delete

Do Economics Matter?

HongKong

I write generally about three topics on this site:

  • Personal Finance
  • Investing
  • Economics

I list them in that order based on what I perceive as the general public’s interest level.  Most people are concerned with getting out of debt and maintaining a budget – Personal finance issues.  Those who have succeeded at those tasks become more interested in how to put their savings to work for them and become interested in investing.  Very few people proceed to an interest in policy and economics, and perhaps rightly so.  It’s certainly not immediately clear that an understanding of economics is beneficial to your personal wealth.

The Case for Economics

There are obvious reasons to believe that an understanding of economics should be a great asset in your financial life.  Inflation is one of the examples.  If I judge accurately what future inflation will look like, this can greatly improve my ability to choose good investments.  If I can look at upcoming legislation and see what its effects will be, I should be able to capitalize on that.  It seems like a slam dunk that an economic view should be a great boon to my financial freedom.

However…

Sadly, economists have a habit of being spectacularly wrong.  Even when they aren’t completely wrong, it’s very difficult to profit off of their decisions.  For example, right now treasuries are already priced very low because of a perception that inflation in the future will be high.  So even if that perception is correct, the expected price change is already “baked into the cake;” and if they’re wrong, there’s a chance for spectacular loss.

So Why Bother?

Despite all this I have a nasty habit of continuing to write about the big picture, particularly policy.  One reason I do this is because I believe that a basic understanding of economics can help you make wise decisions in your day to day life, not just in your investing life.  The law of supply and demand may not be useful in deciding whether to buy Microsoft, but it can be useful in starting a business or in deciding what political policies to pursue.  While the value of economic understanding may be questionable for investing purposes, its value in life is much less questionable.

The More Things Change

Many sage investing professionals have a saying:  The most dangerous words in the English language are this time it’s different. Each time that politicians proudly proclaim that we’ve defeated the boom and bust cycle for example, we know how the story always ends.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.
(more…)

delete

Why a Clawback Might Be In Order

Photo by: Wildcat Dunny

When the financial crisis was in high gear I argued that the pitchforks and torches being raised against AIG were counter-productive.  I felt like it was a feel-good symbolic gesture that was more for making people feel vengeful than getting at sound economic policy.  I still stand by that idea, however in the face of record profits from companies like Goldman Sachs, one has to reconsider whether the idea of clawbacks don’t have a place in the banking discussion.

A clawback would be some kind of tax levied against the companies that took bailout money, or maybe more broadly to the financial industry as a whole.  While the legality of such a tax may be in question, there are some reasons to consider whether this is a reasonable course of action.  Many of these banks have paid back, or are paying back, the money they borrowed from the government, but that debt doesn’t fully quantify the advantages that financial institutions received from the government.

The first example of this is the asymmetry introduced by preventing various stocks from being shorted during the crisis.  This is obviously beneficial to leveraged companies that are using this stock as an asset to offset their liabilities.  This is on top of the benefits that come from being able to borrow money from the Federal Reserve Bank essentially for free, and the money that is being funneled into the stock market by the low interest rates. (more…)

delete

A Modest Health Care Proposal

TeaParty

Photo by: nmfbihop

The American health care debate has gone completely off the rails.  The Right, ostensibly in defense of small government, is acting as if we have an option to not address this issue.  Meanwhile the Left is unable to present a coherent vision.  Even worse disinformation is flying from all directions and it’s difficult to have an informed opinion.  It could easily make a person tune out this conversation.

Why You Should Care About the Health Care Debate

One of the biggest reasons that you should care is that unless you’re on Medicare, you’re already footing the bill of socialized medicine.  Medicare is socialized medicine and right now about 27% of the population is on some form of government health care.[1] If you’re not one one of these programs, every dollar of over-consumed or overpriced affects you personally.  However, the situation becomes much more untenable in the near future.  By 2030 it’s estimated that twice as many people, 80 million, will be on Medicare and in the meantime the population will not have grown nearly be nearly as much, bringing the percentage of people on Medicare to 22%, without any other government programs considered.[2] Then you consider how many people are being added to Medicaid and other government programs due to the economic downturn and you can see the problem growing.  Unless you’re for abolishing Medicare, and that’s not a very popular view, you probably need a solution to the demographic bomb that’s headed our way.

I’ve already covered that we have high costs and outcomes that don’t justify the expense in America.  Almost any method to cover people’s medical bills is going to have a component of “socialism.”  Quite simply, those who are older or have chronic illnesses are terribly expensive to insure.  We know these people are going to have health problems.  Insurance at that point isn’t really providing insurance but simply giving them money for their health care.  If you want people who are older or have chronic illnesses to be able to get healthcare if they aren’t rich, others are going to have to pay for it.

If you’re healthy right now, you should care about healthcare because you’re subsidizing those who aren’t.  If you’re not healthy you probably already do care about healthcare reform.

A Modest Proposal

I thought I’d put out there what I consider to be a reasonable proposal and see what my readers think.  If I were going to address the situation in this country here would be my plan: (more…)

  1. As Private Insurance Declines, Medicare and Medicaid Pick Up the Slack – WSJ.com []
  2. Medicare Beneficiary Demographics []
delete

Is America Still the Land of Opportunity?

Photo by: stephen.moore

When it comes to investing, is America still the most sensible place to keep your money?  This question involves a lot of elements and has no simple answer.  There are however, some pieces of conventional wisdom that may deserve a little extra attention.

Is China the Future?

Listening to the media, you would think the ascendancy of the Chinese is all but assured.  They are one of the few economies to truly start enjoying an alleged rebound from the economic crisis and were already becoming a behemoth before the latest financial woes.  Surely Asia is where the future lies.

What is often forgotten in all of this is that China is not an open society.  In the modern era we assume that the wool can’t be pulled over investors’ eyes.  China however can easily give out misleading numbers to investors.[1] Moreover, because of the amount of their economy that is centrally planned, they can essentially manipulate their own markets very easily.  Their current stimulus may largely consist of creating unused infrastructure to keep their populace employed.[2]

Inflation: The Ugly Contest

Another supposed factor in why our money should be fleeing US Dollars is the hyper-inflation that will be driven by all the stimulus spending.  The thinking goes that any kind of recovery in the economy will be coupled with inflation from all the money that’s been printed to finance the stimulus.  While this seems reasonable, at the same time it’s been suggested that as much as 40 percent of the World’s wealth was destroyed by the financial crisis.[3] With a good deal of that being in America, it seems that we may be able to survive some quantitative easing. (more…)

  1. Economist: The Art of Chinese Massage []
  2. The Economist:: China’s Stimulus: Got a Light []
  3. Telegraph: WEF 2009: Global crisis ‘has destroyed 40pc of World’s wealth’ []
delete

Why Everyone’s Wrong About Fixing Health Care

Photo by: Bolshakov

Like most debates in this country, the health care debate has gone into the weeds.  People, regardless of their point of view, spout disingenuous arguments to further their cause.  Critics suggest that simply providing insurance for everyone will make everything “fair,” while their opposition makes arguments for the continuation of a broken system.  While I have a healthy skepticism of the government’s ability to solve most problems, it seems that there are telling factors that suggest that the status quo is not just unsustainable, but catastrophic.

Why Do We Need to Do Anything?

Before we move forward, this is a question many believe remains unanswered.  Why do we presuppose that something is wrong with the American medical system?  The most basic reason is that we spend more money to get worse outcomes.  While there are areas in which we excel, ultimately we spend almost double that of most industrial nations, but our infant mortality rate, for example, is signifcantly worse than almost all other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.[1]

Additionally the care and cost in America are widely uneven.  Interestingly they go hand in hand.  The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care studied the issue nationwide and found almost a threefold difference in health care costs and an inverse correlation between costs and outcomes.[2] In other words, the more I’m spending, typically the worse care I’m getting.  All of this suggests that we’re wasting a lot of money, and we need to figure out why.

Perverse Incentives

The fundamental problem in American healthcare boils down to one simple issue: perverse incentives. A perverse incentive is one in which those who are creating the incentives are creating unintended and typcially counterproductive effects.  They are essentially creating their own negative consequences.  As we’ll see almost every component of our system is rife with these types of incentives:

Overconsumption

The opponents to changes in the system constantly raise the “grim” visage of rationed care.  Americans fear loss of control when they look at other countries in which residents have to wait for procedures, even though those countries generally have better health outcomes than does America.  However the flip side to a lack of rationing tends to be overconsumption.

Everyone in the current system has an incentive to allow patients to over-consume medical attention.  Assuming a patient has insurance, it really costs him or her very little out of pocket to get an MRI — even when the doctor may consider it largely unnecessary.  Meanwhile the doctor typically makes money because the patient gets an unnecessary MRI.  The insurance company is likely indifferent as they have already priced their insurance plan assuming this kind of over-consumption.  In the end, we’ve spent considerable money on this MRI and no one’s health is any better.

As the Bear Mountain Bull points out, the structure of many current insurance plans is likely to cause overconsumption.  Because the patient has no “skin in the game,” they opt for procedures that are very unlikely to be useful.  All kinds of diagnostic tests can be taken on the assumption that it’s “better to be safe than sorry,” without taking the cost into account at all.

The Way America Rations

Even as we show such aversion to rationing, America has a different kind of rationing that is far more insidious.  In an extremely perverse incentive, the number of doctors in the United States is decided upon indirectly by the American Medical Association.  That is, current doctors decide how many new doctors there should be.  In the 90′s, despite the oncoming wave of baby boomers reaching old age, the AMA somehow decided that there were going to be a glut of doctors and actually recommended to cut the number of internships available.[3] Much of the current shortage now can be attributed to this decline in the number of doctors.

It is rarely in the best interest of the consumer for the provider of a service to decide how many people should be allowed to provide that service.  Even providers with the best intentions are likely to err on the low side.  That doesn’t even take into account those who may be intentionally self-serving and trying to increase demand for their services. (more…)

  1. OECD Family Database – Infant Mortality []
  2. Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care – Health Care Spending, Qualty and Outcomes []
  3. USA Today – Medical Miscalcuation Creates Doctor Shortage []