Topic: Regulatory Studies

The Helping Hand of Government …

… strips away privacy before it goes to work.

Here’s a nice, discrete example: S. 2485, introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, would require asset verification of participants in State Medicaid programs, exposing the personal information held by financial institutions to government access.

This privacy loss is a natural outgrowth of entitlement programs. It’s nearly mandated by the simple and warranted effort to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.

My 2004 Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy - and the Real Threats To It,” explored how entitlement programs almost always carry with them a significant privacy-cost:

To provide benefits and entitlements—and, of course, to tax—governments take personal information from citizens by the bushel. Nearly every new policy or program justifies new or expanded databases of information—and a shrunken sphere of personal privacy.

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.

Foolish European Union Regulations

Two stories from the British press highlight regulatory excess from the Brussels bureaucracy. The Times reports that a winemaker is being harrassed because he is selling his wares in 37.5cl bottles instead of the 50cl or 35cl sizes allowed by European regulation:

An award-winning winemaker whose wares are sold at the royal palaces is facing a £30,000 bill after European bureaucrats ruled that he was using the wrong-shaped bottles. Jerry Schooler, who sells 400,000 bottles of fruit wines and mead a year, has been threatened with prosecution over his determination to use traditional measurements. The proprietor of the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex, has been told to halt the sale of beverages such as mead, silver birch wine and bramble liqueur in 75cl and 37.5cl bottles. If he continues to sell them, he could be taken to court under a new EU directive that permits the sale of such products in 70cl, 50cl or 35cl measures only. …Mr Schooler now faces costs of about £30,000 to change his production line. “We are going to have to change all our bottling, the labels, machinery, boxes and maybe the corks as well and it is going to cost me thousands to do it,” he said. …West Sussex County Council’s trading standards department said that the winery was bound by EU Directive 2007/45/EC, which was drawn up in September to “lay down rules on nominal quantities for prepacked products”. It said the directive meant that the use of 37.5cl bottles for liqueurs was illegal.

The absurdity of this story makes one wonder how such a regulation came into existence. Did a bureaucrat wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and decide that wine should only be sold in bottles of certain sizes? Is there some sort of crazy health or safety rationale for the regulation? Speaking of which, that’s the alleged reason for a regulation that is forcing English bus companies to make customers disembark in the middle of routes. This foolish regulation apparently is designed to prevent driver fatigue, but, as reported by the Sun, the practical effect is to make people waste their time:

Thousands of passengers are being forced to hop off buses midway through journeys to comply with barmy EU laws. A Brussels ruling has banned local services longer than 30 miles to ensure drivers don’t spend too long at the wheel. As a result, drivers have to pull in as they hit that limit and order everyone off their bus. They then change the route number on the front and invite passengers to jump back on before resuming the trip. …Western Greyhound has split its Newquay to Plymouth route in three — even though it uses a single driver throughout. Passengers must buy three tickets and break their journey twice. Managing director Mark Howarth said: “It’s a farce. We have to kick customers off as soon as the driver hits the 30-mile limit. “Often it’s in the middle of nowhere. Passengers think we’re crazy.”

Tyler Cowen Thinks Frozen Markets Justify Tougher Regulations?

In a New York Times piece of March 23, “It’s Hard to Thaw Frozen Markets,” Tyler Cowen concludes that “regulators should apply capital requirements consistently to the off-balance-sheet activities of financial institutions.” That conclusion follows from a surprisingly innocent confidence in regulation in general and capital requirements in particular. But it also follows from a faulty analysis of the situation.

Cowen writes, “What is distinctive today is the drying up of market liquidity — the inability to buy and sell financial assets — caused by a lack of good information about asset values… .The results have been a form of financial gridlock.”

To explain this alleged “drying up” process he says, “Starting in August, many asset markets lost their liquidity, as trading in many kinds of junk bonds, mortgage-backed securities and auction-rate securities has virtually vanished.” Cowen thinks “market prices have been drained of their informational value” in “many asset markets.”

With the possible exception of mortgage-backed securities, that seems fanciful if not absurd. The spread between junk bonds and Treasury widened mainly because Treasury yields fell, but there is massive trading in such bonds. Sales of nonfinancial commercial paper have grown briskly this year, and so have sales of financial paper aside from the “asset-backed” variety. There may be little trading of mortgage-backed securities, but that just suggest many owners (unlike, say, e-Trade) are in no hurry to sell at prices low enough to attract borrowers.

This poses a temporary problem for mark-to-market accounting (and Basle’s bureaucratic capital standards), but this seems a failure of accounting rather than markets. Cowen asks “why seek ‘fire sale’ prices when you might lose your job for doing so?” I would ask, “Why seek ‘fire sale’ prices if (unlike Bear Stearns) you are in a position to wait for a better deal once the market calms down?” Cowen says, “Only so many financial institutions have the size and expertise to buy up low-quality assets in large quantities.” But large holdings can often be sold in smaller batches. And we don’t know who might have bought Bear Stearns, warts and all, were it not for favoritism the Fed and Treasury showed to a single bidder (who was shamed into quintupling the offer).

Liquidity refers to the ease with which various assets can be converted to cash without dropping the value of the asset. Hedge fund managers bought gold on margin at $1000 may find it is less liquid than they expected. But what seems terrible to sellers of marked-down assets (e.g., of Las Vegas condos) can seem wonderful to buyers.

Most people think “liquidity drying up” means banks have cut back on lending, which is demonstrably false – bank loans are growing at a 10-11% annual rate since August, and much faster for C&I loans. Consumers and small businesses were never dependent on mortgage-backed IOUs.

There is no “financial gridlock” for most assets, even real estate (31% of household wealth). Auctions for foreclosed properties are drawing plenty of bids.

Mr. Cowen thinks “investors are instead flocking to the safest of assets, like Treasury bills.” Smart investors shun long-term Treasuries and are flocking to stocks, particularly U.S. stocks. The S&P 500 is down less than 10% this year – much better (in dollars) than most other markets, including Europe and China.

Tyler says, “Every step of the way, the pricing of [Bear Stearns] stock has surprised the market.” Really? It didn’t surprise the shorts, who owned a fourth of the shares. I own the SKF exchange fund (ultra-short financials) which, ironically, fell sharply a couple of days after Bear was sold out by omniscient and kindly government regulators.

Nobody ever said housing was a liquid asset, but even housing is far more liquid than the doomsday crowd imagines. The OFHEO index shows that home prices increased in all but 11 states between the fourth quarters of 2006 and 2007. Home prices fell 4% to 7% in California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan, but home prices rose 4% to 9% in 16 other states—most of which are not even counted in the widely-cited Case-Shiller index (which gives California a 27% weight).

The only problem with financial markets is that information is never free, and it sometimes takes time to discover market-clearing prices. The solution is not more regulations, but more patience.

Capital requirements, on the other hand, can cause very serious problems. The 1988 Basle Accord on capital requirements was a heavy-handed reaction to the 1982 LDC debt crisis. It was also one reason Japan’s monetary base shrunk by 2.8% a year in 1991-92 – the start of a period some U.S. journalists are now foolishly comparing to the restoration of sanity in coastal housing prices.

As I explained ten years ago, Basle “required that by the end of 1992 banks had to maintain capital equal to a minimum of 8 percent of risk-adjusted assets, where risk just happened to be defined in a way that favored government bonds over business loans… . Did relatively higher capital ratios in the United States and Great Britain mean they were less exposed than Japan to LDC default? On the contrary, even in the late eighties outstanding LDC loans still amounted to 93-199 percent of the capital of the largest U.S. banks, and as much as 82 percent for British banks, but only 55 percent for Japan. American banks seemed to have more capital. But unlike Japan, all of the capital of U.S. banks, and sometimes much more, was exposed to LDC default.”

Even if markets for a few risky, exotic U.S. securities appears “frozen” for a short while, that is far less problematic than imposing stern, politicized regulation over a wide array of assets and institutions.

The Fed’s “Central Planning” Woes

Given the financial/regulatory system that we have – which is a very important pre-condition – I grant the Fed and Treasury a TEMPORARY “coordinating” role to help tide over the current crisis.  However, the initiatives and actions implemented so far appear unlikely to succeed.

I agree only with its role in the Bear buyout by JPMorgan.  It is, by nature, a one-time action that does not protect Bear’s shareholders and operators but protects the financial system from unraveling further – similar to it’s actions re: LTCM. Even if it is repeated for another investment bank, it does not raise the issue of moral hazard because no such bank wants to end up like Bear.

However, the Fed’s new and almost direct support of mortgage backed securities through its primary dealers introduces another moral-hazard potential – likely to be a huge problem down the road, and especially because of the interest rate policy it is adopting.

Interest rate cuts are being overdone. Large cuts are continuing the Fed’s past mistakes of introducing greater uncertainty in market participants’ expectations. It is using the wrong (inflation fighting) tool to achieve its goal of systemic stability which has arisen from poorer visibility of asset quality. The added uncertainty will prolong the resolution of current credit/liquidity shortages.

The longer that credit/liquidity problems last, the more likely is the introduction of PERMANENT new financial market regulations – which would hinder efficient operation – in the very function that is key to resolving current credit shortage problems – the generation of price information.

Finally, Prof. Cowen’s recent NYT oped (“It’s Hard to Thaw a Frozen Market”) compares market pricing under capitalist and socialist systems.  In brief, the argument is that socialist systems’ poor market pricing abilities appear to be reflected in the current credit-market woes of the American “capitalist” system. This comparison appears misplaced to me. The general U.S. economy may be relatively free and capitalist – but financial and credit markets are not quite so free.

Current credit market problems are not the result of pure and free market operation/competition.  We have a fiat currency whose supply and purchasing power is controlled by Fed interest rate policies. And it appears to have made serious mistakes in the process. This involves larger issues of whether asset prices should be objects for setting Fed policy and whether and how the Fed should respond to supply/oil shocks. Fundamentally, however, financial market participants naturally don’t look to “the free” market to set their expectations about the dollar’s future purchasing power. Those expectations are set by a “central planner” – the Fed.

Who’s Coddling These “Greedy Bastards”?

A letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal just came to my attention.  It reads:

In his Sunday commentary, “On the road to health care hell,” Steven Miller quoted Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, hardly a person who could be trusted to give an even evaluation of government spending on health care, considering that the Cato Institute wants to limit government.

It is wonderful of Mr. Miller and Mr. Cannon to place all responsibility for Southern Nevada’s public health crisis on the government and none on the greedy bastards who violated their oath to do no harm, and to line their pockets with as much wealth as they could squeeze out of the public. Those who treated Mr. Duke Breuer and sent him home with an IV needle in his arm all had licenses from the state of Nevada, so I guess that Mr. Miller and Mr. Cannon would, by their twisted logic, place the blame solely on the state of Nevada.

However, I hold the state of Nevada responsible for not providing the level of regulation that is currently required, and in view of the level of greed that these doctors have shown, it is high time to level the playing field. We should strip them of every nickel that they have.

Wallace Eastman

LAS VEGAS

Whuh? There’s a public health crisis in Southern Nevada? I’m an apologist for greedy bastards? They sent some guy home with the needle still in his arm?? Yikes!

I went back and read the original Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed by Steven Miller, vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Actually, Miller provides a more responsible critique of the U.S. health care sector than most free-market advocates. For example, Miller takes seriously the alarming number of medical errors that Eastman decries. 

Eastman may be surprised by how much he and Miller have in common. Nevada’s physician-licensure laws obviously are not doing enough to protect patients from low-quality care. While Eastman argues that more stringent regulation would fix things, I suspect Miller would argue that licensing simply does not work that way; that physicians inevitably come to control the licensure process and manipulate it to protect themselves from competition, including competition from delivery systems that would reduce medical errors.

My guess is that Eastman and Miller agree that there are greedy bastards out there trying to squeeze as much wealth as they can out of the public, but that Miller would argue it’s the very regulations Eastman supports that’s letting the greedy bastards get away with it.

(As for my trustworthiness: Sure, I want to limit government. When I claim government is ineffective, readers should bear in mind my viewpoint. That’s fair, and doesn’t worry me.)