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Archive for September, 2009

By at least one metric – the number of people who have mentioned it to me – my brief post about Netflix appears to be my most popular one so far.

The post linked to a remarkable slide deck about the corporate culture that Netflix has embraced in its quest for excellence. Most memorable line: “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to click on over. It’s worth your time.

Yesterday’s award of the first Netflix prize highlights another strength of Netflix’s culture: it clearly does not suffer from “not-invented-here” syndrome. Indeed, quite the reverse. A few years ago, Netflix realized that it had reached its limit in trying to improve the accuracy of its movie recommendation system. Even though users may rate dozens (or more) movies, it turns out to be difficult to predict what other movies they will like.

So Netflix decided to outsource this problem in an ingenious way: it offered a $1 million prize to any person or team that could improve the recommendation algorithm by at least 10%. Stated that way, the problem seems deceptively easy. But it took nearly three years before the winner – a team led by AT&T Research engineers – took home the prize.

As recounted in Netflix’s press release, this marathon ended in a race to the wire:

“We had a bona fide race right to the very end,” said [CEO Reed] Hastings. “Teams that had previously battled it out independently joined forces to surpass the 10 percent barrier. New submissions arrived fast and furious in the closing hours and the competition had more twists and turns than ‘The Crying Game,’ ‘The Usual Suspects’ and all the ‘Bourne’ movies wrapped into one.”

Netflix said “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” edged out a team called “The Ensemble,” another collaboration of former competitors, with the winning submission coming just 24 minutes before the conclusion of the nearly three-year-long contest. The competition was so close and the submissions so sophisticated that it took a team of external and internal judges several weeks to validate the winner after the contest closed on July 26.

Happily, the resulting algorithm won’t be exclusive to Netflix:

The contest’s rules require the winning team to publish its methods so that businesses in many fields can benefit from the work done. The winning submission and the previously hidden ratings used to score the contest will be published at the University of California Irvine Machine Learning Repository. The team licensed its work to Netflix and is free to license it to other companies.

On the first day of my microeconomics class, I told my students that economics is all about incentives. As an example, I used the famous prize for a way to measure longitude, which inspired the invention of the chronometer (i.e., a clock of sufficient precision to measure longitude). Next time around, I will mention the Netflix prize as well.

P.S. Not one to rest on its successes, Netflix has already announced plans for a second Netflix prize. This one aims to find a better way to recommend movies to people based on demographic data (e.g., where they live) rather than movie ratings.

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The fiscal outlook for the United States is grim. This year’s deficit will be around $1.4 trillion, about 10% of GDP, and the Obama Administration projects that deficits in the next ten years will total about $9 billion. Under those projections, the ratio of publicly held debt to GDP will be approaching 77% by the end of 2019, up from 41% just a year ago.

Those figures are daunting. We are in a deep fiscal hole. But we shouldn’t give up hope just yet.

As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes in a new report, numerous countries have faced gigantic deficits and found the political will to change course. A few examples:

Finland (1992–2000): Following a major banking crisis, Finland faced large deficits (around 8 percent of GDP) and a rapidly rising debt (58 percent of GDP). Prior to the crisis, Finland was running surpluses of around 6 percent of GDP. Motivated by strong political support to get its house in order to qualify for eurozone participation and by the need to address external financing concerns, the government pursued a fiscal consolidation program. A medium-term budget framework, entitlement reforms, spending cuts and tax reform were part of the program. By 2000, the debt/GDP ratio was under 45 percent. The cyclically adjusted primary fiscal balance improved cumulatively by 10 percent of GDP from 1992.

Spain (1993–97): Spain’s fiscal position had been deteriorating since the late 1980s. By 1995, its fiscal deficit exceeded 7 percent of GDP. Its public debt exceeded 70 percent of GDP. Facing external financing concerns and strong public support to adopt fiscal disciplinary measures to prepare for euro area membership, the government adopted a fiscal consolidation plan that emphasized spending (including cuts in social transfers, government wages and health care spending) but also included tax reform. Fiscal balances improved, cumulatively by around 4 percent of GDP since 1993.

Sweden (1994–2000): Sweden’s fiscal situation deteriorated severely in the early 1990s as a result of a banking and economic crisis. In the midst of a recession, the government adopted a fiscal consolidation program to achieve fiscal balance through a tightening up on household transfer payments and an increase in various taxes. As a result of its fiscal consolidation efforts, the fiscal position shifted from a deficit of over 11 percent of GDP to a surplus of 5 percent of GDP and the debt/GDP ratio was reduced from 72 percent to 55 percent in 2000.

The CRFB report draws some interesting lessons from these episodes (e.g., Lesson 6: “It is preferable to make fiscal adjustments on your own terms before they are forced upon you by creditors.”)

But my point today is much simpler: Just as we were hardly the first developed economy to face a major financial crisis, we also are not the first to face a looming fiscal crisis. Indeed, as the examples of Finland and Sweden show, we aren’t even the first developed economy to face a potential fiscal crisis in the aftermath of a financial crisis.

As we prepare (I hope) to address our looming deficits, we can take heart from the fact that some other nations have successfully faced similar challenges.

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Talking Health on CNBC

When I worked for the White House, I discovered that you could learn a lot about your co-workers — or, at least, their portfolios — by their TV habits. Some people watched CNBC, some Fox, and some CNN. And some even managed to get through the work day without turning their TVs on.

I have always been firmly in the CNBC contingent, so I was particularly happy to appear on Squawk Box this morning. Here’s a link to a video of the interview (sorry, I still haven’t mastered the embedding of videos from news sites.)

Going in, my main talking points on the health debate were:

  • From a budget perspective, the Baucus bill is much better than the House bill. As Chairman Baucus has said, his bill would increase spending by more than $800 billion over the next ten years. On a comparable basis, the House bill would increase spending by more than $1.5 trillion. That’s a huge difference.
  • My biggest budget concern about the Baucus bill involves the offsets he proposes to pay for those increased costs. Some of those offsets presume that we can make substantial future cuts to payment rates for various Medicare providers. The trillion-dollar question is whether we will actually have the backbone to make those cuts when the time comes. Our recent experiences with doctor payments in Medicare should give us all pause on that front. In addition, there’s the hard question of whether we should be using the “easy” offsets to address our existing fiscal crisis instead.

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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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