Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Economic profits as a performance metric

Students in MBA 505 learn about pay for performance and economic profits.  Yesterday's WSJ reports that economic profits (total revenue less taxes, operating costs and the cost of capital) is increasingly being used as a metric in pay-for-performance plans.  In a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey, 27% of the respondents said they were using economic profits, whereas only 19% were using stock prices. 

Why are economic profits becoming more popular as a measure?  After all stock price is what shareholders should be caring about, so stock grants and stock options would be the best way to align the interest of managers and shareholders.  However, stock prices are a forward looking measure taking into account a wide range of variables, many of which are outside the realm of control for middle or even top managers.  Economic profits are an indicator of cash flow, a variable that is much easier for managers to control, either through increased revenue or lower cost. 

One thing Pepsi and Coke have in common is that both reward execs using economic profits as the basis for bonus calculations. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Facts on mortgage tax deductions

Tax reform has been one of the major issues in the presidential election.  One candidate says he can lower rates by chopping deductions, while another says that this cannot be done without hurting the middle class.  Last week NYT published a short piece laying out some under-reported data on who actually benefits from one of the biggest tax deductions of them all: home mortgages.  Some key facts that everyone, regardless of their political persuasion should know:
  1. 70 percent of taxpayers do not itemize.
  2. More than two-thirds of the benefits go to upper-income households ($100k plus) because they pay more interest on mortgages and have higher tax rates
The pols from both parties are unwilling to admit that there would be winners and losers if the deduction were to be capped or scrapped.  Those who do not itemize or who have small mortgage balances would come out ahead, whereas those who have just taken out jumbos will be less than pleased.  

Final thought: the subsidy provided by the home mortgage deduction encourages Americans to overinvest in owner-occupied housing.  That's why a recent NPR piece listed the deduction as one of six policies about which virtually all economists support and would drive most pols nuts (the others included ending the tax deduction for health care expenses, scrapping the corporate income tax, and taxing carbon). 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Google's turn for antitrust suit?

MBA 505 students will study monopoly and antitrust this coming week.  In discussing the economic consequences of monopoly power and reviewing some key cases (e.g., Alcoa, Microsoft), we will also be looking at Google's situation.  Numerous press reports (see this summary in Wired) indicate that the Federal Trade Commission is considering a suit before the end of the year and that the European Union is doing likewise.

Google has about two-thirds of the search engine market.  This might qualify as a monopoly in and of itself but it does not appear that regulators are concerned on this front.  There was a time not too long ago when Yahoo! was on the top of the heap; Google took Yahoo!'s place by having a better product. 

A key issue in the suit appears to be whether Google favors its own products in search results and thereby extends its monopoly in other product lines.  Examples cited by NYT include Google Shopping, Google Places, and Android. 

My take: I really doubt that Amazon, Yelp and Apple are worried about whether and how Google manipulates search results. Monopoly power in today's internet world is ephemeral.  Remember the big IBM monopoly?  Lotus 123? Microsoft Office/Windows?  It will take five or more years for any Google antitrust case to be settled and one has to seriously wonder what the world of search will look like at that time. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

University of Phoenix cuts back

The University of Phoenix grew to 400k students in its heyday, but the last couple of years have been tough; WSJ reported this week that Phoenix is now down to 328k, a 20% drop.  As in any other business facing reduced demand, the for-profit university now is cutting back on capacity.  Phoenix will close 25 of its main campuses and another 90 satellite learning centers.  Share prices for the Apollo Group, which owns Phoenix, dropped 22% upon the announcement. 

Why has enrollment dropped so much?  The tough economy has to be part of the story; students are strapped budget wise and fewer companies are providing tuition benefits.  For-profits also are dealing with unfavorable publicity as the public becomes more aware that completion rates are much lower than at not-for-profit schools. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Affirmative action in the news

This week the Supreme Court heard arguments in a reverse discrimination case brought by a white female who had been denied admission to UT-Austin.  No doubt because the issue is once again in the news, Weekend WSJ ran a lengthy piece on recent research on the impact of affirmative action by a UCLA law professor who also happens to be an economist. 

As someone who entered college at a time when there were very, very few African-Americans on campus, there is no question that affirmative action has literally changed the face of higher education.  But being admitted to a great school under special preferences often be a mixed blessing.  The WSJ piece focuses on "mismatch" issues where the admitted student is significantly less prepared than most other students at a school.  The key finding:
There is now increasing evidence that students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as bar exams for lawyers).
The authors call for more transparency in admissions decisions and a sharply curtailed role for affirmative action.  I am sure WSJ will get letters pointing out that colleges still have a way to go to truly represent the full range of diversity we have in our society.  Tough issues, no easy answers.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Hours cuts at Olive Garden

Prediction: it might start taking longer to get your second helping from the endless salad bowl at Olive Garden.  The Orlando Sentinel reports that Olive Garden restaurants in four different markets (including central Florida) have cut back significantly on full-time schedules.  To be precise, they are doing their best to make sure no one works 30 hours or more.
At a new Olive Garden in Stillwater, Okla., former busboy Keaton Hasty said employees were routinely limited to 29 1/2 hours.

"It was 29 1/2, and they'd kick you out," said Hasty, a college student who now works at a pharmacy. "They'd always print off a little slip every day and say who was getting close."
Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Longhorn Steakhouse (among others) openly admits that they are doing this to reduce expenses on health insurance under the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (also known as Obamacare):
In an emailed statement, Darden said staffing changes are "just one of the many things we are evaluating to help us address the cost implications health care reform will have on our business. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the health care regulations and we simply do not have enough information to make any decisions at this time."
ACA requirements kick in for employees who regularly work 30 hours or more a week.  So Darden avoids having to provide health insurance (or pay the $3k fine for failure to provide health insurance) by cutting back on hours.  Darden outlet managers had best be prepared to deal with this dilemma: on nights when there is a bigger-than-expected crowd: do you add personnel knowing it may lead to higher insurance costs or do you lose business from disappointed customers get tired of waiting longer for tables and service?  (I bet you there are some MBAs who are working as we speak on algorithms to deal with this issue.  Click here for info on their internship programs in marketing and finance.) 

Friday, October 12, 2012

On poverty programs

A little over a year ago I posted about the jobs bill before Congress that would cost $447 billion and create 1.9 million jobs -- this boils down to $235k per job.  I then asked the question of whether the country would be better off if the funds were channeled directly to the 14 million unemployed workers, each of whom could receive a check of $32k. 

Harvard MBA and ex-CEO Gary MacDougal had an op-ed piece in yesterday's NYT that took a similar approach to our country's poverty programs.  He cites a recent Cato Institute study (caveat: Cato runs Republican to libertarian in its ideological bent) that found $1 trillion in federal, state and local spending on spread across 126 federal and countless more state and local programs.  There are an estimated 46 million Americans living in poverty.  So do the math: that boils down to $21,739 per person and $87k per four-person household.  Of course precious little of this money actually gets to those who need it. 

This raises a challenge that neither political party is addressing.  Obviously direct cash grants to the poor are not going to happen, but reductions in overhead need to be more carefully examined.   MacDougal, who was an advisor to former governor Jim Edgar (R, Illinois), suggests turning many of the federal programs into block grants to the states.  Consolidating programs is another possible approach.  A poor family has to deal with multiple agencies, all with different offices, forms and criteria -- could we not come up with a WalMart equivalent of "all programs under one roof" that would save the government money and make the lives of the poor better?  And wouldn't this be more constructive than Republicans focusing solely on budget cuts (except for defense) and Democrats standing up for Big Bird?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hiring in startups is down, way down

Good news yesterday on the monthly jobs report.  Not so good news in Friday's NYT story reporting the findings of a Kaufman Foundation study on job creation in startups.  Previous Kaufman studies had found that job growth from startups was much slower in the 2000s than the 1980s and 1990s.  This new study finds that the typical startup in 1999 had 7.7 employees, whereas in 2011 the typical startup had 4.7 employees.  It also shows that the rate at which startups get started has fallen by 25 percent since 2006.  In other words, we have fewer startups and startups have become much smaller.

There has been growth in nonemployer businesses since 2000.  These one-person operations have become more prevalent as entrepreneurs take advantage of technology and a free-agent global market of available contractors.  Or maybe they choose this route because they cannot get financing. 

No matter how you cut the data, a consistent picture emerges: new companies, a key engine of economic growth, have not fared well since 2000.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Today's jobs news

The September jobs report came out this morning.  Press accounts are trumpeting the drop in unemployment from 8.1 to 7.8 percent.  This number comes from the Current Population Survey, which examines 50k plus households each month.  According to the CPS, employment rose by 873k and unemployed persons dropped by 456k from August to September.  On net this implies that 417k persons who were not even in the labor force in August found jobs in September, which strikes me as implausible.  Lay persons should keep in mind that it is hard to extrapolate from 50k households to a labor force of 155 million.  Another sign of unusual volatility in the numbers: CPS data show declines in employment in July (-200k) and August (-100k) which probably were overly pessimistic, thereby making part of the big jobs gain in September a statistical correction.  

On a month to month basis, the monthly survey of establishments is a more reliable indicator of employment trends.  It shows a slow but steady increase in jobs of 100 to 180k each month over this period.  My take: the jobs recovery remains painfully slow but at least it is moving in the right direction.  Make whatever political hay you want out of that comment!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Will MOOCs radically change higher education?

A MOOC is a "massive open online course." Top notch schools like Harvard, MIT and Stanford are now making some courses available on a MOOC platform.  Will this democratize learning for the masses, or is this just going to be like correspondence courses 100 years ago?  Nicholas Carr discusses their likely impact in an MIT Technology Review article called "The Crisis in Higher Education." 

Much of the excitement centers on the potential for student engagement:
So what makes MOOCs different? As Thrun sees it, the secret lies in "student engagement." Up to now, most Internet classes have consisted largely of videotaped lectures, a format that Thrun sees as deeply flawed. Classroom lectures are in general "boring," he says, and taped lectures are even less engaging: "You get the worst part without getting the best part." While MOOCs include videos of professors explaining concepts and scribbling on whiteboards, the talks are typically broken up into brief segments, punctuated by on-screen exercises and quizzes. Peppering students with questions keeps them involved with the lesson, Thrun argues, while providing the kind of reinforcement that has been shown to strengthen comprehension and retention.
Artificial intelligence is being used to tailor the experience of each student to his or her own learning style.  Obviously this is in the early stages; will this be a breakthrough or just more hype?  Carr interviews an English and a history professor, both of whom turn out to be skeptics.  Some schools are using MOOCs as an alternative to face-to-face; others are using it instead of face-to-face for certain classes. 

For the meantime, I do not foresee amping the size of our online MBA program from 30-35 per class to 100,000. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Nocera on rankings

I have been out of the country for a week and a half.  In catching up, I ran across a link on the NYU Stern website to this great article by NYT columnist Joe Nocera on the latest US News college rankings.  Schools like Harvard and Princeton come out on top because they are highly selective in admissions, have small classes, and spend lots of money thanks to huge endowments.  If a school like NC State wants to move up, it needs to make itself look more like Harvard and Princeton.  Money quote:
U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors.
Or what used to be a magazine; US News stopped publishing two years ago.

Parents and students might want to ask themselves whether this is really useful information to guide their decision making.  Do you want to be in a small class listening to a very highly paid professor (or more likely, his graduate assistant) or do you want to be employed at graduation at a good salary with great prospects for the future?  The US News rankings of undergraduate programs give zero weight to employment outcomes, so you might need to check the WSJ rankings which come from employers. 
Interestingly, colleges can come up with salary and employment data for the graduates of their professional schools (including MBA), so why cannot they get this data for undergraduates as well?