Arguing along similar lines, the latest Policy magazine leads with a proposal, by Joseph Clark, that there should be more opportunities to sell a portion of oneself. (Unfortunately the article is not available online.)
The basic idea is that I could sell someone the right to a percentage of my future income. Say, for example, I'm studying and expect larger income in the future, I could offer someone 5 per cent of my total earnings for the first 10 years out of uni. The value of this contract will be the net present value of the expected payments, further discounted by the expected risk that my income might not meet expectations. Effectively, it allows students to issue equity instead of just debt to finance their studies.
As Joe points out, such a new financial instrument would:
- allow people to smooth consumption;
- facilitate the financing of degrees that are more costly than current government subsidies provide for (if they deliver large returns); and
- provide clear signals on the potential financial payoffs of degrees ('better' degrees would attract less onerous terms).
That said, equity does allow for a greater transfer of risk. A student taking out a loan takes on much of the risk that their future income may not meet expectations (collateral can be repossessed). Whereas the owners of equity, having no power to repossess assets, essentially take on the risk that incomes are sub par. Considering that investors would probably be able to diversify with such instruments, and hold a lower amount of average risk than any individual student, this is likely to increase welfare.
However, the transfer of this risk also lets the moral hazard genie out of the bottle. Once the equity issuer has less of an incentive to earn more, they will most likely sub to activities that have a lower income (but a greater level of net happiness).
Whether or not this problem will be fatal to personal equity issuance is an empirical question. Joe argues that such problems can be solved through contract design, limiting the amount of equity one can issue and perhaps including conditions that if you don't score so well at uni, you have to pay more.
I'm more skeptical. Contracts are difficult to cover all potentialities and may not be effective in this inherently uncertain case. (In this regard, it's important to note that Shylock failed to take his pound of flesh when a lawyer argued that the contract did not allow for bleeding and hence the flesh would have to be taken with no loss of blood. I can't recall, in this pre-Law and Economics world, whether the judge accounted for the dampening effect that such a literal interpretation would have on future flesh trades.)
Plus, there are already some methods to buy personal equity in a student. A firm could fund a degree on the proviso that the recipient takes a job with them. But, again, such contracts are usually hard to enforce and don't seem to be overly popular. Perhaps widespread equity issues would allow investors to more readily diversify risks and make them more attractive than these 'one-on-one' contracts.
However, opportunities to diversify risk would require there to be a large amount of students wanting to issue equity, from those of varying interests and ability. I am not convinced that the market is this deep. There is a substitute for the issuing of debt or equity: the use of retained earnings.
In the States most students, in the face of lower government assistance, appear to survive through inter-generational transfers from parents. This has the benefit of removing adverse selection (parents tend to know their kids quite well) and moral hazard (future costs won't be contingent on income). It also improves governance arrangements - parents tend to make a quite effective board of directors.
Overall though shares in people is a thought-provoking idea. It could probably serve at least a niche market and should at least be given a chance. Current government policies, not to mention 16th century Italian law, effectively mandate such innovations stillborn.