Standing Firm on Auto Dealers

Over the past year, the U.S. government has acquired an unprecedented investment portfolio, including a majority stake in GM and a large ownership stake in Chrysler. These investments have raised a plethora of difficult policy challenges. One of the most important is the ongoing risk that private business decisions may get transformed into public policy issues. Or, put more bluntly, that policymakers might use the ownership stakes as justification for and leverage to pursue their own policy agendas, regardless of whether they would be good for the companies.

Yesterday’s newspapers provided an excellent example of this risk. Some lawmakers want to use legislation — the annual appropriations bill that funds financial services and general government — to restore the franchise agreements of several thousand dealers who were terminated as part of the restructuring of GM and Chrysler. It’s easy to see how such a proposal can gain traction in the House of Representatives. Every terminated dealership will get a sympathetic hearing, at a minimum, from their local representative. But such meddling is not in the interests of GM and Chrysler, nor the nation at large.

Happily, the Obama Administration has come out against these efforts. In a Statement of Administration Policy on the appropriations bill released Wednesday, the Administration wrote:

Continue reading “Standing Firm on Auto Dealers”

Defending the Fed’s Independence

I’m not usually one to sign public petitions, but I made an exception today for a key issue: defending the independence of the Federal Reserve.

Like many other economists (here’s the list of signatories, with a day’s lag), I am troubled by the anti-Fed rhetoric emanating from some parts of the Congress. The Fed has taken a remarkable series of actions that deserve close congressional oversight. But that oversight should not endanger the Fed’s fundamental independence in executing monetary policy.

The petition therefore makes three important points about Fed independence:

First, central bank independence has been shown to be essential for controlling inflation. Sooner or later, the Fed will have to scale back its current unprecedented monetary accommodation. When the Federal Reserve judges it time to begin tightening monetary conditions, it must be allowed to do so without interference.

Second, lender of last resort decisions should not be politicized.

Finally, calls to alter the structure or personnel selection of the Federal Reserve System easily could backfire by raising inflation expectations and borrowing costs and dimming prospects for recovery. The democratic legitimacy of the Federal Reserve System is well established by its legal mandate and by the existing appointments process. Frequent communication with the public and testimony before Congress ensure Fed accountability.

Over at the WSJ, David Wessel has a nice piece on the petition.

Counting Stimulus Efforts

Today, the Washington Post has a letter to the editor about counting stimulus efforts. I think the letter is pithy and on-point, but that might be because I wrote it. Anyway, my conclusion is:

[T]here have already been two rounds of stimulus since the recession started in December 2007. The first, enacted in February 2008 (when I served at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers), provided $168 billion in tax cuts for families and businesses. The second, enacted in February of this year, provided $787 billion in various spending programs and tax cuts. The question we face today is whether to enact a third stimulus, not a second one.

The letter was a response to an editorial the Post ran last Friday.

Stimulus aficionados will recognize that, in the interest of brevity, I used dollar amounts that aren’t completely apples-to-oranges. As noted in my previous post on this topic, the $168 billion amount for the first stimulus reflects the gross amount of stimulus in the first couple of years; the long-run, net cost budget cost of the bill is lower. The $787 billion amount for the second stimulus is the ten-year net cost; the initial stimulus is a bit larger. I think the gross impact is a better way to characterize the stimulus effort, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by referring to an $800+ billion stimulus, when everyone knows it as $787 billion.

CBO on the House Health Bill

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary analysis of the House health bill, aka the Tri-Committee bill. Among the key findings:

1. The bill uses five levers to increase health insurance coverage:

  • Expanding Medicaid
  • Subsidies for purchasing insurance through new exchanges
  • An individual mandate (enforced by a penalty if you lack coverage)
  • Play or pay (requiring employers to offer qualifying insurance or pay a tax)
  • A public plan (whose rates would be lower than those of many private plans)

2. These provisions would sharply reduce the number of uninsured. In 2019, for example, CBO estimates that the number of uninsured would fall from 54 million to 17 million, a decline of 37 million. Many of those who would remain uninsured are particularly difficult to reach (e.g., individuals who qualify for Medicaid but don’t enroll) or are unauthorized immigrants (who aren’t a focus of the legislation). Put another way, the bill would result in 97% of the non-elderly (excluding unauthorized immigrants) having health insurance by 2015.

3. The bill would increase spending by almost $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. The penalties and fees would raise a bit less than $240 billion over the same period, so the 10-year net budget cost would be slightly more than $1 trillion. The bulk of the penalties and fees — $208 billion — would be paid by employers (who would then pass on some or all of the costs to workers). The remaining fees — $29 billion — would be paid by uninsured individuals. As Keith Hennessey notes, the prospect of levying such fees on the uninsured raises some difficult political and policy questions.

4. Enrollment in the public plan would be substantial, perhaps 11 to 12 million people by 2019. The plan, operated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, would pay providers at levels very similar to those in Medicare. As a result, CBO expects that the public plan would offer lower premiums than many private plans.

5. The analysis is preliminary in two key ways:

  • It does not include any of the potential offsets — e.g., tax increases and Medicare spending reductions — that lawmakers would need to pay for the bill.
  • The CBO estimate is based on “specifications” that the committees asked CBO to evaluate. CBO has not yet had time to analyze the actual language of the proposed bill. It’s always possible that the language would have different impacts than the less-detailed specifications.

UPDATE: The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget takes a stab at toting up the likely offsets for this bill. A surtax on high earners would be the single largest item, at $544 billion over ten years.

Health Insurance and Labor Markets

Health insurance is not just a health issue. It’s also a jobs issue. Why? Because about 60% of non-elderly Americans get their health insurance through an employer or a labor union. As a result, health insurance and employment are closely related.

As lawmakers consider changes to our system of health insurance, they should therefore keep an eye on the potential implications for jobs and wages. To help them do so, the Congressional Budget Office yesterday released a very helpful brief (see also the accompanying blog entry) that discusses many of the linkages between health insurance and the labor market.

Among other things, CBO reiterates a point I’ve made previously: that the costs of health insurance are ultimately born by workers through lower wages and salaries:

Although employers directly pay most of the costs of their workers’ health insurance, the available evidence indicates that active workers—as a group—ultimately bear those costs. Employers’ payments for health insurance are one form of compensation, along with wages, pension contributions, and other benefits. Firms decide how much labor to employ on the basis of the total cost of compensation and choose the composition of that compensation on the basis of what their workers generally prefer. Employers who offer to pay for health insurance thus pay less in wages and other forms of compensation than they otherwise would, keeping total compensation about the same.

CBO then goes on to discuss a range of potential policies, including ones that would impose new costs on employers. Such policies might require employers to provide health insurance to their workers (an employer mandate), for example, or might levy a fee on employers who don’t provide health insurance (play or pay). CBO concludes that, consistent with the argument above, employers would generally pass the costs of such measures on to their employees through lower wages and salaries. Such adjustments won’t happen instantly, so there may be some short-term effect on employment, but over time the cost will primarily be born by workers through lower compensation.

One exception, however, would be workers who currently earn low wages. As noted on the blog:

Continue reading “Health Insurance and Labor Markets”

House Prices and Productivity

Many economists, myself included, refer to the recent boom and bust in house prices as a bubble, whose foundation lay in a combination of credit market excesses and human imperfections. Fundamentals certainly played a role as well, but bubble forces were particularly important.

In a short paper recently published by the New York Federal Reserve, Jim Kahn makes a very different argument: that the boom and bust in house prices can largely be explained by a boom and bust in productivity growth:

The housing boom and bust of the last decade, often attributed to “bubbles” and credit market irregularities, may owe much to shifts in economic fundamentals. A resurgence in productivity that began in the mid-1990s contributed to a sense of optimism about future income that likely encouraged many consumers to pay high prices for housing. The optimism continued until 2007, when accumulating evidence of a slowdown in productivity helped dash expectations of further income growth and stifle the boom in residential real estate.

Jim’s argument depends on several related lines of reasoning:

  • First, he notes that productivity drives long-term income growth and that incomes determine how much families can pay for homes. He then argues that the demand and supply for housing are inelastic and, as a result, rising incomes imply rising house prices. Putting these pieces together, he concludes that faster productivity growth implies faster house price appreciation.
  • Second, he notes that productivity growth accelerated in the mid-to-late 1990s and then slowed around 2004. The productivity acceleration thus began shortly before house price took off, and the productivity slowdown began shortly before house prices began to collapse.

Kahn Productivity 1

Continue reading “House Prices and Productivity”

TARP Warrants: Auctions and the Oversight Panel

Good news on the TARP warrant front today (previous installments here and here).

First off, Reuters reports that:

JPMorgan Chase & Co, seeking to completely extricate itself from a federal bailout program, has asked the government to auction warrants to buy the bank’s stock, after the Treasury Department demanded too high a price for the bank to buy them back.

This is great news. Treasury should be driving a hard bargain. And JP Morgan should allow private investors to compete to buy the warrants — maybe that will allow JPM to use its capital for better purposes. As an economist, I also welcome the opportunity to find out the market price of the warrants, so we can compare it to what all the modelers have been estimating.

Next question: How do I bid? I hope Treasury does this in a way that lets small investors participate, much as they can in Treasury bond auctions.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Oversight Panel released a report on the warrants. The Panel suggests, albeit with major caveats, that some initial warrant repurchases were done too cheaply:

Continue reading “TARP Warrants: Auctions and the Oversight Panel”

The Citigroup Repo

As I’ve noted in a series of posts (here’s the most recent), there’s an anomaly in the pricing of Citigroup securities. Several issues of Citi’s preferred stock are scheduled to convert into common by the end of the month. Yet the common stock has been trading at a significant premium to the preferred in recent months. As I type this, for example, the common is trading at roughly a 14% premium to the preferred common, even though the conversion is just a few weeks away.

As best I can tell, the only explanation for this pricing anomaly is that Citigroup common stock is very difficult to sell short. So arbitrageurs can’t bid the spread down to levels that would be normal for such a deal.

This anomaly intrigues me for two reasons. First, it appears to be a blatant rejection of strong versions of the efficient markets hypothesis. However, as I will discuss in a later post, the market for Citigroup securities is actually ruthlessly efficient in many ways. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to profit from the anomaly. Sharp financial types have already bid other prices — most notably those for Citi options — to a level where obvious profit opportunities don’t exist.

Second, the anomaly is a big dangling carrot for big-money types to get creative. Markets always try to find ways around imperfections like the limits on short-selling. So I’ve been wondering what creativity would come out of the woodwork. Well, today I got an answer.

Continue reading “The Citigroup Repo”

Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data

I’ve received a number of helpful responses to my post about the strengths and weaknesses of Google’s efforts to transform data on the web. Reader DD, for example, reminded me that I ought to run the same test on Wolfram Alpha, which I briefly mentioned in my post on Google’s antitrust troubles.

Wolfram Alpha is devoting enormous resources to the problem of data and computation on the web. As described in a fascinating article in Technology Review, Wolfram’s vision is to curate all the world’s data. Not just find and link to it, but have a human think about how best to report it and how to connect it to relevant calculation and visualization techniques. In short:

[Wolfram] Alpha was meant to compute answers rather than list web pages. It would consist of three elements, honed by hand …: a constantly expanding collection of data sets, an elaborate calculator, and a natural-language interface for queries.

That is certainly a grand vision. Let’s see how it does if I run the same test “unemployment rate United States” I used for Google:

Continue reading “Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data”

The Exploding Federal Deficit

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest snapshot on the federal budget. The headlines:

  • The budget deficit was $1.1 trillion during the first nine months of the fiscal year (through June). That’s up from $286 billion at this point last year.
  • Spending has risen 21% over last year, while tax revenues have fallen 18%.
  • For the first time in more than ten years, the government ran a deficit in June. June is a big tax-paying month, so it usually records a surplus.

Exploding Deficit - June

The charts shows the main drivers of the exploding deficit:

Continue reading “The Exploding Federal Deficit”