Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rebuilding after Sandy

Two Wharton professors write in an NYT op-ed today about how the country can better prepare itself for future coastal disasters like Sandy.  Most coastal residents do not buy flood insurance, even though the price is subsidized.  Wind insurance is covered by homeowners policies, the prices of which have risen dramatically in recent years.  Some states pool wind damage risks, which in effect means that those living inland subsidize premiums for those living near the coast. 

This is a tough problem, as tens of millions of people live in areas which could have severe storm damage (and this includes Raleigh which took quite a hit in 1996 from Fran).  Market pricing is always a good place to start, and certainly would discourage building and living in coastal areas.  But there is a close analogy between homeowners and health insurance here; unless you can make them buy it, most coastal residents would drop coverage when faced with market rates.  Also, Sandy destroyed homes in all price ranges.  The wealthy might afford actuarially-priced insurance; the middle class and the poor, not so much. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

WSJ: Must Have Job Skills for 2013

Employers want more than basic competency, WSJ says.  Here is what makes a job candidate stand out:
  1. Clear communication: both verbal and written
  2. Personal branding: Facebook and Twitter can make you or break you
  3. Flexibility: Ask not what your employer can do for you; ask what you can do for your employer
  4. Productivity improvement: Be anticipatory and proactive

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bloomberg Businessweek rankings

Last Thursday the Bloomberg Businessweek ranking for full-time MBA programs was announced.  For the first time NC State’s full-time Jenkins MBA was eligible to be listed.  This has been one of the key long-term goals of our program.  Our program is only 10 years old, so getting on this list is an important achievement.  There are literally hundreds of schools in the US that would like to be on the list but do not meet the size and quality criteria.

There were 114 schools globally who were invited to participate in the survey, 80 of them were American schools and the rest were in Canada, Europe and Asia.   We were ranked #63 in the US.  This is higher than our most recent US News ranking (#78).  In fact it is higher than we have ever appeared in US News except for 2008 when we were #59.

The Bloomberg Businessweek ranking is based on student satisfaction (45%), employer satisfaction (45%) and faculty research productivity per capita (10%).  The student satisfaction scores came from a survey of full-time students who graduated in May 2012. 

We did well in one dimension that did not enter into the rankings, but is important to students: affordability.  Only eight programs in the US had lower tuition and fees than we do.

Bloomberg Businessweek will do its next survey of full-time MBAs in two years.  Next year, it will do a survey of part-time MBAs, where we ranked #30 in the US last year.

Moving up in the rankings requires a joint concerted effort from students, faculty and staff.  The faculty and the staff will make sure that the program is up to date and prepares students well for successful careers.  Students will dedicate themselves to taking full advantage of opportunities and supporting the program, especially when they become alumni.  As we all strive for excellence and improvement, the Jenkins MBA will rise in the rankings and become more visible in the years ahead! 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A different take on labor force shrinkage

Just ran across a couple of references to Chicago economist Casey Mulligan's new book on the Great Recession: The Redistribution Recession.  In light of yesterday's post, I feel obligated to post on Mulligan's explanation of why the labor force has shrunk so much.  Mulligan puts much of the blame on the stimulus package itself for eroding the incentives to work.  Expansions in the availability of unemployment benefits, housing assistance and food stamps explain as much as half of the decline in employment and hours, Mulligan argues, by eroding the payoff from working.

Here is an example from a Forbes piece by John Goodman I saw yesterday: 
Mulligan gives the example of a two earner couple — each earning $600 a week. After the wife gets laid off she obtains a new job offer, paying $500 a week. But after deducting taxes and work related expenses her take home pay would be $257. Since untaxed unemployment benefits total $289, clearly she is better off not working.
I have not had the chance to read Mulligan's book, so it is hard for me to evaluate his analysis and compare it to Robert Moffitt's work that I cited in yesterday's post.  WSJ reviewer Stephen Moore puts Mulligan's work in perspective by saying
By the way, Mr. Mulligan doesn't challenge the claim that a surge in unemployment benefits, food stamps and other subsidies may have been desirable to prevent hunger or severe poverty for out-of-luck families or unemployable people traumatized by the recession. He simply and inconveniently notes that, though increasing subsidies may be compassionate in the short term, it comes with costs in the long term that eventually cause more hardship rather than less. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why is the labor force shrinking?

The drop in the employment-population ratio from 63 to 58-59 percent since 2007 is the most striking evidence of the sharp drop in job prospects.  The unemployment rate has recovered from its peak of 10 percent, but the employment-population ratio has not.  Many labor economists, including myself, believe that the employment-population ratio is giving us a much more accurate read on overall labor market conditions than the unemployment rate. 

Today's WP has an article on research by Johns Hopkins professor Robert Moffitt on the causes of shrinkage in the labor force. Moffitt argues that the decline may have started as early as 2000.  He looks at a number of possible causes and finds that declining wages may be part of the explanation; why bother working if the reward is declining?  He mentions rising incarceration rates in previous decades as another possible factor.  Some economists also have mentioned the rising share of the population receiving disability benefits as another key element. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How regulations can backfire on climate change

Oxford Professor Dieter Helm has a great recent NYT op-ed that illustrates the law of unintended consequences for regulations designed to reduce global warming.  Helm points out that although Europe has invested heavily in green technologies, it has made less progress in reducing carbon emissions than the US. 

The reason?  In the US we have cut down on coal and substituted natural gas.  Both are carbon-based but natural gas is much cleaner.  Europe has cut back on coal usage in its manufacturing processes, but because it is now importing more goods from China there is no net global reduction in coal usage.  Coal that would have been burned in Europe is now being burned in China.  Also some areas in Europe are cutting back on nuclear-generated electricity and are burning more coal.  Helm, like most economists, advocates a carbon tax that would apply regardless of the source. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why gas is scarce in NY and NJ

America last experienced lines at the gas pump in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter when OPEC cut back on exports.  Gas lines are back again in NYC and NJ in the aftermath of frankenstorm Sandy and this week's nor'easter Athena.  As we all know, Mother Nature wreaked havoc; shipping terminals have been damaged and many areas still lack power.  Politicians in both states have followed the Carter playbook and adopted odd-even rationing (WSJ report here).  This is expected to last at least two more weeks.

Anyone with a basic level of understanding of economics would immediately consider whether the human element might also be at work.  Let's start with laws designed to prevent price-gouging.  NY will hit gas station owners with a $10k fine for anyone charging 
"unconscionably excessive" prices charged by any party within the chain of distribution for necessary consumer goods and services during a declared state of emergency. Prima facie proof of "unconscionably excessive" includes evidence that (i) of a gross disparity between the amount charged and price for the same goods immediately prior to the abnormal disruption; or (ii) the amount charged grossly exceeds price at which same or similar products.
NJ has a comparable statute. 

Let's also remember that EPA regulations restrict the types of gas that can be sold by location and season.  Ironically gas prices here in Raleigh are cheaper than they have been in years while people in NY and NJ suffer.  Don't you think some trucks could divert supplies if there were an incentive to do so?  As this op-ed from a NJ newspaper points out, higher prices motivate suppliers to find more fuel and encourage buyers to economize. 

Bottom line: there is no doubt that Sandy hit NY and NJ with a wallop but a month of gas shortages is at least in part a man-made disaster, 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bonuses instead of raises

Today's WP has a story about how more and more companies are using bonuses instead of pay raises to reward high-performing employees.  A survey for Aon Hewitt found that companies had reserved 15% of payroll for bonuses as opposed to 3% for raises.  From an employer perspective, this practice allows companies to target rewards and avoid getting locked into long-lasting salary commitments. Employers also think that performance-based rewards get employees to focus on behaviors that boost the bottom line.  

On the employee side, a bonus is better than nothing.  But companies are less likely to provide bonuses in years when financial performance is lackluster, so employees would do well not to count on bonuses year in and year out.  

Side thought: Companies rarely, if ever, cut salaries.  Why is this practice considered taboo?  Prices for everything else go up and down as the market demands, e.g., gasoline, groceries, housing.  Will we soon get to a point where wages and salaries can go down as well as up? 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Financial literacy is a real problem

A hot topic in economics research right now is financial literacy.  Survey after survey shows that most investors do not understand the most basic concepts.  Today's WSJ summarizes some research (gated) by Brigitte Madrian of Harvard and others.  The research focuses on three key concepts: the power of compounding interest, the impact of inflation on rates of return, and the importance of diversification.  In a survey of the general population, only 30% were able to demonstrate they correctly understood all three concepts. 

Why is this a problem?  First, financial choices facing individuals are becoming increasingly complex.  If the general public has a hard time with simple compounding, what are they to do about decisions about annuities or, heaven forbid, derivatives?  Second, companies are increasingly shifting investment decisions to their workers by emphasizing defined contribution pensions over defined benefit plans. 

I am currently working on a research project with three NC State colleagues that explores financial literacy and understanding of Social Security and private pensions at five large organizations.  The bad news is that although our sample is highly educated, the respondents do poorly on our survey about financial and pension knowledge.  The good news is that after attending retirement seminars offered by their employers, they know a lot more.  Also, it appears they rethink many decisions about retirement after obtaining this knowledge.