8 Fascinating Reads

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 eight fascinating ones I read this week.

Party hats
U.K.'s The Spectator argues that 2012 was the best year in the history of the world:

That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

Making room
This, from the New York Times, is one of the most important trends in today's labor market:

The children of the 1960s are now in their 60s, and are simply not as likely to want to be in the labor force as younger workers. The employment-to-population ratio is on a steady downward trend, regardless of the economy. The fact that the rate is flat is evidence that the labor market is recovering (though not fast enough).

With more than 200,000 boomers exiting the labor force each month through retirement, the rule of thumb that the economy needs to add 140,000 jobs per month to keep up with population growth no longer holds. The new normal is 100,000, which is why 150,000 new jobs a month has brought the unemployment rate from 9.5 percent to 7.9 percent over the last two years.

New Year's optimism
Former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman shares his optimistic outlook:

The U.S. economy will emerge from its trauma stronger and widely restructured. ... Sweeping changes in government finances, banking systems, and manufacturing are under way, as are structural reforms in labor markets. All this is proving once again that global capital markets, the most powerful economic force on earth, can effect changes beyond the capacity of normal political processes. And in this case, they can refute all the forecasts of Western economic decline. Indeed, in the years ahead, the United States and Europe could once again become locomotives for global economic growth.

Sticker shock
Natural-gas prices vary wildly around the globe. America now has some of the cheapest natural gas, which gives us a competitive advantage. This is an overlooked story from The New York Times:

Voestalpine, an Austrian maker of high-quality steel for the auto industry, announced that it would build a plant in North America that would employ natural gas to reduce iron ore to a kind of raw iron that would then be used in the company's European blast furnaces.

Asked whether he had considered building the plant in Europe, Voestalpine's chief executive, Wolfgang Eder, said that that "calculation does not make sense from the very beginning." Gas in Europe is much more expensive, he said.

Full speed ahead
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic shares another way America is gaining a competitive advantage: cheap wages (chart via T.Rowe Price).

"U.S. manufacturing workers haven't been this good a bargain in decades," Thompson writes.

On the mend
In great news for auto giants like General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) , auto sales are nearing pre-recession levels:

New vehicle registrations -- a key indicator of auto sales -- are expected to climb 6.6% this year to 15.3 million. ... The U.S. market last hit sales of above 16 million in 2007. Auto sales fell to a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009 amid the recession.

Bang for the buck
The Economist
gets gloomy on higher education:

In 1962 one cent of every dollar spent in America went on higher education; today this figure has tripled. Yet despite spending a greater proportion of its GDP on universities than any other country, America has only the 15th-largest proportion of young people with a university education. Wherever the money is coming from, and however it is being spent, the root of the crisis in higher education (and the evidence that investment in universities may amount to a bubble) comes down to the fact that additional value has not been created to match this extra spending. Indeed, evidence from declines in the quality of students and graduates suggests that a degree may now mean less than it once did.

In memoriam
Barry Ritholtz looks back at Fortune's 10 Stocks To Last The Decade from 2000:

1. Nokia
2. Nortel Networks
3. Enron
4. Oracle
5. Broadcom
6. Viacom
7. Univision
8. Charles Schwab
9. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
10. Genentech

Ritholtz writes:

The portfolio managed to lose 74.31%, with 3 bankruptcies, one bailout, and not a single winner in the bunch. Even the Roche Holdings takeover of Genentech was for 37% below the suggested purchase price. The lesson is that valuation matters.

Enjoy your weekend.

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