Menu Engineering

Earlier in the semester, my students bravely endured the usual microeconomic approach to understanding consumer choice. You know: budget constraints, indifference curves, and tangencies. Very useful when deployed appropriately, but rather abstract.

To lighten things up—and illustrate some important truths about how consumers actually behave—we then spent a class on the psychology / behavioral economics of consumer choice.

For me, the most fun part was discussing menu engineering. In the usual economic model, people make choices based on prices and the attributes of the goods they can buy. Those things matter in the real world too, but consumers are also influenced by other information. For example, their purchase decisions can sometimes be steered by crafty decisions about what options to include on the menu.

One good example is Dan Ariely’s now-famous experiment with subscription rates for The Economist magazine. In one experiment, his students were offered the choice between paying $59 per year for an online subscription or $125 for print plus online. In a second experiment, they were offered three choices: $59 for an online subscription, $125 for a print subscription, or $125 for a print/online subscription.

Standard economic analysis suggests that the print-only option in the second experiment shouldn’t matter. No one should choose it since they could get print+online for the same price. In practical terms, then, the comparison is the same as the first experiment: online at $59 or print+online at $125. And so standard economics would predict that consumers would make the same choices in the two experiments.

That’s not the way it worked out. In the first experiment, 68% of his students chose the online edition of The Economist and 32% went for print+online. In the second experiment, however, 84% went for print+online, while only 16% went for the online. The good news for standard economics is that no one chose print only. The bad news is that including that option had a big effect on choices. Even though people didn’t want that option, it made the other $125 option look more attractive. In short, it established a reference from which people might decide that the $125 print+online choice was a bargain. So many more of them chose it.

Retailers have understood this psychology for years, of course, while economists are just catching up. But growing interest in behavioral economics has also spawned further innovation in retail, and we are seeing the rise of a new species of consultant: the menu engineer.

Menu engineers advise restaurants and other retailers how to design their menus to encourage customers to buy more and to steer them to more profitable purchases. Consistent with The Economist example, one standard piece of advice is including high-priced items just to make everything else look like a bargain. Menu engineers also recommend that restaurants not use dollar signs; people spend more when they aren’t reminded it’s money. And then there’s a whole science to writing the mouth-watering prose describing each item.

If you have a few minutes, this Today Show interview with a menu engineer is quite amusing.

And for a guided tour of menu tricks, see this piece in New York magazine (ht: Tyler Cowen).

P.S. For completeness, I should note that, according to the Economist entry linked above, the Economist stopped using the three-part pricing system. So maybe it doesn’t work as well in the real world as Ariely’s experiments suggest.

Mythical Budget Savings from Cutting TARP

The TARP news continues fast and furious. This afternoon’s installment involves the House’s financial regulation bill, officially known as H.R. 4173, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009. That bill would make many changes to financial regulation, one of which – enhanced dissolution authority for financial firms that run into severe trouble – would cost about $10 billion over the next five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In order to pay for those costs, the bill would reduce TARP authority by $20.8 billion. Consistent with previous scoring decisions, CBO estimates that this provision would result in budget savings of $10.4 billion (because CBO assumes, for scoring purposes, that each dollar of reduced TARP authority translates into 50 cents of reduced outlays; for more explanation, see this earlier post.)

Why is this important? Because the alleged savings are mythical.

Earlier today, Secretary Geithner predicted that the maximum draw on TARP would be $550 billion out of the $699 billion currently authorized. Reducing TARP authority from $699 billion to $678 billion, as the bill would do, would thus have no effect on spending or the deficit.

Under congressional budget rules, CBO is required to score the House bill relative to the budget baseline developed back in March. That was during the depths of the financial crisis so CBO assumed that all TARP authority would eventually be used. Happily, conditions have since improved, and that assumption is no longer realistic. But it is still used in congressional scoring.

The “savings” attributed to the House bill thus exist because the financial world has improved, not because the House bill is actually doing anything new to pay for its costs.

I hasten to add that this isn’t just my opinion. CBO itself highlights this issue in its cost estimate for the House bill, saying (in its more measured tones):

That reduction in spending relative to the March baseline might occur even in the absence of this legislation because financial conditions have improved considerably since March. Indeed, the Secretary of the Treasury noted in his December 9, 2009, letter to the Congress that “beyond these limited new commitments, we will not use remaining [TARP] funds unless necessary to respond to an immediate and substantial threat to the economy stemming from financial instability.” Thus, if CBO were to estimate the impact of the TARP provision in this legislation taking into account current financial conditions, the agency would not expect that the TARP’s ceiling on outstanding investment would be fully utilized. Therefore, the savings estimated relative to the budget resolution baseline may be attributable to the improvement in financial conditions rather than enactment of H.R. 4173. (emphasis added)

P.S. I should emphasize that there are good reasons for the current congressional budget rules. Developing legislation takes time, and it would be disruptive if CBO were constantly updating cost estimates to reflect changes in the economy. Fixing a baseline in March, however, does open up the possibility of budget game playing, particularly in budget categories that are volatile (TARP spending is one; royalties on oil and gas leases are another).  The hard question is when Congress should decide to deviate from the March baseline to reflect new realities.

Treasury Extends, but Limits, TARP

Well that was quick. This morning Treasury Secretary Geithner laid out the administration’s vision for TARP, answering the questions I posed yesterday.

As expected, Secretary Geithner is using his authority to extend the TARP program to October 3, 2010 (it otherwise would have expired at the end of this month). As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, I don’t see how he could have chosen otherwise. The administration is committed to programs that aren’t complete yet, and it needs to worry about unpleasant surprises. In the words of his letter to House Speaker Pelosi:

This extension is necessary to assist American families and stabilize financial markets because it will, among other things, enable us to continue to implement programs that address housing markets and the needs of small businesses, and to maintain the capacity to respond to unforeseen threats.

Second, Geithner announced that henceforth TARP will be used for only four programs: to mitigate home foreclosures, provide capital to small and community banks, additional efforts to facilitate small business lending, and, possibly, to expand the TALF program that supports securitization markets for loans to small businesses, commercial real estate, etc. Notably (and correctly) absent from this list are some of the ideas — funding for new infrastructure, assistance to state and local governments — that have been floated in recent days.

Geithner is right to draw a moat around TARP and to limit its use to specific activities, except in emergencies:

Beyond these limited new commitments, we will not use remaining EESA funds unless necessary to respond to an immediate and substantial threat to the economy stemming from financial instability.

Third, Geithner provided a new forecast of how much TARP money will eventually be used:

While we are extending the $700 billion program, we do not expect to deploy more than $550 billion.  We also expect up to $175 billion in repayments by the end of next year, and substantial additional repayments thereafter.  The combination of the reduced scale of TARP commitments and substantial repayments should allow us to commit significant resources to pay down the federal debt over time and slow its growth rate.

In short, the administration believes that at least $150 billion of TARP money will never be used. That’s great news. But now attention will turn to Congress to see whether it tries to use that $150 billion to “pay for” new initiatives. As I noted the other day, current budget rules would give Congress credit for 50 cents of savings for each dollar that’s removed from overall TARP authority. But such savings are an accounting fiction, not real, if the TARP authority never would have been used anyway.

Some Questions about TARP’s Future

As I discussed the other day, using TARP to pay for new jobs programs faces some serious practical issues. First, the administration is limited in how it can deploy existing TARP funds. It should be straightforward to use more funds to support lending to small businesses (which TARP already does to some extent), but it would take great legal ingenuity to use it to fund infrastructure projects or aid to state and local governments.  Indeed, in an article titled “Use of Cash from TARP Hits Hurdle“, the Wall Street Journal reports that top Democrats have concluded that TARP money can’t be used for either of those ideas.

Second, legislative use of TARP money are limited by budget scoring rules, which currently would attribute only 50 cents of budget savings to each dollar by which TARP’s authority might be reduced. And even then, careful budgeteers would realize that such savings are make-believe if, as seems likely, any such limits would apply only to TARP authority that was unlikely to be used anyway.

In short, the rhetoric about using TARP to finance various proposals seems to have gotten ahead of reality.

The President’s speech at the Brookings Institution today provided some additional insight into the Administration’s plans for TARP, but some important questions still remain.

Here are the President’s three forward-looking statements about TARP (he also made some comments about TARP’s origin and history, but that’s a topic for another day):

I’m asking my Treasury Secretary to continue mobilizing the remaining TARP funds to facilitate lending to small businesses. …

[W]ith a fiscal crisis to match our economic crisis, we also must be prudent about how we fund [initiatives to accelerate the pace of private hiring].  So to help support these efforts, we are going to wind down the Troubled Asset Relief Program — or TARP — the fund created to stabilize the financial system so banks would lend again. …

TARP is expected to cost the taxpayers at least $200 billion less than what was anticipated just this past summer.  And the assistance to banks, once thought to cost taxpayers untold billions, is on track to actually reap billions in profits for the taxpaying public.  So this gives us a chance to pay down the deficit faster than we thought possible and to shift funds that would have gone to help the banks on Wall Street to help create jobs on Main Street.

If I am reading that right, the President would like to (a) continue Treasury’s existing effort to support small business lending through TARP, (b) wind down the TARP program, and (c) shift funds to other purposes. That leaves me with some important questions, including:

  • Does the administration plan to expand TARP’s small business lending support or just execute the one that’s already been announced? (NB: The President also endorsed several other steps to help small businesses, including easier access to SBA loans.)
  • Does “wind down the TARP program” mean that Secretary Geithner won’t use his authority to extend the program beyond December 31, 2009? If I were him I would sleep much better at night if I had some “dry powder” in an extended TARP, just in case we have another September-October of 2008. Such a replay seems highly unlikely (knock on wood), but if that exceedingly remote event did happen, I wouldn’t want to be the Treasury Secretary who went up to Capitol Hill to ask for a TARP II.

CBO Comments on the Budget Impacts of the Health Bills

CBO Director Doug Elmendorf posted a particularly interesting piece on his Director’s Blog today. Summarizing a presentation he gave to the Group of 30, Doug responds to some of the more common concerns one hears about the budget effects of the health bills:

First, some analysts argue that CBO is underestimating the ultimate costs of the new subsidies to buy health insurance. My response was that the budgetary impact of broad changes in the nation’s health care and health insurance systems was very uncertain, but that CBO staff, in consultation with outside experts, has devoted a great deal of care and effort to this analysis, and the agency strives to have its estimates reflect the middle of the distribution of possible outcomes. CBO’s estimates of subsidy costs may turn out to be too low, but they could also turn out to be too high.

Second, some observers argue that CBO’s estimates are unrealistic because Congress will not allow the Medicare spending cuts in the proposals to take effect. My response was that CBO estimates the effects of proposals as written and does not forecast future legislation, but that the agency does try to provide information about the consequences of implementing proposals. Our cost estimate for the Senate proposal and our cost estimate for the House bill said that inflation-adjusted Medicare spending per beneficiary would slow sharply under those proposals. For example, growth in such spending under the Senate proposal would drop from about 4 percent per year for the past two decades to roughly 2 percent per year for the next two decades; whether such a reduction could be achieved through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or would reduce access to care or diminish the quality of care is unclear. In addition, relaxing previously enacted constraints on Medicare spending can add significantly to long-run budget deficits, as we wrote in answer to a question about the effects of combining the House bill with a change in the so-called Sustainable Growth Rate mechanism for Medicare physician payments.

Third, some analysts argue that the pending proposals will hamper future efforts at deficit reduction by using spending cuts and new revenues to pay for a new entitlement rather than to cover the costs of existing entitlements. My response was, again, that CBO does not and should not forecast future legislation; its cost estimates address the specific legislation at hand and do not speculate about the possible impact of a bill on future legislative actions. However, our June analysis of health reform and the federal budget noted that using savings in certain programs to finance new programs instead of reducing the deficit would ultimately necessitate even stronger policy actions in other areas of the budget.

Fourth, some experts argue that the proposals are missing opportunities to reform health care delivery and reduce spending more significantly. My response was that it is not CBO’s role to make such judgments, but that our December volume on Budget Options included a wide range of alternatives for changing the nation’s health care and health insurance systems. Those options covered many different types of reforms and included reforms with different degrees of aggressiveness in altering existing systems and pursuing cost-saving goals.

(I don’t usually post such long excerpts, but this one struck me as worth quoting in its entirety. Doug also shared some thoughts on stimulus and the state of the economy; click on over to his post for those.)

Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?

Washington is abuzz with the idea that Congress, the White House, or both may try to use unspent TARP funds as a way to promote job creation (see, e.g., this WSJ story and this WaPo story). Over the past two days, many reporters have asked me about the mechanics of this idea–can the government really use unspent TARP money this way? Here’s my best answer (given what I have learned so far).

There are two basic ways that our leaders could try to use TARP money to pay for new initiatives: through executive action or through new legislation.

Executive Action

Treasury Secretary Geithner has the ability to use TARP funds largely as he sees fit, as long as those uses are within the boundaries set out by the original legislation. As you may have noticed, the exact location of those boundaries–well, even the rough location of those boundaries–has been a topic of great debate during TARP’s existence. But the basic idea is that TARP can be used to purchase troubled assets, which the bill defines as follows:

(A) residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, that in each case was originated or issued on or before March 14, 2008, the purchase of which the Secretary determines promotes financial market stability; and

(B) any other financial instrument that the Secretary, after consultation with the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, determines the purchase of which is necessary to promote financial market stability, but only upon transmittal of such determination, in writing, to the appropriate committees of Congress.

If our leaders want to use TARP through executive action, they will have to come up with programs that fit within these limits. Additional support for small-business financing or home mortgages could certainly be structured to fit within these parameters; indeed, TARP already has programs for both of those. It would require substantial ingenuity, however, to figure out a way to support some of the other ideas being floated (e.g., aid to local governments).

New Legislation

The second approach would be for Congress to enact legislation that would increase spending on various programs and then pay for it, at least in part, by reducing the amount of money in the TARP program.

There have already been at least two pieces of legislation that have taken this approach:

Continue reading “Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?”

An Encouraging Jobs Report

This morning’s jobs report was encouraging not only in its headline figures, but also in its details:

  • Payrolls fell by 11,000 in November, the smallest decline since the recession began.
  • The unemployment rate declined to 10.0%, down from 10.2% in October.
  • Jobs losses in September and October were smaller than previously reported (by a combined 159,000).
  • Average weekly hours increased from 33.0 to 33.2.
  • Temporary help services, often viewed as leading indicator, added more than 52,000 jobs.
  • The underemployment rate (U-6) dropped from 17.5% to 17.2%.

In short, almost all the key measures moved in the right direction in November (the one disappointing figure was average hourly earnings, which increased only a penny in November).

It’s possible that some of these figures were helped by seasonal factors (last November was so bad that the seasonal adjustment process might give a little extra boost to this November’s figures). But the breadth of better news–including the revisions and the hours–gives me some confidence that these data do reflect real improvements in the labor market.

Still, we shouldn’t get too excited. We need the economy to add jobs–preferably 100s of thousands–each month if we are ever going to get unemployment down, so losing 11,000 is still bad news in an absolute sense. But today’s report is a step in the right direction.

Capital One Warrants Bring in $146.5 Million

Yesterday the Treasury auctioned off its TARP warrants in Capital One. Treasury sold the warrants for $11.75 a piece, well above its $7.50 reserve price, but below some private estimates of $19.00 or more. I wouldn’t have gone as high as $19.00 myself, but I would have ended up a winner in the auction if I had found a broker with access. Oh well, maybe I can pick some up when they start trading on the NYSE (ticker COF WS) in the next week or two.

Disclosure: I have no position in any Capital One securities.

Yes, It Is Possible to Cut Deficits

A couple weeks ago, I highlighted an IMF report that compared the fiscal challenges facing developed economies. Not surprisingly, the IMF concludes that the United States has one of the largest structural deficits. To get our national debt back down to 2007 levels (relative to the economy), the IMF believes that we need to undertake a major fiscal adjustment–equivalent to a whopping 8.8% of GDP.

I have some quibbles about that figure, not least because the United States could avoid a fiscal crisis without getting the gross government debt all the way back to 2007 levels. But the basic message is sound: we face an enormous fiscal challenge.

However, we should not give up hope. As I discuss in a new piece over at e21, the IMF report also provides some reason for optimism: history provides numerous examples of developed economies that have successfully undertaken major fiscal adjustments. Indeed, the IMF finds 30 instances during the past three decades in which countries made adjustments of at least 5% of GDP, and nine cases in which the adjustments were even larger than the IMF currently prescribes for the United States:

The United States itself makes the list, with a fiscal adjustment (i.e., reduction in the cyclically-adjusted primary budget deficit) of 5.7% back in the 1990s.

Looking through the list, you will notice that many of these large adjustments occurred, at least in part, during the economic boom of the late 1990s. That isn’t surprising: fiscal adjustment is much easier if strong economic growth reinforces responsible fiscal policies.

P.S. For related posts, see this and this.

Good Budget Reads

1. Jeff Frankel tops my National Journal post with nine more ways to trim the deficit.

2. EconomistMom Diane Lim Rogers scores the budget quote of the week: “‘Loosey-goosey’ out, loosey-goosey’ back at ya.

3. Bruce Bartlett makes the case for a war tax: “wars financed heavily by higher taxes, such as the Korean War and the first Gulf War, end quickly, while those financed largely by deficits, such as the Vietnam War and current Middle East conflicts, tend to drag on indefinitely.”