Saturday, June 24, 2017

Alan Blinder: Lamppost Theory and Dysfunctional Politics

Alan Blinder is working on a book with the working title The Lamppost Theory: Why Economic Policy So Often Comes Up Short. The title is based on an old metaphor that academic economists use to convey their relationship with politicians: “Politicians use economics in the same way that a drunk uses lampposts—for support rather than illumination.”

Blinder participated last week in a symposium on this topic at the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution (which can be watched online at the link), and one of his discussion slides offers the following thought experiment.
"Imagine that rewriting the tax code was assigned to a bunch of technocratic experts—with instructions from Congress—and then brought back to Congress for an up-or-down vote. ...
  • Chances that we’d get a vastly better tax code: about 100%
  • Chances that this will happen: about 0% 
  • Q: Does that make you think there’s something wrong?"
Of course, Blinder's point is could also be applied to other settings, like health care reform, or reform of public pensions, or allocation of spending within various departments. Indeed, the way in which our political system was able to close some military bases was to have a group of experts come up with a list of what bases would be closed, and then require the political process to confirm or oppose the entire list as a group, rather than picking the list to pieces and eventually doing little or nothing.

It can be hard for group with weak hierarchies to make decisions. Group members need to find a balance between making their own contributions in some areas but acquiescing to the group in others. To make this work, it takes a skilled political leadership with a combination of policy-related and hands-on managerial skills, together with group members who see themselves as acting in the context of a broader whole, not just as grandstanding individuals. The US political system seems lacking in these areas.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tobacco Taxes in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

The appropriate taxation and regulation of tobacco use is well-trodden ground in US policy: after all, the breakthrough announcement by the US Surgeon General that "smoking is hazardous to your health" happened back in 1964 (for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary, see "Smoking, 50 Years Later," January 28, 2014).  But there's a renewed stir about tobacco policy in the last few years, driven this time by an international focus.

For example, back in June 2015 William Savedoff and Albert Alwang wrote "The Single Best Health Policy in theWorld: Tobacco Taxes" (Center for Global Development Policy Paper 062). They write: "Tobacco use is the largest cause of preventable disease and death in the world. ... A 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes leads to an average 4 percent reduction in tobacco consumption. ... Tobacco taxes are one of the most cost-effective health interventions available. Using taxes to raise the price of tobacco products in low- and middle income countries costs between US$3 – US$70 for each additional year of life (as measured by Disability Adjusted Life Years or DALYs) (Ranson 2002), comparable to the cost of child immunization."

Last November, the Fiscal Affairs Group at the IMF put out a report called "How to Design and EnforceTobacco Excises?" In April 2017, the World Bank held a two-day event titled "Tobacco Taxation: Win-Win for Public Health and Domestic Resources Mobilization Conference" (the agenda and slides for some of the presentations are here).

But for those who want a genuine doorstop of a report summarizing the state of knowledge on these issues, the useful starting point is the nearly 700-page report from the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization, "The Economics of Tobacco and Tobacco Control" (December 2016).
It includes an early chapter on "The Economic Costs of Tobacco Use, With a Focus on Low- and Middle-Income Countries," as well as discussions of supply and demand factors affecting tobacco use and the range of public policy options. Here, I'll just mention a few main themes that caught my eye, some of which may be useful for generating classroom discussion and lecture examples.

Pretty much every report on the economics of tobacco taxation, and this one is no exception, quotes
Adam Smith's thoughts on the subject (The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter III): "Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are become objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation. ... In the meantime the people might be relieved from some of the most burdensome taxes; from those which are imposed either upon the necessaries of life, or upon the materials of manufacture."

In calculating the effects of a tobacco tax, a key parameter is how the higher price will affect the quantity of tobacco demanded. The NCI/WHO report notes (footnotes omitted):
"Price elasticity of demand is the key economic concept used to understand or measure changes in cigarette consumption resulting from changes in the excise tax and in the retail price of cigarettes. In an economic context, elasticity refers to the responsiveness of one variable to a change in another variable. The price elasticity of demand measures how responsive demand (or consumption) is to a change in the price of the product. Technically, the price elasticity of demand is the percentage change in the consumption of a product in response to a 1% change in the price of the product, with all else remaining constant. As will be discussed below, nearly all empirical studies have found that the price elasticity of demand for tobacco products lies between zero and minus one. Estimates for high-income countries (HICs) are clustered around –0.4; estimates for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are more variable and somewhat greater in absolute terms (further from zero), with estimates clustered around –0.5. In other words, for HICs, a 10% increase in the price of tobacco is expected to decrease tobacco consumption by 4%. For LMICs, a 10% increase in price would be expected to decrease tobacco consumption by 5%. Thus, tax and price increases are a potentially potent tobacco control tool in all countries.
"Many econometric studies have estimated price elasticities for other aspects of tobacco use beyond consumption, including prevalence, cessation, initiation, duration of smoking, frequency of smoking (e.g., daily vs. non-daily), and conditional demand (amount of the product consumed conditional on being a user of that product). Still others have estimated cross-price elasticities of the demand for tobacco products—that is, the impact of a change in the price of one tobacco product (e.g., cigarettes) on the use of another tobacco product (e.g., smokeless tobacco), or of a change in the price of a subcategory of one product (e.g., premium cigarette brands) on the use of a different subcategory of that product (e.g., discount cigarette brands)."
Of course, the responsiveness of tobacco use to tax policy varies by group. For example, the immediate effect of a tobacco tax increase over the short-run of a year or two will be smaller (a common finding is about half as large) than the long-run effect over time. Smoking by younger people, not yet as well-established in the habit, tends to be more responsive to higher tobacco taxes than smoking by older people. And people in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) tend to respond more strongly to higher tobacco taxes than those in higher income countries. The NCI/WHO  report states:

"In summary, the number of studies based on aggregate measures of tobacco use in HICs is growing. These studies are becoming increasingly sophisticated over time, and the resulting estimates of price elasticity are remarkably consistent. Regarding the short-run price elasticities for cigarette demand, most estimates have clustered around –0.4, with the majority ranging from –0.2 to –0.6. Early studies of tobacco use in LMICs produced wide estimates of price elasticity, with most suggesting that cigarette demand in LMICs is much more responsive to price than cigarette demand in HICs. The rapid expansion of research in LMICs in recent years indicates that the range of price elasticity estimates has narrowed somewhat, with the majority of short-run price elasticity estimates falling between –0.2 and –0.8, with many clustering around –0.5. In all countries, studies that model the addictive nature of tobacco use conclude that the long-run price elasticity of demand is greater than that estimated for the short run. Price elasticity estimates tend to be more inelastic in countries where low-priced, relatively affordable cigarettes are widely available.

"Since the early 1990s, many studies based on U.S. cross-sectional data have confirmed Lewit and colleagues’ 1981 conclusion that youth smoking is more responsive to price than adult smoking. For example, using data from the 1992–1994 Monitoring the Future surveys, Chaloupka and Grossman estimated an overall price elasticity of –1.31 for youth smoking. In a later study with similar findings, Lewit and colleagues examined the impact of cigarette prices on youth smoking prevalence and intentions to smoke. Data for this study came from cross-sectional surveys of 9th-grade students in 1990 and 1992 from the 22 U.S. and Canadian sites in the Community Intervention Trial for Smoking Cessation. This study estimated that the price elasticity of youth smoking prevalence was –0.87, and the price elasticity of intentions to smoke by nonsmoking youth was –0.95. These results indicate that youth are somewhat more sensitive to price than adults."
One difficulty for economists in thinking about tobacco policy is that many of the effects of smoking are felt by the smoker. If people choose to smoke, with knowledge of the health consequences, then who are economists or public health experts to say they are wrong? Of course, the issue of second-hand smoke or the effects of pregnant women smoking are different here--those are external effects on others. But for many smokers, the issue is one that economists sometimes refer to as "internalities," where your own decisions have an undesired and unexpected on yourself. If smokers are hooked by a habit whose power and effects they do not fully anticipate, then one can make a case for policies that make tobacco use more costly, or quitting easier. The report notes:
"Smokers tend to hold erroneous beliefs about smoking and health: They think they will be able to quit when they want to, that low-tar cigarettes are less harmful than other cigarettes, that they are in a lower risk group compared with other smokers, or that the general health risks do not apply to them as individuals. In fact, many adult tobacco users struggle with quitting, the great majority of smokers regret having started, and young people taking up tobacco use significantly underestimate the addictive potential of these products and overestimate their likelihood of quitting in the future."
One reason for the ongoing focus on smoking in low- and middle-income countries is that tobacco taxes are already relatively high in many high-income countries. As a result, the potential gains to public health (and the potential for using tobacco taxes to raise government revenue) are greater in many low- and middle-income countries. Moreover, tobacco taxes in low- and middle-income countries as a group have barely budged in the last couple of decades. The report notes (footnotes and references to tables omitted):
"Total tax burden is defined as the sum of all taxes—including general sales taxes, such as a value-added tax—expressed as a percentage of the retail price. According to the 1999 World Bank publication Curbing the Epidemic: Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control, the total tax burden on cigarettes is highest in HICs and decreases as a country’s income level decreases. Using 1996 data for the sample of countries in this study, the average tax burden was 67% in HICs, 50% in upper middle-income countries, 46% in lower middle-income countries, and 40% in low-income countries. A similar analysis based on 180 countries was performed by WHO in 2014 using the World Bank’s income categories. Although the choice of descriptive statistics (i.e., unweighted/simple average, weighted average, and median) substantially influences the results, the 2014 WHO data confirm the earlier World Bank findings that the tax burden is higher for HICs and lower for LMICs. In fact, considering unweighted average tax burdens, the picture in 2014 is not different from that in 1996."
The rhetoric around tobacco taxes can become overheated. For example, the preface of the NCI/WHO report states at one point: "Globally, approximately six million people a year die from diseases caused by tobacco use, including 600,000 from exposure to secondhand smoke. This is six million too many. Every single death from tobacco is a preventable tragedy." But the notion that public policy should seek to prevent "every single death from tobacco" is an extreme form of prohibitionism.

People act in many ways affect health: diet, exercise, driving cars, not taking a multivitamin ever day. In all of these areas, public policy can provide some information and incentives for healthier behavior, while still stopping far short of invasive micromanagement of people's day-to-day activities. In the US, federal cigarette taxes were raised dramatically in 2009, and many states have additional tobacco taxes of their own. But in many low- and middle-income countries, raising their  low tobacco taxes to higher levels offers a substantial gains to public health--along with a government revenue source that does not discourage working, hiring, or saving.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Story of Robert Keayne, Protocapitalist

Self-made entrepreneurs often generate a mixed public response. On one side, there is often an appreciation for their skills, the economic dynamism they provide, and in some cases for the charitable work funded by their earlier profits. For example, remember the ecomiums written when hard-boiled capitalist and hard-driving manager Steve Jobs died, or consider the current feelings about Bill Gates which are now filtered through the perception of work done by the Gates Foundation. On the other side, there is a deep-seated suspicion that "behind every great fortune is a great crime" (which seems to be an off-kilter paraphrase of a comment from a play by Balzac), and a belief that such a fortune must have resulted in substantial part from hard and exploitative dealing. 

This tension reaches far back into American history, well before the creation of the United States. John Paul Rollert tells the story of  protocapitalist Robert Keayne in "When making a profit was immoral,"  which appears in the Chicago Booth Review (Summer 2017). Rollert writes:

"Keayne was born in 1595 in Berkshire, England, not far from Windsor Castle. A humble butcher’s son, he would later note that he had received “no portion from my parents or friends to begin the world withal.” Accordingly, he obtained little in the way of formal education and was apprenticed at 10 years old to John Heyfield, a merchant-tailor in London. ...
"Keayne successfully completed his eight-year contract before striking out on his own. He proved adept at his trade, a blessing that was compounded by marrying well in his early 20s. By 1634, Keayne was prosperous enough to wager £100 on the Massachusetts Bay Company. It was an enormous sum, more than double the yearly income of the average wageworker in Victorian England 250 years later. The risk, however, was in keeping with Keayne’s conscience, which had been inflamed and enlightened by Puritan evangelists, while also being a considered bet by a savvy merchant on the bounty of a brave new world just across the ocean.
"Along with Anne, his wife, and beloved Ben, the only one of his four children to survive infancy, Keayne voyaged to Boston in 1635, swiftly becoming one of the city’s most distinguished and widely despised merchants. In fact, we only know so much about him because of the 50,000-word will that he began writing in 1653, three years before his death, to provide a full account of his life and the probity of his business affairs in order to “cleare myself in all material things.” ...

"In 1639, only four years after he had arrived in town, Keayne was accused of “oppression” in his dealings, a catch-all term that covered any instance of buyers or sellers taking advantage of the ignorance or necessity of one another in a business transaction. The specific charge was that he had sold sixpenny nails for 10 pence a pound, reaping a healthy profit off his neighbor. Too healthy, it seemed, for the customary profit margin on basic goods in the colony was between 10 and 30 percent.

"Keayne argued that the matter was a simple misunderstanding, willful on the part of his accuser. He said that the man had originally purchased sixpenny nails on credit for 8 pence a pound and later exchanged them for eightpenny nails at 10 pence a pound, a profit margin of only 20 percent (hardly a “haynous sine,” Keayne observed in his will). It was only when Keayne asked him to pay off his balance, after giving him ample time to do so, that the man brought his suit to the authorities, with the accusation of oppressive pricing.
"Early on during the trial, Keayne made a strong show of defending himself, with the messenger who delivered the second bag of nails testifying on his behalf, but then a raft of townspeople came forward to levy similar charges against him. As John Winthrop, the governor of the settlement and perhaps the most esteemed man in Boston, wrote in his diary, Keayne was widely known for being “notoriously above others observed and complained of” for the prices he charged and had been “admonished, both by private friends and also by some of the magistrates and elders”—all, it seemed, to no effect. He was convicted by the General Court of the offense, which had broadened beyond a single transaction to encompass a general way of doing business, and fined £200, a sum that was later reduced to £80.
"Had the matter rested there, one suspects that Keayne would still have complained in his will of the “deep and sharpe censure that was layd upon me,” but the incident would not have been the defining moment of his professional career and, perhaps, his life. But then the elders of the First Church of Boston took up the matter to determine whether an ecclesiastical reproach was also warranted.

"Keayne was fortunate to escape the most serious punishment, excommunication. That sentence was passed on eight offenses related to economic matters between 1630 and 1654, a period when only 40 such sentences were given, tantamount, as they were, to consigning one to eternal damnation. Instead, Keayne was formally admonished, according to the records of the First Church, “for selling his wares at excessive Rates, to the Dishonor of Gods name, the Offense of the Generall Cort, and the Publique scandal of the Cuntry,” a censure he lived under until the following May, when he became “Reconciled to the Church.”
"Keayne continued to attend services, and the day after the rebuke was handed down, the Reverend John Cotton, the city’s foremost theologian, delivered a sermon that was obviously inspired by the wayward merchant. The subject, Winthrop wrote in his diary, was the “false principles” of trade that so many merchants seemed to abide by. They were recorded by Winthrop as follows:
  • That a man might sell as dear as he can, and buy as cheap as he can.
  • If a man lose by casualty of sea, etc., in some of his commodities, he may raise the price of the rest.
  • That he may sell as he bought, though he paid too dear, etc., and though the commodity be fallen, etc.
  • That as a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another’s ignorance or necessity.
  • Where one gives time for payment, he is to take like recompense of one as of another.
Again, following these bullet points are considered “false principles,” and following such principles was considered grounds for censure or even excommunication. The guiding social/religious principle for merchants, as Rollert quotes in the words of the famous Puritan  John Bunyan (author of The Pilgrim's Progress) is that "A man in dealing should as really design his neighbour’s good, profit and advantage, as his own.” In the modern lingo, the parallel comment would be that there is a corporate social responsibility that all stakeholders should be taken into account.

The story of Robert Keayne's last will and testament seems to have been unearthed some decades ago by Bernard Bailyn, who described "The Apologia of Robert Keayne" in the William and Mary Quarterly (7:4, October 1950, pp. 568-587, available through JSTOR). Keayne's actual will from 1653 was reprinted in 1886 in "A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston containing miscellaneous papers," which is available through the magic of HathiTrust. Bailyn writes: 
"When his executors came to open this Last Will and Testament they found not only a complicated allocation of his worldly goods but an outpouring of long suppressed indignation, a helter-skelter apologia pro vita sua and a reiterated demand that justice be done him even if only in memory. It had taken him five months to write out the document, and when the will was copied into the first volume of the probate records of Suffolk County it filled no less than 158 pages ...

The resulting 5I,000 words provide an insight into the workings of a seventeenth-century mind. What he had "here writt out of the greife and trouble of my heart" was an appeal to the Puritan conscience of New England to reconsider its "un- christian, uncharitable and unjust reproaches and slandrs" against him, and raised the hope "that such which have taken liberties to load me with divers reproaches and long to lay me under a darke cloude may have cause to see that they have done amisse and now to be sorry for it though they have not beene so before."
Of course, we don't know the ins and outs of the dispute over the price of nails (which were a highly valuable commodity at the time). We do know that Keayne rose from being an impoverished apprentice to being one of the wealthiest men in the Boston of his time. We know that he had enemies, and that some of the accusations made against him were false, and that he a high-profile court case was decided against him. We also know that he gave considerable money to the poor and to the city throughout his life, and even left a bequest to Harvard. We also  know that he was often chosen for responsible positions. Baily writes:
"Until his death in 1656, however, despite unpopularity and repeated controversies with his fellow citizens, Robert Keayne continued to fill responsible public positions. He held his earliest public office in 1636, when the Boston Town Meeting elected him to a committee charged with the ordering of all land allotments and other business except elections. In the years that followed he was reelected selectman four times, chosen as a representative to the General Court at least seven times and served in innumerable lesser functions such as surveyor of the highways."
From a modern view, almost 400 years later, Robert Keayne seems like a many of considerable practical talent, trying to combine a life of capitalist success and Puritan moral values--and sometimes getting caught in grinding of these two forces.

(For a discussion of price controls in the colonial United States at the time of the Revolutionary War, see "Price Controls in the Colonial United States: "A Sharping Set of Mushroom Pedlers" (December 27, 2016).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Unions in Decline: Some International Comparisons

Union membership and clout has been dropping in the US economy for decades. But it's not just a US phenomenon: a similar drop is happening in many high-income countries. The OECD Employment Outlook 2017 discussed the evidence in "Chapter 4: Collective Bargaining in a Changing World of Work."

Here are a couple of illustrative figures. Across the OECD countries, about 17% of workers belong to a union. As the report notes: "Trade union density has been declining steadily in most OECD and accession countries over the last three decades (Figure 4.2). Only Iceland, Belgium, and Spain have experienced a (very) small increase in trade union density since 1985 ..." In each of the panels, the solid black line is the overall OECD average, for ease of comparison.

Here's a parallel figure showing comparisons across countries for "collective bargaining coverage," which is the share of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. On average, union bargaining coverage in OECD countries declined from 45% in 1985 to 33% by 2013.

The distinction between these figures should make the point that a number of countries have rules which in some cases require that firms pay non-union workers similarly to union workers. Conversely, many of the same countries also have a raft of possible exceptions to these rules. The OECD chapter provides a more detailed discussion of these ins and outs. But several overall patterns seem clear.

1) Labor union power is weaker just about everywhere.

2) The extent of labor union power varies considerably across countries, many of which have roughly similar income levels.  This pattern suggests that existence of unions, one way or another, may be less important for economic outcomes than the way in which those unions function. The chapter notes the importance of "peaceful and cooperative industrial relations," which can emerge--or not--from varying patterns of unionization.

3) In the next few decades, the big-picture question for union workers, and indeed for all workers, is how to adjust their workplace skills and tasks so that they remain valued contributors in an economy characterized by new technologies and global ties. Workers need political representation--whether in the form of unions or in some other form--that goes beyond arguing for near-term pay raises, and considers the difficult problem of how to raise the chances for sustained pay raises and secure jobs into the future.

Friday, June 16, 2017

An Update on Foreign Direct Investment

Foreign direct investment is "an investment made to acquire lasting interest in enterprises operating outside of the economy of the investor. [T]he investor´s purpose is to gain an effective voice in the management of the enterprise. ... Some degree of equity ownership is almost always considered to be associated with an effective voice in the management of an enterprise; the BPM5  [Balance of Payments Manual: Fifth Edition] suggests a threshold of 10 per cent of equity ownership to qualify an investor as a foreign direct investor." 

That's the definition of foreign direct investment from UNCTAD, which has published the World Investment Report 2017: Investment and the Digital Economy. This year's report includes the usual detailed overview of trends, along with some discussion of the evolving policy climate for foreign direct investment and the changing role of digital companies. Notice that FDI is explicitly separated from "portfolio investment," in which international investors buy stocks or bond or other financial assets across financial borders but without any management involvement. The usual believe is that FDI plays an important role in direct facilitation of international trade, and in the diffusion of technology and management expertise across borders, while portfolio investment plays a much smaller role in these areas.

Here are some overall patterns. FDI peaked back in 2007, and the 2016 level of $1.8 trillion it had not yet surpassed that earlier level. Most FDI inflows are to developed economies, although developing economies are not far behind.

What are the major countries for FDI inflows and outflows? The US economy perhaps unsurprisingly tops both lists, but there are some eye-raisers as well. Here's the list for inflows of FDI. Three points catch my eye here. First, notice the huge drop-off in inflows to the UK in 2016, essentially matched by a large rise in inflows to Ireland. My suspicion is that this change is Brexit-related. Second, if one combines the inflows to China, Hong Kong, and Singapore--on the basis that they are all basically China-related--then inflows to the area of China are now essentially the same as those to the US economy. Third, a reason why the UK, Ireland, and Netherlands all rank so high, given that they are actually not large economies in the global context, probably involves ongoing relocations of corporate ownership across national borders: for example, perhaps a US company owns a substantial share of a firm in Netherlands, which in owns a substantial share of a firm based in a third country. 

Here's the corresponding figure for outflows of foreign direct investment. Again, the US and China lead the way. But overall, the high-income countries shown in green represent a greater share of FDI outflows than the emerging market countries shown in orange. 
We hear a lot about a globalizing world economy. So what explains why FDI has essentially been flat for a decade? 

At least some of the reasons seems to be that countries are becoming more skeptical about the potential merits of FDI, and are more likely to impose rules placing limits on foreign buyers if they fear that "strategic" assets might be held by foreign investors, that domestic workers might be laid off, and so on. UNCTAD does a count each year of changed in national investment policies, which are then broadly classified as tending to liberalize or to restrict FDI. Back in the 1990s, pretty much all the changes were on the "liberalization" side. But starting in the early 2000s, the share of such changes involving "restriction" started rising, and is now about one-quarter of the changes in any given year.  

On the other side, the rising prominence of digital multinational enterprises has tended to support the level of FDI, and keep it at least flat rather than declining. UNCTAD makes a list of the top multinational enterprises, which are ranked according to the size of their foreign assets: that is, not according to their international sales, or their international visibility, but according to their level of foreign direct investment over time. Because of this method of ranking, as the report notes, "some well-known global digital giants, such as Amazon and Facebook, do not feature in the top 100. Neither do major telecom players, such as Verizon and AT&T, whose domestic assets and revenues are very large, but whose foreign businesses are relatively small." 

Thus, here's a picture of the tech and telecom companies in the UNCTAD top 100 list of multinational enterprises, and how the list has evolved in recent years. 
As the report explains (citations and parenthetical references to boxes and figures deleted):
"The fast rise of tech MNEs [multinational enterprises] represents one of the most noteworthy trends in the world of global megacorporations in recent years. This phenomenon has attracted increasing attention, not only at the research and policy levels, but also in the broader public. In 2010, the relevance of tech companies in the top 100 MNE ranking compiled by UNCTAD was still limited and not significantly different than 10 years earlier. From 2010 to 2015, in contrast, the number of tech companies in the ranking more than doubled, from 4 to 10, and their share in total assets and operating revenues followed a similar, and even more pronounced, trend . This growing weight results from a group of tech MNEs, mainly from the United States, entering the ranking. Some of these companies, such as Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft, are leading the digital revolution; others, such as Oracle, heavily rely on and benefit from the acceleration of the internet to deliver their value proposition. When including telecom MNEs, other important enablers of the digital economy, 19 MNEs in the top 100 are ICT companies – a sizeable portion of megacorporations. Tech megacorporations are enjoying exceptional growth momentum."
The statistics on foreign direct investment can be hard to disentangle, because ownership of foreign assets is an interconnected and overlapping network that can cross national borders multiple times. But the sheer magnitude of these flows--$1.8 trillion in FDI in 2016--compels attention. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Competition Issues in Seed and Agricultural Chemicals

The number of US public companies (that is, companies with stock traded on a public exchange and owned by those shareholders) has dropped by half in the last 20 years.  Part of the reason is a slowdown in the rate of start-ups; part is a rise in mergers and acquisitions of existing firms.  In the next few months, these forces will be playing themselves out in the markets for seeds and agricultural chemicals.  James M. MacDonald discusses one arena in which these forces are playing out in "Mergers and Competition in Seed and Agricultural Chemical Markets," published in Amber Waves from the US Department of Agriculture (April 3, 2017).

As MacDonald explains, the global economy currently has a "Big Six" of agricultural chemical companies. However, Dow Chemical and DuPont have announced a plan to merge, and Bayer has announced a plan to buy Monsanto, which would reduce the Big Six to the Big Four. At the same time, a state-owned Chinese chemical company called ChemChina has made an offer to buy Syngenta, another one of the Big Six. So here's the current industry, and the proposed transactions, in a table.

As MacDonald explains, the Big Six itself is a fairly recent development: "The “Big Six” emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, arising from mergers among large chemical, pharmaceutical, and seed
companies as well as from their acquisitions of many smaller seed and biotechnology companies. At the time, the future of integrated life sciences companies promised to use new developments in biotechnology to support work in human pharmaceuticals, seed genetics, and agricultural chemicals. That vision did not reach fruition, as the pharmaceutical businesses later separated from the
seed and agricultural chemical businesses." But now that the Big Six has happened, markets for specific seeds are not surprisingly quite concentrated. For example, here are four-firm concentration ratios (that is, the share of sales by the largest four firms) in US production of corn, cotton, and soybeans, for 2000 and 2015..

Bar chart

The standard set of arguments applies here. Firms involved in mergers always promise "synergies," and in particular, the promises here often argue for a more effective research and development effort. Those who buy the products are more worried that less competition will mean higher prices. 

In addition, it's not obvious that larger firms with higher profits will have a more aggressive R&D effort. As Sir John Hicks famously wrote, "The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life" (in "Annual Survey of Economic Theory: The Theory of Monopoly," Econometrica, January 1935, vol. 3, p. 8). Giant monopolies can often be slow to innovate, because why bother if your customers can't go anywhere else. MacDonald has a simple graph to illustrate this point:
Line chart
As MacDonald points out, a recent trend had been for antitrust authorities to express concerns that mergers would inhibit R&D. He writes:
"U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies rarely cited innovation concerns in merger challenges through the early 1990s, but they have been increasingly likely to do so since then and have introduced innovation concerns into merger challenges in agriculture. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the purchase of Precision Planting, LLC, by John Deere on the grounds that the acquisition would reduce innovation in high-speed planters. John Deere and Precision Planting, a unit of Monsanto, are the two major producers in this nascent industry. After many years of research, during 2014 each firm introduced high-speed planting systems that allow row crop farmers to substantially increase planting speeds at no cost in accuracy. While the Deere system was bundled into new planters, the Precision Planting product could be sold as a set of components and retrofitted onto existing planting equipment, including Deere’s. The Department argued that intense rivalry between the two led to improved prices for farmers and to the rapid introduction of innovative new features, and that the merger would eliminate that competition."
I can't claim to have made any intensive study of these proposed mergers. But when an industry is already quite concentrated and profitable, my bias is that proposals for further mergers should have some very high hurdles to cross. It will be interesting to see how the antitrust administrators under the Trump administration address this industry.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Interview with Janet Currie: Health, Liability, Overtreatment

Jessie Romero interviews Janet Currie on a range of topics in "Interview: Janet Currie," Econ Focus: Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, First Quarter 2017, pp. 23-36. Here are a few tidbits: 

Socioeconomic Status and Effects of Pollution
"There is a large environmental justice literature arguing that low-income and minority people are more likely to be exposed to a whole range of pollutants, and that turns out to be remarkably true for almost any pollutant I’ve looked at. A lot of that has to do with housing segregation; areas that have a lot of pollution are not very desirable to live in so they cost less, and people who don’t have a lot of money end up living there. It also seems to be the case, at least some of the time, that low-income people exposed to the same level of pollutants as higher-income people suffer more harm, because higher-income people can take measures to protect themselves. Think about air pollution. If I live in a polluted place but I have a relatively high income, maybe I have better-quality windows so I have less air coming in, or I can afford to have air purifiers, or I can afford to run my air conditioner. It could even be the case that lower-income people are more vulnerable to the effects of pollution in the first place. For example, someone who is malnourished is more likely to absorb lead than someone who is not malnourished. So people who are better nourished may be better able physiologically to protect themselves against the effects of pollutants."

Reform of Joint and Several Liability

"Joint and several liability, or JSL, is essentially the “deep pockets” rule: If multiple parties are found to be liable for the harm caused, the plaintiff can collect damages from one or all of the parties, regardless of how each one contributed to the harm. So people sue the deep pocket. A hospital is a good example. When Bentley MacLeod and I first started reading about tort cases related to malpractice during child delivery, one of the things that struck us as bizarre is that they often talked about the nurse: The nurse was sitting in the nurse’s station, she didn’t come when I called, she didn’t call the doctor. We wondered, why are they spending so much time talking about what the nurse did or didn’t do? Surely the doctor was the prime mover in deciding treatment? What we eventually realized was, the nurse is the employee of the hospital, whereas doctors are generally working as independent contractors; so if you want to blame the hospital — the deep pocket — you have to tie the nurse to the lawsuit. Most of the time, under JSL, the hospital gets sued and the doctor doesn’t. If the hospital pays, legally it can try to recover damages from the doctor, but they hardly ever do that. Essentially, under JSL, the doctors are working in a regime where they’re never going to get sued. JSL reform makes the payment of damages proportional to the contribution to the harm, which makes it more likely the doctor will be sued. And if the doctor is the decisionmaking agent, then in theory that should improve outcomes."
The Difference between Overprovision and Misallocation of Medical Care 
"Many people are concerned about overtreatment and excessive spending, but the problem is more subtle. Bentley, Jessica Van Parys, and I studied heart attack patients admitted to emergency rooms in Florida. We found large differences in how doctors allocated procedures across patients; some doctors were much less likely to use aggressive treatments with older or sicker patients who might have been deemed less appropriate candidates for the treatment. Young, male doctors who trained at a top-20 medical school were the most likely to treat all patients aggressively, regardless of how appropriate the patient seemed to be. In the case of heart attacks, it appears that all patients have better outcomes with more aggressive treatment, so treating only the “high-appropriateness” patients aggressively harms the “low-appropriateness” patients. Similarly, many people are concerned that U.S. doctors perform too many C-sections. But actually, in another paper, Bentley and I found that it looks like too many women with low-risk pregnancies receive C-sections, while not enough women with high-risk pregnancies receive C-sections. So the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to reduce the total number of C-sections but rather to reallocate them from low-risk to high-risk pregnancies."
A couple of add-ons here for interested readers: