Tag: markets

The Chinese Currency Issue Is No Longer

In its first statutory, semi-annual report on foreign currency practices, the Obama Treasury Department refrained from designating China a “currency manipulator,” further affirming the view that an aggressive, sticks-only approach to the bilateral trade relationship advocated (mostly) by campaigning politicians is simply untenable. After serving more than 5 years as a great source of bilateral trade tension, the Chinese currency issue is dead.

Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama both talked tough about Chinese currency practices, identifying an undervalued yuan as a source of unfairness to U.S. producers and an important cause of the bilateral trade imbalance. Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner, during his confirmation hearing in January, reiterated President Obama’s commitment to dealing with the issue before the Senate Finance Committee:

President Obama - backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices. While in the U.S. Senate he cosponsored tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles.

Those who relied on hyped-up media accounts of Geithner’s testimony, which generally homed in on the terms “aggressively,” “tough,” and “enforcement” in the above passage to imply that Obama would take action against China on this matter, are probably utterly surprised that Treasury balked yesterday. But those who read the rest of Geithner’s response to the question may have noticed this broad canvas for inaction:

The question is how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm. The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.

Those last two sentences of Geithner’s response contained the answer—nearly three months beforehand—to the question of whether Treasury would label China a manipulator. And, taken in its entirety, the response is a perfect summation of the distinctions between criticizing policy as a challenger and being responsible for policy as the guy in charge. You can talk tough as a challenger because you don’t have to account for the consequences of your actions. But when you are responsible for the consequences of potentially incendiary policy changes, circumspection is a rediscovered virtue.

As President Obama knows by now, the consequences of simply labeling China a “currency manipulator” (let alone attempting to do something remedial about it) would undermine broader U.S.-China relations, invite recriminations, inspire potentially adverse policy changes in China, and would inject heaps of uncertainty into global currency and financial markets. Besides, as yesterday’s Treasury report concludes, the yuan continues to appreciate against the dollar, the government’s accumulation of foreign reserves has decelerated, and policies are in place to encourage greater domestic consumption in China and to reduce the economy’s reliance on exports.

I remain hopeful that this distinction between Obama the president and Obama the candidate will become and remain evident in U.S. trade policy more broadly.

Health Policy Death Match: Klein vs. Ponnuru

I count both Ramesh Ponnuru and Ezra Klein as friends.  (I’m so post-partisan.)  Why, oh why must they force me to choose between them??

Ponnuru had an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times where he reaffirmed his membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.  Klein responded in a way that’s sure to satisfy his base, but I think he left the reality-based community wanting.  Are you ready for the fisk?

Klein suggests that if “80+ percent of Americans … think the system needs fundamental changes or a complete rebuild,” then 80+ percent of Americans must support universal coverage.  Hmmm, bit of a stretch.  In fact, I can recall one poll where nearly one-third of likely Democratic primary voters rejected universal coverage.

Klein suggests that giving consumers the freedom to avoid unwanted state health insurance regulations would mean that Arizonans wouldn’t get coverage for colorectal cancer screening, and that there would be no mammogram coverage in Idaho.  Mmm, that’s good crazy.  I refer my right honorable friend to the episode where The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn made a similar claim about mandates for prostate and cervical cancer screening.  I looked up the services covered by the plans made available to the Cohn family by the University of Michigan.  It turned out that six out of the seven available plans cover both prostate and cervical cancer screening — even though Michigan requires insurers to cover neither.  (I offered to wager Cohn a fancy dinner that his family has coverage for both, but I never heard back from him.  Foolish, really, to let me know where he gets his insurance. Klein would never give me such an opening … or would he?) What Ponnuru proposes is to let Arizonans and Idahoans and everyone else choose what their health plan covers.   Imagine that: people rationing medical care according to their preferences, rather than the preferences of employers, interest groups, bureaucrats, health policy wonks…  Why Klein clings to such regulations despite zero evidence that they actually increase access to the targeted services is beyond me.

Klein criticizes Ponnuru for proposing to replace the current tax preference for job-based coverage with a tax credit available to everyone, much like John McCain proposed during his (latest) presidential campaign.  Ponnuru cites a study estimating that tax credits would reduce the number of uninsured by 20 million.  Klein counter-cites one study estimating that tax credits would have zero net effect on the number of uninsured, and a second study estimating that those who transition from job-based coverage to the “individual” or “non-group” market would pay an additional $2,000 per year for an identical policy.   Klein’s criticisms sound persuasive – provided you know precious little about the topic.  For one thing, the two studies Klein cites are actually the same study.  Pity, really.  Had Klein found a second study to support his position, perhaps it would not have been quite so flawed as the one he did find.  Here’s what I wrote back in September about that study’s flaws:

Thomas Buchmueller et al. estimate that replacing the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) with Sen. John McCain’s proposed health insurance tax credit would have zero effect on the uninsured. Yet their estimates neither incorporate nor even acknowledge factors that would tend to increase coverage. First, workers who lose ESI would see their wages rise significantly as labor markets force employers to “cash out” those workers.

That effect would help all workers afford health insurance — but particularly older and sicker workers, because they would get cashed-out more.

Second, the authors estimate that non-group enrollment would double, yet they ignore that administrative costs would fall in a thicker non-group market.

So that $2,000 mark-up really wouldn’t be $2,000.  Even if some mark-up remained, workers could reduce their premiums by purchasing less coverage.  Not all that crazy a concept, considering that the tax treatment of job-based insurance encourages people to buy too much coverage.

Then there’s this effect, which would further reduce premiums for healthy workers:

Third, the authors acknowledge that employment-based insurance forces the healthy to subsidize the sick, yet they ignore that the non-group market would reduce premiums for a majority of workers by allowing them to avoid that hidden tax.

The study’s authors also ignored the premium-lowering effects of McCain’s proposal to allow people to avoid unwanted regulatory costs (e.g., mandated benefits):

Fourth, though the Congressional Budget Office estimates that state health insurance regulations increase premiums an average of 13 percent, the authors ignore that McCain’s proposal to let consumers shop nationwide for insurance would further reduce premiums by allowing consumers to avoid that hidden tax as well.

A few random clarifications.  Klein fears living “in a space where insurers could still discriminate based on pre-existing conditions.”  That’s Church-of-Universal-Coverage-speak for, “I want price controls on health insurance.”  Government can outlaw the practice of charging higher premiums to the sick, but it cannot outlaw the reasons behind those higher premiums.  So when government prohibits insurers from competing on price, insurers respond to those underlying reasons by competing to avoid the sick.  Yes, yes, it’s that pious preference for price-controlled premiums that unleashes the beast of adverse selection — and prevents the market from developing innovative insurance products that help sick people pay those higher premiums. Klein fears a world “where millions of Americans will still lack access to health insurance,” because to the devout, access to insurance matters more than access to health care.  Klein fears that when people move from ESI to the individual market, risk pools will get smaller and insurers will get stronger.  Yet risk pools would get bigger, and insurers weaker relative to consumers.  Klein believes we can “ensure that all Americans have health coverage, [and] that their coverage is comprehensive,” and that we can do all that without rationing “access to health services.”  How?  Just “bring down costs in the system.”  Riiiight.

To cap things off, Klein claims that Ponnuru and I think the U.S. health care sector as it exists is “fine.”  I really can’t blame him for arguing with straw men.

In the end, Klein’s case against Ponnuru boils down to the same absurdity I found in Buchmueller and colleagues’ case against McCain:

The McCain plan would eliminate forced subsidies: of the sick by the healthy (via ESI and community rating) and of particular providers by unwilling consumers (mandates for chiropractic coverage, etc.). Buchmueller et al. would have us believe that if we stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, not even Peter would benefit. A more balanced critique might have been more persuasive.

Klein spends a lot more time thinking about health policy than Ponnuru does. But you’d never know it.

Week in Review: ‘Saving’ the World, Government Control and Drug Decriminalization

G-20 Summit Agrees to International Spending Plan

g-2The Washington Post reports, “Leaders from more than 20 major nations including the United States decided Thursday to make available an additional $1 trillion for the world economy through the International Monetary Fund and other institutions as part of a broad package of measures to overcome the global financial crisis.”

Cato scholars Richard W. Rahn, Daniel J. Ikenson and Ian Vásquez commented on the London-based meeting:

Rahn: “President Obama of the U.S. and Prime Minister Brown of the U.K. will be pressing for more so-called stimulus spending by other nations, despite the fact that the historical evidence shows that big increases in government spending are more likely to be damaging and slow down recovery than they are to promote vigorous economic expansion and job creation.”

Vásquez: “The push by some countries for massive increases in spending to address the global financial crisis smacks of political and bureaucratic opportunism. A prime example is Washington’s call to substantially increase the resources of the International Financial Institutions… There is no reason to think that massive increases of the IFIs’ funds will not worsen, rather than improve, their record or the accountability of the aid agencies and borrower governments.”

Ikenson: “Certainly it is crucial to avoid protectionist policies that clog the arteries of economic recovery and help nobody but politicians. But it is also important to keep things in perspective: the world is not on the brink of a global trade war, as some have suggested.”

Ikenson appeared on CNBC this week to push for a reduction of trade barriers in international markets.

With fears mounting over a global shift toward protectionism, Cato senior fellow Tom Palmer and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation are circulating a petition against restrictive trade measures.

Obama Administration Forces Out GM CEO

rick-wagonerPresident Obama took an unprecedented step toward greater control of a private corporation after forcing General Motors CEO  Rick Wagoner to leave the company. The New York Post reports “the administration threatened to withhold bailout money from the company if he didn’t.”

Writing for the Washington Post, trade analyst Dan Ikenson explained why the government is responsible for any GM failure from now on:

President Obama’s newly discovered prudence with taxpayer money and his tough-love approach to GM and Chrysler would both have more credibility if he hadn’t demanded Rick Wagoner’s resignation, as well. By imposing operational conditions normally reserved for boards of directors, the administration is now bound to the infamous “Pottery Barn” rule: you break it, you buy it. If things go further south, the government is now complicit.

Wagoner’s replacement, Fritz Henderson, said Tuesday that after receiving billions of taxpayer dollars, the company is considering bankruptcy as an option. Cato scholars recommended bankruptcy months ago:

Dan Ikenson, November 21, 2008: “Bailing out Detroit is unnecessary. After all, this is why we have the bankruptcy process. If companies in Chapter 11 can be salvaged, a bankruptcy judge will help them find the way. In the case of the Big Three, a bankruptcy process would almost certainly require them to dissolve their current union contracts. Revamping their labor structures is the single most important change that GM, Ford, and Chrysler could make — and yet it is the one change that many pro-bailout Democrats wish to ignore.”

Daniel J. Mitchell, November 13, 2008:  “Advocates oftentimes admit that bailouts are not good policy, but they invariably argue that short-term considerations should trump long-term sensible policy. Their biggest assertion is that a bailout is necessary to prevent bankruptcy, and that avoiding this result is critical to prevent catastrophe. But Chapter 11 protection may be precisely what is needed to put American auto companies back on the path to profitability. Bankruptcy laws specifically are designed to give companies an opportunity — under court supervision — to reduce costs and streamline operations.”

Dan Ikenson, December 5, 2008: “The best solution is to allow the bankruptcy process to work. It will be needed. There are going to be jobs lost, but there is really nothing policymakers can do about that without exacerbating problems elsewhere. The numbers won’t be as dire as the Big Three have been projecting.”

Cato Links

  • As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrates its 60th birthday, there are signs of mounting trouble within the alliance and increasing reasons to doubt the organization’s relevance regarding the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. In a new study, Cato scholar Ted Galen Carpenter argues that NATO’s time is up.
  • Should immigration agents target businesses knowingly hiring illegal immigrants? Cato scholar Jim Harper weighs in on a Fox News debate.
Topics:

Week in Review: No End to Spending and Regulation in Sight

Geithner to Propose Unprecedented Restrictions on Financial System

geithnerThe Washington Post reports, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system… The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.”

Calling Geithner’s plan another “jihad against the market,” Cato senior fellow Jerry Taylor blasts the administration’s proposal:

What President Obama is selling is the idea that government must be the final arbiter regarding how much risk-taking is appropriate in this allegedly free market economy. It is unclear, however, whether anybody short of God is in the position to intelligently make that call for every single actor in the market.

Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll reveals the real reason behind the proposal:

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers. It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.   If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.  This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.

A new paper from Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale explains the roots of the current global financial crisis and critically examines the reasoning behind the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s actions to prop up the financial sector. Gokhale argues that recovery is likely to be slow with or without the government’s bailout actions.

In the new issue of the Cato Policy Report, Cato chairman emeritus William A. Niskanen explains how President Obama is taking classic steps toward turning this recession into a depression:

Four federal economic policies transformed the Hoover recession into the Great Depression: higher tariffs, stronger unions, higher marginal tax rates, and a lower money supply. President Obama, unfortunately, has endorsed some variant of the first three of these policies, and he will face a critical choice on monetary policy in a year or so.

Obama Defends His Massive Spending Plan

President Obama visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby Democratic lawmakers on his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the plan next week.

obama-budget1In a new bulletin, Cato scholar Chris Edwards argues, “Sadly, Obama’s first budget sets a course for more government bloat, more economic distortions, and ultimately lower standards of living for everyone who is not living off of federal hand-outs.”

On Cato’s blog, Edwards discusses Obama’s misguided theory on government spending:

Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Obama’s budget calls for a massive influx of government jobs. Writing in National Review, Cato senior fellow Jim Powell explains why government jobs don’t cure depression:

If government jobs were the secret of success, then the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, because it had nothing but government jobs. Communist China, glutted with government jobs, would have generated more income per capita than Hong Kong where, at least before the Communist takeover, there were hardly any government jobs, but Hong Kong’s per capita income was about 20 times higher than that on the mainland.

Multiplying the number of government jobs did nothing then and does nothing now to revive the private sector that pays all the bills, in large part because of the depressing effect of taxes required to pay for government jobs.

Cato on YouTube

Cato Institute is reaching out to new audiences with our message of individual liberty, free markets and peace. Last year, we launched our first YouTube channel, which has garnered thousands of views and subscriptions. Here are a few highlights:

Regulations We’ve Got. Geithner’s Seeking Something Else

Another day, another mad power grab by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Only in government does failure bring more responsibility.

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers.

It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.

If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.

This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.