Free Money, Courtesy of Credit Cards

In grad school, I learned about the overlapping-generations model. The idea is that we simplify people down to the fundamental parts of their life-cycle. Each person lives for 2 periods. In the first period, they can produce only. In the second period, they can consume only. A popular conclusion of the model pertains to old-age benefit programs such as Social Security.

The first beneficiaries receive a gift that is free to them, then each subsequent generation accepts the debt, pays it off, and then passes on new debt to the proceeding generation. In this manner, the program benefit of the current generation is limited by the income of the following generation. Therefore, every single generation can consume as if they lived a generation later – and a generation richer – in time. That’s exciting.

But this model is not unique to governments. With a little bit of finance, we can model every person as their own self-encapsulated overlapping-generations model – with two similarly exciting conclusions. Let’s consider a person who has monthly consumption expenditures of $1k per month and let’s assume a discount rate of half a percent per month.

Life is pretty good for this person. They earn income each month and they spend $1k of it during the same period. Now let’s give the person a credit card. It doesn’t matter what the interest rate is – they’re going to pay it off each subsequent month. Now let’s see what’s possible.

What’s going on here? The difference in the consumption pattern is that the first month with a credit card can enjoy twice the consumption. How’s that? $1k of that January consumption is just the typical monthly spending. The other $1k is running up a month’s worth of spending on the credit card. So long one pays-off the card in the following month, there are no interest charges. But wait – if one pays-off the credit card in February, then how does one consume in February? By borrowing from March’s income, of course! And so the pattern repeats ad-infinitum. With a credit card one can borrow against next month’s spending. You too can borrow from your future self. And your future self won’t mind because they’ll do the same thing.

Conclusion #1: Having a credit card entitles you to one free month of double consumption.

The above example includes identical income over time. But, what if your income grows? Let’s assume that your income and commensurate consumption grow at a rate of one quarter percent per month. Our consumption without a credit card is tabulated below.

Obviously, having income and consumption that grow is more enjoyable than ones that are constant each period. Now let’s observe below what happens when we again introduce a credit card that one pays-off each month.

What’s going on here? Just as happened previously with a credit card, one can enjoy an extra boost to consumption in the first period. But what does growing income do for us besides greater complication? Just as previously, one can pay their debt each period and consume by borrowing against the next month’s income. But with growing income, having a credit card means that one can enjoy the next month’s level of consumption today. That is, next month’s higher consumption is shifted sooner in time by one month. Notice that, with growing income, consumption for July without a credit card ($1,018) is the same as the consumption in June with a credit card. Even without the first-month-gift, credit cards increase the present value of one’s consumption by making next month’s greater income available today – and the same is true for every single month.

Conclusion #2: Having a credit card today entitles you to next month’s greater income.

How big a deal is this? Obviously, it will differ with the discount rate and the rate of income growth. Using the numbers above, having a credit card permits one to consume with a present value that is 10.5% higher. Let that sink in. People who have access to credit consume as if they are 10.5% percent richer. Access to credit can make the difference between a pleasant Christmas, having quality internet, paying for car repairs, and so on. Being poorer is one thing. Being poorer and lacking access to credit is like taking an instant haircut to one’s quality of life. On the flip side, people can be made better-off without additional improvements to their productivity. Increasing access to credit may be a less costly improvement to the value lifetime consumption than many of the other less politically feasible improvements to labor productivity.

Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.

It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them

Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.

This Is Not the Most Expensive Thanksgiving Ever

“Thanksgiving 2021 could be the most expensive meal in the history of the holiday.”

That’s the first sentence of a recent New York Times story. The Times and the New York Post rarely agree on editorial matters, but on this topic the Post ran a very similar story the same week. You can find many such headlines.

But is it true? In short: no. I’ll explain why, but my larger goal is to get you to think more clearly about inflation.

How should we measure the cost of a Thanksgiving meal? A widely used measure comes from the Farm Bureau, which shows that the cost of a traditional turkey-centric meal costs about 14% more than last year. In dollar terms it is $53.31 for a turkey, a pumpkin, cranberries, sweet potatoes, stuffing, etc. That’s more that it has ever been, in dollar terms. Farm Bureau has been tracking the cost of this same meal since 1986.

So in one sense, it seems like the headline claim is true. Most expensive Thanksgiving ever!

But we need to think deeper. A nominal price doesn’t actually tell us much. If a long-lost cousin from the Republic of Horpedahl told you it costs 1 million Jeremys to buy a Thanksgiving dinner, what would your reaction be? The first and best reaction is: how much do people earn in the Republic of Horpedahl?

We should ask the same question in the United States today: how do incomes today compare to incomes in the past? Which measure of income you use is important, but if we use median usual weekly earnings of full-time workers, we can make a simple comparison of how much of your weekly earnings would be needed to buy a traditional Thanksgiving meal. This chart shows exactly that. In 2021 that meal will be the second lowest it has ever been as a percent of median earnings — higher than last year, but tied with 2019 for the second lowest. And much less than in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I use third quarter data for each year, the most recent available).

Adjusting for income is the best way to look at this question. It’s not perfect — part of this depends on what income measure you use — but it’s much better than the alternative. The worst approach is to just look at nominal prices. This tells you virtually nothing.

Continue reading

50% Endowment Returns Driven by Private Equity Investments: How Rich Universities Get Richer (But You Can, Too)

A recent headline in the Dartmouth student newspaper reads, “Dartmouth’s endowment posts 46.5% year-over-year returns, prompting additional spending on students”.  That seems like really great investing performance. But the sub-headline dismisses it as less-than-stellar, by comparison: “The endowment outpaced the stock market, but fell short when compared to other elite universities that have announced their endowment returns.” After all, fellow Ivy League university Brown notched a 50% return for fiscal 2021, which in turn was surpassed by  Duke University at 55.9% and Washington University in St. Louis at 65%. The Harvard endowment fund managers are a bit on the defensive for  gaining “only” 34% on the year.

The stock market has done well in the past year, but nothing like these results. What is the secret sauce here? Well, it starts with having money already, lots of it. That enables the endowment managers to participate in more esoteric investments. This is the land of “alternative investments”:

Conventional categories include stocks, bonds, and cash. Alternative investments include private equity or venture capital, hedge funds, managed futures, art and antiques, commodities, and derivatives contracts. Real estate is also often classified as an alternative investment.

It takes really big bucks to buy into some of these ventures, and it also takes a large  professional endowment fund staff to choose and monitor these sophisticated vehicles. Inside Higher Ed’s Emma Whitford notes:

Endowments valued at more than $1 billion, of which there are relatively few, are more likely to invest in alternative asset classes like venture capital and private equity, recent data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers showed.

“Where you’re going to see higher performance are the institutions with endowments over a billion,” Good said. “If you look at the distribution of where they’re invested, they have a lot more in alternative investments — in private equity, venture capital. And those asset classes did really well. Those classes outperformed the equity market.” 

…Most endowments worth $500 million or less invested a large share of their money in domestic stocks and bonds in fiscal 2020, NACUBO data showed. This is partially because alternative investments have a high start-up threshold that most institutions can’t meet, according to Good.

“You have to have a pretty big endowment to be able to invest in that type of asset class,” he said. “If you have a $50 million endowment, you just don’t have enough cash to be able to buy into those investments, which is why you won’t see big gains from alternatives in those smaller institutions.”

Virginia L. Ma and Kevin A. Simauchi report in The Crimson on Harvard’s Endowment, “Harvard Management Company returned 33.6 percent on its investments for the fiscal year ending in June 2021, skyrocketing the value of the University’s endowment to $53.2 billion, the largest sum in its history and an increase of $11.3 billion from the previous fiscal year.” This 33.6% gain, though, represents underperformance compared to Harvard’s peers; this is rationalized in terms of overall risk-positioning:

However, Harvard’s returns have continually lagged behind its peers in the Ivy League, a trend that appeared to continue this past fiscal year. Of the schools that have announced their endowment returns, Dartmouth College reported 47 percent returns while the University of Pennsylvania posted 41 percent returns.

Narvekar acknowledged the “opportunity cost of taking lower risk” in Harvard’s investments compared to the University’s peer schools.

“Over the last decade, HMC has taken lower risk than many of our peers and establishing the right risk tolerance level for the University in the years ahead is an essential stewardship responsibility,” Narvekar wrote.

In 2018, HMC formed a risk tolerance group in order to assess how the endowment could take on more risk while balancing Harvard’s financial positioning and need for budgetary stability. Under Narvekar’s leadership, HMC has dramatically reduced its assets in natural resources, real estate markets, and public equity, while increasing its exposure to hedge funds and private equity.

There it is again, the magical “hedge funds and private equity”.

Harvard’s fund manager went on to warn that the astronomical returns of the past year were something of an anomaly:

At the close of his message, Narvekar cautioned that despite the year’s success, Harvard’s endowment should not be expected to gain such strong returns annually.  “There will inevitably be negative years, hence the importance of understanding risk tolerance.”

The following chart illustrates, at least in Harvard’s case, how extraordinary the past year has been:

Source:  Justin Y. Ye

The fiscal year of these funds typically runs September to September, so it’s worth recalling that back in September of 2020 we were still largely cowering in our homes, waiting for vaccines to arrive. The equity markets were still down in September of 2020, whereas a year later the tsunami of federal and Fed largesse had lifted all equity boats to the sky. So, it is not realistic to expect another year of 50% returns.

Final issue: can the little guy pick up at least a few crumbs under the table of this private equity feast? In most cases, you have to be an “accredited investor” (income over $200,000, or net worth outside of home at least $1 million) to start to play in that game. From Pitchbook:

Private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) are two major subsets of a much larger, complex part of the financial landscape known as the private markets…The private markets control over a quarter of the US economy by amount of capital and 98% by number of companies….PE and VC firms both raise pools of capital from accredited investors known as limited partners (LPs), and they both do so in order to invest in privately owned companies. Their goals are the same: to increase the value of the businesses they invest in and then sell them—or their equity stake (aka ownership) in them—for a profit.

Venture capital (VC) is perhaps the more attractive, heroic side of this investing complex:

Venture capital investment firms fund and mentor startups. These young, often tech-focused companies are growing rapidly and VC firms will provide funding in exchange for a minority stake of equity—less than 50% ownership—in those businesses.

Some examples of VC-backed enterprises include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Google-associated self-driving venture WayMo.

Venture capital takes a big chance on whether some nascent technology will succeed (in the fact of competition) many years down the road, which has the potential to make the world a better place for us all. Private equity, on the other hand, tends to be somewhat more prosaic, predictable, and sometimes brutal. Here is putting it nicely:

Private equity investment firms often take a majority stake—50% ownership or more—in mature companies operating in traditional industries. PE firms usually invest in established businesses that are deteriorating because of inefficiencies. The assumption is that once those inefficiencies are corrected, the businesses could become profitable.

In practice, this often entails taking control of a company via a leveraged buyout which saddles the new firm with heavy debt, firing lots of employees, improving some strategy or operations of the firm, and sometimes breaking it up and selling off the pieces. This was the fate of several medium-sized oil companies that got in the cross-hairs of corporate raider T. Boone Pickens.  “Chainsaw Al” Dunlop also became famous for this sort of “restructuring” or “creative destruction”.

Private equity activities can be very lucrative. But again, is there any way for you, the little guy, to get a piece of this action? Well, kind of. There are publicly traded companies who do this leveraged buyout stuff, and you can buy shares in these companies, and share in the fruits of their pruning of corporate deadwood. Some names are: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), The Carlyle Group (CG), and The Blackstone Group (BX). The share prices of all these firms have more than doubled in the past year (100+ % return). If you had had the guts to plow all your savings into any one of these private equity firms a year ago, you would have had the glory of beating out all those university endowment funds with their piddling 50% returns.

Dry turkey and mediocre side dishes are optimal

The Take Economy demands not just that you distinguish yourself with opinions that deviate from the median person, but that the manner in which your opinion deviates is immediately distinguishable from everyone else who is similarly deviating. This leaves us with a tendency to focus on what we don’t like – enjoying something is further evidence of the monoculture, while hate comes in a million shades of beige.

I bring this up because hating Thanksgiving foods, particularly turkey, oven-baked turkey, has been in vogue for years, and I’m sure stuffing is next. Everything is too dry, too bland, yada yada yada. It’s a boring take most often made by boring people. Not that such things usually matter to me, but in this case it does because Thanksgiving as a meal is not an epicurean holiday, it’s an attempt to solve a coordination game across families, friends, and geographies. When solving a coordination problem with so many players, with preferences and cost-constraints that make broadly amenable large-scale get-togethers increasingly difficult. Between navigating travel costs, sleeping arrangements, and the inevitable negative political externalities that some jackass in your family is going to pollute the familial air with, the last thing you have the resources to cope with is culinary coordination. So what do we do? We come up with a pseudo-national, heavily regional menu that we coordinate on, a$1.99 per pound Schelling point that’s a steal at thrice the price.

The turkey’s too dry? Drown it in gravy. The stuffing is too bland? Your aunt has hot sauce in her purse. Your cousin is explaining the vagaries of 18th century 2nd amendment judicial rulings? There’s a bottle of brown liquor quietly being shared on the porch this very minute that you can partake in for the price of nothing more than a pleading glance and keeping your politics to your self.

The food isn’t the point, but if you’re still feeling the pain of a sub-optimal meal, you can order Chinese with us later, and I’ll happily explain to you why you’re not just ordering the wrong dishes, you’re ordering off the wrong menu. Because I got food takes, just not when the meal isn’t about the food.

Word Golf is a new online game

If you like Scrabble or Family Feud, then you might enjoy playing Word Golf. You can get started for free immediately by going to word.golf

You play by thinking of word associations to click from one concept to another. The challenge will get you thinking. Every game only takes about one minute, and there are simple instructions on the website to get you going right away. Unlike chess, you can do this for fun even without any time commitment.

Like Mike and Jeremy before me this week, I am writing about something I saw at the Emergent Ventures conference. It was an inspiring type of event. I met the young creator of Word Golf and was inspired by his vision for a new intellectual sport.

The game is built from data on how often words appear together on the internet. That’s why I compare it to the TV guessing game show Family Feud. You are not just thinking of synonyms to jump from one word to another. The challenge is to think of what words other people typically use in the same online article.

Word Golf is probably a better use of time than Candy Crush or Solitaire. (I played a lot of computer FreeCell at one point in my life but not anymore.)

Compulsory Schooling by Gender & Age

This weekend I’ll be at the Southern Economic Association Conference in Houston Texas. I’m organizing and chairing a session called Education Policy Impacts by Sex (you should come by and see me if you will be there too!).

Personally, I will be presenting on the impact of compulsory school attendance laws on attendance. Today I just want to share and discuss a single graph that’s not my presentation.

Prior to my research, there was already a canon of existing literature on compulsory attendance legislation (CSL) and I’ve previously written on this blog about it (attendance, CSL, and differences by sex). However, the literature had some limitations. Authors examined smaller samples, ignored gender, or ignored different effects by age.

I examine full-count IPUMS data from the 1850-1910 US censuses of whites in order to investigate the so-far-omitted margins mentioned above. Here are some conclusions:

Prior to CSL:

  • Males and females attended school at similar rates until the age of 14.
  • After 14, women stopped attending school as much as men.
    • By the age of 18, the attendance gender gap was 10 percentage points.

After CSL

  • Male and female attendance increased from the ages of 6 to 14
  • Women began attending school more than prior to CSL until about age 18.
  • After the age of 18, women experienced no greater attendance than previously.
  • But, both sexes attended school less than prior to CSL for ages 5 and younger.
  • Men began attending school less after the age of 17.
  • CSL increased lifetime attendance for both males and females

Overall, examining the impact of CSL across many ages allows us to see when and not just whether people attended more school. Previous authors would say something like “CSL increased total years of school by about 5% on average”. For men, almost all of those gains were between the ages of 6 & 16. But women experienced greater attendance from ages 6 to 18.

Additionally, examining the data by age reveals that there was some intertemporal substitution. Once it became legally mandatory for children to attend school between the ages of 6 & 14, parents began sending their younger children to school at lower rates. Indeed – why invest in education for two or three early years of life if you’ll just have to send your children to school for another eight years anyway. Older boys dropped out of school at higher rates after CSL too. Essentially, the above figure became compressed horizontally. People ‘put in their time’, but then reduced investments at non-mandatory ages.

This reveals a shortcoming of the current literature, which focuses mostly on 14 year olds. By focusing on a popular age of attendance that was also compulsory, previous authors have missed the compensating fall in attendance at other ages. Granted, the life-time effect is still positive – but it’s attenuated by a richer picture. The picture reveals that individuals were not attending school by accident. Students or their parents had in mind an amount of educational investment for which they were aiming. When children were forced to attend school at particular ages, the attendance for other ages declined.

Inflation: Get Concrete, Get Specific

The recent debate over US inflation seems to be full of mood affiliation on both sides, where people start with a mood (“panic” or “don’t worry”) and then look for facts to fit the mood.

My natural temperament is “don’t worry” and that is what I’ve generally thought about inflation, but the latest number of 6.2% inflation over the last year is a bit concerning, and makes me glad the the Fed has announced they plan to taper off of new asset purchases. But overall I think people are still talking past each other, and I wish more people would answer these questions:

What will CPI inflation be over the next 12 months?

What specifically should the Fed do differently, if anything? How quickly should they taper and raise rates?

If you are currently thinking “panic” or “don’t worry”, what data could come in that would change your mind?

I’ll start with my answers, informed more by my gut than by quantitative models: my guess for inflation over the next year is 4-5%, the Fed has things about right but I’d say “tighten faster” rather than “tighten slower” if I had to pick. I expect inflation to slow noticeably in the spring as the economy transitions from the unusual boom in demand for goods back to demand for services after Christmas and the Delta wave, as more people get back to work and supply bottlenecks have time to work themselves out. I would start to get more seriously concerned if we see no slowing by June, or if market-based measures of inflation or NGDP projections start to move substantially (2pp) higher.

To the extent that I’ve been on the wrong side of this, I blame the cognitive bias I seem to fall prey to most often- mistaking reversed stupidity for intelligence. Just because lots of people make obviously incorrect predictions of hyperinflation doesn’t mean that inflation will be low.

No, 6.2% inflation per year is not in the same universe as hyperinflation (50% inflation per month)

*The usual disclaimer applies- my affiliation with the Fed gives me zero insider information about or influence over monetary policy and I don’t speak for them.

I’m Excited about a New World’s Fair

Everyone who attended the recent Emergent Ventures Unconference is excited. Craig Palsson is excited about the primal branding of the unconference. My co-blogger Mike Makowsky is excited about Plascrete (I was too! We listened to that pitch simultaneously).

I was most excited about the New World’s Fair. This is Cameron Weise’s project, for which he won an EV grant (see all the winners). I have always been interested in the history of World’s Fairs (though probably not as much as my wife). And they still exist, in a sense. There are still World Expos every few years, but as Cameron will tell you, these have mostly turned into “nation branding” exercises, promoting the host nation itself and whatever other countries set up their own exhibits.

But today, World Expos are not about promoting science, technology, and the future, as many World’s Fairs of the past did. And aren’t there already technological conferences, such as the Consumer Electronics Show (now just CES)? Yes, there are. And these are great. But they aren’t serving the same role as World’s Fairs used too.

This is the gap that Cameron Wiese is stepping into. I don’t know exactly what it will look like (he has lots of ideas!), nor exactly when it will happen. But I will be following his project closely, and you should too.

In the conclusion to his e-book The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen presents a solution to the stagnation: “Raise the social status of scientists.” I think a New World’s Fair would go a long way towards do this.

Eliminate the National Debt: Mint Trillion-Dollar Platinum Coins

The American patriots funded their Revolution largely by printing paper money, since they had no gold with which to buy supplies or pay troops. That got the immediate job done, but ended in disastrous inflation. Thus, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted a few years later, the states were explicitly forbidden to print paper money, and the federal government was deliberately not granted that authority.

Currently, printing of paper money is done by the Federal Reserve, which is essential a private bank on steroids, though under a certain amount of government oversight. What the U.S. Treasury (a part of the executive branch of the federal government) can do to cover its expenditures is to collect taxes, issue bonds and other debt, and also mint metal coins. 

These coins are considered legal tender. The size and value of most of these coins is spelled out in31 U.S. Code § 5112 – Denominations, specifications, and design of coins . For instance, gold coins can be struck in certain denominations between $5 and $50. Sharp legal eyes have noticed, however, that the value of platinum coins is left unspecified. The definition of such coins is left up to the discretion of the Treasury Secretary. 31 U.S.C. 5112(k) reads:

The Secretary may mint and issue bullion and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

Thus, in theory at least,  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen could authorize the U.S. Mint to stamp 5 platinum coins, each bearing the words “One Trillion Dollars”. She could then (under heavy armed escort) walk these coins over to the Federal Reserve, and exchange them for nearly all of the $5.4 trillion in federal debt held by the Fed. These coins are by definition “legal tender”, which means that any creditor (bond-holder) must accept them to settle the debt represented by the bond.

Poof, the government would have another five trillion dollars to spend as it wished. No more bothering with issuing bonds to fund deficit spending, and no more pesky debt ceiling. This is a proposal which arises every few years, whenever the debt ceiling becomes an issue.

The Mint could even go ahead, pump out a total of 29 such coins, and retire the whole federal debt. No more interest to be paid on the national debt, no more hand-wringing over “can we afford it”. We can afford anything. Build it back better, tear it all down, and build it again even better. Jobs for all! And if people won’t work, send them money anyway. This puts us in a Modern Monetary Theory paradise.

Cooler heads have so far prevailed when the trillion-dollar coin ploy is proposed. Most parties agree it would be a violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the laws and customs of the land for the government to outright mint such quantities of fiat money. Arguably the purchase by the Fed of government debt  effectively amounts to the same thing, since the Fed conjures money out of thin air with which to buy these bonds. (Furthermore, the Fed remits to Treasury the vast majority of the interest that Treasury pays on those bonds, so the Fed purchase of these bonds really is free money for the government). However, the interposition of the overall bond market in the process and having the Fed as a quasi-independent counterparty maintain at least the semblance of traditional government funding via public debt.

Also, as Cullen Roche has pointed out, the trillions of dollars of secure, interest-bearing government debt floating around the financial markets serve a number of very useful purposes to keep those markets lubricated and functioning. Such bonds also provide a seemingly safe place for citizens and pension funds to park their funds. To redeem all these bonds with platinum coins and thus to yank them off the markets and out of millions of brokerage accounts would be a major upset. Not to mention the raging inflation that would surely follow such naked, unconstrained money printing. But this all makes for entertaining financial theater.