Higher Education Green Paper

It has been an extremely busy past week. Between the release of the Higher Education Green Paper and the Autumn statement the political system is in top gear just before the holiday season. While we are also quietly creeping towards an inevitable vote for airstrikes in Syria. So I am going to look at part 1 of this past week which is the Green Paper. I have no choice but to be interested in this really as I am a student in university, so I feel it is an obligation (some reason I highly doubt most other students will sift through the document, but rather attach themselves to the headlines and staunch opinions).

Firstly, this paper was undeniably needed, student satisfaction and fees has been a volatile issue prompting the need to provide a new look. The OECD just came out with figures suggesting on average the fees at U.K. universities are higher than those of the U.S. With this particular headline just being more fuel to a fire of sensationalism around the issue of fees. It has to be appreciated that while paying £9,000 a year an individual has access to the preeminent British institutions of education such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the rest of the Russell Group. While in the United States at a typical Ivy League university take Yale for example you pay £30,000 a year, as a domestic student. Admittedly both countries take advantage of you when you are an international student (good I got my British citizenship before I went to university).

The first part addresses teaching excellence and quality. The main concept behind this is that students will m0ve towards identifying their university of choice based upon the teaching rather than the reputation. On this basis this is a good idea, pushing forward the teaching excellence framework (TEF). However, it is the following part in the paper which is of concern. Increasing levels of the TEF would enable universities to increase tuition fees. Now the inequality that may create is relatively clear, my biggest concern is what the benchmark for performance is. The top universities in the UK all already charge the full £9,000. If the university performs well with TEF could they then charge across the board higher tuition fees for all their course? In which case could someone justify paying something like £15,000 for an English degree knowing the average salary that such a degree leads to in terms of a career after university?

Supposedly a newly formed Office for Students is meant to overlook that targets are set sufficiently high, and to bring into enforcement the desired goals. There is also the inclusion of needing “widening participation”. Yet I am always cautious of such friendly phrases such as widening participation. On an initial view it looks like a firm trying to maximise profits. Perform well on a set criteria that students might not actually have such a powerful say in, have higher fees, bring in as many students as possible, and then profit. Now obviously this is a considerable simplification with undeniably a skeptic’s view. However, there is an issue to address here and one of those is the longevity of universities in a sense they cannot be subject to the current whims or social leanings of a new set of students every year, as well as the challenge of managing expectations.

Regardless of its perceived shortcomings it is a step in the right direction, realising that students are paying for a service and there must be quality in that.

The following section was with regard to the education sector as a whole. Namely the idea to enable the creation of a universities in that rewarding institutions with degree awarding powers. An example is A.C. Grayling’s New College of The Humanities, which while a full education institute can only award degrees through the University of London external program. The idea here is to bring more competition in the market, and undoubtedly to challenge the institutions which have been comfortable with their awarding powers up until now.

This sector is going to become more dynamic and less antiquated which I believe is the main goal. While not agreeing with every notion in the paper, I feel it was an important step towards improving the industry as a whole. I am unsure of the impact it has on those in research roles and the funding they may get, so I will look into that further.

Education is always a complex issue, with teaching quality being quite a precarious variable to measure. Personally I have felt that the larger issue amongst U.K. universities is that of spirit. Compared to the U.S. counterparts a large part of student satisfaction is derived from the university identity, sports, music, and other inclusive events. It will always be a hard sell when the product is a two hour lecture on statistical theory even with the greatest teaching quality, so this is just another area to consider.

The Wine Trade

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2012 saw the fully fledged re-emergence of the lucrative fine wine trade. At the forefront of development of the fine wine trade stands a company which has been trading wine since 1698. Berry Bros & Rudd have their original store located in London, and their expansion can be found in Hong Kong. They do offer high quality wine for purchase and consumption, but where they have created the greatest profit is the interest in fine wine as a long term investment.

The majority of fine wines available for investment come at a variety of prices; however they recommend a starting price of approximately £10,000. The attractiveness of the fine wine trade can be found in two areas, the first is boasting rights to having the finest collection of vintage and fine wine, as well as creating a relatively safe long term investment. The best wines only rise in price over time, and this is where the investment potential lies.

What really began to create a booming trade is the possibility of trading wines between investors; this started trade in order to gain new bottles by trading a currently owned bottle as well as an additional sum of money, in order to have a new more lucrative wine in the investment portfolio.

The credentials of this type of investment are still questionable especially if one is hoping to create a proper investment out of fine wine, the two deciding factors in the price of wine is the availability and critic opinion.

For an example a selected wine is Ch. Latour 1993 – Pauillac

The wine was made to a limited number of 200 cases which equates to 1,200 bottles. This can be analysed as the creation of perfectly inelastic supply, as the supply is at a fixed quantity. This particular vintage will never be produced again, and this is what helps to determine the value of wine.

The demand for the wine is decided by two factors the most important being the “Robert Parker Rating”, this rating will be the realisation of the demand for the bottle. The rating is done by Robert Parker the most internationally acclaimed wine critic. A bottle with a 90+ rating (out of 100 and 50 being deemed an “unacceptable wine”) means that there will be an instant increase in demand. Then what makes fine wine a lucrative investment is the factor of time, as demand increases over time as the value increases. This is shown in the graph below:

There are exceptions to the model below, some wines after passing a certain age are considered to lose their finesse and flavouring so they begin to slowly depreciate in value. Some wines are also subject to hype which tends to cause an upward shift in demand.

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A growing part of the trade is “En primeur” which is the acquisition of the wine before it has been bottled. This is becoming popular with those unable to buy bottles at peak prices, as prices are extremely low in the “En primeur” stage as there is the possibility that the wine ends up with bad quality, or fails to reach the status of a “fine” wine.

There is also the stage of initial valuation, before the wine is released for rating. This establishes what the producer believes the base price of the wine should be. Certain regions have experienced higher initial valuations for their wines, due to the difficulty of production and the result of extremely high quality wine. The wine trade is beginning to take on considerable form, and soon may rival the extremely well developed whisky trade. What some investors may find most disappointing is that the majority of the time they never taste the fine wines they trade, as opening the bottle will completely eradicate any value of the bottle.

The main aspect of the wine trade is that there is no longer a physical trade of the wine, the trade is done through bonded warehouses as this allows the wine to be exemopt from VAT and other taxes that different countries might levy. The exsistence of private fine wine collectors is rare, and this is what differentiates a fine wine investor and collector.

Berry Bros & Rudd have two royal warrants, and their biggest competitors Lay & Wheeler (wine merchants since 1854) are beginning to stock many single bottles with a valuation above £15,000. But what has increased the interest in wine as an investment commodity is the creation of London International Vintners Exchange (liv-ex), they created they Fine Wine 100 index which tracks the price of the most sought after wines in the world. This is a booming market which has already outperformed the FTSE 100 during various months throughout 2011 and 2012. The creation of the Fine Wine Index has led to a lot of foreign investment into European wines, especially from China. The reason behind this is the fact that fine wine has long held a status of opulence in Europe, and wine was never a big part of Asian culture. This has led to both the increased consumption of fine wine, and increased investment as highlighted by the liv-ex annual report of 2011.

However, times have changed and it is important to look at how the index has evolutionised. Between 2000 and 2010 the index traditionally offered double returns, this is similar to highly rated and investment grade bonds. It can be noted that in late 2010 the index began to shoot up and this was driven by new entrance in the market from Asia as previously mentioned. This created a hype around the fine wine index which brought to public attention in 2011 and 2012, however it can be noted that the index began to fade out by mid 2012 to levels that the index was in early 2010 before it became a trend. This can be attributed to the commodity charecteristic of wine.

I would argue that the characteristic of wine as a commoditiy is a hybrid between the investment chareteristics of percious metals and stones, and art. Precious stones and metals are always considered scarce by the market and always highly valued by society, but unlike wine they benefit from the fact that they do not expire. But this is where the artistic attribute comes in which keeps the value of wine for a given period of time, as each vintage of wine in unique, it is impossible to find two vintages alike whether it be fine or simple wine. This is why wine as a commodity for investment began to fade, as art can be maintained but wine after a certain amount of years simply expires and its value is wiped off.

Fine Wine has displayed itself at times as a worthwhile commodity to invest in, however the question remains what will become of the market once the traditional fine wine is consumed or begins to degrade,  and what will replace it?

Lay & Wheeler:

http://www.laywheeler.com/

Berry Bros & Rudd:

http://www.bbr.com/

Live Wine Stock:

http://www.liv-ex.com/

Updated: 22/01/13