to buy.”

It’s likely that retailers, from big-box stores to grocery stores, will pass on the majority of the increased costs from suppliers to consumers.

“Consumption is likely very strong the next couple of quarters, which will give companies a bit more pricing power to pass through some of those cost increases, which otherwise they might have had to absorb in their margins,” said Tim Drayson, head of economics at Legal and General Investment Management, an asset management firm.

However, businesses will still have to keep price increases reasonable and in line with competition.

“Businesses will tend to pass on what the consumer can stomach,” said John Ruth, chief executive of Build Asset Management, an investment advisory firm. “You’ll notice some price increases, but your hamburger isn’t going to double in your local favorite drive-through.”

Price increases for necessities like toilet paper and diapers will affect low-income Americans most profoundly, placing an additional burden on those already hard hit by the pandemic.

Whether the increased prices will stick, or eventually come down, is a topic of debate among economists. Some predict that prices will normalize within one to two years, as the economy continues to gain steam, the job market improves and those who lost jobs during the pandemic increasingly return to work.

“People are not going to buy used cars, or even new cars, forever,” Mr. Daco said. “At some point, demand will be saturated, and that will be the start of an environment of reduced price.”

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5 Things to Know About Booking a Summer Rental

“There are a lot of operators and owners who aren’t accustomed to being fully booked, and it can be tough to make sure they’re sorting out cleaning schedules and things like that,” said Jeremy Gall, a vacation-rentals industry veteran and the chief executive and founder of Breezeway, a property care and cleaning operations platform.

But, he added, “I think it’s all generally good news, especially in the context of the last 12 months. I don’t think there’s an owner, host or manager who would trade off the uncertainty that they felt this time last year for a fully booked summer.”

According to Transparent, a vacation-rentals data company, the countywide average nightly rate for Airbnb vacation rentals in July and August is expected to be around $220. Last year, it was $194; in 2019, it was $185.

At Evolve, a hospitality company that manages more than 14,000 short-term rentals around the United States, nightly rates are up 27 percent in July and 19 percent in August, over those same months in 2019.

“I’d be remiss to say that we didn’t raise our rates significantly,” said Jon Mayo, whose Airbnb in Palm Springs has more nights booked this summer than ever before, despite the sure-to-be-sweltering desert temperatures. “I’m renting at rates I wouldn’t have even dreamed of three years ago.”

Across the 1,000 vacation homes managed by Twiddy & Company, a hospitality and asset management firm in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, weekly summer rates have risen 8 percent since 2019, from $8,406 to $9,152. On StayMarquis, a luxury vacation-property management company, average rates in the Hamptons this summer — around $1,360 a night — are up 12 percent over 2019. Nightly rates across the 270 rentals managed by Hawai’i Life, a luxury brokerage and rental management company in Hawaii, are up 11 percent from 2019.

The elongated travel patterns that emerged last summer, from monthlong stays to four- and five-night “weekends,” are back in full force this year.

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That Popular S.U.V. Is Going to Cost You

“It’s been a weird year,” Mr. Drury said.

That has driven up the average purchase price of a new vehicle to about $40,000.

Inventories of luxury cars are the lowest as buyers have pounced, while run-of-the mill sedans are relatively plentiful, said Ms. Krebs at Cox.

So if new cars are too expensive, you can just buy a used car, right?

Yes, but deals may be elusive there as well. Fewer people bought new cars last year, so fewer used cars were traded in. And the short supply of new cars is pushing more buyers to consider used cars, raising those prices, analysts say. The average price paid for a used car is well above $20,000, Edmunds says.

On the plus side, if you have a car to trade in, its value is probably higher, especially if it’s a popular model. The average value for trade-ins, including leased cars turned in early, was about $17,000 in March, up from about $14,000 a year earlier, according to Edmunds. The average age of trade-ins was five and a half years.

Various online services, like Kelly Blue Book, TrueCar and Carvana, will supply a trade-in estimate based on your location and your car’s age, mileage and general condition, and offer more tailored appraisals if you provide details like the vehicle identification number. Some even offer to buy your car outright.

If you trade in your car at a dealership, be sure to negotiate the price of your new purchase before you discuss the value of your trade, Consumer Reports advises.

And when you buy a used car, it’s important to have it inspected by an independent mechanic, to spot any potential problems. If a dealer balks at letting you do that, it may be best to shop elsewhere, Mr. Barry said.

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How Not to Get Fooled by the New Inflation Numbers

We could be on the verge of a golden era for inflation nonsense. If so, its start date may well turn out to have been Tuesday morning, when new data on consumer prices was released.

The potential for misunderstanding derives from several forces crashing against each other at once. There are sure to be shortages of some goods and services as the economy creaks back to life, which could create scattered price increases for airplane tickets or hotel rooms or, as has been the case recently, certain computer chips.

There are valid concerns that the trillions of dollars of government stimulus dollars could push the economy beyond its limits and create a broad-based overheating.

But to be a savvy consumer of economic data, it’s important to separate those potential forces from the inflation data coming right now, which tells us more about the past than the future. Don’t take the backward-looking information in the new report as proof that those inflation warnings are coming true.

strange episode last April when the price of crude oil futures went negative?).

Demand for gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products is finally rising, but energy producers can’t flip a switch and produce enough fuel to meet that demand overnight, and are doubtless scarred by their losses last spring.

Similarly, grocery prices are up substantially: an annualized 3.8 percent rise since February 2020, led by a 5.9 percent rise in the price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs. If it feels as if proteins are more expensive than before the pandemic, you’re not imagining it.

Central bankers tend to look past swings in energy and food prices, which tend to fluctuate in ways that don’t portend inflation across the economy. But some elements of “core” inflation are also showing odd inflation dynamics, even when corrected for base effects.

Used cars and trucks, for example, are up an annualized 11 percent since February 2020, most likely because many people sought a way to get around besides public transport.

The flip side of that: Airfare is still far below its prepandemic levels, down an adjusted 23.9 percent from February 2020. There is plenty of reason to expect that airplanes will be crowded this summer, especially on routes to leisure destinations, as a newly vaccinated population looks to stretch its wings. But prices still have not caught up to their prepandemic norm.

Oh, and clothing is still cheaper than prepandemic levels as well, with a 2.7 percent adjusted fall in apparel prices since February 2020.

The sharp divergences in these sectors show the importance of looking at economic data more deeply than usual in the months ahead. Many of the sectors with the most extreme price effects from the pandemic bottomed out in April or May, not March — meaning the distortions in year-over-year numbers will get even bigger over the next few months.

But beyond that, with so many parts of the economy going through wrenching change, headline numbers on inflation or anything else will mean less than usual in the coming months. Rather it’s better to break things down by sector to understand whether the dynamics reflect a one-time reset of the economy or something bigger.

The Biden administration and the Federal Reserve are betting on a one-time reset, with temporary price spikes followed by a steadying of both inflation and growth in 2022. If something more pernicious arrives, it won’t show up as a few weird data points in 2021, but as a broad-based surge in prices across the economy that becomes a cycle of rising prices.

To understand an economy in uncharted territory, the details matter more than the headlines.

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Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack

Isaac Saul, who told me his nonpartisan political newsletter Tangle brought in $190,000 in its first year, wrote recently that he came to Substack “specifically to avoid being associated with anyone else” after being frustrated by readers’ assumptions about his biases when he worked for HuffPost.

One of the writers who left Substack over transgender issues, Jude Doyle, argued that its system of advances amounted to a kind of editorial policy. But the analogy to a media company isn’t clear. Grace Lavery said she wanted Substack to broaden its definition of harassment, but said she didn’t think threats to boycott the email service over writers she disagrees with made political sense. She has had bitter public disputes with other Substack writers, including the journalist Jesse Singal, over their writing on gender policy. “Boycotting Substack because of Jesse Singal would be like boycotting a paper company” over a writer who has books printed on their paper, she said.

Mr. Singal compared Substack with the unregulated, decentralized internet of a decade ago. “In the golden age of blogging, writers hated each other but they went back and forth over each other’s ideas. Now, people call the manager all the time,” he said.

So the biggest threat to Substack is unlikely to be the Twitter-centric political battles among some of its writers. The real threat is competing platforms with a different model. The most technically powerful of those is probably Ghost, which allows writers to send and charge for newsletters, with monthly fees starting at $9. While Substack is backed by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Ghost has Wikipedia vibes: It is open-source software developed by a nonprofit.

One of Substack’s biggest newsletters, The Browser, with 11,000 paid subscribers, left for Ghost last August. Nathan Tankus, an economics writer who is leaving Substack over trans issues, has also moved to Ghost. David Sirota, who runs the left-leaning investigative site The Daily Poster, said he was considering leaving for Outpost, a system built on Ghost, because “we want our operation and our brand to stand on its own.”

And it’s easy to leave. Unlike on Facebook or Twitter, Substack writers can simply take their email lists and direct connections to their readers with them.

Substack’s model of taking 10 percent of its writers’ subscriptions is “too greedy of a slice to take of anyone’s business with very little in return,” said Ghost’s founder and chief executive, John O’Nolan, a tattooed, nomadic Irishman who is bivouacked in Hollywood, Fla. He said he believed subscription newsletter publishing was “destined to be commoditized.”

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Help! I Want to Go to Europe in August. Is This a Pipe Dream?

My husband and I are currently planning a trip to Ireland, Portugal and Italy for August and September. We are only reserving hotels with free cancellation policies and our airline tickets can be changed to a future date. Knowing that much of Europe is closed right now to United States citizens because of the virus, is there much hope that our plans will materialize, or are we wasting our time? What should I watch for? Kathy

Although there are some signs of life — Iceland is newly open to fully vaccinated travelers and Greece will reopen to vaccinated or virus-tested visitors next month — Europe, where case counts are rising in some parts and the vaccine rollout has been disappointingly slow, is still largely closed to Americans. Ireland is open to United States citizens with a combination of testing and quarantine, but Portugal and Italy, like most of the continent, for now remain off limits. Italy, in particular, was hard-hit by the virus in the early months of the pandemic; and in March, the spread of a contagious variant from Britain pushed the country back into another lockdown.

“This environment is so challenging because there is significant pressure for countries that rely on tourism to rebound, which counterbalances much slower vaccination rates in Europe,” said Fallon Lieberman, who runs the leisure-travel division of Skylark, a travel agency affiliated with the Virtuoso travel network. “So unfortunately, those two forces are at odds with one another.”

Your question, like many related to the pandemic, involves various degrees of risk. First, let’s look at the concrete risk: If you book now for late summer, how likely are you to lose money?

flexibility with seats beyond Basic Economy, and now, especially, it’s wise to book tickets that can be easily changed. Delta Air Lines has eliminated change and cancellation fees for all flights originating from North America, and Delta eCredits set to expire this year — including for new tickets purchased this year — can be used for travel through 2022. United Airlines has also permanently eliminated change fees.

Unlike a plane ticket, which can always be changed (either for free or for a fee), a nonrefundable hotel reservation is generally exactly that: a use-it-or-lose-it investment.

The good news: “Hotels in Europe — and around the world, really — are being quite flexible,” said Ms. Lieberman, who has helped hundreds of Skylark clients cancel and rebook last year’s felled Europe trips, many to this summer and beyond. “While this is a very challenging time, many suppliers are providing maximum flexibility.”

Cancellation policies vary by property, but many of the multinational companies have made it easy, and relatively risk-free, to plan ahead. Companies like Hilton and Four Seasons are allowing cancellations up to 24 hours before check-in. Hyatt is allowing fee-free cancellations up to 24 hours in advance for arrivals through July 31 (and it’s always possible that date will be extended). For points nerds, most of the big hotel chains allow most award nights to be canceled scot-free, with the points redeposited, within a day or two of the expected check-in.

More complicated than physical refunds, though, is the larger, metaphysical risk: How likely is it that this trip is actually going to happen? What forces can help predict whether the Europe trips we book today will actually materialize in August and September?

France and Italy have just been locked down again, interest in Europe is rising, aided, no doubt, by signs that President Biden could lift the ban on European visitors to the United States as early as next month, news of the possibility of European health passes, rumors that Spain and Britain could both restart international tourism in mid May, and more.

At Hopper, a travel-booking app that analyzes and predicts flight and hotel prices, bookings for Europe-bound summer 2021 travel surged 68 percent week-over-week between the last week of February and the first week of March. Searches for round-trip flights to Europe departing this summer increased a whopping 86 percent in the 30 days following February 22.

According to TripAdvisor data of hotel searches from the United States for this summer, five of the 10 most-searched European destinations were in Greece, but Rome — and Paris, for that matter — were also on the list.

To make sense of how traveler zeal will jibe with the realities of the pandemic, analysts and travel industry experts are eyeing several factors, including flight schedules.

According to PlaneStats, the aviation-data portal from Oliver Wyman, an international consulting firm, the number of Europe-bound flights scheduled to depart the United States this month is around 26 percent of the number that departed the United States for Europe in April 2019. Next month compared to May 2019, that figure is looking even higher so far: 35 percent. (April and May 2020, by contrast, both clocked in at 5 percent.) That’s lower than normal, but it’s still a drastic uptick from any other point during the pandemic. Although many will be connecting flights (Americans can still transit through Europe) or culminate in destinations like London (Americans can visit England, though multiple testing and quarantines are required), schedules still remain a key indicator.

Khalid Usman, a partner and aviation expert at Oliver Wyman. “What airlines don’t want to do is put out schedules where people are not going to be traveling.”

Pandemic Navigator, which simulates day-by-day immunity growth. “That’s good news for the domestic market, but in the context of international travel, we do have to realize that it’s not just about one country — it’s a country at the other end as well.”

Factoring in the spotty vaccine rollout across the pond, Mr. Usman said it’s reasonable to assume that Europe’s herd immunity will lag several months behind the United States. Over the next several months, he added, European countries will follow in Iceland’s footsteps and open individually, complete with their own regulations about vaccinations, testing and quarantines. To spur travel across the continent this summer, the European Union is considering adopting a vaccine certificate for its own residents and their families.

“It’s not going to be a binary open-or-shut,” Mr. Usman said. “Countries are going to start getting more selective about who they’re going to start letting in.”

Italy’s numbers — plus new lockdowns and growing Covid variants — seem to be stifling optimism; Hopper flight searches from the United States to Italy have remained relatively flat.

For now, Ms. Lieberman, of Skylark, has adopted a “beyond the boot” mind-set: “Our theory is that if you’re willing to go beyond the boot — meaning, Italy — there will be fabulous, desirable summer destinations for you to take advantage of.”

Portugal surged in January but has recently eased lockdown measures as infection rates have slowed. The country is now aiming for a 70 percent vaccination rate this summer.

American interest in Portugal is spiking in response. In the first week of March, following an announcement that Portugal could welcome tourists from Britain as soon as mid-May, Hopper searches on flights from the United States to Lisbon rose 63 percent. (That’s not far behind Athens, for which travel searches shot up 75 percent in the same time period.)

will next month start nonstop service between Boston and Reykjavik — and resume its Iceland service from New York City and Minneapolis.

“Unless demand spikes rapidly enough to outpace the increase in supply, flash sales can be found as airlines attempt to entice travelers to return amid piecemeal easings of travel restrictions,” said Mr. Damodaran. Icelandair, for example, is running sales on flights and packages through April 13.

And with prices for summer flights to Europe still relatively low in general — down by more than 10 percent from 2019, according to Hopper — experts see little downside in penciling in a trip.

“If you’re willing to take some risk, plan early and lock in your preferred accommodations and ideal itineraries,” Ms. Lieberman said. “But of course we caution you to be prepared to have to move deposits and dates if it comes to that.”

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U.S. Bet on Covid Vaccine Manufacturer Even as Problems Mounted

Because of the pandemic, most of the auditors drew their conclusions from documents and video tours, during which Emergent workers controlled the camera angles, one former company official said.

Johnson & Johnson’s auditors said monitoring reports for bacteria or other contaminants were filed four to six months late. AstraZeneca’s said that Emergent repeatedly loosened monitoring criteria so it appeared to meet them, resorting to measures like “historical averages.” But even then it failed the tests, the report said.

In another audit, BARDA officials documented similar concerns, classifying some of them, including the risks of microbiological contamination, as “critical.” That designation is reserved for the most serious problems that pose an immediate and significant risk.

Emergent’s own internal audit in July also said the flow of workers and materials through the plant was not adequately controlled “to prevent mix-ups or contamination.”

The reports echoed quality-control shortcomings documented in an April inspection by the F.D.A., reported earlier by The Associated Press, that concluded the facility was “not ready for commercial operations.”

Multiple audits underscore how poorly the company was prepared for the huge workload it accepted.

The Covid-19 projects required significantly more testing to ensure materials remained stable, but Emergent had just one employee coordinating it all, the BARDA audit found. Emergent acknowledged at the time that its testing system was “not ideal” and pledged to train at least one more Emergent worker and hire a third. BARDA did not respond to requests for comment on its audit or any of the others, beyond saying that it had “worked with Emergent to resolve the issues” raised during the F.D.A. inspection.

Another internal investigation in August found that Emergent approved four raw materials used to produce AstraZeneca’s vaccine without first fully testing them. That type of shortcut, called a conditional release of material, occurred on average twice a week in October, internal logs show. The measure was deemed necessary because the company was working with shortened production times, testing backlogs and the needs of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s crash vaccine development program. And while a manager “knowingly deviated” from standards, the report said, the batches of vaccine would be not released without quality and safety tests.

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