The 8 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 eight most fascinating ones I read this week.

1. The new normal
Bloomberg's Kevin Depew uses a Google chart a Google chart to show how much things have changed in the housing market. Searches for the phrase "home equity" have dropped like a rock:

2. Our dulling global edge
I think America's best days are ahead. But alas, so are many other countries'. Catherine Rampell of TheNew York Timeselaborates on our relative decline: "For the fourth consecutive year, Switzerland is the most competitive economy in the world, according to a ranking from the World Economic Forum. And, for the fourth consecutive year, the United States fell in the rankings -- largely because of worsening criticism of the American government -- and is now in seventh place."

3. Downright depressing
There are no other words for this statistic cited by

More than 50 million Americans couldn't afford to buy food at some point in 2011, according to federal data. Children in some 3.9 million households suffered from food insecurity last year, with their families unable to provide them with adequate, nutritious food at times. Nearly 17 million Americans suffered from "very low food security," meaning they had to reduce the amount they ate, saying the food they bought did not last and they didn't have the funds to buy more.

4. Health and wealth
Gapminder shows how income per person correlates with life expectancy around the world (click here for a larger image):

5. Buybacks gone bad
Ted Barac obliteratesDell's (NAS: DELL) destructive history of repurchasing its stock:

Based on their annual 10K filings, from Fiscal Year 2005 to 2012, Dell has purchased approximately 989 million of its own shares at a cost of over $24bn. At current market prices, the loss on those purchases amounts to approximately $12bn. ... To put this in perspective, Dell's current market capitalization, following the after-market earnings sell-off, is now under $24 billion. In other words, over the past seven years they have spent more on share repurchases compared to the total current market value of the company's equity.

6. That'll do it
The Economistreports on a study of tax evasion in Greece:

The authors look at a dataset from a large Greek bank, which contains information on individual borrowers' credit applications between 2003 and 2010. Taken at face value, the data for self-employed borrowers make no sense. On average, self-employed Greeks spend 82% of their monthly reported income -- ie, the amount they declare to the tax office -- on servicing debt payments. Some professions, like lawyers and doctors, appear to spend more than 100% of their income on debt servicing.

That cannot be right: a rough rule of thumb is that a third of income should go on debt payments. Banks would not lend at these steepling debt-to-income ratios. Weirder still, the delinquency rates on loans do not seem to vary in line with these ratios: self-employed Greek doctors are both the most indebted profession and the one with the lowest delinquency probabilities.

The explanation, confirmed by bankers in statements to the authors, is that Greek banks have adapted their credit models to adjust borrowers' reported incomes up to a best guess of their actual incomes.

7. A lack of perspective
Lynn Stout writes in the Los Angeles Times about how companies like General Electric (NYS: GE) , Citigroup (NYS: C) , and Sears Holdings (NAS: SHLD) have cost shareholders by obsessing over...shareholders:

It's now become clear, however, that a relentless focus on share price can hurt not only employees, taxpayers and society, but shareholders too. Managers who are pressured to raise stock price quickly often resort to tricks -- selling assets, cutting payroll and investment, draining cash through dividends and share repurchase programs -- to bump up stock price for a year or two. But such strategies often hurt a company's long-term ability to grow and prosper.

8. "Smart" money
Hedge funds are way, way overrated. Presented without comment: "The latest reading from Bank of America Merrill Lynch's investible hedge fund composite index finds that hedge funds are up just 1.85% so far in 2012, while the S&P 500 has rallied to gain nearly 12% over the same period. A separate tally from Goldman Sachs shows that the average hedge fund is up 4.6% so far in 2012, and that only 11% of the hedge funds it tracks have beaten a low cost S&P 500 index fund."

Enjoy your weekend.

The article The 8 Most Fascinating Things I Read This Week originally appeared on

Fool contributorMorgan Houseldoesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel.The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup. 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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