05 April 2011

Are You Undervalued or Overvalued ?

There is a long standing debate about whether or not the stock market is 'efficient.' In a perfect world, forces such as the free market system, access to information, and the law of supply/demand would price stocks at their intrinsic value. But as we know, the world is not perfect; stocks tend to be either overvalued and undervalued. Can this same logic apply to jobs and compensation?

In a vacuum, the value created by an individual would guide his or her salary; but it doesn't happen like that in the real world. One's paycheck generally have very little to do with their societal worth or even the intersection of where supply meets demand. Further, similar to daytraders in the stock market, does this inefficiency create a business opportunity?

The most overvalued job that comes to mind is a real estate agent. If you strip it down to its basest level, a real estate broker gets 6% of the value of your home to open your front door. That's it - that's really all they do. Contracts are standardized by the states, risk is mitigated by escrow agents, and frankly the negotiations really lie in the hands of the buyer and seller. Real estate agents do not create demand for your house; they simply post it online to their proprietary MLS closed system. Because of this monopoly, they have been able to keep their fees artificially high. Sure sites like Zillow and FSBO have brought fees down slightly, but there is a opportunity to bring this function to its true intrinsic value. 6% of the housing market - pretty big market size for a hungry entrepreneur.

What about wall street bankers? Goldman Sachs gets gobs of money for advising companies such as AT&T on whether they should buy T-Mobile. Do bankers have more industry knowledge than the brain trust at AT&T? Has the AT&T CEO not heard about T-Mobile ? Is AT&T's legal staff and M&A teams incapable of leading a transaction of this magnitide? If the answer is no (which i think it is), how can the market allow such enormous fees? At least in this case, there is no 'closed' system, but certainly it leaves you to wonder. Don't get me wrong, I see a huge value in the investment banking/brokerage function; its just the value significantly diminishes as the sophistication of buyers and sellers increases. This is precisely why smaller investment banks (usually started from ex-bulge bracket folks) are growing at such a fast clip these days.

On the other side of the coin, what about undervalued jobs? Certainly folks such as policemen and teachers come to mind. The most underpaid job on this planet is a stay-at-home parent. They bring in a whopping $0 and have the uneviable task of shaping our children's future. America's CEO, Obama, only gets paid $400k for the most important position on the planet. Sure, budgetary constraints of government/non-profit limit salaries of high worth positions; but how sustainable is this in the long-run? There are also many instances of this in the for-profit world.

Accountants are underpaid, overworked, and are in short supply and high demand. Yet their salaries are the lowest in the business world. The Big 4 can't find enough talent to fill open positions (PwC spent millions in a desperate attempt on LinkedIn), yet they continue to underpay and experience high turnover. Another example is the primary care physician. Demand continues to soar, supply is falling, and wages are flat at best. Without accountants, we couldn't rely on financial statements; without PCP's, we wouldn't be healthy. Not exactly low value positions; These fields will either face a major restructuring, a significant drop in quality, or a healthy rise in fees.

You would think money always follows where the world is going and intersect at the point of equibrium. There seems to always be external factors that create a market imbalance between compensation and value creation. For example, the value of atmabus' business insight relative to how much he gets paid for it is grossly imbalanced. So are you undervalued or overvalued? Where else are there market inefficiencies to capitalize upon?


  1. The underlying issue is that the Government unfortunately have created a market for such professions by introducing various laws and certification programs. This has created a belief that only people with such certification programs are competent to do the job. Be it - Real Estate Agents, M&A Financial Institutions, Divorce Lawyers, DUI lawyers, Defensive Driving sschools, real estate appraisors etc.Seriously why do you need to pay someone $350.00 to appraise a property that's already been appraised and put in to record by the local counties??

  2. "For example, the value of atmabus' business insight relative to how much he gets paid for it is grossly imbalanced"
    Interesting how you used the term "Imbalanced" instead of undervalued or overvalued...:)
    Interesting article.. well written

  3. Good point - there seems to be a need to "qualify" every profession with a designation; whether they are truly qualified is a different story altogether. But would we better off without the designation which establishes at least a minimum competency level ?

  4. Imbalanced is correct, but its definitely not $0. I'll leave it up to the readers to decide if its undervalued or overvalued....