Archive for June, 2013

This just in: College is costly

26 June 2013


Don’t worry, it’s still worth it, in a big way, at least on average. But that’s another story. This chart here has some interesting stories to tell:


(1) The big difference between average published tuition (“sticker price”) and net tuition at public four-year colleges is a big surprise to me. I teach at a four-year public college, and I don’t think we offer big tuition scholarships to all that many people. I know that some of the flagship state universities do, and those schools also have a lot more people paying high out-of-state tuition, which surely explains some of the gap. But a difference of more than a half? I would not have guessed.

— Side note: My students would no doubt point out that this chart includes only tuition and not room/board/etc., which cost a lot more than tuition at ours and many state colleges.

(2) The average net tuition paid at four-year public colleges has doubled in real (inflation-adjusted) terms in just ten years! That’s a big jump. Parents and younger siblings cannot be pleased about this.

(3) The average net tuition at private colleges is well under half the sticker price, but it’s still steep: $52,000 for four years, more if you figure that tuition inflation will continue.

(4) State schools have lost about half their relative (tuition) cost advantage to private colleges, and state school tuition is about one-fifth of private college tuition. I’m not sure which of those statistics is more significant. Overall, assuming the quality difference between public and private schools has not changed, the first point means state schools are only half as good a deal (ignoring non-tuition fee) as they used to be. But how many private colleges are five times better than public colleges (taking into account consumption value, impact on future earnings, impact on future quality of life)? Okay, throw in room, board, etc. and they are about $10.000 at both private and public, and now it’s a $12,500 net cost at public school vs. $23.000 at private school, so now the private school costs “only” 84% more. Still a big difference.

It seems the burden of proof is on private colleges to justify their huge extra cost. Depending on the college and the applicant, some are probably worth it and some aren’t. (I remember a bright student awhile back who said his father told him, “I’m not going to pay through the nose for four years just so you can screw around.”) Prospective applicants to pricey private colleges have some justifying of their own to do (hint, hint).

The top 1% are different. Yes, they own more financial assets.

25 June 2013

Lawrence Mishel’s recent piece on inequality includes a very telling graph:


We see that the second half of the 1990s  is the first prolonged period when the top 1%’s income soared above that of the college educated in general; it coincided with the dot-com boom/bubble. We see a similar takeoff during the mid-2000s housing bubble and stock boom. In the market corrections/crashes that began in 2000 and 2007, we see the top 1%’s advantage mostly, but not completely, disappear. 

A combination of stock options, stock-market-based bonuses, and “Takes money to make money” seems to be at work here. The graph seems to be at odds with the common argument (Greg Mankiw’s?) that the top 1% deserve all they get because they are so much more productive, as it seems doubtful that their superior productivity deserts them in bad times.

Fed talk is anything but cheap

24 June 2013

After last Wednesday, I bet Ben Bernanke can relate to this observation by George Carlin about his Catholic upbringing:

If you woke up in the morning and said, “I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!” Save your car fare; you did it, man!

It’s the thought that counts! The Fed didn’t “do” anything last Tuesday and Wednesday at its Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Bernanke’s concluding comments about the continuing slump were not much more specific than “This too shall pass, someday,” combined with the obvious point that normal times will bring normal monetary policies. The main news was that he thought normal times would come sooner than many people expected. But that was enough. Evidently, the bond market was expecting the economy to be flat on its back for most of the next decade: 10-year Treasury bond rates had lately been in the range of 2.1-2.2%, whereas the recent historical norm is about 5%. After Bernanke’s remarks, the rate jumped by 30 basis points (0.30% point) to a Friday close of about 2.5%. It jumped further this morning to 2.6%.

Two observations:

(1) Just as in Carlin’s church, Bernanke doesn’t actually have to do anything to tank the long-term bond market. Just thinking about it aloud is enough.

(2) The long-term bond market is really not the economy’s friend. What tanked the bond market is the prospect of interest rates rising a bit sooner and faster than expected, on account of the Fed reacting to a stronger economy. So in a weird sense the spike in bond rates is good news: Bernanke said better times were coming, the markets believed him, and they acted accordingly. Not to say that their action was malicious, just that it was predictable: if you are expecting interest rates to rise in the future, you should buy bonds in the future, not now.


24 June 2013

My first Huffington Post column was posted last week. It’s on Ireland’s economy, against the backdrop of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Check it out.

Or, if you already did, check this out instead:

If markets could talk

21 June 2013

The stock market would be telling the Fed something like this:


Sounds crazy, but that’s how present discounted value works. (And thanks to my daughter for the meme.)

This week the Dow fell 3% this after Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s announcement that eventually the economy would get better and then the Fed would gradually take its foot off the accelerator. That is, the Fed would taper off its quantitative easing (QE; emergency mass purchases of long-term bonds) when unemployment (now 7.6%) fell to 7.0% and then, as announced before, would start raising short-term interest rates back toward normal levels when unemployment fell to 6.5%. He didn’t say this was going to happen soon, and reiterated that the (near-) zero interest rate policy would continue until unemployment falls to 6.5%. Granted, he sounded mildly optimistic that the economy would recovery sooner than expected, but he presented no new data on that score, so it’s an easy prediction to shrug off. Not that the markets did.

The present-discounted-value approach to stock pricing says that a stock is worth its company’s expected future profits in all years to come, divided by a discount factor that is based on the long-term interest rate. The lower the interest rate, the higher the stock’s price should be. The odd thing here is that if the economy picks up, corporate profits should too, which should offset the higher interest rates that Bernanke is hinting at. It may be that corporate profits are already high and are not always easy to predict, whereas long-term interest rates are known now. The 10-year Treasury bond rate rose from 2.2% to 2.5% after Bernanke’s announcement, a 14% increase that is right about in line with the 15% drop in stock prices. (The 10-year Treasury yield is still at a near-historic low, by the way.)

The financial media tend to report any significant-looking drop in stock prices as an economic calamity, overlooking the most basic facts about the stock market, namely that it is volatile and its short-term swings have very little macroeconomic impact. The less we worry about short-term market reaction to the Fed, the better off we’ll be. Jared Bernstein has an excellent piece on the Fed’s announcement, to which I don’t have much to add, only to say that I don’t see much new in the announcement, other than some optimistic predictions and an exit strategy for QE (which had to end sometime).

Blame Canada?

17 June 2013

Unlike the USA and most of western Europe in 2008-2009, Canada did not have a financial crisis. Quite a few columns and articles were written about the superior stability of Canada’s financial system, which is much more concentrated but is apparently much more tightly regulated and has captured far fewer politicians and regulators than its US counterpart. I meant to blog about that but never got around to it.

Which makes Krugman’s recent post about Canada‘s still-raging housing bubble fascinating reading. In brief: housing prices in Canada experienced much the same run-up as US housing prices in the mid-2000s but instead of plummeting after 2007, have kept on rising. They are now more than double their 1975 level, whereas US house prices peaked at about 190% of that level. Canadian household debt as a percentage of income also never stopped rising and is now slightly above the US ratio.

Does this mean Canada is headed for a financial crisis? Not necessarily. Canada’s financial sector still looks sedate compared to its high-flying, reckless US counterpart. But you can have a collapsing bubble and severe recession without a financial crisis. Canada did not escape the worldwide 2008 recession and has made a fair recovery, but it is not hard to see where the next big blow could come from. Dean Baker has emphasized that the recent US financial crisis depended far less on subprime borrowing, securitization, credit default swaps, and the other usual suspects and much more on the collapse of a multi-trillion-dollar housing bubble, and the loss of all that wealth and wealth-driven consumption. Not surprisingly, Baker liked Krugman’s post. He adds that the collapse of the housing bubble could be even worse in Canada because 30-year fixed-rate mortgages never took hold in Canada (as they did in the US during the New Deal). The standard mortgage in Canada has to be paid off or refinanced in five years, so when interest rates rise from their current record lows (1% is the current benchmark short-term rate in Canada), millions of homeowners could see their monthly payments shoot up. The scenario is similar to the expiration of low “teaser rates” on adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) in the US in 2006-2008, but could be even worse, as the five-year limit appears more common in Canada than ARMs were in America. Could large numbers of defaults on “underwater mortgages” (where amount owed exceeds market value of house) happen in Canada, too?

I love Canada, but if I were to move there today, I’d rent.