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Consumer Reports' 2006 Extended Warranty Ad:

There was panic in the industry when one of the most trusted consumer advocates told its readers not to buy extended warranties. Ten years later, the magazine's advice is almost forgotten, and the industry is bigger than ever.

In a few weeks we'll be marking a very important anniversary in the service contract industry. Just as the holiday shopping season of 2006 was getting under way, a major consumer product ratings publisher told shoppers that extended warranties were a waste of money. On Tuesday morning, November 14, 2006, the USA Today newspaper carried on the back page of the "Money" section (page 10B), the following full-page ad placed by Consumer Reports magazine:


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Reaction was swift. Some said both the frequency of breakdowns and the average cost of repair was higher than Consumer Reports was calculating, making service contracts a better value than was admitted. Others said it was simply a matter of price, in that nobody would deny the value of a service contract priced at 0% of the product's price (in other words, free).

A Matter of Price vs. Value

So there must always be a price at which a service contract is a break-even proposition for both buyer and seller. But at the other extreme, who would buy a service contract priced at 100% of the product's price (in other words, one for the price of two)?

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Warranty & Corporate Inversions:

Although warranty has an effect on taxes, the movement of a company's headquarters from a high-tax to a low-tax country doesn't seem to change its warranty claims or accrual rates. The merger of product lines has a much bigger effect, no matter what their nationality. But in at least one case, a company leaving the U.S. decided to cease complying with warranty reporting rules.

In last week's newsletter, there were several solar equipment companies profiled that were incorporated in one country, had their headquarters in another country, and sold their stock in New York. Several were startups from Asia, which had acquired small U.S. companies in order to gain their stock listings.

This, we said, could prove troublesome if any of the companies failed to outlive their extra-long warranties. However, this globalization of warranty liabilities is not all happening in one direction. An increasing number of U.S. companies seem to be re-incorporating themselves in Bermuda, Ireland, or some other business-friendly nation, appending a "PLC" or an "Ltd" to their name, and continuing business as usual.

Most are moving abroad for tax reasons. For instance, the corporate tax rate in Ireland is 12.5%. It's 35% in the U.S. Therefore, by acquiring an Irish company and moving the official headquarters of the combined companies to Dublin, a formerly U.S.-based company could cut its nominal tax rate by almost two-thirds (not counting deductions).

Since the disclosure of warranty expense information is a requirement of U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), we wanted to see what effect this new kind of corporate emigration is having upon those disclosures. Changes in warranty accrual rates affect net income, and therefore have an impact on taxes. Warranty claims payments include parts affected by sales tax or VAT, and labor affected by payroll taxes. So there are clear links between warranty and taxes. But while these corporate inversions have a clear impact on tax rates, do they also have any impact in warranty expense rates?

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Solar Equipment Warranties:

While product warranties that last for one or two decades are reassuring to buyers, they're not worth much unless funds are available to pay claims. That means betting on young startup companies eventually becoming old industry veterans. But who knows how reliable a system installed now will be in 10 or 20 years, and how much it will cost to repair or replace?

The solar energy equipment market is growing fast and that growth is attracting more competitors and more manufacturing capacity, forcing product prices to fall rapidly. New market entrants with unknown brand names are reassuring customers that their equipment is built to last, issuing 10-, 25- or even 30-year product warranties as a mark of their expected longevity and reliability.

But are these warranties really built to last? Are the companies issuing them to customers actually setting aside enough money to pay claims in two or three decades? And what happens if the fierce competition forces some of them to go out of business?

In general, what we're finding is that most of the manufacturers are financing their very long warranties properly, while most of the installers are playing for the short term, hoping that the manufacturers will be there to pay at least the cost of replacement parts. And if not, well, let's hope they can work something out.

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Appliance Service Contract
Market Shares:

Though the market has remained relatively flat for years, market shares are changing as online sales are gaining and new players are emerging. Still, six underwriters control 90% of the market share.

In our series of articles on the major appliance service contract industry back in early 2011, we neglected to include one important item: a market share report. Seven consecutive weekly newsletters explored the history of ServiceBench Inc., GE Appliances, Lowe's, and Abt Electronics and Appliances, among others. But before we could get to the pie charts, the calendar mandated that coverage of the Warranty Chain Management Conference needed to begin.

After that was done, we never went back to finish the series.

This week, as part of our current half-year of service contract industry coverage, we'll fix that oversight and provide some details on appliance service contract market sizing and market share. But we'll admit to one major problem: seven of the top ten retailers of service contracts for major appliances sell considerably more service contracts for consumer electronics, mobile phones, and/or home computers. Separating those segments therefore required some heroic assumptions to be made.

So what we're going to say is that our estimates are rough on both edges. They're rough in terms of estimating the amount of premiums paid by consumers for their service contracts, and they're rough in terms of what kind of product the consumer protected with a service contract when they shopped at Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears or Wal-Mart.

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Smartphone Warranties:

As with luxury cars, we're finding that the smarter the phone and the more advanced its features, the higher the warranty costs. And some of the smartest phones with the biggest market shares are now driving up the warranty costs of their manufacturers.

The smarter the phone, the harder they fall. As these little computers get more compact and sophisticated, their warranty costs are escalating. And it's beginning to hurt some of the largest players.

Two weeks ago, we found that some of the most luxurious passenger cars with reputations for high quality also had relatively high warranty costs. That's not supposed to happen. High quality means low warranty costs, no?

With smartphones, it seems to be a different problem. These units are sophisticated devices that aren't meant to be dropped, sat upon, or left out in the heat, cold, or humidity. But they're also meant to be portable and always available, so abuse and misuse are inevitable.

We just collected some new warranty data that illustrates the problem. Research in Motion Ltd., or RIM, is the Canadian company responsible for the BlackBerry product line. In its most recent fiscal year, warranty claims cost more than seven percent of the company's revenue. And that was the fifth straight year in which warranty costs rose as a proportion of revenue.

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After Warranty Analytics