The Politics of Oxygen

Today’s WSJ has a fun profile of Peter Orszag, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the challenges he faces making cost control a key part of health care reform.

I particularly enjoyed this episode: 

The battle heated up in June, when Mr. Orszag visited Capitol Hill to discuss health care with a small group of House Democrats. The meeting started well, with one lawmaker after another echoing his message that spending controls were critical to any health-care overhaul, according to two administration officials.

Then one member said her top priority was winning higher payments for oxygen suppliers, the officials say. Mr. Orszag was taken aback. Officials had been trying for years to cut payments to suppliers of oxygen and other medical equipment, which critics say are inflated. Yet when a new competitive bidding process was set to take effect last year, industry supporters in Congress were able to delay the plan. They are still fighting to block changes.

“One of the reasons we currently have such disjointed and skewed incentives is that we have an excessively political process,” Mr. Orszag said in an interview.

I think Peter is absolutely correct.

When I first worked for Congress, I was stunned by the amount of time and effort that members gave to issues that struck me as minutiae. This was particularly severe in health care. Congressional staff — and, at times the members themselves — would worry about things like payment rates for wheel chairs, bidding rules for oxygen suppliers, and other micro-health financing issues.

Continue reading “The Politics of Oxygen”

House Prices by Price Tier

The St. Louis Fed has a nice one-pager that illustrates how the housing boom differed across homes in different price tiers.

In each of the four cities they examine (Boston, Cleveland, Phoenix, and Tampa), low-priced houses experienced the biggest boom (a relative concept in Cleveland, to be sure) followed by the biggest bust:

House Prices by Tier

The authors interpret this as evidence that:

Middle- and upper-tier home buyers were more insulated from many of [the factors that drove the boom and bust in the prices of low-price tier homes]. They had less need for the newer mortgage products, as most of these consumers were not first time buyers. As homeowners, they had equity to put toward their purchase, in contrast to most lower-tier first-time home buyers.

The pattern is particularly striking in Phoenix, where the price index for low-price homes has now fallen below the indices for middle- and high-price homes.

(ht: Torsten Slok) 

Step One of a Housing Bottom

Last week’s report on residential construction provided more evidence that housing may be beginning to bottom. The headline evidence, noted by most media and economic pundits, is the rebound in housing starts over the past two months:

Housing Starts (June)

The rebound is from an extremely low level, so it’s hard to get too excited about it. But it does suggest that the plummeting of the past few years may finally be over.

As I noted last month, however, a bottom in housing starts isn’t a bottom in housing. From a macroeconomic point of view, the key thing is the amount of construction activity, which depends on both housing starts and housing completions. Not surprisingly, house completions plummeted along with housing starts, albeit with a lag reflecting the time needed for construction: Continue reading “Step One of a Housing Bottom”

A Glimmer of Fiscal Discipline

Yesterday delivered a small piece of good news on the budget front. As reported by the Washington Post:

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation’s premier fighter-jet program, embracing by a 58 to 40 margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that more F-22s are not needed for the nation’s defense and would be a costly drag on the Pentagon’s budget in an era of small wars and counterinsurgency efforts.

As I noted in a recent post, President Obama deserves kudos for threatening to veto any appropriations defense authorization bill that would include extra funding for the F-22. And the Senate deserves credit for agreeing. The House wasn’t as frugal, including $369 million in initial funding for additional fighters in its version of the appropriations authorization bill. So the next test will be to see what emerges from the House-Senate conference on the bill. (Update: And then, as Stan Collender reminds us, what happens in the actual appropriations.)

The amounts of money are, of course, small relative to today’s trillion-dollar deficits. But perhaps they are a first step toward some semblance of fiscal discipline. Budget hawks are rightly concerned about the growth of spending on the major entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — but defense spending should also get close scrutiny. With annual appropriations reaching almost $700 billion, reductions in defense spending will almost certainly be part of any effort to put our fiscal house back in order (barring major new hostilities).

P.S. Back in 2006, I testified before Congress about some of the budget gimmicks that the Air Force was then trying to use to get funding for more F-22s. One trick was to try to get a small amount of initial funding for planes in one year, so that in later years it could go back and say “well, we already started these planes, so you have to give us $x billion to finish them.” Sounds like the folks in the House were considering something similar.

Disclosure: I have no investments in any aerospace company.

Citigroup & Efficient Markets

The Citigroup pricing anomaly may be in its final days (earlier posts here and here).

Investors must submit their offers to exchange preferred shares for common shares by this Friday (which may require contacting your broker several days earlier). The common shares will then be delivered to investors on July 30.

The pricing gap between the common and preferred shares remains large (about 10% at the close on Monday), but has narrowed as the exchange date has drawn near.

It thus seems an appropriate time to reflect on what, if anything, the Citigroup anomaly illustrates about economics and finance more broadly. Happily, this week’s Economist carries a quote from Dick Thaler (previously quoted in my post about Catherine Zeta-Jones) that summarizes the lesson perfectly:

Mr Thaler concedes that in some ways the events of the past couple of years have strengthened the [Efficient Markets Hypothesis]. The hypothesis has two parts, he says: the “no-free-lunch part and the price-is-right part, and if anything the first part has been strengthened as we have learned that some investment strategies are riskier than they look and it really is difficult to beat the market.” The idea that the market price is the right price, however, has been badly dented.

To me, the Citigroup anomaly illustrates the strength of the “no-free-lunch” part of the EMH, and the limitations of the “price-is-right” part.  Continue reading “Citigroup & Efficient Markets”

Beyond the $23.7 Trillion Headline

Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (affectionately known as SIGTARP), is making headlines with his estimate that the government has provided “potential support totaling more than $23.7 trillion” in fighting the financial crisis. That estimate will be officially released on Tuesday morning in the SIGTARP’s latest quarterly report (you can find an early copy here – ht WSJ).


As the media are already noting (e.g., WSJ and Yahoo), there are many reasons to believe that the $23.7 trillion figure is overstated. For example, as noted in the footnote to the table above, the figure “may include overlapping agency liabilities … and unfunded initiatives [and] … does not account for collateral pledged.” In other words, there may be double-counting, some of the programs won’t happen or are already winding down, and the estimates assume that any collateral is worthless. For example, to get to $5.5 trillion in potential losses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (part of the $7.2 trillion Other category), you would have to assume that all GSE-backed mortgages default and that all houses backing them are worthless.

In short, the SIGTARP estimate is a way upper-bound on likely Federal support to the financial support. That fact shouldn’t detract, however, from the importance of the rest of this report.

Continue reading “Beyond the $23.7 Trillion Headline”

House Bill Fails Budget Tests

Lawmakers face more work if they want to pay for health reform. According to the latest analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the House health bill fails two key budget tests:

  • New spending isn’t fully paid for. House committees haven’t identified enough spending reductions or tax increases to offset the spending. As a result, the bill would increase the deficit by $239 billion over the next ten years.
  • The bill would widen the structural deficit. CBO estimates, for example, that the program would increase the deficit by $65 billion in 2019, the final year of the budget window.

These budget challenges stem from the fact that the House bill would increase spending in two major ways:

House Bill - Net Budget

  • First, the House bill would increase health insurance coverage. As noted in a previous CBO analysis (and summarized in a recent post), that effort would have a net budget impact of $1.04 trillion over the next ten years; spending would increase by almost $1.3 trillion, while tax revenues would increase by about $240 billion.
  • Second, the bill would change the formula that determines how much Medicare pays physicians. Those payment rates are scheduled to be cut 21% next year under an arcane formula (the sustainable growth rate mechanism). The House bill would replace those cuts with increases in coming years, at a cost of $245 billion over the next ten years.

As I’ve noted in previous posts (e.g., here), a key risk is that health reform would put the U.S. on an even worse fiscal trajectory. As shown in the following graph, that’s exactly what would happen under the current House bill:

Offsets Dont Keep Up

Continue reading “House Bill Fails Budget Tests”

Google and Antitrust

The August Wired has a nice article about the increased antitrust scrutiny that Google is facing. (Updated July 28, 2009 I would usually insert a link to the article, but I couldn’t find one online; sorry, but I am working from the dead-tree-and-ink version that the postman dropped off.)

Early on, the article notes some ironies of the current situation:

More than 15 years ago, federal regulators began making Microsoft the symbol of anticompetitive behavior in the tech industry. Now, a newly activist DOJ may try to do the same thing to Google.

It is an ironic position for the search giant to find itself in. [CEO Eric] Schmidt not only campaigned enthusiastically for the very Obama administration that appointed [DOJ antitrust chief Christine] Varney, but also was one of the most devoted opponents of Microsoft in the mid-’90s, eagerly helping the government build its case against the software firm.

A few weeks ago, I described some of the arguments that Google might use to defend itself. The Wired article elaborates on one of these: it’s fine for a company to be a monopoly if, as John Houseman used to say, they earn it. It then points to the other issues that may raise concerns:

Continue reading “Google and Antitrust”

CBO, Health, and the Budget

As I’ve discussed in a series of posts (e.g., here and here), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has a pivotal role in the health debate. By telling Congress how potential policy changes would affect the budget, CBO analyses can make or break proposed legislation.

As a result, I think it’s important that participants in the health debate – policymakers, analysts, journalists, and ordinary citizens – understand how CBO approaches health issues. That can sometimes be a challenge, however. As I note in a new paper:

CBO analyses often rely on sophisticated economic modeling and are usually framed in ways that match the specific, sometimes arcane, requirements of the congressional budget process. As a result, the cost estimates and related analyses may sometimes be challenging to understand. The unfortunate result can be confusion about what the scores mean and, equally important, what they do not mean.

That’s not a knock on CBO, which I think does a great job; it’s just the nature of the work.

To help reduce potential confusion, my paper (“Understanding CBO Health Cost Estimates”) discusses how CBO approaches cost estimates and some of the particular issues that arise in health policy. Many of the insights come directly from recent CBO reports (CBO takes transparency seriously), while others are based on my own experiences at CBO.

Continue reading “CBO, Health, and the Budget”

Raising the Curve, Not Bending It

Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, has one of the most difficult and important jobs in Washington: delivering tough budget news to Congress.

Americans are fortunate that he is so good at it.

Today, Doug’s message was particularly stark — and, in many circles, unwelcome — as he reported that the health reform proposals now under consideration by Congress would worsen our already-daunting fiscal outlook.

As noted by the Associated Press:

From the beginning of the health care debate, Obama has insisted that any overhaul must “bend the curve” of rapidly rising costs that threaten to swamp the budgets of government, businesses and families.

Asked by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., if the evolving legislation would bend the cost curve, the budget director responded that — as things stand now — “the curve is being raised.”

Explained Elmendorf: “In the legislation that has been reported, we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs.”

Even if the legislation doesn’t add to the federal deficit over the next years, Elmendorf said costs over the long run would keep rising at an unsustainable pace.