Holding society to account

Accounting research doesn’t usually lead to social justice reforms. But when Bill Mayew started listening to bond traders, he uncovered an anomaly in the higher education bond markets that indicated the presence of systemic racism - and used his findings to come up with a proposal for policy makers to push for equality.

 

Dean Bill Boulding interviews Bill Mayew on Instagram

Bill Mayew, Professor of Accounting

“It's easy to give anecdotes but to put a large sample of numbers on a problem, I think is difficult. If you listen to what's talked about right now a lot of it is a friction, where it's just harder for minorities to operate, to breathe even. It's almost like they have to run in quicksand to run a race. The problem is that it's easy to measure things like wages but the process of getting a wage for example is really hard to measure. I think that's the novelty of the research we did with the bond market. We were able to monitor and measure these things called search costs. It’s harder for minorities, for example, to find a job. They have to work harder to do it. They have to search longer and harder. And to measure the effort they have to put in, that's a key underpinning to systematic racism. In order to deal with it, we have to first figure out how big of a problem is it? Where does it exist? The research that we worked on in the bond market is just one instance of where that might happen.”

 

“We measured racism in the higher education bond market, which is basic universities, Duke is one of them. There are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) who serve Black Americans. They are designed to educate them. That’s been their mission. And so if you compare schools, HBCUs and not, what you can do is look at what an investment bank charges those schools to search for a buyer. And the idea in our paper that we actually heard about from bond traders was it's harder to move and place the bonds of historically black colleges than non-historically black colleges because you have to search harder for the buyer. The idea of being the marginal buyer in a lot of the places in the United States are wealthy individuals, which tend to be tilted towards more of a white demographic. And it makes the search costs harder. And so that's how we were able to uniquely measure search costs, because underwriters have to disclose this number publicly. So we went and we figured that out. And then went and measured it. And was able to document 20 percent higher cost that underwriters charge HBCUs. And as we teach in business school, firms compete on cost structures to some degree. If I told some firm you get a 20 percent higher cost structure and you just have to live with it, a lot of firms would go out of business. So that's what historically black colleges really are dealing with, and they're still surviving. It’s hard for them, but that's what they face.”

 

“You hope that your research would have instant impact. It would change laws. A couple of bills have been forwarded based on the research. They haven't been turned into law. But they have pushed the conversation forward. And it's been referenced in a lot of the materials that HBCUs forward to the government, to say, ‘Look, we really need help, these are the challenges we face, can you help us?’ In the political environments, there’s a lot of give and take. I think even though this research didn't underpin a law, the research we had actually suggested a policy change that will remove the problem. That wasn't implemented. But there has been some support for HBCUs in other ways. As long as they're getting some support, we just got to keep trying to push and get facts out there so people can make decisions on real facts.”

“At the Journal of Financial Economics, there is the Jensen prize, given for the best paper in corporate finance and organization research. I am very grateful for winning. A lot of other Fuqua faculty have won it. It’s great to be in the same sentence as Cam Harvey and John Graham. Others have done it but it's the top prize for the paper published during the year that they think will have the biggest impact. That's what we do. You work on a lot of papers, ones that can actually move the needle and have direct impact. It’s hard. So we are very honored that they thought our paper was of that quality.

 

“This paper came from just listening. It turns out I know some bond traders. They brought this up. They said it is kind of sad we have got these HBCU bonds that are so hard to place. They sit in our inventory longer. When a bond shows up in the secondary market, their job is to turn it as fast as possible, find a buyer. They are the people that face that search friction. For them to mention, it was in some sense courageous. And they stood by and answered questions, which is something that's really positive when that can happen in research. When you can have a tie to the ground to where things are happening and ask the next right question. I think that makes your research more powerful because you can be more expansive. You can be more detailed. You can be more well-rounded. But it came from people on the ground saying, ‘I see a problem.’ In some sense, I'm really appreciative of the award. But part of it was being in the right place at the right time and listening to other people speak about problems that they are seeing. I think that's step one in dealing with racism, robustly documenting facts about the situation.”

 

“One of the fundamental issues that we have to deal with as a society is really, truly listening to each other. And disagreeing, but listening first. That's kind of the hallmark of what we do if you think about how our school is set up and how I run classes and how we all run classes. We have a diverse cohort of students who we know are going to have different views and we put them in a situation, a business one, and they argue it out. But do they argue it out respectively? Do they listen to others? Can their opinions be moved? Do they walk out of the classroom hating each other because they had a different view? At the end of this, after you do an MBA at Fuqua, we design it so that you get practice at listening but standing up for yourself. That's the fine line in all this I think. People are never going to have the same views but how do we find common ground and be respectful? I think our curriculum in some sense starts with our cohort of students being different. That's just part of the fabric what we do and so I think any place that you can learn that is great. But I think a business schools is designed explicitly to do that thing.”

 

 

Quick Facts

Area: Accounting

Elective Course: Business Fundamentals – Accounting and Finance

Researches: Corporate financial reporting, management communication of financial information

Street Cred:

Research led to proposed HBCU Investment Expansion Act

Winner of the 2020 Jensen Award from The Journal of Financial Economics

Editor at The Accounting Review and has presented his research to professional money managers, sell-side financial analysts, investor relations personnel as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission and on Capitol Hill

Named one of the top 40 business school professors in the world under 40 years old by Poets & Quants (2014)

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