Monday, June 30, 2014

You don't miss your water ...

Want to know why there is a water shortage in California?  Is it the drought? Too many lawn irrigation systems?

Of course not!  It's the government's byzantine system of pricing and distributing water.  Stanford GSB Professor Ed Lazear tells the full story in this WSJ piece.  Preserving the delta smelt is an additional complication.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Maybe fears about student loan debt are overblown

Tuesday's NYT ran a story summarizing some recent research by two Brookings Institution economists regarding student loan debt.  The punchline -- maybe this is not such a big deal after all.  (For amusement be sure to see this Bloomberg Businessweek piece that links to a "sky is falling" NYT story on student debt that ran just two days earlier!)

The Brookings research makes two main points: (1) even though the debt numbers are up, so are incomes streams; the ratio of monthly student loan payments to income has not changed much over the last 20 years and (2) roughly 75% of those with debt owe no more than $20k; only 7% have more than $50k.

Of course there are still some serious issues, especially among those who borrow but do not complete degrees and those who complete degrees in fields with limited labor market opportunities.  But maybe students have a much better idea of what they are getting into than we think!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wage increases on the horizon?

The national unemployment rate is almost back to where it was before the Great Recession.  Ordinarily that would lead us to expect a tighter labor market with rising wages and shortages in certain occupations.  But the economy has been anything but ordinary, especially the labor market.  The labor force participation rate has plummeted and many analysts think that once the labor market looks better, more people who are currently sitting on the sidelines will start looking for work.  If this happens, there likely will not be an uptick in wages for the average worker.

Many CFOs are expecting to have to give larger raises, according to Saturday's WSJ.  Wage rates have been flat since the recession started.  In a survey jointly performed by the Fuqua School of Business and CFO Magazine, CFOs expect wages to increase by 3% in the coming 12 months.  WSJ thinks that firms will have to accept smaller profit margins as a result, although raising prices or cutting non-labor costs are other options.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pricing student loan risk

One peculiarity of the student loan market is that loan contracts are the same for all forms of post-secondary education.  This means that someone borrowing for a Harvard MBA pays the same interest rate and has the same repayment terms as someone borrowing for a degree from a Bible college or a barber school.  This happens, Bloomberg Businessweek argues, because (1) the federal programs make no distinctions and (2) FDIC rules forbid banks from making such distinctions.  Ironically, banks can have different terms across individuals for auto or home loans, but not student loans.  Default rates on student loans vary tremendously by college and program, below 2 percent at Stanford and Duke but 42 percent at Arizona Automotive Institute.

This is not an easy problem to fix.  Most students are young and do not have a work or credit history that provides good predictions about what their credit worthiness will be five to ten years into the future.  On the other hand, the bulk of the defaults are coming from schools that heavily rely on federal loan support for their very existence but are currently not being held accountable for their graduates' behavior.  Balancing access to higher education with responsible pricing will not be easy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Teacher tenure and civil rights

A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure locked so many incompetent teachers in place in poor performing schools in distressed neighborhoods that students in those schools were being deprived of their right to an education.  Prominent economists were hired as expert witnesses in the case.  Judge Treu cited the work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty who found that a single year in a classroom with an ineffective teacher costs the students $1.4m in lost lifetime earnings.  Tom Kane, another Harvard economist, testified that one year with an incompetent teacher costs 9.5 months of learning.

California teachers go up for tenure after only 16 months on the job.  Once tenured it takes 2 to 10 years to remove an ineffective teacher at a cost of $50 to $450k, the judge noted in his ruling.  With such a daunting process and a far from certain outcome, principals choose to leave such teachers in place.

So how does this become a civil rights issue?  The judge cited testimony that inept teachers tend to be clustered in "high-poverty, low-performing" schools with large concentrations of minorities.

Of course the ruling will be appealed and the next judge may weigh the testimony differently.  Looking at the economic and management issues at stake, here are some key questions:
1) The judge cited testimony from an expert witness hired by the defendants that 1-3% of all teachers in California are ineffective.  Ineffective teaching is not an easily measurable trait such as height or weight. If the ruling holds up, how would teaching effectiveness be measured and how would one use those measures to make decisions at the individual level?  In practice performance measures are always noisy, so the consequence would be that some good teachers would be fired because of bad metrics.
2) Who replaces the fired teachers?  Would the replacements be more or less effective in the classroom?
3) Would principals use the power to fire?  Dismissal procedures are not any fun for either party.
4) If tenure is removed, this reduces the economic rewards for entering the teaching profession.  How much will salaries have to be increased to attract the same caliber of faculty?
5) There are many issues facing inner city schools and their students; if every ineffective teacher were replaced by an ideal teacher (think Mr. Chips, Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets) how much would the lives of the students in those schools change?  The roles of neighborhoods, parents and culture would remain more or less the same.