Education is a Bubble

A couple of days ago, Zero Hedge reported that a lot of student loans are delinquent:

As many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due. In other words at least $270 billion in student loans are no longer current (extrapolating the delinquency rate into the total loans outstanding). That this is happening with interest rates at record lows is quite stunning and a loud wake up call that it is not rates that determine affordability and sustainability: it is general economic conditions, deplorable as they may be, which have made the popping of the student loan bubble inevitable.

The reality of this — like the housing bubble before it — is that a lot of people who borrowed a lot of money can’t repay. That could be down to weak economic conditions. As I wrote yesterday, an unprecedented number of young people are unemployed and underemployed. These circumstances will lead to delinquencies.

But I think that there is a key difference. Unlike housing — which will probably never be made obsolete — it feels like education is undergoing a generational shift, much like agriculture did prior to the Great Depression, and much like manufacturing did prior to the Great Recession.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel suggests:

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

But earnings for graduates are stagnant, while costs continue to rise:

However, all this really shows is the (quite obvious) reality that colleges — subsidised by Federal student loans guarantees that act as a price floor — can keep raising tuition fees even while in the real world the economy is contracting.

But education is suffering from a much bigger problem: a lot of what it does is gradually (or quickly) being made obsolete by technology.

While college degrees for vocational subjects like medicine, law, architecture and so forth are still critically important (not least because access to such professions is restricted to those who have jumped through the proper hoops), non-vocational subjects have been cracked completely open by the internet.

Why would anyone realistically choose to pay huge amounts of money to go to university to learn mathematics, or English literature, or computer science or economics when course materials  — and much, much, much more including access to knowledgeable experts and professionals — is freely available online?

The answer is for a piece of paper to “qualify” the holder and “prove” their worth to prospective employers. But with earnings for degree holders at roughly 1997 levels, what’s the point? Plenty of people with good ideas, drive and perseverance are living fulfilling and successful lives without a college degree — including me. There are flashier examples like Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Gates, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

A real estate agent trying to rent me a flat once said:

Why would people want to go to university? All it shows is that you are lazy, and can’t be bothered to find a proper job, and want to spend three or four years getting up late and getting drunk.

A useful (though not universally true) heuristic. “Education” has been turned inside out. To some employers, a degree (particularly one with a weak or mediocre grade) can in fact be a disadvantage. People without a degree can get ahead with three or four years of experience in industry.

So while we wait to see whether or not a student loan meltdown will lead to a wider financial meltdown (a la Lehman), I think we should consider that this industry may well be on the brink of a systemic meltdown itself. With severely decreased demand for education, a lot of schools and courses may be wiped off the map leaving behind a skeleton of only the most prestigious universities, and vocational and professional courses.

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The New iPad

Now that Apple’s market capitalisation is larger than $500 billion — and more than the GDP of some developed countries — I have been intending to write an iBubble exposition, going even further into the evidence that Apple is spectacularly overvalued.

But today, Apple provided perhaps the strongest evidence that while I do not expect to see Apple’s share price to collapse any time soon, the company is — in terms of innovation — gradually running out of steam.


Yes: it’s called The new iPad. This is an absurd monicker: clumsy, cumbersome, self-righteous, but most of all incredibly boring. When the name was unveiled I wasn’t even sure that it was the thing’s name. I thought that at the end of the ceremony, there would be a grand unveiling: iPad 3, or even the cliched and technically-inaccurate iPad HD. But no; it is (loathsomely) called The new iPad.

The thing itself is fine; it receives a decent spec-bump, a gorgeous retina display, and of course includes access to the iTunes App ecosystem, which is easily the richest in the world. It will be a popular product, probably even more so than the iPad and iPad 2. But from an investment perspective, all of that is largely irrelevant. I am not trying to analyse the shape of the product; I am trying to analyse the shape of the company making the product, and its shape in years to come. Simply, I think Apple is missing Jobs’ talismanic leadership, and I think Apple’s wackier innovators are being crowded out by slick, corporate management. Tim Cook is a thoroughly corporate managerialist; not an acid-tripping bipolar Renaissance tech-evangelist like Jobs. Being the market leader is entirely different than being an innovative outsider, which is the company Apple was for so long; being the market leader means that the bean-counters become paranoid about not wanting to fix something that isn’t broken, and that kills innovation. Apple are going backwards; or worse Apple is turning into a Microsoft — dominant, but static.

Worse still is Apple’s latest OSX update, Mountain Lion. Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz writes:

[Mountain Lion is] the antithesis of Jon Ive’s minimalistic design, all essence devoid of artifice. In fact, it goes against everything Apple used to defend when it was king of user interface development: that everything should follow the same language in order to make everything intuitive and familiar to the user. With iOS, Apple backtracked, saying that the application should mimic the real-world item it was to replace. It made a little sense on a phone, but almost none on your desktop. And it opens the door to a fragmented design language that could make the future of Apple design very unappealing. It is a slippery slope heading to a future in which every app has their own interface—a garish clusterfuck of onscreen gadgets.

And that is Apple today in a nutshell — it is going back on being the sleek, elegant and intuitive creature that it once was. Apple has lost its capacity to think different. Perhaps that is Jobs’ fault for promoting the wrong people, or perhaps that is simply the inevitable endpoint of bureaucratic-technocratic managerialism (I tend toward the latter).

The biggest issue, though, is this:

The market is already deeply invested — both emotionally and financially — in Apple: the brand, the products, the process, the people, the mythos.

And while Jobs claimed to have left Apple a little innovative dynamite in the iTV, I think after the iPhone 4s, and the new iPad (see how cumbersome that is?) it is safe to conclude that its launch will be safe and successful, but not industry shattering.

Unlike the NASDAQ, Apple is less likely to crash or to drop precipitously. More likely it will simply stagnate as technology’s have-nots — led by braver and younger minds than Cook — innovate more.