The 10 Most Fascinating Things I Read This Week

Happy Friday! There are more good news articles, commentaries, and analyst reports on the Web every week than anyone could read in a month. Here are the 10 most fascinating ones I read this week.

1. An abundance of terrible jobs
Good news: Jobs are coming back! Bad news: A lot of them are lousy, low-paying jobs.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (link opens PDF file), the U.S. has the highest share of "low-wage" employees in the developed world (it defines low-wage as "earning less than two-thirds of the national median hourly wage"). In 2009, 24.8% of American jobs were low-wage, compared with 20.5% in Canada and 8% in Norway. Worse news:

If low-wage work were a short-term state that helped connect labor-market entrants or re-entrants to longer-term, well-paid employment, high shares of low-wage work would be less of a social concern. ... Unfortunately ... [n]ot only are low-wage workers likely to stay in low-wage jobs from one year to the next, they are also more likely than workers in higher-wage jobs to fall into unemployment or to leave the labor force altogether.

2. Apple and the tax man
Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski of The New York Times wrote a great piece showing how Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) keeps its tax bill low:

Apple [sends] royalties on patents developed in California to Ireland. The transfer was internal, and simply moved funds from one part of the company to a subsidiary overseas. But as a result, some profits were taxed at the Irish rate of approximately 12.5 percent, rather than at the American statutory rate of 35 percent. In 2004, Ireland, a nation of less than 5 million, was home to more than one-third of Apple's worldwide revenues, according to company filings. (Apple has not released more recent estimates.)

Moreover, the second Irish subsidiary ... allowed other profits to flow to tax-free companies in the Caribbean. Apple has assigned partial ownership of its Irish subsidiaries to Baldwin Holdings Unlimited in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, according to documents filed there and in Ireland. Baldwin Holdings has no listed offices or telephone number, and its only listed director is Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, who lives and works in Cupertino.

Several multinationals, including Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , use similar tricks, to be fair. And you can't fault a company for keeping its tax bill low. What's frustrating is that these techniques are only feasible for companies that can afford a small army of tax lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists.

3. Notes on Jeff Gundlach
Blogger Josh Brown took detailed notes at a presentation by investor Jeff Gundlach. Gundlach is a great investor and Brown is a great writer. The combination makes for a must-read.

Some choice lines: "If I were one of these crazy hedge fund guys, with the slick haircuts and fancy shoes and racing stripe shirts, the trade I'd put on is 10-times-leveraged natural gas long versus 10-times short Apple."

And: "It is metaphysically clear that if we attack the deficit, the economy will go negative." 

Read it all here. It's great stuff.

4. Que?
With multinational corporations now the centerpiece of the investing world, this blows my mind:

Nearly half the executives at global companies believe language barriers have spoiled cross-border deals and caused financial losses for companies, says a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, a business research unit of Economist Group. ...

Executives at companies based in Brazil and China said they were most affected by misunderstandings, with 74% and 61%, respectively, reporting financial losses as a result of failed international deals.

More here, from The Wall Street Journal.

5. What happened to the startups?
Job growth doesn't come from small businesses per se. It comes from new businesses. Keep that in mind and wince when you read this:

From the early 1980s, the share of young firms has declined from close to 50 percent to less than 35 percent in 2010. This decline reflects both a long-run secular decline and accelerated decline in the recent recession. ... The share of job creation from young firms has fallen from above 40 percent in the 1980s to around 30 percent in recent years. The share of employment accounted for by young firms has fallen from more than 20 percent in the 1980s to as low as 12 percent in 2010.

Read more from the report by the Kaufman Foundation here (link opens PDF file).

6. Young, broke, and nearly starving
The Census Bureau now counts nearly one in six Americans as living in poverty. But it's worse for young Americans. According to the Chicago Tribune: "25 percent of millennials -- those age 18 to 34 -- reported not having enough money to cover their basic needs compared to 17 percent of adults 35 to 54, and 13 percent of adults 55 and older."

Of course, what counts as a "basic need" is subjective, and the report doesn't give details. So we're left with two possibilities: One-quarter of millennials are either financially strapped, or their expectations are too high. Neither is encouraging.

7. Where business is booming
Business investment in equipment and software has been incredibly strong over the last few years as companies try to stay efficient and keep profits up while the economy flatlines.

Just how strong? A slide deck from the U.S Treasury (link opens PDF file) puts some perspective on it:

8. How income inequality leads to financial crises
Last year, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote, "[P]eople outside the top 1 percent increasingly live beyond their means. Trickle-down economics may be a chimera, but trickle-down behaviorism is very real."

The International Monetary Fund dug deeper into the theory:

The United States experienced two major economic crises over the past 100 years -- the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2007. Income inequality may have played a role in the origins of both. We say this because there are two remarkable similarities between the eras preceding these crises: a sharp increase in income inequality and a sharp increase in household debt-to-income ratios.

Are these two facts connected? Empirical evidence and a consistent theoretical model ... suggest they are. When -- as appears to have happened in the long run-up to both crises -- the rich lend a large part of their added income to the poor and middle class, and when income inequality grows for several decades, debt-to-income ratios increase sufficiently to raise the risk of a major crisis.

Read more here.

9. This is what a peak looks like
2007 was Lehman Brothers' last full year alive as a company, and it was a spectacular, unbelievably good year for its top employees. If you made $8.2 million at Lehman Brothers in 2007, you didn't even crack the top 50. Totally shocking a company like that went bankrupt.

Blogger Felix Salmon has more on Lehman's compensation, along with a list of its 51 highest-paid employees here.  

10. Leverage and stupidity are almost always found together
Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal has a great piece on what the term "sophisticated investor" means. Or more precisely, what it doesn't mean:

Robert Citron, the former treasurer of Orange County, Calif., leveraged the municipality's investment portfolio with complex derivatives that exploded, blasting the county into bankruptcy. When Citron was asked how he could be certain that the portfolio was protected from the risk of rising interest rates, he declared: "I am one of the largest investors in America. I know these things."

More here.

Enjoy your weekend.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Microsoft. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Google. The Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft and Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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Morgan Housel is an economics and finance columnist for Analyst, Motley Fool One. More Articles

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