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Michael Sykuta is Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Director, Contracting Organizations Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

The US agriculture sector has been experiencing consolidation at all levels for decades, even as the global ag economy has been growing and becoming more diverse. Much of this consolidation has been driven by technological changes that created economies of scale, both at the farm level and beyond.

Likewise, the role of technology has changed the face of agriculture, particularly in the past 20 years since the commercial introduction of the first genetically modified (GMO) crops. However, biotechnology itself comprises only a portion of the technology change. The development of global positioning systems (GPS) and GPS-enabled equipment have created new opportunities for precision agriculture, whether for the application of crop inputs, crop management, or yield monitoring. The development of unmanned and autonomous vehicles and remote sensing technologies, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. UAVs, or “drones”), have created new opportunities for field scouting, crop monitoring, and real-time field management. And currently, the development of Big Data analytics is promising to combine all of the different types of data associated with agricultural production in ways intended to improve the application of all the various technologies and to guide production decisions.

Now, with the pending mergers of several major agricultural input and life sciences companies, regulators are faced with a challenge: How to evaluate the competitive effects of such mergers in the face of such a complex and dynamic technology environment—particularly when these technologies are not independent of one another? What is the relevant market for considering competitive effects and what are the implications for technology development? And how does the nature of the technology itself implicate the economic efficiencies underlying these mergers?

Before going too far, it is important to note that while the three cases currently under review (i.e., ChemChina/Syngenta, Dow/DuPont, and Bayer/Monsanto) are frequently lumped together in discussions, the three present rather different competitive cases—particularly within the US. For instance, ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta will not, in itself, meaningfully change market concentration. However, financial backing from ChemChina may allow Syngenta to buy up the discards from other deals, such as the parts of DuPont that the EU Commission is requiring to be divested or the seed assets Bayer is reportedly looking to sell to preempt regulatory concerns, as well as other smaller competitors.

Dow-DuPont is perhaps the most head-to-head of the three mergers in terms of R&D and product lines. Both firms are in the top five in the US for pesticide manufacturing and for seeds. However, the Dow-DuPont merger is about much more than combining agricultural businesses. The Dow-DuPont deal specifically aims to create and spin-off three different companies specializing in agriculture, material science, and specialty products. Although agriculture may be the business line in which the companies most overlap, it represents just over 21% of the combined businesses’ annual revenues.

Bayer-Monsanto is yet a different sort of pairing. While both companies are among the top five in US pesticide manufacturing (with combined sales less than Syngenta and about equal to Dow without DuPont), Bayer is a relatively minor player in the seed industry. Likewise, Monsanto is focused almost exclusively on crop production and digital farming technologies, offering little overlap to Bayer’s human health or animal nutrition businesses.

Despite the differences in these deals, they tend to be lumped together and discussed almost exclusively in the context of pesticide manufacturing or crop protection more generally. In so doing, the discussion misses some important aspects of these deals that may mitigate traditional competitive concerns within the pesticide industry.

Mergers as the Key to Unlocking Innovation and Value

First, as the Dow-DuPont merger suggests, mergers may be the least-cost way of (re)organizing assets in ways that maximize value. This is especially true for R&D-intensive industries where intellectual property and innovation are at the core of competitive advantage. Absent the protection of common ownership, neither party would have an incentive to fully disclose the nature of its IP and innovation pipeline. In this case, merging interests increases the efficiency of information sharing so that managers can effectively evaluate and reorganize assets in ways that maximize innovation and return on investment.

Dow and DuPont each have a wide range of areas of application. Both groups of managers recognize that each of their business lines would be stronger as focused, independent entities; but also recognize that the individual elements of their portfolios would be stronger if combined with those of the other company. While the EU Commission argues that Dow-DuPont would reduce the incentive to innovate in the pesticide industry—a dubious claim in itself—the commission seems to ignore the potential increases in efficiency, innovation and ability to serve customer interests across all three of the proposed new businesses. At a minimum, gains in those industries should be weighed against any alleged losses in the agriculture industry.

This is not the first such agricultural and life sciences “reorganization through merger”. The current manifestation of Monsanto is the spin-off of a previous merger between Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn in 2000 that created today’s Pharmacia. At the time of the Pharmacia transaction, Monsanto had portfolios in agricultural products, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. After reorganizing assets within Pharmacia, three business lines were created: agricultural products (the current Monsanto), pharmaceuticals (now Pharmacia, a subsidiary of Pfizer), and chemicals (now Solutia, a subsidiary of Eastman Chemical Co.). Merging interests allowed Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn to create more focused business lines that were better positioned to pursue innovations and serve customers in their respective industries.

In essence, Dow-DuPont is following the same playbook. Although such intentions have not been announced, Bayer’s broad product portfolio suggests a similar long-term play with Monsanto is likely.

Interconnected Technologies, Innovation, and the Margins of Competition

As noted above, regulatory scrutiny of these three mergers focuses on them in the context of pesticide or agricultural chemical manufacturing. However, innovation in the ag chemicals industry is intricately interwoven with developments in other areas of agricultural technology that have rather different competition and innovation dynamics. The current technological wave in agriculture involves the use of Big Data to create value using the myriad data now available through GPS-enabled precision farming equipment. Monsanto and DuPont, through its Pioneer subsidiary, are both players in this developing space, sometimes referred to as “digital farming”.

Digital farming services are intended to assist farmers’ production decision making and increase farm productivity. Using GPS-coded field maps that include assessments of soil conditions, combined with climate data for the particular field, farm input companies can recommend the types of rates of applications for soil conditioning pre-harvest, seed types for planting, and crop protection products during the growing season. Yield monitors at harvest provide outcomes data for feedback to refine and improve the algorithms that are used in subsequent growing seasons.

The integration of digital farming services with seed and chemical manufacturing offers obvious economic benefits for farmers and competitive benefits for service providers. Input manufacturers have incentive to conduct data analytics that individual farmers do not. Farmers have limited analytic resources and relatively small returns to investing in such resources, while input manufacturers have broad market potential for their analytic services. Moreover, by combining data from a broad cross-section of farms, digital farming service companies have access to the data necessary to identify generalizable correlations between farm plot characteristics, input use, and yield rates.

But the value of the information developed through these analytics is not unidirectional in its application and value creation. While input manufacturers may be able to help improve farmers’ operations given the current stock of products, feedback about crop traits and performance also enhances R&D for new product development by identifying potential product attributes with greater market potential. By combining product portfolios, agricultural companies can not only increase the value of their data-driven services for farmers, but more efficiently target R&D resources to their highest potential use.

The synergy between input manufacturing and digital farming notwithstanding, seed and chemical input companies are not the only players in the digital farming space. Equipment manufacturer John Deere was an early entrant in exploiting the information value of data collected by sensors on its equipment. Other remote sensing technology companies have incentive to develop data analytic tools to create value for their data-generating products. Even downstream companies, like ADM, have expressed interest in investing in digital farming assets that might provide new revenue streams with their farmer-suppliers as well as facilitate more efficient specialty crop and identity-preserved commodity-based value chains.

The development of digital farming is still in its early stages and is far from a sure bet for any particular player. Even Monsanto has pulled back from its initial foray into prescriptive digital farming (call FieldScripts). These competitive forces will affect the dynamics of competition at all stages of farm production, including seed and chemicals. Failure to account for those dynamics, and the potential competitive benefits input manufacturers may provide, could lead regulators to overestimate any concerns of competitive harm from the proposed mergers.


Farmers are concerned about the effects of these big-name tie-ups. Farmers may be rightly concerned, but for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, the role of the farmer continues to be diminished in the agricultural value chain. As precision agriculture tools and Big Data analytics reduce the value of idiosyncratic or tacit knowledge at the farm level, the managerial human capital of farmers becomes relatively less important in terms of value-added. It would be unwise to confuse farmers’ concerns regarding the competitive effects of the kinds of mergers we’re seeing now with the actual drivers of change in the agricultural value chain.

I received word today that Douglass North passed away yesterday at the age of 95 (obit here). Professor North shared the Nobel Prize in Economic with Robert Fogel in 1993 for his work in economic history on the role of institutions in shaping economic development and performance.

Doug was one of my first professors in graduate school at Washington University. Many of us in our first year crammed into Doug’s economic history class for fear that he might retire and we not get the chance to study under him. Little did we expect that he would continue teaching into his DoughNorth_color_300-doc80s. The text for our class was the pre-publication manuscript of his book, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Doug’s course offered an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional neoclassical microeconomics course for first-year PhD students. His work challenged the simplifying assumptions of the neoclassical system and shed a whole new light on understanding economic history, development and performance. I still remember that day in October 1993 when the department was abuzz with the announcement that Doug had received the Nobel Prize. It was affirming and inspiring.

As I started work on my dissertation, I had hoped to incorporate a historical component on the early development of crude oil futures trading in the 1930s so I could get Doug involved on my committee. Unfortunately, there was not enough information still available to provide any analysis (there was one news reference to a new crude futures exchange, but nothing more–and the historical records of the NY Mercantile Exchange had been lost in a fire).and I had to focus solely on the deregulatory period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember joking at one of our economic history workshops that I wasn’t sure if it counted as economic history since it happened during Doug’s lifetime.

Doug was one of the founding conspirators for the International Society for New Institutional Economics (now the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics) in 1997, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson. Although the three had strong differences of opinions concerning certain aspects of their respective theoretical approaches, they understood the generally complementary nature of their work and its importance not just for the economic profession, but for understanding how societies and organizations perform and evolve and the role institutions play in that process.

The opportunity to work around these individuals, particularly with North and Coase, strongly shaped and influenced my understanding not only of economics, but of why a broader perspective of economics is so important for understanding the world around us. That experience profoundly affected my own research interests and my teaching of economics. Some of Doug’s papers continue to play an important role in courses I teach on economic policy. Students, especially international students, continue to be inspired by his explanation of the roles of institutions, how they affect markets and societies, and the forces that lead to institutional change.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the States, Doug’s passing is a reminder of how much I have to be thankful for over my career. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to know and to work with Doug. I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to bring him to Mizzou in 2003 for our CORI Seminar series, at which he spoke on Understanding the Process of Economic Change (the title of his next book at the time). And I’m especially thankful for the influence he had on my understanding of economics and that his ideas will continue to shape economic thinking and economic policy for years to come.

Our TOTM colleague Dan Crane has written a few posts here over the past year or so about attempts by the automobile dealers lobby (and General Motors itself) to restrict the ability of Tesla Motors to sell its vehicles directly to consumers (see here, here and here). Following New Jersey’s adoption of an anti-Tesla direct distribution ban, more than 70 lawyers and economists–including yours truly and several here at TOTM–submitted an open letter to Gov. Chris Christie explaining why the ban is bad policy.

Now it seems my own state of Missouri is getting caught up in the auto dealers’ ploy to thwart pro-consumer innovation and competition. Legislation (HB1124) that was intended to simply update statutes governing the definition, licensing and use of off-road and utility vehicles got co-opted at the last minute in the state Senate. Language was inserted to redefine the term “franchisor” to include any automobile manufacturer, regardless whether they have any franchise agreements–in direct contradiction to the definition used throughout the rest of the surrounding statues. The bill defines a “franchisor” as:

“any manufacturer of new motor vehicles which establishes any business location or facility within the state of Missouri, when such facilities are used by the manufacturer to inform, entice, or otherwise market to potential customers, or where customer orders for the manufacturer’s new motor vehicles are placed, received, or processed, whether or not any sales of such vehicles are finally consummated, and whether or not any such vehicles are actually delivered to the retail customer, at such business location or facility.”

In other words, it defines a franchisor as a company that chooses to open it’s own facility and not franchise. The bill then goes on to define any facility or business location meeting the above criteria as a “new motor vehicle dealership,” even though no sales or even distribution may actually take place there. Since “franchisors” are already forbidden from owning a “new motor vehicle dealership” in Missouri (a dubious restriction in itself), these perverted definitions effectively ban a company like Tesla from selling directly to consumers.

The bill still needs to go back to the Missouri House of Representatives, where it started out as addressing “laws regarding ‘all-terrain vehicles,’ ‘recreational off-highway vehicles,’ and ‘utility vehicles’.”

This is classic rent-seeking regulation at its finest, using contrived and contorted legislation–not to mention last-minute, underhanded legislative tactics–to prevent competition and innovation that, as General Motors itself pointed out, is based on a more economically efficient model of distribution that benefits consumers. Hopefully the State House…or the Governor…won’t be asleep at the wheel as this legislation speeds through the final days of the session.

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.