Author: Jill Young Miller


About Jill Young Miller

As research translator for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to highlight professors’ research by “translating” their work into stories. Before coming to Olin, I was a communications specialist at WashU’s Brown School. My background is mostly in newspapers including as a journalist for Missouri Lawyers Media, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. Also, I am the reigning Olin Cornhole Champion.

The $2 trillion plan to prop up the US economy is expected to pass the House of Representatives on March 27. It’s intended to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and provide direct payments and jobless benefits for individuals, money for states and a huge bailout fund for businesses. Olin experts weigh in on whether it is sufficient as the economy reels.

Other economic steps ‘would be better’

“While much of the country—including President Trump—is looking forward to when this coronavirus crisis will end, I think it is important for everyone to realize that the coronavirus crisis has not really begun yet in the United States.

Raphael Thomadsen

“The $2T package is likely to be a first step, especially since the federal government does not seem willing to implement the type of nationwide shelter in place order that would be needed for us to quickly contain the outbreak. The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for companies to keep employing its workforce, and the more lost economic value there will be.

Are we able to keep spending this type of money every two to three months? I am unsure about that.

Raphael Thomadsen

“I also hope that it is well run. If the money does not get spent right, we may end up losing the jobs we are trying to save.

“I would propose some other economic steps that I think would be better. I would suspend rent, mortgage and loan payments through the national emergency. (By suspending them, I wouldn’t change the amount of money paid back, but effectively the national emergency would become a time when loans and housing assets would temporarily earn a zero rate of return.) This has been done in parts of Europe, so it is a doable thing to do.

“I do think actions giving households in need cash is valuable, although people probably need less cash if they do not have to pay their rent or loans, allowing us to stretch out the federal spending to get more bang for their buck. We would also have to help make sure that businesses do not go out of business, but by taking away rent and borrowing costs, that should help a lot of businesses get through their time being shuttered.”

Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing

‘Ridiculous for this to be a stimulus bill’

“China’s economy is slated to slow from 6.1% growth to 2.4% growth, rather than contract, so the estimate of a 24% contraction in the economy seems extreme—unless we don’t take containment seriously.  If we can contain it, $2 trillion seems excessive—it’s 10% of GDP, and greater than revenue from income tax last year. Having said that, if we are asking businesses to close, then we need to compensate them and their employees for the closure.

Anne Marie Knott

“But we should behave like venture capitalists and authorize money weekly or bi-weekly, rather than committing to a package for a program whose duration and severity is completely unknown — but forecastable if we behave like China and South Korea.

“It is ridiculous for this to be a stimulus bill.

“You can’t stimulate an economy when there is no way for people to spend money.

Anne Marie Knott

“As Phil Dybvig [Boatmen’s Bancshares Professor of Banking and Finance] says, this is a recipe for inflation. Accordingly, we shouldn’t be writing checks to everyone, we should only be writing checks to people who are furloughed due to business closures.”

Anne Marie Knott, Robert and Barbara Frick Professor of Business, Olin Business School

Will people spend or save?

Cynthia Cryder

“Consumers with stable jobs will likely treat the direct payments from this bill somewhat similarly to how they treat tax refunds. Consumers frequently spend a chunk of tax refunds, but notably, they actually save a higher percentage of their tax refunds than they do of their standard income. In this time of uncertainty, these consumers are likely to save an even greater chunk of the direct payments from this bill than they do of typical tax refunds.

“But of course, consumers without stable employment will use these direct payments as a financial lifeline. They will likely need to spend the funds to cover the costs of necessities.”

Cynthia Cryder

Cynthia Cryder, associate professor of marketing

‘Attack the problem’

Glenn MacDonald

There is no net stimulus, although there is a transfer of resources from taxpayers to those who receive the checks. The same applies to business bailouts, low-interest loans, etc. It’s a fact the we have a problem at the moment, and many of us are going to feel the effects of that, whether it be directly through being ill, or less directly by having to work less or differently. Checks from the government will help some of those who feel those effects, but at the expense of others. There is no overall economic benefit, although there might be political advantages.

“The only way for the government to stimulate the economy is by doing something that creates new economic value, or reduces wasted value, not just rearranging the value we already have.

Glenn MacDonald

“This is why the government’s attention should be solely directed towards funding serious attempts to develop vaccines, streamlining approval processes, developing ways to protect health care workers, expanding short term hospital capacity, … That is, attack the problem instead of engaging in pointless and ineffective attempts to ‘do something.'”

Glenn MacDonald, John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and Strategy

As long as the health crisis is ongoing

Radhakrishnan Gopalan

“I don’t think any amount of stimulus payment will make households spend more as long as the health crisis is ongoing. The same goes for business investment.

“On the other hand, the stimulus payments to households will enable them to not fall behind on payment of fixed obligations and hence aid in quick recovery once the health crisis passes. The extension of unemployment benefits will achieve the same objective. 

“As far as the payment to business goes, while the stimulus is unlikely to encourage business investment, it will avoid business failure and bankruptcy.

Radhakrishnan Gopalan

“As far as layoffs go, I am not sure if the stimulus has some  special provision encouraging firms to avoid or minimize layoffs. Based on the experience in Germany during the great recession, the most effective provision is for the government to subsidize some part of employee wages. Stipulating conditions to business aid such as no layoffs may not work as that will only make firms reluctant to avail of government aid.”

Radhakrishnan Gopalan, professor of finance and academic director of the IIT-Bombay-Washington University Executive MBA Program

Pandemic Unemployment Insurance

Seth Carnahan
Seth Carnahan

“The most interesting part of this bill for me is that it offers 26 weeks of unemployment payments to self-employed workers and contract workers (e.g., Uber drivers), through a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Insurance.

“Previously, unemployment payments were only available to workers who received wages that are reported on a W-2. It is not entirely clear yet how the government will determine which self-employed workers and contract workers are eligible for these payments.

“I am very interested to see if unemployment assistance for self-employed workers and contract workers becomes a permanent feature of our social safety net.

Seth Carnahan

“There has been a growing discussion about how the emerging class of gig economy workers, like Uber drivers, should be viewed from a legal perspective. Are they employees? Contractors?

“Uber has previously fought hard to keep their drivers classified as contractors, as this allows Uber to avoid paying certain benefits. But Uber lobbied hard for this new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for their drivers.

“Now that the government is using public funds to support Uber drivers (and hence making it more attractive to be an Uber driver now and in the future), it seems reasonable to predict that the government might ask Uber to, in turn, do more for its drivers. Especially if unemployment insurance for gig workers becomes a permanent feature of our social safety net.”

Seth Carnahan, associate professor of strategy

Big business relief ‘does not go far enough’

“The $75 billion industry-specific loans included in the stimulus package is welcome news for the intended industries: hotels, restaurants and airlines, as is the $17 billion for Boeing and defense-related companies. The loans will allow companies in those industries to meet their short-term obligations and cash flow needs, and prevent them from aggressively cutting capacity and laying off employees.

“Not only will it help the industries through the next few months of nearly stopped economy, it might also help ramp up resources in the early part of the recovery when the virus spread slows and people return to work. Companies in these industries will need working capital to bring up their capacity to support normal demand.

Panos Kouvelis

“However, I worry that the package does not go far enough to drive a fast recovery. While the stimulus package seems to reflect, always on the lower side, estimated impact in any one of the intended-to-protect sectors, it fails to understand the disaster propagation across sectors and the corporate-inertia behavior in slowing down or ramping up in the face of unprecedented uncertainty. When demand for airline services suddenly dropped 60% to 80%, the airlines were not able to immediately adjust capacity (i.e., number of flights). They are still carrying more aircraft contracts, employees and other supporting contract services than what will be needed to meet the projected demand for the next six to nine months, or even a year.

“Inertia in decisions is common in situations that are hard to forecast and requires high working capital needs not supported by revenue streams. This is where the stimulus plan loans will be most helpful.

Panos Kouvelis

“As airlines exhibit inertia in adjusting down capacity, they will exhibit similar inertia in slowly adjusting their capacity up. Their future planning will always be more pessimistic in their plans for planes and other supporting supply chain services.

“This will affect all suppliers to the airline industry but in particular our major plane manufacturer, Boeing. It will be affected not only in terms of delayed or canceled plane purchases this year, but less aggressive plane purchases in the next four to five years. Future corporate resilience on the part of the airlines will require not forgetting the ‘black swan’ event you experienced vividly.

“Finally, Boeing’s market value has already been hit hard by the pandemic crisis. On the commercial plane side, 737 MAX orders are already in question, and there will be canceled orders and fewer future orders by a hammered airline industry.

“The defense side will inevitably be hit, too, as the government puts its emergency resources into public health, health care management, fighting market stagnation and unemployment, and might be less inclined to accelerate defense programs or purchases of the current weapon systems.

“In a serious interconnected supplier system in the aerospace and defense industries, the pandemic disaster has just started and its magnitude might not be fully accounted in this cash flow maintenance and short-term continuity risk management package.”

Panos Kouvelis, director of the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation, Olin Business School

WashU Senior News Director Sara Savat contributed to this report.

Varsity Tutors, founded by Olin alumnus and CEO Chuck Cohn, launched free online classes Monday for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“As schools closed this week in response to COVID-19, the speed of change being forced upon the lives of parents has many scrambling just to keep their kids occupied—hopefully with something constructive,” Cohn said in a letter on the company’s site announcing the launch of Virtual School Day.

“We believe parents shouldn’t have to carry this burden alone,” Cohn said.

Cohn, BSBA ’08 and a 2017 Emerging Leader Honoree, started the company on WashU’s campus. It’s now the nation’s leading provider of one-on-one instruction and headquartered in Clayton.

“We decided there was an opportunity to step up in a big way,” Cohn told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday.

The platform includes math, reading, writing, literature and science courses for every grade level, expert-guided study hall sessions and age-appropriate enrichment units, such as “the science of pandemics” for middle schoolers, the newspaper reported.

Cohen said Varsity Tutors won’t profit from the free classes, but he thinks the coronavirus crisis will make online learning more mainstream. “People being open to online learning is a good long-term trend, and that’s why we felt obligated to help right now.”

Big, emerging trends are driving the so-called analytic trend in business. They are behavioral science, data science (the machine-learning revolution) and addressable technology (the ability to reach individual consumers with personalized marketing messages), Seethu Seetharaman said at a recent event in Minneapolis titled “Got Algorithm?”

Seethu Seetharaman
Seethu Seetharaman

“These three forces are really turning on its head how we are applying analytics to solve business problems,” said Seetharaman, director of the Center for Analytics and Business Insights and W. Patrick McGinnis Professor of Marketing at Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There’s a lot of exciting research going on in understanding how consumers think and feel,” he said. For example, one recent project by some of his colleagues shows that ambient scents in supermarket retail makes a big difference in what customers put in their shopping carts.

“If you have the smell of cookies in the air, then consumers buy more healthful foods. You heard that right,” Seetharaman said. “It’s almost as if some kind of satiation is going on. If your nose gets its share of that, then your belly doesn’t.”

Customer data explosion

The words “machine learning” are more than the latest business buzz words. If you’re not tapping into the power of big data analytics, you’re already behind the curve. Seetharaman discussed how to harness big data and machine learning to drive business forward. He explained how machine learning algorithms can predict product sales and compared machine- learning approaches with traditional marketing mix models.

Businesses in every industry are unearthing profit-generating insights unknowable just a decade ago, with customer data collected from scanners, cash registers, online product reviews, wearable devices and other sources.

In retail, research using machine learning shows a manager’s No. 1 job is this: “Set your price right before you worry about all the other marketing levers,” Seetharaman told the Minneapolis audience, where he spoke January 22 about his research in the retail space.

The price of beer

He pointed out some interesting ancillary findings, too. “The price of beer is the most important predictor in terms of predicting cigarette sales as well as predicting diaper sales. …  But the converse is not true. So that’s interesting. The price of diapers doesn’t drive the sales of beer. Seasonality is hugely important for beer, and machine-learning algorithms kind of agree with each other in terms of which variables they tag as the most important.”

For price optimization, most managers use heuristics, or rule-of-thumb strategies. Examples include price markups at  25% over cost, pricing 5% below the geographically nearest competitor, and a 20% discount for the store brand versus the national brand, Seetharaman said.

But an algorithmic approach to price optimization can go deeper by solving problems analytically for a single product or numerically for multiple products, he said.

Supermarket category pricing

Seetharaman and Durai Sundaramoorthi, senior lecturer in management at Olin Business School, conducted a study on machine-learning approaches for supermarket category pricing. Using store-level weekly scanner data from 24 product categories in each of nine stores of a supermarket chain over a period of six years, they estimated the six machine-learning models and compared their predictive performance.

Using the best-performing machine-learning model of category sales, they found that, on average, there would be a 229% profit improvement per store when customizing the marketing mix as recommended by their optimization exercise.

“This is a substantively huge dividend for the retailer, especially considering that supermarket retailing involves wafer-thin profit margins,” Seetharaman said.

Brake pads

Seetharaman also talked about solving the riddle of how to customize brake pad prices by store for a national automotive aftermarket retailer.

Even with two years of historical data per store, it was still difficult to estimate the demand model, he said. So he and co-researchers used a technique called “Bayesian shrinkage” to estimate demand at the store level. Their pricing model yielded optimal prices for 90 products in each of the chain’s 3,400 stores.

To learn more, view Seethu Seetharaman’s entire presentation here.

Alex Ignatius, a first-year MBA student, shared her journey to Olin at the February 14 Forté MBA Launch 2020 Live Event in Washington, DC. She had spent years in the agency world, working in Shanghai, Chicago and Washington. She specialized in executive communications, global project management and issues/reputation recovery for clients including Nissan Motor Co., ALDI, Johnson & Johnson and others. Ignatius graduated cum laude from Columbia University and is a former professional ballet dancer. She spoke about what drew her to Olin and her MBA experience so far. Here are her excerpted and edited remarks:

Alex Ignatius

I grew up in Washington, DC, and went to Columbia University for my undergrad, where I majored in psychology. Ballet had always been a big part of my life, and so after graduation, I took the unconventional path and joined a regional ballet company.

The qualities I learned from ballet —the constant pursuit of excellence, discipline and teamwork—have shaped who I am today and have helped make me a confident businesswoman. And that’s something to think about in your own story. You may feel some of your personal or professional history doesn’t fit the prototype of the typical student, but I would encourage you to think about how those experiences make you stand out from the crowd.

After my ballet career, I joined one of the top advertising and communications agencies, Ogilvy & Mather, in their DC office, eventually transferring to the company’s office in Shanghai, where I lived and worked for three years before returning to the states.

I loved my eight years working in corporate affairs and reputation management, but I knew that to achieve what I wanted in business and to make a meaningful difference for companies, I needed an MBA. While I had strong “soft” skills in client service, talent development and project management, there was a gap in my quantitative knowledge.

I knew that the analytical rigor of an MBA would be critical to being able to evaluate new markets and customer segments and to make more informed, strategic and data-driven decisions. The MBA would give me a more comprehensive business toolkit and allow me to really taste test different disciplines across finance, strategy, data analysis, operations and marketing.

Choosing Olin

As a native Washingtonian and having recently lived in Chicago, I kept my applications very focused on top-25 programs on the east coast and Midwest. I prioritized smaller MBA programs that would provide a more tailored and hands-on experience but that also had access to the offerings of a large university system.

There were essentially three key factors that shaped my decision-making process. First, I prioritized academic rigor and a program that was grounded in a solid core curriculum with a focus on quantitative skill-building and data analytics. Second, I evaluated the companies and firms where alumni worked to better understand networking and internship opportunities. And third, having attended a fairly large undergraduate school, I was looking for a smaller MBA program that provided a tight-knit community where every student is known not just by name, but also by story. In terms of evaluating culture, I arranged one-on-one phone calls with current students, alumni and the admissions team to understand the real student experience.

Olin ended up being the perfect blend of community, academic rigor and a global business mindset within a large university system, which as an MBA means you have an incredible extended alumni network. Olin’s philosophy and MBA core curriculum center on data-driven and values-based decision making, which is a powerful framework for evaluating today’s business problems. And according to Forté Foundation, Olin is the closest business school to achieving gender parity at 49% women.

A big decision

Deciding to pursue a full-time MBA is a big decision—leaving your job, foregoing a regular salary and often moving to a new city. And it’s a leap of faith. You’re saying “yes” to the unknown and hoping that the experience matches your expectation. My MBA experience has far surpassed that.

It started with a six-week global immersion program, which is brand new to Olin this year. After a week of orientation, we packed our bags and traveled from St. Louis to DC, Barcelona, Beijing and Shanghai with our entire first-year MBA class.

In each location, we attended lectures, met with business leaders and immersed ourselves in consulting projects with local companies tackling questions like this: How does a family-owned winery in Barcelona price and launch a new variety of rosé in the United States? This not only formed an intense bond throughout our class, but also it gave us a common and more nuanced view of the global nature of business.

My mantra in business school

From an academic perspective, my mantra in business school has been to be vulnerable in service of new skills, to take classes that do NOT come easily to me. The MBA provides you with incredible breadth and depth. This past semester I have taken two financial accounting courses and corporate finance to provide me with more fluency in the language through which corporations communicate their goals and successes.

And I’m beginning to develop expertise and specialization in strategy and operations. For everyone, the mix of courses is going to look a little different depending on where you want to grow and what kind of jobs you’re looking for.

From an internship perspective, I have built valuable connections with professors, the career center and alumni who have guided me through my internship search process. Your internship search really begins the first day you set foot on campus in the fall and extends until about February of the following year.

I am pleased to share I have just accepted an offer in merchandising operations at Walmart this summer. When I developed my summer internship strategy, I knew I wanted to work for a large, innovative and well-run company. Walmart is the largest public company in the world by revenue, America’s largest employer and the only brick-and-mortar going head-to-head with Amazon.

The MBA is an incredible period of exploration and self-discovery. It’s a unique time to press pause and redefine your next step professionally.

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, so does the menace to the global supply chain, which is heavily dependent on China for everything from auto parts and semiconductors to active ingredients for medicines.

Panos Kouvelis

Panos Kouvelis, who teaches and helped to popularize the Waffle House Index regarding natural-disaster responses, says the outbreak’s impact on global supply chains promises to be multiple times worse than when the SARS virus emerged in 2002 in China. Kouvelis, the director of The Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation and Emerson Distinguished Professor of Operations and Manufacturing Management at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, predicted a $300 billion to $400 billion global impact caused by the outbreak and a window of 16 months to 2 years “until you stop seeing these shocks to the global supply chain.”

Kouvelis discussed why the outbreak will have such a deep, lasting worldwide impact:

Why is it so significant?

The coronavirus is an uncharted-territory event. It’s a “black swan,” which is a low-probability event with big consequences. The benchmarks we had in the past aren’t fully applicable because of the increased significance of China in the global economy, combined with our heavy dependence on China both as a market and as a manufacturing hub for goods that are more complex and more sophisticated than they were in 2002. So whatever we know from SARS is not a good predictor of the coronavirus’ likely impact.

In terms of the global supply chain, how do the U.S. trade tariffs on China intersect with the epidemic?

The trade situation and the coronavirus, are they friends or foes? The trade tariff is a friend to the coronavirus event in the following sense: It already drove many companies to rethink their sourcing strategy and the production strategy to diversify away from China. Some companies are better prepared as a result of that. Because of the uncertainty of the trade tariffs, many companies bought inventory ahead of time. So supply chains right now might have more inventory than they usually have, which is very good.

On the other hand, the coronavirus event will definitely harm China’s ability to keep its promises about the amount of American goods it going to buy under the trade deal.

What long-term effects could come out of this crisis?

I look at the shocks where they happen. Then I look at how they’re going to propagate over time. As you go back in the supply chain, you’re going to see an increased effect as a result of the original shock. Let’s say, if reduced airline traffic leads to fewer planes, let’s say 10% fewer planes, then GE as the engine manufacturer and the other further back aerospace suppliers will see a larger effect, often at 20% and 30%. This is the second- or the third-order effect hidden behind the early shocks.

Sometimes people don’t think about it, but those are the effects that persist longer. And you’ve got to account for them. Then you’ve got to account for them during the recovery phase: If the supply chain is not ready and you try to recover, it’s not happening. Thin inventories and downsized capacities during the reduced demand phase will be slowly adjusted to the recovery phase. The shocks delay how long it takes before returning to a normal state.

Are we in any danger of heading into a recession?

I want to be optimistic, but China means a lot for a lot of companies. So if China really gets hurt, it will slow down the global economy in terms of its growth. We’re doing about 2 percent growth. Two percent can easily go away. If the epidemic lasts six, eight months the global economy could face a recession state.

But I want to stay optimistic. I think many companies already might have diversified their supply chains. We’ve had good manufacturing news this quarter. Our companies are very healthy, so they can take some hit, and they might have become better at managing this kind of event.