Archives For Sykuta

An occasional reader brought to our attention a bill that is fast making its way through the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. The Small Company Disclosure Simplification Act (H.R. 4167) would exempt emerging growth companies and companies with annual gross revenue less than $250 million from using the eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) structure data format currently required for SEC filings. This would effect roughly 60% of publicly listed companies in the U.S.

XBRL makes it possible to easily extract financial data from electronic SEC filings using automated computer programs. Opponents of the bill (most of whom seem to make their living using XBRL to sell information to investors or assisting filing companies comply with the XBRL requirement) argue the bill will create a caste system of filers, harm the small companies the bill is intended to help, and harm investors (for example, see here and here). On pretty much every count, the critics are wrong. Here’s a point-by-point explanation of why:

1) Small firms will be hurt because they will have reduced access to capital markets because their data will be less accessible. — FALSE
The bill doesn’t prohibit small firms from using XBRL, it merely gives them the option to use it or not. If in fact small companies believe they are (or would be) disadvantaged in the market, they can continue filing just as they have been for at least the last two years. For critics to turn around and argue that small companies may choose to not use XBRL simply points out the fallacy of their claim that companies would be disadvantaged. The bill would basically give business owners and management the freedom to decide whether it is in fact in the company’s best interest to use the XBRL format. Therefore, there’s no reason to believe small firms will be hurt as claimed.

Moreover, the information disclosed by firms is no different under the bill–only the format in which it exists. There is no less information available to investors, it just makes it little less convenient to extract–particularly for the information service companies whose computer systems rely on XBRL to gather they data they sell to investors. More on this momentarily.

2) The costs of the current requirement are not as large as the bill’s sponsors claims.–IRRELEVANT AT BEST
According to XBRL US, an XBRL industry trade group, the cost of compliance ranges from $2,000 for small firms up to $25,000–per filing (or $8K to $100K per year). XBRL US goes on to claim those costs are coming down. Regardless whether the actual costs are the “tens of thousands of dollars a year” that bill sponsor Rep. Robert Hurt (VA-5) claims, the point is there are costs that are not clearly justified by any benefits of the disclosure format.

Moreover, if costs are coming down as claimed, then small businesses will be more likely to voluntarily use XBRL. In fact, the ability of small companies to choose NOT to file using XBRL will put competitive pressure on filing compliance companies to reduce costs even further in order to attract business, rather than enjoying a captive market of companies that have no choice.

3) Investors will be harmed because they will lose access to small company data.–FALSE
As noted above,investors will have no less information under the bill–they simply won’t be able to use automated programs to extract the information from the filings. Moreover, even if there was less information available, information asymmetry has long been a part of financial markets and markets are quite capable of dealing with such information asymmetry effectively in how prices are determined by investors and market-makers.  Paul Healy and Krishna Palepu (2001) provide an overview of the literature that shows markets are not only capable, but have an established history, of dealing with differences in information disclosure among firms. If any investors stand to lose, it would be current investors in small companies whose stocks could conceivably decrease in value if the companies choose not to use XBRL. Could. Conceivably. But with no evidence to suggest they would, much less that the effects would be large. To the extent large block holders and institutional investors perceive a potential negative effect, those investors also have the ability to influence management’s decision on whether to take advantage of the proposed exemption or to keep filing with the XBRL format.

The other potential investor harm critics point to with alarm is the prospect that small companies would be more likely and better able to engage in fraudulent reporting because regulators will not be able to as easily monitor the reports. Just one problem: the bill specifically requires the SEC to assess “the benefits to the Commission in terms of improved ability to monitor securities markets” of having the XBRL requirement. That will require the SEC to actively engage in monitoring both XBRL and non-XBRL filings in order to make that determination. So the threat of rampant fraud seems a tad bit overblown…certainly not what one critic described as “a massive regulatory loophole that a fraudulent company could drive an Enron-sized truck through.”

In the end, the bill before Congress would do nothing to change the kind of information that is made available to investors. It would create a more competitive market for companies who do choose to file using the XBRL structured data format, likely reducing the costs of that information format not only for small companies, but also for the larger companies that would still be required to use XBRL. By allowing smaller companies the freedom to choose what technical format to use in disclosing their data, the cost of compliance for all companies can be reduced. And that’s good for investors, capital formation, and the global competitiveness of US-based stock exchanges.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently scored a significant win against a Maryland banker accused of naked short-selling. What may be good news for the SEC is bad news for the market, as the SEC will now be more likely to persecute other alleged offenders of naked short-selling restrictions.

“Naked” short selling is when a trader sells stocks the trader doesn’t actually own (and doesn’t borrow in a prescribed period of time) in the hopes of buying the stocks later (before they must be delivered) at a lower price. The trader is basically betting that the stock price will decline. If it doesn’t, the trader must purchase the stock at a higher price–or breach their original sale contract.Some critics argue that such short-selling leads to market distortions and potential market manipulation, and some even pointed to short-selling as a boogey-man in the 2008 financial crisis, hence the restrictions on short-selling giving rise to the SEC’s enforcement proceedings.

Just one problem, there’s a lot of evidence that shows restrictions on short-selling make markets less efficient, not more.

This isn’t exactly news. Thom argued against short-selling restrictions seven years ago (here) and our late colleague, Larry Ribstein, followed up a couple years ago (here).  The empirical evidence just continues to pile in. Beber and Pagano, in the Journal of Finance earlier this year examine not just US restrictions on short-selling, but global restrictions. Their abstract reads:

Most regulators around the world reacted to the 2007–09 crisis by imposing bans on short selling. These were imposed and lifted at different dates in different countries, often targeted different sets of stocks, and featured varying degrees of stringency. We exploit this variation in short-sales regimes to identify their effects on liquidity, price discovery, and stock prices. Using panel and matching techniques, we find that bans (i) were detrimental for liquidity, especially for stocks with small capitalization and no listed options; (ii) slowed price discovery, especially in bear markets, and (iii) failed to support prices, except possibly for U.S. financial stocks.

So while the SEC may celebrate their prosecution victory, investors may have reason to be less enthusiastic.

Who’s Flying The Plane?

Michael Sykuta —  12 November 2012

It’s an appropriate question, both figuratively and literally. Today’s news headlines are now warning of a looming pilot shortage. A combination of new qualification standards for new pilots and a large percentage of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 is creating the prospect of having too few pilots for the US airline industry.

But it still begs the question of “Why?” According to the WSJ article linked above, the new regulations require newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience. What’s striking about that number is that it is six times the current requirement, significantly increasing the cost (and time) of training to be a pilot.

Why such a huge increase in training requirements? I don’t fly as often as some of my colleagues, but do fly often enough to be concerned that the person in the front of the plane knows what they’re doing. I appreciate the public safety concerns that must have been at the forefront of the regulatory debate. But the facts don’t support an argument that public safety is endangered by the current level of experience pilots are required to attain. Quite the contrary, the past decade has been among the safest ever for airline passengers. In fact, the WSJ reports that:

Congress’s 2010 vote to require 1,500 hours of experience in August 2013 came in the wake of several regional-airline accidents, although none had been due to pilots having fewer than 1,500 hours.

Indeed, to the extent human error has been involved in airline accidents and near misses over the past decade, federally employed air traffic controllers, not privately employed pilots, have been more to blame.

The coincidence of such a staggering increase in training requirements for new pilots and the impending mandatory retirement of a large percentage of current pilots suggests that perhaps other forces were at work behind the scenes when Congress passed the rules in 2010. Legislative proposals are often written by special interests just waiting in the wings (no pun intended) for an opportune moment. Given the downsizing and cost-reduction focus of the US airline industry over the past many years, no group has been more disadvantaged and no group stands more to gain from the new rules than current pilots and the pilots unions.

And so the question, as we face this looming shortage of newly qualified pilots: Who’s flying the plane?

 

As an economist, it’s inevitable that social friends ask my thoughts about current economic issues (at least it’s better than being asked for free legal advice). This weekend a friend commented about the “recovery that isn’t”, reflecting the public sense that the economy doesn’t seem to be doing as well as government reports (particularly unemployment reports) and some politicians make it out to be.

This morning I ran across a weekend article in the WSJ Online that reports on the broader unemployment rate by State in the U.S. In the article, Ben Casselman discusses the difference between the official unemployment rate, formally known as U3 (those who are not working but actively seeking work), and the broadest Labor Department measure, affectionately called U6, which includes people who want to work but are not actively looking and those who want full-time work but are working part-time jobs to make ends meet. Casselman shows how the difference in those measures sometimes reveals significant differences. Take Idaho, for instance, whose unemployment rate is below the national average, but whose U6 measure is above the national average, suggesting a disproportionately large number of people who want full-time work but are stuck with only part-time job opportunities or have given up looking.

This got me wondering just how the difference between U3 and U6 are behaving on a national level, so I went to the Dept of Labor’s website and downloaded both series going back to 1994, when U6 was first introduced.

US Unemployment and Underemployement, 1994-2012This figure shows U3 (seasonally adjusted, in blue) and the difference between U6 and U3 (i.e., underemployment, in red) for the past 18 years. As one would expect, the two are positively correlated. But a couple things stand out. First, while positively correlated, the degree of correlation before and after mid-2001 is very different. For the first eight years, the two track very closely; not so closely afterward.

Second, while unemployment has dropped 2% since hitting its peak of 10% in October 2009, the underemployment rate has barely moved, dropping from 7.2% in October 2009 to only 6.9% in September 2012. So, regardless of whether you buy Jack Welch’s conspiracy theory about the unemployment (U3) numbers being manipulated, it’s clear that there is a persistently large portion of the labor force–double what it had been in 2008–that is wanting full-time work and unable (or discouraged) to find it.

Which pretty well sums up, I believe, the disconnect between the numbers and the reality of the economy. Pointing to the official unemployment numbers masks the truth about the state of the labor market in the US and belies the economic malaise that persists.

Paul Fain has an interesting update today on the issue of two-tier pricing for California’s community college system. Santa Monica College rocked the boat in March when it announced plans to start using a two-tier pricing schedule that would charge higher tuition rates for high-demand courses.

Santa Monica–and most all community colleges in California apparently–have been slammed with would-be students looking to take classes that would help prepare them for better jobs or for further education and training (that would prepare them for better jobs).  The problem is that state funding for community colleges has been drastically reduced, thereby limiting the number of course offerings schools can offer at the subsidized tuition rate of $36 per credit hour. Santa Monica had the radical idea (well, radical for anyone that fails to understand economics, perhaps) of offering additional sections of high-demand courses, but at full-cost tuition rates (closer to $200 per credit hour).

Students protested. Faculty at other community colleges complained. Santa Monica College relented. So students don’t have to worry about paying more for courses they will not be able to take and faculty at other colleges don’t have to worry about the possibility of more students wanting to go to their schools because the overflow tuition at Santa Monica drives students to find substitutes. Well, that, and no more worries for those faculty at schools who charge even more than $200 for students to get those core courses that they cannot get into at their community college. It didn’t matter much anyhow, since most agreed that Santa Monica College’s proposal would have violated the law.

Now there is a proposal before the California legislature that would allow schools to implement two-tier pricing, but only for technical trade courses, not for high-demand general education-type courses.

Aside from complaints that “the state should be giving away education–even if they are not” (which are the most inane because they have nothing to do with the issue at hand), there are a few other arguments or positions offered that just cause one to scratch one’s head in wonder:

1) Fain reports that Michelle Pilati, president of the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges, asserted that “two-tiered tuition is unfair to lower-income students because it would open up classes to students who have the means to pay much more.” Apparently, Ms. Pilati would prefer all students have equal access to no education than to open up more spaces (to lower-income students) by opening up more spaces to higher-income students at higher prices. Gotcha.

2) The Board of Trustees at San Diego Community College seems to agree, having passed a resolution opposing the proposed legislation because it “would limit or exclude student access based solely on cost, causing inequities in the treatment of students”. Apparently the inequity of some students getting an education and some not is more noble because explicit out-of-pocket costs are not involved and other forms of rationing are used. And yet…

3) According to Fain,  Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University at Sacramento, asserts “wealthier students have a leg up when registering for courses. She said research has found that higher-income students generally have more ‘college knowledge’ that helps them navigate often-complex registration processes. That means wealthier students could more quickly snag spots in classes, getting the normal price, while their lower-income peers would be more likely to pay the higher rates under a two-tiered system.”

So, community colleges have created overly complex registration systems that disadvantage lower-income students. Yet, all that suggests is that the current system already punishes lower-income students because wealthier students can more easily “snag” the limited number of subsidized sections. Perhaps community colleges could make their enrollment processes less complex?

Regardless the fate of the “two-tier pricing” legislation, there is already a two-tier system in place; only the current two-tier plan prevents people from getting educations at any price.

Last month, the IRS and the US Treasury Department issued proposed rules to implement a new tax on health insurance providers and self-insured groups. The tax is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) and will be used to help fund the new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), which will conduct research evaluating and comparing health outcomes and the clinical effectiveness, risks and benefits of medical treatments. The proposed “comparative effectiveness research fee” will cost insurers $1 for every covered person (including dependents) in the first year and $2 in the following 6 years. The fee is scheduled to end by 2019.

Sounds reasonable on the surface. If the government is going to regulate health care, it makes sense that it would want to do research on what procedures are more or less effective so it can determine what procedures should or should not be covered under different circumstances. If that sounds a bit like rationing, it is. But it would be based on some standard of productivity. However, reasonable on the surface does not reasonable on the whole make.

One unanswered question is why the government needs to create an entire new federal agency to conduct comparative effectiveness research. One would think that private health insurance companies would already have an incentive to determine what procedures are most effective. This is also the kind of work that medical researchers engage in all the time (a quick Google Scholar search results in almost a half-million articles on “comparative effectiveness of medical treatment“). So it is quite likely that the federal government is simply recreating the wheel–a very expensive wheel–while adding costs to insurance providers. And when insurance providers’ costs go up, so do prices for healthcare coverage.

Of course, it is possible that the private insurance market is not currently doing this kind of research on comparative effectiveness of treatments and is ignoring the plethora of research in the medical journals. But if having that information could help those companies increase their profits by allowing them to direct patients to more effective treatments that reduce cost of coverage, why would they not use it?  If companies are not using this kind of information, there must be no economic incentive to do so. Which begs the question: why not?

A possible explanation is that the market for health insurance coverage has been protected from competitive pressures by the nature of the regulatory system. Although the market for insurance may seem like a national market, a maze of state-level regulations reduce the effective size of markets and increase the overall costs to insurance providers. Different regulatory processes and standards across states make it more difficult for insurance companies to operate across many states. This reduces competitive pressures between insurance providers. However, it doesn’t seem like a sufficient argument to support the idea that insurance companies regularly ignore information that would allow them to increase their profits, even if they were not competing as vigorously on prices.

Besides the motivation question, there is also a question of what the possible consequences of the new PCORI’s comparative research may be. At a minimum, one would expect that the government would begin dictating what procedures can or cannot be covered by federally-approved health care plans. While such a determination by an individual insurance company may lead to competitive behavior between providers offering different coverages, federally-established mandates will further reduce competition by limiting the margins (coverage options) on which insurers can compete.

It is also reasonable to suppose that a federally-approved list of  procedures will reduce the likelihood of innovation in treatment methods and practices by medical professionals. Reducing incentives to innovate will slow advances (and potential cost reductions) associated with possible new treatments. Having to get federal approval for new treatment options will do for treatments what the FDA has done for introduction of new pharmaceuticals (increasing costs, reducing the number of alternatives that reach clinical trials, and slowing the time to market).

The PCORI is mandated as part of the ACA. The ACA itself is a monstrosity of regulations to correct regulatory failures (part of the economic argument around the controversial mandate provisions now being reviewed by the US Supreme Court). The PCORI tax is just one more element of a regulatory response to regulation-induced market failures that is as likely to reduce health care options as to provide them.

An interesting story in the WSJ Online today about American International Group (AIG)’s use of a standard tax write-off and the political firestorm it is creating…all because the Washington establishment thought it could hide behind semantics during the bailout era.

The benefits at issue were accrued by AIG as it amassed record losses amid the financial crisis; the U.S. tax code allows businesses to “carry forward” such net operating losses to offset future tax obligations, in effect saving on future tax bills. But those carry-forwards can vanish if a company is taken over or sold, an exception that prevents healthy companies from avoiding taxes by buying firms with significant losses.

The criticism from the former members of the congressional panel stems from a series of Treasury determinations beginning in late 2008 that said the federal government’s bailout of AIG, General Motors Co. and other firms didn’t constitute a sale.

The US government acquired as much as 90% ownership in AIG during the bailout era. Under most any definition, such a shift would be considered a change in corporate control. However, because the Treasury Dept. wanted to maintain the illusion that government was not taking over large swaths of the US economy, it pronounced that these bailouts were not what any student of financial markets understood them to be: an exchange of equity control and strings on management for access to cash. In short, a sale of control.

Now the Treasury Department’s ruling is coming back to bite. Under the US tax code, AIG and its investors have a legal right to carry forward losses from the financial crisis to offset taxable earnings now. But now legal-scholar-turned-bureaucrat-turned-politician Elizabeth Warren, and others, want to change the rules after the fact. Warren is calling on Congress to “end this special tax break”. I’m not sure what exactly is so “special” about this tax break, since it applies to any business, not just those bailed out by the Feds. So is Warren suggesting all businesses should be prohibited from carrying forward losses? Or only businesses whose losses the Federal government wasn’t willing to tolerate in the first place? After all, if the Treasury had let nature take its course, AIG (and many other bailout recipients who are now wondering about their own ability to carry forward losses) would have been bought–albeit likely in pieces–and this whole issue would be moot.

What’s really interesting about this whole argument is that Treasury still holds 70%–a controlling interest–of AIG’s stock. AIG reported their beneficial tax breaks weeks ago. Presumably Treasury is paying attention to their investments and knew about that decision, possibly even before it was publicly released. So why didn’t they exercise their controlling interest and stop management from electing to use the carry forward? More importantly, Treasury is the “owner” that stands to gain the most from this tax benefit. So what exactly is Ms. Warren and others complaining about?

Either way, this is a mess of Treasury’s own making with its semantic gamesmanship on whether the bailout should be named for the government take-over that it was. Seems like we have a bit of non-buyer’s remorse.

Last week’s business news highlighted two tremendous subsidy programs. In one case, the company received no direct payment for product development. None of its suppliers received targeted subsidies to produce parts. But consumers were subsidized to encourage them to buy the product.

In the other case, the company received direct payments to underwrite the cost of product development, one of the company’s suppliers received an even larger subsidy to create critical components, and consumers were given subsidies to encourage them to buy the product.

One of those products is among the best selling products in the world. The other just halted production. The successful one was subsidized through private market transactions. The other was subsidized by the US government using taxpayer dollars.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I refer to the Apple iPhone and the Chevy Volt, respectively.

The irony of these twin tales is that they highlight the problems of subsidies in general, but particularly when the subsidy is used as a tool for the government to pick winners and losers in the market (i.e., industrial policy).

In the case of the iPhone, cellular phone companies subsidize the phone in the hope of being able to recoup those costs in the price of the service contracts that are bundled with the subsidized phones. Basically, the subsidy really amounts to nothing more than a marketing expense for the cell phone companies to expand their market share of (particularly data) service contracts. Cell phone carriers recognize that consumers value the features of the phone and are willing to take a loss on the phone to get the consumers locked into a service contract. The subsidy creates value all the way around, since the cellular companies would not offer the subsidy if they did not believe they could more than recoup the cost on the service contracts.

In the case of the Volt, the government had no concern for being able to break even. The motive was to unlevel the playing field by giving GM an (unfair?) advantage in developing an electric vehicle, whether compared to other electric vehicle manufacturers or to traditional combustion engines and recent hybrids. (Actually, according to the WSJ report, the Feds also subsidized Fisker Automotive’s Nina plug-in, which is also no longer in active production.) The problem is, consumers don’t want the product—even at the whoppingly-low, subsidized price of $40,000 per car. GM sold barely half of its originally target of 15,000 cars in 2011. The company has built up so much excess inventory that it shut down production and laid off 1,300 workers for a couple months, with the hope that consumers will eventually buy up the excess.

This doesn’t mean that private market “subsidies” are necessarily good either. As the WSJ reported, Apple is facing an uphill battle. As the market for contract cell service begins to get saturated, Apple finds itself unable to effectively compete in the non-contract market because it doesn’t have affordably-priced phones for that segment and cellular companies cannot (or simply will not) subsidize the iPhone if they can’t recoup the cost. Some investment fund managers have even grown leery of Apple because they see a rough road ahead as Apple tries to expand into LDC’s where non-contract phone plans dominate and consumers cannot afford the pricy iPhone.

As the WSJ headline indicates, subsidies provide a crutch for producers. In every case, over-reliance on the crutch will inhibit long-term growth and economic viability. The difference between privately-provided crutches and government-provided crutches is that the private sector market has a much stronger incentive to make sure the patient has a realistically good prognosis to begin with, rather than Washington’s knack for picking losers.

It seems President Obama has discovered a magical cure for his contraception controversy: simply force insurance companies to provide free coverage for contraceptive services, but only for women who work for organizations that qualify for exemption from the original mandate that requires contraceptive coverage be part of any respectable (i.e., Obama-approved) health plan. Never mind the whole religious liberty issue. I think that pales in comparison to the economic liberty argument against the mandates to begin with. But the President’s proposed solution should strike fear into the hearts of any person who likes to be paid for what they do.

The underlying premise of the Administration’s decision is that the federal government has the right to force people to give away the products and services they produce. If the government can force insurance companies to “give away” health care coverage to avoid a political embarrassment, what is to prevent the government from requiring other companies or industries to give away their products if such a mandate would be politically expedient? And more importantly, does Mr Obama really believe any company is going to simply write-off the cost of the “free” service and not cover it by raising the cost of other services? In essence, insurance companies will have incentive simply to raise the price of the health plans they offer to exemption-qualifying employers. Either way, the employer will pay for it. It just might not be listed on the receipt.

Or perhaps Mr. Obama plans to make the cost of the “free” contraceptive care a qualifying charitable contribution for health insurers, since it will only apply to non-profits.

What makes the proposed solution even more ludicrous is that health insurance companies neither manufacture nor deliver, in most cases, contraceptive pills. So why should insurance companies even be involved in this great giveaway? A more direct solution would be to require pharmaceutical manufacturers to give the pills away to begin with. Or to require pharmacies to distribute them for free to qualifying individuals.

Regardless of where one stands on women’s reproductive rights, women’s health or religious liberty, we all make our living by getting paid for what we do. The President’s mandate attempts to create something from nothing by forcing insurers to provide services without getting paid for them. That should violate the sensibilities of anyone who works for their pay.

That’s the title of an interesting article by Emmanuel Farhi and Jean Tirole in the current issue of the  American Economic Review. Here’s the abstract (emphasis added):

The article shows that time-consistent, imperfectly targeted support to distressed institutions makes private leverage choices strategic complements. When everyone engages in maturity mismatch, authorities have little choice but intervening, creating both current and deferred (sowing the seeds of the next crisis) social costs. In turn, it is profitable to adopt a risky balance sheet. These insights have important consequences, from banks choosing to correlate their risk exposures to the need for macro-prudential supervision.