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Phantom Bubbles at FiveThirtyEight Print
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 04:38

FiveThirtyEight looks at the bubble horizon and concludes stocks and housing are safe, but we should be worried about bonds. The analysis here is seriously misguided.

First as a sidebar, contrary to what you read at FiveThirtyEight, real house prices are somewhat above, not below, their long-term trend levels. That doesn't mean we have a housing bubble, but anyone anticipating a future rise in nationwide house prices in excess of inflation is likely to be disappointed.

But the more important point is that the concern about a bubble in bonds is largely illusory. The piece constructs a case for a bond bubble that just is not there.

First, I was surprised to read that the size of the U.S. bond market is almost $40 trillion, which the piece rightly points out is considerably larger than the $28 trillion stock market or the $20 trillion housing market. When I checked the source for this number I discovered that the figure referred to the total size of the debt market, not just longer term debt that we would typically refer to as "bonds." The FiveThirtyEight figure includes 90-day T-notes and money market funds.

This is not just a question of semantics. Longer term debt (with a duration of five years or more) has large fluctuations in value in response to a change in interest rates. The price of shorter debt will also vary, but the size of the changes is trivial by comparison. This means that if we are worried about a bubble inflating bond prices, we should really only be looking at longer term debt. The size of this market would be roughly half as large, or less than $20 trillion. That's still big, but a considerably smaller basis for concern than the piece implies.

More importantly, the room for losses in this market is not nearly as large as it was in the case of the stock or housing bubbles. The stock market lost more than half of its value from its 2000 peak to its 2002 trough. House prices lost more than one third of their real value from the 2006 peak to the 2011 trough. By contrast, it is difficult to envision a scenario where the bond market loses even 10 percent of its value.

Read more...

 

 
The Future of Health Care Costs: What Does History Tell Us? Print
Tuesday, 22 April 2014 20:30

Eduardo Porter has an interesting column reporting the assessment of various experts on the prospective path of health care costs. Near the beginning he quotes a NYT reporter:

"Changes in the way doctors and hospitals are paid — how much and by whom — have begun to curb the steady rise of health care costs in the New York region, ... Costs are still going up faster than overall inflation, but the annual rate of increase is the lowest in 21 years."

Porter then goes on to tell us that the quote appeared in a column written by a long retired colleague in 1993.

Of course any hopes in 1993 that health care costs would be well-contained over the next two decades were mistaken, but things have turned out better than expected. A set of cost projections from the Health Care Financing Administration (the forerunner of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS]) tells us the consensus view at the time.

These projections showed health care costing 19.8 percent of GDP in 2015 and 26.2 percent in 2040. The most recent projections from CMS show health care spending at 18.4 percent of GDP in 2015 and rising to 19.9 percent of GDP in 2022. The difference between the 1993 projection for 2015 and the most recent projection would come to more than $250 billion in 2015. If we assume a linear growth path between 2015 and 2040, the 1993 projections would imply that health care spending would be 21.6 percent of GDP in 2022, 1.7 percentage points higher than the most recent projections.

This difference is even more striking when considering the size of the projected changes over this period. Health care costs were already close to 13 percent of GDP in 1993. This means that the projection for 2015 implied an increase in costs of 6.8 percentage points. The most recent projections indicate the growth will be just 5.4 percentage points, a difference of more than 20 percent. 

In short, the history of the last two decades indicates there was some basis for optimism about the future course of health care spending in 1993. It has risen substantially less rapidly than had been predicted at the time. For what it's worth, life expectancy has actually increased somewhat more rapidly than projected, indicating that the lower than projected spending did not lead to worse health outcomes. On the other hand, the gains in life expectancy have not been evenly shared with those at the top end of the income distribution getting most of the increase and those at the bottom seeing little or no gain. 

 

Note: A number was corrected and material added. 

 
Paradise Lost: Fred Hiatt and Bowles-Simpson Print
Tuesday, 22 April 2014 05:19

As many have noted, the Very Serious People in Washington have a peculiar love affair with the Bowles-Simpson commission, or more accurately the report produced by the two co-chairs of the commission. (The report is often referred to as a report of the commission. This is not true since it did not have the support of the necessary majority of commission members.) There is no one in Washington who is more Serious, than Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Hiatt once again expressed his disappointment that President Obama did not embrace the co-chairs' report.

"At home, the fateful moment came in 2011 when Obama cold-shouldered the bipartisan panel he had appointed to right the nation’s finances for the long term. That, too, was a decision in keeping with the polls.

"The Simpson-Bowles commission had called for higher taxes and slower growth in Medicare and Social Security spending."

Hiatt is either unfamiliar with the commission's by-laws that required that a report have the support of 12 of the 16 commission members or simply decided to mislead readers. The point is that in reality Obama did not "cold-shoulder" the commission, since the commission did not produce a report, contrary to what Hiatt asserts.

However the substance is even more fun. Hiatt tells readers:

"Instead of chaining themselves to 20th-century arguments and interest groups, Democrats could have begun to shape — and realistically promise to pay for — a 21st-century progressive program focusing on early education and other avenues to opportunity. They could have resources for family policies that really would help address the wage gap."

Okay, never mind that we don't have family policies that can address the wage gap. (Maybe teach the families of corporate directors to tell them not to take bribes to let CEOs get outlandish pay?) The more striking point is that Hiatt is criticizing President Obama for not cutting Medicare, but in fact Medicare spending is now projected to be less than what it would have been with the Bowles-Simpson cuts.

In 2020, the last year for their budget proposal, Bowles and Simpson projected that we would spend $1,461 billion on Medicare and other health care programs. The latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office show us spending $1,417 billion in 2020 on health care programs.

We can argue over the cause of the slowdown in health care spending, but in any case we have actually achieved greater savings in this area than Bowles and Simpson had hoped to achieve with their cuts. In other words, if the point was to free up money for other programs, we got more than what Bowles-Simpson would have given us. It's therefore difficult to see what he is complaining about. Of course if the point was to inflict pain on middle income people then Hiatt's disappointment is more readily understandable.

 

 
The Economy Is Far Too Simple for Economists to Understand #47,654 Print
Monday, 21 April 2014 06:57

The Wall Street Journal noted that this recovery is about to pass the average duration for post-war recoveries with no recession clouds on the horizon. The piece also noted the weakness of the recovery and that the unemployment rate is higher now than at the same point in any prior post-war recovery. This weakness is treated as a source of mystery.

Of course arithmetic fans have no difficulty explaining the weakness. In the last business cycle the economy was being driven by the housing bubble. This led to record rates of housing construction (measured as a share of GDP) and record consumption, with the savings rate falling to near zero. Now that the bubble has burst housing has fallen to below normal levels due to the overbuilding of the bubble years and consumption is closer to normal levels, albeit still unusually high relative to income.

What did anyone think could fill the resulting gap in demand? The government sector could do it, but the balanced budget cultists will not let the government run large deficits. Investment is not going to spike to record highs in a weak economy. The trade deficit could close to fill the demand gap, but that would require a sharp fall in the dollar which we have not seen.

In short there is nothing surprising about the weakness of this recovery. The only aspect that is surprising is that economists seem surprised.

 
A Coordinated Refusal to Work Is Usually Called a "Strike," Even on Mount Everest Print
Monday, 21 April 2014 05:05

I'm just trying to help out National Public Radio. In their top of the hour news segment on Morning Edition (no link) they referred to the possibility that the Sherpas who place the ropes and assist climbers may collectively decide not to work to demand more compensation for the families of the Sherpas who died last week in an avalanche. The NYT correctly described this action as a possible strike, but NPR called it a "boycott."

 
Why Does the NYT Think that Doctors and Other Highly Educated Professionals Need Protection from Foreign Competition? Print
Monday, 21 April 2014 04:29

That is undoubtedly what many readers of the NYT's editorial on new trade agreements will be asking. The editorial made many useful points about the administration's approach to trade, notably criticizing the privileged role that business interests are playing in the negotiations. However it never raised the issue of the barriers that protect doctors and to a lesser extent other professionals from international competition.

Over the last quarter century, U.S. trade policy has been quite explicitly focused on putting U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in Mexico, China, and elsewhere. The predicted and actual effect of trade in these circumstances is to reduce the wages of U.S. manufacturing workers. Furthermore, by reducing the number of jobs and lowering wages in a major sector of the U.S. economy, trade has put downward pressure on the wages of less-educated workers (those without college degrees) more generally.

There is nothing inevitable about this process, it is deliberate policy, not "globalization" as an abstract force. We can use trade agreements to open our economy to foreign doctors. Our doctors get paid more than twice as much as the average for doctors in other wealthy countries. The pay gap with doctors in developing countries is even larger.

There are hundreds of thousands of smart kids in countries like Mexico, India, and China who would be happy to train to U.S. standards and work as doctors in the United States for half the pay our doctors receive. Anyone who really believed in free trade, and not just using trade to redistribute income upward, should be arguing that trade agreements focus on eliminating the barriers that prevent foreign doctors from coming to the United States in the same way that they have focused on eliminating the barriers to importing manufactured goods.

To facilitate foreign investment and the importing of manufactured goods, past trade agreements did not just remove tariffs and quotas. In the case of deals like NAFTA, they totally rewrote countries' rules on investment, taxes, and regulation. Similar efforts will be needed to establish free trade for physicians. This will mean writing clear standards that foreign doctors can train to meet anywhere in the world. It would also mean that they have the opportunity to test to meet U.S. standards in their home countries (by U.S. certified testers). Those who met U.S. standards would then have the same right to practice wherever they want in the United States just like any doctor who grew up in New York or Los Angeles.

And, to ensure that this arrangement will benefit the developing countries as well, we should implement a tax structure on the earnings of foreign doctors with the money rebated to the home countries so that they can train two or three doctors for every one that comes to the United States. (Please read the last sentence as many times as necessary to understand it, in order to avoid writing silly comments about how this will hurt the quality of health care in developing countries.)

The potential savings to patients from bringing our doctors' wages down to world levels could exceed $1 trillion over the next decade. There is no excuse not to pursue this path except the power of the medical profession. It is unfortunate the NYT would not even mention the issue in an otherwise thoughtful editorial.

 
Washington Post Runs Major Story Highlighting that Less Than 0.01 Percent of Medicaid Expenditures in Illinois Were for Dead People Print
Sunday, 20 April 2014 08:39

The Washington Post decided to highlight the fact that a review of Illinois Medicaid documents going back to 1970 found that less than 0.01 percent of the programs spending were payments made for people who are already dead. This information was the basis of a major page 3 AP story in the Sunday paper. 

The article actually never informed readers how large the improper payments were as a share of the program's budget. Instead it told readers that $12 million in such payments had been made, $7 million of which were already recovered. If the article had been competently reported, the real story would be that Illinois' Medicaid program seems to be fairly well run in this respect. (It did include a statement from the director of the state program saying that these overpayments involved less than one tenth of one percent of their caseloads and an ever smaller share of the budget. It would have been more useful if the article directly provided this information to readers rather than leaving this as an assertion by an interested party.)

Any time large amounts of money are being spent there will be mistakes. Private companies make improper payments all the time. A real newspaper would have tried to assess the size of these mistaken payments relative to the size of the program and compared them to improper payments by other large organizations. Apparently Jeff Bezos has no interest in trying to inform the readers of his newspaper, he would rather use the news section to try to convince readers that the government is run by hopeless incompetents. 

 

Note: The fact that the piece was from AP was added after the original post.

 

 
Patents Are Not the Only Way to Finance Research Print
Sunday, 20 April 2014 05:44

Joe Nocera had an interesting column, based on a book by Lawrence Goldstone, that discussed how disputes over the Wright brothers' patents held up the development of the airplane. Unfortunately Nocera concludes the piece with a quote from Goldstone:

"That is, of course, the irony of the patent system. Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss [the Wright brothers' main competitor] cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited."

In fact, patents are not the only mechanism for supporting innovation. The federal government spends $30 billion a year financing bio-medical research through the National Institutes of Health. It also funds research in other areas. Most of this research is directed towards more basic science, but it nonetheless has led to many important innovations. If funding were targeted for developing marketable products (possibly through private contractors) there is no reason for believing it would not be successful.

Given the enormous inefficiencies associated with patent financed research, we should be discussing alternatives. It is unfortunate that Nocera's article implies there are no alternatives to patent financed research.

 

Note: Thanks to Peter for calling this column to my attention. I also see from comments below that Lawrence Goldstone has explicitly argued that we need to pursue alternatives mechanisms to patents for financing innovation. This is encouraging.

 
The Number of People Helped by Obamacare is Far Larger Than the NYT Says Print
Sunday, 20 April 2014 04:59

In an article on the likely political implications of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the November election, the NYT wrongly implied that the beneficiaries are a relatively small segment of the population. It told readers:

"Democrats could ultimately see some political benefit from the law.  But in this midterm election, they are confronting a vexing reality: Many of those helped by the health care law — notably young people and minorities — are the least likely to cast votes that could preserve it, even though millions have gained health insurance and millions more will benefit from some of its popular provisions."

Actually, virtually the entire pre-Medicare age population stands to benefit from the ACA. Millions of insured people lose their insurance every year, typically because they lose their job. These people will now be able to get insurance through the exchanges, in most cases at prices far below what they would have paid in the individual market previously. In this way, the ACA is effectively giving the insured population security in their insurance that they did not previously have.This is especially important in cases where the reason people lost their job was due to bad health.

This is a huge benefit that is being extended to tens of millions of people who will be voting in November. Due to poor coverage of the impact of the law, it is likely that most of these people do not recognize the extent to which the ACA provides them with security in their insurance coverage.

 
When It Comes to Generating Jobs It Pays Not to Listen to the Experts Print
Saturday, 19 April 2014 07:43

It is remarkable that no country has outlawed economics as a dangerous occupation on a par with drug dealing or murder for hire. The damage done to the world over the last seven years based on policies designed by economists has been incredible.

Floyd Norris documents this fact in a nice piece comparing the change in employment rates (the percentage of the population employed) in rich countries since 2007. The only two countries with higher employment to population ratios today than at the start of the downturn are Germany and Japan. Both countries have broken with the economic orthodoxy in important ways.

In Germany, the government has adopted policies that encourage employers to keep workers on the payroll by cutting back hours rather than laying them off. As a result, their unemployment rate is almost three percentage points below its pre-recession level even though its growth has actually been somewhat slower than in the United States.

Japan has adopted a policy of aggressive deficit spending even though its debt to GDP ratio is already more than twice that of the United States. It also has deliberately targeted a higher rate of inflation as a way of lowering real interest rates and reducing debt burden. As a result, it has created a number of jobs that would be the equivalent of more than 4 million in the United States.

In short, ignoring the economic orthodoxy works. Listening to orthodox economists brings destruction to the economy and devastates peoples' lives.  

 

Addendum:

The increase in the employment rates of prime age women in Germany and Japan, 4.0 percentage points and 3.6 percentage points, is especially impressive. This compares to a drop of 3.1 percentage points in the United States.

 
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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.

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