January 31, 2018

Tyler Cowen: The Economics of Choosing the Right Career

Filed under: Economics, Education — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 11 Oct 2016

As many who entered the labor market following the Great Recession know all too well, graduating with a college degree does not mean you’ll easily fall into a good career. Four-year college graduates with entry-level jobs actually earned more in 2000 than they’re earning today and student loan debt burdens are higher than ever.

Does this mean you should skip college or drop-out? Not necessarily. Unemployment is still lower for those with undergraduate and higher degrees. However, understanding the economics behind the labor market will make finding a career a more manageable task.

The labor market in the United States has undergone many changes in the past few decades. Whereas we once had many manufacturing jobs that required little training or specialized skills, the labor market today demands more people who can work with computers and information technology.

Choosing a good career requires planning beyond getting a college education. You’ll want to carefully consider the career options available for your major, as well any specialized skills you’ll need to build outside of the classroom.

It’s also essential to understand how supply and demand affect your career options. How many people are also choosing that major vs. how many employers are looking for those skills? Is a particular career path susceptible to being replaced by a machine? What about outsourcing in the global labor market? What about laws and regulation – does it require an occupational license?

There’s a lot to think about! Choosing a career is a huge decision and understanding how supply and demand rule the labor market will help you better navigate your future.

January 27, 2018

Econ Duel: Rent or Buy?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 13 Sep 2016

Owning a home is a huge part of the American Dream. But is the dream of home ownership really all it’s cracked up to be?

In this new Econ Duel from Marginal Revolution University, Professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok weigh in on the issue. Each representing a side of the home ownership debate, the two professors ask what’s smarter — to rent, or to buy?

On the “buy” side, Tyler Cowen shares the tax advantages of buying a home as well as the effect home ownership has on one’s stability and savings regimen. Does buying a home force us into better savings habits?

Against those arguments, we have Alex Tabarrok, coming down on the “rent” side of the equation.

Among other points, he talks about the real beneficiary of tax breaks (hint: It may not be you!). Along with that, Alex tackles the trials and tribulations of home-buying, in places like San Francisco, New York, or Boston, where a combination of scarce building permits and increased demand drive up home prices. Plus, doesn’t owning a home — and committing a 20% down payment — break the diversification rule of good investing?

All that said, though, here’s the real question that matters — which side are YOU on? Watch and let us know in the comments!

January 12, 2018

Investing: Why You Should Diversify

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 30 Aug 2016

So far, we’ve been telling you what not to do when investing. Here’s what you should do: diversify.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Definitely, don’t put your investment money solely in your employer’s stock. That’s very loyal, but it’s a terrible strategy. Just think of Enron’s employees. They had huge chunks of their retirement funds in company stock. Upon Enron’s collapse, many employees who were once multimillionaires ended up with almost nothing.

As you can see, diversification is much safer. Diversification reduces risk by spreading your investment across different assets, doing so without reducing potential returns. Plus, modern financial markets make diversification easy. For example, our favorite investment instrument is the low-fee index fund. These funds mimic a large market basket of stocks, like the S&P 500. The sheer variety in the fund is what mitigates the risk. It’s diversification for the win.

A quick reminder, though. Choose an index fund with low fees. Fees may seem trivial, until you watch them eat away at your investment. Imagine this: take a hypothetical $10,000. Invest that in a fund with a 1% fee, and you’ll have roughly $57.5K after 25 years, assuming an average 8% return. Now, invest the same $10K, in a fund with a 0.2% fee.You’ll get roughly $70K over the same quarter-century.

Our point is — when it comes to investing, simple is best. So for example, if your employer offers a 401K, take the offer!

That being said, you might believe that the market is irrational. Anomalous, even.

No worries.

Next time, we’ll tackle behavioral finance to see if you can profit from anomalies, and irrationality.

January 4, 2018

Who Is More Rational? You or the Market?

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 6 Sep 2016

We mentioned before that it’s hard to beat the market. And you shouldn’t try. But what about market anomalies?

One anomaly is the Momentum Effect — where past stock performance predicts future performance, at least a bit. As an example, portfolios with past winners tend to outperform the market in the medium term. Why is that? The market sometimes under-responds to changes in information. Thus, some stocks can lag, even if rationally, they shouldn’t. This is why picking past winners can generate some profit, though the profit’s usually small.

There are also other anomalies, like the Monday Effect, where stocks fall more on Mondays. Or, there’s the January Effect, which says that stocks surge higher in that month. There’s been some evidence for these effects, but these anomalies don’t last.

Despite its flaws, the market is still more rational than you. Don’t forget, you’re probably like most individual traders. You may become overconfident. You may not calculate probabilities that well. And if the market crashes, you’re likely to act more emotionally than you should — just like everyone else.

But don’t just take our word for it — even Warren Buffett agrees! Don’t try to beat the market.

November 25, 2017

Can You Beat the Market?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 23 Aug 2016

On average, even professional money managers don’t beat the market. To show you why, here’s a scenario to consider:

Say we advise you to invest in companies serving the aging US population. Since the percentage of elderly will rise over the coming decades, it makes sense to invest now in products and services that the elderly might need. Sounds logical, right? Wrong.

See, the aging of the US population isn’t a secret. It’s public information. Now, say you acted on the information and did buy stock as we advised. The current price of that stock already reflects information known to the market. Thus, it’s hard to systematically outperform the market, given that everyone else tends to have the same information you do. This is also the main idea behind the efficient market hypothesis.

According to the efficient market hypothesis, the prices of traded assets already reflect all publicly available information.

With information available to buyers and sellers alike, no one has any sustainable advantage over anyone else. This is why even the pros tend not to beat the market. And that aside, even if news did pop up to change the price of an asset, it would be at random and would likely be reflected in the asset price almost immediately. So there’s no reliable way to forecast performance.

As proof of that, take the Challenger space shuttle crash of January 28, 1986. Within minutes of the crash, the news hit the Dow Jones wire service. The stock prices of the major contractors who helped build the shuttle fell immediately. Keep in mind: that was in the 80s. At today’s pace, new information can change stock prices within seconds. This is why stock tips often end up obsolete.

So to sum up — it’s hard to beat the market. You have to accept that.

Still, how should you invest? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next video.

November 9, 2017

How Expert Are Expert Stock Pickers?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 16 Aug 2016

In this first video in our Personal Finance section of Macroeconomics — and also our new course on Money Skills — we’ll begin to lay out some smart rules for investing.

Today, we’ll tackle Rule 1 — ignore the expert stock pickers.

What’s the basis of that rule? Well, in his 1973 book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, economist Burton Malkiel made a controversial claim. He claimed that a blindfolded monkey, throwing darts at the financial pages, could select a basket of stocks that would do just as well as a set chosen by the pros.

One of Malkiel’s later students, the journalist John Stossel, set out to test that claim. Stossel did throw darts at the financial pages. The darts landed on 30 companies. Turns out, Malkiel did have it right — the randomly-selected stocks did better than professionally-picked ones.

The point here is, random picking roughly gives you as good results, as trusting the pros. Consider — in most years from 1963-2008, the S&P 500 Index outperformed most of the managed mutual funds. And in a different study, researchers took the top 25% best-performing funds. Two years later, less than 4% of the original set remained in the top quarter. Five years later? Only 1% stuck around.

Basically — past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Chance often tends to win out.

To show you what we mean, take a hypothetical set of 1000 experts making market predictions. Let those predictions be based on a coin toss. Experts who land heads will say the market will surge this year. Those who land tails say the opposite. At the end of the experiment’s first year, 500 of the 1000 experts will have been right, solely by chance. Now, say the remaining 500 toss again. At the end of the second year, 250 experts will have been right, again by chance. Continue with this logic, and by the end of the fifth year, roughly 32 of the 1000 will have been right, five years running.

Perhaps these 32 will be hailed as geniuses, but remember, they only came about through a coin toss.

So, what’s to conclude from this? Two things.

First, luck and chance matter. In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate luck from skill, as proven by the “genius” 32. Second, no need to spend big bucks on a money manager. After all, the studies prove that random picking often works just as well as professional management.

That said, what if you did have market information? What if you knew something about certain stocks, that made you think they’d do well? Could you beat the market then? That’s what we’ll answer in our next video, when we tackle the efficient market hypothesis. Stay tuned!

October 11, 2017

The Great Recession

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 9 Aug 2016

There’s already been much discussion over what fueled the Great Recession of 2008. In this video, Tyler Cowen focuses on a central theme of the crisis: the failure of financial intermediaries.

By 2008, the economy was in a very fragile state, with both homeowners and banks taking on greater leverage, many ending up “underwater.” Why did managers at financial institutions take on greater and greater risk? We’ll discuss a couple of key reasons, including the role of excess confidence and incentives.

In addition to homeowners’ leverage and bank leverage, a third factor played a major role in tipping the scale toward crisis: securitization. Mortgage securities during this time were very hard to value, riskier than advertised, and filled to the brim with high risk loans. Cowen discusses several reasons this happened, including downright fraud, failure of credit rating agencies, and overconfidence in the American housing market.

Finally, a fourth factor joins homeowners’ leverage, bank leverage, and securitization to inch the economy closer to the edge: the shadow banking system. On the whole, the shadow banking system is made up of investment banks and various other complex financial intermediaries, highly dependent on short term loans.

When housing prices started to fall in 2007, it was the final nudge that pushed the economy over the cliff. There was a run on the shadow banking system. Financial intermediaries came crashing down. We faced a credit crunch, and many businesses stopped growing. Layoffs ensued, increasing unemployment.

What could have been done to prevent all of this? You’ll have to watch the video to find out.

October 5, 2017

Four Reasons Financial Intermediaries Fail

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Japan — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 26 Jul 2016

As we’ve discussed in previous videos, financial intermediaries bridge savers and borrowers. When these bridges crumble, the effects can be disastrous. For businesses, credit shortages can lead to bankruptcy, or layoffs. For individuals, they rely on credit to invest in education or a new home or car. These negative effects show you how crucial intermediaries are to our lives.

Still, what exactly causes failed intermediation? Four answers:

First, insecure property rights. Simply speaking, when you save money at a bank, you expect the ability to pull out your funds when needed. But what if your deposits are frozen? Or confiscated altogether? For instance, in 2013 amidst a financial crisis, the government in Cyprus confiscated bank deposits to help pay down the country’s budget shortfall. You can see how insecure property rights can scare away potential savers.

Second, controls on interest rates. Interest rates are the price of borrowing. Thus, controls on interest rates, often called usury laws, are effectively price ceilings—they set the interest rate lower than the market equilibrium interest rate. With this forced lowering of interest rates, borrowers will want to borrow more, but lenders won’t want to lend. The effect? A lending shortage.

Third, politicized lending. Banks profit by assessing risk, and then loaning, based on that assessment. Banks that excel at assessment succeed. Those poor at it die out. Problems arise when the government intervenes to prop up failing banks, resulting in what we call “zombie banks.” In such cases, intervention undercuts normal competition, and intervention tends to favor banks that are politically connected. In fact, it’s been shown that there’s an inverse correlation between government ownership in banks and a country’s GDP per capita and productivity growth.

Fourth, you have runs, panics, and scandals. Remember, trust is vital to the financial system. When trust erodes, depositors may rush to withdraw their money from banks, causing what is known as a “bank run.” This can cause banks to fail, as we saw during the Great Depression. Scandals can also depress market confidence. Enron, WorldCom and Bernie Madoff may come to mind.

So, which of these four factors contributed to the Great Recession of 2008?

We’ll discuss that in our next video.

September 30, 2017

Office Hours: The Bond Market

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 19 Jul 2016

In Intro to the Bond Market, you learned the basics about bonds and how they differ from stocks. But what if you’re investing and you’ve got a few possible companies to choose from? How would you evaluate which bond is likely to be the best investment for you?

Let’s look at an example from our bond market practice questions:

Suppose you’d like to invest in a company and you’ve narrowed your choice down to three firms: Company A is offering a zero-coupon bond with a face value of $1000 to be repaid in 1 year for $963. Company B has the same face value and maturity date but sells for $871. And company C also has the same face value and maturity but sells for $985. In which would you rather invest?

If some of the terms have you scratching your head, don’t worry! Go ahead and start this Office Hours video. Mary Clare Peate from the MRU team will cover the jargon and give you the tools you need to master the problem on your own.

September 20, 2017

Intro to the Bond Market

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 12 Jul 2016

Most borrowers borrow through banks. But established and reputable institutions can also borrow from a different intermediary: the bond market. That’s the topic of this video. We’ll discuss what a bond is, what it does, how it’s rated, and what those ratings ultimately mean.

First, though: what’s a bond? It’s essentially an IOU. A bond details who owes what, and when debt repayment will be made. Unlike stocks, bond ownership doesn’t mean owning part of a firm. It simply means being owed a specific sum, which will be paid back at a promised time. Some bonds also entitle holders to “coupon payments,” which are regular installments paid out on a schedule.

Now — what does a bond do? Like stocks, bonds help raise money. Companies and governments issue bonds to finance new ventures. The ROI from these ventures, can then be used to repay bond holders. Speaking of repayments, borrowing through the bond market may mean better terms than borrowing from banks. This is especially the case for highly-rated bonds.

But what determines a bond’s rating?

Bond ratings are issued by agencies like Standard and Poor’s. A rating reflects the default risk of the institution issuing a bond. “Default risk” is the risk that a bond issuer may be unable to make payments when they come due. The higher the issuer’s default risk, the lower the rating of a bond. A lower rating means lenders will demand higher interest before providing money. For lenders, higher ratings mean a safer investment. And for borrowers (the bond issuers), a higher rating means paying a lower interest on debt.

That said, there are other nuances to the bond market—things like the “crowding out” effect, as well as the effect of collateral on a bond’s interest rate. These are things we’ll leave you to discover in the video. Happy learning!

August 23, 2017

Intro to Stock Markets

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 5 Jul 2016

Today, we’ll examine a new kind of financial intermediary: stock markets.

As an individual, you participate in the stock market when you buy a company’s shares. This turns you into a part-owner, entitled to some of the company’s profits. Sometimes, profits are paid out directly via dividends. Other times, profits are reinvested for company growth. In this case, you benefit by seeing the value of your shares rise in tandem with this growth.

Still, the buying and selling of stock doesn’t actually create any new investment. Buying and selling only transfers ownership between stockholders. What actually creates investment is when a company offers stock to the public for the first time (known as an Initial Public Offering or IPO), which is when it issues new shares to raise money for key ventures.

This process of turning savings into investment is what makes the stock market an intermediary.

A key caveat, though — buying stock essentially means betting on a company. As with all gambles, sometimes it pays off, sometimes, it doesn’t. For you as a saver, this means some of your stocks will win, and others, not so much.

This volatility makes stock markets more risky than banks. Bank savers typically don’t have to worry about fluctuations in the value of their deposits.

As for the entrepreneurial side, the stock market is a key institution encouraging new businesses. For a founder, the payoff typically comes during the IPO. An IPO allows founders to sell some of their ownership (in a now more-valuable company) so they can diversify their own holdings.

Next time, we’ll look at the third kind of intermediary: bond markets.

August 18, 2017

What Do Banks Do?

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 28 Jun 2016

This week: Dive deeper into one type of financial intermediary: Banks.

Next week: Sticking with macroeconomics, we’ll take a look at the next intermediary: Stock Markets.

Some people want to save and invest, others want to borrow. Sometimes, savers and borrowers link up directly. But most times, they don’t know each other. So they rely on institutions that bridge them together. These bridges are called financial intermediaries, and this video will show you one kind—banks.

How do banks operate?

On the savings side, they attract depositors by paying interest on deposits. On the borrowing side, banks make loans, for which they charge interest. The key to a bank’s profit is in charging a higher interest for loans than the interest paid out to depositors. Of course, to make sure that loans are as productive as possible, banks have specialized staff and systems for evaluating loan applications.

That sort of due diligence, and specialization is central to what a bank does. Not only does a bank coordinate the savings of many, but it also undertakes the task of studying borrowers in order to determine the most qualified. And then, to further minimize risk, a bank will spread its money out across a whole portfolio of loans. Thus, if one loan goes bad, the bank won’t go bankrupt.

In this way, you can see how banks provide valuable services—they allow you to earn interest on your savings, while also turning those savings into loans, which help economic growth.

Notice though, that as a depositor, your savings won’t just rest in a vault. But then, what happens when you decide to make a withdrawal? Banks account for that by having reserves. Banks keep an eye on their reserves so they can cover the withdrawals of various depositors. Predictably, problems arise, when there aren’t enough reserves to cover withdrawals. In the words of our previous video, that’s one kind of failed intermediation.

In the next video, we’ll look at a different kind of intermediary — stock markets.

There, we’ll show you how stock markets turn savings into investment. Hang tight, and see you then!

August 13, 2017

Saving and Borrowing

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 21 Jun 2016

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and signaled the start of the Great Recession. One key cause of that recession was a failure of financial intermediaries, or, the institutions that link different kinds of savers to borrowers.

We’ll get to intermediaries in the next video, but for now, we’ll first look at the market intermediaries are involved in.

This market is the combination of savers and borrowers — what we call the “market for loanable funds.”

To start, we’ll represent the market, using two curves you know well—supply and demand. The quantity supplied in the market comes from savings, and the quantity demanded comes from loans. But as you know, we have to factor in price. In the case of the market for loanable funds, the price is the current interest rate.

What happens to the supply of savings when the interest rate goes up? When are borrowers compelled to borrow more? Or less? We’ll cover these scenarios in this video.

One quick note: there’s not really one unified market for loanable funds. Instead, there are many small markets, with different sorts of lenders, lending to different sorts of borrowers. As we said in the beginning, it’s financial intermediaries, like banks, bond markets, and stock markets, which link these different sides of the market.

We’ll get a better understanding of these intermediaries in our next video, so stay tuned!

August 7, 2017

The Idea Equation

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 31 May 2016

Alex Tabarrok’s TED talk showed you that ideas can trump nearly every crisis. Now, since ideas are so important, we have to ask: is the future of ideas a bright one?

To answer that, we’ll look at something we call the Idea Equation.

It goes like this: Ideas = Population x Incentives x Ideas/per hour.

This equation is a useful way to lay out the factors affecting idea production. When we understand the factors behind production, then we can better predict how the future will go.

Now, the first factor in the equation, is population.

Population determines how many possible idea creators we can have. The good news is, not only is world population growing, but a larger percentage of that population is becoming part of the researcher pool. For instance, China now has 1 researcher per thousand people. This seems low, until you remember they had about half a researcher per thousand in the year 2000. This means they’ve doubled their researcher pool, in just about 10 years.

So, on the population front, we’re seeing progress.

But how about the incentives that encourage idea creation? What’s the state of those?

That’s factor 2 in the equation, and again, we have good news here.

See, for the most part, countries are now choosing better institutions. On balance, the world now has more dependable legal systems, and more honest governments. Previously closed-off nations are now opening their markets to competition and trade. Aside from that, the world is generally becoming more politically stable, and property rights are strengthening as well.

As a result of these better institutions, there are now more incentives to produce ideas. Not to mention, we’re still continuing to globalize world markets. Remember what the TED talk said? Larger markets incentivize more R&D, and we’re certainly seeing higher activity in this area.

For example, in 1990, only seven nations accounted for 92% of world research spending. Today, those same 7 countries only account for 56%. Countries like China, Korea, and Brazil have already joined the fray, sharing the burden of idea creation, which benefits us all.

That said, we do still have the third part of the Idea Equation. This is where things get hairy.

You see, the factor “ideas/per hour” is the most mysterious one. Yes, it measures the productivity of idea creators, but we’re still unsure how productive the future will be. For one, there’s evidence that idea creation is becoming more expensive in certain fields. But on the other hand, we’re also seeing new technology that makes idea creation easier—things like the Internet, AI, and online education.

As long as we continue to globalize markets, provide better incentives for idea production, and keep developing technology that makes idea creation easier, then there’s no reason to think that the future can’t be bright. The brightness may not be guaranteed, but at least there’s hope, which is what matters.

July 31, 2017

Patents, Prizes, and Subsidies

Published on 17 May 2016

Growth on the cutting edge is all about the creation of new ideas.

So, we want institutions that incentivize such creation. How do we do this? The answer is somewhat tricky.

The first goal for good ideas is for them to spread as freely as possible. The further the reach, the greater the gains. The problem is, if just anyone can use ideas, then why would we ever pay for them? And without the right incentives, why would innovators create new ideas at all?

Imagine yourself as the creator of a new drug. Typically, it costs about a billion dollars to do this, not counting the time and effort needed to get the drug FDA-approved.

Now, if there were no protections in place, then theoretically, once the formula’s known, everyone could just copy the make-up of your new drug. See, the thing about pharmaceuticals is, once the formula’s known, production is relatively cheap. Given that, let’s assume imitations start flooding the market.

Predictably, the price of your new drug will plummet.

Once prices hit rock-bottom, you’ll have no way to recoup the $1 billion you spent on R&D.

Given that kind of result, we reckon you probably won’t want to develop more good ideas.

The US founding fathers anticipated this problem. Knowing that innovators needed incentives to have good ideas, the founders wrote a protection mechanism into the Constitution.

They gave Congress the ability to grant exclusive rights to inventors — rights to use and sell their inventions, for a limited period of time. This exclusive right, is what we call a patent. Patents grant inventors a temporary monopoly over the use and sale of their intellectual property.

Now, as nice as this is, patents are a thorny subject.

For one, how long should patents last? Also, how much innovation is considered enough to merit a patent grant? Not to mention, are patents the only way to reward good ideas?

The answer is no.

There are two more incentive options here: prizes, and subsidies.

Let’s start with subsidies. University and research subsidies are particularly effective in the basic sciences. Since innovations in this space are rather abstract, subsidies incentivize research without requiring the applications of the research to be explicitly named. The problem is, when we’re incentivizing just research, then researchers might pick directions that are interesting, but not particularly useful.

This is why the third incentive option — prizes — exists.

Prizes reward the output of solving a certain problem. Another plus, is that prizes leave solutions unspecified. They provide a problem to work on, but give quite a lot of leeway as to how the problem is solved.

Now, knowing the complexity inherent in patents, you might think that prizes and subsidies are good enough alternatives. But none of these incentives for ideas, are inherently better than any of the others. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all involve their own tradeoffs and questions.

For example, who decides what gets subsidized? Who decides which goals merit a prize?

It’s hard to determine what mix of institutions, will best incentivize the production of good ideas. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all navigate these conflicting goals, in their own way.

And yes, all this talk of incentives and conflicting goals and tradeoffs might be like walking a tightrope. But, it’s a tightrope we can’t opt out of. Certainly not if we want the economy to keep growing.

In our next release, you’ll watch a TED talk from a certain economist that elaborates further on ideas. And then, we’ll wrap up this course segment with the Idea Equation. Stay tuned!

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