Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


Is the Federal Government Going Bankrupt? Maybe it Should Stop Spending Money Publishing Scare Stories

What would the long-term federal deficit look like if the cost of the country’s health care system continued to explode, so that in thirty years it costs four times as much per person as that of other rich countries? Well, if I had nothing else to do with my time, I might calculate these numbers.

Fortunately, I have a busy life, so I really don’t have a great deal of time for such trivia. Unfortunately, other economists are less busy and do calculate such trivia. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board publishes these calculations as though they are serious economics. However, the real problem is that columnists in the Times use this stuff to make the case for cutting Social Security.

The story here is real simple. The U.S. has a broken health care system. If it is never fixed, it will have a devastating impact on the economy. It will also lead to severe budget problems. Any competent economist/ reporter would see these projections as another way of demonstrating the need for national health care reform. They tell us nothing about the budget situation.

Bad Advice on Mortgages from the NYT

The Sunday Times has an article reporting that many homebuyers who took out adjustable rate mortgages 3 years ago, are now refinancing to avoid higher mortgage rates. The article (actually the accompanying chart) also adds that many are refinancing with negative amortization loans, under which the outstanding principle increases through time. The chart tells readers that this could make sense, as long as house prices continue to rise.

Okay, let's check the numbers here. Three years ago, homeowners were taking out adjustable rate mortgages at rates in the neighborhood of 4.5 percent. Many are now resetting at rates that are 2.0 percentage points higher, or close to 6.5 percent. The article reports that the national average for adjustable rate mortgages is now 6.28 percent. Throw in fees of 0.5 to 1.0 percent and it's hard to find the savings. In other words, simply exchanging adjustable rate mortgages will not in general save homeowners any money.

Now, the point may be that homeowners are pulling more equity out of their home, taking advantage of the strong appreciation in many areas over the last three years. While, contrary to claims in the article, this doesn't save anything in terms of monthly payments (the payment on a larger mortgage will be higher, not lower), the additional cash can postpone a day of reckoning.

However, the risk in this case is really the exact opposite of what the article claims. The article reports that this strategy may make sense if home prices continue to climb. Actually, pulling out more equity can make much more sense if home prices fall. In that case, the mortgage holder is left with a mortgage that exceeds the value of the house. The homeowner can walk away turning over a house that may be worth much less than the amount of money he has borrowed. That might not be pretty, but it is what will happen in hundreds of thousands of cases across the country.

Housing Appraisals: The Accounting Scandal of the Housing Bubble

Financial bubbles breed accounting fraud. Those of us who warned of the stock bubble in the late nineties were not surprised by the Enrons and WorldComs that surfaced when the bubble deflated. Bubbles make it possible to paper over all sorts of questionable accounting or outright fraud. When the bubble deflates, these practices can no longer be hidden.

The analogous problem in the housing bubble is with appraisals. The basic story is simple. Mortgage issuers make their money by issuing mortgages. Once the mortgage is issued they sell it to someone else (in many cases, the key figure is actually a broker who never holds the mortgage), so they have little interest in accurately assessing the quality of the mortgage. To get a mortgage issued, it is necessary to have a house appraised at a value that justifies the mortgage.

The issuer generally chooses the appraiser. Okay, suppose an appraiser comes in with a low number and the mortgage can’t then be issued? The issuer is very unhappy – no money here. The issuer then finds another appraiser, who will come in with a higher number for the value of the house. Appraisers, being intelligent people, come to realize that they don’t get jobs if they give low appraisals, so appraisers come in with high appraisals so that the mortgages can get approved. Everyone is then happy, until the bubble bursts.

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on this topic today. It would have been nice if they had run this piece three years ago, before the damage had been done. But, maybe this can help stop the next financial bubble driven train wreck:)

The Problems of Protectionism: Another Prescription Drug Scandal

In econ 101, we teach that when the government intervenes in a market to keep prices above marginal costs, it will encourage all sorts of undesirable and harmful rent-seeking behavior. This is one reason that all right-thinking economists are strong opponents of tariffs and quotas that can raise the price of things like shoes, shorts, and steel by 20-30 percent above the competitive market price.

Given what we teach in econ 101, it is very difficult to explain why economists are not more concerned about things like patent protection for prescription drugs. This form of protectionism raises the price of drugs by several hundred percent, or even several thousand percent, above the marginal cost of production. Drugs that would sell for $20-$30 a prescription in a competitive market often sell for $300-$500 per prescription when they have patent protection.

When the government creates this sort of opportunity for large rents, economic theory tells us to expect corruption. The NYT gives an interesting account of one way such corruption occurs. A New York doctor was arrested in March for promoting “off label” uses of a prescription drug.

The basic point here is that drug companies have to get the FDA to approve their drugs for specific uses. The FDA assesses the effectiveness and safety of the drug for the purposes that the company wants it to be prescribed. Drug companies can then promote their drug, subject to required warnings, only for the uses that the FDA approves. However, doctors are free to use their judgment to prescribe a drug for other “off label” purposes, if they believe it is appropriate for these purposes.

This is the problem. Drug companies make enormous profits when they sell more drugs at huge mark-ups. While they cannot legally promote their drug for any purpose other those explicitly allowed by the FDA, they can of course dispense information about new research on their drug. Hence the story of the doctor being arrested for promoting off label uses. He was getting large fees from a drug company to give talks about the off label use of its drug.

I know nothing about the issues in this case other than what appears in the NYT article. But, as a believer in the market, when it comes to government bureaucrats trying to restrict such health endangering practices, versus the pharmaceutical companies that stand to make billions, my money is on the pharmaceutical companies. Of course, if economics were an honest profession, there would be many more economists yelling about the inefficiency and corruption that result from patent protection in the pharmaceutical industry, than the losses from a 10 percent tariff on textiles.


Shame and Pain: The "Medicare and Social Security" Line Again

I believe that the Washington Post has a copyright on combining the words "Medicare" and "Social Security" in a single sentence. Anyone who writes on these issues on their editorial pages always seems to do it.

Again folks, the numbers are real clear. Medicare is a big problem because U.S. health care costs are projected to explode, which means that Medicare costs will explode. The moral is fix the health care system. Social Security is not a problem. The story on aging is not very different in the future than in the past. We are living longer, that has always been true.

I assume that some of the editorial and op-ed writers actually do look at the projections occasionally. This makes you wonder why they are so insistent on ignoring the projections when they discuss these issues.


The Washington Post’s Happy Face Version of the Fed

There is plenty of room to debate what the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary policy should be, but the necessary prerequisite for a serious debate is the knowledge of how monetary policy works. Readers of the Post would be badly misled on this topic by an article in today’s paper.

The article correctly reports that the Fed adjusts interest rates to prevent inflation from getting too high, explaining that “when inflation is a concern, it raises borrowing costs to cool economic growth, which weakens businesses' power to raise prices.”

Well, not exactly. The immediate target of the Fed’s anti-inflation policy is wages, not prices. In fact, many macro-models have prices being a fixed mark-up over wages, which implies that the only way to control prices is to control wages. The Taylor rule, the standard guidepost for Fed policy, is based in part on the gap between a definition of full employment (the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) and the current level of unemployment.

This isn’t being picky. The point is that the Fed slows inflation by raising the unemployment rate and throwing people out of work, thereby placing downward pressure on the wages of those who still have jobs. Disproportionately, the people who lose jobs tend to be less-skilled workers – manufacturing workers, sales clerks and custodians, not doctors, lawyers, and economists. The people who the Fed throws out of work are also disproportionately black and Hispanic.

People can agree with Fed policy and think that controlling inflation is worth the cost in terms of higher unemployment and lower wages for these workers. However, we should not airbrush the picture. People will suffer for the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates, and it will not be just businesses that have less ability to raise prices.

NYT Discovers "Ghetto Tax"

The NYT had a good article this morning highlighting a new Brookings report that details how people living in inner city areas often pay far more for goods and services than people living in more affluent areas. The report is worth reading and the NYT gets credit for calling attention to it.

Unfortunately, the report suffers from a serious lack of imagination in its proposed remedies, highlighting greater public-private cooperation in bringing lower cost services to the poor. I have nothing against cooperation, but I always worry that these efforts end up being more of a subsidy to the industries involved than the poor people that they are supposed to help. My model nightmare is the accounts established to receive electronic payments from the government (e.g. disability or veterans benefits) for low income people. They cost the government a great deal in subsidies to the financial industry, and do very little for their intended beneficiaries.

In some cases, I prefer good old fashioned competition. Suppose the government set up postal banking systems (similar to those existing in many European countries) that could provide basic banking services to the poor at a minimal charge. (The government could even contract with a private company to actually provide the service.) This way, people in the inner cities would all have a low-cost option. If they would rather go with the private sector alternatives, then that's fine. The same could be done with car insurance, home insurance, and especially retirement accounts. If the private sector really is more efficient, then they should have nothing to fear.


Drug Companies Gone Wild: Medicare Part D

The NYT had a very good piece about how the shift of 6 million Medicaid beneficiaries into the Medicare drug benefit program may increase drug company profits in 2006 by $2 billion. According to the article, under the new program the drug companies get to sell the same drugs at higher prices. It doesn't get much better than this!


Monopolies Breed Corruption: Medical Supplies Industry

The NYT had a good piece this morning reporting on how the medical supply industry pays top hospital executives thousands of dollars for advice on how to market their products. This is what you expect to happen when government patent monopolies allow these firms to sell their products at prices that are several hundred percent above the free market price.

NPR Doesn't Believe in Markets

NPR had a piece this morning warning of a shortage of agricultural workers in California. It reported that some crops may rot in the field, if farmers there can't get more workers by the end of the summer.

Those of us who believe in markets would suggest that the farmers try raising wages. It is possible that some of the crops being farmed now in California would not be profitable, if farmers had to pay the wage necessary to attract workers in the current market (or if they had to pay the market price for water). In a market economy, that means that the farmers made bad choices on crop choices.

That's unfortunate for the farmers, but that's how markets work. I would like to be able to get a lawyer for $20 an hour, but because we have a lawyer shortage, that is not an option. Maybe NPR will be able to find some folks who understand markets to help with their reporting on economic issues.


Soviet Style History in the New York Times

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, key facts were often excluded from historical accounts in order not to put the regime in a bad light. The NYT seems to be experimenting with this journalistic style.

Today’s article on the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg included a passing reference that described Russia’s 7-year long economic recovery as “oil-fueled.” Well, the rise in oil prices certainly has helped Russia over this period, but it is probably at least as important that Russia abandoned the economic straightjacket that had been imposed on it by the I.M.F. and then U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (with help from his deputy Larry Summers).

Until the summer of 1998, Russia had tied its currency to the dollar. In order to sustain this link, it was forced to raise interest rates to ever higher levels. The over-valued ruble, coupled with high interest rates, was strangling Russia’s economy, bringing growth to a halt. The I.M.F. and the U.S. Treasury both insisted that Russia maintain the link to the dollar at all costs.

This eventually proved impossible, and the Russian government allowed its currency to float and deferred payment on its foreign debt. The pundits and the media pronounced this to be a disaster and insisted that Russia’s economy would crumble. (Read Rubin’s book to get the consensus opinion.)

There was a financial collapse, and Russia’s economy did tumble downward for the rest of the year. But by the beginning of 1999, Russia’s economy began to grow again and has been growing rapidly ever since. In this case, the real danger was the medicine coming the I.M.F. and U.S. Treasury. Once Russia began to ignore their recommendations, its economy performed quite well.