The number of PhD recipients on food stamps and other forms of welfare more than tripled between 2007 and 2010 to 33,655, according to an Urban Institute analysis cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The number of master’s degree holders on food stamps and other forms of welfare nearly tripled during that same time period to 293,029, according to the same analysis. [Hat tip.]
There have been some that have proposed that the current surge in college costs is not proof of a bubble, but rather the natural byproduct of college’s sorting function. (I think I first heard this proposal at Foseti’s.) If that were the case, it doesn’t make sense that holders of advanced degrees are having difficulties getting good jobs, since the natural purpose of sorting is to take the best and brightest and put them in the best positions.
The theory of sorting makes its case on the grounds that colleges are largely meritocratic—a dubious claim at best, though true relative to colleges of, say, fifty years ago—and that they can be trusted to determine the best, brightest, and most dedicated. Naturally, employers cannot perform direct testing for this, mostly because those sort of tests are racist, and so they need other proxies. The meritocratic elite just so happen to provide those proxies.
Unfortunately, the sorting theory of higher education is untrue because the reality does not follow the model: namely, those who have earned high educational honors and degrees aren’t more employable or working the better jobs. Thus, if college is supposed to sort people, it has obviously failed, as evidenced by the fact that holders of advanced degrees are 300% more likely to receive food stamps now than three years ago, while US citizens in general are only 43% more likely (see linked article above.)
Funnily enough, there is a model that would generally predict this occurrence, and it is the bubble model, which posits that wages for holders of college degrees will decline as the supply of holders of college degrees increase, which is a direct result of government intervention into the market, particularly through the expansion of cheap credit and direct subsidy. Low and behold, this has come to pass, mostly because the bubble model has better predictive power than the sorting model, and is thus more correct.
Since we’re on the subject of college degree holders, I’d like to point out as an aside that the idea that degrees aren’t real property because they aren’t transferrable is partially false. It is true that one student can’t sell his credentials to another student, but it should also be noted that students aren’t the only ones who use the credentials they earn. Employers also use student credentials by hiring employees who have certain credentials. While they don’t “transfer” credentials per se, it is observably true that when someone switches jobs, the people employing their credentials also changes as well. Given that there are signaling elements to college credentials (as evidenced by every guidance counselor that ever repeats the trope that college grads do better on the job market because they’re college grads), it should be plausible that there is a type of transference that exists with college credentials, except that is at the employer level, not the possessor level. Incidentally, this conceptual model reinforces the idea of a college bubble since it suggests that there can be diminishing marginal returns to adding one more college educated participant to the labor market, thus driving down wages.
That jump in the lower line is pretty much all student loans. And whenever the government is loaning out money, you can bet that the direct recipients are in the middle of a big ol’ bubble.
A “paralyzed” Federal Reserve Bank, in its “final days,” held hostage by Wall Street “robots” trading in markets that are “artificially medicated” are just a few of the bleak observations shared by David Stockman, former Republican U.S. Congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget. He is also a founding partner of Heartland Industrial Partners and the author of The Triumph of Politics: Why Reagan’s Revolution Failed and the soon-to-be released The Great Deformation: How Crony Capitalism Corrupts Free Markets and Democracy. The Gold Report caught up with Stockman for this exclusive interview at the recent Recovery Reality Check conference.
The Gold Report: David, you have talked and written about the effect of government-funded, debt-fueled spending on the stock market. What will be the real impact of quantitative easing?
David Stockman: We are in the last innings of a very bad ball game. We are coping with the crash of a 30-year–long debt super-cycle and the aftermath of an unsustainable bubble.
Quantitative easing is making it worse by facilitating more public-sector borrowing and preventing debt liquidation in the private sector—both erroneous steps in my view. The federal government is not getting its financial house in order. We are on the edge of a crisis in the bond markets. It has already happened in Europe and will be coming to our neighborhood soon.
TGR: What should the role of the Federal Reserve be?
DS: To get out of the way and not act like it is the central monetary planner of a $15 trillion economy. It cannot and should not be done.
The Fed is destroying the capital market by pegging and manipulating the price of money and debt capital. Interest rates signal nothing anymore because they are zero. The yield curve signals nothing anymore because it is totally manipulated by the Fed. The very idea of “Operation Twist” is an abomination.
Capital markets are at the heart of capitalism and they are not working. Savers are being crushed when we desperately need savings. The federal government is borrowing when it is broke. Wall Street is arbitraging the Fed’s monetary policy by borrowing overnight money at 10 basis points and investing it in 10-year treasuries at a yield of 200 basis points, capturing the profit and laughing all the way to the bank. The Fed has become a captive of the traders and robots on Wall Street.
TGR: If we are in the final innings of a debt super-cycle, what is the catalyst that will end the game?
DS: I think the likely catalyst is a breakdown of the U.S. government bond market. It is the heart of the fixed income market and, therefore, the world’s financial market.
Because of Fed management and interest-rate pegging, the market is artificially medicated. All of the rates and spreads are unreal. The yield curve is not market driven. Supply and demand for savings and investment, future inflation risk discounts by investors—none of these free market forces matter. The price of money is dictated by the Fed, and Wall Street merely attempts to front-run its next move.
As long as the hedge fund traders and fast-money boys believe the Fed can keep everything pegged, we may limp along. The minute they lose confidence, they will unwind their trades.
On the margin, nobody owns the Treasury bond; you rent it. Trillions of treasury paper is funded on repo: You buy $100 million (M) in Treasuries and immediately put them up as collateral for overnight borrowings of $98M. Traders can capture the spread as long as the price of the bond is stable or rising, as it has been for the last year or two. If the bond drops 2%, the spread has been wiped out.
If that happens, the massive repo structures—that is, debt owned by still more debt—will start to unwind and create a panic in the Treasury market. People will realize the emperor is naked.
TGR: Is that what happened in 2008?
DS: In 2008 it was the repo market for mortgage-back securities, credit default obligations and such. In 2008 we had a dry run of what happens when a class of assets owned on overnight money goes into a tailspin. There is a thunderous collapse.
Since then, the repo trade has remained in the Treasury and other high-grade markets because subprime and low-quality mortgage-backed securities are dead.
TGR: Walk us through a hypothetical. What happens when the fast-money traders lose confidence in the Fed’s ability to keep the spread?
DS: They are forced to start selling in order to liquidate their carry trades because repo lenders get nervous and want their cash back. However, when the crisis comes, there will be insufficient private bids—the market will gap down hard unless the central banks buy on an emergency basis: the Fed, the European Central Bank (ECB), the people’s printing press of China and all the rest of them.
The question is: Will the central banks be able to do that now, given that they have already expanded their balance sheets? The Fed balance sheet was $900 billion (B) when Lehman crashed in September 2008. It took 93 years to build it to that level from when the Fed opened for business in November 1914. Bernanke then added another $900B in seven weeks and then he took it to $2.4 trillion in an orgy of money printing during the initial 13 weeks after Lehman. Today it is nearly $3 trillion. Can it triple again? I do not think so. Worldwide it’s the same story: the top eight central banks had $5 trillion of footings shortly before the crisis; they have $15 trillion today. Overwhelmingly, this fantastic expansion of central bank footings has been used to buy or discount sovereign debt. This was the mother of all monetizations.
TGR: Following that path, what happens if there are no buyers? Do the governments go into default?
DS: The U.S. Treasury needs to be in the market for $20B in new issuances every week. When the day comes when there are all offers and no bids, the music will stop. Instead of being able to easily pawn off more borrowing on the markets—say 90 basis points for a 5-year note as at present—they may have to pay hundreds of basis points more. All of a sudden the politicians will run around with their hair on fire, asking, what happened to all the free money?
TGR: What do the politicians have to do next?
DS: They are going to have to eat 30 years worth of lies and by the time they are done eating, there will be a lot of mayhem.
TGR: Will the mayhem stretch into the private sector?
DS: It will be everywhere. Once the bond market starts unraveling, all the other risk assets will start selling off like mad, too.
TGR: Does every sector collapse?
DS: If the bond market goes into a dislocation, it will spread like a contagion to all of the other asset markets. There will be a massive selloff.
I think everything in the world is overvalued—stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies. Too much money printing and debt expansion drove the prices of all asset classes to artificial, non-economic levels. The danger to the world is not classic inflation or deflation of goods and services; it’s a drastic downward re-pricing of inflated financial assets.
TGR: Is there any way to unravel this without this massive dislocation?
DS: I do not think so. When you are so far out on the end of a limb, how do you walk it back?
The Fed is now at the end of a $3 trillion limb. It has been taken hostage by the markets the Federal Open Market Committee was trying to placate. People in the trading desks and hedge funds have been trained to front run the Fed. If they think the Fed’s next buy will be in the belly of the curve, they buy the belly of the curve. But how does the Fed ever unwind its current lunatic balance sheet? If the smart traders conclude the Fed’s next move will be to sell mortgage-backed securities, they will sell like mad in advance; soon there would be mayhem as all the boys and girls on Wall Street piled on. So the Fed is frozen; it is petrified by fear that if it begins contracting its balance sheet it will unleash the demons.
TGR: Was there some type of tipping that allowed certain banks to front run the Fed?
DS: There are two kinds of front-running. First is market-based front-running. You try to figure out what the Fed is doing by reading its smoke signals and looking at how it slices and dices its meeting statements. People invest or speculate against the Fed’s next incremental move.
Second, there is illicit front-running, where you have a friend who works for the Federal Reserve Board who tells you what happened in its meetings. This is obviously illegal.
But frankly, there is also just plain crony capitalism that is not that different in character and it’s what Wall Street does every day. Bill Dudley, who runs the New York Fed, was formerly chief economist for Goldman Sachs and he pretends to solicit an opinion about financial conditions from the current Goldman economist, who then pretends to opine as to what the economy and Fed might do next for the benefit of Goldman’s traders, and possibly its clients. So then it links in the ECB, Bank of Canada, etc. Is there any monetary post in the world not run by Goldman Sachs?
The point is, this is not the free market at work. This is central bank money printers and their Wall Street cronies perverting what used to be a capitalist market.
TGR: Does this unwinding of the Fed and the bond markets put the banking system back in peril, like in 2008?
DS: Not necessarily. That is one of the great myths that I address in my book. The banking system, especially the mainstream banking system, was not in peril at all. The toxic securitized mortgage assets were not in the Main Street banks and savings and loans; these institutions owned mostly prime quality whole loans and could have bled down the modest bad debt they did have over time from enhanced loan loss reserves. So the run on money was not at the retail teller window; it was in the canyons of Wall Street. The run was on wholesale money—that is, on repo and on unsecured commercial paper that had been issued in the hundreds of billions by financial institutions loaded down with securitized toxic garbage, including a lot of in-process inventory, on the asset side of their balance sheets.
The run was on investment banks that were really hedge funds in financial drag. The Goldmans and Morgan Stanleys did not really need trillion-dollar balance sheets to do mergers and acquisitions. Mergers and acquisitions do not require capital; they require a good Rolodex. They also did not need all that capital for the other part of investment banking—the underwriting business. Regulated stocks and bonds get underwritten through rigged cartels—they almost never under-price and really don’t need much capital. Their trillion dollar balance sheets, therefore, were just massive trading operations—whether they called it customer accommodation or proprietary is a distinction without a difference—which were funded on 30 to 1 leverage. Much of the debt was unstable hot money from the wholesale and repo market and that was the rub—the source of the panic.
Bernanke thought this was a retail run à la the 1930s. It was not; it was a wholesale money run in the canyons of Wall Street and it should have been allowed to burn out.
TGR: Let’s get back to our ballgame. What is to keep the U.S. population from saying, please Fed save us again?
DS: This time, I think the people will blame the Fed for lying. When the next crisis comes, I can see torches and pitch forks moving in the direction of the Eccles building where the Fed has its offices.
TGR: Let’s talk about timing. On Dec. 31, the tax cuts expire, defense cuts go into place and we hit the debt ceiling.
DS: That will be a clarifying moment; never before have three such powerful vectors come together at the same time— fiscal triple witching.
First, the debt ceiling will expire around election time, so the government will face another shutdown and it will be politically brutal to assemble a majority in a lame duck session to raise it by the trillions that will be needed. Second, the whole set of tax cuts and credits that have been enacted over the last 10 years total up to $400–500B annually will expire on Dec. 31, so they will hit the economy like a ton of bricks if not extended. Third, you have the sequester on defense spending that was put in last summer as a fallback, which cannot be changed without a majority vote in Congress.
It is a push-pull situation: If you defer the sequester, you need more debt ceiling. If you extend the tax expirations, you need a debt ceiling increase of $100B a month.
TGR: What will Congress do?
DS: Congress will extend the whole thing for 60 or 90 days to give the new president, if he hasn’t demanded a recount yet, an opportunity to come up with a plan.
To get the votes to extend the debt ceiling, the Democrats will insist on keeping the income and payroll tax cuts for the 99% and the Republicans will want to keep the capital gains rate at 15% so the Wall Street speculators will not be inconvenienced. It is utter madness.
TGR: It is like chasing your tail. How does it stop?
DS: I do not know how a functioning democracy in the ordinary course can deal with this. Maybe someone from Goldman Sachs can come and put in a fix, just like in Greece and Italy. The situation is really that pathetic.
TGR: Greece has come up with some creative ways to bring down its sovereign debt without actually defaulting.
DS: The Greek debt restructuring was a farce. More than $100B was held by the European bailout fund, the ECB or the International Monetary Fund. They got 100 cents on the dollar simply by issuing more debt to Greece. For private debt, I believe the net write-down was $30B after all the gimmicks, including the front-end payment. The rest was simply refinanced. The Greeks are still debt slaves, and will be until they tell Brussels to take a hike.
TGR: Going back to the triple-witching hour at year-end, if the debt ceiling is raised again, when do we start to see government layoffs and limitations on services?
DS: Defense purchases and non-defense purchases will be hit with brutal force by the sequester. As we go into 2013, there will be a shocking hit to the reported GDP numbers as discretionary government spending shrinks. People keep forgetting that most government spending is transfer payments, but it is only purchases of labor and goods that go directly into the GDP calculations, and it is these accounts that will get smacked by the sequester of discretionary defense and non-defense budgets.
TGR: I would think to unemployment numbers as well.
DS: They will go up.
Just take one example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly report, there are 650,000 or so jobs in the U.S. Postal Service alone. That is 650,000 people who pretend to work at jobs that have more or less been made obsolete and redundant by the Internet and who are paid through borrowings from Uncle Sam because the post office is broke. Yet, the courageous ladies and gentlemen on Capitol Hill cannot even bring themselves to vote to discontinue Saturday mail delivery; they voted to study it! That is a measure of the loss of capacity to rationally cognate about our fiscal circumstance.
TGR: In the midst of this volatility, how can normal people preserve, much less expand their wealth?
DS: The only thing you can do is to stay out of harm’s way and try to preserve what you can in cash. All of the markets are rigged or impaired. A 4% yield on blue chip stocks is not worth it, because when the thing falls apart, your 4% will be gone in an hour.
TGR: But if the government keeps printing money, cash will not be worth as much, either, right?
DS: No, I do not think we will have hyperinflation. I think the financial system will break down before it can even get started. Then the economy will go into paralysis until we find the courage, focus and resolution to do something about it. Instead of hyperinflation or deflation there will be a major financial dislocation, which means painful re-pricing of financial assets.
How painful will the re-pricing be? I think the public already knows that it will be really terrible. A poll I saw the other day indicated that 25% of people on the verge of retirement think they are in such bad financial shape that they will have to work until age 80. Now, the average life expectancy is 78. People’s financial circumstances are so bad that they think they will be working two years after they are dead!
TGR: Finally, what is your investment model?
DS: My investing model is ABCD: Anything Bernanke Cannot Destroy: flashlight batteries, canned beans, bottled water, gold, a cabin in the mountains.
TGR: Thank you very much.
David Stockman is a former U.S. politician and businessman, serving as a Republican U.S. Representative from the state of Michigan 1977–1981 and as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan 1981–1985. He is the author of The Triumph of Politics: Why Reagan’s Revolution Failed and the soon-to-be released The Great Deformation: How Crony Capitalism Corrupts Free Markets and Democracy.
Stockman was the keynote speaker at last weekend’s Casey Research Recovery Reality Check Summit. This event featured legendary contrarian investor Doug Casey, high-end natural resource broker Rick Rule, New York Times bestselling author John Mauldin and 28 other financial luminaries. Over the three-day summit, they provided investors with asset-protection action plans and actionable investment advice. And even if you were unable to attend, you can still hear every recorded presentation in the Summit Audio Collection. Learn more here.
I am sure many of my readers will have caught this Bloomberg piece earlier this week, but if you haven’t it is a brilliant piece of journalism by Bloomberg reporters Sharon Smyth, Neil Callanan and Dara Doyle. The story takes us to Spain and Ireland and the former’s denial with regards its housing market.
In the stages of death of a real estate boom, Spain is still in denial. In Ireland, they’re moving toward acceptance. The first auction of one of 2,000 unfinished housing estates takes place tomorrow at the Shelbourne Hotel in central Dublin, with sales expected to fetch cents on the euro, showing the Irish may be closer to the end than the beginning.
“Ireland faced up to its problems faster than others and we expect growth there rather soon,” said Cinzia Alcidi, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “In Spain, there was kind of a denial of the scale of the problem and it may be faced with many years of significant challenges before full recovery takes place.”
Spain, Europe’s fifth-largest economy, is the current focus of attempts to contain the region’s sovereign debt crisis, as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy struggles to quell speculation it will need a bailout. Developers are showing similar optimism. They continue to build even with 2 million homes vacant around the country, new airports that never saw a single flight being mothballed, and property appraisers and banks reporting values have fallen only about 22 percent, said Encinar, who estimates the real decline is probably at least twice that.
Another passage that was staggering to my mind was the comments by Miguel Angel Garcia Nieto, mayor of Avila (a town showcased in the article) that this is just an interim soft spot as a result of the crisis and that oversupply and overcapacity will eventually be absorbed.
“When we approved the first urban plan back in 1998 there was an unprecedented demand for homes,” Nieto said in a telephone interview on April 19. “Yes, there is oversupply at the moment because of the financial crisis and everyone’s gone back home to live with their parents, but it’s not because there is lack of demand. When the economy gets back on track I am confident the supply will be absorbed.”
Hope as they say, spring eternal.
Paul Krugman is aghast at this chart, which shows how the Pell Grant has declined in relative cost coverage:
This is pretty much how inflation works. In the early stages, its effects are not very noticeable because an incentive has not yet taken place. As the incentive shift takes place—marking the beginning of a bubble, the price of the bubble product begins to rise, mostly as a way to reflect the actual supply of the bubble product relative to the currency supply and actual demand. Over time, the price of the bubble product rises to roughly match the rate of inflation (although I suspect it’s slightly lower than that in reality as inflation encourages overproduction, which increases supply relative to demand, which is then realized in larger numbers because the price declines slightly, all relative to demand elasticity, of course). As such, subsequent rounds of inflation will never be as effective as the first round of inflation because the first-mover advantage disappears.
This is pretty much what this chart shows. At first, the Pell Grant can cover virtually all tuition costs. There are probably few recipients and minimal initial demand. However, these conditions won’t remin once people learn that the government will contribute X amount of dollars to their education. Everyone wants in on this, and so everyone applies for the Pell Grant. An increasing number of applicants receive the grant, and then college prices rise because, fundamentally, increases in supply cannot match the pace of increases in demand. In order to allocate the scarce resource of postsecondary inflation, an informal price floor takes effect, coincidentally hovering near the amount of the subsidy. When all is said and done, the initial round of inflation doesn’t change a whole lot in the short- or long-run because the fundamental problem is not high nominal costs but the small amount of supply.
Thus, there is no sense in complaining about the decreasing coverage of the Pell Grant. Inflation in the form of subsidies faces the same fundamental problem that normal inflation faces. Quite simply, the issue is a lack of supply, no amount of currency can fix that.
In many ways the monetary policy issue is even more important, simply because we are running out of rope on our national debt-addiction rappelling adventure and the floor is still 100′ down. That’s a serious problem — and “gold standards” do not (in fact cannot!) fix it. The only fix that works is to demand and enforce a zero-CPI standard with honest statistics, along with an end to federal government borrowing — period. “Hard money” .vs. “Fiat money” is immaterial; if you permit fraud in the monetary and credit system, as we have, the rest simply does not matter and yet if you put a cork in the frauds and lock up the scammers then you quickly come to the conclusion that allowing a handful of producers of some metal, the majority of which are foreign entities, is the last group you want running your monetary policy!
The Paulites get this wrong and so does Ron Paul himself despite the historical fact that the United States had massive inflationary bubbles and detonations of them during the time it was on the Gold Standard. 1873 anyone (as just one example.)
The real problem in 1873 as with all other similar blowups was the issuance of bogus debt instruments unbacked by anything. In the case of 1873 concentration was in railroads and related construction all financed by long-duration bonds (and therefore subject to high degrees of price risk due to their duration) but which were entirely-speculative and in fact for which there was no actual demand in the economy for the services (transportation to be provided by said railroads) at a level sufficient to meet the intended expense. It didn’t help that we were playing games with our exports (and Europe with its imports) much as China and the US are today, effectively hiding the bubble’s impact for a period of time and allowing it to inflate to ridiculous size. When the over-leveraged positions became exposed the game collapsed and the Long Depression followed. [Emphasis original.]
Denninger correctly notes that a gold standard, in and of itself, is not enough to prevent a bubble of any sort. He also correctly notes that enforcing a zero-CPI standard would fix the current currency mess. However, what he seems to neglect in his analysis is that the real problem is not with the proposed solutions, but the fact that the government has to enact and enforce them.
This then begs the obvious question: given the government’s obvious failures to prevent bubbles by keeping money honest, regardless of the money is metal or digital, why then even bother to put the government in charge of the money supply? They can’t manage it properly when gold is money, and they certainly can’t manage it properly when paper is used as money. Why then trust them with it?
The better solution is to simply allow currencies to freely compete with each other, which will have a strong tendency to ensure that currencies remain sound, strong, and free from inflation. By the way, there is one presidential candidate who has proposed legislation that would do exactly this. We all know who he is.
In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.
Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
One of the subtle cultural shifts arising from the education bubble has been how people are inclined to view college. It used to be that people went to college for an education. Now people go to college in order to ensure having a good job later on.* In essence, the role of college has shifted from education to credentials.
As such, it should not be surprising that colleges dumb down both their admission requirements and their curriculum, for the goal is not education. Rather, the goal is giving students customers a piece of paper that says they are smart. This claim doesn’t have to reflect reality in any meaningful way because most students don’t bear the direct costs of their “education.” Therefore, students are considerably more willing to spend their parents’ money and their future income on degrees that become less and less valuable.
Basically, then, the dumbing down of academic standards is proof of the education bubble because the free and cheap money subsidizes marginal students who would otherwise have no business being in college. This subsidy is then seen in the dumbed-down curriculum, for students expect to have something to show for the time and money they’ve put into college, and it’s easier to satisfy customers by giving them a degree regardless of their actual accomplishments.
*One thing that always puzzles me is how parents think that four to six years of extended adolescence is better for their children’s future than having an actual full time job is. But that’s for another post.
Patrick Chovanec has a fascinating article in Foreign Affairs, titled China’s Real Estate Bubble May Have Just Popped. This is interesting and important from two points of view.
First, bad news for China is bad news for the world economy. We are already in a bleak environment, with difficulties in Europe, Japan, the US, and India. It will not be pretty if China runs into trouble as well. I am reminded of the feeling of carefully watching real
estate in the United States in 2006, with a sense that the future of the world economy was going to turn on how it turned out.
Second, it made me think about real estate in India. As with China, one often sees buyers of real estate in India have the notion that
this is a safe financial asset. This is a questionable proposition. Real estate is perhaps not an asset
class with a positive expected return in the first place; and it is certainly not a convenient asset class with features like liquidity,
transparency, diversification and easy formation of low-volatility diversified portfolios. I find it hard to explain the prominence of
real estate in the portfolios of even educated people in India.
In the article, Chovanec says:
For more than a decade, they have bet on longer-term demand trends by buying up multiple units — often dozens at a time — which they then leave empty with the belief that prices will rise. Estimates of such idle holdings range anywhere from 10 million to 65 million homes; no one really knows the exact number, but the visual impression created by vast `ghost’ districts, filled with row upon row of uninhabited villas and apartment complexes, leaves one with a sense of investments with, literally, nothing inside.
This has not happened in India. So in this sense, the situation in India is not as dire. But his second key message seems uncomfortably
As 2011 progressed, developers scrambled for new lines of financing to keep their overstocked inventories. They first relied on bank loans (until they were cut off), then high-yield bonds in Hong Kong (until the market soured), then private investment vehicles (sponsored by banks as an end run around lending constraints), and finally, in some
cases, loan sharks. By the end of last summer, many Chinese developers had run out of options and were forced to begin liquidating inventory. Hence, the price slashing: 30, 40, and even 50 percent discounts.
Part of this looks familiar. There is a lot of leverage in Indian real estate development and speculation. Real estate speculators and
developers are finding themselves in a bit of a scramble hunting for credit. One hears about very high interest rates being paid by
developers. Other sources of financing are also weak. This reminds me of the dark days before the global crisis, when borrowing by real estate companies was the canary in the coal mine.
If business cycle conditions and financial conditions worsen, the problems of borrowing by real estate developers and speculators will get worse. How might this turn out? Perhaps the borrowers will merely get uncomfortable. Or, a few firms could really get into trouble, and start liquidating inventory. That would have substantial repercussions.
Suppose there is a situation where there are many people who have speculative positions in real estate, but significant selling of
inventory has not yet begun. The longs would then be nervously looking at each other, wondering who would be the first one to sell, to take a better price and exit his position. The ones who sell late would get an inferior price. In such a situation, conditions could change sharply in a short time.
On a longer horizon, I would, of course, be delighted if real estate prices are lower. This would help shift the supply function of
labour, reduce the cost of setting up new businesses, etc. But that’s more about the long-term policy changes, which would remove barriers for converting land into built-up housing, while rising vertically into the sky with FSI in Indian cities ranging from 5 to 25.
From Bryan Caplan:
Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.” But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky.
Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it’s hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.
At this point, you may be thinking: If professors don’t teach a lot of job skills, don’t teach their students how to think, and don’t instill constructive work habits, why do employers so heavily reward educational success? The best answer comes straight out of the ivory tower itself. It’s called the signaling model of education – the subject of my book in progress, The Case Against Education.
According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (”signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.
In the signaling story, what matters is how much education you have compared to competing workers. When education levels rise, employers respond with higher standards; when education levels fall, employers respond with lower standards. We’re on a treadmill. If voters took this idea seriously, my close friends and I could easily lose our jobs. As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.
What makes the college bubble so problematic is that it is essentially inflationary. College degrees can be considered a form of currency in the labor market, wherein one purchases a salary with not only one’s labor but one’s college education as well. Obviously, this mechanism is not as direct as, say, buying milk at a grocery store, but the effect is similar.
The labor market, then, relies on college degrees to indicate a prospective employee’s fitness for the salary being offered. Certain types of degrees generally pay better than others, certain colleges’ degrees pay better than others, certain grade point averages are worth more than others, etc. Someone who receives an MBA from Harvard while maintaining a GPA of 4.0 will generally earn more than someone who receives an Associate’s degree from ITT Tech while maintaining a 2.0 GPA. This should make sense, as the quality of student varies by institution, degree, and grade, and there are ways to sort this. The college bubble, then, serves as a form of inflation because it distorts the signal that a college has in the labor market.
Basically, as is well known, the college bubble is the result of massive governmental interference in the post-secondary education market. The federal government offers direct subsidies of education costs (e.g. the Pell Grant), and also makes college loans a very enticing offer to lenders by guaranteeing the loans. With direct subsidies and easy credit, prospective students have a very strong incentive to go to college. Furthermore, with this much money on the line, colleges have a very strong incentive to accept more students.
The effects of this bubble, as noted before, are seen primarily in signal distortion. This occurs because employers now have a larger labor from which to select workers. This generally seems like a good thing, since employers can now offer lower wages, but this is not always the case because some potential workers are perhaps not as well-qualified for their position as others. The problem with using college degrees as a qualification is that, at this point, there isn’t enough data to sort the good from the bad. When there were a limited number of college-educated labor candidates, the quality was considerably better since colleges had an incentive to maintain quality control. This is no longer the case because the federal government is paying colleges, indirectly, to simply pass out degrees to young adults with no regards for their qualification.
Thus, the lower wages that have resulted from the increased pool of labor applicants can be thought of as a risk premium. Because there are more college-educated people in the labor supply coupled with increased variance of abilities without there being an increase in the sharpness of the signal generally associated with a college education, and because American labor is tightly regulated with regards to discrimination (particularly as it pertains to firing employees), there is consequently more risk associated with hiring someone because the chance that person a company hires turns out to be a bust, as it were, is considerably greater. Given the costs associated with firing incompetent workers, particularly if they are in a union or minority, employers have an increased incentive to mitigate that risk by offering lower wages.
As such, the most problematic aspect of the college bubble is the consequences that come with signal distortion. Because the supply of college educated labor has increased with a matching increase in demand for said labor, and because a college degree isn’t nuanced enough as a single, there will be an increase in the number of people who are overpaid and an increase in the number of people who are underpaid. This happens because the signal sent by a college degree is roughly the same for everyone who has one.*
Some people will be underpaid because their aptitude is such that they would ordinarily deserve more pay than they are currently receiving but, because it is now more difficult to tell who has what levels of aptitude, they must take a pay cut. The reverse is true for those who are overpaid. Basically, the inflation in the number of students undermines meritocracy, thereby distorting the pay scale. Thus, the current bubble has introduced not only distortion, but market failure on a large scale.
The irony of the current college bubble is that its existence is largely predicated on the belief that a college education makes one more intelligent. This claim is laughable on its face because it does not begin to account for the self-selection bias inherent in this sort of activity. Do students learn because they go to college or do they go to college because they like to learn? This is a crucial question because if the answer is the latter, then it seems likely that those who do go to college would become just as knowledgeable if they lived in a library for four years.
At any rate, the college bubble has had the nasty effect of giving diplomas to those who have no desire to learn, and have undermined the meritocracy that once was a college education, thereby depriving those who are truly above average from an income that would properly reflect this fact. This, then, is the lamentable effect of the college bubble: The attempt to make everyone equal in education has only led to a diminution of standards. We are all idiots now.
* Obviously, a Harvard diploma is still more valuable than an ITT Tech diploma. However, if Harvard’s business school doubles the number of graduates, year over year, the value of a Harvard degree will decline assuming that there is not a corresponding increase in demand for Harvard grads.
“Reflexivity can be interpreted as a circularity, or two way feedback loop, between the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. People base their decisions not on the actual situation that confronts them but on their perception or interpretation of that situation. Their decisions make an impact on the situation … and changes in the situation are liable to change their perceptions … . The two functions operate concurrently, not sequentially” (George Soros, “The New Paradigm for Financial Markets”, 2008, p 10).
“Many critics of reflexivity claimed that I was merely belabouring the obvious, namely that the participants’ biased expectations influence market prices. But the crux of the theory of reflexivity is not so obvious; it asserts that market prices can influence the fundamentals. The illusion that markets are always right is caused by their ability to affect the fundamentals that they are supposed to reflect. The change in the fundamentals may then reinforce the biased expectations in an initially self-reinforcing but eventually self-defeating process” (Soros, op cit, p 57-8).
Does George Soros know what he is talking about? The fact that he has operated successfully in financial markets for a long time suggests to me that he might have a few clues about how they work. But I struggle to understand him.
As is the case with many other problems of understanding, I think my problem in this instance relates to definition of terms. What does Soros mean by fundamentals? If a process is eventually self-defeating then it seems to me that this means that it is inconsistent with the fundamentals of the real world – i.e. it is inconsistent with what we know to be true about such things as resource availability, technology or human nature.
When Soros suggests that market prices can influence the fundamentals he may have something less fundamental in mind such as widely accepted perceptions of investors and credit providers about particular markets or the wider economic situation. It seems plausible that a widespread view that housing was a very safe investment, for example, could be reinforced if house prices began to increase more rapidly and if credit providers perceived that this made lending more secure. Under some circumstances that might, perhaps, result in a self-reinforcing process of increases in house prices that would eventually become self-defeating, for example because increasing numbers of people might decide that they would be better off renting rather than owning a house.
If this is what Soros means by reflexivity, does it help to explain the current financial turmoil? In explaining his super-bubble hypothesis Soros writes:
“The belief that markets tend toward equilibrium is directly responsible for the current turmoil; it encouraged the regulators to … rely on the market mechanism to correct its own excesses. The idea that prices, although they may take random walks, tend to revert to the mean served as the guiding principle for the synthetic financial instruments and investment practices which are currently unravelling” (Soros, op cit, p 102).
It seems to me that the second part of that statement, relating to synthetic financial instruments, may help to explain the current financial turmoil. With the benefit of hindsight it is apparent that the world economy is suffering from, among other things, the development of a self-reinforcing belief system which led many financial firms to over-value synthetic financial instruments.
However, the first part of Soros’ statement doesn’t make sense. Regulators have not relied on the market mechanism to correct its own excesses. The current turmoil is partly a consequence of a history of financial firms being bailed out by regulators on the grounds that they were too big to be allowed to fail. George Soros is on much firmer ground when he recognizes that most reflexive processes involve an interplay between market participants and regulators (p77).
Hopefully, the regulatory environment that emerges from the current turmoil will recognise that participants in financial markets are human. It should not surprise anyone that when financiers are given incentives to behave imprudently they tend to act accordingly.