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Education was, is and always will be the great equaliser

Tong Kooi Ong & Asia Analytica
Tong Kooi Ong & Asia Analytica • 14 min read
Education was, is and always will be the great equaliser
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Human capital is a critical factor of production of a country, more so than financial capital, natural resources and machinery, which can be far more easily acquired from global markets. An educated and skilled workforce is the foundation of the economic success and wealth of nations. This is the reason why investing in, and improving accessibility to as well as quality of, public education and a training-upskilling system is so very important. And why we cannot overstate the urgency to depoliticise our education policy and reverse the secular deterioration in the quality of public education in Malaysia.

To successfully attract high-value investments and move up the value chain, the country needs people with the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the demands of the jobs to be created.

There is no question that higher levels of education will boost productivity, raise wages and the standard of living, stop the brain drain, improve the distribution of income and wealth as well as drive the economic growth, competitiveness and progress of a country. Additionally, an overall better educated workforce will typically lead to stronger aggregate economic growth. We discussed these in our last article.

What’s more, in today’s increasingly digitalised global economy, shaped by rapid technological changes, the need for an educated workforce — with the flexibility and adaptability to keep pace with the changing skill demands (for example, routine-based jobs will increasingly be replaced by artificial intelligence [AI]) — is all the more critical so as to benefit from technological advancements and drive innovation.

This relationship — where technological advancements disproportionately favour those with higher levels of education — is well researched and articulated in the book, The Race Between Education and Technology, co-authored by the 2023 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Claudia Goldin, and her husband Lawrence F Katz. To quote from Chapter 1, “Simple literacy and numeracy are no longer sufficient”. This week, we would like to share some key excerpts from the book.

Why? Because we could articulate no better. And we believe the quality of education will be the game changer, the most important determinant of who succeeds and who fails, especially as the world is increasingly digitally transformed. Digitalisation is no longer a promised future. It is here and now. Be part of it or be responsible for condemning your next generations.

See also: Ringgit can strengthen near term but are we addressing the secular decline?

A summary: ‘The race between  education and technology’

At the dawn of the 20th century, the US became the world’s richest nation, and its people had a higher average standard of living than those in Britain, the previous leader. America’s lead over the rest of the world would continue to widen, cementing the country’s economic supremacy by the end of the century, and beyond. In economic terms, the 20th century was “The American Century”.

The 20th century was also “The Human Capital Century”. For much of the first half of this period, education was primarily a privilege of the relatively rich and the elite. But by the end of the century, all nations, even the poorest, were providing elEducation was, is and always will be the great equaliser tong’S portfolio ementary schooling and beyond to most of their citizens.

See also: 5G evolution and pinky promise: Back to the past, except worse …. Why?

That the 20th century was both the American Century and the Human Capital Century was no historical accident. America understood the importance of an educated workforce far earlier than the rest of the world. It has always embraced an education system that was egalitarian — compared with the then elite systems in many European countries — and central to this is the commitment to equality of opportunity.

By the 1900s, if not before, the US had begun to educate its masses at the secondary level. This was an extension of the remarkable success it had with providing primary education to its people in the 19th century. Schooling was, by and large, publicly provided and funded (free), accessible, open, forgiving, gender and race neutral, and secular.

A hallmark of education in the US is its decentralised control (by states and local districts rather than top-down at the federal level). Hence, schools are more flexible, less bureaucratic and faster to respond to change, for instance, in the demand for certain fields of study or curriculum. And there is enormous competition — for students, funding, faculty and so forth — between and within private and public institutions as well as between and within states/districts. Monopolistic and bureaucratic institutions can become lazy, just like monopolistic and bureaucratic producers. Its embrace of mass education was a critical factor in America’s technological dynamism, rapid economic growth and more equal income distribution, at least until the last quarter of the 20th century.

The US proved to the world the importance of universal education — and general training (formal schooling) instead of specific training (apprenticeship and on-thejob training) — that was soon mimicked by countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The book compared secondary schooling rates and per capita income in more than 100 nations at the start of the 21st century with the historical trends in the US. Unsurprisingly, the data showed a positive correlation between per capita income and schooling.

The data also found that at the same level of per capita incomes, many low-income nations today have higher education rates than the US back then. In other words, even poorer nations understand that education is key to operate in today’s global economy — and they are investing in education to a far greater degree than richer countries of the past.

Based on extensive analysis of the data, the authors concluded that US labour productivity grew at an average 2.47% annually over the 90-year period from 1915 to 2005. While this is a moderate pace, because of the compounding effect of continuous improvements, the overall results are impressive. Further analysis showed that education directly contributed an average 0.34% a year to economic growth and explains about 14% of the annual labour productivity gains (other factors include experience, sex, nativity and race).

For more stories about where money flows, click here for Capital Section

In short, education increases productivity and thus economic growth. And these figures exclude the indirect effects — primarily, a better educated workforce facilitates the adoption and diffusion of new technologies. The increase in scientists, engineers and other highly educated workers are also instrumental to research and development, as well as the creation and application of new ideas.

Notably, though, America’s history over this period contains two inequality tales: one declining and one rising. For the first three quarters of the 20th century, rapidly rising productivity translated to widely shared prosperity and increases in standard of living across income distribution. But post-1970s, there was a sharp rise in income and wealth inequality — driven by increasing economic returns on education (college wage premium) and resulting in a widening wage dispersion between income groups. The authors explained the divergence for the two periods (pre- and post-1970s) using a supply-demand-institutions framework, to understand the factors that produced these historical trends.

New technologies increase the relative demand for more educated, skilled and advantaged workers. Nonetheless, the evidence also shows that the skill bias of technological change and the growth rate of demand for more skilled relative to less-educated workers were fairly constant and continuous between 1915 and 2005. In other words, skill-biased technological advancements in recent decades (in the era of computerisation) were not significantly different from that of the past.

The major difference driving the widening wage differentials was in the change in supply of skills (educational growth), not demand. To be sure, institutional factors were important at various junctures, especially during the 1940s (World War II) and the late 1970s. Post-1980, globalisation and shrinking relative demand for the less educated, decline in unionisation as well as in the real value of minimum wage were contributory factors.

But it was the slowdown in educational attainment since 1980 that was the single most important factor driving the rise in college wage premium. For cohorts born between 1876 and 1951, the increase in years of schooling was substantial and continuous — by 0.82 years per decade. However, after 1951, there was a significant slowdown and stagnation. The education attainment for a child born in 1975 was just 0.5 years more than his parents born in 1951 — compared to the 2.18 years for a child born in 1945 to parents born in 1921. Relative supply of college workers increased at 3.77% annually from 1960 to 1980, but dropped to just 2% from 1980 to 2005.

The authors suggest that some of the virtues of America’s education system that worked so well in the past may have become obstacles in today’s environment, especially for the disadvantaged, minority and poorer-income families. Public policies — including more and transparent financial assistance and greater access to quality education (starting from pre-school) for these groups — are needed to correct its current trajectory.

In summary, education raced far ahead of technology, reducing skills premium  (and narrowing the educational wage differentials) from 1915 to 1980. The resulting economic growth was fairly equally shared, with high income mobility underpinning the rise of the middle class. A big reversal happened around 1980, when education lost the race to technology — and for shared prosperity.


America’s indisputable economic supremacy taught the world the importance of universal education. It led the world in free and accessible mass elementary education in the 19th century and secondary schooling at the turn of the 20th century. By around the 1950s, higher education (college) became a middle-class entitlement, and its universities are among the finest in the world. The higher levels of education for its workforce directly contributed to longterm labour productivity gains and economic growth, which were also fairly equitably shared — underpinning the country’s technological dynamism and advantage over the rest of the world.

Its experience in the last three decades too hold important implications, particularly as the global economy is poised for yet another leap in technologically-driven productivity gains. By the 1970s, educational attainment in the US had started to plateau — by various metrics such as years of schooling, college completion and high school graduation rates — even as the rest of the world caught up. (In many countries, especially in Europe and Asia, acceleration in education attainment has even surpassed that of the US, most notably in college graduation rates). This slowdown is the single most important factor driving the observed increase in wage differentials since 1980 — and a major contributor to widening income-wealth inequality, to a much greater degree than in most OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries where education advanced more rapidly over the same period.

Here is the key takeaway: There is no doubt that a better educated workforce is closely tied to increases in productivity, income levels and economic growth. Throughout history, there has always existed a relentless race between technological advancements (demand for skills) and level of education in society (supply of skills). Economic growth as well as the well-being of the people depend on the balance between the growth rates in the demand and supply of skills.

As technology progresses, especially in a world of rapid digitalisation with the expected advancements in AI, it will be the supply of quality labour that will drive economic growth more and more. Thus, investing in education is crucial. If technology races ahead of education — if governments fail to lift the quality (as opposed to simply quantity) of education and skills of their people — economic growth will suffer, and inequality will rise. And as we are already witnessing today, growing inequality in the world is leading to greater economic anxiety, social discord and unrest, and an increasingly polarised world. Historically, extreme inequality has often been a powerful catalyst for revolutions.

Box Article: Japan finally got it right … better late than never

Japan’s stock market has been on a tear, outperforming even the US markets so far this year. The Nikkei 225 has risen by more than 10% less than a month into 2024 — adding to the 28.2% gain in 2023. The benchmark index is now at the highest level since December 1989, before its asset bubble burst.

Notably, the stock market has continued to attract foreign investors despite the yen’s weakness. The Japanese currency has fallen by about 4.7% against the US dollar in the year to date, on top of its 7% decline in 2023. The point being, what matters to investors is the net return on investment — a falling currency is fine as long as stock price gains more than offset currency losses. Hear, hear! Analysts and commentators who keep saying the weaker ringgit is driving away investors, as if it is the only factor, should take note of this.

What is driving this remarkable revival in Japanese stocks?

For one, investors are increasingly upbeat that Japan is finally winning its decades-long battle against deflation (with help from the pandemic-driven surge in global inflation). Case in point: Wages are rising at the fastest clip in 30 years.

More importantly, corporate governance is improving. Companies are increasingly open to shareholder activism and focusing on raising returns on equity — maximising value for all shareholders, not just the controlling shareholders. And, of course, there is the Warren Buffett effect. The renowned investor turned the spotlight on the attractiveness of Japanese stocks after Berkshire Hathaway took up big stakes in several of the country’s major trading houses in 2020, and then raised its holdings after Buffett paid them a visit in person last year.

The Japan government and Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) have been instrumental in driving these corporate reforms, especially in the last two years. Listed stocks were recategorised into Prime, Standard and Growth Markets, with more stringent requirements for the Prime Market, which consists of the largest market cap and most liquid stocks.

TSE has stepped up efforts to ensure companies achieve sustainable growth and increase corporate value over the mid to long term by focusing on the cost of capital and profitability based on the balance sheet, rather than just sales and profit levels on the income statement.

Companies whose shares are trading below book value — an indication they may not be using capital efficiently — are required to “comply or explain”. Excessive cash holdings are a major cause of belowbook valuation. (The S&P 500 companies, for example, allocate some 83% of profits to dividends and share buybacks, on average — well above the 35% currently for the Nikkei component stocks). These companies must disclose action plans on how to improve capital efficiency — for instance, up investments in capital expenditure, research and development, and mergers and acquisitions or return excess cash to shareholders, via dividends and/or share buybacks — or face the prospect of being placed under supervision or even delisting as soon as 2026.

For Japanese corporates, the meaning of being listed is also starting to change. There has been a discernible shift in management attitudes. Dividends and, increasingly, share buybacks reached all-time high levels for three straight years, for the fiscal years ending 2022 to 2024. Managements are more open to ideas from activist shareholders, increasing diversity and independence of board of directors, improving disclosures and communications with investors, selling non-core assets (such as properties not related to main business operations) and exiting low-margin businesses, restructuring, cutting cross shareholdings and, overall, boosting returns to investors. This is the most fundamental attraction for investors, domestic and foreign — and now the major driving force behind the market rally.

We should take lessons from what Japan has done. Our recent stock market articles have repeatedly argued for stronger regulatory support for shareholder activism and share buybacks. After  many decades, Japan finally got it right. It is better late than never. What about us? Will we too finally get it right?

— Box Article Ends —

The Malaysian Portfolio continued to outperform the broader market last week. Total portfolio value was up 3.8%, driven by top gainers Insas-WC (+15.8%), Insas Bhd (+5.0%) and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp Ltd (+2.4%). All stocks in our portfolio ended higher for the week. Total portfolio returns finally breached the 200% threshold, rising to 202.4% since inception — equivalent to annual returns of 21.8%, on average. This portfolio is outperforming the benchmark FBM KLCI, which is down 17.8%, by a long, long way.

Disclaimer: This is a personal portfolio for information purposes only and does not constitute a recommendation or solicitation or expression of views to influence readers to buy/sell stocks, including the particular stocks mentioned herein. It does not take into account an individual investor’s particular financial situation, investment objectives, investment horizon, risk profile and/ or risk preference. Our shareholders, directors and employees may have positions in or may be materially interested in any of the stocks. We may also have or have had dealings with or may provide or have provided content services to the companies mentioned in the reports.

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