Friday, December 11, 2015

More competition for full-time MBAs

Competition in the full-time MBA market is heating up.  The University of California at Irvine just announced that all newly admitted full-time students who are California residents will automatically get a fellowship of $10k.  This follows recent announcements by Arizona State and UMass-Amherst that full-time students will get free tuition.

Now here's the fine print: In-state tuition at UCI is $40k and change per year.  Here at NC State the full two-year cost of the degree is $45k for in-state and $74k for out-of-state.  Over half of our full-time students get a graduate assistantship or fellowship, which makes NC State an even greater value.

What is going on in the full-time MBA market?  We see some schools (Wake Forest, Virginia Teach) dropping the degree whereas others are doubling down to attract students.  The real challenge all full-time MBA programs face is that the biggest cost to students is not the tuition; it is two years' lost earnings.  If a school cannot deliver post-graduation a significant bump in income, then that school will have trouble attracting students.

The real numbers applicants should be looking at are these: (1) where am I now?  (2) where will I be immediately after completing the degree? (3) where will I be five years later?  In the most recent Bloomberg Businessweek full-time MBA rankings, their survey of 2007-09 NC State Jenkins MBA alumni found that
-- pay more than doubled between the start and finish of the program
-- pay almost doubled again five years later

That is a big reason NC State's Jenkins MBA placed #25 in alumni satisfaction and #29 overall in the Bloomberg Businessweek rankings!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Judgment versus algorithms in hiring decisions

Companies now have massive amounts of data about employee performance.  Is it possible to find meaningful correlations between performance and indicators that can be measured before a job offer is made?  If so, then there is room for algorithms based on these correlations to make improved hiring decisions.  

Economists at Harvard, Toronto and Yale business schools recently did a study that examined this question.  They examined the hiring of low-level service workers at 15 firms.  They focused on what happens when an employee is hired based on the algorithm versus what happens when a hiring manager overrules the algorithm and hires based on his or her own judgment.  

The results, summarized in Bloomberg Businessweek and available in National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21709, are sobering.  Job candidates picked by the algorithm stay longer and perform better than those picked by hiring managers.  Also, there was a strong correlation between algorithm predictions and actual performance.  

One caveat: this study looked at relatively unskilled jobs where performance could be measured objectively.  What would happen in more complex jobs such as trial lawyers or university professors?   My guess is that we will find out in the not too distant future.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Launch event for McLaughlan Leadership series

The kickoff event for the McLaughlan Leadership series last Friday at the Poole Clubhouse was a tremendous success.  All 24 members of the initial class attended.  They had the opportunity to meet Russ and Cara Mclaughlan and network with each other.

This series is a watershed event for the NC State Jenkins MBA program.  Our ultimate goal will be to make leadership development training available to all Jenkins MBAs and to have a more intense experience available for those who can best benefit.  Click here to learn more about the experience planned for the McLaughlan Leadership participants this coming spring.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Student financial aid: debt versus equity

Have been meaning to share this article from the Economist regarding how to best provide student financial aid.  In the US the dominant approach has been student loans.  But as any finance student knows, why can't equity be an option as well?  Why not let students sell shares of future earnings in return for up-front funding for college?

In pure financial terms, such loans would be viewed as very risky.  Would the student finish their undergraduate degree?  What earnings stream would the student generate once schooling is completed?  There is a company called Upstart that is doing this on a peer-to-peer platform; think crowdsourcing your degree!

There also would be a moral hazard problem.  Students receive the funds up front and then may choose to select a low income career or even have no career at all.  Funders would want some sort of collateral to offset this, but if you could post collateral you probably do not need a loan.

Income-based loan repayment plans are a variant on this theme.  When Yale experimented with this approach in the 1970s, it found that students who expected to have high earnings preferred traditional methods of loan repayment and those who expected no to low earnings took the "pay a percentage of earnings" repayment method.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

What happened to construction workers

Today builders say they are facing a profound shortage of qualified, trained workers.  Yet construction employment dropped by 2.3m jobs between 2006 and 2011 and is still 1.3m below the 2006 peak.  So what happened to over one million workers?  Why aren't they coming back in the market?

WSJ's Real Time Economics blog has the answer: some have switched to other industries but many have dropped out of the labor force.  At the same time hiring of young workers has been slow, so now there are not enough trained workers to meet demand.

This evidence further supports the view that despite the lowest employment to population ratio we have seen in 40 years, the labor market is close to having a balance between supply and demand.  Those who have dropped out of the labor market after they lost their jobs in the Great Recession do not appear to be coming back.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

An MBA for free

Arizona State recently announced that it would not charge tuition any more for its full-time MBA program.  In addition, ASU plans to expand the size of the program.  Right now ASU charges $54k to in-state students (over two years) and near $90k for out-of-state students.  The free tuition offer could cost ASU as much as $20m each year.

ASU is betting on a stronger applicant pool generating more employer interest and higher rankings, resulting in a rankings boost.  To their credit ASU is taking a big risk to better position its MBA program.  They are investing money from their own endowment.

What impact will this have on the MBA market?  The answer depends on how the offer changes the matching process between students and schools.  I doubt students originally bound for Stanford and Harvard will now go to ASU for free tuition.  Also, many schools in ASU's tier already give lots of financial aid to full-time students.  If ASU already was supporting half of its class, another 50 to 60 free rides will not have a dramatic effect on the entire market.

Most importantly, tuition costs are but one part of the MBA ROI calculation.  Lost earnings are a much larger component.  The earnings bump from the degree is also critical.   Arizona State does a good job in that regard (#41 in employer satisfaction in the latest Businessweek rankings), but I have to wonder whether ASU would have been better off spending less than $20m and focusing on the student experience (#62 in alumni and #61 in student satisfaction) and employer development.

At NC State, we provide full tuition graduate assistantships to a significant share of our full-time MBA students.  In exchange, these MBAs support faculty teaching and research.  Other students receive scholarships that offset some tuition costs.  Our key differentiator is not our tuition policy; it is the "think and do" spirit of NC State and the company-sponsored projects that are a key part of our classroom experience.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

NC State MBA vaults to top 30 in Businessweek full-time rankings

The NC State Jenkins MBA program made a huge leap to #29 in the US in the prestigious Bloomberg Businessweek full-time rankings, up from #54 a year ago.  Harvard was #1, Duke was #8 and UNC-Chapel Hill was #17.  NC State was ranked ahead of many well-established MBA programs, including Michigan State, Maryland, Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Why did NC State jump so high, so quickly?  Just ask employers, which is exactly what Businessweek did.  NC State ranked #20 in employer satisfaction.  This reflects the "think and do" spirit our graduates bring to the workplace, especially the skills they develop in the company-sponsored projects that are a cornerstone of the program.  We also did very well in terms of alumni (#25) and student (#38) satisfaction.

The part-time program also received a solid ranking at #45.  This is down from two years ago, but we should be very proud to be one of just 26 schools that received top 50 recognition for both the full-time and part-time program.

Kudos to the alums, faculty, staff and students who have made the NC State Jenkins MBA such a special program.  This latest ranking, along with the #9 online ranking from US News earlier this year, shows that NC State's MBA program is on the move.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Will those who left the labor force ever come back?

Everyone who has been looking at labor markets over the last five years has been asking, "What is going to happen to labor force participation (LFPR)?"  We know unemployment is down to near normal levels, but LFPR remains at its lowest point in almost 40 years.  The question is important because it cuts to the heart of the issue of whether we are at or near full employment.  The unemployment numbers say yes; the LFPR numbers say no.  So what are the odds that those who have left the labor force will actually return?

Today a WSJ blog reported one relevant item of evidence, based on a sector of the economy that I have researched heavily in the past -- the construction industry.  We all know what happened to construction in 2007-08; it tanked.  That means there are a lot of former construction industry workers out there who have the skills to return.

But are they coming back?  So far the evidence is that they have found other things to do and that this has put construction contractors in a bidding war for scarce talent.  Employment is still well below 2007 levels, yet builders are having a hard time finding qualified help.  This would imply that we should take the unemployment numbers more seriously as an indicator of aggregate labor market conditions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Inc. magazine lauds RTP as an entrepreneurial hot spot

Brian Hamilton, Chairman of the Board at Sageworks, has a nice piece in Inc. magazine about why the RTP area is an entrepreneurial hotbed.  Brian came here to get an MBA at Duke, which makes his comments about NC State even more compelling:
NC State is a true hidden gem that, to me, produces by far the strongest engineers and employees of the three.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

One "tax" that makes economic sense

I ran across two pieces this week about the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost health insurance plans.  This tax, part of the Affordable Care Act, goes into effect in three years.  It will tax as ordinary income employer-provided health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families.  It has been in the news because a number of politicians (including Hillary Clinton) have endorsed its repeal.

Ritu Agarwal, a b-school prof at the University of Maryland, argues the tax is an essential element of any policy that can successfully reform our health-care system.  The revenue from the tax finances ACA subsidies for health insurance purchases.  Also, the tax will force employers to shift more health care spending to individuals, who will be more careful with their own money than with someone else's when making decisions about their own care.  This will help bring down costs.

WP columnist Catherine Rampell points out another benefit from this tax: it will increase take-home pay.  One reason employee benefits represent at least 25% of the cost of labor is that many of these benefits are tax-deferred or are not taxed at all.  If the employer spends $1000 on wages, the employee takes home less than that after taxes.  If the employer spends $1000 on health insurance, the employee gets full value.  But total spending on compensation must equal the value created by the employee for the company, so an extra dollar spent on health insurance means one less dollar in wages.  And as premiums rise over time, wage growth slows.  So the Cadillac tax, which will lead employers to cut back on premium expenditures, will mean a raise for many employees!

Most economists would go one step further and tax all employer-provided health insurance premiums.  Why should individuals buying insurance on their own get no tax benefits, whereas those with employer-provided insurance get a big break?  Rampell points out that employer-provided health insurance was quite rare until wage controls were imposed during World War II.  Employers then used health insurance as a way to get around the controls and raise pay as labor became more scarce.

We are already in the 2016 election cycle and whoever is elected to national office will have to make a decision on what to do with the Cadillac tax.  Will they let it go into effect in 2018?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why student loan debt has grown

The media continue to be obsessed with stories about indebtedness on student loans.  But I had yet to see any tough analysis of microdata on where the growing debt burden has been coming from until a few days ago when a NYT blogger reported on a new study by a Stanford PhD student and a Treasury Department economist.  The study matched student loan records from colleges with earnings profiles from 1040s over the last 20 years, with all other identifying information removed of course.

Here are the main findings (direct quotes from the study's abstract):
  • Most of the increase in default is associated with the rise in the number of borrowers at for-profit schools and, to a lesser extent, 2-year institutions and certain other non-selective institutions, whose students historically composed only a small share of borrowers. 
  • In contrast, default rates among borrowers attending most 4-year public and non-profit private institutions and graduate borrowers—borrowers who represent the vast majority of the federal loan portfolio—have remained low, despite the severe recession and their relatively high loan balances. 
A couple of anecdotes from the study: (1) In 2000 the school whose graduates and former students had accumulated the greatest collective debt burden was New York University and they had piled up $2.2b.  In 2014 the school with the greatest debt burden was The University of Phoenix with $35.5b.   (2) Borrowers from for-profit and two-year institutions account for 70 percent of student loan defaults.  

Bottom line: despite all of the stories we read in the media about students who left Stanford with $100k in debt, the focus of future research needs to be on for-profits, 2-year schools and non-selective institutions.  Completion rates at these institutions are low and earnings opportunities after school attendance are often quite limited.  Loan applicants need to know that before paying their first tuition check.  

The new federal College Scorecard is a step in the right direction.  Prospective students can now get solid data on completion rates, indebtedness and earnings after attendance.  NC State fared very well on all measures, by the way.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What is the ROI from investing in employees?

A study released last April by Harvard Law School looks at whether there is a connection between investing in employee development and financial success.   Based on a review of 92 papers, the authors conclude that there is a strong connection between human capital investment and financial rate of return.  The connection is so strong that the authors claim that financial analysts should start paying more attention to human resource policies when they are evaluating firms.

Such an analysis is not easily performed.  We lack ways of measuring training in ways that are consistent across different organizations.  But with rising social interest in triple-bottom-line analysis, this could end up being an active research topic in the years ahead.

Monday, September 7, 2015


I ran across the term "upskilling" this weekend when I read this WSJ piece about Wal-Mart.  It seems that the term is of recent origin, and is meant to indicate the opposite of downskilling.   A Google search points to a White House initiative called "UpskillAmerica," encouraging employers to make investments in on-the-job training, employee education, and internal career paths.

Wal-Mart has already made the decision to increase entry level wages.  Recently it announced a new training program that will be rolled out to over 4500 U.S. locations, focusing on entry-level workers.  Both of these steps make sense economically if the cost savings from reduced turnover and higher productivity offset the cost of higher wages and more training.
Employee turnover costs money—by industry estimates as much as $5,000 per front-line worker, or 20% to 30% of an entry-level salary. Standard turnover in retail is 50% in the first six months. If Wal-Mart can reduce this churn, persuading people to stay at least 12 to 18 months, it will save “tens of millions of dollars a year.”
Increased customer satisfaction is another possible payoff.  A key issue will be how responsive turnover really is to higher wages and more training.  Unless Wal-Mart plans to build a lot more stores, I have to question its ability to create long term career options for its entry-level help.

Employers are keenly aware of training costs.  If they think workers can be persuaded to stick around, they will consider investing in skill development.  Otherwise they will either avoid training altogether or shift the cost to the worker via lower compensation.  Over the last seven years, the trend has been toward reduced investment in employee development.  If the tide is turning now, that is a pretty good signal that we are getting near full employment and employers are fearful of labor shortages.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Has student loan debt eroded startup activity?

Since 2006 there has been a slowdown in the rate at which new companies have been created.  Is rising student loan debt a possible culprit?  We know student loan debt has been growing rapidly since 2000.  Unlike other forms of debt, there is no collateral for student loan debt, which is why it is so difficult to get out of such debt in bankruptcy.  Also growing amounts of student loan debt can discourage all sorts of asset acquisition and investment, so it is natural to think that business formation could suffer as a result.

Three economists at the Philadelphia Fed took a careful look at how new business formation across counties is related to student loan indebtedness, along with other types of debt.  (Summary here; full study here.)  The counties where student loan debt grew the most were also the ones with the slowest rates of new businesses being started, especially for businesses with fewer than five employees.  This is not necessarily proof of causation, but it certainly means that the subject merits further research.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Equal time for the Donald

There are too many Presidential candidates for me to pick on every policy proposal that is grounded on less than sound economic logic.  Because college loan debt is so poorly understood, I jumped on the Clinton proposal yesterday.  But I do not want anyone to think that the Democratic frontrunner has a monopoly on economic nonsense.  So let me quickly flag two items from the Republican frontrunner that came to my attention yesterday.

My gut tells me that Trump is the frontrunner because he has played the age-old "blame all of society's troubles on [fill in the blank: immigrants, religious minorities, ethnic minorities]" ploy very successfully.  In an era when the whole world is becoming more tightly connected because of declining costs of communication and transportation, Trump wants to turn the clock back 100 years.

Case 1: immigration.  Trump's position paper argues we should build a wall on the Mexican border, invest significantly more in border patrols and employment verification, and force employers to hire all the unemployed before any more green cards get issued.   The facts: more Mexicans are now leaving the US than entering.  Although most illegal immigrants come from Mexico, as many as 50 percent of all illegals from all sources get here by overstaying their visa.  Perhaps Trump will have the immigration office put chips on each visitor to the US, so we can trace them and escort them out if they stay too long?

Case 2: monetary policy.  Trump is a big fan of currency devaluation to enhance economic competitiveness.  As this WSJ column shows, there is a long history of countries trying this approach and it is a history of failure.  If currency devaluation were the road to riches, Argentines and Mexicans would be on top of the world.

Monday, August 17, 2015

On the Clinton college affordability plan

Imagine a new federal investment that would cost $350 billion over the first ten years.  How could such funds be invested for the highest social ROI?  Lots of candidates: health care, transportation infrastructure, carbon reduction, and the like.  In the education arena, Nobel prize winning labor economist James Heckman has argued for significant increases in spending on pre-kindergarten so that all children would start school on a more equal footing.

Former first lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came out last week for spending $350b on debt relief for college students and alums.  A political stroke of genius, no doubt.  But who wins from this?  College graduates tend to come from upper income households and earn, on average, 60 percent or more over their lifetime as high school graduates.  Most of the spend would go to those who would have attended college anyway.  Why would debt relief for this crowd be such a high priority?  Recall the much more serious mortgage debt crisis in 2008 and how few politicians advocated federal intrusion into the mortgage business.

And what would colleges do?  To be eligible, they would have to show they are taking steps to control costs and that their students repay their loans.  But how many schools would be cut off from participating in the program if they do not make their numbers?  The feds have run a very loose ship on this front for decades.  In basic microeconomics, subsidies lead to more output and higher costs of operation.

As for Clinton's claim that the plan would be financed through higher taxes on the rich, be wary.  Congress is really good at coming up with new entitlements, not so good on coming up with ways to pay for them.

Bottom line: a new entitlement for the upper income brackets at a time when there are many, many higher priorities for public investment (if such investments can be wisely made in light of the other commitments our society already has).  The proposal also ignores some of the fundamental problems in the student loan market, especially the universal availability of loans regardless of odds of repayment.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

First year MBAs get a taste of the market

As part of orientation, all 10 teams of first year, full-time NC State Jenkins MBAs participated in Marketplace.  Each team was given $100 and had two weeks to come up with a product or service that they would sell in an actual market.  They could use up to $100 of their own funds as well.

The Marketplace event happened last Friday at HQ Raleigh.  NC State Jenkins MBA students, alums, and staff attended along with invitees from the local startup community.  Each visitor had 50 "MBAbucks" that they could spend.  Entrepreneurship professor Lewis Sheats and a panel of judges picked a winner.

1) Many of the products were food-related, including ice cream, snow cones, popsicles, popcorn, fresh organic produce.  Some people are always hungry, right?
2) Pricing strategies were interesting to say the least.  I paid 7 MBAbucks for a small scoop of ice cream and 3 MBAbucks for a quart of fresh organic tomatoes.  In a real marketplace the tomatoes would have cost more.
3) The winners: Jenkins PopCo -- flavored popcorn in appealingly designed bags.
4) The biggest challenge to most students I talked to was coming up with a concept on such a tight deadline.  Welcome to the world of business.

For more details, see this article in Triangle Business Journal.  Kudos to Claire Jefferies, Lewis Sheats, the MBA office, and the student teams for pulling off this great event.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A chance to refinance your student loan

Recent WSJ piece reports that some private sector lenders are now offering refinancing options to college graduates with student loans.  The offers are selective, going to those with sound credit scores and well-paying jobs.  One student was able to lower her interest rate from 7.2 to 4.7 percent.  Lenders mentioned include Social Finance, CommonBond, Citizens Financial, Earnest Operations, and Darien Rowayton.

The economic logic behind this market: the feds (and a few private lenders) offer one-size-fits-all terms for student loans -- an interest rate around 7% and a repayment period around 10 years.  These same terms are available to all borrowers, regardless of their ability to repay the loan.  After graduation private lenders can identify which students are good bets to make repayments and can profitably invest in those who appear to have great career prospects.  In today's credit markets, 4.7% repayment options are very attractive.

This changes the mix of the risk pool for the feds.  If the best repayment bets increasingly move to private sector funding, guess who remains in the pool?  And guess who will eventually have to cover a rising percentage of bad loans in that pool?  The parallels to the health insurance market are uncanny, with the private sector being more than willing to cover those with good health prospects while at the same time leaving the government to cover everyone else.  It would be naive to think that the federal government will allow the private sector to have a free hand in the student loan market for an extended period of time.

Friday, July 24, 2015

How much is your free time worth?

One of the most important concepts in economics is opportunity cost.  When you think of the cost of an activity (e.g., going to a movie), you need to consider not just how much you pay (gas, price of ticket) but also the value of what you could have done in that time (walking your dog).

Putting a price on time is a tricky matter.  In a work context, economists use compensation as the measure.  But what is your time outside of work worth?  Clearly it must be worth more than you can earn in that time, otherwise you would be working!

A recent WSJ piece provides some useful guidance on how to price your free time.  Examples: do you take the flight with the three hour layover to save $100?  Do you do your own laundry or take it to the cleaners?  All of these questions end up revolving on how much you value your own time.

There is now a calculator to help you value your time at a website called Clearer Thinking.  I found out that my own answers were very inconsistent.  I wanted a lot more money to work an extra hour per week than I was willing to pay for a machine that would save me an hour each week.  I am guessing I am not alone in that regard.  Try it out!  Especially good for new MBA students who will need to be examining the value of every spare hour once school starts.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Airlines and antitrust

On the peak holiday travel weekend the Justice Department announced that it was launching an antitrust investigation into the airline industry.  The four largest airlines in the U.S. now have 80 percent of the market.  Three of those airlines were involved in mergers, all of which were approved by the Justice Department!  The feds seem concerned that whenever an airline exec says the word "discipline" at an industry conference, it is secret code for "price fixing" or "capacity limiting."

A recent WSJ piece looked carefully at recent trends in air travel capacity.  It turns out that there are 12% more domestic seats for sale now than two years ago, hardly what you would expect for an industry with high fixed costs and (now with lower fuel prices) more modest variable costs.  Airlines are cutting back on flights but adding more seats to each flight by (1) reducing space between seats and making the seats smaller and (2) replacing small regional jets with larger aircraft.

If the feds are seriously searching for a factor limiting capacity in the industry, they might want to take a look at airports.  When was the last time a new airport was built in a major city?  When was the last time a new runway was added or more gates were added in the average city?  If local governments fail to invest in airport capacity, it will be hard for the airlines to put enough seats in place to meet demand.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Employees: cost or asset?

Companies pay a range of wages for what are essentially the same jobs.  For instance Costco pays higher rates than Walmart, and other retailers fall in between (with no doubt some even higher than Costco and others even lower than Walmart).  This violates the infamous "law of one price" in economics, so there must be something else going on.

I recently came across the research of Sloan MIT professor Zeynep Ton in a NYT column by Joe Nocera that addresses this issue.  Professor Ton has focused on supply chain management practices in retail.  She found that companies do a great job of getting product from China (or wherever else it is made) to the store.  But once the product hits the loading dock, things often went haywire.  The product needs to be in stock in the right place of the store, and apparently that is easier said than done.

Ton compared execution success to HR practices and found that companies that paid bottom dollar and provided little to no training were the ones that were having the most difficulty; the results were published in Harvard Business Review.  Her conclusion: "investing in employees can boost customer experience and decrease costs."

With more retail companies raising wages, it will be very interesting to see how the remaining low wage employers in retail react.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why labor's share of income is falling: another take

Labor's share of gross domestic product has dropped from 66 to 61 percent over the last 20 years, contributing significantly to income inequality.  Most experts (myself included) have focused on globalization, technological change, and labor market institutions such as collective bargaining and the minimum wage as contributing factors.

Harvard economist Robert Lawrence has written a provocative paper about that suggests another strong possibility: that capital investment (structures, equipment, software and the like) has lagged and as a result labor income has declined as a share of GDP.  The story goes like this: technical change has augmented labor instead of capital; in other words, one person can now do the work of two or more persons.  If accompanied by inelastic demand, this increase in the effective supply of labor results in lower labor income.  Another key part of Lawrence's study: labor and capital are complements, not substitutes.

This runs completely counter to the view promoted by Piketty that capital growth has resulted in income redistribution.  Piketty recommends income redistribution through wealth taxes.  Lawrence's results imply the exact opposite -- we need to take measures to increase capital formation in order to help labor.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

More job openings than ever before

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that last May there were 5.4 million open positions, more than ever before.  Although still considerably smaller than the 8.3 million who are unemployed, the ratio of open positions to unemployed persons is close to what it was before the Great Recession, according to WSJ.

This lends further weight to the argument that the job market really is beginning to tighten, despite the large drop in the size of the labor force and the number of workers who are in part-time jobs but would prefer full-time jobs.  It is a good time to be on the market!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Is it time for more overtime?

Last week President Obama announced new regulations that will expand the availability of overtime. Overtime is restricted to hourly employees, along with salaried employees who lack managerial responsibilities.  Defining the latter is dicy, so historically eligibility has been determined via a salary threshold.  Right now overtime is limited to those managers making less than $455/week.  The new regs kick that up to $970/week.

On the surface this would mean that about 5 million additional employees will now be eligible to collect overtime.  But we should expect employers and workers to make adjustments.  Under the old rules, exempt employees had an implicit understanding with their employer -- even though we do not get overtime, we are involved in a fair exchange where we provide so much work in so many hours and in return we receive so much income.

Employers looking to avoid the extra overtime charges have two options: cut hours so that they do not have to pay overtime rates or demand more work to be completed in the existing hours.  Assuming the overall workload stays the same, the first option will make sense for firms with low training costs and low spends on employee benefits (benefits are typically paid on a per person basis, rather than on a per hour basis).  Such firms can cut hours per person and hire more people.  The second option, which will usually involve downsizing, makes more sense when training new help is costly and benefits are expensive.

In deciding which course to take, employers have to make sure that they retain employees.  Whether they cut hours or increase workloads, employees will be worse off than before unless they start receiving some extra overtime pay.  Also, whatever deal is reached with the workers who are newly eligible will have to apply to those who were already eligible.  Bottom line: I expect to see adjustments along all three dimensions -- overtime hours worked (lower), workload expectations (higher), and overtime income received for newly eligible employees (higher).

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Time for a student loan? Don't ignore private lenders

Most student loans today originate directly from the federal government.  But this recent WSJ piece points out that, for some students, the private sector is a better option.  Three factors are critical: parental co-signers, credit scores, and wealth.  Borrowers will want to compare origination fees, ability to postpone interest while in school, and interest rates.  Some lenders even allow refinancing if interest rates fall.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Good news for labor economists: LA raises minimum wage to $15!

The LA city council recently decided to raise the minimum wage to $15, joining San Francisco and Seattle in the battle to help the working poor.  I was resisting further commentary on the minimum wage until I saw todays Robert Samuelson column in WP.

Each side on the minimum wage debate cherry picks the economics research to support their politics. Samuelson provides a good summary of mainstream findings: there is some job displacement but it has been modest.  However, this is based on historical evidence for the nation as a whole or for entire states.  What is unique about these cases is that (1) the increases are quite large (67%) compared to historical changes (10 to 15%) and (2) there is much more room for employers to move jobs across city boundaries as compared to state or national boundaries.   Samuelson speculates that restaurant employment will not be affected as much as hotels and manufacturing.  (Who wants to drive 10 miles in LA traffic to save 50 cents on a cheeseburger?)

One guaranteed winner from all this: labor economists who will have a lab experiment for evaluating the impact of the $15 minimum wage.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Would we better off without PowerPoint slides?

WP headline: "PowerPoint should be banned."  Click through to see slides from actual presentations that should never have seen the light of day.  Slides are useful tools for summarizing information, but not so useful for audience engagement (but maybe that's the point).  Amazon and LinkedIn have banned slide presentations. Is this the beginning of a trend?  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Has the financial sector fully recovered from the Great Recession?

So says NYT financial columnist Neil Irwin.  The evidence:

  • Employment has returned to 2007 levels
  • The pay gap between financial services and the rest of the economy has recovered; it is now a 3.6:1 ratio!
  • Entry level pay for Ivy League grads at investment banks went from $70k to $85k this spring
  • Vacancy rates at prime Wall St real estate are down to 5%
This is obviously good news for those with aspirations of working in this sector.  But is it good news or bad news for the economy?  The article cites research by economists at the Brandeis, Chicago and NYU b-schools which suggests that the size of the financial services sector does not appear correlated with economic performance.  Financial markets are supposed to reallocate capital to firms with profit-making opportunity from those that are tapped-out.  In theory this should lead to increased productivity, but in practice the data show that a large financial sector leads to weaker productivity growth.  

One fear is that the recent rebound in employment is associated with regulatory compliance in an industry that now bears a more than striking resemblance to a public utility, thanks to Dodd-Frank.  If so, then the allocation of more resources to financial services should be lamented, not cheered.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

John Nash has passed away

Nobel laureate John Nash passed away yesterday in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Veterans of MBA 505 will all certainly recall the Nash equilibrium concept in game theory.  Others will remember the movie "A Beautiful Mind," where Nash was played by Russell Crowe.  See the NYT obit for a solid recap of Nash's contributions to economics and mathematics.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Another top 20 ranking for NC State Jenkins MBA

Princeton Review today released its first ranking of the top 25 online MBA programs.  The NC State Jenkins MBA came in at #20.  This is the third top 20 ranking the program has received in the last year and a half, joining a #9 online MBA ranking from US News this year and a #20 ranking of the Professional MBA from Bloomberg Businessweek in November 2013.

Princeton Review's rankings are based on surveys of students and school administrators.  UNC-Chapel Hill was rated the #1 online MBA, followed by Indiana, IE (Spain), Arizona State and Temple.

Click here to see what NC State Jenkins Online MBA students have to say about academics and here to see what they say about how the program has helped their careers.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Do low wage employers get subsidized?

So claims a study from UC-Berkeley that was summarized recently by NYT.  It is true that many employees of companies such as McDonalds and Walmart receive some form of public assistance.  But when economists think of subsidies, we usually think of payments designed to encourage production of certain activities, such as higher education and corn.  In other words the more the company produces the more the government pays them!

The situation with low wage employers (large and small) is fundamentally different.  Public assistance programs are designed so that as people work more hours their assistance levels go down.  A low wage worker at McDonalds does not make enough money to be off public assistance, but the public assistance payments are LOWER than if he or she were not employed at all.  How this gets translated into a subsidy is beyond my comprehension.

Nonetheless I find the picture painted in this story very disturbing.  In a well functioning labor market, single mothers in their 30s should have better options than working in fast food or greeting shoppers at Walmart.  Part of the problem is that globalization and technological change have eliminated a lot of jobs.  Another part is that these workers do not have enough skills to qualify for whatever better paying jobs might be available.

How can we devise a way to get these workers the education or applied skill training that would open more opportunities?  I expect more creative use of online learning opportunities could make a difference.  But that does not seem to fit into the platform of either major political party; one seems to want to turn back the clock while the other is under the illusion that markets solve all ills.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

How testing is changing hiring

Companies have used personality tests to screen job applicants since the 1950s.  But now the tests have evolved and, because of advances in information technology, become cheaper to administer and more effective predictors of performance.  A recent WSJ article reports that eight of the ten largest employers in the US are using personality assessments to fill some jobs.

Employers are taking longer to fill positions, according to research done by Booth Chicago economist  Steven Davis.  They see how their best employees do on the tests and then seek applicants who give similar answers.  If companies have trouble filling a position, they simply post on more jobs boards until they find someone who is a good fit.

A key benefit of more careful selection is that turnover (both quits and layoffs) has gone down by about 25% over the last 10 years, according to Davis' research.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

To tip or not to tip

Tipping is expected in restaurants, cabs, and a variety of other service industries.  At its most basic, the concept is simple -- the customer is in the best position to judge service quality, so why not have an incentive scheme where the voice of the customer speaks loudly?

Once you think more deeply about the motives associated with tipping, it starts to sound less appealing.  In many cases a customer will be at a particular establishment only once, so there is no financial penalty if the customer is a cheapskate and leaves no tip at all.  Also, service depends on a number of factors beyond the control of the person being tipped; the waiter cannot control backups in the kitchen and cabbies cannot control crosstown traffic.  Customers do not know that and penalize waiters unjustly.

A recent WP article reports that more restaurants are moving to a flat 20% service charge, and some are using this revenue stream to raise wages.  The benefit to employees is quite clear -- a steadier and larger stream of income.  Also most customers tip the same percentage (around 20% actually) all the time, so this process is not such a radical departure.

But what do customers get?  Now instead of voting with their tip dollars, customers would have to communicate directly with management about good and not so good service.  If they speak up, this would actually help management make more informed personnel decisions.  However, a customer might just as easily keep quiet about poor service and simply take his business elsewhere.

Shared tips or a flat fee also create incentives for waiters to cooperate, something management should encourage.  Finally, regardless of whether the waits get paid by tips or a percentage fee, I will still usually hear "Dr. Allen would you like to see the dessert menu?"  Restaurant owners will still have an incentive to get you to buy more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Glaxo changes compensation plan for sales employees

Companies adopt compensation plans to better align the incentives of employees with those of the owners.  Commissions have traditionally been used in many sales jobs to encourage employees to sell as much as they can.  But that can lead the sales team to push product to every potential customer, regardless of whether the customer can use the product or not.

Bloomberg reports that GlaxoSmithKline is considering changes in its Patients First pay plan for sales employees.  The plan, launched in 2011, shifted the emphasis away from sales and toward "scientific knowledge, selling competency, customer evaluations, and overall performance of the representative's business unit."  The general idea is to reward the competencies that are believed to lead to strong customer relationships, as opposed to rewarding short-term, hardball sales tactics.  GSK is looking at making some adjustments to Patients First, including testing sales reps for product knowledge.  Looks like remembering those organic chemistry formulas has a payoff after all!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is Uncle Sam the most predatory lender? A rant on student loans

Ran across this from a link today on the Real Clear Politics website
While our federal government continues to chase many mortgage lenders for so-called "predatory lending" practices, perhaps we should check in on the situation of far and away the biggest predatory lender of all, the federal government itself.  Its most odious practices are in the area of student loans.  I find the term "predatory" a stretch when applied to a mortgage loan for a house, given that in the worst case the borrower got to live in the house, and even if he gets foreclosed and has a deficiency balance he can normally discharge that in bankruptcy.  Not a pleasant process, but sometimes life can be tough.  Compare that to federal student loans, where the government lends inexperienced 18 - 24 year-olds open-ended amounts, often for dubious and overpriced trade schools, and then flatly forbids discharge in bankruptcy.   Many borrowers' finances are ruined for life, and they don't even have marketable job skills to show for it.  Now that's predatory!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What to make of last week's jobs report?

After months of jobs growth in the 250k range, the report for March shows a marked slowdown.  Jobs growth in March amounted to 126k and the numbers for January and February were revised downward.

Usually one bad month is not cause for alarm, but this news, combined with other recent reports of slowing economic activity, suggests that we are hitting a rough patch.  One possible reason is the stronger dollar has reduced export opportunities.

Despite recent wage increases announced by Walmart and McDonalds, wage growth continues to be slow.  This WSJ report indicates wages are growing at the top and the bottom of the distribution but not in the middle.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Should the Sysco and US Foods merger go forward?

Today's Raleigh N&O reports local restauranteurs' reaction to the proposed merger between Sysco and US Foods.  The FTC is trying to stop the merger, claiming that the combined firm would have 75% of the market.

Reaction to the merger appears to be mixed.  Some support the merger, believing that it will result in greater bargaining power for those who buy the products needed for food service operations and that the price cuts will be passed along to them.  Others are concerned that the competition between Sysco and US Foods will vanish and that prices will rise.

Much hinges (as it always does in antitrust cases) on the question of market definition.  In other words, 75% of what market?  The FTC claims the market definition should be "broadline food-service distribution;" in other words, the 18-wheelers that make the rounds every day.  Sysco says this definition vastly understates the options available to restaurants, who can deal with smaller distributors or even go to the farmers' market and Costco.

One last note: I was a bit surprised to see a number of local restaurants that pride themselves on their close relationships with local farmers on their menu, but still depend on Sysco for a good chunk of their food supplies.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Do minimum wages translate into higher prices?

When the minimum wage increases, something has to give.  Companies have the option of cutting work hours, passing on the wage increase to customers, receiving smaller margins, or some combination of the above.

Most minimum wage research has focused on employment and hours worked.  Stanford economist Tom MaCurdy has a forthcoming study that represents the first careful look at prices.  MaCurdy finds that when the minimum wage was increased 21% in 1996, it induced a 2% increase in the price of food consumed away from home.  The prices of retail services, groceries and household personal services also went up.  Combining all of these effects, MaCurdy found that the overall price increase was greater for families in the bottom 20% of the distribution than for those in the top 20%.

What does this mean for low-income families?  MaCurdy shows that minimum wage earners are distributed evenly throughout the income distribution; one in five households has a member receiving the minimum wage.  In low income households minimum wage recipients are more likely to be primary earners, whereas they tend to be secondary earners (think teenagers) in high income households.  So if low income households receive the same boost in earnings but pay higher prices, they actually end up worse off.  MaCurdy concludes:
... more poor families were losers than winners from the 1996 hike in the minimum wage. Nearly one in five low-income families benefited, but all low-income families paid for the increase through higher prices.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A challenge to Piketty

French economist Thomas Piketty has become a media celebrity as a result of his "Capital in the 21st Century."  One of his central claims is that capital income grows faster than labor income, which necessarily dictates growing inequality over time.  Piketty does show this to be the case in the US and a number of other countries over the last 40 years.

A recent study by an MIT economist featured on an WSJ blog takes a closer look at capital income.  As it turns out, capital income is not limited to capital gains, interest, and dividends.  It also includes housing, and this is where it gets interesting.  If you break capital income into two components (housing and all other forms), the data show that all of the upward trend in capital income is the result of housing appreciation.  In other words, who is getting wealthier?  It is not the idle rich; instead it is homeowners.

This has important implications for the societal implications of growing inequality.  Ownership of stocks and bonds is relatively concentrated in the upper income brackets, whereas most Americans are homeowners.  If the returns to capital are being distributed in the form of rising home prices, then the impact on inequality across households will be relatively minor.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Some triangle restaurants find minimum wage not enough

Yesterday's N&O ran an article about how some RTP restaurants have decided to start paying more than the minimum wage.  Is this the result of a sudden infusion of social consciousness?  Maybe in some establishments whose owners feel strongly about social justice.  But why now, as opposed to three or five years ago?

Any full explanation of these pay raises has to include the fundamental forces of supply and demand. The restaurants cited in the article are not greasy spoons; Pizzeria Toro and Monuts Donuts get rave reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Urbanspoon.  And to maintain the quality that their customers expect, these eateries need workers with experience and strong customer skills.  Higher wages reduce turnover and attract top job candidates.

Some restaurants also are starting to pool tips, with the goal of getting more cooperation among the wait staff.  Such a move also alleviates the risk of getting stuck with a table of stingy tippers.

Assuming no action at the federal or state level on the minimum wage, I envision a situation where those just getting started find minimum wage jobs in chains and small generic establishments.  Those who like the work and are talented move up to higher paying positions.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Race against the machines

Over the Christmas holidays I read Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's "The Second Machine Age," an ultimately optimistic view of where IT is taking us.  I say ultimately because as the machines get smarter and more productive, there is going to be significant displacement of labor.

Traditionally economists have viewed technological change as an essential element of economic growth.  Although there are plenty of examples of workers being displaced (ask John Henry the steel-driving man), the economy has historically been able to absorb and reallocate them fast enough to avoid mass unemployment.

Now Brynjolfsson is not so sure that mass unemployment can be avoided, as reported in a recent WSJ piece.  Although self-driving cars are years away from U.S. interstates, an Australian mining company is already using self-driving trucks and automated trains.  Some experts think that between a third and a half of today's jobs will become obsolete by mid-century.  MIT economist David Autor fears that those that will be left will be either very high skill or very low skill.

The good news -- breakthroughs in health care and education, new jobs that we cannot yet imagine, opportunities for more free time as machines do more work for us.  Maybe even folding laundry?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Wages up at restaurants

Yet another front page WSJ story about wage increases, this time in the restaurant industry.  Job growth in restaurants and bars had outpaced other sectors since the economy started to recover in 2009.  But wage growth stayed very flat until the last six months of 2014, when restaurant pay went up by 3%, twice as fast as a year ago.

The article cites the experience of Pi Pizzeria in St. Louis which raised wages to reduce the quit rate and attract stronger job candidates.  Apparently many of those who had been cooks and waiters while waiting for the job market to improve are now finding better opportunities outside of food service.  Part of the story also seems to be good old-fashioned supply and demand.  More people are eating out (restaurant spending was up 11% last year way more than any other sector), thus putting pressure on restaurants to expand staffing.  In some states the minimum wage has increased, putting additional upward pressure on pay.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A different take on student loan defaults

Stereotype: student loan debt is at all time high levels and is now larger than credit card debt.  Defaults are rising mainly because of the rising cost of four-year colleges and graduate schools.  

Not so fast, says the NY Fed in a post yesterday on Marginal Revolution.  It turns out that default rates are highly correlated with balance due at the end of schooling.  The default rate is over 30% among those with a balance of $5k, whereas it is between 15 and 20% for those with a balance due of $100k or more.  Those with very high balances tend to be those who completed school, whereas those with the lowest balances tend to be predominantly those who lasted only a semester or two.  

Turns out that there are a lot more student borrowers in the low balance category (72% owe $25k or less) than the high balance one (3% owe $100k or more).  One of the commentators on the NY Fed blog offers a possible explanation of what is going on:
Bad credit seems to correlate with bad academics. Many seem concerned more with paying bills than paying education. Sometimes they are just out of jail and no one will hire them. Their probation requires they work or get a job which the later is nearly impossible. Other times we have people so deep in the hole in debt already that the student loans was a way to buy more time. The word is out if you have bad credit and are desperate for funds just go to a community college where tuition is low and borrow the maximum. We noticed in our data pull many students graduated from high school or received their GED up to 10 years ago or more! 
I should emphasize that correlation is not causation, but these results raise serious questions about how the US is structuring its student loan programs at the federal level.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Raleigh labor market #3 in US

According to the latest ratings in Forbes, Raleigh clocks in as the #3 labor market in the US out of 150 metropolitan areas.  Yet another reason to come here to get your MBA!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Walmart boosts wages

Big news from Walmart, on top of falling prices we now have rising wages!  Today the nation's largest retailer announced that it was going to make sure that all of its US workers would earn at least $9 an hour by April.  According to NYT, this is likely to affect half a million employees.  It will certainly be a big boost to those earning the minimum wage.

Walmart's motivation is most likely competitive pressure.  The unemployment rate keeps dropping, which means employers are competing for fewer applicants.  Walmart's move is likely to put more pressure on firms such as Target and Home Depot to raise pay.

There also is a chance that the wage increase pay for itself.  As MBA 505 students know, a higher wage reduces turnover and thus reduces hiring and training costs.  A higher wage also should be associated with higher standards for individual productivity.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MBA alum recognized by CNN Money

Scott Bolin, an NC State Jenkins MBA from the class of 2012, is the subject of a CNN Money story on Five Startups that are Reimagining the World.  Scott is co-founder of Tethis, a company that has developed a way to treat wastewater.  Applications range from fracking to city sewers.  Tethis has raised almost $2 million from investors.

Scott concentrated in entrepreneurship in the MBA program and has been able to put what he has learned into practice.  Typical NC State -- Think and Do!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What we do not know about the minimum wage

We were discussing the minimum wage last week in my MBA 505 Global Economics for Managers class.  Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle did a nice job in a recent column summarizing the economics research literature.  Did she read literally 100s of papers?  I kind of doubt it, but she reaches three main conclusions:
1) Most people have their own opinions about whether the minimum wage is a good or not so good idea and they naturally seek out and site research that supports their own opinions.  Psychologists call this confirmation bias.  As is always the case in economics, you do not have to search very hard to find a study that matches your views.  Some find big job losses, others find small job losses and one very famous study found no job losses.  Out of these 100s of papers, guess which study gets cited as hard evidence by minimum wage proponents!  (Overall, the literature seems to indicate small job losses, by the way.)
2) Historically most changes in the US minimum wage have been modest, e.g. an increase from $2.65 in 1978 to $3.35 in 1981.  Some states and cities are now contemplating much larger changes, from the current $7.25 to $15.  It is quite possible that research done on small hikes does not translate into larger ones.  For instance, automation opportunities that McDonalds would ignore at a $1 increase may be too tempting to pass up at the President's proposed $3 increase. 
3) None of the minimum wage studies have been able to deal with long term consequences, such as how many McDonalds might end up closing or and how many never open because of higher labor costs. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Understanding the drop in the labor force

Just ran across two items from Marginal Revolution dealing with the drop in the labor force participation rate.  Stanford econ prof Robert Hall has taken a careful look at personal and household factors and has found that most of the drop has taken place among teens and young adults.  More intriguing is the finding that the drop is greater among households in the upper half of the income distribution than the lower half, casting doubt on the theory that more generous income maintenance programs (food stamps and unemployment insurance would be the most likely culprits) are driving the shrinkage of the labor force.

A recent article in BloombergBusinessweek reaches a simular conclusion.  Young people in high income households are staying in school longer and more of them are not working.  The article also notes the growing share of the labor force claiming disability benefits; these individuals are unlikely to return to work even if the unemployment rate dips below 5 percent.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

NC State Online MBA ranked #9 by US News

What a way to start the year -- US News announced yesterday that NC State's online Jenkins MBA program ranked #9 in the US.  This is the first top ten ranking for any platform of our MBA program. A year ago the online MBA program was ranked #36.

NC State's overall score was based on four components: student services and technology (#13), student engagement (#13), admissions selectivity (#16), faculty credentials and training (#69) and peer reputation (no rank reported).

What were some of the secrets to our success?  Our student retention and graduation rates have been near 100%, so that definitely gave us a leg up on the student engagement score.  As is the case with our full-time and Professional Evening platforms, our online student credentials are quite high, especially in terms of work experience.  The faculty score is a bit of a head-scratcher -- I have a hard time believing NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill (#120 on faculty credentials) are really behind Gardner-Webb and the University of the Cumberlands on this dimension.

Kudos as well to UNC-Chapel Hill for being tied with Indiana and Temple for #1.  Both of our programs have come a long way in just three years (we both started in 2012).  North Carolina residents have two outstanding choices.  Compare the programs, compare the costs, and decide which best fits your needs!