Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Jenkins MBA team wins Krispy Kreme challenge

Kudos to the 20 Jenkins MBAs who joined me last Saturday to participate in the Krispy Kreme challenge.  The Jenkins MBA team finished in first place in the Casual Runner Teams division.  Casual Runners run the five miles but are not obliged to eat the dozen donuts.

More importantly the annual event raised $190k for the UNC Children's Hospital.  Looking forward to an even larger Jenkins MBA contingent next year.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

National Signing Day

Today is National Signing Day when college football programs lock in their new recruits for next year.  According to ESPN, Nick Saban's evil Alabama empire appears to once again have the top entering class, as has been the case five of the last six years.  (Why the sour grapes? He abandoned my Spartans!)  Based on that data point alone, there does seem to be a connection between signing the best players and winning the most games.

But how does being a top-ranked high school footballer work out for the players?  According to this WP article, not so well.  Of the top 100 who finished high school in 2007, only 39 ever played in the NFL and 20 still play.  More strikingly, four are dead and one is in prison for murder.  Some had their football careers cut short by injury; others found success in fields other than football.   According to WP, at least a third received college degrees from the school with which they signed.

My takeaway: even the very best high school players need a Plan B in case football does not work out.  Success in football is very hard to predict on an individual basis.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The basic economics of an import tax

We have had many surprises in the political arena, but perhaps none are more surprising than to see Republicans rallying around a tax increase.  Import taxes are politically convenient.  Gullible voters think that such taxes will be paid by foreign entities and will encourage producers to shift production to the US to avoid such taxes.

This is wrong on both counts.  Consumers in the US end up paying for the tax via higher prices.  As they cut back spending this means fewer domestic jobs in retail.  Producers have developed complex global supply chains to take advantage of productivity and cost differences across different countries. A 20% import tax is not going to be enough to offset a 500% labor cost difference.  

This applies to all industries, including the luxury industry.  See a quote from this expert in Luxury Daily!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Can pet economics tell us something about human health economics?

A recent HBR piece by Liran Einav of Stanford and Amy Finkelstein of MIT compares recent trends. for spending on veterinary care to spending on health care for humans.  They find that total spending on both items has risen more than spending overall, meaning more and more of our budgets are going to veterinary services as well as health care for people.  Spending by income brackets shows the same pattern, with much larger spends for high income than low income households.  Also spending for veterinary care tends to be concentrated in the last months of life, just like human health care.

These similarities are striking in some way because there is no employer-provided veterinary care insurance and there is no Medicare- or Medicaid-like program for pets.  So the trends for pet health spending closely mirror those for human health spending even though the role of government and insurance is quite different in the two markets.

The careful reader will note that Einav and Finkelstein do not address the question of price inflation for veterinary and human health care.  We all know that human health care inflation is much higher than overall inflation.  The picture for veterinary inflation is more mixed.  A research team from Purdue looked at the inflation measure published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and then developed their own price index based on pet insurance claims submitted to Nationwide.  The BLS veterinary care price index increased by 25%, well above the 12% inflation rare for 2009-2015.  The price index based on the Nationwide index showed no veterinary inflation over this period.  

One last question: if we are spending more and more on our pets' health, are they getting healthier?  Are they living longer?  Are they leading more active lives?  Are they getting more tummy rubs?  Clearly this calls for more research.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

NC State online MBA stays in US News top 20

More great rankings news!  For the third year in a row the NC State online MBA has placed in the US News and World Report top 20.  The program placed 18th, tied with Mississippi State and South Florida.

The US News rankings are based on faculty credentials and training, student services and technology, student engagement, peer evaluations, and admissions selectivity.  I am especially proud of how well we scored on the student engagement dimension.

I was fortunate enough this fall to have my first opportunity to teach the online core economics course.  It was one of the best teaching experiences I have ever had.  More people come to your office hours online than they do in day or evening instruction.  Accessibility matters, a lot!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What trade deficits really mean

Harvard's Greg Mankiw explains in this NYT Upshot column what happens when a country runs a trade deficit.  When imports are greater than exports, this results in lower GDP.   But is this something we should really be concerned about?

Mankiw points out that the trade deficit is accompanied by a foreign investment surplus.  When businesses overseas sell more to us than we sell to them, they have to do something with the funds they accumulate.  In practice that means they either end up buying US assets or make physical investments in the US, e.g., Siemens opening facilities here.  And guess what?  The investment foreign companies make in the US is considerably larger than the investments US firms make overseas.  In other words, there are many more cases like Siemens than like Carrier.  

Viewed differently, US consumers are able to have a higher standard of living by being able to import goods from overseas.  Investors overseas are able to invest in a relatively "vibrant and safe" economy.  So why would you want to mess with this?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Deadweight loss during the holidays

Great video on the economics of giving by Marginal Revolutions's Tyler Cowan and Alex Taborrok.

Pop quiz: Suppose you have $20 in your budget for a gift to Aunt Mabel.  How do you make sure that Mabel gets at least $20 worth of enjoyment?  Easy answer: give her $20 in cash or Amazon gift card.

But do we really want to spend the holidays trading $20 bills with each other?  The video brings up other motives for gift giving, but I am not sure making charitable contributions in Mabel's name is the answer.  She might rather have the $20.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Saving jobs at what cost

I have been searching for the words to express how exasperated I am with United Technologies' decision to keep 700 or so jobs in its Carrier plant in Indianapolis.  Kudos to Larry Summers, today in WP, who totally nails it.  In a market system based on stable regulations and enforced laws, everyone plays under the same rules.  Who you are does not matter.  In a system based on ad hoc deals, all bets are off and companies will redouble their efforts to make friends in high places in government.  

Money quote:
Most companies will prefer the good to the bad will of the U.S. president and his leadership team. Should that reality be levered to get them to locate where the president wants, to make contributions to the president’s reelection campaign, to hire people the president wants to see hired, to do the kinds of research the president wants carried out, or to lend money to those that the president wants to see assisted?
Some of the worst abuses of power are not those that leaders inflict on their people. They are the acts that the people demand from their leaders. I fear in a way that is more fundamental than a bad tax policy or tariff we have started down the road of changing the operating assumptions of our capitalism. I hope I am wrong, but I expect that as a consequence we are going to be not only poorer but less free.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Economists weigh in on Fidel

Two blog posts from well-known economists:

1) Tyler Cowan's forecast for the Cuban economy after Fidel is not very rosy.  Cuba has a foreign debt challenge and can no longer count on cheap oil from Venezuela.  Sugar prices have increased this year but remain depressed.  The best case scenario, Cowan argues, is that Cuba catches up with the Dominican Republic in a few decades.

2) George Borjas spent the first 11 years of his life in Cuba, leaving with his mother after his family's business had been confiscated.  He shares his remembrances about life under Fidel in the early 1960s in this blog post.  Borjas reaction to the news of Fidel's death: "Good riddance!"

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Machine Intelligence

Twenty years ago the internet was supposed to "change everything" and defy conventional economic analysis.  Nope.  Did not happen.  The internet lowered the cost of search, information, and communication.  New products spawned by the internet were characterized by massive fixed costs and negligible variable costs.  Key insights about the internet continue to follow from basic economics.

Now the hype is about machine intelligence.  Three faculty members at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto have a short article on the HBR website where they argue that the economics of machine intelligence can be summed up as "lower costs of prediction."  This means that firms will have lower costs associated with demand forecasting and inventory management, leading to wider adoption of these practices.

As prediction becomes cheaper, there will be an impact on other inputs into the production process, depending on whether they are substitutes or complements for prediction.  For instance economists who make predictions may be displaced by machines.  The authors think that judgment skills will become more important, serving as a complement to cheaper predictions.  I am not sure what they mean by judgment skills, but presumably they are referring to cognitive processes where humans will continue to have an advantage over machines.

Machine intelligence will soon be coming to higher education.  Some business schools are already experimenting with using tools based on machine intelligence to drill newly admitted students on basic skills in math and statistics.  Will a machine-based socratic dialogue be next?