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    Harvard Endowment: Underperformance or a Solid Return?

    Sep 12 • Financial Markets • 236 Views

    I thought you might want to see how The Wall Street Journal and the NY Times had different interpretations of the same facts on the same day about Harvard’s endowment fund performance:

    From The Wall Street Journal: “Harvard Endowment Gets Middling Grade”

    Harvard University’s endowment posted an 11% return for the 12 months ended June 30, underperforming markets but reversing a big decline in the year-ago period.”

    From the NY Times: “Harvard Endowment Reports 11% Return for Year”

    “A year after a disastrous 27 percent decline that prompted layoffs, salary freezes and a halt to some campus expansion, the Harvard endowment on Thursday reported a solid 11 percent increase in its $27.4 billion portfolio for the fiscal year ended June 30.”

    Comments?

    The Economic Lesson

    The group that oversees Harvard’s endowment funds is called an institutional investor. Associated, for example, with pension, hedge, and mutual funds, institutional investors manage large pools of money for firms and groups of individuals.

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    High, Low, or No Cigarette Tax?

    Sep 11 • Behavioral Economics, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Government, Thinking Economically • 240 Views

    Recently, Connecticut legislators were pleasantly surprised because an increase in the cigarette tax generated more revenue than they expected. You might say that the results were predictable. However, if a state increases taxes, it is possible that consumers will stop buying the item or go somewhere else to get it.

    If a person who smokes lives in New York where the cigarette tax is $4.35, would he travel to Pennsylvania to pay $1.60 or further to Virginia where the tax is $.30? According to a 2008 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School, to save $1.00 on a cigarette purchase, a person will travel 2.7 miles when each extra mile costs that consumer $.37.

    The Economic Lesson

    All of this is about much more than cigarettes. It relates to recession generated diminishing state tax revenue. States need to pay for roads and teachers and police. They have current salaries and pension payments for retired workers. 

    Income taxes and sales (excise) taxes are primary sources of most states’ revenue. However, with tax revenue down because of the recession, states are trying to figure out how to raise more money (or to spend less). Arizona has even tried to sell its state capitol building. Other possibilities are “sin” taxes on cigarettes, soda, and alcohol. The question, though, is how high can taxes go before they backfire. Too high and people avoid them; too low and they miss potential revenue.

    An economist would say the sales tax debate is about the price elasticity of demand. If price changes a lot and the quantity we buy remains the same, as with medication and gasoline, then our demand is inelastic. By contrast, if price swings have an impact on buying, then our response is elastic. With soda, within a certain price range our demand is inelastic. Once we reach a 35% increase, though, we switch to an elastic response. Connecticut’s revenue increase implies that cigarette demand is inelastic.

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    A Smaller Safety Net?

    Sep 10 • Economic Debates, Government, International Trade and Finance, Labor • 255 Views

    In France, a 24 hour workers’ strike brought retirement rights back to the headlines. Saying that a 60 year old retirement age was no longer affordable, French President Sarkozy has proposed moving it up to 62. French workers disagree.

    In the U.S., a leader of the Older Women’s League (OWL) reacted angrily to a comment about Social Security from former Senator Alan Simpson. Mr. Simpson is the co-chairman of the recently created National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Using rather vivid language, Mr. Simpson said that Social Security would not have the future capabiity to continue its current obligations. In an email, OWL responded that Mr. Simpson displayed, “…his clear disrespect for Social Security, women and the American people…”

    You can see the dilemma. Our resources are limited. In most eurozone countries and in the U.S. federal spending is skyrocketing. To what extent should we provide support to an aging population?

    The Economic Lesson

    Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system; today’s workers pay the benefits for today’s recipients. When Social Security began in 1935, there were 42 workers for each beneficiary, life expectancy was close to 62, and benefits began at 65. Today, U.S. life expectancy averages close to 78 and minimum benefits can begin at 62. By 2027, the full benefits age will gradually have risen from 65 to 67. Currently, while there are approximately 3.3 workers for each beneficiary, for 2030 the projection is 2.2.

    In France also, and in other OECD countries, the older population is growing and birth rates have diminished. By 2050, if current labor force participation rates remain the same, in Europe, there will be one worker for every retired person.

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    The Housing Dilemma

    Sep 9 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Economic Debates, Financial Markets, Regulation • 222 Views

    Is it time for shock therapy? Since the housing bubble popped, from tax credits to mortgage modification programs, government has tried to support housing prices. The goal was to provide support and diminish foreclosures until the market stabilized. With housing sales still sinking, some suggest a different solution: the market.

    On the one hand…Enabling overextended homeowners to keep their homes has many benefits. Neighborhoods remain occupied and home values are sustained. Children remain in the same school, emotional dislocation is minimized, the court system is not overloaded, banks can keep securities that have a higher value.

    On the other hand…Shock therapy would involve the efficiency of the market. Buyers would offer bids for houses. With so many homes for sale from banks that foreclosed and homeowners with unaffordable properties, prices would probably plummet. Buyers would be pleased and sellers would be distraught. Confidence would initially suffer. Eventually, though, prices would stabilize at a market chosen level. The balance between demand and supply would be restored.

    Which solution do you prefer? Government assistance favors sellers/owners. The market would help buyers. Neither solution though, as discussed by Gretchen Morgenson is quite as simple as it sounds. And to further complicate the issue, here is another perspective.

    The Economic Lesson

    Please imagine a demand and supply graph with price the Y-axis, quantity the X-axis, a downward sloping demand curve, and an upward sloping supply curve. If government support were eliminated, then the supply curve would shift to the right because the number of sellers increases. As a result, supply crosses demand at a lower price. How low? No one knows.

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    Kidney Markets?

    Sep 8 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Regulation, Thinking Economically • 453 Views

    What should we be able to buy and sell? Alcohol? Land? People? Body Parts?

    In a Teaching Company lecture on organ transplants, Wake Forest economist Robert Whaples says that the answers depend on the market’s boundaries. And, he soon adds, those boundaries change. Prohibition, for example, transformed the price, demand, and supply of alcohol between 1918 and 1933.

    Dr. Whaples asks whether a similar change should happen for organ transplants. Describing current shortages, he says that the demand side of the market, with insurance covering the expense, is considerable. By contrast, on the supply side, with altruism the key incentive since selling body parts is illegal, the hearts, lungs, kidneys, intestines that certain people need, are insufficiently available.

    That returns us to the market. Whether looking at human transplants or the viability of the housing market, we seem to keep on returning to how much we want to permit unfettered supply and demand.

    Should we be able to buy and sell kidneys if it will diminish massive shortages?

    The Economic Lesson

    When demand and supply interact, they allocate resources. If they are interacting successfully, then resources are allocated efficiently. Sometimes, though, markets fail. For example, when a factory pollutes, we can say we have market failure because the cost of pollution has been ignored by the price. We also have market failure when government partially affects the market’s boundaries through subsidized housing or a minimum wage. Finally, as with organ transplants, those boundaries can completely eliminate the market.

     

     

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