Human Capital Contracts

Summary: Human Capital Contracts would allow people sell a certain % of their future income in return for upfront cash, as opposed to taking out a loan. This would be less risky for them, would give them valuable information about different college majors, and would help give people de facto ‘mentors’, among other advantages. Adverse selection could reduce the benefits, and reducing inter-state competition poses a major possible disadvantage. We also discuss two niche applications: parents and divorce.

Debt vs equity financing

There are two methods of financing for companies; debt and equity.

Debt is fundamentally very simple. I give the company $100 now; it promises to give me $105 in a year’s time. They owe me a fixed amount in return. Hopefully in the meantime the company has invested that $100 in a project or piece of equipment that produces more than $105; if so they made a profit on the transaction as a whole. Here the risk is borne by the company; they have no choice but to pay me back, even if they didn’t make a profit this year. This form of financing is familiar to most people, as they personally use savings accounts, credit cards, mortgages, auto loans and so on.

Equity, unlike debt, does not represent a fixed level of obligation. Instead the company owes you a certain fraction of future profits. If you give a company $100 in return for a 10% share, and they made a $50 profit, your share of the profit is $5. Hopefully they will make growing profits for many years, in which case your portion will grow to $6, to $7, and so on. Here the risk is borne by you; if they don’t make a profit, you get nothing. This form of financing is much less familiar to most people; about the only experience they are likely to have would be investing in the stock market, but that is now highly abstract so the underlying mechanics are obscured.

Equity: Less Risky than Debt

One of the biggest advantages of this system is it moves the risk from the individual borrower to the investor. When you borrow money, you put yourself at substantial risk. What if you struggle to find a good job after college? You’re still obliged to make repayments, which could be very difficult if you only have to accept a very low-paying job. Or if you borrow money after college, what if you lose your job? Or have a family emergency? Your circumstances have deteriorated, but you’re still obliged to make the same level of payments – meaning your post-debt income falls by even more than your pre-debt income.

With equity, on the other hand, you don’t have the risk. If you don’t find a job after college, your income will be zero, so your repayments will be X% of 0 – namely 0. If you find a low-paying job, your repayments will be low. The investors will be made whole by the people who instead find high-paying jobs – who can also afford to repay more. So equity investments better match up your repayment obligations with your ability to repay.

Here is an chart showing the difference, in terms of the % of income you’d be spending on repayment, from an example worked out later in the article:

Debt burden under adversity

The risk is transferred to the investor, who now loses out if you don’t have much income. But they are in a much better position to deal with the risk – they can diversify, investing in many different people, and also in other asset classes. Some human capital contracts could be a good diversifying addition to a conventional portfolio of stocks and bonds.

Education

Funding higher education is perhaps the best application for Human Capital Contracts.

Firstly, this is an extremely risky investment. There are countless stories of people who took out huge student loans to fund an arts degree and then have their lives dominated by the struggle to repay. Alternatively, if people could discharge education debts through bankruptcy, the risk to the lender would be too great, as the borrowers typically lack collateral, so loans would be available only at prohibitively high interest rates, if at all. Selling equity shares would avoid this problem; people who did badly after school would only have to repay a minimal amount, but lenders could afford to offer relatively generous terms because the average would be pulled up by the occasional very successful student.

The other appeal is the information such a market would provide students. It is fair to say that many students don’t really understand the long-term consequences of their choices. The information available on the future paths opened up by different majors is poor quality – at best, it tells you how well people who studied that major years ago have done, but the labor market has probably changed substantially over time. What students really want is forecasts of future returns to different colleges and majors, but this is very difficult! And many people are not even aware of the backwards-looking data. The situation isn’t improved by professors, who generally lack experience outside academia, and sometimes simply lie! I remember being told by a philosophy professor that philosophers were highly in demand due to the “transferable thinking skills” – despite the total lack of evidence for such an effect. Human Capital Contracts would largely solve this problem.

TIPs markets provide a forecast of future inflation. Population-linked bonds would provide similar forecasts of future population growth. Similarly, Human Capital Contracts could provide forecasts of the future returns to future degrees. Lenders would expect higher returns to some colleges and majors (Stanford Computer Science vs No-Name Communications Studies), and so would be willing to accept lower income shares for people who chose those majors. As such, being offered financing for a small percentage would indicate that the market expected this to be a profitable degree. Being offered financing only for a large percentage would be a sign that the degree would not be very profitable. Some people would still want to do it for love rather than money, but many would not – saving them from spending four years and a lot of money on a decision they’d subsequently regret.

What could make clearer the difference in expected outcomes than being offered the choice between Engineering for 1% or Fine Art for 3%?

Certainly I think I would have benefited from having this information available. Most people probably know that Computer Science pays better than English Literature, but that’s probably not a pair many people are choosing from. I was considering between Physics, Math, Economics or History for my major. I knew that History would probably pay less, but didn’t have a strong view on the relative earnings of the others. I probably would have guessed that math beat physics, for example, but in retrospect I think physics probably actually beats math.

Astute readers might object here that I am conflating the benefits of the type of financing (debt vs equity) with the mechanism for pricing the financing (free market or price fixed). If there was a free market in debt financing, lenders could charge different interest rates, and these would provide information to the students. This is true, except that 1) the interest rate would only tell you about the risk you’d end up super-poor, rather than providing information about the full distribution of outcomes, and 2) as student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, there’s not really much reason for lenders to differentiate between candidates. If student loans could be discharged through bankruptcy, the interest rates charged would be informative but also probably very high. Perhaps this would be a good thing!

Education Funding – some illustrative examples.

Because it can be hard to think about these things in the abstract, I’ve tried to produce some worked-out examples. Suppose someone borrows $100,000, and then starts out earning $50,000 when they graduate. Their income grows over time, as they gain experience (maturity) and the economy grows (NGDP/capita). If we assume a 6% return for investors and a 20 year duration, they would have to give up just over 5% of their income of this time period. The repayments would be much more manageable – in year one, it would represent just 5% of their income, as opposed to 17% if they used debt.

Debt Equity Repayment Structures, equal r

Now, investors might demand a higher rate of return for equity investments, as they’re riskier than debt ( but then again maybe not . Here’s the same calculations, but assuming equity investors require a 10% return vs 6% on debt:

Debt Equity Repayment Structures, unequal r

What happens if the student runs into financial difficulty later in life? Here’s what happens if their income falls by 50% and never really recovers:

Debt Equity Repayment Structures, equal r, unexpected poverty

with equity, the hit is affordable, but with debt they have to pay 20% of their income in debt repayments – perhaps at the same time as having medical problems.

And what about the information value? Well, the investors would be willing to offer them $100,000 for just a 5.6% share, instead of 7.85%, if they took a major that would offer a $70,000 starting salary instead.

Debt Equity Repayment Structures, unequal r, higher initial

I hoped you enjoyed these tables. They are probably the closest you will ever get to a picture on this blog. I did add color to some of them though!

Mentors – Incentive Alignment

The modern world is very complicated, and we can’t expect people to understand all of it. Which is fine, except when it comes to understanding contracts, or credit cards, or multi-level-marketing schemes. At times the complexity of the modern world allows people to be taken advantage of, even in transactions which would be perfectly legitimate had the participants been better informed.

Equity investments have the potential to help a lot here. All of a sudden I have a third party who is genuinely concerned with maximizing my income. I could ask them for advise about looking for a job. Perhaps they could negotiate a raise for me. Indeed, they might even line up new jobs for me! Obviously their incentives are not totally aligned with me. Except insomuch-as happy workers are more productive, they might not put much weight on how pleasant the job is. But true incentive alignment is rare in general; even your parents or your spouse’s incentives aren’t perfectly aligned, and the government’s certainly aren’t. Even better, it’s very clear exactly how and to what degree my inventor’s incentives are aligned with mine: I don’t need to try and work out their angle. I can trust them on monetary affairs, and ignore their advice (if they offered any) with regards hobbies or friendships or whatever else.

Indeed, you could imagine schools that funded themselves entirely through equity investments in their students, and advertised this as a strength: their incentives are well aligned with their students. They would teach only the most useful skills, as efficiently as possible, and actively support your future career progression. This is basically the model App Academy uses:

App Academy is as low-risk as we can make it.

App Academy does not charge any tuition. Instead, you pay us a placement fee only if you find a job as a developer after the program. In that case, the fee is 18% of your first year salary, payable over the first 6 months after you start working.

source

Compare this to current universities, which actively push minority students out of STEM majors to maintain graduation rates.

Progressive

A clear implication of equity financing is that people who go on to earn more for ex ante unpredictable reasons will pay more than those who are ex post unlucky. As such, this system is mildly redistributive in a manner many people find attractive – like a sort of idealized social insurance that Luck Egalitarians like talking about. The lucky rich pay more and the unlucky poor pay less. Even better, it manages to do so in a voluntary way.

Taxation

The idea of human capital contracts may sound very strange. But we actually already have something similar in taxation. Governments invest in the education, health etc. of their citizens, and then levy taxes upon them. These taxes tend to be proportional to one’s ability to pay; they are some fraction of income, or expenditures (sales taxes). So Human Capital Contracts should feel familiar to socialists and the like.

There are of course a few differences between Human Capital Contracts and taxation. For example,

  • Human Capital Contracts are optional, whereas taxation is mandatory.
  • Human Capital Contracts give you more choice about what you spend the money on, whereas governments typically give you little choice.
  • Finally, Human Capital Contracts are customizable; you could negotiate different terms with the lender (like the % share you’re selling, or the income level at which you start repaying, or the timing of repayments), whereas individuals rarely get much choice about the taxes they will be made to pay.

Indeed, the advantages of human capital contracts suggest a new way of doing taxation: the state could simply claim a certain % ownership of its citizens. Perhaps it might demand a higher % for those who use public education or public healthcare.

The idea of the state literally owning (a stake in) its citizens, without their consent, might sound evil. But this is basically what the government already does with taxation – it claims a certain fraction of your income, leaving you no recourse. Even renouncing your citizenship will not persuade the IRS to let its property go. Human Capital Contracts just make it more explicit that the governments of most countries effectively own somewhere between 30% – 60% of their populations. Worse, if they want to they can increase their ownership stake without the consent of those affected. Compared to this, it is hard to make voluntary Human Capital Contracts sound problematic.

However, this suggests a danger with equity investments in people. At the moment you can escape most governments by fleeing abroad. The couple of exceptions are largely viewed as immoral aberrations, not the rightful state of affairs. This exit-right provides a vital check on their power, and forces them to compete to some degree. Without it they can descend to the most abusive tyranny. If equity investments became widely recognized, however, governments might start to recognize each other’s ownership of its population to a greater degree than now, which would make them harder to escape. Of course, virtually any innovation can be opposed by pointing out they make it easier for governments to oppress ‘their’ populace, from coinage to maps to cell phones. Perhaps a more powerful government would be a more benign one, as many different people have argued – though perhaps not.

Mechanics

Operationally this would be slightly more complicated than taking out a standard loan, because the amount owed to the lender would be variable. As such, they need to verify my income so they can check I’m repaying the correct amount. There are many ways this could be done, but an obvious one would be through the tax system; I would submit to the lender a copy of my tax return to show my annual income. Perhaps this could be automated through TurboTax. An even easier option would be if the payments were deducted from my paychecks – this is how English student loans work.

Possible Regulations

One option for regulating the system would be to impose a maximum amount of equity an individual could sell. This would prevent people from selling 100% of themselves, which might be a bad idea! Though for-profit investors would probably be uninterested in buying up to 100%, as the individual would lack any reason to actually work. Probably the only people interested in buying 100% ownership would be cults, communist co-ops and terrorist movements.

Another would be to regulate the contingencies that could be attached to such contracts.

A third would be to prohibit the investor from employing the investee, or vice versa.

Adverse Selection

One of the biggest impediments to such a system might be adverse selection. Students have ‘insider information’ about their future prospects – they know about their career plans. The less you expect to earn, the more attractive selling equity is over the fixed payments of debt. Conversely, the more you expect to earn, the less attractive equity is vs debt. As such, the students who opted for equity financing might be disproportionately the students with the lowest expected outcomes. This would increase the % investors would demand in return for funding, further deterring the higher-expectation students, until eventually only the very lowest-expectation students would remain in the pool.

We could imagine this being a big issue in some subjects, like physics, where there is a large variance in income for the different exit routes – grad school vs industry vs quant finance. For others it’s less of an issue; if you go to law school you’re probably aiming to become a lawyer, though even there you might choose between criminal or corporate law.

However, there are several factors which would mitigate against such an outcome. Firstly, the risk aversion we discussed earlier means students would probably be willing to pay a substantial amount to avoid the risk associated with debt. Adverse selection would mean it would be even more attractive to students pessimistic about their long-term earnings, but so long as it is attractive enough for the optimistic ones, it would still work.

Indeed, this is basically how it works for health insurance. In theory adverse selection is a problem for private health insurance; but in practice there is not much evidence this is actually a problem; healthy people still buy health insurance.

The effect would also be substantially reduced by students own lack of knowledge about their futures. Many students change their mind over the course of their studies about what they want to go on to do. So some low-expectation students might take out equity financing, thinking they were being cunning… and then change to a high paying career track! This seems to be the more common direction of travel in general; students go to college planning on becoming human rights lawyers, or engineers, or artists, but instead end up as corporate lawyers, investment bankers and advertisers.

So this is a problem I’d expect the bond/equity/insurance market to be more than capable of dealing with.

Addendum: Speculative Extensions

Here are some more ideas where equity investments in people could be useful. The idea could still be valuable even without these though; education is probably the best use-case.

Parents

Once upon a time the land was rich and fruitful, and the people were fecund with beautiful offspring.

… maybe that never happened, but fertility rates definitely have fallen over time, probably to our detriment. Future people matter, a lot! And even if they didn’t, we still need someone to fund social security.

One guess as to why fertility has dropped is once upon a time your children could be relied upon to live near you, following your customs, and supporting you in your old age, though its unclear if this ever made strictly economic sense. Now, however, children feel much less moved by filial piety, and frequently move far away. As such, parents seem much less value in having children, and only do so out of charity – raising a child takes a lot of effort, and the modern world is full of super-stimuli to distract you from productive procreation. Giving parents a small equity stake in their children would go some way towards recognizing the investment parents put into their children, and hopefully boost fertility rates.

It would also encourage parents to support their children and their careers; now the high-flying child is not merely a source of pride but also a source of retirement. A friend I discussed this with suggested that first-generation immigrants tended to give their children very practical advice about school, careers and relationships, whereas whites tend to be more wishy-washy; perhaps this would promote a return to reality-based parenting.

Divorce settlement

Another niche case where these could be useful would be divorce settlements. The classic feminist argument about divorce settlements was that the woman had invested in domestic and family labor, which was disrupted by the divorce, while the man had invested in his career, which he kept. Partly as a result of arguments like this, we now see divorce settlements where one party gets a claim to some of the resources of the other.

However, a fixed sum is not a very natural way of dealing with this. The woman, in entering marriage, assumed she would be benefiting from a certain share of the man’s output. If he were successful, this would be more; if he came upon poor fortune, this would be less – rather than taking a costly and messy court case to adjust the payments.  Human Capital Contracts would allow a divorce settlement to recognize this: in a divorce were the man were at fault, the woman might be granted a 1% equity share for each year of marriage.

Obviously if you thought permitting divorce was a mistake – “til death do us part” – then you’d have little interest in this application.

Further Reading

Further Reading: Risk-Based Student Loans

Market-Implied Population Growth Forecasts

Scott Sumner has written a huge amount about how an NGDP futures market would be an excellent thing. It would give the Fed something to target and allow us to easily get market-implied estimates of the effects of various events on the broader economy, including policy changes. And it looks like he might be successful.

The problem with suggests for various such markets in general is that there simply isn’t enough interest in trading them. The oil futures market exists because there are many private actors who wish to hedge their oil exposure; this is not the case for GDP. There just aren’t enough people interested in trading them.

What could change this is if the government (or someone else, I guess) decided to issue debt linked to GDP. Investors are always interested in pricing debt securities. You don’t need the possibility of hedging for the trading to create value – it can create value through time-value-of-money arbitrage, just like for equity and debt. This is after-all how we ended up with the TIPS market, and the extremely helpful market-implied inflation expectations (breakevens) it produces.

It seems like it should actually be quite attractive for the government to issue GDP-linked securities. Fixed-rate debt puts governments in a levered position, reliant on future growth to be able to fund themselves. When growth stalls, difficulty in repaying the debt is added to all their other problems. But GDP-linked debt would not have this problem; repayments would be highest when growth and thus ability to repay was highest, and lowest during times of recession.

None of this so far has been particularly new. Here is the new idea: population-linked bonds. The government would issue bonds whose coupons and face value were determined by the population of the country at time of repayment.

This would be attractive to the government, because it would help to match their revenues with expenses – periods of high population growth are likely to (ultimately) cause economic growth, and economic growth will encourage immigration. Conversely, low or negative population growth, which as Japan has seen ultimately lead to very poor economic growth, would be accompanied by low debt repayments, as would recessions which reduced immigration. If you wanted you could limit it to “working age population” or similar.

And this would be useful for forecasting as well – it would give us market-implied forecasts of population growth, which is a key assumption for planning many things, like the required capacity for infrastructure projects.

Population-linked-debt would also allow for the forecasting of some really unusual things. For example, suppose a terrible disease broke out in your country – the reaction of this debt would give you an estimate of the death toll. Or suppose two countries both had population-linked-debt. Looking at the co-movements, especially when changes were being announced to laws about immigration, would give you a prediction of future migration between the two countries. Pro-natalist policies could be judged against their impact on such bonds.

One disadvantage is it would reduce the government’s incentive to increase population growth. Similarly, GDP-linked bonds reduces the government’s incentive to encourage GDP-growth. Life is good, so this effect would be bad. This downside would scale with the volume of such population-linked-debt issued. The epistemic advantages of getting market-implied forecasts, on the other hand, only require a market large enough for liquidity. So we could avoid this by limiting the issuance volume. There are liquid markets for equities with market caps of less than a billion, so a few billion dollars worth of issuance a year should be plenty. On the other hand, this solution sounds dangerously like assuming a miracle – there’s little reason to think the government would choose to limit issuance to a level which didn’t distort their incentives.

How to Pitch a Growth Stock – Cognitive Bias Edition

Growth investors focus on trying to pick the companies that will grow rapidly for many years to come, hoping to be rewarded by a consummately increasing share price. This can be anywhere from Venture Capitalists investing in tiny startups to enormous mutual funds betting on whether Twitter will continue to put up such strong growth. These companies tend to have high share prices compared to their current level of profitability, but have a good story, and will have rapidly grown in the past.

There are certain strategies that people use when trying to persuade someone to invest in a growth stock. This could be the startup team pitching to a VC fund or an analyst in a hedge fund pitching to his portfolio manager. I have more experience with the latter, so this will focus on companies with market caps above $100m.

Many of these strategies are intellectuality illegitimate. As such, I intend this as a sort of ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ – how to spot people using these rhetorical strategies in the wild. Perhaps this will also help people employee these strategies – if so I apologize to the world. I take the virtue of silence seriously – but in this specific instance I think sunlight is the best disinfectant – and hopefully it will make for an interesting blog post.

Choosing a growth stock to pitch

The first step is to choose the right stock. Pick something which has seen strong increases in share price over the last few years. A relatively smooth glide path up is best – don’t pick something that rose 20% in one day and has done nothing else. The goal here is to use the halo effect1 to make people confuse the historical share price movements with the company itself – to make it seem like the company itself actually has the property of steadily growing, rather than this just being a property of history of the market’s valuation of this stock.

However, it can be a good idea to pick something which has very recently seen a sharp fall in the share price. This way, your PM won’t feel like they’ve “missed it” – they’ve got another chance to get in. Regret Avoidance is a powerful effect, and you save them from this. Plus, the recent sharp fall means they’re safe from being the guy who bought in at the peak. That guy will look very stupid, so they’re happy to be safe from his fate.

Of course, you need an explanation for why these have happened. The steady rise is easy – the company is also steadily growing. The sharp fall is harder – people don’t want to invest in things that fall! – but there are some easy explanations on hand. ‘Hedge fund de-levering’ is always available as an excuse, and with any luck will act as a semantic stop-sign.

So far this has actually been pretty intellectually respectable. Or at least epistemically lucky – the first requirement, for steady share price growth, probably means the stock has strong momentum, which has historically been a strong predictor of returns (albeit with high kurtosis and negative skew, so beware!). The recent share price fall means the stocks will do well on short-term reversal, which has also historically been a good predictor. The next steps, however, are more dubious.

Total Addressable Market and the Conservation of Conservativeness

Having selected your company, the first step is to work out what the Total Addressable Market (TAM) for your stock is. Is it a household product? Take the number of households in America and multiply by the frequency of purchase. Is it a car? Look at the total number of cars. A better type of steel? Look at total US steel consumption. The key is to get a really really big number. If the number is insufficiently big, just look at a larger category of which the true market is a subset.

Next, multiply that number by their expected market share. As the company has been growing rapidly, it’s probably been expanding its market share of its current niche. So say you assume they’ll keep their current market share even as that niche grows into a major market. This assumption is conservative, you’ll say, because actually they have been growing their market share. This number should be reassuringly small – say 1%. It’s small size will help reassure people that you’re being conservative. If you want increase the total market they’ll eventually control, scope insensitivity means its easier to increase the TAM size than their market share. It’s obvious that 20% market share is a much more aggressive assumption than 2% (especially if their current market share is 2%), but not nearly so clear than $100000000000 is a more aggressive TAM estimate than $10000000000 – especially if you only present one of the numbers.

Next, assume a profit margin. If their current profit margin is high, just say you’ll conservatively assume no economies of scale. If their current margin is low, or they make no profits, just compare to vaguely similar companies and go for a slightly lower number. If ‘comparable’ mature companies have a 30% margin, say 20%. This sounds very conservative, but actually only reduces their profits by 33%.

Finally, assume a valuation multiple. The company is currently trading on a very high multiple, because the market is expecting rapid growth – maybe 30x earnings, or maybe 500x if you’re Amazon. So simply say you assume they’ll get a market multiple. Going from a 30x multiple to a market 15x multiple will cost you 50% of the valuation – but gain you a lot of apparent conservativeness.

The key principle here is the conservation of conservativeness. You want an estimate for them that is both very large and sounds conservative. To do this, you take advantage of scope insensitivity and arbitrage between the TAM stage and the company-specific stage. By making the company-specific stages (market share, profit margin, valuation) sufficiently conservative sounding, you can get away with an aggressive TAM estimate while keeping the whole thing sounding conservative. Scope-insensitivity means you can increase the TAM estimate at a lower cost of conservativeness than you can the company-specific elements, so there are gains from trade.

So once you’ve multiplied your TAM, market share, profit margin and valuation, you come up with an estimate for what this company could be worth in the future. However, you now deny that this is an estimate. Instead, it’s just an idea of the size of the market – you don’t actually expect they’ll reach it. This explicit denial protects you against any accusations of over-optimism, but you’ve successfully primed your audience on a really high number. If market sentiment is a battle between greed and fear, you’ve helped the greed side.

And a crucial subtlety – that valuation that you didn’t make is what the stock might be worth in the future. Because of the time value of money, you would need to discount that back to get to a current valuation. Since it credibly might take 10 years for the market to mature, even with a moderate 10% discount rate your valuation should really take a 61% hit. But by denying it was a valuation, you’ve avoided this step.

Downside Protection

The next step is to argue that the stock has “limited downside” or “downside protection”. This will reassure your audience that even if everything goes wrong, they won’t be fired. You’re trying to quieten their tendency towards fear, so that greed may reign.

Your goal here is to come up with a plausible story for why the worst-case scenario is 10% downside. 10% is just high enough that it sounds vaguely plausible, but low enough that it sounds reassuring.

There are a variety of ways of doing this. One is to name some assumptions you’re making, reduce them slightly, and claim that is the worst case. If the worst case looks pretty bad, just increase your original assumptions, so the haircut versions are higher.

Another is to look at some recent M&A in the sector, pick the most expensive deals, and argue that if the share price fell at all they’d be acquired on that valuation. There is always some expensive M&A going on, so this excuse is always available.

Finally, don’t forget to add that if the shares fell by this much, you’d think this represented a buying opportunity. This is totally misleading – the fact that the shares might be lower in the future is an argument for buying them then, not now, but it sounds level-headed and responsible. It also helps re-direct attention back to the optimistic forecasts of TAMs.

The actual valuation

Since you denied the TAM was actually a valuation, and the downside estimate was definitely the worst case scenario, you haven’t technically actually done any valuation just yet. Since that is ostensibly what you’re doing, you should actually have a go at estimating fair value. Doing all this has probably taken a long time so far, so you won’t have much time left for this stage.

There is an easy way to do it though. Project a high rate of revenue and earnings growth for the next 2-3 years. Place a multiple on the 3-year-out numbers that is lower than the current multiple. Discount that value back, using a high discount rate, to arrive at a share price 30% above the current level.

Fending off criticisms

Since you know more about the stock, you’ll probably be able to come up with a counterargument to any specific concern they mention, and they won’t be able to judge the issue. Any major concerns you have you can simply omit to mention.

If people ask you about execution risk, agree that it’s a risk, but then explain that’s why you used such a high discount rate. This suffices to rebut their attack. This is totally illegitimate. The discount rate (and implicit Equity Risk Premium) compensates investors for the variance of expected future earnings/dividends. It does not compensate you for lower expected earnings/dividends. Their concern is for the latter – your model implicitly assumes everything goes perfectly, whereas a true calculation of expected profits would include probabilities of lower performance. Your attacker will almost certainly not appreciate this fact. If by some misfortune they do, explain in an exasperated manner that you’ve already covered the downside case, and then change the subject.

As a last resort, simply utter the sacred words: “high risk, high reward.” People treat this utterance like magic – we want high rewards! Of course, it’s also nonsense. The phrase should be “high risk, high expected reward.” There is no guarantee you will get the reward! That is why it is ‘high risk’. But as people intuitive understanding of risk is terrible, you can safely abuse the phrase, just like everyone else.

Conclusion

So there you have it – how to pitch a growth stock. Or hopefully, how to spot the intellectually dishonest manoeuvres that are frequently used in growth investing.


  1. At least I think Halo effect is the right one. It also seems to have something to do with the Fundamental Attribution Error 

The Future of Socialism is Privatizing the Atmosphere

Scott recently wrote a quite interesting review of John Roemer’s ‘Future for Socialism’. It sounds rather like Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Funnily enough his vision for socialism also reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s plan for property-owning democracy. I haven’t read the underling book, so I can’t comment on that, but I can talk about Scott’s writing. More importantly, it provides an excellent excuse to talk about how to save the environment by privatizing the atmosphere.

Central planning could never work, so a socialist economy doesn’t need it. Bosses and managers seem to be doing a good job keeping their firms profitable, so they can all keep their jobs under socialism. Everyone has different skills, so clearly in a truly socialist system they deserve different wages, in fact whatever wage the market will bear.

…you give everyone an equal amount of these stocks. When the corporations make money, they pay them out in the form of stock dividends, which go to the people/stockholders. So every year I get a check in the mail representing my one-three-hundred-millionth-part share of all the profits made by all the corporations in the United States.

We’ll assume that when Scott says ‘Stock Dividend’, he actually means ‘non-stock dividend.’ A stock dividend is when a company gives extra shares to its existing shareholders. This increases the number of shares outstanding, but has no real economic impact. What Scott presumably means is ‘cash dividend’, which is when a company gives cash to all its shareholders.

However, this immediately opens up a problem with the next part.

Roemer proposes a law that stocks cannot be sold for money, only coupons and other stocks. Every citizen is given an equal number of coupons at birth, trades them for stocks later on, and then trades those stocks for other stocks. This allows smart citizens to invest wisely, and allows a sort of “stock market” that sends the correct signals (this business’s stock price is decreasing so maybe they’re doing something wrong) but doesn’t allow stock accumulation by wealthy capitalists.

While I applaud Roemer’s attempt to make use of the valuable signals sent by prices, his plan for preventing people from selling their shares won’t work. If such a policy was instigated, there would probably be strong demand from people for a way to turn their shares into cash. They’d even be willing to accept a discount for the sake of the liquidity cash offers. So some companies would sell all their assets and pay out all the money as one massive liquidation dividend. By announcing this in advance, the company would basically become a way to turn your shares into cash – just swap your other shares for its shares, and then wait for the single massive dividend.

In this system, businesses would raise funds not by selling stock but by seeking loans from banks.

This is where it really gets crazy. Earlier on Scott said that companies would pay out all their profits as dividends. So they can’t issue new equity, and they can’t retain the profits they’ve earned: companies would eventually become 100% debt financed. As soon as they hit the slightest downturn, without a buffer of equity to absorb losses, they would all go bankrupt. And bring the banks down with them. Then you have zero companies, shareholders would envy those who got their money out before the end, and the living would envy the dead.

So perhaps we’ll lighten the requirement that companies have to pay out all their profits. Companies that routinely raise new equity will be in trouble, like tech companies, but lets assume they solve that problem. Utilities also rely on continued equity issuance, so we won’t be able to charge our devises anyway.

More seriously, this would present massive problems for new companies. Or rather, it would prevent there being any new companies. The way you found a company is by investing some money and becoming the owner of a startup – effectively, the startup sells stock to you. Without this, there’s no way to found a new company. So we have a finite number of companies, that occasionally go bankrupt, take each other over, or liquidate themselves. These companies own all the factors of production, leading to a less and less competitive economy, dominated by a couple of few firms, with absolutely no fear of new entrants shaking up their cosy oligopolies.

So there are some problems with Roemer’s ideas. In fairness to Scott, he spots a lot of other problems himself, and he doesn’t even have an economics background. In fairness to Roemer, perhaps Scott misrepresented him. Lets just say that Roemer-as-paraphrased-by-Scott’s plan has some serious disadvantages.

However, it did make me think of an interesting idea I had a while ago. Here is an way of using joint-stock corporations to solve collective action problems.

How to solve the problem of pollution by privatizing the atmosphere.

At the moment, people are incentivized to over-pollute. If my factory releases dangerous emissions, I get much of the benefit, in the form of profits from selling my product (along with my customers, employees, suppliers etc.) I pay only a fraction of the costs though – most of the pollution effects other people. Since I gain much of the benefit, and little of the cost, I tend to pollute too much.

The problem here is one of negative externalities. Equivalently, it the tragedy of the commons. And what is the solution to the tragedy of the commons? Privatization. If one person owns the field, they have the right incentive to preserve its value.

Similarly, we could privatize the atmosphere. People who wanted to use the air (say, by breathing, or burning fuel) would be charged a fee. This would cause them to internalize the external cost, and restore efficiency to the market for pollution.

Of course, this would be rather difficult to administer. How are we going to charge people for breathing? Do people get charged more for having bigger lungs? If people fall behind on their payments, do we cut off their oxygen? Doing so would plausibly count as theft, as currently they enjoy use-rights to the air.

Fortunately, this can easily be solved. Simply give everyone shares in AeroCorp. Because AeroCorp gets most of its money from coal plants and gasoline companies, it pays a dividend each year well in excess of the breathing price. So everyone’s breaths are just netted against the dividend, and they never have to send any money to AeroCorp. Because polluters now have to pay AeroCorp to emit pollutants, they’re less keen to do so, and the negative externality problem is solved.

We could even have a dual share class system. Every human is given a single A-share at birth. These are non-transferable, dilution-protected, and their purpose is to ensure that everyone can afford to breathe. We also have B-shares. These have the same voting and dividend rights as A-shares, but are transferable and dilutable. These are initially auctioned off in a standard IPO. They money raised will be used to fund AeroCorp’s operating expenses. Trading in these shares would ensure price discovery, efficient capital allocation and allow secondary issuance.

There some problems with this system. For example, the firm would be a monopolist, so would tend to charge polluters too high a fee. As such, society would actually end up underpolluting.

Additionally, we need to ensure the two share classes don’t take advantage of one another. There are probably more A-shares than B-shares, but B-shares will be more closely attended to.

One strategy B-shareholders could use would be to have AeroCorp buyback stock. Ordinarily this would be fine – it would raise the value of A-shares. However, in this instance we’re relying on the dividends paid to B-shares to cover the oxygen charge.

A strategy A-shareholders could use would be to insist on new equity issuance, diluting B-shareholders, then paying out the funds raised as a dividend, thereby benefitting themselves.

These two problems could be solved in an attractively symmetrical fashion by giving the B-shares a veto over buybacks and giving the A-shares a veto over new equity issuance.

GiveWell is not an Index Fund.

Someone1 on facebook recently asked

Can we think of donating to GiveWell- or GWWC-recommended charities as being the philanthropic analogue of investing in an index fund? In the sense that it may be possible in principle to do better, but it’s close to the best among readily available options, and almost everybody who tries to do better will do worse.

I think this analogy overlooks some important points about the underlying structure.

An Index contains all the stocks that satisfy some very broad criteria – for example, the S&P500 is basically “is very large US company”. Index funds invest in all the stocks in a specific index.2 Index funds try to do as well as the index on the whole – no better, no worse.

Active managers, on the other hand, by small subsets of the stocks in the index, and try to beat the index. That is, they try to buy stocks that will do better than the average stock in the index.

Part of the appeal of index funds is that many people think that all stocks have basically equally good prospects, ex ante, due to the Efficient Market Hypothesis.There are good reasons to think that free markets are in general very efficient.

Givewell looks at a large number of charities, and selects a very small number to recommend. In this way they’re much more like an active manager than an index fund. An index fund for charities would mean spreading out your donations between thousands of different charities.

There are important differences between the stock market and the charity market. Virtually any time you think you see an inefficiency in the stock market, you are probably wrong. But this does not apply to the charity market. Effective Altruists habitually and credibly claim that there are many orders of magnitude difference between the expected values of different charities (pdf). And the sorts of arguments about risk and diversification that motivate balanced portfolios of investments simply do not apply to charities; with charities, you should pick the best one and donate everything to it.3

Some perhaps Index Funds are Givewell are similar insomuchas they are both good things. But so is chocolate.

This analogy glosses over important differences, and potentially causes sloppy thinking. Just because two things are good doesn’t mean they are good for the same reasons or in the same way. Effective altruists would do well to understand that markets are not like charities. Others would do well to understand the there is no Efficient Charity Hypothesis!


  1. who will remain anonymous until they request otherwise. 
  2. technically some merely invest in representative sub-baskets, but S&P500 indexes probably buy all the constituents. 
  3. unless you are very rich. 

Population Growth and Innovation

In a world with substantial population growth, the natural tendency is for capacity utilization to rise over time. We built enough machines to produce as much stuff as was demanded by a population of a certain size, but then the population grew, so now demand exceeds supply. This raises prices, and means it is profitable for businesses to invest in new equipment to meet the new demand. At this point, businesses will look at the different types of machine on offer, and go for the one that offers the highest return. If you can design a better machine, that either does more than the old ones at the same price, or does the same for a lower price, firms will buy your machine rather than the older designs.

Without population growth this doesn’t work so well. With no incremental demand, the existing stock of machines is adequate for demand. Ignoring depreciation, firms don’t need any new machines. So to sell your new machine, you need to persuade a business that not only is your new design better than the old ones, it has to be a big enough improvement to justify the entire cost. In the population growth case, your design only had to be a little better, as businesses were in the market for a new machine anyway; now your design has to be good enough to justify getting rid of an old machine!

It seems that the first world, with population growth, is more supportive of innovation than one without population growth.

There is a common argument that a high population level is good for innovation, because it means there will be more scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs whose discoveries can be spread across everyone. The argument I just outlines is different, however, in so much that it relies on the rate of change, not the absolute level.