According to the AP, labor unions in the Czech Republic have demanded that stores either stop playing Christmas carols or compensate sales clerks for emotional trauma. OK, so it's no surprise that labor should have some clout in the Czech Republic, but emotional trauma?

Heck, we're not ones to begrudge anybody a payday, but you'd have to imagine there are countless workers who put up with sounds more traumatic than Christmas carols. We can't think of any, but we're sure they exist.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

How to Save $15 Billion

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)

My friend Whitney Tilson forwarded an article to me with a very simple note attached: "What a disgrace!" I couldn't have said it better.

The contents of the article were thus: The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which receives large donations from Fannie Mae(NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac(NYSE: FRE), is urging the Federal Reserve to drop an already completed study that shows that the two government-sponsored housing enterprises do not appreciably lower mortgage costs for consumers. Further, the report strongly suggests that the $15 billion in annual federal subsidies to the government-sponsored housing enterprises are largely unnecessary.

Let me take a second to translate, because I fear that many people fail to make a connection when we talk about federal funds. Fifteen billion of your tax money goes into subsidizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (along with the Federal Home Loan Bank system). The Federal Reserve has determined that this money is largely wasted.

Obviously, neither Fannie Mae nor Freddie Mac is very excited about the prospect of the Federal Reserve recommending that their taxpayer-funded gravy train be shut down, and so these entities have fired up the lobbying machine, meeting with the Hispanic Caucus and showing that a decrease in the subsidies for mortgages would have on their constituencies. Never mind the squishy economics involved in making such a claim, typical of the single-stage thinking that is so prevalent on Capitol Hill. And consider this simple fact: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are, by playing the "Well, it will hurt this constituency" card, conceding that the basic premise of the Federal Reserve study is true. The Hispanic Caucus is only too willing to play along, and has given Fannie and Freddie input into their response.

That is a disgrace. Fifteen billion dollars of our money being flushed down the drain, and congressionally chartered entities doing what they can from blocking another federal entity from making its findings public. Now, certainly, $15 billion isn't as much money as it once was, but I've got enough faith in capitalism to note that this amount of money, left in the hands of private citizenry, could create an enormous number of jobs.

You get the distinct feeling that Fannie Mae is quick with the numbers when it suits itself. It anxiously pointed out that 164,000 first-time minority homeowners would be priced out of the market if interest rates rose a quarter point, but it refuses to comply with requests from Sen. Chuck Hagel (R- Neb.) to report the amount of unrecoverable losses from its massive derivative book -- a substantially more important component for every Fannie Mae constituency, including shareholders, bond holders, homeowners, and, most importantly, taxpayers. If the numbers are accurate -- $15 billion and 164,000 homeowners -- that comes out to more than $91,000 in subsidies per family.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are fighting tooth and nail any attempts on Capitol Hill to reform oversight and regulations affecting the companies. Naturally, neither would be interested in letting that $15 billion in taxpayer money walk away. But remember, this isn't Freddie's money, nor is it Fannie's. It's yours. And at the moment, these two congressionally chartered entities are attempting to block a report that states that these expenditures are largely unnecessary, never mind whether or not it happens to be true.

The report is complete. I hope the Fed has the courage to go ahead and release it.

Quote of Note

"I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress." -- Ronald Reagan

Pfizer Stuffs Its Pipeline

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) finally put an end to Esperion Therapeutics'(Nasdaq: ESPR) fantastic year-long run by acquiring the biotech company for $1.3 billion in an all-cash deal. At $35 per share, that's a 54% premium to Espiron's Friday close.

Driving investor enthusiasm is ETC-216, a therapeutic protein that has been shown to actually reverse atherosclerosis -- the clogging of arteries. In early November, Esperion reported that ETC-216 reduced plaque volume by 4.2% in patients in a Phase II trial. These patients were given weekly injections of the drug over the course of only five weeks.

And the deal is a fit.

David Nierengarten noted here last month that the compound "would be a good complement to statin therapies that lower overall cholesterol levels." Among these statin therapies is Pfizer's Lipitor, which Esperion CEO Roger Newton co-discovered and developed. The idea is that patients will use ETC-216 in the event of emergency -- such as a heart attack -- and then follow up with a long-term regimen of Lipitor and toretrapib.

A Phase II study has shown that particular combination to enhance the "bad"-cholesterol-lowering effect of Lipitor while at the same time increasing "good" cholesterol.

Pfizer, which had previously acquired co-marketing rights for ETC-216 through its merger with Pharmacia, broadens its cardiovascular reach while stuffing its pipeline. In addition to ETC-216, Esperion brings a second Phase II compound in ETC-588 for carotid atherosclerosis, as well as several early-stage compounds.

The deal also caps a stunning rise in Esperion's shares, which in February hovered at just over $6.

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The High Price of Illness

When you're out sick from work, it can be a drag. You're achy, miserable, and there's nothing good on TV. But sometimes it's even more of a drag for your employer. The 500 widgets you would have assembled that day don't get assembled -- and therefore not sold, resulting in a drag on profits. For some companies, your absence requires the hiring of a replacement worker, to teach your classes or collect your highway tolls.

So how much do our health problems really cost American industry? According to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), a whopping $226 billion per year. That's more than a trillion dollars every five years. The ACOEM's survey of 29,000 U.S. workers yielded the following insights about "lost productivity time" (LPT):

  • About 71% of LPT costs were for non-sick-day time, when a worker is still at work but isn't operating at full capacity, due to some health-related factor such as a bad headache. Almost one-quarter (23%) of LPT costs were tied to worker absences, and the remaining 6% were due to workers taking time off to attend to family health issues.

  • The average LPT cost per worker was $1,700 in 2002. That's two hours of productivity lost per week -- roughly two-and-a-half weeks per year.

  • Smokers who consumed at least a pack a day generated twice as much lost productivity time as nonsmokers, while the health concerns of women resulted in LPT levels 30% higher than those of men.

This is all pretty bad news for company mangers. If the $1,700-per-worker figure is correct, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), with its 1.3 million-plus employees, faces more than $2 billion in annual LPT costs. General Electric's(NYSE: GE) 300,000-some workers generate more than $500 million in LPT costs. For Pfizer(NYSE: PFE), the cost is around $167 million; for Microsoft(Nasdaq: MSFT), $93 million; for Ford Motor Co.(NYSE: F) and UPS(NYSE: UPS), around $600 million.

A recent Detroit Free Pressarticle details the efforts of Ford, Merck(NYSE: MRK), and many others to learn more about these costs. The potential payoff if companies can find ways to reduce LPT is huge, and should be of interest to firms and shareholders alike. Wal-Mart's net income in fiscal 2003 was $8 billion, but in a more ideal world, without LPT it would have been $10 billion or more -- an increase of at least 25%.

Discussion Board of the Day: Voluntary Simplicity

Stressing out over forgetting whom you sent holiday cards to -- or who forgot about you? Want to check out a more simple approach that is outwardly simple yet inwardly rich? All this and more -- in the Voluntary Simplicity discussion board. Only on

More Fool News

For a list of all our stories from today, see Today's Headlines.

And Finally...

Five years ago, this bear warned Fools of an impending catastrophic crash. Rimpy and the Amazing BubblePort tells the story.... If you're looking to diversify your portfolio with REITs, Mathew Emmert has all the juicy details.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Paul Elliott, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Jeff Hwang, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Alyce Lomax, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Dave Marino-Nachison, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim