University bonds: An education in finance
Less well known is the increasing willingness of colleges to borrow in the markets, too. On May 15th, for example, Cornell University sold $250m-worth of bonds.In recent weeks both Harvard and the University of Texas have also raised hundreds of millions of dollars in this way.
Such debt-raising is becoming more common. There are abundant reasons to believe that the market will grow much bigger yet.
Largely this is because colleges are only belatedly becoming aware of how useful the financial markets can be. No doubt some of their hesitation has been cultural: academics may have been reluctant to look at their universities as businesses; or they may have misunderstood what was needed to help those businesses grow.
If they did look at their institutions in economic terms, people in education tended not to think that universities lacked capital. Rather, they thought that they had a structural inability to use capital and labour more efficiently. Unlike the car industry, many schools felt that they must maintain, or even increase, the ratio of employees (teachers) to customers (students). Small class sizes are taken as a signal of high quality, so investing money to save on teachers’ salaries is not an attractive strategy.
Schools had other reservations as well. Poor schools were worried about being unable to service debt. Rich schools with huge endowments may have seen no need.
So much for an academic perspective. A growing number of investors saw things differently. Those lovely buildings on rolling campuses, the better universities’ reputations, taxpayers’ backing of state-owned institutions: all this looked to them like a deep pool of assets against which lots of money could be borrowed. The money raised could be used to attract more customers, who are choosy about the product and whose demand varies little with the price (loudly though they may complain).
Some of the richest universities may be using another tactic too, although they would be loth to admit it. To understand this, it helps to know that America has three types of university-public ones; private, not-for-profit institutions; and private schools run for profit. Both public and not-for-profit universities often issue tax-exempt debt. This tends to be cheap. They can then invest the money they raise in the higheryielding taxable market but, because of their non-profit status, avoid taxes.
This is not quite a licence to print money, but it is not far off. Under a 1986 law, money has to be raised for a purpose, such as a building.However, this is a matter of substance rather than form. Money is fungible. As long as the tax authorities are happy that the promised sum is being spent on the stated projects, a university can borrow cheaply and, in effect, earn a spread. Reflecting just how complex this market has become, most universities borrow at variable rates and then hedge their interest-rate risk through swaps.It is all pretty clever.
Outside America, schools have been hesitant to take this approach largely because their operations and spending are more closely tied to the state, but they too are changing, if slowly.