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The "Enormous" Cost of Corporate Inversions: Really Big Numbers at the Washington Post Print
Wednesday, 06 August 2014 04:14

In an article on corporate inversions (relocating their official headquarters to another country) the Washington Post told readers:

"the potential costs to the U.S. treasury are enormous. One measure, by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), suggests that the nation stands to lose nearly $20 billion in tax revenue over the next decade. Former JCT director Edward Kleinbard said he thinks the potential loss is much higher."

For those wondering how big a deal $20 billion over the next decade is, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects total revenue over this period of $40.6 trillion, which means that the JCT estimate would imply a lose of revenue of 0.05 percent. To make another comparison, Medicare spending has been coming in far lower than projected in recent years. The most recent projections for net spending in 2015 is $524 billion. By comparison, in 2008 CBO projected that we would spend $609 billion in 2015, implying a saving of $85 billion in 2015 alone. Carrying through the differences in projected growth rates in the most recent projections with the growth rate projected in 2008, the savings from lower Medicare spending would exceed $1 trillion, making them more than 50 times "enormous."

This does not mean that the Congress and the president should not try to stop a practice that serves no economic purpose and will needlessly cost the government a substantial amount of revenue. It is also important to note that this gaming of the tax code imposes real costs on the economy. There are financial firms that will earn lots of money from this sort of financial engineering. The resources used by these firms (e.g. the labor of the accountants and lawyers engineering the switch) could instead be used productively. In effect. some people are getting very rich being paid to dig holes and fill them up again, in other words, doing work of no economic value.

This is a problem with all economic transactions that become profitable wholly or partly because of quirks in the tax code. For example, much of the wealth of private equity fund managers can be attributed to their exploitation of the deduction for interest payments. This deduction effectively subsidizes heavy corporate leverage, which is undesirable from an economic standpoint since it increases the risk of bankruptcy.

The economic waste associated with tax loopholes, which almost always makes the rich richer, is at least as important a reason to be concerned about corporate tax loopholes as the lost revenue to the government.

Maybe We Shouldn't Thank the Recession for the Slowdown in Health Care Costs Print
Tuesday, 05 August 2014 12:32

The Post's Wonkblog has a piece telling us that we should thank the recession for the slowdown in health care cost growth. I was one of those in the camp who thought the recession was responsible for the slowdown in health care growth in 2008-2010, however I think the explanation weakens as time goes on and costs continue to grow slowly.

The point is simple. Suppose that you have $10k slashed from your income in 2008 compared to its 2007 level. We might expect that you would spend less on health care and everything else in 2008. Suppose that your income in 2009 is again $10k below where you expected it would have been back in 2007. This happens again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. In other words, your income grows at more or less the same pace that you would have expected in each of these years, but the level in each year is 10k below what you had expected it would be in back in 2007.

In this story, which more or less captures the recovery, we might expect that the level of health care spending in these later years would be lower than had been projected in 2007, but the growth rate would be pretty much the same. The Post piece tells us that ain't so.

It cites two studies. Since one is behind a paywall, I will focus on the Brookings study which is freely available to the unwashed masses. This study finds a reasonably strong link between health care spending and GDP growth, however there is a long lag. The regressions for the growth of per capita health care spending use as independent variables current GDP growth and 5 lagged GDP terms using annual data. What is striking is that the strongest effect shows up on the fourth lagged term.

This is noteworthy in the current context because in 2013, the fourth lagged term gave us 2009 GDP growth, which was -2.8 percent. The fourth lagged term this year would give us 2010 GDP growth, which was 2.5 percent. The difference between these two implies a predicted rate of health care cost growth that is 1.6 percentage points higher in 2014 than in 2013. (This calculation uses the coefficients from column 1 of Table 1, the uptick in predicted cost growth would apply for all the regressions whose results are shown in the table, although the size would vary.)

The point is that if this study is the basis for expecting a sharp slowing of health care costs due to the weak economy, the period during which that would be true is over. Based on the study's findings we should be seeing substantially more rapid increases in health care costs in 2014 than we did last year. Thus far this doesn't appear to be the case, which may cause us to question the usefulness of this model for explaining recent patterns in health care cost growth.



Medgeek was good enough to send me the other study, a paper by David Dranove, Craig Garthwaite, and Christopher Ody, which I quickly read through. Looks to me like it provides good evidence that the recession was the major factor in reducing cost growth in 2008-2010. Their model shows that the recession would not lead to any further decline in cost growth in 2011 or later years (see Exhibit 3). In fact, the modest uptick in the employment to population ratio in subsequent years means that we should have been seeing somewhat above trend increases in health care costs in 2012-2014. So yes, there is good reason to believe that the recession was the major factor behind slower health care costs in the years 2008-2010. The continued slow growth over the last three and a half years requires another explanation.


NYT Says Fines Imposed on Banks After the Subprime Perps Left Make Justice Department a Tough Enforcer Print
Tuesday, 05 August 2014 04:35

Knowingly issuing a fraudulent mortgage (e.g. a mortgage based on false information) is fraud. It is the sort of thing that you can go to jail for, especially when it is done on a mass scale, as was the case in the financial crisis. Knowingly passing along fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities is also fraud.

No important figure at any major bank was prosecuted for these activities by the Justice Department. As a result, virtually all of them benefited from their actions in the housing bubble years. They were better off as a result of having committed fraud than if they had obeyed the law. Economic theory tells us that we should expect that this would lead other executives in similar positions to act the same way. In other words, they will break the law, since the consequences of getting caught are essentially zero.

In spite of this reality, in an article on a Justice Department investigation of loan practice in the subprime auto loan market the NYT told readers:

"For the Justice Department, buffeted by criticism for not indicting a Wall Street executive, the mortgage investigations have helped polish the agency’s image as a tough enforcer as they have yielded a string of multibillion dollar penalties."

The article doesn't tell readers in whose mind the Justice Department's image has been polished. The recent settlements against banks can be seen as taking actions against a mob run company after the mob has sold it off, while all the mobsters continue to go free and live off the proceeds of their illegal dealings. That may seem tough to some people, but probably not anyone who has given the issue much attention.


Note: Typo corrected.

What's Holding the Economy Back: Revised Version Print
Monday, 04 August 2014 20:26

In the NYT Upshot section Neil Irwin had an interesting piece assessing which sectors are most responsible for the weakness of the economy. His culprits (in order) were residential invesment (housing), state and local government, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment, and federal spending. Irwin's methodology was to take the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of potential GDP (roughly 5 percent higher than the current level) and then assume that each component has the same share of this potential as its average of GDP over the two decades from 1993 to 2013. The difference between this hypothetical level of demand from a component and the actual level of demand from that component in the second quarter of 2014 is the basis for determining the shortfall.

I decided to do a similar exercise with a couple of minor differences. The table below shows the difference between each component's average share of GDP in the period from 1990-2013 (this was an accident -- misread Irwin's start point) and the average for the first two quarters of 2014. The two quarters are taken together because for many components a strong second quarter offset a weak first quarter. I have also lumped components together (e.g. the categories of consumption are all together). The categories in bold are the major components that together add to GDP.

  Percentage Point Change
  Average 1990-2013
  Minus 2014
Consumption expenditures -2.3
Durable goods 0.7
Nondurable goods -0.1
Services -2.9
Nonresidential investment 0.0
Structures 0.0
Equipment 0.4
Intellectual property products -0.4
Residential 1.1
Change in inventories -0.1
Net exports 0.3
Exports -2.7
Imports -3.0
Government 1.1
Federal 0.5
State and local 0.5

 Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5.


There are a few points that can be made from this table. First, the items that have fallen substantially as a share of GDP are government spending, which had roughly equal dropoffs at the federal and state and local levels, and residential construction. Net exports are also down as the import share had grown more than the export share. Non-residential investment is at its average level for the 1990-2013 period. The big gainer in shares is consumption, which had a 2.3 percentage points larger share of GDP in 2014 than its average in the prior period.



Pension Returns Depend on the Start Point Print
Monday, 04 August 2014 04:57

A New York Times article on New York City's pension funds implied that its assumed rate of return going forward is too high based on past returns over a highly selective period:

"But excessive optimism can lead to financial disaster, because regular shortfalls could ultimately leave the city unable to fulfill its required payouts. For years, the investment return expectation was set at 8 percent. In reality, the system’s returns have often fallen well short of that, earning just 2 percent on average from 1999 to 2009, for instance."

It should not have been surprising that returns would be well below 8 percent in a period that started in 1999 when the price to trend earnings ratio in the stock market was close to 30. The funds should have adjusted their return projections downward in line with the unprecedented run-up in the stock market.

On the other hand, the fact that it is possible to find a year where the market has slumped badly and thereby provided very low returns is completely irrelevant to the a pension fund that in principle can exist forever. It had no need to cash out large amounts of its holdings in 2009, nor is there a plausible scenario in which it would. Of course returns have been far above the 8 percent average in the years since 2009, as the piece notes.

Given this reality, it is entirely reasonable for pensions to use the expected rate of return on their pension assets as the discount rate for future liabilities. This would lead to the smoothest flow of funding. The alternative risk-free rate which is advocated by this article (it uses it in the main chart) would effectively have pensions pre-fund their obligations so that future payments would be much lower relative to revenue. This would be equivalent to building up a large account so that the police or fire department could be paid out of the interest. No policy experts would advocate such an approach.

The piece also misleadingly blames pensions for cutbacks in city programs;

"Already, the growing sums consumed by the pension funds have forced officials to scrimp on certain programs or abandon them, said Marc La Vorgna, a press secretary during Mr. Bloomberg’s administration. One casualty was the Advantage program, which helped homeless people move out of shelters and into apartments. It was eliminated in the Bloomberg administration."

It is equally accurate to say that these programs were only possible (assuming no other revenue or spending cuts) because the city wasn't meeting its obligations to the pension funds. In other words, rather than paying for possibly worthwhile programs, the city was taking the money from its workers' pay in the form of their pensions. It seems more than a bit misguided to blame the pensions for putting an end to this practice.

The points the article makes on the needless cost of investment advisers and questionable returns from private equity investments are well-taken.

Trade, Wages, and Jobs Print
Sunday, 03 August 2014 11:02

I see that Gary Hufbauer and Cathleen Cimino have responded to my earlier post criticizing their colleague Adam Posen's Financial Times column touting the wonders of trade. They cover a lot of ground in their response, but I will just address two main points:

1) The pattern of trade that we have put in place over the last three decades has been a major factor reducing the wages of most of the work force (the 70 percent that lack college degrees).

2) The large trade deficit that we have at present is costing the country millions of jobs. If we eliminated the deficit, the direct and indirect effect would lead to roughly 6 million additional jobs, enough to bring the economy back to full employment.

On the first point, Hufbauer and Cimino (HC) focus largely on the impact of NAFTA. Certainly the impact of NAFTA would be considerably less than trade more generally since Mexico only accounts for about 8 percent of our imports and only about 60 percent as much as we import from China. In my column I was referring to the impact of trade more generally on wages, following Posen's piece which was a diatribe about progressives and trade.

While HC are dismissive of the idea that trade can have much negative impact on wages, it is not necessary to look far to find evidence of this effect. Lindsey Oldenski's, whose work is cited by both Posen and by HC, recently wrote a paper which has the following in the abstract:

"I fi nd that o ffshoring by U.S. firms has contributed to relative gains for the
most highly skilled works and relative losses for middle skilled workers. An increase
in off shoring in an industry is associated with an increase in the wage gap between
workers at the 75th percentile and workers with median earnings in that industry,
and with a decrease in the gap between workers earning the median wages and those
at the 25th percentile. This pattern can be explained by the tasks performed by
workers. Off shoring is associated with a decrease in wages for occupations that rely
heavily on routine tasks and an increase in wages if the occupation is nonroutine and
communication task intensive."

I referred to work by David Autor, which also finds a substantial negative impact of trade on the wages of less educated workers as well as a recent analysis by Paul Krugman that suggested the expansion of imports from China likely has a large negative impact on the wages of less-educated workers. At this point, the fact that trade has had a negative impact on the wages of a large segment of the U.S. workforce really should not be controversial. The question is the size.



New Drugs Competing With Sovaldi Is Evidence of the Inefficiency of the Patent System Print
Sunday, 03 August 2014 08:35

The NYT tells us the good news on the cost of giving people Sovaldi for treating Hepatitis C. First, the annual costs are likely to fall in the years ahead as the backlog of people with the disease are cured and the numbers needing treatment declines sharply. Second, new effective drugs will come on the market and compete with Sovaldi, driving the price down.

In a context where the government gives Savaldi a patent monopoly it is good to have multiple drugs that can provide competition. However from the standpoint of the efficiency of the drug development process this implies an enormous amount of waste.

Once an effective treatment for Hepatitis C has been developed, there is little medical benefit in having a second or third effective treatment. The resources to develop these alternatives to Sovaldi could have been much better utilized researching treatments for diseases which do not presently have a cure. However the incentives provided by the massive patent rents being earned by Gilead Sciences (the patent holder for Sovaldi) give a huge incentive to other companies to carry through duplicative research. If anyone cared about efficiency in the health care system this point would be widely publicized.

Japan Does Not Have a Demographic Time Bomb Print
Sunday, 03 August 2014 08:28

The "hard to get good help" crowd continue to dominate reporting at the Washington Post. An article on Japan's efforts to facilitate women returning to jobs after childbirth told readers:

"Japan is sitting on a demographic time bomb: With its low birth rate, the population is on track to shrink 30 percent by 2060, at the same time 40 percent of its citizens will hit old age."

There is no time bomb. Japan, like most countries, has seen an increasing ratio of retirees to workers. This has been going on for a century. This increase has been associated with rising living standards because of increases in productivity. By all projections, productivity in Japan will be vastly higher in 2060 than it is today, which means that both workers and retirees will be able to enjoy higher living standards even though there will be a lower ratio of workers to retirees.

As labor markets tighten in Japan, workers will go from less productive to more productive jobs. This will mean that people who want workers for menial jobs such as cleaning their house or tending their garden will have to pay more money. This is bad news for them, but it does not amount to a time bomb for the country.

Inequality: Don't Blame the Market Print
Sunday, 03 August 2014 07:58

Zachary Goldfarb has an interesting analysis of trends in before and after-tax income inequality in the Obama years. However he is mistaken in attributing the rise in before-tax inequality to the market rather than deliberate policy choices.

For example, the big banks still exist today because the government had a policy of saving them from the market. They would have managed to put themselves into bankruptcy in 2008 without huge amounts of below market loans and implicit and explicit guarantees from the government. In the wake of this history, the income and wealth of most of the financial sector can hardly be viewed as a market outcome. (The financial sector also profits by being exempted from taxes that apply to other industries.)

Globalization has increased inequality because of the way the government structured trade. It has designed trade agreements to put downward pressure on the wages of manufacturing workers by putting them in direct competition with their much lower paid counterparts in the developing world. It could have designed trade agreements to make it as easy as possible for people in the developing world to train to our standards as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals and then to compete freely in the U.S. market with native-born professionals. This pattern of trade would have yielded enormous benefits to the economy by reducing the cost of health care and other services, while reducing inequality. The fact that we did not go this way was a policy decision, not a market outcome.

In the same vein, the fact that many products, most notably prescription drugs, sell for high prices is due to government granted patent monopolies. The Hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi, which is being sold by Gilead Sciences for $84,000 for a 3-month treatment, would sell for less than $1,000 in the absence of a patent monopoly. The difference is overwhelmingly a transfer from everyone else to the wealthy. Patent monopolies transfer hundreds of billions of dollars a year to patent holders, who are overwhelming high-income households.

Finally, by running a high unemployment policy the government is transferring money from low and moderate income people to the higher income people. We could bring the unemployment rate down to 5.0 percent or possibly 4.0 percent with larger government deficits or a lower valued dollar, which would reduce the size of the trade deficit. The lower rate of unemployment would not only give millions more people jobs, it would also give workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution the bargaining power necessary to raise their wages. These workers would then have more money, while high income households would have to pay more for help.

In short, there are a whole list of easily identifiable policies that have fostered the large upward redistribution we have seen in the last three decades. It is not just the market.

Is There Any Way That Weak Employment Numbers In Europe Might Bolster Concerns That Most Economists Are Right About Government Stimulus Print
Friday, 01 August 2014 05:28

A New York Times article on new economic data from the euro zone noted a 0.1 percentage point rise in the unemployment rate in France. It told readers that this rise (which is almost certainly not statistically significant):

"is likely to bolster concerns that France is stuck in an economic rut and politically incapable of making changes to labor rules or putting in place other overhauls needed to improve economic performance."

There is no one quoted making this claim, it is simply an assertion of the article. In this context, it is worth noting a piece in the NYT Upshot section by Justin Wolfers, which was also highlighted in Paul Krugman's column today. Wolfers noted the nearly unanimous view among the economists surveyed by the University of Chicago's Initiative in Global Markets that President Obama's stimulus created jobs and that it was more than worth its cost.

In the economics profession there is not much dispute that additional government spending in a depressed economy will lead to more jobs and growth. However, this view appears to have no place in the NYT's reporting on Europe's economy, instead we get unattributed assertions about bolstering concerns.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.