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Archive for the ‘Weekly Economics Lesson’ Category

The Wall Street Journal has a column identifying fiscal deficits as the greatest threat to European economic performance. As this passage indicates, many European nations have enormous deficits and debt, much larger than the United States:

Excessive euro-zone deficits now present one of the biggest risks to the global recovery. Several European countries – Greece, Italy and Belgium – already have debts of more than 100% of gross domestic product. Others will join them in 2010. Across the euro zone, the deficit in 2010 is likely to be more than 7% of GDP. …The snag is that no one knows how far or how fast countries must cut their deficits to retain the support of markets. Government bonds are being artificially supported by central-bank policies. …Greece and Ireland’s bonds already yield close to 5%, around 1.7 percentage points more than Germany’s. …If yields rise too high, deficits will become unsustainable. Medium-term, most countries need strong growth to reduce debt before they are hit by the huge demands on social spending as the baby-boomer generation retires. In theory, rising yields should impose market discipline on wayward governments. But without the traditional safety valve of devaluation, the sacrifices needed to restore competitiveness via wage deflation and falling living standards may be too much to expect from elected politicians. …The market assumes that if one member state faced a buyers’ strike, the others would ride to the rescue, despite the euro zone’s no-bailout policy.

The column identifies some key concerns, but are budget deficits really the problem? Would these European nations be better off, for instance, if they imposed massive tax increases? Setting aside Laffer Curve concerns, big tax hikes could close the fiscal gap. Is it reasonable, then, to think that Europe’s economies would respond with more growth? That is highly unlikely. Replacing debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending merely changes the mechanism for diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy to the government. Yes, deficits and debt undermine economic performance by draining resources from private credit markets. But higher tax rates also stifle growth by decreasing incentives to work, save, and invest.

The real problem is that government is far too big in Europe. This is the crisis, and it is a problem that America is now facing as a result of the profligate Bush-Obama policies.

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Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post has a common-sense column warning about the dangers of the Fed’s easy-money policy. It is possible, to be sure, that the Fed will withdraw (or “soak up”) all this liquidity as the economy recovers, but all the signs suggest that the central bank is kowtowing to the politicians and debasing the currency in order to help politicians create illusory growth. This is a recipe for a return to the 1970s. The bad policy started under Bush (and Greenspan) and is continuing under Obama (and Bernanke):

The Federal Reserve is still going through its “lessons-learned” exercise from the recent financial crisis, but there’s one lesson it clearly has not yet absorbed — the one about ignoring and enabling credit bubbles. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the Fed’s decision last week to not only keep its benchmark interest rates at zero but also let everyone know that it intends to leave them there for a good long time. …Not surprisingly, all of this sparked a week-long party in financial markets that had already experienced powerful rallies over the past six months. Even with Thursday’s modest pullback on Wall Street, U.S. stocks are up 60 percent since March, and share prices in emerging markets have nearly doubled. Commodity prices are soaring once again, led by gold, which is now selling for more than $1,100 an ounce, and crude oil, which is up a whopping 126 percent since February. A rally in the junk-bond and third-world debt markets has driven interest rates back to where they were before the crisis. In urban China, India and Brazil, property prices have doubled in the past year. “The markets are on a sugar high,” Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive of Pimco, the giant money manager, told Newsweek’s Rana Foroohar last week. Judging from how sharply and quickly these prices have risen, it’s a pretty good guess that most of the buying has not been done by long-term investors who are suddenly upbeat about the prospects of global economic growth. The better bet is all this is the handiwork of short-term speculation by banks, hedge funds, private-equity funds and other financial center wise-guys moving as a herd, financing their purchases directly or indirectly with some of that yummy zero-percent money provided courtesy of the Fed. …There’s no way to know how long all this can continue before one of these bubbles finally bursts, the dollar spikes upward and investors all rush to unwind their trades at the same time. But it is a good guess that it will last as long as the Fed and other central banks indicate there is no end in sight for the current cheap-money regime. The longer they wait, the bigger the bubbles, and the bigger the mess to clean up. All of which is why the recent statements by policymakers were so disappointing — and so dangerous.

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Politicians understand the economic impact of taxation when it serves their interests. They often brag about raising tobacco taxes to discourage smoking. It’s not their business to dictate private behavior, of course, but they are right about higher taxes leading to less smoking (they also lead to more cigarette smuggling, but that’s a separate issue). Those same politicians, however, conveniently forget about the economic effect of taxes when they impose high tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Or maybe they simply don’t care. But as is explained in the Wall Street Journal, taxes on productive behavior matter a lot. More than one million people have escaped New York this decade, and punitive taxes clearly have played a role in this brain drain to other states:

Between 2000 and 2008, the Empire State had a net domestic outflow of more than 1.5 million, the biggest exodus of any state, with most hailing from New York City. The departures also have perilous budget consequences, since they tend to include residents who are better off than those arriving. Statewide, departing families have income levels 13% higher than those moving in, while in New York County (home of Manhattan) the differential was even more severe. Those moving elsewhere had an average income of $93,264, some 28% higher than the $72,726 earned by those coming in. In 2006 alone, that swap meant the state lost $4.3 billion in taxpayer income. Add that up from 2001 through 2008, and it translates into annual net income losses somewhere near $30 billion. …no single reason can be fingered for a million migrants seeking their fortunes across state lines, but one place to start is New York’s notorious state and local tax burden. According to the Tax Foundation, between 1977 and 2008, New York has ranked first or second in the country for its state-local tax burden compared to the U.S. average. In the years considered by the Empire Center study, New York’s state and local tax burden ranged between 11% and 12% of income. The peak year for taxes, 2004, was followed by the peak year for departures—as New York lost nearly 250,000 people to other states in 2005. And that’s before another big tax hike this year. That pattern is consistent with the annual migration patterns, showing that highly taxed and economically lackluster states were most likely to end up in residents’ rear view mirrors. According to the annual study by United Van Lines, states like New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois have been big losers in recent years. …Liberals continue to insist that they can raise taxes ever higher without any effect on behavior, but the New York study is one more piece of evidence that this is a destructive illusion.

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While doing research for an upcoming video, I found an excellent study from the National Center for Policy Analysis that explains how “third-party payer” is largely preventing markets from operating in health care. Government policies (including tax distortions) are the cause of the problem, yet the polticians want to expand third-party payments. Here’s an excerpt from the paper, and I also reprint below a key chart from the paper that shows how most medical prices rise faster than the overall price level, but the opposite result occurs when consumes are in control (for things such as cosmetic surgery):

Long before a patient enters a doctor’s office, third- party bureaucracies have determined which medical services they will pay for, which ones they will not and how much they will pay. The result is a highly artificial market plagued by problems of high costs, inconsistent quality and poor access. …Can the market for medical care be different? Interestingly, in health care markets where patients pay directly for all or most of their care, providers almost always compete on the basis of price and quality. And because they are not trapped in a system that pays for predetermined tasks at predetermined rates, providers are free to repackage and reprice their services — just like vendors in other markets. It is primarily in these direct-pay markets that entrepreneurs are creating many innovative services to solve the very prob-lems about which critics of the health care system complain. …Cosmetic surgery is rarely covered by insurance. Because providers know their patients must pay out of pocket and are price sensitive, patients can typically (a) find a package price in advance covering all services and facilities, (b) compare prices prior to surgery, and (c) pay a price that has been falling over time in real terms — despite a huge increase in volume and considerable technical innovation (which is blamed for increas- ing costs for every other type of surgery). …In 1960, consumers paid about 47 percent of overall health care costs out of pocket. …In 2006, consumers paid only 12 cents out of their own pockets every time they spent a dollar on health care.

Third party payer

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As part of so-called reform, the crowd in Washington is seeking to impose policies to bring “fairness” to the market for people who purchase their own health insurance. Yet these policies – community rating and guaranteed issue – have led to a disaster for families seeking health covereage in New York. The obvious lesson is that the government should not interfere with markets in hopes of creating fairness – though the politicians in Washington have decided that this disastrous approach should be imposed on the entire country. A column in the Wall Street Journal provides the gory details:

One of the biggest things Mr. Cuomo did was to impose government mandates called community rating (CR) and guaranteed issue (GI). The former prevents insurers from charging people more based on their health or age, and the latter forbids denying coverage to anyone who wants to buy it. These two mandates are now a central part of reforms advancing in Congress. In New York, enacting them has been a mistake. One of the biggest proponents of community rating and guaranteed issue in the early 1990s was Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield. With more than eight million customers, Empire was the state’s largest insurer. It was also the state’s “insurer of last resort” because, as a nonprofit organization, it already had to comply with both mandates. It lobbied to extend CR and GI to every insurer in the name of fair competition. But New Yorkers didn’t get a more competitive insurance market. …Within a few years, Empire and others stopped selling insurance in the individual market in the state. A 2007 report by the respected Seattle-based actuarial consulting firm Milliman surveyed the damage. It noted that “by 1996 GI and CR requirements effectively eliminated the commercial individual indemnity market in New York.” While the reforms were supposed to help keep insurance affordable, “premiums for the two [remaining] standard plans increased rapidly,” with one researcher noting “insurers increased premium rates 35%-40% in this period.” Today, New York’s private individual insurance market is among the nation’s most expensive and highly regulated. New York City residents buying private, unsubsidized individual insurance coverage pay at least $9,036 a year for individual coverage and $26,460 for family coverage. New York’s average premiums in the individual market are more than twice the national average, according to a 2007 eHealth Insurance survey. …Partly because of the high costs of private coverage, nearly one in four New Yorkers is enrolled in Medicaid. New York’s Medicaid program is the nation’s most expensive, requiring high local and state taxes to support it. Policy makers rarely mention that state mandates such as CR and GI can drive up prices and drive millions of people away from private insurance. New York has 51 mandates dictating coverage for a wide range of things including hormone replacement therapy (one of four states with this mandate) and drug abuse counseling (one of seven states). Each adds to the cost of insurance. William Congdon at the Brookings Institution and Michael New from the Heritage Foundation have separately done studies that suggest that 40 of the costliest state mandates in the country add as much as 20% to the cost of basic insurance coverage. In 1994, about 4.5% (10.45 million) of the U.S. nonelderly population was covered by individual insurance. Today, that number has grown to 5.5% (14.35 million), a 20% increase. In California, 8% of the nonelderly population has individual insurance. But New York’s individual insurance market represents a paltry 0.2% of its nonelderly population. Before Mr. Cuomo’s reforms it was 4.7%. …market-based reforms could make insurance much more affordable, especially if the CR and GI mandates were repealed. Doing that would reduce the number of uninsured by 18% and 19%, respectively (37% combined), and would lower premiums by 42%. We also found that if the state allowed New Yorkers to buy health insurance sold in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, as much as 26% of the uninsured would purchase private policies costing 25% less than similar policies in New York.

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Alex Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute explains how even supposedly benign interventions have negative effects. Using deposit insurance as an example, he explains how the benefits of intervention are often obvious, but the costs are usually hidden and indirect – and generally of a greater magnitude. The politicians get applause for the supposed benefit (in this case, peace-of-mind for despositors) while avoiding any blame for the hidden costs (moral hazard, financial crisis, malinvestment, etc):

On one hand, there is the fervent political desire to make deposits riskless for the public, so that depositors do not need to know anything about or care about the soundness of their bank. But their deposits fund businesses that are inherently very risky, highly leveraged and cyclically subject to much greater losses than anyone imagined possible. The combination of riskless funding with risky businesses is inherently impossible. The attempt is made to achieve the combination through regulation, but this inevitably fails. Governments are therefore periodically put in the position of desperately wanting to transfer losses from the banks to the public, as once again in this cycle. An alternative is to prefund the losses through deposit insurance. But because the losses can get bigger than the fund, it ends up needing a government guarantee, thus bringing the risk back to the public. …Has government deposit insurance “put a premium on bad banking,” as Sen. Bulkley warned it would? Certainly in some cases it did, especially when risky, rapidly expanding real estate-lending banks could fund themselves by rapidly expanding brokered deposits. More generally, did deposit insurance help inflate the real estate bubble, especially in commercial real estate? Without doubt, it did. Leveraged real estate has been the cause of many banking busts. Over the past several years real estate loans of all commercial banks have grown to represent 56% of their total loans. For the 6,500 smaller banks, with assets under $1 billion, this ratio is a whopping 74%. This expansion of real estate risk could not have happened without deposit insurance.

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The Wall Street Journal rightfully complains about government-imposed minimum wage laws, which are causing higher levels of teenage unemployment. But an underappreciated aspect of this story is the role of union bosses. The unions are big advocates of higher minimum wages, ostensibly because they want to help the working poor, but the real reason is that unions want to somehow acheive above-market wages for their members, and it is difficult to achieve that goal if employers have other options. But if unions can increase the cost of hiriing other workers – or if they can price them out of the market with minimum-wage laws, then that helps the union bosses negotiate favorable deals. Regardless, the real victims are the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are now jobless, as the WSJ explains:

Yesterday’s September labor market report was lousy by any measure, with 263,000 lost jobs and the jobless rate climbing to 9.8%. But for one group of Americans it was especially awful: the least skilled, especially young workers. Washington will deny the reality, and the media won’t make the connection, but one reason for these job losses is the rising minimum wage. Earlier this year, economist David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine, wrote on these pages that the 70-cent-an-hour increase in the minimum wage would cost some 300,000 jobs. Sure enough, the mandated increase to $7.25 took effect in July, and right on cue the August and September jobless numbers confirm the rapid disappearance of jobs for teenagers. The September teen unemployment rate hit 25.9%, the highest rate since World War II and up from 23.8% in July. Some 330,000 teen jobs have vanished in two months. Hardest hit of all: black male teens, whose unemployment rate shot up to a catastrophic 50.4%. It was merely a terrible 39.2% in July. The biggest explanation is of course the bad economy. But it’s precisely when the economy is down and businesses are slashing costs that raising the minimum wage is so destructive to job creation. …The current Congress has spent billions of dollars—including $1.5 billion in the stimulus bill—on summer youth employment programs and job training. Yet the jobless numbers suggest that the minimum wage destroyed far more jobs than the government programs helped to create. Congress and the Obama Administration simply ignore the economic consensus that has long linked higher minimum wages with higher unemployment. Two years ago Mr. Neumark and William Wascher, a Federal Reserve economist, reviewed more than 100 academic studies on the impact of the minimum wage. They found “overwhelming” evidence that the least skilled and the young suffer a loss of employment when the minimum wage is increased. …State lawmakers are also at fault. At least 10 states have raised their minimum wages above the federal level in the last decade, largely in response to union lobbying and in the name of helping the working poor. Four states with among the highest wage rates are California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. Studies have shown in each case that their wage policies killed jobs for teens. The Massachusetts teen employment rate sank by one-third when the minimum wage rose by 88% between 1995 and 2008.

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