Thursday, September 21, 2017

Duet Redux

Another duet of headlines with an interesting lesson, both from the Wall Street Journal:

Solar power death wish
Suniva Inc., a bankrupt solar-panel maker, and German-owned SolarWorld Americas have petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to impose tariffs on foreign-made crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells. 
Solar cells in the U.S. sell for around 27 cents a watt. The petitioners want to add a new duty of 40 cents a watt. They also want a floor price for imported panels of 78 cents a watt versus the market price of 37 cents. 
they’re resorting to Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974 because they don’t need to show they are victims of dumping or foreign government subsidies. They only need to show that imports have harmed them
California Democrats Target Tesla
The United Automobile Workers are struggling for a presence in Tesla’s Fremont plant, and organized labor has called in a political favor. 
Since 2010 California has offered a $2,500 rebate to encourage consumers to buy electric vehicles. But last week, at unions’ behest, Democrats introduced an amendment to cap-and-trade spending legislation that would require participating manufacturers to get a sign-off from the state labor secretary verifying that they are “fair and responsible in their treatment of workers.” 
The legislation, which passed Friday, is a direct shot at Tesla. The Clean Vehicle Rebate Project has amounted to a $82.5 million subsidy for the company
Both moves ought to pose a liberal conundrum. If you want carbon reduction, you want cheap solar cells, so that more people will buy them. The planet does not care where the solar cells are produced. If you want electric cars, you want cheap electric cars so that more people will buy them.

But those who falsely sold green energy as a job producer, a boon to the economy; not a costly alternative to fossil fuels, a cost that must be borne to save the planet, now face this conundrum.

The deeper lesson here is the corrosive nature of subsidies and protection. Once the government starts subsidizing solar cells and electric cars, there is a quite natural force demanding access to the subsidies. Why should the owners of the Tesla company get largesse from the taxpayers, and not their workers too?

Solar cells are just the latest embodiment of the infant industry fallacy -- that protection from competition will allow an industry to grow and become competitive.  Instead, they become infantile industries, expert and getting protections and subsidies not producing cheap solar cells.

The infrastructure paradox is similar. We need infrastructure. Yet federal contracting requirements, requirements for union workers and union wages, and everything else attracted to federal money being handed out, drive costs up to astronomical levels.

For energy, this is an abject lesson in the wisdom of a simple carbon (and methane) tax in place of all the subsidies and winner-and-loser-picking our government does. (Let's not fight about whether to do it. The point is if we want to restrict fossil fuels and subsidize a move to non-carbon energy, this is how to do it.) Subsidies and protection invite demands for subsidies and protection, not clean energy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stranded profits

The tax reform discussion includes the idea that by moving to a territorial system, US companies will bring lots of money stranded offshore back to the US, unleashing a wave of investment here. While I think a territorial system makes sense, as does reducing or eliminating the corporate tax, as a pure matter of economics, I don't think this repatriation argument makes sense.

Here's why. (The following is a story, not a fact about Apple accounting.) Apple sells an Iphone in Spain. Apple Spain pays a huge licensing fee on software, owned by Apple Ireland, so it's not a profit in Spain. Apple Ireland thus collects huge amounts of cash from all over the world, taxed at the low Irish corporate tax rate. Apple Ireland deposits this cash in an Irish bank. (I presume they do fancier things with the money, but I'm telling a story here). The cash is "stranded" overseas, right?

No. The Irish bank can lend the money anywhere. It can buy US mortgage backed securities, it can lend the money wholesale to US banks who lend it out to US businesses. It can even lend the money to Apple US. If Apple or any other US company wants to invest, they can borrow from the Irish bank. Conversely, if profits are repatriated to US banks, those banks can lend the money overseas.

If Apple's Irish bank invests exclusively in, say Spanish condos, then the Spanish bank that would have made the condo loan instead loans to the US. Conversely, even if the profits are "repatriated" to a US bank, if investment opportunities are better abroad, that's where the investment will happen.

You can't avoid two fundamental truths: 1) Money is fungible. 2) Savings - Investment = Net Exports.

Yes, there are some second order effects. If money comes back to US banks, US banks get to earn the fees. Internal capital can be cheaper then external; it's inefficient to send your own money to yourself through a bank. But these are second order, and that's not the argument being made.

It's still a good idea, but for other reasons. Reduction or elimination of corporate taxes will make US investment more profitable, and that will attract money from abroad. But don't count on a wave of repatriated profits to mean much more than a big financial change.  Even if it happens. There are many other reasons to keep pots of money overseas these days. Bad arguments for good policies are not, in the end, a good idea.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Sometimes the blog posts write themselves from contrasting newspaper headlines.

New York Times

New Gene-Therapy Treatments Will Carry Whopping Price Tags
By GINA KOLATA September 11, 2017

Emily Whitehead, the first pediatric patient to receive the gene-therapy treatment Kymriah, which put her leukemia into remission. The treatment has a $475,000 price tag, raising questions about how patients and insurers will pay. ...
One drug, to prevent blindness in those with a rare genetic disease, for example, is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000 per patient on average,..

Washington Post

The dam is breaking on Democrats’ embrace of single-payer
By Aaron Blake September 12 at 9:39 AM

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) became the fourth co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) “Medicare for all” health-care bill Monday. In doing so, he joined Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). 
What do those four senators have in common? Well, they just happen to constitute four of the eight most likely 2020 Democratic presidential nominees, according to the handy list I put out Friday. 
Update: Gillibrand just signed on to Sanders's "Medicare for all" bill. So now 5 of my top 8 potential 2020 Democratic nominees have now come out for the bill -- before it is even introduced. "Health care should be a right, not a privilege, so I will be joining Senator Bernie Sanders as a cosponsor on his Medicare-for-All legislation," Gillibrand said.
Hint. Budget constraints? Hint 2: get ready to start making lots of noise if you want treatment.

By the way, let us watch for the crucial buzzword question. Does "single payer" mean there is a single payer that anyone can use -- but you're free to buy and sell your own insurance on top of that, hopefully deregulated since there is no need to regulate anymore, everyone has access to medicare for all? Or does "single payer" mean there is a single payer that everyone must use -- private insurance, private practice, just paying cash illegal, to cross-subsidize the system? I fear the latter. We'll see.

The previous champion was stories on the same page in WSJ, roughly ``self driving trucks coming soon'' and ``shortage of truck drivers.'' I lost the link.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Online Asset Pricing is back!

The online Asset Pricing Ph.D. class is back! It died in a Coursera "upgrade," but it is now migrated over to Canvas.

Click here to go to the online class. My Asset Pricing webpage has links to the class, book, and many other useful materials.

It should be open and free to anyone, including all the quizzes, problem sets and exams.

Since it's on the Canvas system, if you are teaching at a University that uses Canvas, you should be able to integrate it with your class, assign all or part of it, and receive grades from quizzes and problem sets. Thus, you can use it as a flipped classroom, assign selected videos and quizzes in advance of a lecture.

It is also ideal for a Ph. D.  program summer school for year 0 or year 1. Again, through Canvas you should be able to assign the class, in whole or in part, and get grades.

It's also well suited to self-study. If you just want to watch the videos and read the notes, they are all here via youtube links on the Asset Pricing webpage.

Huge thanks to Emily Bembeneck and Allison Kallo at the University of Chicago, Mikhail Proshletsov, and above all to Nina Karnaukh now at Ohio State. Nina masterminded all the hard work of moving the class pages and quizzes from the Coursera system to the Canvas system, and fixing innumerable glitches along the way. Thanks also to the Booth School for paying for the transition.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In the name of Science

"Climate Feedback" has produced a "scientific review" of my WSJ oped with David Henderson on (Oped ungated full text here, see also associated blog post.)

In the blog post, I wrote,
"If it is not clear enough, nothing in this piece takes a stand on climate science, either affirming or denying current climate forecasts. I will be interested to see how quickly we are painted as unscientific climate-deniers."
Now we know the answer. 

To recap, the oped said nothing about climate science, nothing about climate computer model forecasts, and did not even question the integrated model forecasts of economic damage. We did not deny either climate change nor did we argue against CO2 mitigation policies in principle. For argument's sake we granted a rather extreme forecast (level of GDP reduced by 10% forever) of economic costs. We did not even question the highly questionable cost-benefit analyses of policies subject to cost benefit analysis. We mostly complained about the lack of any cost benefit analysis, and the quantitative nonsense of many claims.

So, it's curious that there could be any "scientific" review of a purely economic article in the first place. How do they do it? 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tax Reform Again

A Wall Street Journal oped on tax reform. This complements an earlier oped and see the tax link at right for many others.

The bottom line: I argue for a national VAT instead of (and that is crucial) individual and corporate income taxes, estate taxes, and anything else.

Why? I want to break out of our stale argument. "Lower taxes to boost the economy"  vs. "you just want tax cuts for the rich." It's not going to go anywhere.

I also want to break out of the process. Proposing cuts within the current structure of the tax code, even if proposing them with offsetting cuts in deductions, leads naturally right back to the mess we're in.

Once you tax income much of the rest of the mess follows inexorably.  If we go back to the beginning, and tax spending not income, so much mess vanishes.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On climate change 2

Now that 30 days have passed I can post the full Wall Street Journal climate change oped with David Henderson. The previous post has more commentary. A pdf is here.

By David R. Henderson and  John H. Cochrane
July 30, 2017 4:24 p.m. ET

Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.

It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.

To arrive at a wise policy response, we first need to consider how much economic damage climate change will do. Current models struggle to come up with economic costs commensurate with apocalyptic political rhetoric. Typical costs are well below 10% of gross domestic product in the year 2100 and beyond.

That’s a lot of money—but it’s a lot of years, too. Even 10% less GDP in 100 years corresponds to 0.1 percentage point less annual GDP growth. Climate change therefore does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth. If the goal is 10% more GDP in 100 years, pro-growth tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms would be far more effective.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yellen at Jackson Hole

Fed Chair Janet Yellen gave a thoughtful speech at the Jackson Hole conference.

The choice of topic, financial stability and the Fed's role in financial regulation and supervision, says a lot. Financial regulation, supervision, and other tinkering, is much more centrally a part of what the Fed is and does these days than standard monetary policy. Whether overnight interest rates go up or down a quarter of a percentage point may be the subject with the greatest ratio of talk to action, and of commentary to actual effect, in all of economics. Interest rates are likely to stay around 1% for the foreseeable future. Get used to it. But the Fed is deeply involved in running the financial system, and all the talk points to more. 

Rather unsurprisingly, she did not give the speech I might have given, or that some of the others campaigning for her job have given, bemoaning the current state of affairs. She's been in charge, after all. If she viewed the Dodd-Frank act as a grossly complex Rube Goldberg contraption, and the Fed only following silly rule-making dictates to comply with the law, she would have said so loudly long before this. Whether with an eye to reappointment, to write the first draft of history, or -- my sense of Ms. Yellen -- out of forthright Jon Snow-like irrepressible honesty, one should not have expected a stunning critique.  Moreover, her speech is dead-center of the world in which she lives, that of international policy and regulatory organizations. It would be a lot to expect a Fed chair to lead intellectually and to strike out far from the consensus of the bubble.

Still, I am disappointed. Even accepting her view of the crisis, and the current slow growth era, there are far more "Remaining Challenges" than her three paragraphs. There are far more questions to be asked, paths to choose, and fundamental choices to be made.

Which deregulation? 

Monday, July 31, 2017

On Climate Change

David Henderson and I wade in to perilous waters in the July 31 Wall Street Journal. We try to stake out a different and more productive conversation than the usual shouting match between alarmists and deniers.
Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.
It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.
As usual, I have to wait 30 days to post the whole thing.

As economists, we both have a healthy skepticism of large computer based forecasting models. The famous 1972 club of Rome forecast that we would run out of resources, and the grand failure of large scale Keynesian models in the late 1970s are two humbling examples. The "climate" models also feature a lot of questionable economics. A crucial question -- how much carbon will the world's economies add on their own, without Paris-accord policies? That's economics, very questionable economics, and not meteorology.

That said, however, the point of the oped is to try to shift the debate away from climate science and mixed climate-economic computer models. Stop arguing about climate, and let us instead investigate costs and benefits of policies. That strikes us as a much more fruitful place for discussion. If you are wary of the climate policy agenda, the costs and benefits of those policies are more fertile ground for discussion than the science of carbon emissions and atmospheric warming. If you only argue about the climate, then you implicitly admit that if the models are right about climate, the whole policy agenda follows. Do not admit that point. They may be right about climate and wrong about policy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thornton on interest rate humility

Dan Thornton has an interesting essay, ``The Limits of Monetary Policy: Why Interest Rates Don’t Matter.’’

Just why do we think that the Fed raising and lowering interest rates has a strong effect on output (or inflation)? Just why does the Fed control short-term interest rates rather than the money supply, or something else?

Dan's essay is a nice quick tour through the history of this question. No, there is not as much logic and evidence behind this hallowed belief as you might think, and yes, people did not always take the power of interest rates for granted as they seem to do now. Dan's historical tour is worth keeping in mind.

This question is especially relevant right now. We are unlikely to see big changes in interest rates going forward. And central banks are busy thinking of different things to control -- the size of the balance sheet; treasury, MBS, corporate bond, and even stock purchases; use of regulatory tools to control lending. So we may be on the cusp of a fairly major change in thinking about what central banks do -- what their primary tool is -- and how that tool affects the economy. (And, I hope, whether it is wise for central banks to use new tools that come along. Their mandate is not to be the great macroeconomic-financial planner after all.)

As Dan points out,
it is a well-known and well-established fact that interest rates are not very important for investment, or for spending decisions generally.
Quoting Bernanke and Gertler
… empirical studies of supposedly “interest-sensitive” components of aggregate spending [fixed investment, housing, inventories, and consumer durables] have in fact had great difficulty in identifying a quantitatively important effect of the neoclassical cost- of-capital variable [interest rates].
That is by and large true. But I see an alternative breaking out. Investment is strongly influenced by stock prices, by the risk premium in the cost of capital. The total cost of capital is risk premium plus risk free rate, and the risk premium varies much more than the risk free rate. 

Here is the latest version of a graph I've made several times to emphasize this point. ME/BE is the market to book ratio of the stock market, or "Q.'' P/(20xD) is the ratio of price to 20 x Dividends. IK is the ratio of investment to capital. 

Investment responds to the stock market, and the stock market moves because risk premiums move, not because interest rates move. 

The "alternative" then is the increasing amount of attention paid to the Fed's effect on stock and corporate bond prices, together with evidence like this that investment responds to risk premiums in stock and corporate bond prices. 

I am a long-time skeptic of the stories that say low levels of interest rates encourage asset price "bubbles." After all, borrowing at 1% and investing at 5% is the same as borrowing at 5% and investing at 9%. Why should the level matter to the risk premium? But those stories are repeated more and more often (like the story about interest rates!) So overall, what may break out is a story that the central bank can influence risk premiums-- this needs segmented markets, leveraged intermediaries, and other financial frictions, modern heirs to the "credit channel"-- and risk premiums influence investment. Macro-finance is full of this sort of analysis right now. 

I recoil at the idea that central banks should start operating this way -- targeting risky asset prices, using a range of tools to do it, and thereby trying to control investment spending.  Central planners can set prices too, but that doesn't mean they should. But this may be where the world is going. 

Now, back to Dan. After reminding us that consumption and investment spending does not respond (much) to interest rates, Dan's intellectual history. (Excerpts here, the original is worth reading) 
“So why do policymakers believe that monetary policy works through the interest rate channel and that monetary policy is powerful?” Well, there was one important event that brought economists and policymakers to this conclusion. Specifically, the Fed under Chairman Paul Volcker brought an end to the Great Inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Prior to this event, Keynesian economists … believed that monetary policy was totally ineffective. “Why?” Keynesians believed that the only thing monetary policy could affect was interest rates. Since interest rates were not important for spending, the effect of monetary policy actions on interest would have essentially no effect on spending and, consequently, no important effect on output. Keynesians believed that monetary policy was essentially useless.
There was a smaller group of economists called monetarists who believed that monetary policy could have a large effect on output. But they believed this effect was due to the effect of monetary actions on the supply of money, not interest rates. Both Keynesians and monetarists believed that the effect through the interest rate channel would be tiny.
It's worth remembering that the power of pure interest rate changes is a recent idea. Separately, 
Bernanke and Blinder find that monetary policy works through the bank credit channel of monetary policy—not through interest rates. However, … because banks have financed most of their lending by borrowing funds from the public since the mid-1960s, it is unlikely that the bank credit channel is important. …It is now well-recognized that the bank credit channel of monetary policy is very weak.
I'm not sure Bernanke and Blinder (as well as other fans) agree with the last sentence, but the bank lending channel has always suffered the problem that 1) Fed actions have little effect on lending -- as Dan mentions, reserve requirements really don't bite 2) Only very small businesses really rely on bank lending. There are lots of them, but not much GDP. 

So how did belief in the power of interest rates come about? 
When he became chairman of the Fed, Paul Volcker made ending inflation the goal of policy. … He announced that he wanted to pursue a new approach to implementing monetary policy that “involves leaning more heavily on the [monetary] aggregates in the period immediately ahead.” …it seems to have worked. Inflation declined from its April 1980 peak of 14.5% to about 2.4% in July 1983….The policy change was also followed by back-to-back recessions…. the fact that the change in policy was followed by a marked reduction in both inflation and output led economists and policymakers to dramatically change their view about the power of monetary policy to effect output and inflation.
…economists debated whether the success of the Volcker’s monetary policy was due to a marked reduction in the supply of money or to higher interest rates. But the growth rate of M1 monetary aggregate changed little over the period. Moreover, the growth rate of M2 actually increased. In contrast, the federal funds rate, which was 11.6% the day the FOMC changed policy, increased to a peak of 17.6% on October 22, 1979. The funds rate then cycled, hitting cyclical peaks above 20% in late 1980 and mid-1981. Given the behavior of the M1 and M2 monetary aggregates and the behavior of the federal funds rate during the period, a consensus formed around the idea that the success of Volcker’s policy was attributable to high interest rates not to slow money growth. 
Like the Phoenix, the idea that monetary policy worked through the interest rate channel rose from the ashes. … the FOMC adopted the federal funds rate as its policy instrument in the late 1980s, circa 1988. … Policymakers pay essentially no attention to monetary aggregates…
And academic analysis of monetary policy is focused entirely on interest rates. Dan doesn't mention new-Keynesian models, but they epitomize the current thinking. The Fed sets interest rates, with no money at all, and higher interest rates induce people to spend less today and more tomrrow. 
The problem is that nothing else changed. There have been no new studies showing that spending is much more sensitive to changes in interest rates than previously thought. … Bernanke and Gertler’s statement that monetary policy does not work through the interest channel is as true today as it was 20 year ago. What has changed is economists’ belief that monetary policy works through the interest rate channel. … economists’ and policymakers’ belief that monetary policy has strong effects on output through the interest rate channel is more akin to religion than to science. It is built on a belief that it seems to have worked once. 
This belief is reinforced by fact that few economists believe that policy could work through any of the other possible channels of policy: the exchange rate channel, the wealth effect channel, the money supply channel, or the credit channel. Monetary policy seems to work, but it cannot work through any of these other channels. Conclusion: it must work through the interest rate channel.
Quoting Alan Greenspan
We ran into the situation, as you may remember, when the money supply, nonborrowed reserves, and various other non-interest-rate measures on which the Committee had focused had in turn fallen by the wayside. We were left with interest rates because we had no alternative. … – Alan Greenspan, FOMC Transcript, July 1-2, 1997, pp. 80-81. 
Where does this leave us? In the short run, the fact remains. We have no alternative. If I were to wake up as Fed chair tomorrow, I'd move the interest rate levers just about the same way as anyone else does. In the short run, I think these reflections should add to our humility -- we really don't understand the mechanism as well as most analysis suggests, and a new idea will come sooner or later.

In the longer run, those new ideas seem to be breaking out. Central banks, increasingly gargantuan financial regulators, are using a wide range of tools to influence the economy via asset prices. In my own view this is a bad idea. But like most bad ideas it is slipping in sideways largely un noticed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ray of hope update

The July 13 Wall Street Journal editorial updates yesterday's ray of hope.
One remaining debate is over Ted Cruz’s “freedom option.” The Texas Senator’s amendment says that any insurer that offers at least one ObamaCare-compliant plan could also sell other types of coverage off the exchanges. The expectation is that a more competitive and dynamic insurance market will emerge outside of ObamaCare. Released from federal mandates and price controls, insurers could offer many more innovative products designed for individuals, rather than standardized coverage planned in Washington.
Mr. Cruz acknowledges that insurance markets could “segment,” meaning that younger and healthier people would gravitate to the Cruz option, where premiums are likely to be much cheaper. Older people with more health expenses would remain on ObamaCare, which bars insurers from charging higher premiums based on health risks and bans exclusions for pre-existing conditions.
The logic of the Cruz proposal is that there is a rough consensus among Republicans that government should guarantee access to coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. In that case, government should pay for this guarantee, in the form of a de facto high-risk insurance pool, rather than hiding the cost in cross-subsidies imposed on private citizens.
The virtue of this approach is transparency and honesty. In a bifurcated market, premiums would be much higher for ObamaCare plans. But they’d be offset for consumers by much higher federal subsidies that rise with premiums...
So, the solution envisioned yesterday could actually emerge. The exchanges become what they already are -- places to get subsidies. Where you go to sign up for medicare, income-based premium subsidies, and so on. [The "rough consensus" really is not all that much about preexisting conditions. It is about subsidies based on income and age.] The rest of the market can be free.

It's not perfect. If we "bifurcate," just why should insurance companies have to offer an exchange policy? You can smell a cross subsidy from off exchange to on-exchange already, together with restrictions on competition to enforce that cross subsidy.

Will the off exchange policies offer guaranteed renewability, portability from state to state, and portability into and out of employment? Not yet, I think, but that's where they need to go.

The WSJ emphasizes preexisting conditions, but let's make a distinction between people with preexisting conditions right now, the day after Obamacare destroyed the individual market, and people who get conditions next year that become preexisting the year after that.

If the point of exchanges is to be high risk pools forever, for anyone who in the future develops a preexisting condition as the WSJ seems to envision, then Sen. Cruz free market idea will be very weak. It will offer people one year worth of cheap insurance, and then the minute anyone gets actually sick they transition to subsidized insurance.

The combination of free market and exchange has to be designed to keep people out of the exchanges. The previous limits on signing up for people who, starting a year from now, do not have continuous coverage, go a step in that direction. You want people to buy health insurance not so much for this year's expenses, but for the right to be covered next year if they develop a preexisting condition, and then to stay with their individual policies.

Yes, people who have preexisting conditions now cannot jump in to the market, because the market doesn't exist. But that does not mean that subsidized exchanges should forever be an absorbing state for anyone who gets sick or old. Which is all of us.

Still, the outlines of subsidies for those who need them, and freedom for the rest of us, seems to be on the table.


Or maybe not. Mike Cannon writes there will be price controls on the "free" market alternative, linking them to exchange policies. Together with a requirement to offer exchange policies, this looks just like a small broadening of exchange policies, cross subsidies intact.  Since the exchange policies are specific to counties, I can't see how this is portable across even county lines, let alone state lines, guaranteed renewable,  and so forth.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A ray of health insurance hope

Kristina Peterson, covering the senate health bill in in the July 11 Wall Street Journal reports a ray of hope for our legislative and policy process:
“If we’re going to subsidize Americans who can’t afford health insurance, do it directly. Don’t do it through the premiums of others,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) 
Few wiser words were spoken.

Our government wants to subsidize some people's health insurance -- poor, sick, old, disabled, veterans, children, people with specific diseases, and so on. And, in many cases, rightly so.  But our politics are allergic to "tax and spend." So, we hide it -- we force some people to buy overpriced insurance to subsidize others.

It is financially completely equivalent to taxing and spending. To those who don't want "taxing and spending," you are fooling yourself by allowing cross subsidies instead.

Except it's far more damaging to the economy than the disincentives of broad-based taxation.

Cross-subsidies cannot stand competition.

If competition and free entry are allowed, insurers offer policies tailored to the wealthy, healthy, young, able-bodied, etc., and peel them off from the cross-subsidy scheme. The equivalent tax and spend can simply say, here is a voucher, go buy health care and insurance from an innovative, competitive, dynamic, cost conscious markets.

A health care and insurance market that subsidizes certain groups cannot be competitive. Then costs spiral, then health care and insurance are even more "unaffordable," then the need for subsidies is greater, the overpriced insurance rises to ridiculous costs, and people need to be herded ever more reluctantly into the system.

Peterson's reporting neatly captures this lovely revelation.
The biggest sticking point in recent days has centered on a provision supported by GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and  Mike Lee of Utah that would allow insurers that sell plans complying with ACA regulations to also sell health policies that don’t.
Well, that sounds sensible, no? Why ban competition and innovation in health insurance? Whatever happened to selling insurance across state lines anyway? Well,
Health analysts say that would likely lower premiums for younger, healthier people, who would buy more limited policies, while causing premiums to rise for people with pre-existing conditions, who would buy the more comprehensive plans that comply with the ACA.
“His proposal would lead to unaffordable rates for people with pre-existing conditions,” Ms. Collins said Monday of Mr. Cruz’s proposal.
Cross subsidies cannot stand competition.

Senator Flake has it right. We are at a crossroads. America can choose to acknowledge the extent of subsidies we wish to have in our health care system, and forthrightly tax people to provide subsidies, transparently, on budget, where we can see what we're doing, and allow a vibrant competitive health care and insurance market to emerge -- or we can continue the cross-subsidy / anti-competition spiral to its inevitable denouement.

The Cruz/Lee/Collins/Flake debate hopefully makes that choice  abundantly clear. That this little bit of freedom -- you're allowed to sell off-exchange policies again -- cannot be tolerated ought to make the choice so clear, so stark, so simple that perhaps they will all see that "muddle through" is at an end.

Michael E. C. Moss puts it well in a related blog post,
the obvious compromise, the only good solution, is to do both: free-market pricing of healthcare and insurance in order to drive down prices, coupled with government subsidies for the needy to enable them to buy care and insurance at market prices. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Free market health care?

Farzon Nahvi, writing in the New York Times, reiterates the tired argument that health care can't be left to the free market, because people in comas can't negotiate.
As an emergency medicine physician in a busy urban hospital, I have patients brought to me unconscious several times a day...
Well, if the Times can recirculate tired stories, I can recirculate responses. Responding to an eerily similar essay way back in 2012, I argued in "After the ACA"  (starting p. 189)
Yes, a guy in the ambulance on his way to the hospital with a heart attack is not in a good position to negotiate. But what fraction of health-care and its expense is caused by people with sudden, unexpected, debilitating conditions requiring immediate treatment? How many patients are literally passed out? Answer: next to none.

What does this story mean about treatment for, say, an obese person with diabetes and multiple complications, needing decades of treatment? For a cancer patient, facing years of choices over multiple experimental treatments? For a family, choosing long-term care options for a grandmother with dementia?

Most of the expense and problem in our healthcare system involves treatment of chronic conditions or (what turns out to be) end-of-life care, and involve many difficult decisions involving course of treatment, extent of treatment, method of delivery, and so on. These people can shop. Our healthcare system actually does a pretty decent job with heart attacks.

And even then . . . have they no families? If I’m on the way to the hospital, I call my wife. She is a heck of a negotiator.

Moreover, healthcare is not a spot market, which people think about once, at fifty-five, when they get a heart attack. It is a long-term relationship. When your car breaks down at the side of the road, you’re in a poor position to negotiate with the tow-truck driver. That is why you join AAA. If you, by virtue of being human, might someday need treatment for a heart attack, might you not purchase health insurance, or at least shop ahead of time for a long-term relationship to your doctor, who will help to arrange hospital care?

And what choices really need to be made here? Why are we even talking about “negotiation?” Look at any functional, competitive business. As a matter of fact, roadside car repair and gas stations on interstates are remarkably honest, even though most of their customers meet them once. In a competitive, transparent market, a hospital that routinely overcharged cash customers with heart attacks would be creamed by reviews, to say nothing of lawsuits from angry patients. Life is not a one-shot game. Competition leads to clear posted prices, and businesses anxious to give a reputation for honest and ef cient service.

So this is not even a realistic situation.

To be sure, some conditions really are unexpected and incapacitating. Not everyone has a family. There will be people who are so obtuse they would not get around to thinking about these things even if we were a society that let people die in the gutter, which we are not, and maybe some hospital somewhere would pad someone’s bill a bit. (As if they do not now!)

But now we are back to the straw man fallacy. Once again, the idea that ACA is a thoughtful, minimally designed intervention to solve the remaining problem of poor negotiating ability by people with sudden unexpected and debilitating health crises is ludicrous. As is the argument that we should accept the entire ACA because of this issue.
More generally, (p. 185)
There is a more general point here... Critics adduce a hypothetical situation in which one person might be ill served by a straw-man completely unregulated market, with no charity or other care (which we have had for over eight hundred years, long before any government involvement at all), which nobody is advocating. They conclude that the hypothetical justifies the thousands of pages of the ACA, tens of thousands of pages of subsidiary regulation, and the mass of additional federal, state, and local regulation applying to every single person in the country.

How is it that we accept this deeply illogical argument, or that anyone making it expects it to be taken seriously? Will not one person fall through the cracks or be ill-served by the highly regulated system? If I find one Canadian grandma denied a hip replacement or one elderly person who cannot get a doctor to take her as a Medicare patient, why do I not get to conclude that all regulation is hopeless and that only an absolutely free market can function? Both straw men are ludicrous, but somehow smart people make the first one, in print, and everyone nods wisely.
(Sorry for recycling, but good prose is hard!)

This is also great example of selected sampling and the dangers of making policy by anecdote. I'm sure Dr. Nahvi is a wonderful and caring emergency room physician. But despite the vividness of his experience, that does not make him a great expert on policy. In a completely heartless free market, most of the people he describes showing up on his doorstep would have bought catastrophic coverage. They are employed, normal people who buy cellphones, life insurance, car insurance and home insurance. (That's his point -- poor people are treated for free in emergency rooms. His point is entirely the cost of treatment, for that extremely narrow group, people with assets who somehow don't have insurance.)  As a doctor, he does not see that economic counterfactual, or how cheap unregulated catastrophic coverage would be.  And emergency room physicians dealing with comatose patients are not exactly an unbiased sample of the health care system. Even if such patients need to have government support, just why does a routine dermatologist visit need to be subject to the tender mercies of the Federal Government?

And leave it to the times to deliberately confuse health care with health insurance, and to get in a gratuitous swipe at Paul Ryan,
When it comes to health care coverage, House Speaker Paul Ryan says, “We’re going to have a free market, and you buy what you want to buy,” and if people don’t want it, “then they won’t buy it.” In this model of health care, the patient is consumer, and he must decide whether the goods and services he wants to protect his life are worth the cost.
The health care debate has, apparently, become like the old joke about jokes in prison. One inmate says "31" and everyone laughs. Another says "22", and they laugh again. The new guy says "11!" and is greeted with silence. "What's wrong? he asks." "You didn't tell it right" they answer.

Well, "22" says the Times. "35" say I. We're going to make a lot of progress this way. At least people like me acknowledge and respond to their view. The bubble, apparently, is a one-way street.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What's good about economics (sometimes)

Bryan Caplan has a nice post at ecconlib. The last part is an ode to the value of simple economic theory, much disparaged in public debate.

Bryan's central point: Economic theory lets you vastly broaden the range of experience that you can bring to one question -- the effect of minimum wages in Seattle, for example. Economic theory also forces logical consistency that would not otherwise be obvious. You can't argue that the labor demand curve is vertical today, for the minimum wage, and horizontal tomorrow, for immigrants. There is one labor demand curve, and it is what it is. Economics lets one experience illuminate the other, and done right forces politically uncomfortable consistency on those views. You can't argue that sticky too-high wages cause unemployment in recessions and in Greece, and not argue that sticky too-high wages from minimum wages laws do not cause unemployment in Seattle.

This kind of integrated thinking is far too rare in evaluating economic policies. But that's the fault of economists, not of economics.


Research doesn't have to officially be about the minimum wage to be highly relevant to the debate.  All of the following empirical literatures support the orthodox view that the minimum wage has pronounced disemployment effects: 
1. The literature on the effect of low-skilled immigration on native wages.  A strong consensus finds that large increases in low-skilled immigration have little effect on low-skilled native wages.  David Card himself is a major contributor here, most famously for his study of the Mariel boatlift.  These results imply a highly elastic demand curve for low-skilled labor, which in turn implies a large disemployment effect of the minimum wage.
This consensus among immigration researchers is so strong that George Borjas titled his dissenting paper "The Labor Demand Curve Is Downward Sloping."  If this were a paper on the minimum wage, readers would assume Borjas was arguing that the labor demand curve is downward-sloping rather than vertical.  Since he's writing about immigration, however, he's actually claiming the labor demand curve is downward-sloping rather than horizontal!
2. The literature on the effect of European labor market regulation. Most economists who study European labor markets admit that strict labor market regulations are an important cause of high long-term unemployment.  When I ask random European economists, they tell me, "The economics is clear; the problem is politics," meaning that European governments are afraid to embrace the deregulation they know they need to restore full employment.  To be fair, high minimum wages are only one facet of European labor market regulation.  But if you find that one kind of regulation that raises labor costs reduces employment, the reasonable inference to draw is that any regulation that raises labor costs has similar effects - including, of course, the minimum wage.
3. The literature on the effects of price controls in general.  There are vast empirical literatures studying the effects of price controls of housing (rent control), agriculture (price supports), energy (oil and gas price controls), banking (Regulation Q) etc.  Each of these literatures bolsters the textbook story about the effect of price controls - and therefore ipso facto bolsters the textbook story about the effect of price controls in the labor market.  
If you object, "Evidence on rent control is only relevant for housing markets, not labor markets," I'll retort, "In that case, evidence on the minimum wage in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1990s is only relevant for those two states during that decade."  My point: If you can't generalize empirical results from one market to another, you can't generalize empirical results from one state to another, or one era to another.  And if that's what you think, empirical work is a waste of time.
4. The literature on Keynesian macroeconomics.  If you're even mildly Keynesian, you know that downward nominal wage rigidity occasionally leads to lots of involuntary unemployment.  If, like most Keynesians, you think that your view is backed by overwhelming empirical evidence, I have a challenge for you: Explain why market-driven downward nominal wage rigidity leads to unemployment without implying that a government-imposed minimum wage leads to unemployment.  The challenge is tough because the whole point of the minimum wage is to intensify what Keynesians correctly see as the fundamental cause of unemployment: The failure of nominal wages to fall until the market clears.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


In case you stay up at night worrying about the next financial crisis, the good folks at the Financial Stability Board have produced a nice soothing little video (original link in case the embed doesn't work, and so you can see that no, I'm not making this up),

The short summary:

Safer, Simpler, Fairer 
3 July 2017 
A decade on since the start of the global financial crisis, G20 countries have rebuilt the financial system so that it serves society, not the other way round. 
By fixing the fault lines that caused the crisis, the financial system is now safer, simpler and fairer than before.   
View and share our videos that explain the G20's work to reform the financial system.
As cheery propaganda, it's not quite up to the Chinese "belt and road" video standard, but pretty good. It needs more puppies and singing children. As unintentional humor, it scores highly. I mean, wasn't "safer" enough, questionable as it is? Did they really have to stretch for simpler and fairer? I don't think Dodd and Frank themselves buy that one.  As a good link to have around for the next financial crisis, better still. As an insight into the wisdom of the Financial Stability Board... well, sometimes I find things that leave even me sputtering to find a pithy summary. You'll have to enjoy it on your own, and try to come up with something good in the comments.

Update: Look at the "capital" bucket. What capital ratio is in the video? What capital ratio is in real life?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mallaby, the Fed, and technocratic illusions.

One of the frustrations -- or perhaps challenges -- of studying monetary economics and monetary policy is howFed talk and writing on economic mechanisms, causal channels, and effects of policies is far ahead of our actual, scientific knowledge. And writers outside the Fed go leaps and bounds beyond the Fed in advocating strong policies based on the latest stories.

A good example is Sebastian Mallaby, author of "The Man Who Knew: The Life & Times of Alan Greenspan," who wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal Review, that the Fed should surprise us more.

His basic idea: the Fed should monitor asset prices; diagnose when a boom turns in to a bubble; and then actively suppress higher stock prices. And, in addition to interest rates, asset sales, "macro-prudential" regulation (telling banks to stop lending), the Fed should deliberately surprise markets more, adding volatility, in place of central banks' and governments' centuries-old quest (often illusory) to smooth asset prices.
By being less transparent—and reserving the option of deliberately ambushing investors with a shock move—the Fed could discourage them from taking too much risk. 
The painfully learned lesson from the late 1990s and mid-2000s is that excess financial serenity leads to excess risk-taking, which in turn increases the chances of a blowup.
But the equally hard lesson of 2008 hasn’t yet been absorbed: that they [the Fed] should embrace modest, short-term market instability to head off truly disruptive crashes over the horizon. Instead, the calmer markets remain, the prouder the central bankers feel.
Mr. Greenspan and his colleagues faced the danger that the interest rate that would stabilize consumer prices would also destabilize asset prices. The Fed could have escaped this dilemma by acting less predictably. Instead, it telegraphed its intentions and avoided surprises.
Rather breathtaking, no? The last paragraph adds more -- when the Fed wants to lower interest rates to stoke the economy, that causes "bubbles," and the Fed should offset the bubble with deliberate volatility. Hit the gas and the brake at the same time. Greenspan wasn't obscure enough.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Automation and jobs

I am often asked to opine about whether automation will destroy all the jobs. Yes, we talk about tractors, which brought farm employment from something like 70% of the country at the beginning of the 20th century to about 3% today. And cars, which put the horse drivers out of business. And trains, which put the canal boats out of business.

A more recent case occurred to me. This is what offices looked like in the 1950s and 1960s:

Typing Pool. Source: Getty Images

This is a "typing pool." There used to be basketball-court sized rooms that looked like this, all over the place, staffed almost exclusively by  women.

Then along came the copier -- many of these women are copying documents by typing them over again with a few sheets of carbon paper -- the fax machine, the word processor, the PC. And that's just typing. Accounting involved similar roomfuls of women with adding machines. Filing disappeared. Roomfuls of women used to operate telephone switchboards, now all automated.

This memory lives on in the architecture of universities. All the old buildings have empty hutches for secretaries.

If you are prognosticating in about 1970, and someone asks, "what will happen now that women want to join the workforce, but office automation is going to destroy all their jobs?" It would be a pretty gloomy forecast.

What actually happened: Female labor force increased from 20 million to 75 million. The female participation rate increased from below 35% to 60%. Women's wages relative to men rose -- they moved in to higher productivity activities than typing the same memo over a hundred times. Businesses expanded. And no, 55 million men are not out on the streets begging for spare change.

Civilian Labor Force Level: Women

Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate: Women

I'm simplifying of course. And surely some people with specific skills -- shorthand, typing without making mistakes, and so on -- who could not retrain didn't do as well as others. But the magnitude of the phenomenon is pretty impressive.

Update. So did women just take all the men's jobs? As MC points out, the male labor force participation rate did decline, from 87.5 to 70.0. That's a big, worrisome decline. But it's 15 percentage points, while the women's increase was 25 percentage points.

But even if women are moving in and men are moving out of employment, that does make the case that you don't just look at who has what jobs now threatened by automation! The typing pool got better jobs.

Please (please!) keep in mind the point here. No, this is not a post about all the ills of the labor market, and "middle class" America, and all the rest. Yes, there are plenty. The narrow point is, will automation mean that all the jobs vanish. In this case, even combined with a large expansion of the people wanting to work, it did not.

Also the male labor force expanded from 45 million to 82 million. So the idea that there is a fixed number of jobs and if women take them men lose them is not true.

Monday, June 26, 2017

More non-voting shares

Tim Kroencke at the University of Basel wrote a nice follow up on non-voting shares (previous posts here and here) , which I share with permission. Some of the controversy was whether companies would issue shares and whether investors would by them. It turns out, yes, and he sends a gorgeous example in which control rights and cash flow rights are priced differently and react to different events:


In Germany, it is quite common for large companies to issue voting shares (Stammaktien) and non-voting shares (Vorzugsaktien) and one can make nice case studies. Here is one I did a while ago,  that I have updated today, and I want to share with you:

In 2005, Porsche started to buy Volkswagen shares. In 2008, it became obvious that Porsche tried to overtake Volkswagen and the price of voting shares, and only the voting shares, skyrocked. Volkswagen became the world’s biggest company…  well, for a couple of days.

Some figures to give perspective: first, the share price of non-voting vs voting Volkswagen shares traded in Frankfurt:

Work and incentives.

Ed Glaeser has a thoughtful essay at City Journal, "The War on Work -- and How to End It.''

It is interesting that our political class says it wants more Americans to work. Yet there are few activities as hit by disincentives and regulatory barriers than the simple act of paying another person to do something for you.

With wide range and long historical perspective, Ed points out the slow decline in the fraction of the population working, especially prime-age men.
From 1945 to 1968, only 5 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54—prime-age males—were out of work. ...As of December 2016, 15.2 percent of prime-age men were jobless  
These are "out of the labor force," not looking for work. We are arguably at a business cycle peak, with a low unemployment rate -- defined as those looking for work.
Joblessness is disproportionately a condition of the poorly educated. While 72 percent of college graduates over age 25 have jobs, only 41 percent of high school dropouts are working. 
Why? I'm not going to restate the whole thoughtful essay but the disincentives caused by safety net programs are a big part of the story:
...Social Security and unemployment insurance,  National disability insurance,  Medicaid and food stamps, housing vouchers... 
These various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. ... After 1984, though, millions went on the disability rolls. And since disability payments vanish if the disabled person starts earning more than $1,170 per month, the disabled tend to stay disabled. The economists David Autor and Mark Duggan found that the share of adults aged 25–64 receiving disability insurance increased from 2.2 percent in 1985 to 4.1 percent 20 years later.... 
Other social-welfare programs operate in a similar way. Unemployment insurance stops completely when someone gets a job, which may explain why economist Bruce Meyer found that the unemployed tend to find jobs just as their insurance payments run out. Food-stamp and housing-voucher payments drop 30 percent when a recipient’s income rises past a set threshold by just $1. Elementary economics tells us that paying people to be or stay jobless will increase joblessness.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Non-voting shares response

Todd Henderson and Dorothy Shapiro wrote me a thoughtful response to my post on non-voting shares. Todd and Dorothy:

Response to Cochrane

We are grateful for Cochrane’s thoughtful response to our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Space limitations prevent us from giving the necessary treatment to our ideas, but he is right to push us to be careful in our analysis, no matter the limits. We look forward to addressing his concerns and others in a forthcoming article.

In the meantime, here is a quick response to the thrust of Cochrane’s critique.

There is a logical inconsistency in Cochrane’s post—his “modest proposal” would require more legal change to accomplish than ours. (And we are the ones with a vested interest in more law!) For one, it’s not clear that companies would willingly issue non-voting stock in addition to voting stock (and in the right amounts)—this occurs very rarely in practice, if ever.

Second, even if the shares existed, Cochrane assumes that index funds would willingly buy them, although there’s no evidence to suggest that this would occur.

The hostile reaction from large passive institutional investors, including BlackRock and Vanguard, to the Snapchat IPO and other recent dual class stock offerings make it clear that passive funds wouldn’t buy non-voting stock willingly—institutional investors participated in those offerings under protest and have since been advocating for reforms that would prevent future non-voting offerings, even going so far as to lobby Russel FTSE to delist companies that have dual class shares.

It’s also unlikely that non-voting stock would be much cheaper than voting stock—empirical evidence has demonstrated that often, non-voting stock doesn’t trade at any discount to voting stock (such as when there's a controlling shareholder or the company is well run).

Even if passive funds could purchase non-voting shares at a small discount, it’s not obvious that they would have any incentive to do so. Index funds have the sole goal of replicating the performance of an index. Why would they want to get a different product for a lower price? This is especially true when doing so would cause them to give up power and influence over some of the companies that they invest in (for a small benefit that investors are unlikely to recognize).

So, under Cochrane’s proposal, the law would have to not only require companies to issue non-voting shares, it would also need to require index funds to buy them. Talk about a lot of law! (Read: coercion.) Not only would this be a more dramatic change than the one that we propose, it would surely lead to a worse world. As an example, there could be liquidity concerns—if passive funds wanted to sell en masse (as can happen when funds are tracking the same index), there would be no buyers. And, if passive funds instead wanted to buy, there would be no sellers (and in this situation, it's unlikely that the non-voting shares would really trade at a discount).

By contrast, our solution--encouraging (but not requiring) passive funds to abstain from voting—is much less intrusive. Rather than mandating the creation of a new market of non-voting shares, we advocate a voluntary legal change that would permit natural correctives to any corner solution. The concern seems to be that if index funds abstain, too much power will be vested in the hands of activists, not all of whom will be interested in long-term shareholder value. But if index funds are merely encouraged to abstain unless they have no strong interest in the outcome, then there is a natural, market-based corrective to this problem. If activists go overboard, then index funds will have a strong interest, and reenter the voting market at that time. In a sense, Cochrane’s critique is ironic: we are calling for less law. We want law to get out of the way, by letting index funds act naturally—to not vote when they have no interest in doing so, and where they have no comparative advantage in the process. (Our other alternative, a legal duty to vote in an informed matter, and not just blindly follow ISS and other proxy advisors, is a clear second best.)


A little response-response clarification:

I do not envision any coercion!  So I  deny "under Cochrane’s proposal, the law would have to not only require companies to issue non-voting shares, it would also need to require index funds to buy them."

Index funds need to wake up and ask for non-voting shares, and then companies will issue them. The funds get a discount and absolution from legal trouble. Or companies need to wake up and offer non-voting shares to index funds. The companies get a new source of financing.

The non-voting shares I have in mind need do need a lot of smart lawyering and contract writing by people like Todd and Dorothy.  I accept the point that current non-voting shares are not as protected as they should be, that the promise ``you get exactly as much money as the voting shares, and you can sue as bondholders do if you don't'' needs teeth.

Indeed, the market is hostile to non-voting shares because current non-voting shares are designed to concentrate control with insiders, not to create a vibrant outside market for corporate control. That's the last thing insiders want, and a reason that companies will be slow to offer such shares unless funds start demanding them.

Sometimes the world hasn't arrived by itself at the optimum, just because nobody thought of it, not because there is a market failure, and not because law has not compelled it. We live in a time of legal and financial innovation, not just gadget innovation.

And index funds not voting aggressively is not a screaming problem that can't take some time to sort out.

(How to start a fight in a libertarian bar -- "You're advocating government intervention! No, you're advocating government intervention! I probably should have left that out of the original, and there is not much need to spend time on it in further discussion. Laws and contracts and courts are all on the menu at the libertarian bar.)



This is a good point. Perhaps we just need some good intermediation/financial engineering for index funds to routinely lend out their shares around votes.

Update 2 here