Category Archive for: Market Failure [Return to Main]

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

'Friction is Now Between Global Financial Elite and the Rest of Us'

Robert Reich at Comment is Free:

Friction is now between global financial elite and the rest of us, The Guardian: The standard explanation for why average working people in advanced nations such as Britain and the United States have failed to gain much ground over the past several decades and are under increasing economic stress is that globalization and technological change have made most people less competitive. The tasks we used to perform can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.
The left’s standard solution has been an activist government that taxes the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and in other means that people need to become more productive, and redistributes to those in need. These prescriptions have been opposed vigorously by those on the right, who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller, public debt is reduced and taxes and redistributions are curtailed.
But the standard explanation, as well as the standard debate, overlooks the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. ...

Monday, November 02, 2015

'The Rigging of the American Market'

When I tweeted a link to this post by Robert Reich, it received an unusually large number of retweets:

The Rigging of the American Market: Much of the national debate about widening inequality focuses on whether and how much to tax the rich and redistribute their income downward.
But this debate ignores the upward redistributions going on every day, from the rest of us to the rich. These redistributions are hidden inside the market.
The only way to stop them is to prevent big corporations and Wall Street banks from rigging the market. ...

After explaining how concentrated many industries are, and the monopoly/pricing power that gives firms in these industries (which they exploit), he concludes:

... Add it up – the extra money we’re paying for pharmaceuticals, Internet communications, home mortgages, student loans, airline tickets, food, and health insurance – and you get a hefty portion of the average family’s budget.
Democrats and Republicans spend endless time battling over how much to tax the rich and then redistribute the money downward.
But if we didn’t have so much upward redistribution inside the market, we wouldn’t need as much downward redistribution through taxes and transfer payments.
Yet as long as the big corporations, Wall Street banks, their top executives and wealthy shareholders have the political power to do so, they’ll keep redistributing much of the nation’s income upward to themselves.
Which is why the rest of us must gain political power to stop the collusion, bust up the monopolies, and put an end to the rigging of the American market.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


This is from Richard Thaler:

...Many companies are nudging purely for their own profit and not in customers’ best interests. In a recent column in The New York Times, Robert Shiller called such behavior “phishing.” ...
Some argue that phishing — or evil nudging — is more dangerous in government than in the private sector. The argument is that government is a monopoly with coercive power, while we have more choice in the private sector over which newspapers we read and which airlines we fly.
I think this distinction is overstated. In a democracy, if a government creates bad policies, it can be voted out of office. Competition in the private sector, however, can easily work to encourage phishing rather than stifle it.
One example is the mortgage industry in the early 2000s. Borrowers were encouraged to take out loans that they could not repay when real estate prices fell. Competition did not eliminate this practice, because it was hard for anyone to make money selling the advice “Don’t take that loan.”

Monday, October 19, 2015

'Putting Rents at the Center of U.S. Income Inequality'

Nick Bunker:

Putting rents at the center of U.S. income inequality: The rise of income inequality in the United States since the late 1970s is a well-documented fact, but the reasons for the rise still aren’t well understood. The possible culprits include skill-biased technological change, globalization, the rise of the robots, and an increasingly popular reason: increased “rents” in the U.S. economy.
Rents, in economics parlance, are extra returns above and beyond what we’d expect in a competitive market. A new paper by Jason Furman, chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a current Vice Chairman at Citigroup Inc., presents some evidence that not only have rents increased, but they provide a fundamentally important explanation for rising inequality. ...
While the evidence is far from definitive, increased market power could help explain raising rents as well as decreased labor demand. In conjunction with product, frictions in the labor market generate rents. If a firm has monopsonic power, for example, results in firms hiring fewer workers than is optimal for the entire economy. Increased market power and rents are also potential reasons for the decline in the share of income going to labor.
As Furman and Orszag make clear several times in the paper, the story presented here is far from a slam dunk. The evidence for each individual link in the chain isn’t rock solid yet, and digging into the different research areas is vital. Putting more emphasis on rents in the investigation of income inequality prompts a lot of interesting questions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Monopolies Don't Give Us Nice Things'

I've been arguing we need to take a more active approach to reducing market power for many years, without much traction, so it's always nice to see others joining in (it hasn't been enough, but the Obama administration has been better than the Bush administration on this front). This is from Barry Ritholtz:

Monopolies Don't Give Us Nice Things: ...There is little intelligent discussion about the costs of too much regulation on the one hand, and the excesses of capitalism on the other. That is a shame, because both sides of those issues create real economic frictions with substantial societal costs. ...
I would like to address ... how poor a job the U.S. does in regulating industries to which it grants monopoly or oligopoly status. ...
As a nation we do a very poor job of managing competition and adopting the needed standards to improve market efficiency. Television services are just one example. ...
It seems impossible, however, to have a serious conversation about this as long as rich companies buy off elected officials who grant special tax breaks, dispensations and exemptions. You can pretty much name any intractable problem in the U.S. and you can trace it back to the money corrupting the political process. ...

Friday, October 09, 2015

'Faith in an Unregulated Free Market? Don’t Fall for It'

Robert Shiller continues to phish for book sales:

Faith in an Unregulated Free Market? Don’t Fall for It: Perhaps the most widely admired of all the economic theories taught in our universities is the notion that an unregulated competitive economy is optimal for everyone. ...
The problem is that these ideas are flawed. Along with George A. Akerlof ... I have used behavioral economics to plumb the soundness of these notions. ...
Don’t get us wrong: George and I are certainly free-market advocates. In fact, I have argued for years that we need more such markets, like futures markets for single-family home prices or occupational incomes, or markets that would enable us to trade claims on gross domestic product. I’ve written about these things in this column.
But, at the same time, we both believe that standard economic theory is typically overenthusiastic about unregulated free markets. It usually ignores the fact that, given normal human weaknesses, an unregulated competitive economy will inevitably spawn an immense amount of manipulation and deception. ...
Current economic theory does recognize that if there is an “externality” — say, a business polluting the air in the course of producing the goods it sells — the outcome won’t be optimal, and most economists would agree that in such cases we need government intervention.
But the problem of market-incentivized professional manipulation and deception is fundamental, not an externality...

Sunday, October 04, 2015

'Paying CEOs Fat Bonuses for Stock Performance Doesn't Work'

People on Twitter seemed interested in this:

Paying CEOs fat bonuses for stock performance doesn't work, by Lawrence Lewitinn, Yahoo Finance: It turns out offering CEOs huge bonuses to boost shareholder returns doesn’t actually work, according to a new study from Cornell University.
The analysis, done in conjunction with consultants Pearl Meyer & Partners, examined a decade’s worth of data from every company in the S&P 500. It compared companies that offer their top brass a total shareholder return (TSR) plan to those that don’t and found the increasingly popular pay plans haven't significantly boosted any of a number of key metrics. ...

To be fair, I should note that this is qualified. The end of the article points out that this "doesn’t rule out other performance bonuses" that avoid the problems associated with this particular method of trying to align the preferences of CEOs with those of stockholders. Nevertheless, I'm skeptical.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

'Jeb Goes Galt'

Paul Krugman:

Jeb Goes Galt: This is amazing:

“I think the left wants slow growth because that means people are more dependent upon government,” Bush told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo.

Remember, this is the establishment candidate for the GOP nomination — and he thinks he’s living in Atlas Shrugged.

Back when Romney made his "47 percent" remark, Rich Lowry of the National Review Online responded:

...The contention is that if people aren’t paying federal income taxes, they are essentially freeloaders who will vote themselves more government benefits knowing that they don’t have to pay for them. As NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, there’s no evidence for this dynamic. ...
Fear of the creation of a class of “takers” can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video.

Bush didn't learn a thing from Romney' venture down this road. "There's no evidence" for the charge itself, it's a political loser except with a certain population that would vote Republican in any case, and it falsely asserts that Democrats are opposed to policies that spur economic growth (hence our repeated calls for things like infrastructure to provide jobs, get the economy ready for a highly competitive international economy, and avoid the potential for secular stagnation?).

What we are opposed to, or what I am opposed to -- guess I should speak for myself -- is growth where all the benefits are captured by those at the top. Imperfections in economic institutions along with changes in the rules of the game pushed forward by those with political influence have caused those at the top to be rewarded in excess of their contribution to economic output, while those at the bottom have gotten less than their contribution. It's not "taking" to increase taxes at the top and return income to those who actually earned it, to the real makers who toil each day at jobs they'd rather not do to support their families. It's a daily struggle for many, a struggle that would be eased if they simply earned an amount equivalent to their contributions. That's why it's so "politically unattractive", people explicitly or implicitly understand they have been, for lack of a better word, screwed by the system. The blame is sometimes misplaced, but that doesn't change the nature of the problem. They don't want "free stuff," they want what they deserve, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

The other thing I'm opposed to is tax cuts for those at the top that make this problem even worse without delivering any corresponding benefits. These tax cuts redistribute income upward and cause the income received by workers to fall even further below their contribution, and there's no corresponding benefit to economic growth (or if there is, it's very, very small). We keep hearing that putting money in the hands of the "makers' at the top will produce magical growth, but the reality is that these are the true takers, the ones who are receiving far more from the economy than they contribute, while those who actually work their butts off each day to make the things we all need and enjoy struggle to pay their bills.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

'Rational Drug Pricing'

Should we rationally expect rational drug pricing?:

Rational Drug Pricing, by Jeff Sachs: Drug pricing has taken center stage in U.S. politics, and it's high time that it should. ...
Drug pricing is not like the pricing of apples and oranges, clothing, or furniture that well and good should be left to the marketplace. There are two major reasons. First, the main cost of drug production is not the cost of manufacturing the tablet but the cost of producing the knowledge embedded in the tablet. Second, there is often a life-and-death stake in access to the drug, so society should take steps to ensure that the drug is affordable and accessible.
To ensure that financial resources flow to scientists to produce the knowledge embedded in the tablet, the government does two things. First, the government pays directly for a substantial part of the research and development (R&D). ... Second, the government grants patent rights for drug discovery. ...
It's a basic insight of economics that patent rights are a "second-best" solution to drug pricing, not an optimal solution. A patent creates an artificial monopoly to incentivize R&D. Yet it also reduces access to the product, perhaps with unacceptable and immoral life-and-death consequences. Rational drug pricing would get the best of the patent system but ensure that it is compatible with access to the life-saving drugs.
Unfortunately, the current rules of the game in the U.S. pharmaceutical sector do not compensate for the weaknesses of patents. They amplify them. ... What should be done? Here are three key principles.
First, private R&D should certainly be protected by patents but only enough to elicit the needed R&D, not to produce outlandish profits. ...
Second, when the U.S. government pays for much of the R&D, it should share in the property rights. This should be a no-brainer, but in fact the NIH simply gives away most or all the intellectual property that it has financed, so the taxpayer pays part of the R&D bills but the returns are fully captured by private companies.
Third, when companies ... make profits from their U.S.-based research and U.S.-based production and sales, they should certainly pay U.S. taxes on their profits. The fact that the IRS lets them hide their profits in overseas tax havens is scandalous and without any logical justification whatsoever.

Friday, September 18, 2015

'A Knee-Jerk Free Trader Response is Faith-Based'

Dani Rodrik:

Trade within versus between nations: ...economics does not offer unconditional policy prescriptions. Every graduate student learns that depending on the background specifications, any policy x  can be good or bad. A minimum wage can lower or raise employment (depending on whether employers have monopsony power); a natural resource discovery can raise or lower growth (depending on the likelihood of the Dutch disease); fiscal consolidation can expand or contract output (depending on the respective strengths of expectational versus Keynesian effects). And yes, the dictum that free trade benefits a nation depends on a long list of qualifying conditions.
So the proper response to the question “is free trade good?” is, as always, “it depends.” When an economist says “I support free trade” s/he must mean that s/he judges the circumstances under which free trade would not be desirable to be very rare or unlikely to obtain in the context at hand.
Many of the conditions under which free trade between nations is guaranteed to be desirable are unlikely to hold in practice. Market imperfections, returns to scale, macro imbalances, absence of first-best policy instruments are ubiquitous in the real world, particularly in the developing world on which I spend most of my time. This does not guarantee that import restrictions will be necessarily desirable. There are many ways in which governments can screw up, even when they mean well. But it does mean that a knee-jerk free trader response is faith-based rather than science-based. ...

[He goes on to answer a question about differential support for trade within nations versus trade between nations.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

'Bernie Sanders Wants to Spend $18 Trillion: So What?'

James Kwak (Dean Baker makes the same point):

Bernie Sanders Wants to Spend $18 Trillion: So What?: The front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article claiming that Bernie Sanders wants to increase federal government spending by $18 trillion over the next ten years—an increase of about one-third over that time period. This was apparently supposed to raise some kind of alarm—what kind of maniac is this?—and I’m sure both Republicans and Hillary Clinton are happy the Journal is doing their work for them.
The problem is that a spending figure, even one as big as $18 trillion, is meaningless on its own.
Most of that money—$15 trillion—is the expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But we are already spending a ton of money on  health care—with embarrassingly poor results. In 2013,... Americans ... paid ... $1.4 trillion... Project that out for ten years, add health care inflation, and you’re talking about a lot more than $15 trillion.
At the end of the day, what matters isn’t the amount of money that the federal government spends for health care. What matters is the amount of money that the American people spend for health care. The government is just a device that we use to provide certain services that are better handled collectively than individually. If the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices, then the gross dollar amount involved doesn’t matter. ...
Now the big issue, I admit, is whether the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices. For the vast majority of consumer goods and services, it can’t. ... But real economists have known for more than half a century that health care doesn’t behave like ordinary consumer goods. ...
If you don’t want to read economics papers, the best evidence that health care is different comes from comparing the United States to other rich countries, which all have something closer to a single payer model for health insurance. As is well known, we spend a lot more money and have comparable or worse aggregate health outcomes. There is a huge ongoing adebate about why this is, which I’m not going to try to settle here.
The main point, however, is that if you want to argue against the Bernie Sanders health care plan, you have to make the case that Medicare for all will actually produce worse outcomes or higher costs than our current system. The fact that it costs a lot of money is beside the point.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

'The Evolution of Scale Economies in U.S. Banking'

This is a question I have wanted to see an answer to for a long time. What is the minimum efficient scale for financial institutions? This is an important question with respect to breaking up large banks into smaller entities. Some have argued, based on very little compelling evidence as far as I can tell, that breaking up big banks would be costly because large banks are able to exploit economies of scale. Others disagree, but again evidence for either point of view is unclear. I don't mean there is no evidence at all, the existing research is described in the introduction to this paper, but the results do not point strongly in any particular direction. Hopefully, more work on the topic will shift the weight of the evidence in one direction or another:

The Evolution of Scale Economies in U.S. Banking, by David C. Wheelock and Paul W. Wilson, August 2015: Abstract Continued consolidation of the U.S. banking industry and general increase in the size of banks has prompted some policymakers to consider policies to discourage banks from getting larger, including explicit caps on bank size. However, limits on the size of banks could entail economic costs if they prevent banks from achieving economies of scale. The extent of scale economies in banking remains unclear. This paper presents new estimates of returns to scale for U.S. commercial banks based on nonparametric, local-linear estimation of bank cost, revenue and pro t functions. We present estimates for both 2006 and 2012 to compare the extent of scale economies in banking some four years after the financial crisis and two years after enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act with scale economies prior to the crisis. We find that most banks faced increasing returns to scale in cost in both years, though results for the very largest banks in 2012 are somewhat sensitive to specification. Further, most banks faced decreasing returns in revenue in both years, though nearly all banks could still increase revenue and pro t by becoming larger.

[As I've written many, many times, I do not think that breaking up big banks will do a lot to reduce our susceptibility to bank crises. After all, we had a financial crisis about every 20 years in the 1800s, and this continued through the Great Depression, and at that time banks were relatively small. Thus, it seems that crises have more to do with the diversity of activity and connectedness than bank size. I favor breaking up the biggest banks to reduce their political power, which I believe is excessive, and to reduce their economic power. If the above results had shown that the minimum efficient scale was much smaller than the typical large, systemically important bank, breaking them up would be an easy call. But that's not what the results imply. Thus, in this case, there is a tradeoff between the benefit or reducing political and economic power versus losing economies of scale (not sure how steep the cost function is at the existing size -- if it's relatively flat the loss of scale economies could be small). The other alternative is to treat them along the lines of a public utility. We allow them to be large to exploit scale economies, then regulate pricing and other behavior. However, this is where the political power of the large banks matters, and it's not clear that a policy of "large but with regulatory oversight" is the best option to pursue.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

'The Water Market Will Never be a Free Market'

John Whitehead responds to those who say the solution to water problems is to "allow free markets to operate":

...The water market will never be a "free market" in the true sense of the word. A plea to the water authority (i.e., government) to price water more rationally is a plea for policy reform ... towards a better use of incentives. Free markets only exist when there is no government regulation of buyers and sellers, no taxes, no subsidies and no nothing. An efficient free market for water is a difficult thing to pull off since it is a common-pool resource. It is easier for the pizza market to operate efficiently since pizza is a private good. 
I don't think adaption to climate change can be accomplished efficiently by government taking a hands off approach. You can't privatize much of the natural environment. ...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

'The Future of Work: Why Wages Aren't Keeping Up'

This is from Robert Solow writing at Pacific Standard magazine:

The Future of Work: Why Wages Aren't Keeping Up: One of the more puzzling and damaging features of the American labor market in the last few decades has been the failure of real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) wages and benefits to keep up with the increase in productivity. ...
The custom is to think of value added in a corporation (or in the economy as a whole) as just the sum of the return to labor and the return to capital. But that is not quite right. There is a third component which I will call “monopoly rent” or, better still, just “rent.” ...
The suggestion I want to make is that one important reason for the failure of real wages to keep up with productivity is that the division of rent in industry has been shifting against the labor side for several decades. This is a hard hypothesis to test in the absence of direct measurement. But the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished. ...
Now I would like to connect this hypothesis with another change taking place in the labor market..., the casualization of labor. The proportion of part-time workers has been rising... So are the numbers of workers on fixed-term contracts and independent contractors...
Casual workers have little or no effective claim to the rent component of any firm’s value added... If the division of corporate rents has indeed been shifting against labor, an increasingly casual work force will find it very hard to reverse that trend.

Friday, August 07, 2015

'Inventing Prizes: A Historical Perspective on Innovation Awards and Technology Policy'

Kevin Bryan:

“Inventing Prizes: A Historical Perspective on Innovation Awards and Technology Policy,” B. Z. Khan (2015): B. Zorina Khan is an excellent and underrated historian of innovation policy. In her new working paper, she questions the shift toward prizes as an innovation inducement mechanism. The basic problem ... is that patents are costly in terms of litigation, largely due to their uncertainty, that patents impose deadweight loss by granting inventors market power... (as noted at least as far back as Nordhaus 1969), and that patent rights can lead to an anticommons which in some cases harms follow-on innovation (see Scotchmer and Green and Bessen and Maskin for the theory, and papers like Heidi Williams’ genome paper for empirics).
There are three main alternatives to patents, as I see them. First, you can give prizes, determined ex-ante or ex-post. Second, you can fund R&D directly with government, as the NIH does for huge portions of medical research. Third, you can rely on inventors accruing rents to cover the R&D without any government action, such as by keeping their invention secret, relying on first mover advantage, or having market power in complementary goods. We have quite a bit of evidence that the second, in biotech, and the third, in almost every other field, is the primary driver of innovative activity.
Prizes, however, are becoming more and more common. ... What Khan notes is that prizes have been used frequently in the history of innovation, and were frankly common in the late 18th and 19th century. How useful were they?
Unfortunately, prizes seem to have suffered many problems. ..., prize designers don’t know enough about the relative import of various ideas to set price amounts optimally, prizes in practice are often too small to have much effect, and prizes lead to more lobbying and biased rewards than patents. We shouldn’t go too far here; prizes still may be an important part of the innovation policy toolkit. But the history Khan lays out certainly makes me more sanguine that they are a panacea. ...
[July 2015 NBER Working Paper (RePEc IDEAS). I’m afraid the paper is gated if you don’t have an NBER subscription, and I was unable to find an ungated copy.]

Saturday, August 01, 2015


Chris Dillow on the privatization of government services:

Creating markets: ... My point here is a simple one. Whether effective markets and private ownership can be created depends upon particular institutional and technical conditions.
This is, of course, a variant on Coase's famous point (pdf) - that there are costs to market transacting. These costs must be weighed against the costs of other forms of economic organisation - be it the firm or state control.
This applies to issues much nearer home. Whether public sector services should be privatized depends upon precise institutional detail: is it possible to write contracts which ensure a high quality of service without excessive rent-seeking? In Coasean terms, is the cost of market transacting lower than the cost of in-house production?
The answer will vary from service to service and place to place. .... It all depends upon subtle details.

I wrote about this a bit in 2007 in "Markets are Not Magic":

To listen to some commentators is to believe that markets are the solution to all of our problems. Health care not working? Bring in the private sector. Need to rebuild a war-torn country? Send in the private contractors. Emergency relief after earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Wal-Mart with a contract is the answer. ...
Markets don't work just because we get out of the way. When government contracts are moved to the private sector without ensuring the proper incentives are in place, there will be problems - waste, inefficiency, higher prices than needed, etc. There is nothing special about markets that guarantees that managers or owners of companies will have an incentive to use public funds in a way that maximizes the public rather than their own personal interests. It is only when market incentives direct choices to coincide with the public interest that the two sets of interests are aligned.
If there is no competition, or insufficient competition in the provision of government services by private sector firms, there is no reason to expect the market to deliver an efficient outcome, an outcome free of waste and inefficiency. Why would we think that giving a private sector firm a monopoly in the provision of a public service would yield an efficient outcome? If the projects are of sufficient scale, or require specialized knowledge so that only one or a few private sector firms are large enough or specialized enough to do the job, why would we expect an ideal outcome just because the private sector is involved? If cronyism limits the participants in the marketplace, why would we expect an outcome that maximizes the public interest?
There is nothing inherent in markets that guarantees a desirable outcome. A market can be a monopoly, a market can be perfectly competitive, a market can be lots of things. Markets with bad incentives produce bad outcomes, markets with good incentives do better. ...
For government goods and services, when incentives consistent with a competitive outcome are present, we should get government out of the way and privatize, and there are lots of circumstances where this will be appropriate. There is no reason at all for the government to produce its own pencils and pens, buying them from the private sector is more efficient so long as the bids are competitive.
When competitive conditions are not met but can be regulated, the regulations should be put in place and the private sector left to do its thing... There's no reason for government to do anything except ensure that the incentives to motivate competitive behavior are in place and enforced.
But rampant privatization based upon some misguided notion that markets are always best, privatization that does not proceed by first ensuring that market incentives are consistent with the public interest, doesn't do us any good. ...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Dentists and Skin in the Game'

Paul Krugman:

Dentists and Skin in the Game: Wonkblog has a post inspired by the dentist who paid a lot of money to shoot Cecil the lion, asking why he — and dentists in general — make so much money. Interesting stuff; I’ve never really thought about the economics of dental care.

But once you do focus on that issue, it turns out to have an important implication — namely, that the ruling theory behind conservative notions of health reform is completely wrong.

For many years conservatives have insisted that the problem with health costs is that we don’t treat health care like an ordinary consumer good; people have insurance, which means that they don’t have “skin in the game” that gives them an incentive to watch costs. So what we need is “consumer-driven” health care, in which insurers no longer pay for routine expenses like visits to the doctor’s office, and in which everyone shops around for the best deals. ...

As it turns out, many fewer people have dental insurance than have general medical insurance; even where there is insurance, it typically leaves a lot of skin in the game. But dental costs have risen just as fast as overall health spending...

Friday, July 24, 2015

'The Housing Market Still Isn’t Rational'

For the fans of Robert Shiller:

The Housing Market Still Isn’t Rational: Home prices have been climbing. They have risen 27 percent nationally since 2012, even more in places like San Francisco. But why worry? If you accept the efficient markets theory — and believe that real estate is an efficient market — then these prices are based on “new information,” even if you don’t know what that information is.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that the efficient markets theory is at best a half-truth, as a voluminous literature on market anomalies shows. What’s more, even that half-truth is grounded mainly in the stock market, which attracts professional investors who sometimes do make the market behave efficiently.
The housing market is another matter. It is far less rational than even the often irrational stock market...[explains why]...
The bottom line is that there is no reason to assume that the real estate market is even close to efficient. You may want to buy a house if you love it and can afford it. But remember that you cannot safely rely on “comparable sales” to judge that the price is fair. The market isn’t efficient enough for that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

'Socialism, American-Style'

Conservative states like socialism?:

Socialism, American-Style, by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna, Commentary, NY Times: The great 20th-century conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter thought the left had overlooked a major selling point in pressing the case for public — i.e., government — control over productive capital. “One of the most significant titles to superiority,” he suggested, was that public ownership produced profits, which means not having to depend on taxes to raise money.
The bulk of the left never took up Schumpeter’s argument. But in an oddly fitting twist, these days the mantra of public control in exchange for lower taxes has been embraced by a surprising quarter of the American political leadership: conservatives.
The most well-known case is Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund ... combines not one, but two socialist principles: public ownership and the provision of a basic income for all residents. The fund collects and invests proceeds from the extraction of oil and minerals in the state. Dividends are paid out annually to all state residents. ...

The authors go on to cite many more examples, e.g. the Texas Permanent School Fund and the Texas Permanent University Fund, The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, which "is almost a direct expression of Schumpeter’s doctrine: Socialized ownership has helped to eliminate income taxes in the state," the Tennessee Valley Authority, electricity generation in Nebraska, where "Partly as a result, Nebraskans pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation." They conclude with:

The list goes on. More than 450 communities have also built partial or full public Internet systems, some after significant political battles. Roughly one-fifth of all hospitals are also currently publicly owned. Many cities own hotels, including Dallas...
Moreover, contrary to conventional opinion, studies of the comparative efficiency of modern public enterprise show rough equivalency to private firms in many cases. ...
With skepticism about capitalism growing among minorities and young voters, will we see more such endeavors in the future? Pendulums have a way of swinging, sometimes very sharply, when big economic tsunamis hit. It is possible that in the next big crisis, both sides might see the wisdom and practical benefits of public ownership, and embrace Joseph Schumpeter’s point even more boldly than they do today.

I think this would benefit from separating natural monopolies -- where it is not surprising in the least that costs/prices are lower with public ownership (or strict regulation of prices if privately owned) -- from the other examples. When *significant* market failures justify it, I fully support public ownership. But in most cases I'd prefer private sector ownership with regulatory oversight.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Did Dodd-Frank Fix Too Big To Fail?

Gara Afonso and João Santos at the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog:

What Do Bond Markets Think about “Too-Big-to-Fail” Since Dodd-Frank?: In our previous post, we concluded that, in rating agencies’ views, there is no clear consensus on whether the Dodd-Frank Act has eliminated “too-big-to-fail” in the United States. Today, we discuss whether bond market participants share these views.
As we discussed in our post on Monday, the Dodd-Frank Act includes provisions to address whether banks remain “too big to fail.” Title II of the Act creates an orderly liquidation mechanism for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to resolve failed systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). ...
Since the Dodd-Frank Act makes it easier to intervene at the holding company level, we predict that, relative to the pre-Dodd-Frank era, investors’ perceptions of the risk of holding bonds of a parent company would have increased relative to the risk of holding bonds of its subsidiary bank. To test this hypothesis, we compared how bond spreads evolved for a matched pair of bonds—one issued by the parent company and one by its subsidiary bank. This approach lets us isolate any differential effect of the new resolution procedure on the parent company relative to its subsidiary. A downside, though, is that there are only a few cases where both the parent and the subsidiary have the same bonds traded in financial markets.
Contrary to our hypothesis, the difference in option-adjusted spreads to Treasuries of the parent companies and their subsidiary banks ... has not widened since the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted. ...
Our previous post demonstrated that rating agencies do not have a unanimous view of the current level of government support of U.S. commercial banks and their holding companies. The results here indicate that market participants’ perceptions of the relative risk have not increased as one would have expected given the new resolution framework introduced by the Dodd-Frank Act. ...
Together the evidence suggests that rating agencies and market participants may have some doubts about the ability, so far, of the Dodd-Frank Act to deal with “too big to fail.” However, some observers have argued that once all provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act are implemented, any remaining expectations of government support will disappear. Time will tell.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'The Problem with Completely Free Markets'

I have a new column:

The Problem with Completely Free Markets: The Supreme Court’s decision last week saved Obamacare from the Republican’s latest attempt to get government out of health care. But if Republicans can find another way to attack the Affordable Care Act, they surely will. 
Healthcare is not, of course, the only place where Republicans object to government intervention in private markets. They believe that markets free of government rules and regulations almost always outperform markets where the government is involved. So it’s a good time to review why this faith in free markets is sometimes misplaced, and how government involvement in some markets can improve their performance. ...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

'Whatever Happened to Antitrust?'

Robert Reich believes, as I do, that monopoly power is one of the reasons that the distribution of income has been skewed toward the top:

Whatever Happened to Antitrust?: Last week’s settlement between the Justice Department and five giant banks reveals the appalling weakness of modern antitrust. 
The banks had engaged in the biggest price-fixing conspiracy in modern history. Their self-described “cartel” used an exclusive electronic chat room and coded language to manipulate the $5.3 trillion-a-day currency exchange market. It was a “brazen display of collusion” that went on for years, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. 
But there will be no trial, no executive will go to jail, the banks can continue to gamble in the same currency markets, and the fines – although large – are a fraction of the banks’ potential gains and will be treated by the banks as costs of doing business.
America used to have antitrust laws that permanently stopped corporations from monopolizing markets, and often broke up the biggest culprits. 
No longer. Now, giant corporations are taking over the economy – and they’re busily weakening antitrust enforcement. 
The result has been higher prices for the many, and higher profits for the few. It’s a hidden upward redistribution from the majority of Americans to corporate executives and wealthy shareholders. ...
Antitrust has been ambushed by the giant companies it was designed to contain.
Congress has squeezed the budgets of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the bureau of competition of the Federal Trade Commission. Politically-powerful interests have squelched major investigations and lawsuits. Right-wing judges have stopped or shrunk the few cases that get through. 
We’re now in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first gilded age when the nation’s antitrust laws were enacted. But unlike then, today’s biggest corporations have enough political clout to neuter antitrust. 
Conservatives rhapsodize about the “free market” and condemn government intrusion. Yet the market is rigged. And unless government unrigs it through bold antitrust action to restore competition, the upward distributions hidden inside the “free market” will become even larger.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

'Are We Kidding Ourselves on Competition?'

This seems implausible to me, yet there seems to be evidence for it:

Are we kidding ourselves on competition?, by Joshua Gans: ...Consider a situation where there are 10 firms in a market and they compete with one another. Now suppose that all shareholders — say because they are following the dicta of diversification — allocate their wealth in equal proportion across those 10 firms. That means that each owner of the firm — even if there are thousands of these — cares equally about each firm’s profits.
So ask yourself: when those shareholders vote on the composition of boards or the management of the firm, or, importantly how the management of the firm is compensated, are they going to vote for managers who will care only about the profits of the firm they manage or about the profits more broadly? The answer is obvious: they will look to managers who manage in the interest of shareholders and so that means they care about all firm profits and not just the one of their own firm.
In a world where shareholders can get what they want, we won’t have competition in this outcome but, more likely, a collusive outcome. What is more, the firms won’t have to go to all the difficulty of violating antitrust laws to obtain this outcome, they will do it unilaterally. There are no laws against that. ...
Now this isn’t just speculation. Jose Azar, an economist now at Charles River Associates, did his Princeton PhD on this topic. His theory paper is here and it builds on others including Gordon (1990), Hansen and Lott (1995) and O’Brien and Salop (2000). Frank Wolak and I came up with a similar set of issues related to cross-ownership and hedging in electricity markets (for vertical ownership) and verified anti-competitive consequences arising from this. But Azar, along with Martin Schmalz and Isabel Tecu have demonstrated that cross-ownership has anti-competitive impacts on the US airline industry. They find that cross ownership increases US airline prices 3–5%. When they use the event whereby BlackRock acquired Barclays Global Investors (a merger changing the shares of common ownership in airlines), they found such ownership could indicate 10% bumps in pricing with US airline ticket prices rising by 0.6% as a result of that merger alone. ...
The point here is that we cannot really ignore this issue as economists or as policy-makers. We have “known” about it for decades. Now’s the time to take it seriously.

[There's a bit more in the original post.]

Friday, March 27, 2015

How Idealism Can Fight Climate Change

Robert Shiller:

How Idealism, Expressed in Concrete Steps, Can Fight Climate Change: Idealism combined with an intriguing application of economic theory may accomplish what international conferences have not: solve the seemingly intractable problem of global warming.
Despite periodic flurries of optimism, diplomacy has been largely disappointing. ... From an economic standpoint, international efforts until now have foundered on a fundamental “free rider problem.” ... Why not just take a “free ride” and let others do the hard work? ...
But there are other ways to look at this... In a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” (Princeton 2015), Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist, question that assumption. In a proposal that they call the “Copenhagen Theory of Change,” they say that we should be asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions. ...
The world is a diverse and complicated place, however. In order to combat global warming, social movements aren’t enough. We also need a concrete framework on a global scale.
In his presidential address before the American Economic Association in Boston in January, William D. Nordhaus of Yale proposed what he calls “climate clubs”..., a group of countries that agree to create incentives for people to reduce carbon emissions, while also erecting tariff barriers on imports from countries that are not members of the club. ...
To actually solve the extremely challenging problem of climate change, we may want to rely on both theories...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

'The Real Cost of Coal'

David Hayes and James Stock:

The Real Cost of Coal, NY Times: Congress long ago established a basic principle governing the extraction of coal from public lands by private companies: American taxpayers should be paid fair value for it. They own the coal, after all.... Studies by the Government Accountability Office, the Interior Department’s inspector general and nonprofit research groups have all concluded that taxpayers are being shortchanged.
This is no small matter. In 2013, approximately 40 percent of all domestic coal came from federal lands. ... Headwaters Economics estimates that various reforms to the royalty valuation system would have generated $900 million to $5.6 billion more overall between 2008 and 2012.
This failure by the government to collect fair value for taxpayer coal is made more troubling by the climate-change implications of burning this fossil fuel. ... The price for taxpayer-owned coal should reflect, in some measure, the added costs associated with the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. ...
Industry is sure to oppose this, even though coal is the planet’s most carbon-intensive energy source. Others will argue that an across-the-board carbon tax is a more efficient way to account for climate impacts. With no near-term prospects for such legislation, however, the Interior Department should set a royalty that provides fair value to taxpayers by addressing the climate costs of burning coal. ...

Monday, March 09, 2015

'Publicly Funded Inequality'

Kemal Derviş

Publicly funded inequality, Brookings: One of the factors driving the massive rise in global inequality and the concentration of wealth at the very top of the income distribution is the interplay between innovation and global markets. In the hands of a capable entrepreneur, a technological breakthrough can be worth billions of dollars, owing to regulatory protections and the winner-take-all nature of global markets. What is often overlooked, however, is the role that public money plays in creating this modern concentration of private wealth.
As the development economist Dani Rodrik recently pointed out, much of the basic investment in new technologies in the United States has been financed with public funds. The funding can be direct, through institutions like the Defense Department or the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or indirect, via tax breaks, procurement practices, and subsidies to academic labs or research centers.
When a research avenue hits a dead end – as many inevitably do – the public sector bears the cost. For those that yield fruit, however, the situation is often very different. Once a new technology is established, private entrepreneurs, with the help of venture capital, adapt it to global market demand, build temporary or long-term monopoly positions, and thereby capture large profits. The government, which bore the burden of a large part of its development, sees little or no return. ...
A combination of measures and international agreements must be found that would allow taxpayers to obtain decent returns on their investments, without removing the incentives for savvy entrepreneurs to commercialize innovative products.
The seriousness of this problem should not be understated. The amounts involved contribute to the creation of a new aristocracy that can pass on its wealth through inheritance. If huge sums can be spent to protect privilege by financing election campaigns (as is now the case in the US), the implications of this problem, for both democracy and long-term economic efficiency, could become systemic. The possible solutions are far from simple, but they are well worth seeking.

["Several ways to change such a system" are also discussed.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change'

Jason Furman, Ron Shadbegian, and Jim Stock:

The cost of delaying action to stem climate change: A meta-analysis, Vox EU: Summary The cost of delaying climate action has been studied extensively. This column discusses new findings based on a meta-analysis of published model runs. A one-decade delay in addressing climate change would lead to about a 40% increase in the net present value cost of addressing climate change. If anything, the methodology used in this analysis could understate the cost of delay. Uncertainty and the possibility of tipping points provide a motivation for more action as a form of insurance against worse outcomes.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Paul Krugman: Knowledge Isn’t Power

A skills gap is not the problem, it's economic power:

Knowledge Isn’t Power, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... Just to be clear: I’m in favor of better education. Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all. But ... people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality. This sounds serious and thoughtful. But it’s actually a view very much at odds with the evidence, not to mention a way to hide from the real, unavoidably partisan debate.
The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills... So what we need is more and better education. ...
It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t..., there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment...
Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time..., the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.
So what is really going on? Corporate profits have soared as a share of national income, but there is no sign of a rise in the rate of return on investment..., it’s what you would expect if rising profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns to capital... — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.
Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.
But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Drug Prices are Bankrupting America

Jeff Sachs:

The Drug that is Bankrupting America: America is the land of breakthrough science ... in the case of the new hepatitis C virus (HCV) cure named sofosbuvir, sold under the brand name Solvadi by the drug company Gilead Sciences. There is no question that Solvadi is a godsend - a lifesaver for millions ... around the world ... Yet Solvadi is also the poster child of a US healthcare system that is being bankrupted by greed, lobbying and indefensible policies on drug pricing.
The basic facts are these. ... Gilead set the price for a twelve-week treatment course of Solvadi at $84,000... According to researchers at Liverpool University, the actual production costs of Solvadi for the twelve-week course is in the range $68-$136. ...
The standard defense by the drug companies ... is that drug discovery is costly and their high profits reimburse the R&D costs. Here is where the story of Solvadi gets even more interesting. The total private-sector outlays on R&D were ... almost surely under $500 million, meaning that the decade-long R&D outlays were likely recouped in a few weeks of drug sales.
Here is the background. Sofosbuvir was developed under the leadership of Prof. Raymond Schinazi, a brilliant professor of biochemistry at Emory University. The US Government heavily funded Prof. Schinazi's research...
Solvadi ... shows how publicly financed science easily turns into arbitrarily large private profits paid for by taxpayers. The challenge facing the US is to adopt a rational drug pricing system that continues to spur excellent scientific breakthroughs while keeping greed in check. Big Pharma and the US public are on a collision course when they should be partners for the advancement of health.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

'Let This be the Year When We Put a Proper Price on Carbon'

Larry Summers:

Let this be the year when we put a proper price on carbon: The case for carbon taxes has long been compelling. With the recent steep fall in oil prices and associated declines in other energy prices it is overwhelming. There is room for debate about the size of the tax and about how the proceeds should be deployed. But there should be no doubt that starting from the current zero tax rate on carbon, increased taxation would be desirable.
The core of the case for taxation is the recognition that those who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions. ...
Progressives who are concerned about climate change should rally to a carbon tax as the most important step for mobilising against it. Conservatives who believe in the power of markets should favour carbon taxes on market principles. .... Now is the time.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Paul Krugman: When Government Succeeds

Sometimes, government is the best solution:

When Government Succeeds, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The great American Ebola freakout of 2014 seems to be over. ...
When the freakout was at its peak, Ebola wasn’t just a disease — it was a political metaphor. It was, specifically, held up by America’s right wing as a symbol of government failure. ... Leading Republicans suggested ignoring everything we know about disease control and resorting to extreme measures like travel bans, while mocking claims that health officials knew what they were doing.
Guess what: Those officials actually did know what they were doing. The real lesson of the Ebola story is that sometimes public policy is succeeding even while partisans are screaming about failure. And it’s not the only recent story along those lines.
Here’s another: Remember Solyndra? It was a renewable-energy firm that borrowed money using Department of Energy guarantees, then went bust, costing the Treasury $528 million. And conservatives have pounded on that loss relentlessly... Last week the department revealed that the program that included Solyndra is, in fact, on track to return profits of $5 billion or more.
Then there’s health reform. As usual, much of the national dialogue over the Affordable Care Act is being dominated by fake scandals drummed up by the enemies of reform. But if you look at the actual results so far, they’re remarkably good. ...
One last item: Remember all the mockery of Obama administration assertions that budget deficits, which soared during the financial crisis, would come down as the economy recovered? ... Well,... the deficit has indeed come down rapidly...
The moral of these stories is ... that ... government-hating politicians can sometimes turn their predictions of failure into self-fulfilling prophecies, but when leaders want to make government work, they can.
And let’s be clear: The government policies we’re talking about here are hugely important. We need serious public health policy, not fear-mongering, to contain infectious disease. We need government action to promote renewable energy and fight climate change. Government programs are the only realistic answer for tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise be denied essential health care.
Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Paul Krugman: China, Coal, Climate

Are we finally getting somewhere in the battle against climate change?:

China, Coal, Climate, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s easy to be cynical about summit meetings. Often they’re just photo ops, and the photos from the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which had world leaders looking remarkably like the cast of “Star Trek,” were especially cringe-worthy. At best — almost always — they’re just occasions to formally announce agreements already worked out by lower-level officials.
Once in a while, however, something really important emerges. And this is one of those times: The agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is, in fact, a big deal.
To understand why, you first have to understand the defense in depth that fossil-fuel interests and their loyal servants — nowadays including the entire Republican Party — have erected against any action to save the planet.
The first line of defense is denial: there is no climate change; it’s a hoax concocted by a cabal including thousands of scientists around the world. ... Indeed, some elected officials have done all they can to pursue witch hunts against climate scientists.
Still, as a political matter, attacking scientists has limited effectiveness. It ... sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, because it is.
The second line of defense involves economic scare tactics: any attempt to limit emissions will destroy jobs and end growth. ... Like claims of a vast conspiracy of scientists, however, the economic disaster argument has limited traction beyond the right-wing base. ...
Which brings us to the last line of defense, claims that America can’t do anything about global warming, because other countries, China in particular, will just keep on spewing out greenhouse gases. ... But ... China has declared its intention to limit carbon emissions. ...
But consider the situation. America is not exactly the most reliable negotiating partner on these issues, with climate denialists controlling Congress ...
But the principle that has just been established is a very important one. Until now, those of us who argued that China could be induced to join an international climate agreement were speculating. Now we have the Chinese saying that they are, indeed, willing to deal — and the opponents of action have to claim that they don’t mean what they say.
Needless to say, I don’t expect the usual suspects to concede that a major part of the anti-environmentalist argument has just collapsed. But it has. This was a good week for the planet.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Climate Breakthrough in Beijing

Jeff Sachs seems to be pleased:

The climate breakthrough in Beijing gives the world a fighting chance: Today’s US-China joint announcement on climate change and energy is the most important advance on the climate change agenda in many years. ... What they’ve said gives the world a fighting chance – and no doubt the last one – for climate safety. ...
An announcement is just an announcement, of course. .. The US and China have yet to put their cards on the table on how they intend to achieve deep decarbonization. ...
Not surprisingly, the incoming Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell piped up immediately that he and his colleagues would oppose the deal. No doubt they will try. Yet my guess is that Mr McConnell and his buddies are soon going to learn a lesson in real democracy.
While the fossil fuel lobby may have helped finance the Republican victories last week, the US public cares about its own survival and the world that their children will soon inherit. ... The Koch brothers may have bought some 44,000 paid ads this fall to help put favoured coal and oil candidates over the top, but they did not buy the souls of the American people, who by a large majority will be gratified today by the announcements from Beijing. ...

I'm not so sure that Republican opposition can be overcome so easily.

Monday, October 27, 2014

'Climate Change: Lessons for our Future from the Distant Past'

David Hendry at Vox EU:

Climate change: Lessons for our future from the distant past, by David F. Hendry: Summary Climate change has been the main driver of mass extinctions over the last 500 million years. This column argues that current evidence provides a stark warning. Human activity is producing greenhouse gases, and as a consequence global temperatures and ocean heat content are rising. Such trends raise the risk of tipping points. Economic analysis offers a number of ideas, but a key problem is that distributions of climate variables can shift, invalidating stationarity-based analyses, and making action to avoid possible future shifts especially urgent.

His conclusions:

Economic analysis offers many insights – externalities need to be either priced or regulated, and climate change is the largest ever worldwide externality. All approaches are affected by the possibility of abrupt changes and the resulting unknown uncertainty when distributions shift, making action more urgent to avoid possible future shifts. Adaptation is not meaningful if food, water, and land resources become inadequate. Conversely, mitigation steps need not be costly, and could stimulate innovation. International negotiations are more likely to succeed if the largest players act first in their own counties or groups – also creating opportunities for their societies as new technologies develop.
Planet Earth will survive whatever humanity is doing – the crucial issue is the effect of climate change on its present inhabitants. It is a risky strategy to do nothing if there are potentially huge costs when the costs of initial actions are small. The obvious time to start is now, and the obvious actions are the many low-cost implementations that mitigate greenhouse gases (see Stern 2008 for a list) – just in case.

[See also "U.N. Climate Change Draft Sees Risks of Irreversible Damage - Scientific American".]

Friday, October 24, 2014

Market Power, 'the Profits-Investment Disconnect,' and the Mal-Distribution of Income

Maybe we'll finally start discussing something I've been writing about for years with little traction, how market power affects the distribution of income (the disconnect between income and the contribution to final product that occurs when market power exists):

The Profits-Investment Disconnect, by Paul Krugman: I caught a bit of CNBC in the locker room this morning, and they were talking about stock buybacks. Oddly — or maybe not that oddly, given my own experiences with the show — nobody brought up what I would have thought was the obvious question. Profits are very high, so why are companies concluding that they should return cash to stockholders rather than use it to expand their businesses?
After all, we normally think of high profits as a signal: a profitable business is one people should be trying to get into. But right now we see a combination of high profits and sluggish investment...
What’s going on? One possibility, I guess, is that business are holding back because Obama is looking at them funny. But more seriously, this kind of divergence — in which high profits don’t signal high returns to investment — is what you’d expect if a lot of those profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns on capital.
More on this in a while.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Paul Krugman: Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K.

I've been harping on the lack of concern about market power since I began blogging almost 10 years ago. Nobody much listened or cared -- so this is very welcome:

Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K., by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times:, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America. ...
If you haven’t been following the recent Amazon news: Back in May a dispute between Amazon and Hachette, a major publishing house, broke out into open commercial warfare. Amazon had been demanding a larger cut of the price of Hachette books it sells; when Hachette balked, Amazon began delaying their delivery, raising their prices, and/or steering customers to other publishers.
You might be tempted to say that this is just business — no different from Standard Oil, back in the days before it was broken up...
Does Amazon really have robber-baron-type market power? When it comes to books, definitely. Amazon overwhelmingly dominates online book sales...
So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance. What it has done, instead, is use its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books — hence the fight with Hachette. In economics jargon, Amazon is not, at least so far, acting like a monopolist, a dominant seller with the power to raise prices. Instead, it is acting as a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down. ...
So can we trust Amazon not to abuse that power? The Hachette dispute has settled that question: no, we can’t. ...
Specifically, the penalty Amazon is imposing on Hachette books is bad in itself, but there’s also a curious selectivity in the way that penalty has been applied. Last month the Times’s Bits blog documented the case of two Hachette books receiving very different treatment. One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh.
Which brings us back to the key question. Don’t tell me that Amazon is giving consumers what they want, or that it has earned its position. What matters is whether it has too much power, and is abusing that power. Well, it does, and it is.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

'Climate Realities'

Robert Stavins:

Climate Realities: ...It is true that, in theory, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change with an intensive global effort over the next several decades. But given real-world economic and, in particular, political realities, that seems unlikely..., let’s look at the sobering reality.
The world is now on track to more than double current greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by the end of the century. This would push up average global temperatures by three to eight degrees Celsius and could mean the disappearance of glaciers, droughts in the mid-to-low latitudes, decreased crop productivity, increased sea levels and flooding, vanishing islands and coastal wetlands, greater storm frequency and intensity, the risk of species extinction and a significant spread of infectious disease.
The United Nations has set a goal of keeping global temperatures from rising by no more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. ... Meeting this goal would require a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 40 to 70 percent by midcentury, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s an immense challenge. ...
Of course, the political climate in the United States presents its own challenges. It will require immense effort — and profound good fortune — to find political openings that can resolve the debilitating partisan divide on climate change. But if destructive politics have been at the heart of the problem, the best hope may be that creative politics and leadership can help provide a solution.

He also talks about the cost of climate change (saying it will be large), as do Peter Dorman  (in response to Paul Krugman) and John Quiggin. See also Scientists Report Global Rise in Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

'What's So BadAbout Monopoly Power?'

At MoneyWatch:

What's so bad about monopoly power?: Google (GOOG) has been negotiating with European regulatory authorities since 2010 in an attempt to settle an antitrust case concerning its search engine, and its third attempt to settle the case has been rejected. Google may also face new antitrust problems over its Android mobile operating system, and it's not alone in facing tough antitrust scrutiny in Europe. Microsoft (MSFT) has also been the subject of a long-running battle in Europe over market dominance issues. But what's motivating this scrutiny from European regulators? What's so bad about a company amassing monopoly power? ....

[Also, from yesterday, What do economists mean by "slack"?]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Monopoly Power

Tim Harford:

Monopoly is a bureaucrat’s friend but a democrat’s foe: ...Large companies are all around us. ... Monopolists can sometimes use their scale and cash flow to produce real innovations – the glory years of Bell Labs come to mind. But the ferocious cut and thrust of smaller competitors seems a more reliable way to produce many of the everyday innovations that matter.
That cut and thrust is no longer so cutting or thrusting as once it was. ... That means higher prices and less innovation, but perhaps the game is broader still..., large companies enjoy power as lobbyists. When they are monopolists, the incentive to lobby increases because the gains from convenient new rules and laws accrue solely to them. Monopolies are no friend of a healthy democracy. ...
No policy can guarantee innovation, financial stability, sharper focus on social problems, healthier democracies, higher quality and lower prices. But assertive competition policy would improve our odds, whether through helping consumers to make empowered choices, splitting up large corporations or blocking megamergers. Such structural approaches are more effective than looking over the shoulders of giant corporations and nagging them; they should be a trusted tool of government rather than a last resort.
As human freedoms go, the freedom to take your custom elsewhere is not a grand or noble one – but neither is it one that we should abandon without a fight.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Paul Krugman: Phosphorus and Freedom

Markets are not always magic:

Phosphorus and Freedom, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: In the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians ... and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?
The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.
As you’ve probably heard,... Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.
When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State... A few years back ... Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder ... suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing? ...
Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. ...
More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. ...
Libertarians also ... don’t want to believe that there are problems whose solution requires government action, so they tend to assume that others similarly engage in motivated reasoning to serve their political agenda... Paul Ryan ... doesn’t just think we’re living out the plot of “Atlas Shrugged”; he asserts that all the fuss over climate change is just “an excuse to grow government.”
As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide..., real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.

Friday, July 25, 2014

'Ignoring Climate Change Could Sink the U.S. Economy'

Robert Rubin:

How ignoring climate change could sink the U.S. economy, by Robert E. Rubin: ...When it comes to the economy, much of the debate about climate change ... is framed as a trade-off between environmental protection and economic prosperity. Many people argue that moving away from fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions will impede economic growth, hurt business and hamper job creation.
But from an economic perspective, that’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. The real question should be: What is the cost of inaction? In my view — and in the view of a growing group of business people, economists, and other financial and market experts — the cost of inaction over the long term is far greater than the cost of action.
I recently participated in a bipartisan effort to measure the economic risks of unchecked climate change in the United States. We commissioned an independent analysis, led by a highly respected group of economists and climate scientists, and our inaugural report, “Risky Business,” was released in June. The report’s conclusions demonstrated the ... U.S. economy faces enormous risks from unmitigated climate change. ...
We do not face a choice between protecting our environment or protecting our economy. We face a choice between protecting our economy by protecting our environment — or allowing environmental havoc to create economic havoc. ...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

'Do Patents Stifle Cumulative Innovation?'

Joshua Gans

Do patents stifle cumulative innovation?: There has been a movement that began with the notion of the anti-commons that suggested that, whatever the other benefits and faults might be with the patent system, a fault that really matters for the operation of the system and for growth prospects (a la endogenous growth theory) is how patents might stifle cumulative or follow-on innovation. ...
The standard, informal theory of harm here is that follow-on innovators, feeling that they can’t easily deal with the patent holder on the pioneer innovation, decide that the risks are too high to invest and so opt not to do so. To be sure, this ‘hold-up’ concern is not good for anyone, including possibly the patent rights holder who loses the opportunity to earn licensing fees from applications of their knowledge. Suffice it to say, this has been a big feature of the movement against the current strength and, indeed, existence of the patent system.
One issue, however, was that the evidence on the impact of patents on cumulative innovation was weak. Mostly that was due to the problem of finding an environment where impact could be measured. ...
For this reason, all previous attempts concerned intermediate steps — most notably, the impact of patents on citations whether in publications or in patents. This includes work by Fiona Murray and Scott Stern, Heidi Williams and Alberto Galasso and Mark Schankerman. While there is some variation, this work showed, using various clever approaches, that patent protection (or other IP changes) might deter cumulative innovation upwards of 30%. That’s a big effect and a big concern even if the results were somewhat intermediate.
At the NBER Summer Institute a new paper by Bhaven Sampat and Heidi Williams (the same Williams from the previous paper) actually found a way to examine the impact of patents on follow-on innovations themselves. ... The ... paper presents pretty convincing evidence that you cannot reject zero as the likely prediction. That is, the effect patents on follow-on research appears to be non-existent. ...
Suffice it to say, while it is only a particular area, this is evidence enough that should cause many to identify and change their bias regarding the impact of patents on cumulative innovation. ...

The original post has a much longer discussion of the theory and evidence.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Synthesis Lost'

As someone who had a series called "Market Failures in Everything" when this blog first started over nine years ago, and as someone who believes market failures remain important even when the economy is operating at full capacity, I'm glad to see views evolving. (Market failures and business cycles form the basis for my calls for government intervention, though as I have written many times, I am coming around to the idea the intervention may also be needed to redistribute income as an offset for those who reap where they never sowed. That is, redistribution is needed to claw back income that flows unjustly according to my definition of equity to those at the top as a result of their economic and political power, e.g. monopoly power that distorts incme flows, and political power that allows rent-seeking behavior. Markets have had 40 years to solve the inequality problem, and it has only gotten worse -- being at full employment for many of those years has not reversed the growing inequality problem. A "hands off" policy when the economy is operating at full capacity, a capacity that can be limited by market failures, is not helpful in this regard.)

This is from Paul Krugman:

Synthesis Lost: Brad DeLong has some notes on the evident trouble we’ve been having maintaining the “neoclassical synthesis” — the doctrine, made famous by Paul Samuelson but actually there in Keynes too, that macroeconomic policy is needed for full employment but once you have that a relatively free-market policy works.

As it happens, I wrote a longish post about this back in 2010. ...

I’d add that I agree with Robert Waldmann: the policy judgement that you shouldn’t have too much detailed government intervention mainly reflects an appreciation for imperfect government, not faith in perfect markets.

And I still think that the Keynes/Samuelson view is reasonable, although market imperfections loom larger in my mind than they used to. But these are not reasonable times …

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

'The Rich Have Advantages That Money Cannot Buy'

Larry Summers says:

The rich have advantages that money cannot buy, by Lawrence Summers: ... There is every reason to believe that taxes can be reformed to eliminate loopholes for the wealthy and become more progressive, while also promoting a more efficient allocation of investment. In areas ranging from local zoning laws to intellectual property protection, from financial regulation to energy subsidies, public policy now bestows great fortunes on those whose primary skill is working the political system rather than producing great products and services. There is a compelling case for policy measures to reduce profits from such rent-seeking activities as a number of economists, notably Dean Baker and the late Mancur Olson, have emphasised.
At the same time, unless one regards envy as a virtue, the primary reason for concern about inequality is that lower- and middle-income workers have too little – not that the rich have too much.
So in judging policies relating to inequality, the criterion should be what their impact will be on the middle class and the poor. ...
It is vital to remember, however, that important aspects of inequality are unlikely to be transformed just by limited income redistribution. Consider two fundamental components of life – health and the ability to provide opportunity for children.

He goes on to explain the vast difference between the rich and the poor in the areas of health and education, and I have no problem at all with his call to reduce inequality in these areas.

The question I have is whether we should not be worried "that the rich have too much." As he notes earlier, "public policy now bestows great fortunes on those whose primary skill is working the political system rather than producing great products and services." Those "great fortunes" give the ultra-wealthy the influence they need to capture the political system, and as the fortunes grow larger and larger it becomes harder and harder to change the system to eliminate this rent-seeking behavior (so I don't think "there is every reason to believe" that the system can be reformed). When this happens, when income flows to the top because they have captured the system -- income that could (and in my view should) be going elsewhere -- I think it's worth asking if they have "too much."

Monday, May 26, 2014

'The State, Corporations, and Markets'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

The state, corporations and markets: ... In this post I explain why ... the optimal private/public split will depend on a number of particular and highly contextual issues, about which economics will have a lot to say but where it is unlikely to generally point in one direction. It seems worth making this - I hope uncontroversial - point when the current UK government seems keen to privatise or outsource by one means or another so much of the public sector.
There are two claims ... associated with those who argue in favour of privatisation. One is that markets provide a better allocation system (e.g. here, and follow-ups here and here). For many activities this is undoubtedly true... However much public sector activity is in areas where market imperfections and informational problems of various kinds are endemic. In that situation, market based systems may perform worse than alternatives... Economics is not a discipline that tells us market allocation is always best, but one that tells us when it may work well and when it may not. ...
The second general argument ... is that the profit motive provides an effective incentive system for ensuring efficiency. Yet this argument alone is not enough. It is perfectly possible to run parts of government like a company, where the explicit aim is to maximise profits. Take the East Coast mainline rail company in the UK, for example. ... It appears to have been run very successfully under public ownership...
What this all suggests to me is that the costs and benefits of privatisation will vary from case to case, and that this is an area where microeconomic analysis will be central. ... In such cases, an ideology that says that the private sector ... is always better can be exploited by rent seeking firms. It can lead governments to privatise on unfavourable (to the public) terms, or with inadequate mechanisms in place to ensure value for money and prevent exploitation. At worst, rent seeking firms may be able to exert sufficient control over the political process to make this happen. ...

'Behavioural Artists and Piracy'

Joshua Gans:

Behavioural artists and piracy: Piracy is everywhere... There is evidence that piracy has reduced straight-up music sales revenue but overall it is unclear whether digitization has impacted adversely on artist returns (because they make up losses with concert revenue and the like) or through lower distribution costs. But when it comes to piracy or music sharing, in general, Joel Waldfogel has convinced me that artists’ incentives to enter and supply quality music hasn’t been harmed and may have even been improved. ...
Today I have released a new NBER Working Paper (or here for the SSRN version) that tries to reconcile these ‘stylised facts’: namely, that artists seem to care about money yet entry incentives haven’t been harmed by piracy. To do this, I assume that artists themselves do not act strictly rationally and are instead time inconsistent in a manner familiar to behavioural economics. Put simply, if music artists aren’t hyperbolic discounters I’m not sure who would be. ...[explains theory]...
Of course, it is just a theory and  it is not clear whether it plays a real role or not but it does suggest that our welfare concerns about piracy would be lower than a model with perfectly rational artists would predict. The paper also considers the role of publisher contracts in mediating these outcomes but that doesn’t change things too much.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

'Buying Insurance Against Climate Change'

Robert Shiller:

Buying Insurance Against Climate Change: The third National Climate Assessment report ... warns us about our hazardous future... We must face facts: There is a real risk of new kinds of climate-related disaster. ... We are taking major gambles with our environment... Expect surprises.
In March, a United Nations report identified with “high confidence” a number of risks that will be visited on different people unequally. ... In short, we need to worry about the potential for greater-than-expected disasters, especially those that concentrate their fury on specific places or circumstances ... we cannot now predict.
That’s why global warming needs to be addressed by the private institutions of risk management, such as insurance and securitization. They have deep experience in smoothing out disasters’ effects by sharing them among large numbers of people. The people or entities that are hit hardest are helped by those less badly damaged.
But these institutions need ways to deal with such grand-scale issues. Governments should recognize that by giving these businesses a profit incentive to prepare for these unevenly distributed disasters. ...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

'Are Banks Too Large?'

I don't think this issue can be addressed without also considering the political power of large banks -- their ability to shape legislation in their favor in a way that increases the risk of financial meltdown:

Are Banks Too Large? Maybe, Maybe Not, by Luc Laeven, Lev Ratnovski, and Hui Tong, iMFdirect: Large banks were at the center of the recent financial crisis. The public dismay at costly but necessary bailouts of “too-big-to-fail” banks has triggered an active debate on the optimal size and range of activities of banks.
But this debate remains inconclusive, in part because the economics of an “optimal” bank size is far from clear. Our recent study tries to fill this gap by summarizing what we know about large banks using data for a large cross-section of banking firms in 52 countries.
We find that while large banks are riskier, and create most of the systemic risk in the financial system, it is difficult to determine an “optimal” bank size. In this setting, we find that the best policy option may not be outright restrictions on bank size, but capital—requiring  large banks to hold more capital—and better bank resolution and governance.
Large banks increase systemic, not individual bank risk
Large banks have significantly grown in size, and become more involved in market-based activities since the late 1990s..., the balance sheet size of the world’s largest banks increased two to four-fold in the 10 years prior to the crisis. ...
Also, large banks appear to have a distinct, seemingly risky business model. They tend to simultaneously have lower capital..., less stable funding..., more market-based activities..., and be more organizationally complex..., than smaller banks. ...
In addition, our study confirms that large banks create most of systemic risk in today’s financial system. ... Large banks create especially high systemic risk when they have insufficient capital or unstable funding. And, large banks create high systemic risk...
Too-big-to-fail and empire building
What drives the size and the business model of large banks? Our study suggests the following:
Implicit too-big-to-fail subsidies ... This predisposes large banks to use leverage and unstable funding, and to engage in risky market-based activities.
Possible empire building. ...
Economies of scale. While a good explanation for the size of large banks, recent studies suggest that they are modest. ...
Optimal bank size inconclusive
The evidence that large banks respond to too-big-to-fail and empire building incentives, and in process create systemic risk suggests that banks might become “too large” from a social welfare perspective. But there is an important caveat. We know too little about the value that large banks bring to their customers (e.g., large global corporations). The potential for economies of scale in large banks cannot be dismissed. As a result, we cannot draw conclusions as to the socially optimal bank size. And it also implies that outright restrictions on bank size or activities may be imprecise and hence costly. ...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Begging the Inequality Question'

Chris Dillow:

Begging the inequality question, by Chris Dillow: ... many of us dislike inequality not because we envy the mega-rich but because it is (sometimes) a symptom of malfunctioning markets... The fact that so many bosses get paid millions even for failure suggests that they are not paid their marginal product. Instead, some mix of agency failure, efficient wage considerations (bosses must be paid not to steal corporate assets) and arms races force pay above marginal product.
Sure, you can write models in which inequality emerges as if it were the product of free choices in a free market economy. You can also model a man's empty house as if he had called in the removal men - but if he has in fact been burgled, your models miss something.
I fear that some free market advocates - not all by any means, but some - are mistaking the map for the terrain. They forget that the textbook perfect competition model is not a description of reality but rather of a utopia against which to assess actually-existing markets. And sometimes - not always but in some important respects - they fall well short. ...

Monday, April 21, 2014

'House Prices and Secular Stagnation'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

House prices and secular stagnation: This post starts off talking about the UK, but then goes global
 ...Housing is becoming more and more unaffordable for first time buyers. Yet prices are currently booming (at least in London), and demand is so high estate agents are apparently now holding mass viewings to cope. In the UK the media now routinely call this a bubble, and the term ‘super bubble’ is now being used. ...
Bubbles are where prices move further and further away from their fundamental value, simply because everyone expects prices to continue to rise. ...
If we think of housing as an asset, then the total return to this asset if you held it forever is the weighted sum of all future rents, where you value rents today more than rents in the future. Economists call this the discounted sum of rents. (If you are a homeowner, it is the rent that you are avoiding paying.) So why would house prices go up, if rents were roughly constant and were expected to remain so? The answer is that prices would go up if the rate at which you discounted the future fell. The relevant discount rate here is the real interest rate on alternative assets. That interest rate has indeed fallen over much the same time period as house prices have increased, as Chapter 3 of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook for March 2014 documents. ...
It is the expected return on other assets that matters here. The fact that actual real interest rates have fallen in the past would not matter much if they were expected to recover quickly. A key idea behind today’s discussion of secular stagnation is that real interest rates might stay pretty low for a long period of time. That in turn implies that house prices will be much higher relative to incomes than they were when real interest rates were higher.
So what appears to be a bubble may instead be a symptom of secular stagnation. ...
Does this mean we should stop calling what is happening in the UK a bubble? The first point is that secular stagnation is just an idea, and it may prove wrong, and if it does house prices may come tumbling down. Second, even if it is not wrong, it is still possible to have a bubble on top of the increase implied by lower interest rates. Indeed one of the concerns about the lower real interest rates associated with secular stagnation is that, by raising asset prices not just in housing but elsewhere, it may encourage bubbles to develop on top. So all we can say with certainty, for the UK at least, is that the Financial Policy Committee will have their work cut out when they next meet in June.