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The incredible shrinking conglomerate

General Electric is “finally abandoning the strategy of sprawl,” said Geoff Colvin. The storied conglomerate is selling off the assets of its biggest business, financial-services arm GE Capital, to focus on manufacturing. GE Capital has been the source of half of GE’s profits in previous years, yet investors cheered the sale. Why? “The world’s biggest diversified conglomerates are finally realizing that combining entirely dissimilar businesses in one company almost never works.” From 2002 to 2010, conglomerates produced a median annual total return of 7.5 percent to shareholders, versus 11.8 percent for more focused companies, according to research firm McKinsey.



And the truth is, profitable operations that bear no connection to the rest of the company are probably worth more on their own anyway. Recognition of that fact has sparked “an epidemic of breakups” in recent years: News Corp. has separated its print and entertainment businesses, eBay has parted ways with PayPal, and Hewlett-Packard has split off its PC business from its enterprisehardware interests, among dozens of other examples. Now, “GE is on the road to becoming a coherent whole,” focused on power generation, locomotives, jet engines, and oil and gas equipment. Let’s hope more outsize companies follow its “deconglomeration” lead.

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Why I can’t get a mortgage

What does a guy have to do to get a home loan these days? asked Stephen Moore. I can make a 25 percent down payment. I’ve never missed a mortgage payment in 25 years. “I’m upper middle class.” Yet, every bank I go to, I’m denied as a “high-risk borrower.” Eight years ago, during “the go-go days of the real estate frenzy,” my loan would have been approved in a heartbeat. But thanks to Dodd-Frank’s meddling in lending rules, “the pendulum has swung to the other extreme,” and underwriting standards have become “absurdly tight.”



The main reason I’ve been denied is a below-average credit score, which infuriatingly is the result of just two late credit card payments in 30 years and $300 worth of unpaid parking tickets. “But here is why I really want to pull my hair out”: While my application is denied, my tax dollars subsidize hundreds of thousands of truly risky mortgages to people who are putting down as little as 3 percent. “These are the loans that will likely default.” Uncle Sam now backs a record number of new mortgages, with nearly 90 percent having some form of federal insurance. And yet I can’t get a loan? “Only in America.”

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The high price of cheap oil

“The oil industry, with its history of booms and busts, is in a new downturn,” said Clifford Krauss in The New York Times. The price of oil closed under $40 a barrel this week for the first time since 2009, a 60 percent plunge from its peak last year. The explanation “boils down to the simple economics of supply and demand.” The world is awash in crude, with U.S. oil production doubling over the past six years.

Meanwhile, the economic slowdown in China, the world’s largest oil importer, and sluggish growth in other developing countries are crippling demand. There’s no end in sight for the global oil glut, said Russell Gold in The Wall Street Journal. Lower prices mean even more pressure on oil-producing countries to pump to make up for lost revenues. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq are pumping as many barrels as they can in order to defend their market share, in a battle that’s looking increasingly like “the energy-industry version of trench warfare.”



“At first blush, $40-a-barrel oil sounds like a beautiful thing,” said Andy Serwer in Yahoo.com. American consumers get cheaper gas, businesses benefit from lower energy bills, and automakers sell more vehicles, especially gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. But there’s a price to pay for all this cheap oil. Employment in the 500,000-person U.S. oil and gas industry will take a hit as energy companies scale back operations. Cheap, plentiful gasoline could also derail work on alternative fuel sources like solar and wind. Jobs are already being lost in the energy industry around the world, said Debbie Carlson in The Guardian (U.K.).

Last week, Royal Dutch Shell said it would eliminate 6,500 jobs worldwide in response to collapsing crude prices. Because such layoffs tend to lag market prices, “more job cuts could be on the way.” Here in Texas, cash-strapped oil companies are already shifting into “survival mode,” said Rhiannon Meyers and Jordan Blum in the Houston Chronicle. Companies are slashing costs by putting hundreds of rigs into storage and canceling  expensive projects, including deep-water drilling and oil sands extraction. “Gone are the days of frenetic growth, lavish spending, and frantic hiring sprees.” The one bright spot: Companies that survive will emerge leaner and more cost-conscious, focused on safer bets in areas with proven resources.

The most dramatic consequences of the oil bust will unfold beyond U.S. borders, said Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. “When a similar drop happened in the 1980s, the Soviet  Union collapsed.” Countries that rely on oil revenues are “facing a fiscal reckoning” that could fuel unrest. Venezuela’s socialist government has long been propped up by oil, which makes up 96 percent of its exports. Vladimir Putin’s reign has coincided with a steep rise in oil prices, but Russia’s economy is expected to contract 3.4 percent this year. Saudi Arabia, where the royal family spends oil revenues lavishly to preserve its legitimacy, now faces massive budget deficits. Cheap oil may be a boon for consumers, but it will create more uncertainty in an already uncertain world.

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One side effect of the recession was a surge

One side effect of the recession was a surge in college attendance. Nearly 3 million Americans enrolled in the fall of 2009, half a million more than in fall 2007. However, barely more than half of those students—52.9 percent—have graduated with a bachelor ’s or associate’s degree in the six years since.

The combined working-age population of the world’s advanced economies will shrink next year for the first time since 1950. This demographic reversal will mean slower economic growth, less demand for durable goods such as cars, and more demand for services like health care.



Between March and September, more than $110 billion in auto loans went to U.S. borrowers with credit scores below 660, the cutoff for what’s considered “good” credit. About $70 billion went to borrowers with scores below 620, a level deemed “bad.” Subprime auto loans are now at nearly the same level as they were in 2006.

Just 57 percent of American adults were able to pass a basic, five-question financial decision-making test, according to a global study conducted by the World Bank, Gallup, and George Washington University. That put the U.S. 14th in the world for financial literacy, behind other developed nations like Finland, Australia, and Germany.

Congress is considering a bill that would revoke or deny passports for U.S. citizens who are “seriously delinquent” on taxes of $50,000 or more. Lawmakers have estimated that cracking down on delinquent taxpayers in this manner will raise $398 mil lion over 10 years.

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Autos: UAW passes contracts with Ford, GM

Autos: UAW passes contracts with Ford, GM
After a season of contentious negotiations, the United Auto Workers union now has contracts with the three big Detroit automakers, said Dee-Ann Durbin in the Associated Press. Workers narrowly ratified deals with General Motors and Ford last week, after approving a deal with Fiat Chrysler in October. The union achieved its goal of ending an unpopular two-tier wage system that prevented newer workers from eventually earning the same as veteran employees, but many workers were upset that they weren’t able to reverse other “painful concessions”— like forgoing guaranteed pay raises—made while automakers were struggling following the financial crisis.



Housing: Home equity goes untapped
Despite the housing market’s rebound, homeowners aren’t feeling flush, said Joe Light in The Wall Street Journal. Home equity has roughly doubled to $12.1 trillion since 2011, but its impact on consumer spending is the lowest since the early 1990s. Homeowners borrowed $43.5 bil lion against their homes during the first half of 2015—just a quarter of the amount they did during the same period in 2007, the last time equity was this high. Many homeowners don’t realize they have equity to tap. Roughly 27 percent of homeowners think they are underwater on their mortgage, though just 8.7 percent currently are.

Tech: Square’s initial public offering underwhelms
Mobile payments company Square was stung last week by Wall Street’s growing tech skepticism, said Andrea Chang and David Pierson in the Los Angeles Times. The Silicon Valley darling lowered its initial public offering from the expected $11 to $13 per share to $9, given a market environment in which investors are increasingly questioning the value of multibillion-dollar tech startups. Square, which has yet to make a profit, faces fierce competition from PayPal, American Express, and others.

Commerce: Delivery firms expect joyous holidays
Shipping companies anticipate a bumper holiday season this year, said Laura Stevens in The Wall Street Journal. Parcel-delivery services like FedEx, UPS, and DHL are expecting to ship record numbers of packages, thanks to growth in online shopping and changing inventory strategies by retailers that involve stocking fewer goods in stores in order to better respond to “rapidly shifting consumer demand.” UPS predicts its deliveries will increase 10 percent over last year’s, to a record 630 million packages between Black Friday and New Year’s Eve.

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Pfizer, Allergan merge in $160B deal

Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Allergan have agreed to a $160 billion merger, the biggest corporate deal yet driven by a “controversial tax-saving strategy,” said Kevin McCoy in USA Today. Pfizer, the maker of Viagra and Lipitor, will move its headquarters from the U.S. to Ireland, where Botox maker Allergan is based, cutting the company’s overall tax rate to as little as 12.5 percent. The merger comes as the Obama administration moves to crack down on so-called tax inversions, though the Pfizer deal has been carefully crafted to comply with new Treasury Department rules on the maneuvers. If approved, the deal will create the world’s biggest drug company.



Pfizer’s multibillion-dollar “opus of financial engineering” could be more trouble than it’s worth, said Robert Cyran in The New York Times. Merging with Allergan will achieve hefty tax savings over the next decade, but not much more than the $30 billion premium Pfizer has agreed to pay Allergan shareholders. What’s more, “big drug mergers in the past have not always panned out.” Firing redundant workers means savings, but “slamming together two drug giants often creates discord in the laboratory.” And while Pfizer has technically followed the Treasury’s inversion rules, “taking on the government so directly is a risky tactic in such a heavily regulated sector.”

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