Tag: Financial

$98 Billion in Improper Payments

The Obama administration and its allies in Congress want the federal government to expand its role in subsidizing health care. We are told that this expansion will restrain rising health care costs. But an OMB report yesterday that the government made $98 billion in improper payments last year – $55 billion of which came from Medicare and Medicaid – ought to raise suspicions about that claim.

According to Reuters, OMB Director Peter Orszag told reporters that the embarrassing figures from Medicare and Medicaid demonstrate the need for health care reform. I would concur if “reform” meant reducing the government’s role in health care. However, he means the opposite, which raises the question of how giving more money to an already waste-prone and bureaucratic federal health system can possibly make sense for the economy.

The administration has promised to cut down on improper payments with the aid of a new executive order. According to the Associated Press:

Under the executive order, every federal agency would have to maintain a Web site that tracks improper payments, error rates and outstanding payments. If an agency doesn’t meet targets for reducing error rates for two years in a row, the agency director and responsible official will have to directly report to OMB to explain the delinquency and new actions they will take.

Somehow I doubt this will amount to much of a deterrent. The AP also said the administration plans to impose penalties on government contractors who receive improper payments. But last month it was reported that “the Department of Defense awarded nearly $30 million in stimulus contracts to six companies while they were under federal criminal investigation on suspicion of defrauding the government.”

Democrat Tom Carper, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, seemed to partly understand the broader meaning of the improper payment estimates:

It goes without saying that these results would be completely unacceptable in the private sector, as they should be in government, especially at a time of record deficits…Unfortunately, these numbers may still be just the tip of the iceberg since they don’t even include estimates for several major programs, including the Medicare prescription drug plan.

Yes, Senator, which is precisely why bigger government – be it stimulus, bail outs, or health care reform – is an inferior option to letting the marketplace provide for our wants and needs.

Carper is also right about the $98 billion figure being the “tip of the iceberg.” As has been noted here before:

The Government Accountability Office estimates that the two major government health programs are currently losing a combined $50 billion annually to such payments. But that estimate probably low-balls the actual losses. Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow, a top specialist in health care fraud, estimates that 20 percent of federal health program budgets are consumed by improper payments, which would be a staggering $150 billion a year for Medicare and Medicaid.

See this essay for more on fraud and abuse in government programs.

Thursday Links

  • The financial regulators’ pipe dream: “Most new regulation will do nothing to limit crises because markets will innovate around it. Worse, some regulation being considered by Congress will guarantee bigger and more frequent crises.”
  • The illegal cigarette trade in Ireland reaches “epidemic proportions“  after the government imposes draconian regulations on tobacco products.

The Fed and Policy Uncertainty

How and when should the Fed unwind the enormous monetary expansion it undertook in response to the financial crisis and recession? The WSJ reports [$]:

As the Federal Reserve’s next meeting approaches in early November, an internal debate is brewing about how and when to signal the possibility of interest-rate increases.

The Fed has said since March that it will keep rates very low for an “extended period.” Long before it raises rates, however, it will need to change that public signal to financial markets.

Because the recovery is so young and is expected to be so weak, many central bank officials are comfortable, for now, keeping rates very low. But they are beginning to strategize about how to walk away from the “extended period” language.

My suggestion is that the Fed announce a path of gradual increases in the federal funds rate, say beginning next year and lasting for two years, until the rate is at some “normal level.”

This approach is different than what the Fed is likely to undertake; it will probably want to maximize “discretion,” the ability to adjust on the fly as conditions unfold.

My approach maximizes predictability and reassurance: it commits the Fed to shrinking the money supply and heading off future inflation. This reassures markets and takes substantial uncertainty out of the picture.

The problem with my approach is the pre-commitment: everyone knows the Fed could abandon a pre-announced path.

But such an announcement might still give markets useful guidance, and the Fed would know that any deviation would itself upset markets, and this might encourage adherence to the pre-commitment.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

U.S. Cutting Pay for Bailed Out Company Executives

According to reports, executives from bailed out companies Citigroup, Bank of America, GM, Chrysler, GMAC, Chrysler Financial and AIG are going to see major pay cuts this year, which will be enforced by the president’s “pay czar,” Kenneth R. Feinberg. WaPo:

NEW YORK – The Obama administration plans to order companies that have received exceptionally large amounts of bailout money from the government to slash compensation for their highest-paid executives by about half on average, according to people familiar with the long-awaited decision.

The administration will also curtail many corporate perks, including the use of corporate jets for personal travel, chauffeured drivers and country club fee reimbursement, people familiar with the matter have said. Individual perks worth more than $25,000 have received particular scrutiny.

The American people have every right to be upset about generous compensation packages for executives at financial firms that are being kept alive by subsidies and bailouts.

But their ire should be directed at the bailouts, because that is the policy that redistributes money from the average taxpayer and puts it in the pockets of incompetent executives. Unfortunately, rather than deal with the underlying problems of bailouts and intervention, some politicians want to impose controls on salaries. This might be a tolerable second-best (or probably fifth-best) outcome if the compensation limits only applied to companies mooching off the taxpayers, but some politicians want to use the financial crisis as an excuse to regulate compensation at firms that do not have their snouts in the public trough.

This would be a big mistake. So long as rich people make money using non-coercive means, politicians should butt out. It should not matter whether we are talking about Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt, or a corporate CEO. The market should determine compensation, not political deal making. Markets don’t produce perfect outcomes, to be sure, but political intervention invariably produces terrible outcomes.

I debate this further on CNBC:

C/P The Hill

Exiting the Afghan Quagmire

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, and Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London, discuss in the Financial Times how we can exit the Afghan quagmire:

The west should therefore pursue a political solution, open negotiations with the Taliban and offer a timetable for a phased withdrawal in return for a ceasefire. This should begin with the military pulling out of specific areas in return for Taliban guarantees not to attack western bases and Afghan authorities in those areas. If the Taliban refuses such terms, then military pressure should continue. The point should not be to eliminate the Taliban – which is impossible – but to persuade it to agree to a deal.

Lodhi and Lieven’s argument echoes one that David Axe, Jason Reich, and I made yesterday on ForeignPolicy.com.

… regime change, and democracy, are not necessary for counterterrorism. Propping up President Hamid Karzai’s Western-style government in Kabul does not make operations against al Qaeda any easier or more successful. If anything, it distracts from the conceptually simpler task of finding and killing terrorists. Without U.S. and NATO protection, Karzai’s regime would, sooner or later, probably fall to the Taliban. But U.S. observers should not equate that eventuality with “losing” the war. The war is against terrorists, not Islamist governments. The United States should be prepared to make peace, and amends, with a resurgent Taliban – and to encourage the group to excise its more extreme elements.

I admit talking to the Taliban sounds weird and scary. But my contention is that there is no shortage of Pashtun militants willing to fight against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region. Certainly the Taliban does not enjoy support among the majority of Pashtuns—as Lodhi and Lieven point out—but neither did the IRA in Northern Ireland or the FLN in Algeria. The point is not exclusively about popularity (although that’s a critical component, along with local legitimacy), but the fact that these indigenous groups are willing to fight the United States and NATO indefinitely. Indeed, it is the western military presence that is driving support for the Taliban both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Moreover, the notion that we must protect Pakistan from the Taliban is ludicrous. Pakistan’s intelligence service helped create the Taliban and they continue to protect the Afghan Taliban to keep India at bay. From this point of view, deploying more troops would be irrelevant to the fight against al Qaeda and counterproductive in our attempts to pacify the region. For more on what we should do, check this out.

CAP’s Proposal to Add ‘Public Members’ to Corporate Boards Is Flawed

Today the Center for American Progress rolled out its proposal that we add “public directors” to the boards of companies that have been bailed out by the government.  CAP scholar Emma Coleman Jordan argues that “public directors will provide a corrective to the boards of the financial institutions that helped cause the crisis.”

One has to wonder whether Ms. Jordan has ever heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  If she had, she might recall that a substantial number of the board members of Fannie and Freddie were so-called “public” members appointed by the President.  Perhaps she can ask CAP adjunct scholar and former Fannie Mae executive Ellen Seidman to review the history of those companies for her.

Where’s the evidence that any of those Fannie/Freddie “public” directors, whether they were appointed by Republican or Democrat Presidents, ever once look out for the public interest?  In fact all the evidence points to these public directors looking out for the interests of Fannie and Freddie, often lobbying Congress and the Administration on the behalf of these companies.

I suppose CAP would tell us that having the regulators pick the directors instead of the president would protect us from having those positions filled with political hacks.  Ms. Jordan argues that “regulators should determine most of the details of the public directorships—after all, they have the most direct experience in trying to regulate private companies that have received public funds.”  We tried that route as well.  In contrast to Fannie/Freddie, each of the twelve Federal Home Loan Banks had to have a number of its directors appointed by its then regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Board.  It was well known within the Beltway that these appointments were more often political hacks than not.  For instance one long time director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh was the son of a senior member of the US House Committee on Finance Services.  Once again we’ve gone down this road, we know how this story ends.

If we are truly interested in protecting the taxpayer, we should, first, end the ability of the Federal Reserve to bailout companies, and second, as quickly as possible remove any government involvement in these companies.  Having the government appoint board directors only further entangles the government into our financial system; and if Fannie and Freddie are a good guide, actually increases the chances of future bailouts.