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.

Predicating the next recession
Bill McBride from the blog Calculated Risk -- one of the smartest economic analysts out there -- is pretty bullish on America right now. "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades," he recently wrote. But this week he shared some thoughts on what could possibly spark the next recession, including:

3) An exogenous event such as a pandemic, significant military conflict, disruption of energy supplies for any reason, a major natural disaster (meteor strike, super volcano, etc), and a number of other low probability reasons. 

2) Significant policy error. This might involve premature or too rapid fiscal or monetary tightening (like the US in 1937 or eurozone in 2012). 

1) Most of the post-WWII recessions were caused by the Fed tightening monetary policy to slow inflation. 

Desperation
Via Reuters, Business Insider explains how Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) CEO Steve Ballmer handles rising talent:

Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Steve Ballmer is not the right leader for the world's largest software company but holds his grip on it by systematically forcing out any rising manager who challenges his authority, claims a former senior executive who has written a book about his time at the company. ...

"Steve is a very good business guy, but make him a chief operating officer, not a CEO, and your business is going to go gangbusters," said Kempin. "I respect that guy (Ballmer), but there are some limitations in what he can and can't do and maybe he hasn't realized them himself."

Incentives
Star journalist Bethany McLean wonders whether prosecuting corporate fraudsters has made much difference:

Think back to the post-Enron years. The government convicted roughly a dozen former Enron executives, including former CEOs Kenneth Lay, who died awaiting sentencing, and Jeffrey Skilling, who is serving a 24-year prison sentence, and took accounting firm Arthur Andersen to trial, resulting in its demise. During that era, former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, former Quest CEO Joe Nacchio and former Adelphia executives were also convicted for misdeeds.

The goal, of course, was to deter future wrongdoing by those who don't want to play by the rules, and those whose appetite for risk could destroy a company. After that string of prosecutions, pundits (including yours truly) said that the world -- or at least the business world -- would be a much safer and steadier place.

Hmmm. By 2007, just one year after Lay and Skilling were convicted, the financial crisis, which had been decades in the making, was about to come crashing down on our heads. Part of the problem is that in corporate America, the odds are still very much in favor of those who game the system because the government, even at its most aggressive, doesn't have enough resources to go after everyone. In addition, the rules create loopholes that clever people exploit, violating the spirit while still remaining within the letter of the law. On top of that, a lot of what most of us would call wrongdoing doesn't involve intent -- a necessary ingredient for a criminal prosecution. Instead, you find the very human capacity for self-delusion -- and, sometimes, sheer stupidity.

Innovation
The Wall Street Journal details a remarkable breakthrough:

Scientists have stored audio and text on fragments of DNA and then retrieved them with near-perfect fidelity -- a technique that eventually may provide a way to handle the overwhelming data of the digital age.

The scientists encoded in DNA -- the recipe of life -- an audio clip of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, a photograph, a copy of Francis Crick and James Watson's famous "double helix" scientific paper on DNA from 1953 and Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. They later were able to retrieve them with 99.99% accuracy.

Pricing power
Michael Corkery writes:

College officials say the long-held faith among many Americans that college is worth whatever it costs is starting to waver under the weight of lackluster job prospects, stagnant wages and a pileup of student debt.

The shift is already threatening to put stress on some schools' finances. Average tuition this past year rose by the smallest percentage in at least 40 years among the 960 private schools that belong to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which collectively enroll 90% of the students in private colleges. It climbed 3.9% to $29,305.

Ovarian lottery
The Economist
lays out its "Where to be Born" index for 2013. This "links the results of subjective life-satisfaction surveys -- how happy people say they are -- to objective determinants of the quality of life across countries," it writes. Here are its findings (this is a partial list; see here for the full table):

Country

Where-to-be-Born Index Rank

Switzerland

8.22

Australia

8.12

Norway

8.09

Sweden

8.02

Denmark

8.01

Singapore

8.00

New Zealand

7.95

Netherlands

7.94

Canada

7.81

Hong Kong

7.80

Finland

7.76

Ireland

7.74

Austria

7.73

Taiwan

7.67

Belgium

7.51

Germany

7.38

United States

7.38

Self-stimulus
Former FDIC chairwomen Sheila Bair offers some contrarian (to be polite) advice:

So folks, get with the program: Stop saving and start borrowing. The government is showing zero tolerance for savers, keeping interest rates near zero while targeting inflation north of 2%. Every penny saved in your 0.0005% bank accounts is a penny fast losing value. You need to go out there and spend.

Road rage
Calculated Risk shows the total vehicle miles driven over the last 40 years:

Enjoy your weekend. 


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