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Rice University research finds that investors and executives are more likely to help out those from their alma mater

According to research done by a Rice University professor, businessmen and women are more likely to help out colleagues who attended the same university. Pexels

Friends help each other out, right? Imagine young men or women racing down a New England playing field, effortlessly passing a lacrosse ball on their way to the goal. Now imagine some of those old friends as CEOs of large firms, and others as managers of mutual funds. Do they still have each other's backs?

That was the question Rice Business Professor Alexander W. Butler explored in a recent paper. What he found makes perfect sense given human nature, and raises serious questions about the dynamics of the financial market.

Yes, Butler and his coauthor, Umit G. Gurun of the University of Texas at Dallas, found, CEOs of publicly traded corporations and mutual fund managers from the same schools do appear to help each other out. It may be conscious or unconscious: they do what friends do the world over. But the effect on the market can be profound.

To trace the role of social connections in the world of corporate and finance, Butler and Gurun studied how mutual fund managers vote when shareholders proposed limiting executive pay. They cross-referenced these data with information about the educational background of the firms' executives and of the mutual fund managers who took part in the votes.

When voting fund managers and an executive went to the same schools, Butler found, those halcyon days at A&M or Wharton clearly corresponded to fewer votes to limit executive pay.

Now, this may reflect all kinds of things. Shared school ties could mean fund managers have more relevant information about a firm's CEO and his or her value. The shared culture and vocabulary of a school environment might ease information flow between a CEO and managers. But there is also another possibility: Perhaps the value a mutual fund manager places on a CEO's firm has nothing to do with the company's actual value. The manager may simply support him because he's a school friend.

CEOs weren't the only ones to benefit from old-school ties. Well-connected investors prospered too. When a fund manager shared a school background with a given CEO, Butler found, the fund outperformed funds whose managers weren't part of the network. For investors as well as CEOs, in other words, school ties with decision makers at mutual funds raised the chances of a winning outcome.

So a shared school or social background leads to well-paid CEOs, successful fund managers and happy investors. What's not to celebrate?

Plenty, it turns out.

The better trading outcomes of well-connected mutual fund managers have implications far beyond one happy set of shareholders. The Securities and Exchange Commission protects a level playing field because it's in the public interest for the U.S. financial markets to be liquid.

Consumers buy and sell stocks more easily when they are confident that a product's price is reasonably close to its actual value. When one party seems to know more about a stock – perhaps through friendship with the CEO – other investors may lose confidence that they can assess the value of stocks as accurately. When too many consumers distrust the market, liquidity drops. Fewer people buy and sell.

Think how much it easier it is to buy a used car with public resources such as Carfax, or pre-owned car certifications. In the past, a buyer had to wonder what a car seller knew but wasn't saying – or else try to buy a car from someone she already knew and trusted.

Almost everyone has a friend. Almost everyone has experienced the memories, common lingo, and wordless sense of goodwill that come from sharing a common history. Butler and Gurun's study of corporate and financial markets, however, shows how these natural instincts can disadvantage players outside the alumni circle. Shareholders may have less power to limit CEO pay. And consumers may end up less confident about the value of stocks, shaking trust in the financial markets overall. Surely, that's not what friends are for.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Alexander W. Butler is a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year.

When looking at striking statistics, it's clear composting has a direct impact on the future of our environment. In Houston, 81 percent of waste ends up in landfills that pile high, and the city exceeds the national waste average by 25 percent. While the smell of landfills may make you wince, the repercussions of exhausting those landfills are even more displeasing.

Not only are the plots of land permanently lost from agricultural and home development, but the landfills also emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas that's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Independent.

What started as the Stowers family's resolution to be eco-friendly became a full-blown business plan. After Stowers attempted to compost at home for his own family, he soon partnered with New Earth Compost in Fulshear, Texas, as a drop-off location for the waste and did a test drive of the service with his neighbors back in March. Happy Earth Compost now serves 300 homes in the Greater Houston-area and has plans to expand to College Station.

Happy Earth Compost has created a service, with pricing ranging from $15 to $35, that provides Houstonians with the bins to compost and picks up the waste from your door. The buckets can be picked up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly while the company does all of the labor and dirty work to help you compost. A new $5 drop-off option is also available for Houstonians who are willing to drive to one of the applicable farmers' markets.

Subscribers can also get free compost to use in their gardens, what gardeners often call "black gold" because of its value and benefits, says Stowers.

Members receive equipment and instructions upon registration. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth

The family-owned business' typical week involves picking up buckets from 300 houses, dropping off compost, cleaning those buckets, and starting the process all over again.

"It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's getting people set up to do it. We're trying to make things easy for everybody by doing the hard work on our end," he says.

Ease is a key feature that helps the service stand out to Houstonians. Composting in Houston no longer requires the personal labor of investing in a compost bin, balancing the mixture of materials, measuring the temperature of your compost, and ordering worms to help accelerate the process (you read that right).

At various farmers' markets around Houston, Stowers is quick to point out the convenience of the program he's created. "It's hard to convince people to compost. It's easier to convince them to try something that's beneficial and simple," he explained.

Jenna Arbogast, a Happy Earth Compost customer, had dabbled in composting on her own but never committed to maintaining it at home. "When I found out about Happy Earth Compost, I so excited that someone was taking the initiative to extend this city-wide. Being that we are such a large city, we have such a great opportunity to heal our environment," says Arbogast. "I really love contributing to something as a collective. Even though I could compost at home, I really wanted to support this initiative," she says.

To Arbogast, who has been using the service for three months, convenience and transparency have made Happy Earth Compost a joy to work with. "You get all the benefits of composting without the maintenance, and you're supporting a good cause," she says.

Since its May launch, the Happy Earth Compost Instagram has grown by over 1,900 fans. The Stowers family has been amazed by the response and hopes to expand to more households in Houston.

"I think there's definitely a movement to be more sustainable to actually consider what we're doing and take care of our stuff, including the earth," says Stowers. He envisions a future where composting is taught to future generations as a fundamental need for the environment.

"It may not cost us now, but it will cost us eventually. What can we do now to make a difference now?" asks Stowers.


Jesse Stowers started his family business in May. Photo via happyearthcompost.com

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