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Amazon Unveils Slew of New Devices, Including New Echo Dot and Echo Plus

Amazon has completely revamped and improved its range of Alexa-powered devices to reclaim lost market share from Google, which ended the second quarter with its Google Home Mini as the top-selling smart speaker in the world.

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Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor

Seattle, WA, United States (4E) – Amazon has completely revamped and improved its range of Alexa-powered devices to reclaim lost market share from Google, which ended the second quarter with its Google Home Mini as the top-selling smart speaker in the world.

At a previously unannounced event yesterday at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, Amazon revealed an astonishing 70 devices, either new or upgraded, that will hit markets over the next few months.

As expected, the star of this show was Alexa, and David Limp, senior vice president of devices at Amazon.com Inc., began his hour-long spiel by talking about recent upgrades to Alexa. Apart from making Alexa smarter, the upgrades apparently make Alexa more opinionated and more approachable for children and adults. For example, the improvements will see Alexa knowing when to whisper a reply back instead of replying in its regular tone of voice.

The show stoppers, however, were the all the new Echo devices led by an all-new Echo Dot, the small hockey puck-shaped version of the Amazon Echo smart speaker. There were also improvements to its big brother, the Echo Plus, introduced in 2017.

The new Echo Plus has the same, fabric-covered design as last year’s updated Echo. It now offers more powerful bass and clearer sound. Echo Plus still offers a smart home hub built in.

The Echo Plus features better compatibility with smart home gadgets. It looks somewhat like an Apple HomePod smart speaker but with a blue light ring up top and a built-in smart home hub inside.

Echo Plus has a feature called Local Voice Control, which means that commands made to devices in your house no longer need to be sent to the cloud before making something happen.

Both updated Echos will still cost the same: the Echo Dot is priced at $49.99, and the Echo Plus at $149.99. Both will be available in October in every country where Alexa is available Preorders are available today.

The new Dot retains its affordable $50 price tag, but sports a new, rounded fabric-covered body with “louder and clearer” sound and both Bluetooth and line-out connectivity.

Complementing the Dot is an even cheaper (and thinner) Echo Input, which lacks speakers, but is meant to be plugged directly into existing home audio solutions similar to Google’s Chromecast Audio. Echo Input costs $35, the same as a Chromecast Audio.

For those that want to augment their speaker setups, there’s the $130 Echo Sub. This nifty device can be used for multi-room audio or synced with a pair of standard Echoes to create a 2.1 system.

As for speakers and subs, there’s the new $200 Echo Link and $300 Echo Link Amp. Neither are meant to be standalone products and don’t include a microphone. They connect to other Echo speakers and include a dial to help control and fine tune audio. In the case of the Echo Link Amp, this means boosting your sound quality.

For existing “dumb” gadgets, Amazon developed the new $25 Amazon Smart Plug. This device plugs into a traditional outlet and lets you turn devices on and off simply by asking Alexa. It comes with a simple setup process that lets you rename a device with your voice during your initial install.

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Finance

European Central Bank Finally Ends Massive QE Program

On December 31, the European Central Bank (ECB) will formally end its almost four-year old quantitative easing (QE) program that prevented the euro zone economy from succumbing to its own version of the U.S. Great Recession of 2008.

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Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor

Frankfurt, Germany (4E) – On December 31, the European Central Bank (ECB) will formally end its almost four-year old quantitative easing (QE) program that prevented the euro zone economy from succumbing to its own version of the U.S. Great Recession of 2008.

ECB will stop expanding the multi-trillion Euro asset purchasing program, and will instead switch to reinvesting cash from maturing bonds to purchase additional debt. These purchases should keep borrowing costs on the low-end until 2021.

The ECB Governing Council confirmed that bond purchases will plunge from €15 billion a month to zero by the end of the year. It also left benchmark interest rates unchanged.

Introduced in March 2015, ECB’s QE program saw the bank buy more than €2.6 trillion ($2.9 trillion) in a successful bid to prevent the bloc’s banking system from unraveling. The QE measures are widely credited with helping revive the 19-member currency bloc after a double-dip recession and the holdover effects of the European debt crisis.

“With the most prominent crisis-fighting measure of the ECB now almost back in the toolbox, the big question is, what will be next?” asked Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING. “It seems as if the ECB wants to keep as many cards as possible close to its chest,” Brzeski said.

The timing of the ECB’s move, however, is contentious. Political developments in the United Kingdom over Brexit; Italy over excessive government spending and France over street violence seems to question the wisdom of ending QE by year-end.

The ECB meeting comes a week ahead of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s December meeting where it is expected to raise interest rates one-quarter point, its last for the year. Slowing growth in the U.S. and worldwide, due partly to Trump’s trade war, has some economists expecting the Fed to forego the next quarter-point rate hike in March.

The U.S. economy is showing clear signs of slowing down while its three equities markets have been wracked by extreme volatility linked to Trump’s trade war for the past two months.

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California’s Housing Crisis Spiraling Out of Control

California’s four decades’ old housing shortage now threatens to strangle the high-tech industries on which it relies for prosperity while hurling more people into poverty and inflating the ranks of the homeless.

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Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor

Sacramento, CA, United States (4E) – California’s four decades’ old housing shortage now threatens to strangle the high-tech industries on which it relies for prosperity while hurling more people into poverty and inflating the ranks of the homeless.

The current housing shortage has been estimated at 3 to 4 million housing units, or some 20% to 30% of California’s current housing inventory of 14 million. That’s not enough for the new jobs being created at Silicon Valley.

San Francisco Bay area cities added 400,000 new jobs but only issued 60,000 permits for new housing units from 2012 to 2017. As a result, the housing crisis is damaging the state’s high-growth economy as employers now have to contend with an increasing shortage of skilled workers who can’t find housing.

State officials estimate that California needs to build 180,000 new units of housing every year. Housing has topped 100,000 units in recent years, but that’s far short of the demand

This shortage is especially acute in coastal areas where the housing squeeze is the tightest. This supply dearth is worsened by stiff local resistance to housing construction. Several California counties such as Ventura County and a number of cities have adopted Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) restrictions that make it almost impossible to build housing on agricultural land.

Worse, the wildfires that devastated communities in Ventura County and other regions are adding to the housing squeeze.

One of the dire consequences of this huge imbalance between supply and demand is that California now has the 49th lowest ratio of housing units per resident in the United States. The worst result is sky high real estate prices. Median home prices now stand at $1.3 million in San Francisco and $1 million in San Jose, for example.

Worse, the housing crisis has exacerbated old social ills. Homelessness per capita is now the third highest in the U.S. while less than a third of Californians can afford a median priced home. California’s has the country’s highest level of poverty.

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U.S. CEOs Predict Economic Recession by Year-end

It’s the post-Christmas “gift” no right-minded person wants to receive — but a recession might be in the offing before this tumultuous year ends.

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Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor

New York, NY, United States (4E) – It’s the post-Christmas “gift” no right-minded person wants to receive — but a recession might be in the offing before this tumultuous year ends.

A demoralizing new survey shows American CEOs think a recession might strike as early as the year-end only two short weeks away. Economists and investors alike have been sounding the alarm for months about the likelihood of an economic recession, one of whose main triggers is the economic uncertainty caused by Trump’s trade war.

A New York Times survey surprisingly revealed that almost half of the 134 business leaders at the Yale CEO Summit expected a recession to strike by the end of the year. It said this finding was the direst yet, and shows just how worried corporate executives are about an imminent recession.

A full 67 percent of the leaders cited U.S. political instability — especially Trump’s poor performance as president — and Trump’s trade war with the world as the major triggers for the upcoming recesison.

The U.S. has enjoyed a record 10 years of economic growth since the Great Recession of 2008, and by all measures, is due for a recession. Analysts said the gnawing fear about the oncoming recession is reaching fever pitch.

“The end is near for the near-decade-long burst of global economic growth,” predicted John Graham, a finance professor at Duke and overseer of the survey.

The findings from the New York Times survey also coincide with a Duke University Fuqua School of Business survey earlier this month that found nearly half of all U.S. CFOs also believe a recession is near but predicted it will hit by the end of 2019.

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