Opinion

Felix Salmon

Online course of the day, investing department

Felix Salmon
Nov 21, 2012 15:39 UTC

Would you like to take a free online university course which teaches you the basics of quantitative analysis and also helps you manage your money so that you get high returns with low risk? Of course you would. Let me introduce you to Computational Investing, Part I, taught by Tucker Balch, Ph.D., on the Coursera website.

Under “Recommended Background” we’re told that “the primary prerequisite is an excitement about the stock market”. And there are two recommendations under “Suggested Readings”, including All About Hedge Funds : The Easy Way to Get Started, by Robert Jaeger. (Apparently it “explains how any investor can take advantage of the high-potential returns of hedge funds while incorporating safeguards to limit their volatility and risk”.)

This is a genuine university course: it’s the same one that Balch teaches at Georgia Tech. And so you’d expect a few disclaimers, at least, along the lines of “this is an introductory course, it’ll help you understand a few concepts, and maybe be the first step on the road to becoming a quantitative analyst yourself one day, but please, kids, don’t try this at home”.

You might expect such a thing, but you’d be disappointed. Instead, you get the exact opposite. Check out Week 4 (you might have to register; it’s easy and free) and then “Lecture Video 1.2: Response to Questions from Students”. According to Balch, the “number one most popular question” he gets asked is “Do I use these techniques to manage my own funds?”. He responds as forthrightly as he can:

The answer is yes.

Balch continues:

I have a number of different investments that I use these approaches for. With regard to my company, Lucena Research, we manage a few small funds as a way to test our techniques and validate them. One of them in particular I’ll show you in just a moment.

It’s far from clear how a student who has merely taken an online course might ever hope to replicate the returns that Balch manages to generate at Lucena (“Hedge Fund Technology for the Strategic Investor”). But in any case Balch does share with us a Lucena portfolio which “was developed specifically to be low risk”. It looks like this:

I look at this and I immediately get suspicious: there’s something quite Madoff-like about the way in which Balch’s returns go steadily up and to the right regardless of what the stock market is doing. Here’s how Balch explains what’s going on in there:

This approach was developed specifically to be low risk. It includes a basket of less than 20 equities that are traded about every 2 weeks. It’s 2X leveraged, meaning that half of the money is borrowed investment.

So this approach is a 2X levered fund with less than 20 stocks? Sounds very risky to me. But Balch shows us the numbers to prove that it isn’t:

The first thing to note here is that although Balch told us he was going to show us one of the “small funds” that he uses “to test our techniques and validate them”, this does not look like a real-money fund. There’s no indication, for starters, of what the borrowing costs are: if the fund is indeed 2X leveraged, how much does it cost to borrow $10 million on an ongoing basis?

Maybe those numbers are somehow incorporated into the returns — but then there’s the very odd section on “Transaction Costs”. The commissions bit makes sense: if you trade 10 times a week on average for 20 months, then that’s about 860 trades in all, and the commissions add up to about $20 per trade.

But then there’s the “slippage”, which doesn’t make sense. Commissions are real costs: they’re the amount of money you have to pay your broker to execute your trades. Slippage, on the other hand, is not a real cost, but rather a theoretical cost: it’s the difference between the official market price of a security, and the price you actually end up paying. It’s a way of taking a theoretical portfolio, which always trades at the market price, and adjusting the returns to make them more realistic. If you have a real portfolio, as Balch suggests that he does, then there’s no “slippage”: the slippage is built in to your actual returns.

So it seems that Balch, after promising to show us the returns that one of his “small funds” has generated, ends up doing no such thing. (And also, I don’t think that a $20 million fund would count as “small” for a college professor who tells us that most of his money is in his TIAA-CREF retirement account.) Still, he says:

This is a conservative approach which nets about 15%-20% per year. You can absolutely follow more risky approaches that’ll provide higher returns. This is the kind of approach I follow.

In other words, if you take what Balch is saying at face value, he’s managed to come up with a conservative investment strategy, which is levered 2-to-1, which generates returns of more than 15% per year, which he follows himself. And he encourages his students to try to do the exact same thing.

There are lots of courses on Coursera, and most of them aren’t as sketchy as this. But I do think that what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a serious problem with online universities like Coursera: you can never be sure about their quality control. And in general, if you’re taking a college course where the professor encourages you to lever up a small number of stock-market investments in the hope of getting low-volatility 20% returns, I’d advise thinking twice about that professor, and that course. Because it just doesn’t pass the smell test.

COMMENT

Hi Felix, Your post raises some provocative questions. I’m glad to have an opportunity to respond.

You focus on a lecture in which I am responding to student questions 3 weeks into the course. Here is some context:

Engagement is one of the key challenges in teaching a MOOC. It’s much tougher than in person teaching. In order to build that engagement I invited the students to post questions in the course forum and to vote for the questions they were most interested in. I promised to answer the 10 questions with the most votes.

The question with the most votes by far was “Do you manage your own money using computational investment techniques?”

This is not a topic I planned to address in the syllabus. However, the question is fair enough, and I felt it deserved an answer. You raised some questions about the details of the strategy I described, and I’ll address those further down. But the point here is that this was a response to questions from the students.

With regard to goals for this course: The course is not intended to provide comprehensive coverage of quantitative techniques. It’s intended to offer an introduction to the most important topics (CAPM, EMH, risk/reward, survivor bias) and to provide some hands-on experience with historical data. The goal is to spark interest with the hope that some students will carry that forward to deeper study. I think that is pretty clear from the course description materials. I do not recommend or suggest that anybody rush out and start managing a hedge fund on the basis of this course.

Also, the course is not meant to be a replacement for the course I teach in person at Georgia Tech. The content represents only about 1/3 of the course I teach at GT. We do not provide course credit for completing this course.

You criticized the recommended reading “All about Hedge Funds” by Jaeger. Remember that one goal is to make the subject accessible, and Jaeger’s book provides a readable introduction to many of the details of the industry. You didn’t mention my other recommendation, “Active Portfolio Management” by Grinold and Kahn. This is a substantial tome viewed by many as a standard reference for portfolio management. I think it would have been fair to mention both.

You go on to comment on the presentation of a strategy I trade. And you make some good points.

Let me first be more specific about what is depicted. The chart and analysis are a back test of a strategy simulated since January 2011. The back test simulates a $20M initial investment at 2X leverage. The strategy has been traded live with a more modest sum over the last 4 months. Return over that period is 2.7% (without leverage). We plan to lever up soon.

With regard to slippage: You are correct that in practice this “cost” is built into the results. The slippage value reported in the chart is an estimate provided by the simulation.

Best regards,

Tucker Balch

Posted by TuckerBalch | Report as abusive

Why is NYU building?

Felix Salmon
Jul 9, 2012 05:22 UTC

On Thursday, I looked at the way in which cultural institutions tend to spend a huge amount of money on architecture, even if they would be better off spending that money more directly on their missions. In response, I got a fascinating email from a professor at NYU, asking me about its plan to spend some $6 billion on a hugely ambitious construction project — one which is fiercely opposed by local residents and NYU faculty.

The opposition is predictable, of course: Greenwich Village is as Nimbyish as communities get, and the professors who are railing against the plan are precisely the people who are going to suffer the most from endless construction work and ultimately the disappearance of the views and light many of them currently enjoy. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong to oppose the plan. As we saw at Cooper Union, ambitious construction projects can be hugely damaging to colleges — especially ones which don’t have a large endowment to fall back on.

At Harvard, the empire-building of Larry Summers resulted in a disaster — but at least the endowment is huge enough that if Harvard loses $1.8 billion, it’s not the end of the world. At NYU, by contrast, the size of the endowment is significantly smaller than the budget for the university’s expansion. And as a result, the whole project is significantly riskier. If NYU ends up having to dip into its endowment to fund losses on this project, then that could be hugely damaging for an institution which is already under-endowed by the standards of most top-tier US colleges.

The situation at NYU Is, I think, the flipside of the saga we just saw at the University of Virginia. There, a popular president found herself at odds with trustees who had been successful in the private sector; at NYU, the faculty is similarly opposed to the plans of the trustees, but in this case the president is very much aligned with what the trustees want.

In both cases, it seems, the faculty seems pretty happy with the state and status of the university as it stands, and are looking for low-risk stewardship. The trustees, by contrast, are much more aggressive, and are looking for growth and full-bore engagement in the higher-education arms race known as Bowen’s Rule. Here’s how Howard Bowen put his five-point rule in 1980:

  1. The dominant goals of institutions are educational excellence, prestige, and influence.
  2. In quest of excellence, prestige, and influence, there is virtually no limit to the amount of money an institution could spend for seemingly fruitful educational needs.
  3. Each institution raises all the money it can.
  4. Each institution spends all it raises.
  5. The cumulative effect of the preceding four laws is toward ever increasing expenditure.

On top of that, there are many New York-specific idiosyncrasies involved in the NYU plan. NYU is nestled in the heart of downtown New York, on some of the most valuable land in the world. That makes expansion insanely expensive, of course — but it also raises opportunities for a higher-education form of regulatory arbitrage.

New York has strict and recondite zoning laws, which are largely responsible for the value of any given plot of land. Take a site in Greenwich Village: if all you’re allowed to build there is a few townhouses, it’s going to be worth a fraction of its value if you’re allowed to erect a 40-story hotel. Every so often, zoning is changed, normally in the direction of allowing more development. When that happens, the people lucky enough to own the land in question make windfall profits.

This dynamic helps explain the way in which property developers are deeply enmeshed in city politics — and it also, I think, helps explain a lot of NYU’s behavior. NYU, quite aside from being an educational non-profit, is also the largest property developer in downtown New York. And with this plan, it’s trying to change the zoning for a lot of the Washington Square area in a way that will, if all goes according to plan, essentially drop a huge pile of money in the university’s lap. Hence the proposals for things like hotels and retail: they’re not allowed right now, and if they do become allowed, NYU fully intends to build such things and make substantial profits from them.

This isn’t a stupid plan. It makes sense, if you don’t have a $30 billion endowment throwing off huge amounts of cash every year, then you look for income in other places.

On the other hand, when a university turns property developer that’s decided mission creep — and it’s mission creep accompanied by billions of dollars in debt. Property magnates generally do really well for themselves — until they don’t. And here’s where you can see the cleavage between NYU’s trustees and its faculty. The trustees tend to be successful businesspeople — people who have had the requisite combination of risk appetite and luck that’s necessary to make lots of money. And rich people have another characteristic, too: they nearly always overestimate the amount of skill and underestimate the amount of luck which went into their success. Plus, they think that success is somehow infectious: if they’ve made their millions through levering up, then that’s probably a good strategy for the non-profits whose board they’re on, too.

On top of that, the president-and-trustee class of people has a natural tendency to want to build monuments to themselves, as well as a certain emotional detachment when it comes to empathy with other people. They’ve seen the plans: the architects have shown them glossy pictures of what Greenwich Village is going to look like in 2031, but they don’t really feel the amount of noise and pain involved in getting there from here. They don’t live in Washington Square Village.

And most importantly, they don’t need to rack up enormous student loans just to attend NYU in the first place. Here’s the chart, from the NYT’s excellent infographic on university tuition and student debt:

You can see from this chart that while there are lots of colleges which charge NYU-level tuition fees, NYU is among the very worst of them in terms of the amount of debt its students are burdened with upon graduation. That’s partly because it has a relatively small endowment, and therefore can’t offer the level of financial aid that, say, Princeton can; it’s also, of course, a function of the fact that New York is an incredibly expensive place for a student to live. But either way, if NYU cared about its students as much as it cares about its reputation, it would be searching hard for ways to decrease the debt they’re graduating with.

Instead, NYU is embarking on a building plan which will almost certainly, in one way or another, feed through into higher tuition fees and higher levels of student debt at graduation. After all, tuition fees are a hugely important source of income for NYU, and NYU is going to need all the income it can lay its hands on if it’s going to be able to pay off the loans it takes out to construct all these new buildings.

I’m no preservationist stick-in-the-mud: I think that cities need to evolve over time, and that if Greenwich Village had a bit more density, New York would cope just fine. I also carry no torch for things like “the acclaimed Sasaki Garden”, which turns out to be a bunch of concrete planters which are all but inaccessible to real New Yorkers. If NYU wants to replace that garden with something better, I’m all ears.

But I do think it’s worth asking some pointed questions about who exactly all this construction is supposed to benefit. It’s certainly not the current students, who will be long gone by the time it even gets started. It’s not the current faculty, whose lives will be disrupted and who are almost unanimously opposed. And there’s a strong case that it’s not future students, either, who will see even higher tuition fees and I’m sure won’t welcome the extra student loans they’re going to have to take out.

Universities will always have plans to expand — and indeed NYU already has campuses in no fewer than four different countries. Before embracing this particular plan, then, it might be worth looking at the history of previous university expansion projects, and asking whether they actually delivered on the promises they made at this point in the process. Because the costs of this particular project seem a lot more obvious than the benefits do.

COMMENT

The author makes a lot of good points (as do the 2 NYU profs and OceanDrive re: the Sasaki Gardens.) All you really need to know about the wisdom of NYU2031 is that NYU’s business school, which is no bastion of liberalism nor is it anti-development, voted 52 to 3 against the plan!

Most importantly (and impressively), Mr. Salmon has his finger on the key issue: Whom would or would not benefit from NYU2031? He also has the right answer: Almost no one would benefit from this outrageous grab for personal benefit at the expense of public good except NYU’s president (anyone want to bet whose name graces the project?), NYU’s trustees, who undoubtedly lead the companies that would construct, finance, lawyer and design the project, plus the legions hired by that president and those trustees to promote and support it in every way.

Consider this fact. I sat through the entire 9 hour NY City Council meeting on NYU2031 June 29th (which wasn’t fun), and I estimate that about 75 people testified in FAVOR of the project (as opposed to about double that number AGAINST.) Of those 75 supporters, maybe 8 were well meaning undergrads who see that NYU has inadequate space (never mind that NYU CREATED that problem itself by knowingly admitting more students than it had space for), and want “enhanced prestige” for their future alma mater. Another 5 or so (again, my estimate) fall into the category of “fringe opinions,” including 1 architectural “expert” whom I’ve noticed supporting, well, just about every development project out there. The remaining 60+ people who testified in FAVOR of NYU2031 were either paid directly by NYU to support the project (NYU administration employees), hope to profit personally from it (outside advisors hired by NYU’s administration), or general business support groups of which NYU is undoubtedly a major supporter. In contrast, I couldn’t pick out even a single person who testified AGAINST the project who would benefit financially from killing it. Instead, all of those people would be harmed personally, and severely in many cases, if NYU2031 goes through (anyone want to live in a 20 year construction zone? Or pick up and move your life because someone else insisted on inflicting that on you?)

So, there you have what’s most importantly at stake with NYU2031: it’s personal profit for a (private) minority at the expense of widespread social cost for the (public) majority. If that wasn’t the case, then why doesn’t NYU construct in a commercially zoned area that wants it, like the financial district? Or better yet, lease space there? Duh!

Posted by JustTheFactsMan | Report as abusive

Why Cooper Union can’t be trusted

Felix Salmon
Apr 25, 2012 16:23 UTC

Remember the murky finances of Cooper Union, which went from healthy to disastrous in no time at all? There’s a lot of controversy about what went wrong, where exactly the problems lie, and what’s the best way to fix them. But one thing’s abundantly clear: the management and trustees of Cooper Union have been unhelpfully opaque about the college’s finances for years, and the college’s students and alumni are fed up with the “trust us, we’ve worked it out this time” approach.

The first thing that’s needed, before any big decisions about things like tuition fees, is transparency about Cooper Union’s finances, and generally much more openness and clarity from management. After all, this is the place where contractor Jonathan Rose got a $2 million contract to oversee the new flagship academic building, while before* his mother Sandra Priest Rose sat on Cooper’s board of trustees — all without any kind of disclosure as to how he was selected. Was Sandra Priest Rose’s pledge of $5 million towards the building contingent on her son getting that contract? No one knows.

But transparency, it turns out, is exactly the opposite of what we’ve ended up getting. Yesterday, Cooper Union’s president, Jamshed Barucha, posted a “framework for action” on the college’s website. In it, we’re told that something called the Revenue Task Force has released an “interim report” which has “recommended” that Cooper “explore” charging fees for “academic programs that build on our unique strengths”, which “may include master’s and other professional programs”.

All of which sounds rather tentative, but in principle the timing here is propitious. Tomorrow sees the Second Community Summit at Cooper Union where the Task Force’s report could be discussed and debated.

Except, discussion and debate isn’t really what Cooper is looking for here. Barucha has not released the Task Force report, and shows no sign of doing so. And for all the qualifiers in his note, it’s quite clear that the decision has already been made. “Cooper Union to Charge“, says the WSJ; “Cooper Union Will Charge Tuition for Graduate Students“, says the NYT.

The WSJ is a good guide to the official Cooper Union line:

The school’s economic troubles date to the early 1990s, when rent it received from the land it owns under the Chrysler Building decreased from $13 million to $11 million while school expenses increased.

It’s far from clear that this is even true: Barry Drogin, for one, who has looked into this issue very deeply, says quite unambiguously that “the Chrysler Building rent and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) have risen steadily every year, with large increases scheduled every ten years starting in 2018.” In any case, the Chrysler-building-rent problem is long solved. Revenue from the building will be $32.5 million in 2018, $41 million in 2028, and $55 million in 2031. Cooper’s fiscal problems have nothing to do with insufficient income from the Chrysler Building, and the fact that Cooper still seems wedded to that storyline is worrying.

And then there’s this:

Mr. Bharucha said he has received backing for the plan in recent discussions with faculty and alumni nationwide. “There is very strong, if silent, majority who are highly supportive of a plan that energizes the institution,” he said.

I love the idea of a “very strong” majority which is “highly supportive” of this plan — and yet, for all their incredible support, are somehow completely silent. Bharucha might as well have said that pigs fly when you’re not watching them: his statement might be unfalsifiable, but at the same time it’s also completely implausible. Cooper’s stakeholders are incredibly mistrustful of Bharucha and the trustees, and it’s hard to see how even a silent majority could be supporting a plan which exists only in the vaguest possible form.

After all, we’ve been here before. In 2006, Cooper Union filed something called a cy pres petition, in a successful attempt to get New York to allow it to borrow money against the Chrysler Building. That petition only came to light years later: the whole process, at the time, was shrouded in secrecy. And you can see why that might be: even as Cooper was loudly proclaiming its health in public, the petition was saying that “The Cooper Union currently faces the possibility that it will become unable to carry out its statutory mission in the not-too-distant future”; that it “currently faces a grave fiscal crisis”; and that even faced a real risk of losing its academic accreditation.

As part of that petition, Cooper committed to implementing something called a Master Plan, which involved cutting spending, raising $250 million, increasing the amount that alumni donate to the school, and other things, none of which really happened. As the board of trustees reported in 2011, “three key components of the Master Plan were not achieved as anticipated” — all of which were vastly more germane to the current fiscal crisis than any change in Chrysler Building rents in the early 1990s.

In other words, there’s really no reason why anybody should trust Bharucha or the trustees — to have any faith that they’re being fully truthful with the rest of the school, or that they’re in any position to successfully execute on their promises.

And what of the huge new $160 million (ish) academic building? The trustees still say that it has nothing to do with the fiscal crisis, despite the fact that it’s responsible for some $10 million a year in interest payments:

It is also important to state that 41 Cooper Square was not the cause of the current financial dilemma. Its construction relieved Cooper Union of the costs that would have had to be incurred to renovate the old engineering building and the Hewitt Building to make them acceptable sites for a 21st century education and meet accreditation standards.

This just doesn’t pass the smell test. There’s some small possibility that it’s true, but unless and until the trustees show how they arrived at this conclusion, I have no reason to believe them. The engineering faculty actually voted against the construction of the new academic building, saying that they were more than capable of staying where they were at significantly lower cost. (This fact was, of course, not included in the cy pres petition.)

More to the point, there’s never been a coherent account of how exactly Cooper Union ever intended to pay off the massive $175 million loan it took out to construct the new building. It needed its income from the Chrysler Building to pay its annual costs; and of course it doesn’t have any tuition revenue, since it doesn’t charge tuition.

This is the main thing that has never been adequately explained — by constructing the new building, Cooper Union added on a permanent $10 million annual expense, without any stated means of being able to cover that expense. The new academic building is a sunk cost at this point, of course. But until the trustees explain their logic surrounding its construction, it’s going to be extremely difficult to trust them to do the right thing going forwards.

*Update: Finally, some clarity on the Jonathan Rose/Sandra Priest Rose question. Tellingly, it comes from Roxanne Donovan, a representative of Jonathan Rose Companies, rather than from Cooper Union. She says that Jonathan Rose was hired more than a year before his mother was invited to join Cooper’s board; she also says that there was a formal RFP process for the selection of Jonathan Rose Companies.

Why Cooper Union wasn’t able to be transparent about this itself simply baffles me, and really makes my point. Just because you’re being secretive doesn’t mean you have something to hide.

COMMENT

My son is a serious artist who chose to go to Cooper Union because he wanted a rigorous environment that valued art as highly as engineering, architecture and outside of the this school as high as our society values medicine, business and/or finance.His first year of 2011 was fantastic and then the politics began. The art department seemed to lead the protests sacrificing the value of its mission which was to guide young serious artists into serious careers. My son was first very active in the protests because of his love for Cooper Union, but later he began to see what really was happening. The Cooper administration/educators did not seem to value art education and allowed the art students to destroy their own program. My son said how his critiques changed. If you were not involved with the politics your art was irrelevant. Exhibitions were no longer that important. He watched the tragic demise of a once strong art department all in the disgusting name of politics. No one seems to realize the true tragedy of Cooper Union. It is what all this has done to the current students who chose this school above others because they believed in its intense process and pure values. My son refused many scholarship offers to other schools to accept the promise of Cooper Union. I am sure he is not alone in his frustration and disillusionment.

Posted by jlj212 | Report as abusive

How much is a law degree worth?

Felix Salmon
Jan 10, 2011 05:33 UTC

David Segal is the best writer on the NYT’s business desk, so it’s a good thing that he was chosen to pen today’s 5,000-word disquisition on the economics of law degrees. He’s taken a particularly dry subject and turned it into a compelling and accessible read; that’s no mean feat.

At the heart of the article is law schools’ bait-and-switch operation: universities rake in millions of dollars in tuition fees from students who are given to understand that a well-paid job lies waiting for them upon graduation. But such jobs are hard to find and precious few law graduates will ever waltz straight into a $160,000-a-year Biglaw job, especially if they graduate from a non-top-tier school.

The connection between well-paid jobs and top-tier universities is well known and as a result, there’s something of a statistical arms race going on between universities, all of which want to improve their rankings. Segal doesn’t quite accuse the colleges of outright lies, but he comes very close: at one point, for instance, he talks about the “several different explanations” which Georgetown Law provided to explain a suspicious-looking offer of temporary work to unemployed graduates, one of which claimed that the university — which was also the graduates’ employer — didn’t know where those alums were.

But I’m a wonk and I’d like to have seen a few more numbers in this piece. For instance, when Segal says that only “a small fraction of graduates are winning the Big Law sweepstakes”, I’d like to know what that fraction is: roughly what proportion of the nation’s law graduates, each year, is going to get one of those $160,000-a-year jobs?

And then there’s this:

In the Wonderland of these statistics, a remarkable number of law school grads are not just busy — they are raking it in. Many schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000. That seems highly unlikely, given that Harvard and Yale, at the top of the pile, list the exact same figure.

Even at Harvard and Yale I’m suspicious of that $160,000 figure; for the non-top-tier colleges, it’s clearly fictional. No matter how many of your graduates go on to $160,000-a-year jobs, there’s always going to be a significant number who earn a lot less than that and there are going to be almost none who earn more. As a result, the mode might be $160,000, but the median will never be that high. (And in reality the distribution of law-grad salaries is highly bimodal, with the first mode at a much lower level.)

Dean Baker has a more serious criticism of Segal’s piece, noting that “most of the new jobs that are being created are at the top and the bottom of the skills level”. If that’s the case, he says, “then the NYT has seriously misrepresented the state of the legal market”.

I wouldn’t go that far. For one thing, I’m not sure that someone clutching a law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego really counts as being at the top of the skills level; Segal’s whole point is that lower-tier law schools are churning out graduates who would have been better off not getting a graduate degree at all, partly because they could put their skills to better use in the world of employment rather than racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.

But Baker’s point is well taken: “the economy,” he says, “could simply be suffering from a situation in which there are too few jobs in total”. Given the NYT acreage afforded him, Segal could and should have spent a little time looking at how the number of law-school graduates has changed over time and how their employment prospects have changed as well. If the number of graduates is holding roughly constant even as the number of jobs has plunged, then that looks like a problem with the broad economy more than a problem of law school mendacity.

COMMENT

If people knew just how horrendous the employment situation was at my law school, one of the top ten in the nation, they would not even think of going to a 3rd or 4th tier law school, i.e., outside the top 100.

Historically, among those who worked at law firms as summer associates, only 2-3% did not receive job offers — those who seriously screwed up. In contrast, two summers ago, the proportion of no-offers at my school was more like 1/3. Legal employers continue to assume that those who get no-offered are serious screw-ups and ignore their resumes. The no-offers I know are struggling to get any work whatsoever.

Among the fortunate law graduates with jobs, many had to resort to public-interest work that does not pay anywhere near enough to cover $180,000 loans. There is a loan assistance program for public interest and government jobs, but only if you commit to working 10 years outside the private sector. This is a serious problem for people who want to have kids and move out of their tiny apartments in dangerous, urban areas — which is all they can afford on public interest salaries. I especially feel sorry for those who graduated after age 30 or so, only to face the same salary prospects now as they did with bachelors degrees.

What does a ~32-year-old woman with a $180,000 debt and mediocre grades do? I suppose she works public interest for about $30-$40,000 and signs up for the loan assistance program — but good luck having kids on that income, while making even these reduced loan payments. And by the time the 10 years are up, it may be too late. I know people facing this dilemma.

Despite all this, my class caught the last “good year.” The firm where I work has eliminated about 80% of its summer associate positions over the last two years. That is not a typo — 80%, gone. Other firms eliminated their summer programs altogether. Basically, they’ve stopped hiring from law schools. Those who have been hired since the financial crisis have mostly been deferred, forced to wait a year or two before they begin working at their firms, until (hopefully) the economy has recovered. The pyramid model, where law firms hire droves of new associates every year and let them gradually trickle away, is dead.

Again, this is happening at a top ten law school, where, with a lot of luck, I have managed to land the job I wanted. If you can get into a top fourteen law school (fourteen has historically been the magic number), law school is probably still a gamble worth taking. A top-fifty, tier one school might also make sense if you can beat out 75-90% of your peers there. But whomever is thinking of going to a 3rd or 4th tier school, I would seriously advise to reconsider. You will struggle madly for three years, only to realize at graduation that you have just been digging your own financial grave.

If you want a reliable job with decent pay and hours, do yourself a favor and study something health or software related. That’s where the future is.

Posted by Volucre | Report as abusive

The rhetoric of tuition inflation

Felix Salmon
Nov 16, 2010 17:05 UTC

Let’s say I earn $50,000 a year, and a widget costs $1,000. Then my pay goes up 3%, while the cost of the widget goes up 10%—year after year. Would you say that the widget has been getting more affordable over time? Stanley Fish would. Fish is approvingly citing a new book from Robert Archibald and David Feldman, which he quotes saying that “for most families higher education is more affordable than it was in the past”:

Here their target is a way of framing the issue. Usually the question asked is, “What percentage of a family’s income goes to the cost of higher education?” Archibald and Feldman prefer to “ask instead whether the amount left over after subtracting the cost of college is rising or falling over time.” The answer they give (buttressed by statistical tables) is “rising”: what their data show is that “over long stretches of time, college costs have been rising at a faster pace than income per worker, yet the average worker’s actual dollar income has gone up by more than the costs, leaving more resources on the family to spend on other things.”

I fear to think what statistical sleight-of-hand might be hidden in that qualifier about “over long stretches of time,” especially since in recent years real college costs have continued to rise fast even as real median incomes have gone nowhere or shrunk. But in general this approach to gauging affordability is absolutely bonkers: the percentage rise in price is completely ignored, and only the dollar rise in price matters. Using this technique, just about anything can be considered “more affordable than it was in the past.” If the widget rises in cost by $100 and my annual pay goes up by $1,500, that does not in and of itself settle the question of whether the widget has become more affordable.

What’s more, I haven’t read the book, but Fish’s take does seem to be at odds with its official blurb:

A technological trio of broad economic forces has come together in the last thirty years to cause higher education costs…

A college education has become less reachable to a broad swathe of the American public at the same time that the market demand for highly educated people has soared. This affordability problem has deep roots. The authors explore how cost pressure, the changing wage structure of the US economy, and the complexity of financial aid policy combine to reduce access to higher education below what we need in the 21st century labor market.

I’m also completely unconvinced by Fish’s explanation of the main reason behind cost inflation at colleges:

Chief among these is the change in the sophistication and cost of the technology that has at once transformed the setting of higher education and become one of the areas of knowledge higher education must impart to students. Students expect to be instructed in the new technologies, and that instruction requires their installation, and then as new refinements emerge, their re-installation. “[A] modern university must provide students with an up-to-date education that familiarizes students with the techniques and associated machinery that are used in the workplace the students must enter.”

Were colleges and universities to strike a Luddite stance and hold out for pencil, paper and blackboard instruction, they would “in effect be guilty of educational malpractice.” When it comes to incurring these new expenses, they “do not have a real choice.” In no sense, then, are changes in price “driven by any pathology in the higher education industry.

It’s true that computers are more expensive than pencils, and it’s surely true that some part of the typical college-tuition fee is spent on information technology. But we’re talking about fee inflation here: in order for Fish’s argument to hold water, IT costs at colleges would have to be rising faster than inflation year in and year out. Which strains credulity, in a world where IT is getting steadily cheaper and where a lot of IT services can now take place in the cloud. Even if the move into the cloud is only now beginning, I very much doubt that it’s ever going to result in a decrease in tuition fees.

The fact is that technology is a way of reducing the costs of education much more than it is a factor in their growth. That’s why Rupert Murdoch has just hired Joel Klein:

The likelihood that Murdoch’s education strategy will involve either charter schools or online college-diploma mills is very close to zero. Instead, it is all but certain to revolve around one of the most fertile areas of innovation today: the application of digital technology to learning. In the next few years, “what you’re going to see in educational software and new solutions and online learning is going to be game-changing,” says Klein, in terms of “the ability of new technology to both improve instruction and the quality of it through new learning platforms.”

“Archibald and Feldman,” says Fish, “allow us to say that at least in the area of costs the fault lies not in ourselves, but in the stars.” Which I’m sure is convenient for Fish, who describes himself as a “dean who encountered the rising costs of personnel, laboratory equipment, security, compliance demands, information systems and much more every day.” But it’s not particularly believable.

COMMENT

Feldman and Archibald break up their affordability measurements by income percentile in their working paper, which makes the whole thing more interesting.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout  /20101117/us_yblog_thelookout/economist s-what-college-cost-crisis

Posted by LizGoodwin | Report as abusive

Disclosing economists’ conflicts

Felix Salmon
Nov 8, 2010 22:02 UTC

Gerald Epstein and Jessica Carrick-Hagenbarth have a 41-page paper out which gets boiled down quite effectively to its title: “Financial Economists, Financial Interests and Dark Corners of the Meltdown: It’s Time to set Ethical Standards for the Economics Profession”.

They took a group of 19 academic financial economists and looked for possible conflicts of interest — board memberships of financial institutions, consultancies, that kind of thing. They conclude:

In this study, we showed that the great majority of two groups of prominent academic financial economists did not disclose their private financial affiliation even when writing pieces on financial reform. This presents a potential conflict of interest. If this pattern prevailed among academic financial economists more broadly this, in our view, would represent an even greater social problem. Academic economists serve as experts in the media, molding public opinion. They are also important players in government policy. If those that are creating the culture around financial regulation as well as influencing policy at the government level for financial reform also have a significant, if hidden, conflict of interest, our public is not likely to be well-served.

The findings understate the severity of the situation in the real world, where most consultancies and substantially all paid speeches are kept secret. Financial economists tend to make a lot of money, most of it from the financial sector rather than their putative employers, and they’re very unlikely to disclose their income or their conflicts in public.

Paul Krugman is an interesting case in point:

Before I went to work for the NY Times I did a lot of paid speaking, mainly to investment bank conferences outside the US… My fee for overseas talks was usually $40-50K.

I do very little paid speaking now, and no consulting, because the New York Times has quite strict rules: basically I can only get paid for speaking to nonprofits that have no possible interest in influencing the content of the column. It’s a good rule – read Eric Alterman’s book “Sound and Fury” to see how speaking fees can corrupt pundits – though it meant that I took a substantial income cut to work for the Times.

Krugman is clearly comfortable with the idea that speaking fees can corrupt pundits, and thinks it’s a good idea that NYT columnists don’t accept them. Yet at the same time he had no problem accepting such fees as an economist, and I’m quite sure he never disclosed those fees when he was writing academic papers on financial subjects.

It seems obvious that when you’re regularly making significantly more than the median national annual personal income from giving a single speech, you’re prone to being captured by the people paying you all that money. And the secrecy makes things much worse. I once mentioned in passing on my blog a consultancy gig which I happened to know about and didn’t think was particularly secret. The consultant in question phoned me up extremely distraught, fearful that the employer, a hedge fund, would read my post and react to it with a whole parade of nasty possible actions. There’s no good reason for such secrecy on either the employer or the employee side — unless, of course, there’s something ethically suspect about the arrangement in the first place.

I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but clearly more disclosure would be a very good idea. But it’s not going to happen: there’s too much money riding on the continuation of the status quo.

(Via Folbre)

COMMENT

Steve – then Felix needs to be a whole lot clearer. Can you see how this quote about Krugman (especially the second half) might lead to my confusion?

“Yet at the same time he had no problem accepting such fees as an economist, and I’m quite sure he never disclosed those fees when he was writing academic papers on financial subjects.”

Posted by MattR | Report as abusive

from Barbara Kiviat:

Is culture to blame for poverty?

Oct 18, 2010 18:16 UTC

Hello, Reuters readers. Thank you, Felix, for inviting me and Justin to guest blog while you're away. I promise to make the most of my newfound form of procrastination.

Over the weekend, the NYT ran a piece about academics rediscovering the "culture of poverty." The story goes that for decades it was taboo to offer social, as opposed to economic, explanations about why particular people and neighborhoods were poor—unless, of course, you belonged to a certain camp of conservative critic. According to the Times:

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a "culture of poverty" to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable "tangle of pathology" of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

Now, it seems, culture is again fair play. Over the past few years, culture-informed explorations of poverty have been seeping into the research literature. High-profile examples include these Princeton/Brookings papers about unmarried parents and this special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (which led to a recent Congressional briefing). Nobel-winning economist George Akerlof goes down this path in his new book, Identity Economics: he and co-author Rachel Kranton argue that students decide how much to invest in their education (i.e., their earning potential) partly by whether they see themselves as fitting into the culture of the "nerd," the "jock" or the "burnout."

I'm all for understanding the nature of poverty, but the culture lens makes me nervous. Maybe that's because right after I read Identity Economics, I read The Trouble With Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the main arguments of that book is that there is a lurking danger in turning a conversation about economics (poor people don't have money) into a conversation about culture (poor people have different values and make different life decisions). The big risk: since Americans are loathe to judge one culture as superior to another, we will come to accept poverty as a valid alternative. You're not poor because you can't get a job that pays enough to cover your bills (a failure of education, the free market, etc)—you're poor because you are part of a different culture, which, in diversity-committed America, we all have to respect.

The other thing that worries me about the culture frame is that so much rests on the categories we use to try to capture "culture." Akerlof's nerd-jock-burnout rubric is clear-cut and colorful. But is that where the truly useful information lies?

One of the best things I've ever read about the nature of poverty is Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein's 1997 book, Making Ends Meet. Edin and Lein, a sociologist and anthropologist, spent long periods of time interviewing poor single mothers—most of whom both received welfare checks and undertook some sort of paid work. When deciding the right balance between welfare and work, the mothers certainly took into account which paid better. But they also considered which would allow them to be better mothers by spending more time with their children, and which would provide a more predictable (even if lower) stream of income. Devotion to full-time motherhood definitely reads as a cultural value. But does the preference for income predictability?

If we look at poverty in terms of culture, we might be missing an important part of the puzzle. Let's not forget something else that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “The reason people are poor is that they don’t have money.” Sometimes an economic problem is just an economic problem.

COMMENT

I think I’m understanding where people are coming from…

There are definitely individual choices that can help one achieve success in life and a modicum of financial stability. Yet to term those choices a “culture” is perhaps elevating it to another level? One, as you say, that is tinged with racism?

I firmly believe we should avoid describing “poverty” as something society imposes on people. We don’t live in a pure meritocracy, but there is sufficient mobility that nobody is defined by their birth. Focusing on the element that we cannot control is deleterious to efforts to improve those aspects we CAN control.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Harvard isn’t divesting from Israel

Felix Salmon
Aug 16, 2010 14:00 UTC

The noise surrounding a perceived rotation out of Israeli stocks by the Harvard endowment is really rather hilarious. Benjamin Joffe-Walt has managed to amass a whole sequence of quotes from people who have no idea what they’re talking about: one person is calling on “all academic institutions in the US” to follow Harvard’s lead and “divest from Israeli war crimes”; a second claims Harvard “still have tens of millions of dollars invested”; and a third comes up with the convoluted explanation* that it’s all to do with the fact that Morgan Stanley no longer considers Israel to be an emerging market:

“There are some funds which invest only in emerging markets,” continued Heen, the Cellcom CFO. “So Harvard had to sell our stock because Israel is no longer classified as an emerging market and they no longer have the ability to hold this stock within the emerging markets fund.”

Needless to say, university endowments, more than any other investors, are entirely unconstrained by such concerns.

The fact is that the Israeli holdings itemized in Harvard’s 13-F only added up to $41 million in the first place, or about 0.15% of Harvard’s total endowment. But it’s all pretty meaningless anyway, since the 13-F itself only accounts for a small fraction of the endowment’s total exposure.

The chances of this move being at all politically motivated are remote: the most recent concerted attempt that Joe Weisenthal can find to get Harvard to divest from Israel dates all the way back to 2002. And I’m sure that if you looked at all endowment 13-Fs on a quarterly basis, you’d find that every quarter a pretty large number of endowments will turn out to have sold out of some small market or other. It’s just that by sheer coincidence, this time it’s the two big hot-button names, Harvard and Israel, and hence there’s lots of headlines.

Next quarter, or the one after that, a few Israeli holdings are bound to reappear in Harvard’s 13-F. I wonder whether anybody will notice that.

*Update: The explanation might be convoluted and implausible, but according to a statement from Harvard, it also seems to be true!

The University has not divested from Israel. Israel was moved from the MSCI, our benchmark in emerging markets, to the EAFE index in May due to its successful growth.

Our emerging markets holdings were rebalanced accordingly. We have holdings in developed markets, including Israel, through outside managers in commingled accounts and indexes, which are not reported in the filing in question.

For some reason, it seems that Harvard’s EM holdings get itemized in its 13-F, while its EAFE holdings are run through external managers and don’t get itemized. No big story here.

COMMENT

Yeah it is a non-story but like most anti-Israeli stories is a case of people pushing out lies that get regurgitated by churnalists too lazy to bother do any actual fact checking. Luckily there are enough of these that the anti-Israelis can present it as fact in the never-ending feedback loop.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

The problems with university endowments

Felix Salmon
May 28, 2010 15:55 UTC

If you fancy some iPad reading for the Memorial Day weekend, you could do a lot worse than to download this Tellus paper into GoodReader or similar. It’s titled “Educational Endowments and the Financial Crisis: Social Costs and Systemic Risks in the Shadow Banking System; the lead author, who writes very clearly and readably, is Joshua Humphreys.

I’m still working my way through the whole thing, but my initial impression is very positive. Humphreys points out in great detail, for instance, the downsides associated with giving university endowments charitable status and allowing them to issue tax-free bonds; I don’t know what happened to the tax which was being mooted a couple of years ago, but maybe it’s time to revisit it, especially since opposition to the idea even back then was so weak.

Humphreys also notes that university endowments in many ways exacerbated the financial crisis, as well as doing great harm to their own university budgets and their local economies. Meanwhile, their governing boards tend to be incredibly conflicted, with more than half a dozen trustees on Dartmouth’s board alone having managed investments for the endowment.

Humphreys has his own axe to grind: a long-time advocate of socially responsible investing, he makes the case that “as long-term investors, colleges and universities have an important stake in the sustainability of both the wider financial system and the broader economies in which they participate. Rather than contributing to systemic risk, endowments should therefore embrace their role as nonprofit stewards of sustainability.”

This makes sense to me, especially if university endowments are going to operate under the umbrella of charitable status. But even if they want to continue to chase absolute returns, it’s clear that the endowment model massively overestimated their appetite for illiquid assets. The idea was that because they’re investing with the longest conceivable time horizon, they can put a lot of their money into highly illiquid investments. But then they got bit by the fact that their universities were naturally likely to fall back on endowment monies at precisely the point at which illiquid markets seize up completely. Endowments should be countercyclical buffers, when it comes to universtity finances, not pro-cyclical exacerbators of financial crises.

And they should also be a lot more transparent than they are. Writes Humphreys:

When reported, school-specific data are nonstandardized, inconsistent, incomplete and fragmentary, and scattered across municipal, state, SEC and IRS filings, incommensurable annual reports, and costly proprietary financial databases unavailable to the general public.

There’s no excuse for this. Let’s force endowments to standardize their public reports, and show, rather than tell, just what their highly-paid employees are doing to deserve all their millions of dollars in remuneration. And let’s force them, too, to spend a lot more time concentrating on liquidity risk management, and to cast a skeptical eye on the amount of leverage that these institutions really need. Humphreys finds, for instance, a 2007article by Geraldine Fabrikant about Jack Meyer, containing this astonishing number:

When Mr. Meyer and his team were at Harvard, the endowment was known for making money by betting on small pricing differences between different kinds of securities.

For example, Mr. Meyer and his team might capitalize on the price difference between new Treasury issues and older ones. And to magnify gains, they would leverage those bets as much as 15 to 1.

That sounds very much like LTCM to me, and I think everybody can agree that we don’t want university endowments to be LTCM. And I’m not sure that it’s at all possible, with hindsight, to justify these kind of salaries:

salaries.tiff

It’s true that if you want massive returns on your endowment, you’re likely to end up paying massive salaries to the people who manage it. But you’re also likely to start spending future endowment gains you don’t yet have, and end up with a billion-dollar hole in the ground. It’s good for universities to be ambitious. But not if their ambitions expand to the point at which they feel the need to start selling off their own donated art just to keep the lights on.

COMMENT

I attended a public university with an endowment of $35m and annual state funding of ~$50m (FY09). Although not a great light of Western civilization, it specializes in producing competent teachers and useful graduates in physical sciences. It has a total enrollment of almost 12,000, coincidentally about the same as Harvard, so it is possible to educate the same number of students for what Harvard paid just to manage its endowment (this ignores facility costs and tuition, but Harvard has much to be ashamed of on both accounts). I agree that no sane argument can be made that this is a charitable educational endeavor.

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