by Gayl Mileszko
Alena Wicker is one of several thousand applicants who just received the life-altering news of her acceptance to college. What makes her stand out is that she graduated from high school at the age of 12 and, for the past 8 years, has had the goal of becoming a NASA engineer. She is pursuing a double major in astronomical and planetary science and chemistry and, if all goes well, her dream will come true when she turns 16. Alena, who begins her studies this summer at Arizona State University. is not the youngest person ever to enroll in and graduate from college. That record is held by Michael Kearney, also homeschooled, who was accepted at the University of South Alabama at the age of eight, graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology at the age of 10, and taught college courses while earning masters degrees in chemistry and computer science by the age of 18. But Alena says she is proof that the stars are the limit if you put your mind to it. In an inspiring message for a pandemic-weary world, she reminds us that: “It doesn’t matter what your age or what you’re planning to do. Go for it, dream, then accomplish it.”
Arizona State University is also the site of another dream come true during COVID-19. After more than five years of planning and 500 laborers on a site that broke ground in February 2018, a new $252 million non-profit intergenerational living and lifelong learning life plan community for older adults opened to its first residents on December 28 just before the start of the spring semester. Mirabella at ASU was built by bonds on land in the heart of downtown Tempe owned by the university and features 246 independent living units, 52 health care units, an indoor pool, wellness center, physical therapy gym, theater, art museum, lecture hall, salon, spa, dog park, valet parking and four restaurants. It is 20 stories tall with environmentally friendly features and overlooks the Tempe Butte and South Mountain, providing new homes for those with an average age of 76 who are being challenged to become “master learners” by taking one of 117 classes and having full access to the university library, faculty seminars, sporting events, and all the amenities available on the nearby campus. So far fifteen percent of residents have signed on to become mentors for some of the 70,000 students on the largest of ASU’s five campuses. Although other retirement communities with ties to Oberlin College, Stanford University, Berry College, the University of Florida and the University of Michigan, or those planned by universities such as SUNY Purchase, may argue, ASU President Michael Crow dubbed Mirabella at ASU “the world’s coolest dorm.”
Big dreams and bright futures for college frosh, lifelong learning retirees, and millions of others have by no means been quashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CNN/Moody’s Analytics “Back-to-Normal” Index currently registers at 83% but hopes and expectations across the country are much higher as vaccinations now total 111 million and the $1.9 trillion stimulus was just signed into law by President Biden. The American Rescue Plan comes on the heels of the $900 billion December aid package and included $40 billion for public and private institutions of higher education, with at least half going toward emergency grants for students, $8.5 billion for rural hospitals, $8 billion for airports, $14 billion for airline payroll support, $30 billion to mass transit, $350 billion in state and local government aid, $1,400 per person stimulus checks for eligible individuals and families, $242 billion of supplemental unemployment insurance through September, and $5 billion for small business. As reflected by the party-line vote, many stimulus provisions were not without controversy. Democrats dubbed it the “largest anti-poverty measure in a generation” while Republicans called the bill a “blue state bailout” and “slush fund that has nothing to do with COVID”, estimating that only 7% of the funding in the bill was directed to fighting the coronavirus through public health spending, and arguing that the excessive spending puts the economy in serious danger of overheating. Moody’s estimates that the Plan could add up to 7 million jobs.
Financial markets have taken a sunnier view of the hundreds of billions that continue to rain down on America and, like much of the country, appear to be betting on a huge post-pandemic boom. The markets long ago assumed passage of another two trillion stimulus without much concern for the details as economic data continues to reflect a recovering economy with only slight inflation and a very upbeat consumer profile. The stock market was jittery again last week in response to a fourth week of rising Treasury yields but closed with the Dow at record highs. Volatility as measured by the CBOE VIX has fallen 28% this month to 20.03. U.S. Treasuries continued their selloff, and auctions for $120 billion of 3-, 10- and 30-year bonds met with some mixed investor demand. Midway through March, the 2-year Treasury yield at 0.15% is up 3 basis points, the 10-year yield at 1.60% is up 20 basis points, and the 30-year at 2.36% is up 21 basis points.
Amid astonishing levels of corporate bond issuance, demand has not tapered off. Last week alone saw $53.5 billion of investment grade corporate issuance and $15.6 billion of high yield corporate sales. Investors did pull $5.33 billion from high yield corporate funds last week but added $1.1 billion to municipal bond funds. There was a fairly heavy new issue muni calendar at $10 billion yet municipal bond prices ended higher as the massive stimulus was seen as supporting sectors across the board, reducing fears of deteriorating credits and the likelihood of increasing defaults. Talk in Washington of the Administration’s plans for tax and infrastructure measures also served to buoy the outlook for tax-exempts. So far this month, AAA general obligation muni benchmarks are down across the board: the 2-year at 0.09% is down 10 basis points, the 10-year at 1.02% is down 12 basis points, and the 30-year at 1.65% is down 15 basis points. This week’s calendar is expected to exceed $10 billion but, once again, with very little in the way of yield offered to income-seeking investors who are reliant on their financial advisors and brokers to patiently sift through secondary market offerings for gems.
The markets remain highly sensitive to Federal Reserve announcements, what is said and not said, and how the statements are phrased. The greatest fears are of rate hikes and inflation coming too soon and too fast. Some traders fear a drop in liquidity if the Fed starts to taper its $120 billion per month bond-buying program now that nine of the emergency lending programs have expired and three more will end on March 31. Without much else to focus on for now, investors clung onto every word, pause and tone in Wednesday’s press conference. Housing starts, building permits, new and existing home sales data, several fourth quarter earnings releases and IPO activity are also drivers for a week where some dream, others accomplish, and a few—as always at this time of year—caution “Beware the Ides of March”.