Bubble in Higher Education: When Will It Pop?
The Chart of the Week is a weekly feature in Visual Capitalist on Fridays.
The soaring bull market in higher education has been flying high for some time.
Many factors combined to make it the perfect storm: the demographic rise of the millennials, easy money from the Fed, the “Chivas Regal” effect in pricing strategy that many colleges and universities adopted, and the US government virtually taking over the market for student loans.
It’s a vicious circle as colleges raise prices, students take out easy loans, and the institutions raise prices again. However, it all seems to be coming to a head as several factors begin to show the chinks in the armor.
First, the US Federal Government now holds close to 45% of its total financial assets in student debt. This does not include things like land or the any of the Fed’s assets, but it is still extremely significant. Pre-crisis, it was only about one-third of those levels at about 15%.
The main reason for this increase is that the government seems to be the only organization backing student loans. Before the Financial Crisis in 2007, the government only owned $100 billion of student debt – now it owns over $800 billion.
Next, the delinquency rate has risen rapidly over the last decade. Even the St. Louis Federal Reserve branch is becoming concerned with this. In their research article from April 2015, they write: “A delinquency rate of 15 percent for all student loan borrowers implies a delinquency rate of 27.3 percent for borrowers with loans in repayment.”
The problem is that real wages aren’t increasing, and many youth are left unemployed or with low paying jobs. With an average debt load just short of $30,000, it is no wonder that graduates are still struggling.
Lastly, colleges are starting to run into problems making ends meet and often institutions are going bankrupt. Particularly at risk are for-profit colleges with low prestige, as well as liberal arts colleges. Corinthian Colleges agreed to sell or close 107 campuses, leaving 72,000 students in the dust. Sweet Briar College has been in a potential bankruptcy saga for months. Even Louisiana State University is in the middle of drawing up its bankruptcy plan.
In the end, it may be technology may be what truly blindsides schools and students. The cost of an online degree (or even self-education) is a fraction of the cost, and colleges and universities are becoming less relevant every day. Big names such as Peter Thiel and James Altucher have been outspoken skeptics of higher education for years.
This college frat party could be coming to an end soon. The question is: who will end up paying for the kegs?
Recession Risk: Which Sectors are Least Vulnerable?
We show the sectors with the lowest exposure to recession risk—and the factors that drive their performance.
Recession Risk: Which Sectors are Least Vulnerable?
In the context of a potential recession, some sectors may be in better shape than others.
They share several fundamental qualities, including:
- Less cyclical exposure
- Lower rate sensitivity
- Higher cash levels
- Lower capital expenditures
With this in mind, the above chart looks at the sectors most resilient to recession risk and rising costs, using data from Allianz Trade.
Recession Risk, by Sector
As slower growth and rising rates put pressure on corporate margins and the cost of capital, we can see in the table below that this has impacted some sectors more than others in the last year:
|Sector||Margin (p.p. change)
|🏡 Household Equipment||-0.9|
|🚗 Automotive Manufacturers||-1.1|
|🏭 Machinery & Equipment||-1.1|
|🖥️ Computers & Telecom||-2.0|
*Percentage point changes 2021- 2022.
Generally speaking, the retail sector has been shielded from recession risk and higher prices. In 2023, accelerated consumer spending and a strong labor market has supported retail sales, which have trended higher since 2021. Consumer spending makes up roughly two-thirds of the U.S. economy.
Sectors including chemicals and pharmaceuticals have traditionally been more resistant to market turbulence, but have fared worse than others more recently.
In theory, sectors including construction, metals, and automotives are often rate-sensitive and have high capital expenditures. Yet, what we have seen in the last year is that many of these sectors have been able to withstand margin pressures fairly well in spite of tightening credit conditions as seen in the table above.
What to Watch: Corporate Margins in Perspective
One salient feature of the current market environment is that corporate profit margins have approached historic highs.
As the above chart shows, after-tax profit margins for non-financial corporations hovered over 14% in 2022, the highest post-WWII. In fact, this trend has been increasing over the past two decades.
According to a recent paper, firms have used their market power to increase prices. As a result, this offset margin pressures, even as sales volume declined.
Overall, we can see that corporate profit margins are higher than pre-pandemic levels. Sectors focused on essential goods to the consumer were able to make price hikes as consumers purchased familiar brands and products.
Adding to stronger margins were demand shocks that stemmed from supply chain disruptions. The auto sector, for example, saw companies raise prices without the fear of diminishing market share. All of these factors have likely built up a buffer to help reduce future recession risk.
Sector Fundamentals Looking Ahead
How are corporate metrics looking in 2023?
In the first quarter of 2023, S&P 500 earnings fell almost 4%. It was the second consecutive quarter of declining earnings for the index. Despite slower growth, the S&P 500 is up roughly 15% from lows seen in October.
Yet according to an April survey from the Bank of America, global fund managers are overwhelmingly bearish, highlighting contradictions in the market.
For health care and utilities sectors, the vast majority of companies in the index are beating revenue estimates in 2023. Over the last 30 years, these defensive sectors have also tended to outperform other sectors during a downturn, along with consumer staples. Investors seek them out due to their strong balance sheets and profitability during market stress.
|S&P 500 Sector||Percent of Companies With Revenues Above Estimates (Q1 2023)|
|Real Estate ||81%|
Cyclical sectors, such as financials and industrials tend to perform worse. We can see this today with turmoil in the banking system, as bank stocks remain sensitive to interest rate hikes. Making matters worse, the spillover from rising rates may still take time to materialize.
Defensive sectors like health care, staples, and utilities could be less vulnerable to recession risk. Lower correlation to economic cycles, lower rate-sensitivity, higher cash buffers, and lower capital expenditures are all key factors that support their resilience.
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