May 042013
 

“It’s a sad dog that won’t wag its own tail.”
—Southern Aphorism

In this spirit, I must share an anecdote that provides very strong support for my long-standing admonition to learn how to write software and program yourself out of a job, rather than wait until someone else does it for you, because if it can be automated, then it will be automated.

I began developing the practice utilities at Pecuniology.com in response to students’ requests for practice tests in the Managerial Finance courses that I teach. Previously, I distributed paper copies of sample numerical questions from old exams, and every time typos snuck in when I was not looking. No matter how careful I thought I was, I inevitably grabbed a version that had errors in it that were different from the version that I had distributed in the immediately preceding semester, and the cycle of duelling typos never resolved.

Over the years, the typos reproduced and mutated in a manner that had me afraid that I might wake one morning to find that they had evolved into something particularly virulent and maybe even achieve self-awareness.

Finally, a couple years ago, after having told nearly two thousand students over the better part of a decade that they should learn how to write software and program themselves out of jobs, rather than wait until someone else to did it for them, I decided to program myself out of a job. I’m not there yet, but I learned recently that I am closer than I had suspected, and that doing so has improved my teaching performance dramatically.

In a fit of frustration and in a mood to show off a bit, I followed my own advice to solve whatever problem annoys you the most, and converted those contemptible paper printouts into the first version of the online practice utilities linked to above.

During the first semester, students and I identified errors and omissions that, once corrected stayed corrected, and the flood of emailed pleas for help just prior to exams fell from a firehose to a trickle. This is in large measure, I since have learned, because I took the time to incorporate randomly generated values into the problems. In essence, anyone, anywhere in the world can create seemingly infinite variations on the questions posted, just by clicking the Reload button.

In response to the few cries for help that I do receive, I tend to post my replies in this Blog area, and respond more often than not with the URL of the post that addresses the question, along with exhortations to practice, practice, PRACTICE. When a student asks for further clarification, I edit my follow-up response into the existing post.

Shortly after I integrated those sets into my classes, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my students’ test scores and subsequently cranked up the pressure by asking more realistic (read ‘harder’) questions. For the Advanced Managerial Finance class, which we hold in computer labs, I have my students build spreadsheets that replicate each of the practice utilities and use those to answer some sample questions.

The first time that I was asked to teach Principles of Managerial Finance—one of the handful of dreaded required courses that all students in the College of Business must pass—online, I cringed at the thought of my students suffering in solitude, armed with only a textbook and the accompanying publisher-produced practice questions that are more about solving dense and clever puzzles than about preparing for a career of drafting business plans, seeking investment, and managing working capital accounts.

I envisioned each of them cowering in the dark by the light of a kerosene lantern, in a dank and fetid shack with the wind howling, panthers screaming into the night, and alligators banging their massive tails on the kitchen door—we’re in South Florida; that kind of thing can happen from time to time—as they tried to make sense of some of concepts that run exactly counter to virtually everything that their high school teachers and most politicians have told them most of their lives, like the promise of a benefit in the future is worth less than an actual benefit now, you will not necessarily be rewarded for bearing risk, there is a cost for every benefit, and the future is unknowable although it is not unimaginable. That, and we say it with algebra.

Thus were born the videos on the page that links to the utilities above. As I type this, that page is still as ugly as someone else’s baby pictures, and in one of them I had a cold when I recorded the voiceover. And, you know what? The kids love it.

I know this, because I just received my student survey results from the online section that just ended a couple days ago, and my scores are a thing to be envied. This is not because of any special treats that I hand out, as—and I hesitate to post this—I was horribly distracted this semester, and I had thought that I was largely AWOL. I half-expected them to burn me in effigy and call for my public humiliation. (I exaggerate, but only for effect.)

Granted, I make it a point to respond to email within 24-48 hours, but sometimes a four-day weekend turns into a one-week turnaround time (yes, inexcusable!). However, when I was remiss, students turned in their frustration to each other for help, and the vast majority of the time, a classmate directed the questioner to one of my videos or blog posts.

I am fast becoming the Andy Warhol of Business education, whose art is streamlining the creative process to the point where my own hand never touches the end product. And, with Direct Deposit, I don’t even have to endorse and cash the checks. (Again, I exaggerate, but not all that much.)

Here’s the kicker: I use the same exams, albeit with different numbers, in the classroom and online, and my mean scores and distributions are insignificantly different from each other! I very nearly have achieved the Holy Grail of ensuring that my online and face-to-face sections are as closely aligned as is possible.

So, to repeat, if you teach Business, especially Accounting, Economics, or Finance, learn how to write software and program yourself out of a job. Alternatively, contact me and have me do it for you. Seriously.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Feb 052013
 

My expertise is in the field of Finance and Economics education, and not in the field of Criminology. I do not pretend to understand the underlying psychological and sociological causes of criminal behavior. However, I can identify a business opportunity when I see one.

Amy L. Solomon, a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the US Department of Justice, wrote in the National Institute for Justice Journal (207, June 2012):

[N]early one-third of American adults have been arrested by age 23. This record will keep many people from obtaining employment, even if they have paid their dues, are qualified for the job and are unlikely to reoffend.

Granted, arrest does not always lead to conviction, and conviction does not always lead to incarceration, but the likelihood of getting called back for a second job interview drops by 50% for those whose background checks turn up an arrest. Those who have convictions or—Heaven help them—incarcerations on their records might as well forget ever being reintegrated fully into mainstream society, it seems.

Also, having an arrest record—just arrest, not even conviction or incarceration—can result in being denied entry into some countries, including US citizens who try to visit Canada.

Even more tragic, the effects are not uniform across the population.

One recent study estimates that 25 percent of African Americans born after 1990 will witness their father being sent to prison before their 14th birthday.

Imagine, for a moment, that you were born into a poor family living in a crime-infested part of town. Imagine, further, that you made some kind of mistake as a teenager—say, you were caught selling marijuana, possessing an unregistered firearm, or standing lookout for a local street gang—and you wound up going to jail. Mind, you never injured anyone; you were arrested for committing a victimless crime. You’re no angel, but you’re not a real danger to anyone, either.

While in jail, you would be distracted from advancing your education and developing the behavioral habits of mainstream society. Upon release, you would be behind your peers in school, perhaps you would feel angry and betrayed, and you would have developed a demeanor appropriate to surviving in jail and in a neighborhood populated by others with biographies and résumés similar to yours. Chances are that you would use illegal recreational drugs to take the edge off.

Now, you are barred from many jobs and from renting an apartment in all but the seediest neighborhoods, and you have no credit history. Nonetheless, you must eat and find shelter.

This is the day-to-day reality of a distressingly large proportion of the US population. For billions of humans outside the USA, the situation is only marginally better, regardless of criminal history.

What is a single individual to do about a problem this large, and—much more fundamentally—why would anyone who is not a Mother Teresa even want to bother?!?

A Proposal

As it turns out, someone has identified this niche and is doing something about it.

Defy Ventures [is] a yearlong, MBA-style program that [Catherine] Rohr created to teach former inmates how to start their own companies… Defy Ventures has raised more than $1.5 million in donations and pledges from VC firms, hedge funds, businesses, and private foundations.

We at Pecuniology.com propose to work with police departments, judges, parole boards, and charities, to provide Business education to those who have criminal histories and those at risk. This is based on the idea that, if one is a business operator, then one does not have to face the specter of drug tests and background checks.

As we demonstrate on this website, we are carving a niche for ourselves that involves the development of tutorials and practice utilities for students in Business disciplines.

This is a call to anyone who would like to incorporate our work into their programs, especially those who cater to the disenfranchised, worldwide. We have completed the proof-of-concept phase, and are using what already is available in a large government university. The next stage involves rounding out the Pecuniology.com offerings, so that they largely automate instruction, leaving facilitators on the ground free to focus on the specific and particular needs of face-to-face interactions.

Please share this with anyone who might be interested.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans


Oct 172011
 

Based on a post from 14 March 2009

In early 2009 independent economic policy analyst, Geoff Gitlen, modestly proposed an intriguing solution for future banking crises that Occupy Wall Street activists would do well to embrace: reorganize all banks as non-profit organizations.

[Note: The following is my interpretation of the Gitlen Plan. If it isn't in quotation marks, Mr. Gitlen didn't say it.]

The rationale for the Gitlen Plan is straightforward and unexceptional. Already, credit unions in the USA operate as non-profit organizations, and it would be a small step to expand this to include all institutions that are regulated by the Fed or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Commercial banks already are among the most heavily regulated firms in the economically developed parts of the world. Bank managers are encumbered by all manner of restrictions on how they can conduct their businesses, and they are burdened by social requirements, e.g., ethnic, gender, racial, and socioeconomic preferences in lending that favor individuals who are members of politically favored groups. Meanwhile, depositors are insured against loss, which removes one source of critical oversight.

Reorganizing banks as non-profit organizations would be much less radical than having the central government buy controlling interests in them, as we saw in 2008/2009.

For starters, non-profit status would remove the perverse incentives that lead the managers of insured banks to engage in highly risky and politically motivated — or mandated — practices. If banks operated so as to cover their expenses, but not to seek excessive profits, the same way that the Red Cross, the United Way, and other large charities operate, bank executives still could earn salaries that are many times the national average, work in prestigious and comfortable offices, and jet around the world to exotic places and hobnob with power brokers and washed-up pop stars.

However, they would not be under pressure from shareholders to take on the kinds of risks that led to the S&L Crisis and the recent housing/subprime mess.

Gitlen argues, given that banks do not operate as normal commercial enterprises, why take half-measures? Rather than perpetuate one-foot-on-the-brake-one-foot-on-the-gas [accelerator] policies, where regulators compel banks to pursue social goals on the one hand, and banks have coopted regulators* on the other hand, Gitlen argues that we should heave this syncretic mess overboard to the sharks and crabs and embrace an institutional structure that could be more harmonious with the realities of modern banking.

The Gitlen Plan is in stark contrast to libertarian calls for deregulation, free banking, and market discipline, which have no hope of gaining political traction in today’s climate, where otherwise intelligent individuals can decry the current crisis — with utterly straight faces and in the sincerest tones — as a failure of unbridled capitalism, even though the firms at the center of the crisis are among the most heavily regulated in the world, outside of healthcare. With this kind of doublethink passing as conventional wisdom from the corner pub to the halls of Congress, we must choose among viable options and put away our dog-eared copies of Atlas Shrugged, Human Action, and Das Kapital for now.

Gitlen has identified one such option:

Reorganize banks as non-profit organizations, and let those individuals who work for banks and chafe at the notion of working for a charitable organization seek employment in private equity funds and offshore finance centers, like Bermuda, Grand Cayman, Hong Kong, Nassau, and Singapore.

As in all things in life, there is a cost for every benefit, and the Gitlen Plan is not cost-free, but the choice is not between utopia and the status quo, but between available options. Given the worldwide movement for change loosely organized under the Occupy Wall Street banner, the Gitlen Plan could be the most viable option.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans


* For more on regulatory capture and the current crisis, see Buiter (2008) (Warning: PDF).

Oct 162011
 

In business, economies of scale means that it is less expensive, per unit of output, to produce goods, if one produces a lot rather than a few. For example, one would not build a factory, buy raw materials, and hire workers to make only one car. Similarly, one would not set up a restaurant to make only one meal.

Once the oven is hot, the freezer cold, and the employees on-site, the additional cost (what economists call the ‘marginal cost’) of producing a second meal is substantially less than the cost of going from zero to one meal. Likewise, the cost of producing the third, fourth, and subsequent meals can fall even further, as the employees get into the rhythm of the job, several items bake in the oven at a time, and the freezer is cooling more than air and empty shelves.

The larger the operation, the greater the output relative to the costto a point.

However, as with plants, animals, and essentially everything else, there is a limit to how much a firm can grow, before costs begin to rise faster than income.

Sticking with the restaurant example, let us assume that a good day’s gross income is $10,000, and that the pre-tax profit is about 15% of that, after paying for groceries, utilities, maintenance, payroll, insurance, etc. [Feel free to substitute an appropriate amount of your local currency, if you reuse this text.]

Now, imagine that the owners have hired a new general manager — we’ll call him Skippy [Feel free to substitute a culturally appropriate derogatory name here.] — who wants to double the gross revenue to $20,000 per day, even on historically slow days.

Skippy holds ‘motivational’ meetings and exhorts the employees to “work smarter” and to be “dedicated” to the “mission” and “vision” of the organization. He wants to run three eight-hour shifts per day, seven days per week including holidays, and to minimize costs.

One young man at a meeting asked, “Um… If we wanted to minimize costs, shouldn’t we just shut down? That way, costs would be reduced to zero.”

Skippy replied, “You have a bad attitude. Ask not what this firm can do for you; ask, rather, what you can do for this firm.”

One problem with selling more meals than is optimal is that one has to provide incentives for potential customers to become actual customers. One option is to offer larger servings, but customers typically eat only so much at each meal. Another option is to reduce prices, either across the board, during times that the restaurant is usually closed or business is slow, for individuals who are members of a favored category — females, a particular ethnicity, a profession, etc. — or some other form of discrimination against those who are not members of the favored category.

By doing so, the restaurant operator reduces the income from each meal sold, even though the costs of producing those meals do not fall. Quite the contrary, by running the equipment without break, one is unable to clean, maintain, or repair it, and by working one’s employees harder, they get tired, make mistakes, and become resentful; beyond the optimal scale, costs per unit of output rise.

It does not matter if it is a restaurant, factory, bank, or whatever, each firm has its optimal size, and anything larger or smaller than that optimal size is less efficient than it would be if it were operating at the optimal scale.

If Goldilocks were a management consultant, one might hear her say, “This firm is tooo small. This firm is tooo big. And, this firm…? This firm is juuust right.”

In general, two things systematically prevent firms from operating at their optimal scales: hubris and regulation.  Things that unsystematically prevent firms from operating at their optimal scales stem from the unknowability of the future: uncertainty, surprise changes in market conditions, natural disaster, and other things that one cannot foresee.

Hubris is the kind of overconfidence that leads one to believe that one knows more than one knows, and thus can do more than one can do. It is one of the qualities of the kind of narcissist that is expert at climbing to the top of an organization, in spite of a lack of actual knowledge, talent, or skill.  Such individuals often conflate speculative hypotheses with proven conclusions, confuse ‘could’ with ‘must’, and are loath to admit when they are in error.  They speak with great bombast, demean those who ask for clarification, and typically refer to their track records when pressed for details.

In positions of power, hubris can lead to doublethink, especially a desire to minimize costs and to maximize gross sales simultaneously, in spite of the fact that there is a cost for every benefit.

Granted, one can try to minimize fraud, abuse, and waste, but any more than this implies fewer raw materials, fewer fixed assets, and less available labor, and thus reduced output; decrease costs, decrease revenue.  Similarly, if one wants to increase output, this implies more raw materials, fixed assets, and available labor, and thus increased cost; increase revenue, increase costs.

Hubris tends to result in firms that operate above their optimal scales, based on the notion that bigger is better.

Regulation leads to inefficiency most commonly through the misapplication of the observation that price tends to approximate the marginal cost of production in a competitive market.  Only in a monopolistic market can one charge a price higher than the marginal cost of production, because in a competitive market – i.e., a market that has a very large number of relatively small suppliers – if one tried to charge a higher price, a competitor would undercut the price.  This process would continue, until no one were willing to charge a lower price.

In monopoly markets with only one supplier or in oligopoly markets with a small number of relatively large suppliers, sellers can charge prices that are substantially above marginal cost, because buyers have nowhere else to go.  The choice is between paying the high price or going without.

This reasoning underlies antitrust statutes.  The idea is that, since perfectly competitive markets have the lowest profit margins, and thus the lowest prices to consumers, a small number of large suppliers is de facto bad.

This ignores economies of scale.

Some productive processes have very high barriers to entry, typically in the form of expensive equipment, as is the case with airlines, cruise ships, railroads, electrical utilities, etc.  If it makes economic sense for suppliers in these industries to be large and highly concentrated, then the tendency will be for the successful to acquire the unsuccessful.

Some suppliers operate in a ‘winner-take-all’ environment, as is the case with search engines, social network websites, operating systems, etc.  If consumers tend to favor a particular supplier to the exclusion of essentially all other competitors, then the optimal supplier will tend to be a monopoly.

Regulations that hinder concentration where it results from economies of scale serve only to force suppliers to be inefficient.

The main thing to bear in mind is that hubris is ultimately its own undoing, and, in an increasingly integrated global community, regulation at the national level is increasingly anachronistic.

BEARING THE DISCLAIMER AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE IN MIND, a contrarian speculative strategy might be to sell short assets that are darlings in the popular media (i.e., subject to hubris) and buy long assets that are under intense government scrutiny (i.e., likely to migrate from unfriendly jurisdictions to friendly jurisdictions).

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans