Should Taxi Medallion Owners Be Compensated?

The Sunday Washington Post published a very interesting long article on the effects of Uber and other similar ride-sharing services on the value of the medallions required for operation of conventional taxis in Chicago and other cities.

The medallions have value because the supply of rights to operate taxis, restricted by city regulation, is low relative to demand. The Post article presents data on the number of taxis per 100,000 residents. Washington D. C. licenses cabs, but does not restrict the number of cabs operating through a medallion requirement, and has almost 900 taxis per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Chicago and New York, which have medallion restrictions, only have approximately 230 to 250 taxis per 100,000 residents.[1] The supply restrictions in Chicago and New York lead to excess profits, which reveal themselves in the bids for medallions in the secondary market. The present value of the profits from owning the “rights to cruise for passengers” relative to the profits of other investments is the market value of the medallions, which until recently ranged from $500,000 to a million dollars depending on the city and the severity of the medallion restrictions.

Uber, which supplies luxury town-car service, and especially UberX, which supplies service similar to cabs, in effect, have increased the supply of taxis to eliminate some, if not all, of the difference between the number of vehicles per capita in Washington D.C. and those cities with medallion supply restrictions. This increased supply reduces the market value of the medallions. The article asks whether reductions in the value of the medallions are a “taking” by the government that deserves compensation like any normal taking of “property” by government action.

I (along with Richard Sansing, a Professor at Dartmouth Business School) wrote an article in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (volume 13, issue 3, Summer 1994 pp. 565- 570) that analyzed the question of whether governments should compensate those citizens who lose wealth because public policies change. (Here is a version published in Regulation in Winter 1997)

We analyzed data on lease versus purchase of tax medallions in New York City. If there were no risk, the purchase price of a medallion would reflect the present value of leasing in perpetuity. Unlike other assets the medallion’s only value is the entry restrictions created by government. At the time we conducted our analysis the present value of leasing in perpetuity at 5 percent interest was $240,000 whereas the sale price of medallions was only $100,000. That is the purchase price of a medallion at that time amortized the cash flows over a period of 20 years as if they would go to zero in year 21. Unlike other investments the only reason that cash flows might go to zero was the possibility of deregulation or reduction in enforcement of the entry restrictions. If policy change created any reduction in cash flows in years one through 19 investors made less than normal profits. Investors made “excess” profits if any reduction in cash flow occurred after year 20. Thus the medallion market was like a fairly priced lottery ticket that took into account the possibility of deregulation, even though at the time we did this calculation no change in taxi regulation had ever taken place since it was instituted in the late 1930s. We concluded that no compensation was required to preserve equity or fairness because the price for medallions reflected the risk investors faced from policy change.

We then analyzed the efficiency consequences of a no-compensation regime. The lack of compensation for policy change increases the riskiness (variance) of returns on assets even though it does not change the average return. Investors handle risk by diversification: owning assets whose returns do not all increase or decrease at the same time. As long as the risk of policy change in taxi medallions does not occur at the same time as the risk to assets in all other markets, the risk of taxi medallion policy change can be managed through asset diversification. Thus in the case of taxi medallion deregulation due to changes such as the advent of Uber and Lyft, compensation is not required for efficiency either.


[1] Chicago has 6904 medallions according to the Post article and 2,718,782 population in 2013 for 254 cabs per 100k people. NYC has 13,605 medallions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicabs_of_New_York_City  In December 2011, Governor Cuomo signed law allowing 18,000 new outer borough medallions. 6, 000 of the outer borough medallions have been issued. Thus New York City has 19,605 medallions and 8,405,837 people in 2013 according to the census, which equals 233 cabs per 100k people.