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Archive for September, 2009

From a budget perspective, the Baucus bill is a major step forward from the earlier HELP and House bills. There remains lots of room for improvement, and I am certainly not endorsing the bill at this point. But I do believe that Chairman Baucus and his team deserve credit for improvements on at least four important fronts: overall budget impact, doctor payment rates in Medicare, tax increases, and communications.

1. On paper, at least, the bill satisfies three key budget tests. It doesn’t add to the deficit over the ten-year budget window, it doesn’t add to the deficit in the tenth year of the window, and it doesn’t add to the deficit in years beyond the window. Indeed, it appears to reduce the deficit over each of those periods.

As CBO hinted in its cost estimate and Greg Mankiw discusses on his blog, there are reasons to doubt whether some proposed spending reductions and tax increases would actually materialize. Thus, the actual budget effects may not be as rosy. That’s a huge issue. But even with that caveat, the Baucus bill is a major improvement over proposals that didn’t even try to hit these budget targets.

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Yesterday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus released his much-awaited health care proposal. In his announcement, he described it as a costing $856 billion over the next ten years, costs that would be more than paid for by other spending reductions and tax increases.

Later in the day, the Congressional Budget Office released its preliminary estimate of the budget impacts of the bill. That estimate shows a $774 billion cost for the bill’s provisions that expand coverage. As a result, some commentators have suggested that Baucus somehow misspoke and over-stated how much his bill would cost by more than $80 billion.

That is not correct.

Why? Because the bill does more than expand coverage. It also increases spending on various health programs.

For example, it provides a one year “doctor fix”, delaying by a year dramatic cuts in Medicare payment rates. CBO estimates that provision has a ten-year cost of about $11 billion.

The bill also expands the prescription drug benefit in Medicare. That provision would cost more than $17 billion over ten years.

Those two provisions alone imply that the bill costs a bit more than $800 billion. And there are numerous other spending increases that would cost at least a few tens of billions more. I must admit that I couldn’t find my way all the way up to $856 billion when I quickly reviewed them, but it’s clear that the true cost of the bill is notably higher than $774 billion for the coverage expansions alone.

The larger point is that we should be careful to identify all the important provisions in these competing bills, and keep track of gross budget impacts, not just net impacts. I raised this issue in my discussion of the House health bill. That bill was often touted as costing around $1 trillion over ten years, but the actual cost of expanding coverage was closer to $1.3 trillion. And a permanent fix to the Medicare doctor issues would have added more than $200 billion to that.

I haven’t gone back to look at all the details, but on apples-to-apples basis, the House bill would cost at least $1.5 trillion compared to the $800 billion plus of the Baucus bill.

I think Chairman Baucus should be commended for trying to inject some gross (in the good sense) figures, rather than net ones into this debate. That can only improve the quality of the discussion. (But it would be great to get some more guidance on how to get to exactly the $856 billion figure).

Note for budget geeks: The biggest net-vs-gross question is how to think about the $30 billion budget impact of premium interactions. If those interactions are happening because of efforts to reduce costs, then they shouldn’t be included in the gross cost figure. If they are happening because of efforts to increase costs, then they should.

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As you have undoubtedly noticed, this week marks the one-year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers–the moment at which the financial crisis became a severe economic crisis.

I did an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday to discuss some of the lessons learned. (My wife’s comment  on the interview: “You need to straighten your collar next time.”)

Going in, I had two basic points I wanted to make:

  • First, the fall of Lehman Brothers was the moment that the abstract threat of “systemic risk” became tangible to many policy makers and the public. As we progressed from propping up Bear Stearns to taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, many observers began to suffer from policy fatigue, and, in some circles, there was concern that the scale of the government actions might be disproportionate to the alleged, but little-seen, risk of a systemic crisis. That changed when Lehman fell, and the dominoes started toppling.
  • Second, we still have our work cut out for us. The major items on our to do list include:

(1) Taking steps to avoid such enormous shocks in the future (e.g., by increasing capital requirements and reducing allowed leverage for financial firms).

(2) Fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail (or, if you prefer, too-interconnected-to-fail). Unfortunately, this problem has worsened, in many ways, since the crisis began. Some gigantic firms have grown even larger. And the necessary interventions to prop up the financial sector have reinforced the idea that the government will prevent these firms from failing in the future.

(3) Disentangling the government from private firms, so that it can again act as a referee, not as a player. That will take time given the enormous investment portfolio that the government has amassed in financial firms and the auto companies. It is heartening, however, that even Citigroup is beginning to ponder how to raise outside capital and reduce the government stake.

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Yesterday, my students heard my second lecture on supply and demand. You know, the one in which we examined how government policies like rent control and the minimum wage can affect market outcomes. Those are important examples, and I dutifully discussed both of them. But I must admit they also feel a smidgen stale – how many millions of students have seen a lecture on rent control and the minimum wage?

To spice things up, I threw in a third example of government intervention: the market for guaranteed student loans. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the government has a major program in which it provides guarantees for private student loans. Under the program, lenders are protected against the risk of future defaults by the student borrowers. In return for providing these loans, the lenders receive interest payments that are limited by a formula that is specified in law. (These payments are determined completely separately from the amounts that are charged to students which, for simplicity, I will ignore in what follows.)

This program is currently the focus of a major political battle: the Obama administration has proposed eliminating the program and replacing it with direct loans from the government (which currently account for a much smaller portion of the market). But I didn’t get into that larger debate in class. Instead, the reason I focused on this program is that it has experienced two crises in recent years:

  • In 2006 and 2007, the crisis was kickbacks. In their enthusiasm to win more business, private lenders were offering “inducements” to schools and student loan officers in order to get preferred access to students who wanted loans.
  • In 2008, the crisis was a lack of lending. In large part because of the financial crisis, private lenders had no enthusiasm whatsoever for making loans. As a result, there was a real risk that students might not be able to get loans.

As I told my students, I think both of these crises had the same root cause: the fact that the government, rather than market forces, determined how much lenders were paid for making guaranteed student loans. In both cases, the government got the payment levels wrong, and the crises followed soon thereafter.

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In a series of posts (here, here, and here), I have expressed concern that Google directs its users to what I think is the “wrong” measure of unemployment. For example, if you search for “unemployment rate United States” today, it will tell you that the U.S. unemployment rate in August was 9.6%, when the actual figure is 9.7%.

This discrepancy arises because Google directs users to data that haven’t been adjusted for seasonal variations. Almost all discussions of the national economy, however, use data that have been seasonally-adjusted. Why? Because seasonally-adjusted data (usually) make it easier to figure out what’s actually happening in the economy. The unemployment rate always spikes up in January, for example, because retailers lay off their Christmas help. But that doesn’t mean that we should get concerned about the economy every January. Instead, we should ask how the January increase in the unemployment rate compares to a typical year. That’s what seasonal adjustment does.

My concern about Google’s approach is that many (if not most) data users know nothing about seasonal adjustment. They simply want to know what the unemployment rate is and how it has changed over time. Directing those users to the non-seasonally-adjusted data thus seems like a form of search malpractice.

I’ve wondered why Google has chosen this approach, and thus was thrilled when reader Jonathan Biggar provided the answer in a recent comment. Jonathan writes:

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A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:

J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.

Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.

And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?

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Google and Me

A strange this happened last week: Google misplaced my blog.

I’ve run all the usual diagnostics, and I can confirm that Google still knows that my blog exists. But it no longer appears in any of the searches – e.g., “natural gas price”, “unemployment”, “budget deficit”, or “brooke boemio” – that used to help new readers find posts on my site.

Things are so bad, in fact, that my blog doesn’t even come up when you search for “donald marron”. I feel an existential crisis coming on.

I presume this is just the result of some obscure algorithm tweak and that, over time, my posts will reappear in the ranks of the Google-worthy. But it’s fun to imagine that Google is mad at me for my posts criticizing the way it reports unemployment data.

I just checked and, no surprise, Google is still reporting the wrong data. If you search for “unemployment rate”, Google will tell you that the U.S. unemployment rate was 9.6% in August, when in fact it was 9.7%. Why the difference? Because Google is reporting an obscure measure of unemployment, not the one used by 99% of the world.

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The busy folks at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a quartet of studies today, covering the economic impacts of:

I suspect that other bloggers (not to mention the regular media) will have lots to say on the stimulus analyses, so I started my reading with the clunkers piece, which I found quite interesting.

News accounts often describe the program as a success because almost 700,000 people participated in it in just a few weeks. But, as CEA emphasizes in their new study, the fact that someone participated in the program does not necessarily mean that they bought a car because of it. Indeed, CEA estimates that the 690,000 auto sales under the program boosted 2009 auto sales by only 330,000:

Slide1

What about the other 360,000?

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Earlier today, CBO released its latest monthly snapshot on the federal budget. The key things you should know are:

  • CBO estimates that the government ran a deficit of almost $1.4 trillion during the first eleven months of the fiscal year (up from $501 billion at this point last year).
  • CBO reiterated its forecast that the full year’s deficit will also come in around $1.4 trillion (September is usually a month of surplus because of strong tax receipts, but CBO apparently thinks this September will be close to break-even.)
  • CBO’s estimate is noticeably lower than the administration’s most recent deficit forecast of $1.58 trillion. If the final numbers next month are in line with CBO’s projections, some commentators will thus spin the full year deficit as good news (“the deficit came in lower than the administration expected”), while others will spin it as bad news (“yikes, the deficit was $1.4 trillion”). (As noted in an earlier post, CBO’s summer update was a bit complicated to interpret because its headline deficit estimate used different accounting for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than the administration used; on an apples-to-apples basis, however, CBO then forecast a deficit of $1.41 trillion.)
  • As shown in the following chart, the deficit has exploded for three main reasons:

Budget Deficit August

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Voyaging Through U.S. Jobs

In honor of Labor Day, you may want to check out Job Voyager by Flare. It provides a graphical history of the rise and fall of different types of jobs in the United States from 1850 to 2000.

Here’s what you get for “Farmer”:

Farmer Jobs

Back in 1850, farmers accounted for more than 40% of reported jobs. Today, less than 1%.

If you click around, you will find that the decline in farmers has been offset by growth in a host of jobs, including clerical, retail, and nurses.

And economists? Well, we grew rapidly until 1990, and then tailed off. Perhaps the would-be economists ran off to Wall Street instead?

Economist Jobs

P.S. The Job Voyager charts were inspired by the famous Name Voyager charts that let you track the popularity of first names.

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