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Some days ago I learnt that a job offer to a promising postdoc I advise evaporated. Not unexpected in these times, but disappointing nevertheless . There are now about 300 Universities with hiring pauses or freezes in place.

For Universities that are tuition driven, this is understandable. For those with large endowments of which a large portion are unrestricted this is puzzling. It is true that about 75% of all US university  endowment funds are invested in equities and these have declined since the start of the pandemic. But, the 3 month treasury rate is, at the time I write this, at 0.22%. Why aren’t they borrowing? More generally, why don’t we see consumption smoothing?

An interesting paper by Brown, Dimmock, Kang, and Weisbenner (2014) documents how University endowments respond to shocks. They write:

Our primary finding is that university endowments respond asymmetrically to contemporaneous positive and negative financial shocks. In response to contempo- raneous positive shocks, endowments tend to leave current payouts unchanged. Such behavior is consistent with endowments following their stated payout policies, which are based on past endowment values and not current returns, in order to smooth payouts (e.g., pay out 5 percent of the past three-year average of endowment values).

However, following contemporaneous negative shocks, endowments actively reduce payout rates. Unlike their response to positive shocks, this behavior is inconsistent with endowments following their standard smoothing rules. This asymmetry in the response to positive and negative shocks is especially strong if we explicitly control for the payout rate that is implied by the universities’ stated payout rules (something we do for a subsample of the endowments for which we have sufficient information to precisely document their payout rules). We also fail to find consistent evidence that universities change endowment payouts to offset shocks to other sources of university revenues. These findings, which we confirm through several robustness checks, suggest that endowments’ behavior differs from that predicted by several normative models of endowment behavior.

They argue that their data supports the idea that Universities are engaged in endowment hoarding, i.e.,  maintenance of the endowment is treated as an end in itself. The Association for American Universities argues that endowment hoarding is a myth, see item 9 at this link.  Their response confirms the 3 year average rule but is silent on the asymmetric response to shocks reported above.

More generally, one might ask what is the purpose of a University endowment? Hansmann (1990) offers an interesting discussion of why a University even has an endowment (other enterprises are run through a mixture of debt and equity).  Tobin (1974) articulated one for modeling purposes which I suspect captures what many have in mind:

The trustees of an endowed institution are the guardians of the future against the claims of the present. Their task is to preserve equity among generations. The trustees of an endowed university … assume the institution to be immortal.

If one takes the principle of intergenerational equity seriously, then, would it not make sense to borrow from a better future into a worse present? Unless, of course, it is expected that the future will be even worse than today.

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