Month: March 2008

The permanent tax revolt

…the fractional assessment of homes was easily the largest single government housing subsidy in the postwar era, and it was among the largest categories of social expenditure of any kind, direct or indirect.  Fractional assessment of residential property provided a subsidy that was forty times greater than federal spending for public housing.  It was ten times greater than the home mortgage interest deduction.  It was five times as costly as more controversial "welfare" programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  Although fractional assessment did not show up on official government budgets, on the eve of the tax revolt it was providing more benefits than any other social policy in America except for the twin blockbusters of the federal budget, Social Security and Medicare.

That is from the new book The Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed American Politics, by Isaac Martin.  The main thesis of this book is overstated, namely that the professionalization of property tax assessments is the root cause of American exceptionalism on tax politics; nonetheless I found this a very informative and stimulating read.

Why are commodity prices rising so fast?

Well, today they’re not, they seem to be plummeting.  Still they have been rising rapidly for years.  Paul Krugman surveys some views, click through to the Frankel post as well.  Yes I do think high and rising commodity prices have been a bubble — but not just a bubble — and no I don’t think that low real interest rates are much of a factor.  (Recall Cowen’s Third Law: "All propositions about real interest rates are wrong.")

My basic explanation for rising commodity prices is simple.  Most commodities are produced under conditions of short-run rising costs, often quite steeply rising short-run costs.  Furthermore many production processes cannot do without these commodities in the short run.  Coal, copper, and the like are not always easily substitutable for a factory within the medium run.  (Furthermore until you are sure that the price increase is permanent, why re-gear at all?  Why switch from copper plumbing to plastic plumbing, when price of copper might fall again?)

Now China has become wealthy quite fast but the country didn’t become wealthy by producing more commodities.  That’s Albert Hirschman’s "unbalanced growth."  So demand for most commodities has outstripped the supply, production can’t make up the difference in the short run, and commodity prices can rise sharply.  Don’t forget that logistics and transport are a big part of the production process and so infrastructure often constrains the flow of supply.

In the long run price will adjust (even if you believe we are near "peak oil" this is true for most commodities.)  People will substitute or find new sources of the commodity or find new ways of producing the commodity more efficiently.  Infrastructure improves.  But yes those adjustments can take ten years or more.  And in the meantime we have a commodity price boom and on top of that a bubble to make these items look even more expensive.

One final kicker: lots of commodities are produced by governments and/or their production is heavily controlled by governments, most of all oil.  Then supply adjustments will be especially slow and cumbersome.  Read this article about coal:

…94 percent of India’s coal mining is in the hands of government-owned companies. The biggest, Coal India, produces four-fifths of the country’s coal. Because the government is worried about social unrest, the prices for coal and electricity are kept low.

See the problem?

The bottom line: The best long-run bet is still that there is nothing special about risk-adjusted rates of return on commodities.  That probably means falling real prices and falling real costs over time.  The Chinese demand aberration is a temporary blip superimposed on very consistent longer-run trends.

Why have burglaries declined?

Eric H. points to the question of why burglaries have declined steadily, when other crime rates have been more volatile.  Here is one bit:

Criminologists have a lot of theories why burglaries are so different…"If you’re going to do a burglary, you need to have some buyers," Mathis says. "Everybody has everything now."

Mathis says there’s just too much on the street already. Everyone he knows already has a digital camera, iPod knockoffs and pirated DVDs shipped in from China. "And if it’s not new, a lot of people don’t even want to fool with it," Mathis says. Forget about last year’s video games and old laptops, Mathis says. And don’t even bring a VCR or boxy TV to the street.

"You can get a TV for nothing almost," he says. "People are giving them away now."

In other words, we have fewer burglaries because of low wages in China.  You’ll note that the standard Baumol-Bowen model of the cost-disease predicts an ongoing decline in burglaries.  Goods become cheaper over time, and thus not worth stealing, while services grow more expensive over time.  It is usually harder to steal services so burglary rates should fall.

The article also cites the decline of heavy drug use, better locks and deadbolts, and more widespread use of locks, plus less cash left around the house.  Some experts cite greater neighborhood vigilance.  Note that robberies are not falling in similar fashion, which suggests that criminals prefer to get the victim away from home turf advantage.

Here is further information.  British burglary is falling too.

All you can eat?

Allegedly tipped off by senior officials close to the matter, the Financial Times suggests that Apple is in talks with music labels to follow an approach first pioneered by Nokia and Universal Music Group.

Dubbed Comes With Music, the upcoming service has customers pay more for a cellphone in return for as many a la carte
music downloads as the customer likes over the course of a year. In
this implementation, customers can either renew a subscription once it
expires or else keep the tracks they’ve downloaded, even if they switch
to competing phones or music services.

Here is the article.  One point is that songs will get shorter and their best riffs will be held to higher standards of immediate accessibility.  If the marginal cost of a song is free, people will sample lots more and they will give fewer songs a second listen (higher opportunity cost); of course the opening bits of a song are already free in many cases but this will make sampling even easier.

Second, this will redistribute more of the market surplus away from song providers and toward hardware providers.  Say everyone bought the "all you can eat" version and Apple received zero revenue per song (there are few songs that will swing a decision to subscribe or not).  TAddendumhat helps Apple in its bargains with individual song providers.  If you have a hit song, and Apple controls iTunes, there’s an element of bilateral monopoly.  So Apple is better off if it can precommit to not caring whether they have your song or not.  On the music company side, there would be a tendency toward consolidation, and bargaining over catalogs rather than songs, to offset Apple’s new bargaining advantage.

What other effects can you think of?

Addendum: Some sources are claiming this is just a rumor.

Liability Law and Firm Size

I would like to tile my front porch steps and have been shopping.  Lowe’s and Home Depot have plenty of tile but although they advertise installation they won’t install it outdoors.  The salespeople, however, will surreptitiously recommend small family contractors.  Call Jose, they tell me handing me a number.  Why won’t the big firms install outdoor tile?

As best as I can figure the answer is liability.  A few slips, falls and an enterprising lawyer or two and Lowe’s could be out millions of dollars.  The revenues aren’t worth the risk so small firms step into the breach.  The key, of course, is that the small firms won’t be sued because they are judgment proof.

Roberta Romano was here yesterday and offered another example.  The big auditing firms won’t do SOX audits for small firms because the revenues are low relative to the risks.  The smaller firms must turn to judgment proof auditors of less reliable reputation. 

In one sense, this is a good workaround for a liability system that seeks out deep pockets.  Consumers are better off than they would be if neither Lowe’s nor the judgment proof firms offered services and they are also better off than if Lowe’s was required to offer services, because the price at which Lowe’s would do so voluntarily would be prohibitive (consumers would be forced to buy insurance they didn’t want at the price). 

But more deeply the resulting system is inefficient.  Consumers don’t get the insurance that the liability law is supposed to provide and they must turn to lower quality, higher cost service providers even when they would prefer larger firms with solid reputations. 

On the way to the airport

Here are my tips for how to survive a trip to or from NYC’s LaGuardia airport, always a daunting experience.  You will notice the piece is on Mark Bittman’s new New York Times food blog, which you should be reading anyway.  Don’t forget these words of mine:

Just think how much you are saving: what’s really scarce in life is your time and the mere willingness to get up and go. Just do it.

Elsewhere in the world of food blogging, there is a new blog on the economics of food and wine.

The realignment of the regulatory powers

Two thoughts: First, the very active role of the Fed in the Bear Stearns crisis must,
in the long run, give rise to a fundamental revaluation of the role and
powers of the SEC, the entity technically responsible for investment
banks.  The SEC now appears relatively toothless.

Second, the more commitments made by the Fed, the more we lose the
(quasi) independence of our central bank; for a large commitment
Treasury sign-off is needed.  The realignment of the regulatory
universe will eventually emerge as a big story from the current crisis,
though it is hardly commanding much attention right now.

Paul Volcker comments.

Sherry Glied’s new health care paper

It is one of the best health care papers in recent times, it is here, I cannot find an ungated version.  Glied reminds us that only about 1/3 of American health care spending comes from private insurance.  Moving to international comparisons, the more general point is that:

…there is no persistent and regular relationship between the structure of system financing and the rate of growth in per capita health expenditures in a health system…the efficiency of operation of the health care system itself appears to depend much more on how providers are paid and how the delivery of care is organized than on the method used to raise the funds.

In other words, as I’ve stressed before, the health care cost problem comes from immediate suppliers, namely doctors and hospitals, and not from health insurance companies.

The best parts of the paper concern equity.  It is GPs which help the poor, not additional spending on technology or surgery; see p.18 for other comparisons along these lines.  Furthermore, and this you should scream from the rooftops, consider this:

…patterns of health service utilization in developed countries suggest that the marginal dollar of health care spending — money used to purchase high tech equipment or specialist services — is less progressively spent than the average dollar.

In other words, egalitarians should not allocate marginal government spending to health care.  And there is evidence that the more a government spends on health care, the less it spends helping people in money ways.  That is, there is crowding out. 

Finally, Glied offers a summary comparison:

Putting $1 of tax funds into the public health insurance system
effectively channels between $0.23 and $0.26 toward the lowest income
quintile people, and about $0.50 to the bottom two income quintiles.
Finally, a review of the literature across the OECD suggests that the
progressivity of financing of the health insurance system has limited
implications for overall income inequality, particularly over time.

Highly recommended.

The economics of “bailouts”

Paul Krugman writes:

…(according to Reinhart and Rogoff) the resolution of Sweden’s financial crisis imposed a fiscal burden – that is, required a taxpayer-financed bailout – equal to 6 percent of GDP. That would be $850 billion in America today. Just saying.

It’s worth noting that such costs consist mostly of transfers rather than real resource costs.  Most of the costs of overinvestment in housing already have been borne in the form of lower living standards, namely we have fewer non-housing goods and services.  Making debt obligations whole again does involve higher taxes but most of the money is sloshed around; the government doesn’t dynamite any factories or homes.  It should bother you if you think taxes are already too high but of course that doesn’t describe everyone.  Furthermore if the destruction of the debt claim would otherwise have been deflationary, some of that debt can be monetized (thus, taxes don’t go up) without raising the risk of inflation.  (TC: the Swedish number seems to be wrong, see the first comment.)

Here are a few other points about bailouts, or non-bailouts, as the case may be:

1. Most plans for Fed assistance aren’t bailouts at all.  It is pretty easy for the Fed or Treasury to virtually wipe out shareholders.  The real "bailouts" come when the institutions are allowed to stay open and continue taking risks.

2. The Fed’s regulatory powers make crisis deals less than fair.  If you, as a bank, don’t accept the Fed’s terms, you can be prosecuted or thrown in jail or at least ruined by your friendly regulator.  Being an advocate of the rule of law, I’m not entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but it does mean that the Fed has a much easier time managing crises. Keep in mind also that the failing banks are indeed the most likely ones to have been criminal, so the unfairness is not usually being applied to the innocent.

3. If you think the managers were in charge, and will remain in charge, the real moral hazard problem is the severance pay for the failed managers, not the so-called bailouts.

4. If you’re a critic of bailouts, you can’t have it both ways.  If the Fed or Treasury is guaranteeing loans, yes that does put taxpayer dollars on the line.  But if you think the system can hold up, as do most bailout critics, those guarantees are unlikely to cost very much.  The Fed or Treasury may even turn a profit.  If you think the system cannot hold up, the bailout is probably necessary even if costly.  So you can’t claim: "The bailout isn’t needed" and also "The bailout will burden taxpayers." 

Addendum: By the way, do read David Leonhardt on "what really happened."

How bad news can be good news

This is from an old MR post, summarizing Bernanke’s contributions to economics:

1. The theory of irreversible investment, circa 1983.
Before Bernanke, Dixit, and Pindyck, models often assumed that
investments could be reversed or "taken back."  Bernanke outlined how
the irreversibility of investment might matter.  Often individuals will
choose to wait and sample more information, rather than make an
immediate decision.  Small changes in information could lead to big
fluctuations in investment.  Large changes in interest rates might have
little effect.  Bad news can hurt you more than good news helps you.  This was Bernanke’s first major contribution to economics [and I believe part of his doctoral dissertation].

In this model it is also the case that bad news can cause equity prices to rise.  If the bad news resolves outstanding uncertainty, people may be willing to go ahead and invest, rather than continue to play wait and see.  One way to think about it is that the news could always have been even worse, so bad news can in effect be good news.  Another way to think about it is even truly bad news gets the waiting over with and spurs investors to cross a "do something" threshold.  Now I’m not saying that is what happened today, I’m just saying that maybe this thought crossed Bernanke’s mind…

Addendum: Elsewhere in the wonderful world of finance, here is why Bear Stearns is selling for more than $2 a share…


We have nothing to fear but fear itself, but
fear itself can be pretty scary.

…Fear is ruling the
financial markets. Billions of dollars have been lost in mortgage-related
investments. The Federal Reserve worked madly over the weekend to
engineer a takeover of Bear Stearns and avert a systemic meltdown. But
the big fear remains. How low will house prices go?

If prices continue to fall, mortgage defaults will move well beyond the
subprime sector. Trillions of dollars in losses for investors are not
impossible. But that doesn’t mean they are inevitable.

That’s me in today’s New York Times.  Believe it or not, my piece is one of the more optimistic pieces you are likely to read on the housing crisis.

I think that housing prices went beyond the fundamentals sometime around 2004 (and I said so in 2005, see here and also note my warning that prices could fall dramatically here).   But 2004 levels are still well above long run trend.  Thus my optimism stems from thinking that unlike Japan, our housing prices need not fall back to long run trend (see my piece for graphs).

But the problem is that we can overshoot the fundamentals going down as well as going up and the United States now faces two potentially
self-fulfilling prophecies.

If the financial markets can predict where and when house prices will
stabilize, then credit conditions can quickly return to normal, the
economy can expand and house prices will indeed stabilize.

But if the financial markets remain uncertain about when the decline in
house prices will end, then fear will tighten credit even further, which
would strangle the housing market and generate even more fear.

Unfortunately, I do not know what will push us into the right prophecy (but read my piece, that will help!)  Thus, I am more optimistic than Paul Krugman, who thinks that we may have slipped into the state where no prophecy can bring us back to a good equilibrium, but I’m not that much more optimistic.

Claims about Spanish banks

…perhaps the most important reason why the Spanish financial system is
unlikely to suffer a meltdown is the virtual absence of Special
Investment Vehicles (SIV) and conduits. These animals allow banks to
move mortgage-backed securities off their balance sheets, thus
obscuring the exposure of individual institutions and escaping capital

There is much more here.  Note also that Spanish originators keep a share of each mortgage they securitize.  In case you didn’t know it, Spain too has had a bursting of its real estate bubble, although so far they have not had comparable troubles with their banks.

gdp vs. gdp per capita

Using growth in GDP per head rather than crude GDP growth reveals a strikingly different picture of other countries’ economic health. For example, Australian politicians often boast that their economy has had one of the fastest growth rates among the major developed nations–an average of 3.3% over the past five years. But Australia has also had one of the biggest increases in population; its GDP per head has grown no faster than Japan’s over this period. Likewise, Spain has been one of the euro area’s star performers in terms of GDP growth, but over the past three years output per person has grown more slowly than in Germany, which like Japan, has a shrinking population.

Some emerging economies also look less impressive when growth is compared on a per-person basis. One of the supposedly booming BRIC countries, Brazil, has seen its GDP per head increase by only 2.3% per year since 2003, barely any faster than Japan’s. Russia, by contrast, enjoyed annual average growth in GDP per head of 7.4% because the population is falling faster than in any other large country (by 0.5% a year). Indians love to boast that their economy’s growth rate has almost caught up with China’s, but its population is also expanding much faster. Over the past five years, the 10.2% average increase in China’s income per head dwarfed India’s 6.8% gain.

Here is more.  Of course it is wrong to think that one measure is necessarily better than the other.  And immigration and more births both raise absolute gdp though you may not view the gdp gains in each case as having the same moral status.  One simple adjustment that could be made is to subtract the income an immigrant would have earned, had he or she not moved to a new country.