Archives For truth on the market

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Daniel Takash,(Regulatory policy fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the manager of Niskanen’s Captured Economy Project, https://capturedeconomy.com, and you can follow him @danieltakash or @capturedecon).]

The pharmaceutical industry should be one of the most well-regarded industries in America. It helps bring drugs to market that improve, and often save, people’s lives. Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular– trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government. The opioid crisis dominated the headlines for the past few years, but the high price of drugs is a top-of-mind issue that generates significant animosity toward the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of high drug prices are felt not just at every trip to the pharmacy, but also by those who are priced out of life-saving treatments. Many Americans simply can’t afford what their doctors prescribe. The pharmaceutical industry helps save lives, but it’s also been credibly accused of anticompetitive behavior–not just from generics, but even other brand manufacturers.

These extraordinary times are an opportunity to right the ship. AbbVie, roundly criticized for building a patent thicket around Humira, has donated its patent rights to a promising COVID-19 treatment. This is to be celebrated– yet pharma’s bad reputation is defined by its worst behaviors and the frequent apologetics for overusing the patent system. Hopefully corporate social responsibility will prevail, and such abuses will cease in the future.

The most effective long-term treatment for COVID-19 will be a vaccine. We also need drugs to treat those afflicted with COVID-19 to improve recovery and lower mortality rates for those that get sick before a vaccine is developed and widely available. This requires rapid drug development through effective public-private partnerships to bring these treatments to market.

Without a doubt, these solutions will come from the pharmaceutical industry. Increased funding for the National Institutes for Health, nonprofit research institutions, and private pharmaceutical researchers are likely needed to help accelerate the development of these treatments. But we must be careful to ensure whatever necessary upfront public support is given to these entities results in a fair trade-off for Americans. The U.S. taxpayer is one of the largest investors in early to mid-stage drug research, and we need to make sure that we are a good investor.

Basic research into the costs of drug development, especially when taxpayer subsidies are involved, is a necessary start. This is a feature of the We PAID Act, introduced by Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Medicine to figure the reasonable price of drugs developed with taxpayer support. This reasonable price would include a suitable reward to the private companies that did the important work of finishing drug development and gaining FDA approval. This is important, as setting a price too low would reduce investments in indispensable research and development. But this must be balanced with the risk of using patents to charge prices above and beyond those necessary to finance research, development, and commercialization.

A little sunshine can go a long way. We should trust that pharmaceutical companies will develop a vaccine and treatments or coronavirus, but we must also verify these are affordable and accessible through public scrutiny. Take the drug manufacturer Gilead Science’s about-face on its application for orphan drug status on the possible COVID-19 treatment remdesivir. Remedesivir, developed in part with public funds and already covered by three Gilead patents, technically satisfied the definition of “orphan drug,” as COVID-19 (at the time of the application) afflicted fewer than 200,000 patents. In a pandemic that could infect tens of millions of Americans, this designation is obviously absurd, and public outcry led to Gilead to ask the FDA to rescind the application. Gilead claimed it sought the designation to speed up FDA review, and that might be true. Regardless, public attention meant that the FDA will give Gilead’s drug Remdesivir expedited review without Gilead needing a designation that looks unfair to the American people.

The success of this isolated effort is absolutely worth celebrating. But we need more research to better comprehend the pharmaceutical industry’s needs, and this is just what the study provisions of We PAID would provide.

There is indeed some existing research on this front. For example,the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) estimates it costs an average of $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market, and research from the Journal of the American Medical Association finds this average to be closer to $1.3 billion, with the median cost of development to be $985 million.

But a thorough analysis provided under We PAID is the best way for us to fully understand just how much support the pharmaceutical industry needs, and just how successful it has been thus far. The NIH, one of the major sources of publicly funded research, invests about $41.7 billion annually in medical research. We need to better understand how these efforts link up, and how the torch is passed from public to private efforts.

Patents are essential to the functioning of the pharmaceutical industry by incentivizing drug development through temporary periods of exclusivity. But it is equally essential, in light of the considerable investment already made by taxpayers in drug research and development, to make sure we understand the effects of these incentives and calibrate them to balance the interests of patients and pharmaceutical companies. Most drugs require research funding from both public and private sources as well as patent protection. And the U.S. is one of the biggest investors of drug research worldwide (even compared to drug companies), yet Americans pay the highest prices in the world. Are these prices justified, and can we improve patent policy to bring these costs down without harming innovation?

Beyond a thorough analysis of drug pricing, what makes We PAID one of the most promising solutions to the problem of excessively high drug prices are the accountability mechanisms included. The bill, if made law, would establish a Drug Access and Affordability Committee. The Committee would use the methodology from the joint HHS and NAM study to determine a reasonable price for affected drugs (around 20 percent of drugs currently on the market, if the bill were law today). Any companies that price drugs granted exclusivity by a patent above the reasonable price would lose their exclusivity.

This may seem like a price control at first blush, but it isn’t–for two reasons. First, this only applies to drugs developed with taxpayer dollars, which any COVID-19 treatments or cures almost certainly would be considering the $785 million spent by the NIH since 2002 researching coronaviruses. It’s an accountability mechanism that would ensure the government is getting its money’s worth. This tool is akin to ensuring that a government contractor is not charging more than would be reasonable, lest it loses its contract.

Second, it is even less stringent than pulling a contract with a private firm overcharging the government for the services provided. Why? Losing a patent does not mean losing the ability to make a drug, or any other patented invention for that matter.This basic fact is often lost in the patent debate, but it cannot be stressed enough.

If patents functioned as licenses, then every patent expiration would mean another product going off the market. In reality, that means that any other firm can compete and use the patented design. Even if a firm violated the price regulations included in the bill and lost its patent, it could continue manufacturing the drug. And so could any other firm, bringing down prices for all consumers by opening up market competition.

The We PAID Act could be a dramatic change for the drug industry, and because of that many in Congress may want to first debate the particulars of the bill. This is fine, assuming  this promising legislation isn’t watered down beyond recognition. But any objections to the Drug Affordability and Access Committee and reasonable pricing regulations aren’t an excuse to not, at a bare minimum, pass the study included in the bill as part of future coronavirus packages, if not sooner. It is an inexpensive way to get good information in a single, reputable source that would allow us to shape good policy.

Good information is needed for good policy. When the government lays the groundwork for future innovations by financing research and development, it can be compared to a venture capitalist providing the financing necessary for an innovative product or service. But just like in the private sector, the government should know what it’s getting for its (read: taxpayers’) money and make recipients of such funding accountable to investors.

The COVID-19 outbreak will be the most pressing issue for the foreseeable future, but determining how pharmaceuticals developed with public research are priced is necessary in good times and bad. The final prices for these important drugs might be fair, but the public will never know without a trusted source examining this information. Trust, but verify. The pharmaceutical industry’s efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic might be the first step to improving Americans’ relationship with the industry. But we need good information to make that happen. Americans need to know when they are being treated fairly, and that policymakers are able to protect them when they are treated unfairly. The government needs to become a better-informed investor, and that won’t happen without something like the We PAID Act.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Jacob Grier, (Freelance writer and spirits consultant in Portland, Oregon, and the author of The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette).]

The COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of many public-facing businesses has resulted in many sudden shifts in demand for common goods. The demand for hand sanitizer has drastically increased for hospitals, businesses, and individuals. At the same time, demand for distilled spirits has fallen substantially, as the closure of bars, restaurants, and tasting rooms has cut craft distillers off from their primary buyers. Since ethanol is a key ingredient in both spirits and sanitizer, this situation presents an obvious opportunity for distillers to shift their production from the former to the latter. Hundreds of distilleries have made this transition, but it has not without obstacles. Some of these reflect a real scarcity of needed supplies, but other constraints have been externally imposed by government regulations and the tax code.

Producing sanitizer

The World Health Organization provides guidelines and recipes for locally producing hand sanitizer. The relevant formulation for distilleries calls for only four ingredients: high-proof ethanol (96%), hydrogen peroxide (3%), glycerol (98%), and sterile distilled or boiled water. Distilleries are well-positioned to produce or obtain ethanol and water. Glycerol is used in only small amounts and does not currently appear to be a substantial constraint on production. Hydrogen peroxide is harder to come by, but distilleries are adapting and cooperating to ensure supply. Skip Tognetti, owner of Letterpress Distilling in Seattle, Washington, reports that one local distiller obtained a drum of 34% hydrogen peroxide, which stretches a long way when diluted to a concentration of 3%. Local distillers have been sharing this drum so that they can all produce sanitizer.

Another constraint is finding containers in which to the put the finished product. Not all containers are suitable for holding high-proof alcoholic solutions, and supplies of those that are recommended for sanitizer are scarce. The fact that many of these bottles are produced in China has reportedly also limited the supply. Distillers are therefore having to get creative; Tognetti reports looking into shampoo bottles, and in Chicago distillers have re-purposed glass beer growlers. For informal channels, some distillers have allowed consumers to bring their own containers to fill with sanitizer for personal use. Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements have also prevented the use of travel-size bottles, since the bottles are too small to display the necessary information.

The raw materials for producing ethanol are also coming from some unexpected sources. Breweries are typically unable to produce alcohol at high enough proof for sanitizer, but multiple breweries in Chicago are donating beer that distilleries can bring up to the required purity. Beer giant Anheuser-Busch is also producing sanitizer with the ethanol removed from its alcohol-free beers.

In many cases, the sanitizer is donated or sold at low-cost to hospitals and other essential services, or to local consumers. Online donations have helped to fund some of these efforts, and at least one food and beverage testing lab has stepped up to offer free testing to breweries and distilleries producing sanitizer to ensure compliance with WHO guidelines. Distillers report that the regulatory landscape has been somewhat confusing in recent weeks, and posts in a Facebook group have provided advice for how to get through the FDA’s registration process. In general, distillers going through the process report that agencies have been responsive. Tom Burkleaux of New Deal Distilling in Portland, Oregon says he “had to do some mighty paperwork,” but that the FDA and the Oregon Board of Pharmacy were both quick to process applications, with responses coming in just a few hours or less.

In general, the redirection of craft distilleries to producing hand sanitizer is an example of private businesses responding to market signals and the evident challenges of the health crisis to produce much-needed goods; in some cases, sanitizer represents one of their only sources of revenue during the shutdown, providing a lifeline for small businesses. The Distilled Spirits Council currently lists nearly 600 distilleries making sanitizer in the United States.

There is one significant obstacle that has hindered the production of sanitizer, however: an FDA requirement that distilleries obtain extra ingredients to denature their alcohol.

Denaturing sanitizer

According to the WHO, the four ingredients mentioned above are all that are needed to make sanitizer. In fact, WHO specifically notes that it in most circumstances it is inadvisable to add anything else: “it is not recommended to add any bittering agents to reduce the risk of ingestion of the handrubs” except in cases where there is a high probably of accidental ingestion. Further, “[…] there is no published information on the compatibility and deterrent potential of such chemicals when used in alcohol-based handrubs to discourage their abuse. It is important to note that such additives may make the products toxic and add to production costs.”

Denaturing agents are used to render alcohol either too bitter or too toxic to consume, deterring abuse by adults or accidental ingestion by children. In ordinary circumstances, there are valid reasons to denature sanitizer. In the current pandemic, however, the denaturing requirement is a significant bottleneck in production.

The federal Tax and Trade Bureau is the primary agency regulating alcohol production in the United States. The TTB took action early to encourage distilleries to produce sanitizer, officially releasing guidance on March 18 instructing them that they are free to commence production without prior authorization or formula approval, so long as they are making sanitizer in accordance with WHO guidelines. On March 23, the FDA issued its own emergency authorization of hand sanitizer production; unlike the WHO, FDA guidance does require the use of denaturants. As a result, on March 26 the TTB issued new guidance to be consistent with the FDA.

Under current rules, only sanitizer made with denatured alcohol is exempt from the federal excise tax on beverage alcohol. Federal excise taxes begin at $2.70 per gallon for low-volume distilleries and reach up to $13.50 per gallon, significantly increasing the cost of producing hand sanitizer; state excise taxes can raise these costs even higher.

More importantly, denaturing agents are scarce. In a Twitter thread on March 25, Tognetti noted the difficulty of obtaining them:

To be clear, if I didn’t have to track down denaturing agents (there are several, but isopropyl alcohol is the most common), I could turn out 200 gallons of finished hand sanitizer TODAY.

(As an additional concern, the Distilled Spirits Council notes that the extremely bitter or toxic nature of denaturing agents may impose additional costs on distillers given the need to thoroughly cleanse them from their equipment.)

Congress attempted to address these concerns in the CARES Act, the coronavirus relief package. Section 2308 explicitly waives the federal excise tax on distilled spirits used for the production of sanitizer, however it leaves the formula specification in the hands of the FDA. Unless the agency revises its guidance, production in the US will be constrained by the requirement to add denaturing agents to the plentiful supply of ethanol, or distilleries will risk being targeted with enforcement actions if they produce perfectly usable sanitizer without denaturing their alcohol.

Local distilleries provide agile production capacity

In recent days, larger spirits producers including Pernod-Ricard, Diageo, and Bacardi have announced plans to produce sanitizer. Given their resources and economies of scale, they may end up taking over a significant part of the market. Yet small, local distilleries have displayed the agility necessary to rapidly shift production. It’s worth noting that many of these distilleries did not exist until fairly recently. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, there were fewer than 100 craft distilleries operating in the United States in 2005. By 2018, there were more than 1,800. This growth is the result of changing consumer interests, but also the liberalization of state and local laws to permit distilleries and tasting rooms. That many of these distilleries have the capacity to produce sanitizer in a time of emergency is a welcome, if unintended, consequence of this liberalization.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Tim Brennan, (Professor, Economics & Public Policy, University of Maryland; former FCC; former FTC).]

Thinking about how to think about the coronavirus situation I keep coming back to three economic ideas that seem distinct but end up being related. First, a back of the envelope calculation suggests shutting down the economy for a while to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This leads to my second point, that political viability, if not simple fairness, dictates that the winners compensate the losers. The extent of both of these forces my main point, to understand why we can’t just “get the prices right” and let the market take care of it. Insisting that the market works in this situation could undercut the very strong arguments for why we should defer to markets in the vast majority of circumstances.

Is taking action worth it?

The first question is whether shutting down the economy to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is a good bet. Being an economist, I turn to benefit-cost analysis (BCA). All I can offer here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, which may be an insult to envelopes. (This paper has a more serious calculation with qualitatively similar findings.) With all caveats recognized, the willingness to pay of an average person in the US to social distancing and closure policies, WTP, is

        WTP = X% times Y% times VSL,

where X% is the fraction of the population that might be seriously affected, Y% is the reduction in the likelihood of death for this population from these policies, and VSL is the “value of statistical life” used in BCA calculations, in the ballpark of $9.5M.

For X%, take the percentage of the population over 65 (a demographic including me). This is around 16%. I’m not an epidemiologist, so for Y%, the reduced likelihood of death (either from reduced transmission or reduced hospital overload), I can only speculate. Say it’s 1%, which naively seems pretty small. Even with that, the average willingness to pay would be

        WTP = 16% times 1% times $9.5M = $15,200.

Multiply that by a US population of roughly 330M gives a total national WTP of just over $5 trillion, or about 23% of GDP. Using conventional measures, this looks like a good trade in an aggregate benefit-cost sense, even leaving out willingness to pay to reduce the likelihood of feeling sick and the benefits to those younger than 65. Of course, among the caveats is not just whether to impose distancing and closures, but how long to have them (number of weeks), how severe they should be (gathering size limits, coverage of commercial establishments), and where they should be imposed (closing schools, colleges).  

Actual, not just hypothetical, compensation

The justification for using BCA is that the winners could compensate the losers. In the coronavirus setting, the equity considerations are profound. Especially when I remember that GDP is not a measure of consumer surplus, I ask myself how many months of the disruption (and not just lost wages) from unemployment should low-income waiters, cab drivers, hotel cleaners, and the like bear to reduce my over-65 likelihood of dying. 

Consequently, an important component of this policy to respect equity and quite possibly obtaining public acceptance is that the losers be compensated. In that respect, the justification for packages such as the proposal working (as I write) through Congress is not stimulus—after all, it’s  harder to spend money these days—as much as compensating those who’ve lost jobs as a result of this policy. Stimulus can come when the economy is ready to be jump-started.

Markets don’t always work, perhaps like now 

This brings me to a final point—why is this a public policy matter? My answer to almost any policy question is the glib “just get the prices right and the market will take care of it.” That doesn’t seem all that popular now. Part of that is the politics of fairness: Should the wealthy get the ventilators? Should hoarding of hand sanitizer be rewarded? But much of it may be a useful reminder that markets do not work seamlessly and instantaneously, and may not be the best allocation mechanism in critical times.

That markets are not always best should be a familiar theme to TOTM readers. The cost of using markets is the centerpiece for Ronald Coase’s 1937 Nature of the Firm and 1960 Problem of Social Cost justification for allocation through the courts. Many of us, including me on TOTM, have invoked these arguments to argue against public interventions in the structure of firms, particularly antitrust actions regarding vertical integration. Another common theme is that the common law tends toward efficiency because of the market-like evolutionary processes in property, tort, and contract case law.

This perspective is a useful reminder that the benefits of markets should always be “compared to what?” In one familiar case, the benefits of markets are clear when compared to the snail’s pace, limited information, and political manipulability of administrative price setting. But when one is talking about national emergencies and the inelastic demands, distributional consequences, and the lack of time for the price mechanism to work its wonders, one can understand and justify the use of the plethora of mandates currently imposed or contemplated. 

The common law also appears not to be a good alternative. One can imagine the litigation nightmare if everyone who got the virus attempted to identify and sue some defendant for damages. A similar nightmare awaits if courts were tasked with determning how the risk of a pandemic would have been allocated were contracts ideal.

Much of this may be belaboring the obvious. My concern is that if those of us who appreciate the virtues of markets exaggerate their applicability, those skeptical of markets may use this episode to say that markets inherently fail and more of the economy should be publicly administered. Better to rely on facts rather than ideology, and to regard the current situation as the awful but justifiable exception that proves the general rule.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ramsi Woodcock, (Assistant Professor of Law, University of Kentucky; Assistant Professor of Management, Gatton College of Business and Economics).]

Specialists know that the antitrust courses taught in law schools and economics departments have an alter ego in business curricula: the course on business strategy. The two courses cover the same material, but from opposite perspectives. Antitrust courses teach how to end monopolies; strategy courses teach how to construct and maintain them.

Strategy students go off and run businesses, and antitrust students go off and make government policy. That is probably the proper arrangement if the policy the antimonopolists make is domestic. We want the domestic economy to run efficiently, and so we want domestic policymakers to think about monopoly—and its allocative inefficiencies—as something to be discouraged.

The coronavirus, and the shortages it has caused, have shown us that putting the antimonopolists in charge of international policy is, by contrast, a very big mistake.

Because we do not yet have a world government. America’s position, in relation to the rest of the world, is therefore more akin to that of a business navigating a free market than it is to a government seeking to promote efficient interactions among the firms that it governs. To flourish, America must engage in international trade with a view to creating and maintaining monopoly positions for itself, rather than eschewing them in the interest of realizing efficiencies in the global economy. Which is to say: we need strategists, not antimonopolists.

For the global economy is not America, and there is no guarantee that competitive efficiencies will redound to America’s benefit, rather than to those of her competitors. Absent a world government, other countries will pursue monopoly regardless what America does, and unless America acts strategically to build and maintain economic power, America will eventually occupy a position of commercial weakness, with all of the consequences for national security that implies.

When Antimonopolists Make Trade Policy

The free traders who have run American economic policy for more than a generation are antimonopolists playing on a bigger stage. Like their counterparts in domestic policy, they are loyal in the first instance only to the efficiency of the market, not to any particular trader. They are content to establish rules of competitive trading—the antitrust laws in the domestic context, the World Trade Organization in the international context—and then to let the chips fall where they may, even if that means allowing present or future adversaries to, through legitimate means, build up competitive advantages that the United States is unable to overcome.

Strategy is consistent with competition when markets are filled with traders of atomic size, for then no amount of strategy can deliver a competitive advantage to any trader. But global markets, more even than domestic markets, are filled with traders of macroscopic size. Strategy then requires that each trader seek to gain and maintain advantages, undermining competition. The only way antimonopolists could induce the trading behemoth that is America to behave competitively, and to let the chips fall where they may, was to convince America voluntarily to give up strategy, to sacrifice self-interest on the altar of efficient markets.

And so they did.

Thus when the question arose whether to permit American corporations to move their manufacturing operations overseas, or to permit foreign companies to leverage their efficiencies to dominate a domestic industry and ensure that 90% of domestic supply would be imported from overseas, the answer the antimonopolists gave was: “yes.” Because it is efficient. Labor abroad is cheaper than labor at home, and transportation costs low, so efficiency requires that production move overseas, and our own resources be reallocated to more competitive uses.

This is the impeccable logic of static efficiency, of general equilibrium models allocating resources optimally. But it is instructive to recall that the men who perfected this model were not trying to describe a free market, much less international trade. They were trying to create a model that a central planner could use to allocate resources to a state’s subjects. What mattered to them in building the model was the good of the whole, not any particular part. And yet it is to a particular part of the global whole that the United States government is dedicated.

The Strategic Trader

Students of strategy would have taken a very different approach to international trade. Strategy teaches that markets are dynamic, and that businesses must make decisions based not only on the market signals that exist today, but on those that can be made to exist in the future. For the successful strategist, unlike the antimonopolist, identifying a product for which consumers are willing to pay the costs of production is not alone enough to justify bringing the product to market. The strategist must be able to secure a source of supply, or a distribution channel, that competitors cannot easily duplicate, before the strategist will enter.

Why? Because without an advantage in supply, or distribution, competitors will duplicate the product, compete away any markups, and leave the strategist no better off than if he had never undertaken the project at all. Indeed, he may be left bankrupt, if he has sunk costs that competition prevents him from recovering. Unlike the economist, the strategist is interested in survival, because he is a partisan of a part of the market—himself—not the market entire. The strategist understands that survival requires power, and all power rests, to a greater or lesser degree, on monopoly.

The strategist is not therefore a free trader in the international arena, at least not as a matter of principle. The strategist understands that trading from a position of strength can enrich, and trading from a position of weakness can impoverish. And to occupy that position of strength, America must, like any monopolist, control supply. Moreover, in the constantly-innovating markets that characterize industrial economies, markets in which innovation emerges from learning by doing, control over physical supply translates into control over the supply of inventions itself.

The strategist does not permit domestic corporations to offshore manufacturing in any market in which the strategist wishes to participate, because that is unsafe: foreign countries could use control over that supply to extract rents from America, to drive domestic firms to bankruptcy, and to gain control over the supply of inventions.

And, as the new trade theorists belatedly discovered, offshoring prevents the development of the dense, geographically-contiguous, supply networks that confer power over whole product categories, such as the electronics hub in Zhengzhou, where iPhone-maker Foxconn is located.

Or the pharmaceutical hub in Hubei.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Free Trade

Today, America is unprepared for the coming wave of coronavirus cases because the antimonopolists running our trade policy do not understand the importance of controlling supply. There is a shortage of masks, because China makes half of the world’s masks, and the Chinese have cut off supply, the state having forbidden even non-Chinese companies that offshored mask production from shipping home masks for which American customers have paid. Not only that, but in January China bought up most of the world’s existing supply of masks, with free-trade-obsessed governments standing idly by as the clock ticked down to their own domestic outbreaks.  

New York State, which lies at the epicenter of the crisis, has agreed to pay five times the market price for foreign supply. That’s not because the cost of making masks has risen, but because sellers are rationing with price. Which is to say: using their control over supply to beggar the state. Moreover, domestic mask makers report that they cannot ramp up production because of a lack of supply of raw materials, some of which are actually made in Wuhan, China. That’s the kind of problem that does not arise when restrictions on offshoring allow manufacturing hubs to develop domestically.

But a shortage of masks is just the beginning. Once a vaccine is developed, the race will be on to manufacture it, and America controls less than 30% of the manufacturing facilities that supply pharmaceuticals to American markets. Indeed, just about the only virus-relevant industries in which we do not have a real capacity shortage today are food and toilet paper, panic buying notwithstanding. Because fortunately for us antimonopolists could not find a way to offshore California and Oregon. If they could have, they surely would have, since both agriculture and timber are labor-intensive industries.

President Trump’s failed attempt to buy a German drug company working on a coronavirus vaccine shows just how damaging free market ideology has been to national security: as Trump should have anticipated given his resistance to the antimonopolists’ approach to trade, the German government nipped the deal in the bud. When an economic agent has market power, the agent can pick its prices, or refuse to sell at all. Only in general equilibrium fantasy is everything for sale, and at a competitive price to boot.

The trouble is: American policymakers, perhaps more than those in any other part of the world, continue to act as though that fantasy were real.

Failures Left and Right

America’s coronavirus predicament is rich with intellectual irony.

Progressives resist free trade ideology, largely out of concern for the effects of trade on American workers. But they seem not to have realized that in doing so they are actually embracing strategy, at least for the benefit of labor.

As a result, progressives simultaneously reject the approach to industrial organization economics that underpins strategic thinking in business: Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that strategic behavior by firms seeking to achieve and maintain monopolies is ultimately good for society, because it leads to a technological arms race as firms strive to improve supply, distribution, and indeed product quality, in ways that competitors cannot reproduce.

Even if progressives choose to reject Schumpeter’s argument that strategy makes society better off—a proposition that is particularly suspect at the international level, where the availability of tanks ensures that the creative destruction is not always creative—they have much to learn from his focus on the economics of survival.

By the same token, conservatives embrace Schumpeter in arguing for less antitrust enforcement in domestic markets, all the while advocating free trade at the international level and savaging governments for using dumping and tariffs—which is to say, the tools of monopoly—to strengthen their trading positions. It is deeply peculiar to watch the coronavirus expose conservative economists as pie-in-the-sky internationalists. And yet as the global market for coronavirus necessities seizes up, the ideology that urged us to dispense with producing these goods ourselves, out of faith that we might always somehow rely on the support of the rest of the world, provided through the medium of markets, looks pathetically naive.

The cynic might say that inconsistency has snuck up on both progressives and conservatives because each remains too sympathetic to a different domestic constituency.

Dodging a Bullet

America is lucky that a mere virus exposed the bankruptcy of free trade ideology. Because war could have done that instead. It is difficult to imagine how a country that cannot make medical masks—much less a Macbook—would be able to respond effectively to a sustained military attack from one of the many nations that are closing the technological gap long enjoyed by the United States.

The lesson of the coronavirus is: strategy, not antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics).]

There has been much (admittedly important) discussion of the economic woes of mass quarantine to thwart the spread and “flatten the curve” of the virus and its health burdens — as well as some extremely interesting discussion of the long-term health woes of quarantine and the resulting economic downturn: see, e.g., previous work by Christopher Ruhm suggesting mortality rates may improve during economic downturns, and this thread on how that might play out differently in the current health crisis.

But there is perhaps insufficient attention being paid to the more immediate problem of medical resource scarcity to treat large, localized populations of acutely sick people — something that will remain a problem for some time in places like New York, no matter how successful we are at flattening the curve. 

Yet the fact that we may have failed to prepare adequately for the current emergency does not mean that we can’t improve our ability to respond to the current emergency and build up our ability to respond to subsequent emergencies — both in terms of future, localized outbreaks of COVID-19, as well as for other medical emergencies more broadly.

In what follows I lay out the outlines of a proposal for an OPTN (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network) analogue for allocating emergency medical resources. In order to make the idea more concrete (and because no doubt there is a limit to the types of medical resources for which such a program would be useful or necessary), let’s call it the VPAN — Ventilator Procurement and Allocation Network.

As quickly as possible in order to address the current crisis — and definitely with enough speed to address the next crisis — we should develop a program to collect relevant data and enable deployment of medical resources where they are most needed, using such data, wherever possible, to enable deployment before shortages become the enormous problem they are today

Data and information are important tools for mitigating emergencies

Hal’s post, especially in combination with Julian’s, offers a really useful suggestion for using modern information technology to help mitigate one of the biggest problems of the current crisis: The ability to return to economic activity (and a semblance of normalcy) as quickly as possible.

What I like most about his idea (and, again, Julian’s) is its incremental approach: We don’t have to wait until it’s safe for everyone to come outside in order for some people to do so. And, properly collected, assessed, and deployed, information is a key part of making that possible for more and more people every day.

Here I want to build on Hal’s idea to suggest another — perhaps even more immediately crucial — use of data to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis: The allocation of scarce medical resources.

In the current crisis, the “what” of this data is apparent: it is the testing data described by Julian in his post, and implemented in digital form by Hal in his. Thus, whereas Hal’s proposal contemplates using this data solely to allow proprietors (public transportation, restaurants, etc.) to admit entry to users, my proposal contemplates something more expansive: the provision of Hal’s test-verification vendors’ data to a centralized database in order to use it to assess current medical resource needs and to predict future needs.

The apparent ventilator availability crisis

As I have learned at great length from a friend whose spouse is an ICU doctor on the front lines, the current ventilator scarcity in New York City is worrisome (from a personal email, edited slightly for clarity):

When doctors talk about overwhelming a medical system, and talk about making life/death decisions, often they are talking about ventilators. A ventilator costs somewhere between $25K to $50K. Not cheap, but not crazy expensive. Most of the time these go unused, so hospitals have not stocked up on them, even in first-rate medical systems. Certainly not in the US, where equipment has to get used or the hospital does not get reimbursed for the purchase.

With a bad case of this virus you can put somebody — the sickest of the sickest — on one of those for three days and many of them don’t die. That frames a brutal capacity issue in a local area. And that is what has happened in Italy. They did not have enough ventilators in specific cities where the cases spiked. The mortality rates were much higher solely due to lack of these machines. Doctors had to choose who got on the machine and who did not. When you read these stories about a choice of life and death, that could be one reason for it.

Now the brutal part: This is what NYC might face soon. Faster than expected, by the way. Maybe they will ship patients to hospitals in other parts of NY state, and in NJ and CT. Maybe they can send them to the V.A. hospitals. Those are the options for how they hope to avoid this particular capacity issue. Maybe they will flatten the curve just enough with all the social distancing. Hard to know just now. But right now the doctors are pretty scared, and they are planning for the worst.

A recent PBS Report describes the current ventilator situation in the US:

A 2018 analysis from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security estimated we have around 160,000 ventilators in the U.S. If the “worst-case scenario” were to come to pass in the U.S., “there might not be” enough ventilators, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on March 15.

“If you don’t have enough ventilators, that means [obviously] that people who need it will not be able to get it,” Fauci said. He stressed that it was most important to mitigate the virus’ spread before it could overwhelm American health infrastructure.

Reports say that the American Hospital Association believes almost 1 million COVID-19 patients in the country will require a ventilator. Not every patient will require ventilation at the same time, but the numbers are still concerning. Dr. Daniel Horn, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, warned in a March 22 editorial in The New York Times that “There simply will not be enough of these machines, especially in major cities.”

The recent report of 9,000 COVID-19-related deaths in Italy brings the ventilator scarcity crisis into stark relief: There is little doubt that a substantial number of these deaths stem from the unavailability of key medical resources, including, most importantly, ventilators.  

Medical resource scarcity in the current crisis is a drastic problem. And without significant efforts to ameliorate it it is likely to get worse before it gets better. 

Using data to allocate scarce resources: The basic outlines of a proposed “Ventilator Procurement and Allocation Network”

But that doesn’t mean that the scarce resources we do have can’t be better allocated. As the PBS story quoted above notes, there are some 160,000 ventilators in the US. While that may not be enough in the aggregate, it’s considerably more than are currently needed in, say, New York City — and a great number of them are surely not currently being used, nor likely immediately to need to be used. 

The basic outline of the idea for redistributing these resources is fairly simple: 

  1. First, register all of the US’s existing ventilators in a centralized database. 
  2. Second (using a system like the one Hal describes), collect and update in real time the relevant test results, contact tracing, demographic, and other epidemiological data and input it into a database.
  3. Third, analyze this data using one or more compartmental models (or more targeted, virus-specific models) — (NB: I am the furthest thing from an epidemiologist, so I make no claims about how best to do this; the link above, e.g., is merely meant to be illustrative and not a recommendation) — to predict the demand for ventilators at various geographic levels, ranging from specific hospitals to counties or states. In much the same way, allocation of organs in the OPTN is based on a set of “allocation calculators” (which in turn are intended to implement the “Final Rule” adopted by HHS to govern transplant organ allocation decisions).   
  4. Fourth, ask facilities in low-expected-demand areas to send their unused (or excess above the level required to address “normal” demand) ventilators to those in high-expected-demand areas, with the expectation that they will be consistently reallocated across all hospitals and emergency care facilities according to the agreed-upon criteria. Of course, the allocation “algorithm” would be more complicated than this (as is the HHS Final Rule for organ allocation). But in principle this would be the primary basis for allocation. 

Not surprisingly, some guidelines for the allocation of ventilators in such emergencies already exist — like New York’s Ventilator Allocation Guidelines for triaging ventilators during an influenza pandemic. But such guidelines address the protocols for each facility to use in determining how to allocate its own scarce resources; they do not contemplate the ability to alleviate shortages in the first place by redistributing ventilators across facilities (or cities, states, etc.).

I believe that such a system — like the OPTN — could largely work on a voluntary basis. Of course, I’m quick to point out that the OPTN is a function of a massive involuntary and distortionary constraint: the illegality of organ sales. But I suspect that a crisis like the one we’re currently facing is enough to engender much the same sort of shortage (as if such a constraint were in place with respect to the use of ventilators), and thus that a similar system would be similarly useful. If not, of course, it’s possible that the government could, in emergency situations, actually commandeer privately-owned ventilators in order to effectuate the system. I leave for another day the consideration of the merits and defects of such a regime.

Of course, it need not rely on voluntary participation. There could be any number of feasible means of inducing hospitals that have unused ventilators to put their surpluses into the allocation network, presumably involving some sort of cash or other compensation. Or perhaps, if and when such a system were expanded to include other medical resources, it might involve moving donor hospitals up the queue for some other scarce resources they need that don’t face a current crisis. Surely there must be equipment that a New York City hospital has in relative surplus that a small town hospital covets.

But the key point is this: It doesn’t make sense to produce and purchase enough ventilators so that every hospital in the country can simultaneously address extremely rare peak demands. Doing so would be extraordinarily — and almost always needlessly — expensive. And emergency preparedness is never about ensuring that there are no shortages in the worst-case scenario; it’s about making a minimax calculation (as odious as those are) — i.e., minimizing the maximal cost/risk, not mitigating risk entirely. (For a literature review of emergency logistics in the context of large-scale disasters, see, e.g., here)

But nor does it make sense — as a policy matter — to allocate the new ventilators that will be produced in response to current demand solely on the basis of current demand. The epidemiological externalities of the current pandemic are substantial, and there is little reason to think that currently over-taxed emergency facilities — or even those preparing for their own expected demand — will make procurement decisions that reflect the optimal national (let alone global) allocation of such resources. A system like the one I outline here would effectively enable the conversion of private, constrained decisions to serve the broader demands required for optimal allocation of scarce resources in the face of epidemiological externalities

Indeed — and importantly — such a program allows the government to supplement existing and future public and private procurement decisions to ensure an overall optimal level of supply (and, of course, government-owned ventilators — 10,000 of which already exist in the Strategic National Stockpile — would similarly be put into the registry and deployed using the same criteria). Meanwhile, it would allow private facilities to confront emergency scenarios like the current one with far more resources than it would ever make sense for any given facility to have on hand in normal times.

Some caveats

There are, as always, caveats. First, such a program relies on the continued, effective functioning of transportation networks. If any given emergency were to disrupt these — and surely some would — the program would not necessarily function as planned. Of course, some of this can be mitigated by caching emergency equipment in key locations, and, over the course of an emergency, regularly redistributing those caches to facilitate expected deployments as the relevant data comes in. But, to be sure, at the end of the day such a program depends on the ability to transport ventilators.

In addition, there will always be the risk that emergency needs swamp even the aggregate available resources simultaneously (as may yet occur during the current crisis). But at the limit there is nothing that can be done about such an eventuality: Short of having enough ventilators on hand so that every needy person in the country can use one essentially simultaneously, there will always be the possibility that some level of demand will outpace our resources. But even in such a situation — where allocation of resources is collectively guided by epidemiological (or, in the case of other emergencies, other relevant) criteria — the system will work to mitigate the likely overburdening of resources, and ensure that overall resource allocation is guided by medically relevant criteria, rather than merely the happenstance of geography, budget constraints, storage space, or the like.     

Finally, no doubt a host of existing regulations make such a program difficult or impossible. Obviously, these should be rescinded. One set of policy concerns is worth noting: privacy concerns. There is an inherent conflict between strong data privacy, in which decisions about the sharing of information belong to each individual, and the data needs to combat an epidemic, in which each person’s privately optimal level of data sharing may result in a socially sub-optimal level of shared data. To the extent that HIPAA or other privacy regulations would stand in the way of a program like this, it seems singularly important to relax them. Much of the relevant data cannot be efficiently collected on an opt-in basis (as is easily done, by contrast, for the OPTN). Certainly appropriate safeguards should be put in place (particularly with respect to the ability of government agencies/law enforcement to access the data). But an individual’s idiosyncratic desire to constrain the sharing of personal data in this context seems manifestly less important than the benefits of, at the very least, a default rule that the relevant data be shared for these purposes.

Appropriate standards for emergency preparedness policy generally

Importantly, such a plan would have broader applicability beyond ventilators and the current crisis. And this is a key aspect of addressing the problem: avoiding a myopic focus on the current emergency in lieu of more clear-eyed emergency preparedness plan

It’s important to be thinking not only about the current crisis but also about the next emergency. But it’s equally important not to let political point-scoring and a bias in favor of focusing on the seen over the unseen coopt any such efforts. A proper assessment entails the following considerations (surely among others) (and hat tip to Ron Cass for bringing to my attention most of the following insights):

  1. Arguably we are overweighting health and safety concerns with respect to COVID-19 compared to our assessments in other areas (such as ordinary flu (on which see this informative thread by Anup Malani), highway safety, heart & coronary artery diseases, etc.). That’s inevitable when one particular concern is currently so omnipresent and so disruptive. But it is important that we not let our preparations for future problems focus myopically on this cause, because the next crisis may be something entirely different. 
  2. Nor is it reasonable to expect that we would ever have been (or be in the future) fully prepared for a global pandemic. It may not be an “unknown unknown,” but it is impossible to prepare for all possible contingencies, and simply not sensible to prepare fully for such rare and difficult-to-predict events.
  3. That said, we also shouldn’t be surprised that we’re seeing more frequent global pandemics (a function of broader globalization), and there’s little reason to think that we won’t continue to do so. It makes sense to be optimally prepared for such eventualities, and if this one has shown us anything, it’s that our ability to allocate medical resources that are made suddenly scarce by a widespread emergency is insufficient. 
  4. But rather than overreact to such crises — which is difficult, given that overreaction typically aligns with the private incentives of key decision makers, the media, and many in the “chattering class” — we should take a broader, more public-focused view of our response. Moreover, political and bureaucratic incentives not only produce overreactions to visible crises, they also undermine the appropriate preparation for such crises in the future.
  5. Thus, we should create programs that identify and mobilize generically useful emergency equipment not likely to be made obsolete within a short period and likely to be needed whatever the source of the next emergency. In other words, we should continue to focus the bulk of our preparedness on things like quickly deployable ICU facilities, ventilators, and clean blood supplies — not, as we may be wrongly inclined to do given the salience of the current crisis, primarily on specially targeted drugs and test kits. Our predictive capacity for our future demand of more narrowly useful products is too poor to justify substantial investment.
  6. Given the relative likelihood of another pandemic, generic preparedness certainly includes the ability to inhibit overly fast spread of a disease that can clog critical health care facilities. This isn’t disease-specific (or, that is, while the specific rate and contours of infection are specific to each disease, relatively fast and widespread contagion is what causes any such disease to overtax our medical resources, so if we’re preparing for a future virus-related emergency, we’re necessarily preparing for a disease that spreads quickly and widely).

Because the next emergency isn’t necessarily going to be — and perhaps isn’t even likely to be — a pandemic, our preparedness should not be limited to pandemic preparedness. This means, as noted above, overcoming the political and other incentives to focus myopically on the current problem even when nominally preparing for the next one. But doing so is difficult, and requires considerable political will and leadership. It’s hard to conceive of our current federal leadership being up to the task, but it’s certainly not the case that our current problems are entirely the makings of this administration. All governments spend too much time and attention solving — and regulating — the most visible problems, whether doing so is socially optimal or not.   

Thus, in addition to (1) providing for the efficient and effective use of data to allocate emergency medical resources (e.g., as described above), and (2) ensuring that our preparedness centers primarily on generically useful emergency equipment, our overall response should also (3) recognize and correct the way current regulatory regimes also overweight visible adverse health effects and inhibit competition and adaptation by industry and those utilizing health services, and (4) make sure that the economic and health consequences of emergency and regulatory programs (such as the current quarantine) are fully justified and optimized.

A proposal like the one I outline above would, I believe, be consistent with these considerations and enable more effective medical crisis response in general.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Hal Singer, (Managing Director, econONE; Adjunct Professor, Georgeown University, McDonough School of Business).]

In these harrowing times, it is a natural to fixate on the problem of testing—and how the United States got so far behind South Korea on this front—as a means to arrest the spread of Coronavirus. Under this remedy, once testing becomes ubiquitous, the government could track and isolate everyone who has been in recent contact with someone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19. 

A good start, but there are several pitfalls from “contact tracing” or what I call “standalone testing.” First, it creates an outsized role for government and raises privacy concerns relating to how data on our movements and in-person contacts are shared. Second, unless the test results were instantaneously available and continuously updated, data from the tests would not be actionable. A subject could be clear of the virus on Tuesday, get tested on Wednesday, and be exposed to the virus on Friday.

Third, and one easily recognizable to economists, is that standalone testing does not provide any means by which healthy subjects of the test can credibly signal to their peers that they are now safe to be around. Given the skewed nature of economy towards services—from restaurants to gyms and yoga studios to coffee bars—it is vital that we interact physically. To return to work or to enter a restaurant or any other high-density environment, both the healthy subject must convey to her peers that she is healthy, and other co-workers or patrons in a high-density environment must signal their health to the subject. Without this mutual trust, healthy workers will be reluctant to return to the workplace or to integrate back into society. It is not enough for complete strangers to say “I’m safe.” How do I know you are safe?

As law professor Thom Lambert tweeted, this information problem is related to the famous lemons problem identified by Nobel laureate George Akerlof: We “can’t tell ‘quality’ so we assume everyone’s a lemon and act accordingly. We once had that problem with rides from strangers, but entrepreneurship and technology solved the problem.”

Akerlof recognized that markets were prone to failure in the face of “asymmetric information,” or when a seller knows a material fact that the buyer does not. He showed a market for used cars could degenerate into a market exclusively for lemons, because buyers rationally are not willing to pay the full value of a good car and the discount they would impose on all sellers would drive good cars away.

To solve this related problem, we need a way to verify our good health. Borrowing Lambert’s analogy, most Americans (barring hitchhikers) would never jump in a random car without knowledge that the driver worked for a reputable ride-hailing service or licensed taxi. When an Uber driver pulls up to the curb, the rider can feel confident that the driver has been verified (and vice versa) by a third party—in this case, Uber—and if there’s any doubt of the driver’s credentials, the driver typically speaks the passenger’s name when the door is still ajar. Uber also mitigated the lemons problem by allowing passengers and drivers to engage in reciprocal rating.

Similarly, when a passenger shows up at the airport, he presents a ticket, typically in electronic form on his phone, to a TSA officer. The phone is scanned by security, and verification of ticket and TSA PreCheck status is confirmed via rapid communication with the airline. The same verification is repeated at stadium venues across America, thanks in part to technology developed by StubHub.

A similar verification technology could be deployed to solve the trust problem relating to Coronavirus. It is meant to complement standalone testing. Here’s how it might work:

Each household would have a designated testing center in their community and potentially a test kit in their own homes. Testing would done routinely and free of charge, so as to ensure that test results are up to date. (Given the positive externalities associated with mass testing and verification, the optimal price is not positive.) Just as an airline sends confirmation of a ticket purchase, the company responsible for administering the test would report the results within an hour to the subject and it would store for 24 hours in the vendor’s app. In contrast to the invasive role of government in contact tracing, the only role for government here would be to approve of qualified vendors of the testing equipment.

Armed with third-party verification of her health status on her phone, the subject could present these results to a gatekeeper at any facility. Suppose the subject typically takes the metro to work, and stops at her gym before going home. Under this regime, she would present her phone to three gatekeepers (metro, work, gym) to obtain access. Of course, subjects who test positive for Coronavirus would not gain access to these secure sites until the virus left their system and they subsequently test negative. Seems harsh for them, but imposing this restriction isn’t really a degradation in mobility relative to the status quo, under which access is denied to everyone.

When I floated this idea on Twitter a few days ago, it was generally well received, but even supporters spotted potential shortcomings. For example, users could have a fraudulent app on their phones, or otherwise fake a negative result. Yet government sanctioning of a select groups of test vendors should prevent this type of fraud. Private gatekeepers such as restaurants presumably would not have to operate under any mandate; they have a clear incentive not only to restrict access to verified patrons, but also to advertise that they have strict rules on admission. By the same token, if they did, for some reason, allowed people to enter without verification, they could do so. But patrons’ concern for their own health likely would undermine such a permissive policy.

Other skeptics raised privacy concerns. But if a user voluntarily conveys her health status to a gatekeeper, so long as the information stops there, it’s hard to conceive a privacy violation. Another potential violation would be an equipment vendor’s sharing information of a user’s health status with third parties. Of course, the government could impose restrictions on a vendor’s data sharing as a condition of granting a license to test and verify. But given the circumstances, such sharing could support contact tracing, or allow supplies to be mobilized to certain areas where there are outbreaks. 

Still others noted that some Americans lack phones. For these Americans, I’d suggest paper verification would suffice, or even better yet, subsidized phones.

No solution is flawless. And it’s incredible that we even have to think this way. But who could have imagined, even a few weeks ago, that we would be pinned in our basements, afraid to interact with the world in close quarters? Desperate times call for creative and economically sound measures.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The Wall Street Journal reports congressional leaders have agreed to impose limits on stock buybacks and dividend payments for companies receiving aid under the COVID-19 disaster relief package. 

Rather than a flat-out ban, the draft legislation forbids any company taking federal emergency loans or loan guarantees from repurchasing its own stock or paying shareholder dividends. The ban lasts for the term of the loans, plus one year after the aid had ended.

In theory, under a strict set of conditions, there is no difference between dividends and buybacks. Both approaches distribute cash from the corporation to shareholders. In practice, there are big differences between dividends and share repurchases.

  • Dividends are publicly visible actions and require authorization by the board of directors. Shareholders have expectations of regular, stable dividends. Buybacks generally lack such transparency. Firms have flexibility in choosing the timing and the amount of repurchases, subject to the details of their repurchase programs.
  • Cash dividends have no effect on the number of shares outstanding. In contrast, share repurchases reduce the number of shares outstanding. By reducing the number of shares outstanding, buybacks increase earnings per share, all other things being equal. 

Over the past 15 years, buybacks have outpaced dividend payouts. The figure above, from Seeking Alpha, shows that while dividends have grown relatively smoothly over time, the aggregate value of buybacks are volatile and vary with the business cycle. In general, firms increase their repurchases relative to dividends when the economy booms and reduce them when the economy slows or shrinks. 

This observation is consistent with a theory that buybacks are associated with periods of greater-than-expected financial performance. On the other hand, dividends are associated with expectations of long-term profitability. Dividends can decrease, but only when profits are expected to be “permanently” lower. 

During the Great Recession, the figure above shows that dividends declined by about 10%, the amount of share repurchases plummeted by approximately 85%. The flexibility afforded by buybacks provided stability in dividends.

There is some logic to dividend and buyback limits imposed by the COVID-19 disaster relief package. If a firm has enough cash on hand to pay dividends or repurchase shares, then it doesn’t need cash assistance from the federal government. Similarly, if a firm is so desperate for cash that it needs a federal loan or loan guarantee, then it doesn’t have enough cash to provide a payout to shareholders. Surely managers understand this and sophisticated shareholders should too.

Because of this understanding, the dividend and buyback limits may be a non-binding constraint. It’s not a “good look” for a corporation to accept millions of dollars in federal aid, only to turn around and hand out those taxpayer dollars to the company’s shareholders. That’s a sure way to get an unflattering profile in the New York Times and an invitation to attend an uncomfortable hearing at the U.S. Capitol. Even if a distressed firm could repurchase its shares, it’s unlikely that it would.

The logic behind the plus-one-year ban on dividends and buybacks is less clear. The relief package is meant to get the U.S. economy back to normal as fast as possible. That means if a firm repays its financial assistance early, the company’s shareholders should be rewarded with a cash payout rather than waiting a year for some arbitrary clock to run out.

The ban on dividends and buybacks may lead to an unintended consequence of increased merger and acquisition activity. Vox reports an email to Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division says Goldman expects to see an increase in hostile takeovers and shareholder activism as the prices of public companies fall. Cash rich firms who are subject to the ban and cannot get that cash to their existing shareholders may be especially susceptible takeover targets.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and these are desperate times. Buyback backlash has been brewing for sometime and the COVID-19 relief package presents a perfect opportunity to ban buybacks. With the pressures businesses are under right now, it’s unlikely there’ll be many buybacks over the next few months. The concern should be over the unintended consequences facing firms once the economy recovers.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Julian Morris, (Director of Innovation Policy, ICLE).]

SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is now widespread in the population in many countries, including the US, UK, Australia, Iran, and many European countries. Its prevalence in other regions, such as South Asia, much of South America, and Africa, is relatively unknown. The failure to contain the virus early on has meant that more aggressive measures are now necessary in order to avoid overwhelming healthcare systems, which would cause unacceptable levels of mortality. (Sadly, Italy’s health system has already been overwhelmed, forcing medical practitioners to engage in the most awful triage decisions.) Many jurisdictions, ranging from cities to entire countries, have chosen to implement mandatory lockdowns. These will likely have the desired effect of slowing transmission in the short term, but they cannot be maintained indefinitely. The challenge going forward is how to contain the spread of the virus without destroying the economy. 

In this post I will outline the elements of a proposal that I hope might do that. (I’ve been working on this for about a week and in the meantime some of the ideas have been advanced by others. E.g. this and this. Great minds clearly think alike.)

1. Identify those who have had COVID-19 and have recovered — and allow them to go back to work

While there are some reports of people who have had COVID-19 becoming reinfected, this seems to be very rare (a recent primate study implies reinfection is impossible) and the alleged cases may have been a result of false negative tests followed by relapse by patients. The general presumption is that having the disease is likely to confer immunity for several months at least. Moreover, people with immunity who no longer show symptoms of the disease are very unlikely to transmit the disease. Allowing those people to go back to work will lessen the burden of the lockdown without appreciably increasing the risk of infection

One group of such people is readily identifiable, though small: Those who tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently recovered. Those people should be permitted to go back to work immediately.

2. Where possible, test, trace, treat, isolate

The town of Vo in Northern Italy, the site of the first death in the country from COVID-19, appears to have stopped the disease from spreading in about three weeks. It did so through a combination of universal testing, two weeks of strict lockdown, and quarantine of cases.  Could this be replicated elsewhere? 

Vo has a population of 3,300, so universal testing was not the gargantuan exercise it would be in, say, the continental US. Some larger jurisdictions have had similar success without resorting to universal testing and lockdown. South Korea managed to contain the spread of SARS-CoV2 relatively quickly through a combination of: social distancing (including closing schools and restricting large gatherings), testing anyone who had COVID-19 symptoms (and increasingly those without symptoms), tracing and testing of those who had contact with those symptomatic individuals, treating those with severe symptoms, quarantining those who tested positive but had no or only mild symptoms (the quarantine was monitored using a phone app and strictly enforced), and publicly sharing detailed information about the known incidence of the virus. 

A study of 181 cases in China published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the mean incubation period for COVID-19 is just over 5 days and only about 1 in 100 cases take longer than 14 days. By implication, if people have been strictly following the guidelines on avoiding contact with others, washing/sanitizing hands, sanitizing other objects, and avoiding hand-to-face contact, it should be possible, after two weeks of lockdown, to identify the vast majority of people who are not infected by testing everyone for the presence of SARS-CoV2 itself.

But that’s a series of big ifs. Since it takes a few days for the virus to replicate in the body to the point at which it is detectable, people who have recently been infected might test negative. Also, it is unlikely to be feasible logistically to test a significant proportion of the population for SARS-CoV2 in a short period of time. Existing tests require the use of RT-PCR, which is expensive and time consuming, not least because it can only be done at a lab, and while the capacity for such tests is increasing, it is likely around 50,000 per day in the entire US. 

Test, trace, treat, and isolate may be a feasible option for towns and even cities that currently have relatively low incidence of SARS-CoV2. However, given the lethargic progress of testing in places such as the US, UK and India, and hence poor existing knowledge of the extent of infection, it will not be a universal panacea.

3. Test as many people as possible for the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV2

Outside those few places that have dramatically ramped up testing, it is likely that many more people have had COVID-19 than have been tested, either because they were asymptomatic or because they did not require clinical attention. Many, perhaps most of those people will no longer have the virus in their system but they should still have antibodies (indicating immunity). In order to identify those people, there should be widespread testing for antibodies to SARS-CoV2. 

Antibody tests are inexpensive, quick, and some can be done at home with minimal assistance. Numerous such tests have already been produced or are in development (see the list here). For example, Chinese manufacturer Innovita has produced a test that appears to be effective; in a clinical trial of 447 patients, it identified the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV2 in 87.3 % of clinically confirmed cases of COVID-19 (i.e. there were approximately 13% false negatives) but zero false positives. Innovita’s test was approved by China’s equivalent of the FDA and has been used widely there. 

Scanwell Health, a San Francisco-based startup, has an exclusive license to produce Innovita’s test in the U.S. and has already begun the process for obtaining approval from the US FDA under its Emergency Use Authorization. Scanwell estimates that the total cost of the test, including overnight shipping of the kit and support from a doctor or nurse practitioner from Lemonaid Health, will be around $70. One downside to Scanwell Health’s offering, however, is that it expects it to take 6-8 weeks to begin shipping testing kits once it receives authorization from the FDA

So far, the FDA has approved at least one SARS-CoV2 antibody test, produced by Aytu Bioscience in Colorado. But Aytu’s test is designed for use by physicians, not at home. In Europe, at least one antibody test, produced by German company PharmACT, is already available. (That test has similar characteristics to Innovita’s.) Another has been approved by the MHRA in the UK for physician use and is awaiting approval for home use; the UK government has ordered 3.5 million of these tests, with the aim of distributing 250,000 per day by the end of April. 

Unfortunately, some people who have antibodies to SARS-CoV2 will also still be infectious. However, because different antibodies develop at different times during the course of infection, it may be possible to distinguish those who are still infectious from those who are no longer infectious. Specifically, immunoglobulin (Ig) M is present in larger amounts while the viral load is still present, while IgG is present in larger amounts later on (see e.g. this and the figure below). So, by testing for the presence of both IgM and IgG it should be possible to identify a large proportion of those who have had COVID-19 but are no longer infectious. (The currently available antibody tests result in about 13 percent false negatives, making them inappropriate as a means of screening out those who do not have COVID-19. But they produce zero false positives, making them ideal for identifying those who definitely have or have had COVID-19). In essence, people whose IgG test is positive but IgM test is negative can then go back to work. In addition, people who have had COVID-19 symptoms, are now symptom-free, and test positive for antibodies, should be allowed to go back to work.

4. Test for SARS-Cov2 among those who test negative for antibodies — and ensure that everyone who tests positive remains in isolation

Those people who test negative for SARS-CoV2 using the quick antibody immunoassay, as well as those who are positive for both IgG and IgM (indicating that they may still be infectious) should then be tested for SARS-CoV2 using the RT-PCR test described above. And those who test negative for SARS-CoV2 should then be permitted to go back to work. But those who test positive should be required to remain in isolation— and seek treatment if necessary.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until nobody tests positive for COVID-19

By repeating steps 3 and 4, it should be possible gradually to enable the vast majority of the population to return to work, and thence to a life of greater normalcy, within a matter of weeks.

6. Some (possibly rather large) caveats

All of this relies on: (a) the ability rapidly to expand testing and (b) widespread compliance with isolation requirements. Neither of these conditions is by any means guaranteed, not least because the rules effectively discriminate in favor of people who have had COVID-19, which may create a perverse incentive to violate not only the isolation requirements but all the recommended hygiene practices — and thereby intentionally become infected with SARS-CoV2 on the presumption that they will then be able to go back to work sooner than otherwise. So, before this is rolled out, it is important to ensure that there will be widespread testing for COVID-19 in a timeframe shorter than the likely total time for contracting and recovering from COVID-19.

In addition, if test results are to be used as a means of establishing a person’s ability to travel and work while others are still under lockdown, it is important that there  be a means of verifying the status of individuals. That might be possible through the use of an app, for example; such an app might also provide policymakers to make better resources allocation decisions too. 

Also, at-risk individuals should be strongly advised to remain in isolation until there is no further evidence of community transmission. 

7. The Mechanics of Testing

Given that there are not currently sufficient tests available for everyone to be tested in most locations, one obvious question is: who should be tested? As noted above, it makes sense initially to target those who have had COVID-19 symptoms and have recovered. Since only those people who have had such symptoms—and possibly their physician if they presented with their symptoms—will know who they are, this will rely largely on trust. (It’s possible that self-reporting apps could help.) 

But it may make sense initially to target tests more narrowly. The UK is initially targeting the antibody detection kits to healthcare and other key workers—people who are essential to the continued functioning of the country. That makes sense and could easily be applied in other places. 

Assuming that key workers can be supplied with antibody detection kits quickly, distribution should then be opened up more widely. No doubt insurance companies will be making decisions about the purchase of testing kits. Ideally, however, individuals should be able to buy kits such as Scanwell’s without going through a bureaucratic process, whether that be their insurance company or the NHS. And vendors should be free to price kits as they see fit, without worrying about the prospect of being subject to price caps such as those imposed by Medicaid or the VA, which have the perverse effect of incentivising vendors to increase the list price. Finally, in order to increase the supply of tests as rapidly as possible, regulatory agencies should be encouraged to issue emergency approvals as quickly as possible. Having more manufacturers with a diverse array of tests available will increase access to testing more quickly and likely lead to more accurate testing too. Agencies such as the FDA should see this as their absolute priority right now. If the Mayo clinic can compress 6 months’ product development into a month, the FDA can surely do its review far more quickly too. Lives—and the economy—depend upon it.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Sam Bowman, (Director of Competition Policy, ICLE).]

No support package for workers and businesses during the coronavirus shutdown can be comprehensive. In the UK, for example, the government is offering to pay 80% of the wages of furloughed workers, but this will not apply to self-employed people or many gig economy workers, and so far it’s been hard to think of a way of giving them equivalent support. It’s likely that the bill going through Congress will have similar issues.

Whether or not solutions are found for these problems, it may be worth putting in place what you might call a ‘backstop’ policy that allows people to access money in case they cannot access it through the other policies that are being put into place. This doesn’t need to provide equivalent support to other packages, just to ensure that everyone has access to the money they need during the shutdown to pay their bills and rent, and cover other essential costs. The aim here is just to keep everyone afloat.

One mechanism for doing this might be to offer income-contingent loans to anyone currently resident in the country during the shutdown period. These are loans whose repayment is determined by the borrower’s income later on, and are how students in the UK and Australia pay for university. 

In the UK, for example, under the current student loan repayment terms, once a student has graduated, their earnings above a certain income threshold (currently £25,716/year) are taxed at 9% to repay the loan. So, if I earn £30,000/year and have a loan to repay, I pay an additional £385.56/year to repay the loan (9% of the £4,284 I’m earning above the income threshold); if I earn £40,000/year, I pay an additional £1,285.56/year. The loan incurs an annual interest rate equal to an annual measure of inflation plus 3%. Once you have paid off the loan, no more repayments are taken, and any amount still unpaid thirty years after the loan was first taken out is written off.

In practice, these terms mean that there is a significant subsidy to university students, most of whom never pay off the full amount. Under a less generous repayment scheme that was in place until recently, with a lower income threshold for repayment, out of every £1 borrowed by students the long-run cost to the government was 43.3p. This is regarded by many as a feature of the system rather than a bug, because of the belief that university education has positive externalities, and because this approach pools some of the risk associated with pursuing a graduate-level career (the risk of ending up with a low-paid job despite having spent a lot on your education, for example).

For loans available to the wider public, a different set of repayment criteria could apply. We could allow anyone who has filed a W-2 or 1099 tax statement in the past eighteen months (or filed a self-assessment tax return in the UK) to borrow up to something around 20% of median national annual income, to be paid back via an extra few percentage points on their federal income tax or, in the UK, National Insurance contributions over the following ten years, with the rate returning to normal after they have paid off the loan. Some other provision may have to be made for people approaching retirement.

With a low, inflation-indexed interest rate, this would allow people who need funds to access them, but make it mostly pointless for anyone who did not need to borrow. 

If, like student tuition fees, loans were written off after a certain period, low earners would probably never pay back the entirety of the ‘loan’ – as a one-off transfer (ie, one that does not distort work or savings incentives for recipients) to low paid people, this is probably not a bad thing. Most people, though, would pay back as and when they were able to. For self-employed people in particular, it could be a valuable source of liquidity during an unexpected period where they cannot work. Overall, it would function as a cash transfer to lower earners, and a liquidity injection for everyone else who takes advantage of the scheme.

This would have advantages over money being given to every US or UK citizen, as some have proposed, because most of the money being given out would be repaid, so the net burden on taxpayers would be lower and so the deadweight losses created by the additional tax needed to pay for it would be smaller. But you would also eliminate the need for means-testing, relying on self-selection instead.

The biggest obstacle to rolling something like this out may be administrative. However, if the government committed to setting up something like this, banks and credit card companies may be willing to step in in the short-run to issue short-term loans in the knowledge that people could be able to repay them once the government scheme was set up. To facilitate this, the government could guarantee the loans made by banks and credit card companies now, then allow people to opt into the income-contingent loans later, so there was no need for legislation immediately.

Speed is extremely important in helping people plug the gaps in their finances. As a complement to the government’s other plans, income-contingent loans to groups like self-employed people may be a useful way of catching people who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Mark Jamison, (Director and Gunter Professor, Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida and Visiting Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.).]

The economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and of the government responses to it, are significant and could be staggering, especially for small businesses. Goldman Sachs estimates a potential 24% drop in US GDP for the second quarter of 2020 and a 4% decline for the year. Its small business survey found that a little over half of small businesses might last for less than three months in this economic downturn. Small business employs nearly 60 million people in the US. How many will be out of work this year is anyone’s guess, but the number will be large.

What should small businesses do? First, focus on staying in business because their customers and employees need them to be healthy when the economy begins to recover. That will certainly mean slowing down business activity and decreasing payroll to manage losses, and managing liquidity.

Second, look for opportunities in the present crisis. Consumers are slowing their spending, but they will spend for things they still need and need now. And there will be new demand for things they didn’t need much before, like more transportation of food, support for health needs, and crisis management. Which business sectors will recover first? Those whose downturns represented delayed demand, such as postponed repairs and business travel, rather than evaporated demand, such as luxury items.

Third, they can watch for and take advantage of government support programs. Many programs simply provide low-cost loans, which do not solve the small-business problem of customers not buying: Borrowing money to meet payroll for idle workers simply delays business closure and makes bankruptcy more likely. But some grants and tax breaks are under discussion (see below).

Fourth, they can renegotiate loans and contracts. One of the mistakes lenders made in the past is holding stressed borrowers’ feet to the fire, which only led to more, and more costly loan defaults. At least some lenders have learned. So lenders and some suppliers might be willing to receive some payments rather than none.

What should government do? Unfortunately, Washington seems to think that so-called stimulus spending is the cure for any economic downturn. This isn’t true. I’ll explain why below, but let me first get to what is more productive. 

The major problem is that customers are unable to buy and businesses are unable to produce because of the responses to the coronavirus. Sometimes transactions are impossible, but there are times where buying and selling is simply made more costly by the pandemic and the government responses. So government support for the economy should address these problems directly.

For buyers, government officials should recognize that buying is hard and costly for them. So policies should include improving their abilities to buy during this time. Sales tax holidays, especially on healthcare, food, and transportation would be helpful. 

Waivers of postal fees would make e-commerce cheaper. And temporary support for fixed costs, such as mortgages, would free money for other things. Tax breaks for the gig economy would lower service costs and provide new employment opportunities. And tax credits for durables like home improvements would lower costs of social distancing.

But the better opportunities for government impact are on the business side because small business affects both the supply of services and the incomes of consumers.

For small business policy, my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Glenn Hubbard and Michael Strain have done the most thoughtful work that I have seen. They note that the problems for small businesses are that they do not have enough business activity to meet payroll and other bills. This means that “(t)he goal should be to replace a large portion of the revenue (not just the payroll expenses) those businesses would have generated in the absence of being shut down due to the coronavirus.” 

They suggest policies to replace 80 percent of the small business revenue loss. How? By providing grants in the form of government-backed commercial loans that are forgiven if the business continues and maintains payroll, subject to workers being allowed to quit if they find better opportunities. 

What else might work? Tax breaks that lower business costs. These can be breaks in payroll taxes, marginal income tax rates, equipment purchases, permitting, etc., including tax holidays. Rollback of current business losses would trigger tax refunds that improve businesses finances. 

One of the least useful ideas for small businesses is interest-free loans. These might be great for large businesses who are largely managing their financial positions. But such loans fail to address the basic small business problem of keeping the doors open when customers aren’t buying.

Finally, why doesn’t traditional stimulus work, even in other times of economic downturn? Traditional spending-based stimulus assumes that the economic problem is that people want to build things, but not buy them. That’s not a very good assumption. Especially today, where the problems are the higher cost of buying, or perhaps the impossibility of buying with social distancing, and the higher costs of doing businesses. Keeping businesses in business is the key to supporting the economy. 

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Brent Skorup, (Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University).]

One of the most visible economic effects of the COVID-19 spread is the decrease in airline customers. Alec Stapp alerted me to the recent outrage over “ghost flights,” where airlines fly nearly empty planes to maintain their “slots.” 

The airline industry is unfortunately in economic freefall as governments prohibit and travelers pull back on air travel. When the health and industry crises pass, lawmakers will have an opportunity to evaluate the mistakes of the past when it comes to airport congestion and airspace design.

This issue of ghost flights pops up occasionally and offers a lesson in the problems with government rationing of public resources. In this case, the public resource are airport slots: designated times, say, 15 or 30 minutes, a plane may takeoff or land at an airport. (Last week US and EU regulators temporarily waived the use-it-or-lose it rule for slots to mitigate the embarrassing cost and environmental damage caused by forcing airlines to fly empty planes.)

The slots at major hubs at peak times of day are extremely scarce–there’s only so many hours in a day. Today, slot assignment are administratively rationed in a way that favors large, incumbent airlines. As the Wall Street Journal summarized last year,

For decades, airlines have largely divided runway access between themselves at twice-yearly meetings run by the IATA (an airline trade group).

Airport slots are property. They’re valuable. They can be defined, partitioned, leased, put up as collateral, and, in the US, they can be sold and transferred within or between airports.

You just can’t call slots property. Many lawmakers, regulators, and airline representatives refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Stating that slots are valuable public property would make clear the anticompetitive waste that the 40-year slot assignment experiment generates. 

Like many government programs, the slot rationing began in the US as a temporary program decades ago as a response to congestion at New York airports. Slots are currently used to ration access at LGA, JFK, and DCA. And while they don’t use formal slot rationing, the FAA also rations access at four other busy airports: ORD, Newark, LAX, and SFO.

Fortunately, cracks are starting to form. In 2008, at the tailend of the Bush administration, the FAA proposed to auction some slots in New York City’s three airports. The plan was delayed by litigation from incumbent airlines and an adverse finding from the GAO. With a change in administration, the Obama FAA rescinded the plan in 2009.

Before the Obama FAA recission, the mask slipped a bit in the GAO’s criticism of the slot auction plan: 

FAA’s argument that slots are property proves too much—it suggests that the agency has been improperly giving away potentially millions of dollars of federal property, for no compensation, since it created the slot system in 1968.

Gulp.

Though the GAO helped scuttle the plan, the damage has been done. The idea has now entered public policy discourse: giving away valuable public property is precisely what’s going on. 

The implicit was made explicit in 2011 when, despite spiking the Bush FAA plan, the Obama FAA auctioned two dozen high-value slots. (The reversal and lack of controversy is puzzling to me.) Delta and US Airways wanted to swap some 160 slots at New York and DC airports. As a condition of the mega-swap, the Obama FAA required they divest 24 slots at those popular airports, which the agency auctioned to new entrants. Seven low-fare airlines bid in the auction and Jetblue and WestJet won the divested slots, paying about $90 million combined

The older fictions are rapidly eroding. There is an active secondary market in slots in some nations and when prices are released it becomes clear that the legacy rationing amounts to public property setasides to insiders. In 2016 it leaked, for instance, that an airline paid £58 million for a pair of take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. Other slot sales are in the tens of millions of dollars.

The 2011 FAA auctions and the loosening of rules globally around slot sales signal that the competition benefits from slot markets are too obvious to ignore. Competition from new entry drives down airfare and increases the number of flights.

For instance, a few months ago researchers used a booking app to scour 50 trillion flight itineraries to see new entrants’ effect on airline ticket prices between 2017 and 2019. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the entry of a low-fare carrier reduced ticket prices by 17% on average. The bigger effect was on output–new entry led to a 30% YoY increase in flights.

It’s becoming harder to justify the legacy view, which allow incumbent airlines to dominate the slot allocations via international conferences and national regulations that require “grandfather” slot usage. In a separate article last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that airlines are reluctantly ceding more power to airports in the assignment of slots. This is another signal in the long-running tug-of-war between airports and airlines. Airports generally want to open slots for new competitors–incumbent airlines do not.

The reason for the change of heart? The Journal says,

Airlines and airports reached the deal in part because of concerns governments should start to sell slots.

Gulp. Ghost flights are a government failure but a rational response to governments withholding the benefits of property from airlines. The slot rationing system encourages flying uneconomical flights, smaller planes, and excess carbon emissions. The COVID-19 crisis allowed the public a glimpse at the dysfunctional system. It won’t be easy, but aviation regulators worldwide need to assess slots policy and airspace access before the administrative rationing system spreads to the emerging urban air mobility and drone delivery markets.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Across the globe, millions of people are rapidly coming to terms with the harsh realities of life under lockdown. As governments impose ever-greater social distancing measures, many of the daily comforts we took for granted are no longer available to us. 

And yet, we can all take solace in the knowledge that our current predicament would have been far less tolerable if the COVID-19 outbreak had hit us twenty years ago. Among others, we have Big Tech firms to thank for this silver lining. 

Contrary to the claims of critics, such as Senator Josh Hawley, Big Tech has produced game-changing innovations that dramatically improve our ability to fight COVID-19. 

The previous post in this series showed that innovations produced by Big Tech provide us with critical information, allow us to maintain some level of social interactions (despite living under lockdown), and have enabled companies, universities and schools to continue functioning (albeit at a severely reduced pace).

But apart from information, social interactions, and online working (and learning); what has Big Tech ever done for us?

One of the most underappreciated ways in which technology (mostly pioneered by Big Tech firms) is helping the world deal with COVID-19 has been a rapid shift towards contactless economic transactions. Not only are consumers turning towards digital goods to fill their spare time, but physical goods (most notably food) are increasingly being exchanged without any direct contact.

These ongoing changes would be impossible without the innovations and infrastructure that have emerged from tech and telecommunications companies over the last couple of decades. 

Of course, the overall picture is still bleak. The shift to contactless transactions has only slightly softened the tremendous blow suffered by the retail and restaurant industries – some predictions suggest their overall revenue could fall by at least 50% in the second quarter of 2020. Nevertheless, as explained below, this situation would likely be significantly worse without the many innovations produced by Big Tech companies. For that we would be thankful.

1. Food and other goods

For a start, the COVID-19 outbreak (and government measures to combat it) has caused many brick & mortar stores and restaurants to shut down. These closures would have been far harder to implement before the advent of online retail and food delivery platforms.

At the time of writing, e-commerce websites already appear to have witnessed a 20-30% increase in sales (other sources report 52% increase, compared to the same time last year). This increase will likely continue in the coming months.

The Amazon Retail platform has been at the forefront of this online shift.

  • Having witnessed a surge in online shopping, Amazon announced that it would be hiring 100.000 distribution workers to cope with the increased demand. Amazon’s staff have also been asked to work overtime in order to meet increased demand (in exchange, Amazon has doubled their pay for overtime hours).
  • To attract these new hires and ensure that existing ones continue working, Amazon simultaneously announced that it would be increasing wages in virus-hit countries (from $15 to $17, in the US) .
  • Amazon also stopped accepting “non-essential” goods in its warehouses, in order to prioritize the sale of household essentials and medical goods that are in high demand.
  • Finally, in Italy, Amazon decided not to stop its operations, despite some employees testing positive for COVID-19. Controversial as this move may be, Amazon’s private interests are aligned with those of society – maintaining the supply of essential goods is now more important than ever. 

And it is not just Amazon that is seeking to fill the breach left temporarily by brick & mortar retail. Other retailers are also stepping up efforts to distribute their goods online.

  • The apps of traditional retail chains have witnessed record daily downloads (thus relying on the smartphone platforms pioneered by Google and Apple).
  •  Walmart has become the go-to choice for online food purchases:

(Source: Bloomberg)

The shift to online shopping mimics what occurred in China, during its own COVID-19 lockdown. 

  • According to an article published in HBR, e-commerce penetration reached 36.6% of retail sales in China (compared to 29.7% in 2019). The same article explains how Alibaba’s technology is enabling traditional retailers to better manage their supply chains, ultimately helping them to sell their goods online.
  • A study by Nielsen ratings found that 67% of retailers would expand online channels. 
  • One large retailer shut many of its physical stores and redeployed many of its employees to serve as online influencers on WeChat, thus attempting to boost online sales.
  • Spurred by compassion and/or a desire to boost its brand abroad, Alibaba and its founder, Jack Ma, have made large efforts to provide critical medical supplies (notably tests kits and surgical masks) to COVID-hit countries such as the US and Belgium.

And it is not just retail that is adapting to the outbreak. Many restaurants are trying to stay afloat by shifting from in-house dining to deliveries. These attempts have been made possible by the emergence of food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. 

These platforms have taken several steps to facilitate food deliveries during the outbreak.

  • UberEats announced that it would be waiving delivery fees for independent restaurants.
  • Both UberEats and Deliveroo have put in place systems for deliveries to take place without direct physical contact. While not entirely risk-free, meal delivery can provide welcome relief to people experiencing stressful lockdown conditions.

Similarly, the shares of Blue Apron – an online meal-kit delivery service – have surged more than 600% since the start of the outbreak.

In short, COVID-19 has caused a drastic shift towards contactless retail and food delivery services. It is an open question how much of this shift would have been possible without the pioneering business model innovations brought about by Amazon and its online retail platform, as well as modern food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. At the very least, it seems unlikely that it would have happened as fast.

The entertainment industry is another area where increasing digitization has made lockdowns more bearable. The reason is obvious: locked-down consumers still require some form of amusement. With physical supply chains under tremendous strain, and social gatherings no longer an option, digital media has thus become the default choice for many.

Data published by Verizon shows a sharp increase (in the week running from March 9 to March 16) in the consumption of digital entertainment, especially gaming:

This echoes other sources, which also report that the use of traditional streaming platforms has surged in areas hit by COVID-19.

  • Netflix subscriptions are said to be spiking in locked-down communities. During the first week of March, Netflix installations increased by 77% in Italy and 33% in Spain, compared to the February average. Netflix app downloads increased by 33% in Hong kong and South Korea. The Amazon Prime app saw a similar increase.
  • YouTube has also witnessed a surge in usage. 
  • Live streaming (on platforms such as Periscope, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc) has also increased in popularity. It is notably being used for everything from concerts and comedy clubs to religious services, and even zoo visits.
  • Disney Plus has also been highly popular. According to one source, half of US homes with children under the age of 10 purchased a Disney Plus subscription. This trend is expected to continue during the COVID-19 outbreak. Disney even released Frozen II three months ahead of schedule in order to boost new subscriptions.
  • Hollywood studios have started releasing some of their lower-profile titles directly on streaming services.

Traffic has also increased significantly on popular gaming platforms.

These are just a tiny sample of the many ways in which digital entertainment is filling the void left by social gatherings. It is thus central to the lives of people under lockdown.

2. Cashless payments

But all of the services that are listed above rely on cashless payments – be it to limit the risk or contagion or because these transactions take place remotely. Fintech innovations have thus turned out to be one of the foundations that make social distancing policies viable. 

This is particularly evident in the food industry. 

  • Food delivery platforms, like UberEats and Deliveroo, already relied on mobile payments.
  • Costa coffee (a UK equivalent to starbucks) went cashless in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Domino’s Pizza, among other franchises, announced that it would move to contactless deliveries.
  • President Donald Trump is said to have discussed plans to keep drive-thru restaurants open during the outbreak. This would also certainly imply exclusively digital payments.
  • And although doubts remain concerning the extent to which the SARS-CoV-2 virus may, or may not, be transmitted via banknotes and coins, many other businesses have preemptively ceased to accept cash payments

As the Jodie Kelley – the CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association – put it, in a CNBC interview:

Contactless payments have come up as a new option for consumers who are much more conscious of what they touch. 

This increased demand for cashless payments has been a blessing for Fintech firms. 

  • Though it is too early to gage the magnitude of this shift, early signs – notably from China – suggest that mobile payments have become more common during the outbreak.
  • In China, Alipay announced that it expected to radically expand its services to new sectors – restaurants, cinema bookings, real estate purchases – in an attempt to compete with WeChat.
  • PayPal has also witnessed an uptick in transactions, though this growth might ultimately be weighed-down by declining economic activity.
  • In the past, Facebook had revealed plans to offer mobile payments across its platforms – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram & Libra. Those plans may not have been politically viable at the time. The COVID-19 could conceivably change this.

In short, the COVID-19 outbreak has increased our reliance on digital payments, as these can both take place remotely and, potentially, limit contamination via banknotes. None of this would have been possible twenty years ago when industry pioneers, such as PayPal, were in their infancy. 

3. High speed internet access

Similarly, it goes without saying that none of the above would be possible without the tremendous investments that have been made in broadband infrastructure, most notably by internet service providers. Though these companies have often faced strong criticism from the public, they provide the backbone upon which outbreak-stricken economies can function.

By causing so many activities to move online, the COVID-19 outbreak has put broadband networks to the test. So for, broadband infrastructure around the world has been up to the task. This is partly because the spike in usage has occurred in daytime hours (where network’s capacity is less straine), but also because ISPs traditionally rely on a number of tools to limit peak-time usage.

The biggest increases in usage seem to have occurred in daytime hours. As data from OpenVault illustrates:

According to BT, one of the UK’s largest telecoms operators, daytime internet usage is up by 50%, but peaks are still well within record levels (and other UK operators have made similar claims):

Anecdotal data also suggests that, so far, fixed internet providers have not significantly struggled to handle this increased traffic (the same goes for Content Delivery Networks). Not only were these networks already designed to withstand high peaks in demand, but ISPs have, such as Verizon, increased their  capacity to avoid potential issues.

For instance, internet speed tests performed using Ookla suggest that average download speeds only marginally decreased, it at all, in locked-down regions, compared to previous levels:

However, the same data suggests that mobile networks have faced slightly larger decreases in performance, though these do not appear to be severe. For instance, contrary to contemporaneous reports, a mobile network outage that occurred in the UK is unlikely to have been caused by a COVID-related surge. 

The robustness exhibited by broadband networks is notably due to long-running efforts by ISPs (spurred by competition) to improve download speeds and latency. As one article put it:

For now, cable operators’ and telco providers’ networks are seemingly withstanding the increased demands, which is largely due to the upgrades that they’ve done over the past 10 or so years using technologies such as DOCSIS 3.1 or PON.

Pushed in part by Google Fiber’s launch back in 2012, the large cable operators and telcos, such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter Communications, have spent years upgrading their networks to 1-Gig speeds. Prior to those upgrades, cable operators in particular struggled with faster upload speeds, and the slowdown of broadband services during peak usage times, such as after school and in the evenings, as neighborhood nodes became overwhelmed.

This is not without policy ramifications.

For a start, these developments might vindicate antitrust enforcers that allowed mergers that led to higher investments, sometimes at the expense of slight reductions in price competition. This is notably the case for so-called 4 to 3 mergers in the wireless telecommunications industry. As an in-depth literature review by ICLE scholars concludes:

Studies of investment also found that markets with three facilities-based operators had significantly higher levels of investment by individual firms.

Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak has also cast further doubts over the appropriateness of net neutrality regulations. Indeed, an important criticism of such regulations is that they prevent ISPs from using the price mechanism to manage congestion

It is these fears of congestion, likely unfounded (see above), that led the European Union to urge streaming companies to voluntarily reduce the quality of their products. To date, Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime, Apple, Facebook and Disney have complied with the EU’s request. 

This may seem like a trivial problem, but it was totally avoidable. As a result of net neutrality regulation, European authorities and content providers have been forced into an awkward position (likely unfounded) that unnecessarily penalizes those consumers and ISPs who do not face congestion issues (conversely, it lets failing ISPs off the hook and disincentivizes further investments on their part). This is all the more unfortunate that, as argued above, streaming services are essential to locked-down consumers. 

Critics may retort that small quality decreases hardly have any impact on consumers. But, if this is indeed the case, then content providers were using up unnecessary amounts of bandwidth before the COVID-19 outbreak (something that is less likely to occur without net neutrality obligations). And if not, then European consumers have indeed been deprived of something they valued. The shoe is thus on the other foot.

These normative considerations aside, the big point is that we can all be thankful to live in an era of high-speed internet.

 4. Concluding remarks 

Big Tech is rapidly emerging as one of the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. Companies that were once on the receiving end of daily reproaches – by the press, enforcers, and scholars alike – are gaining renewed appreciation from the public. Times have changed since the early days of these companies – where consumers marvelled at the endless possibilities that their technologies offered. Today we are coming to realize how essential tech companies have become to our daily lives, and how they make society more resilient in the face of fat-tailed events, like pandemics.

The move to a contactless, digital, economy is a critical part of what makes contemporary societies better-equipped to deal with COVID-19. As this post has argued, online delivery, digital entertainment, contactless payments and high speed internet all play a critical role. 

To think that we receive some of these services for free…

Last year, Erik Brynjolfsson, Avinash Collins and Felix Eggers published a paper in PNAS, showing that consumers were willing to pay significant sums for online goods they currently receive free of charge. One can only imagine how much larger those sums would be if that same experiment were repeated today.

Even Big Tech’s critics are willing to recognize the huge debt we owe to these companies. As Stephen Levy wrote, in an article titled “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?”:

Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?

The pandemic does not make any of the complaints about the tech giants less valid. They are still drivers of surveillance capitalism who duck their fair share of taxes and abuse their power in the marketplace. We in the press must still cover them aggressively and skeptically. And we still need a reckoning that protects the privacy of citizens, levels the competitive playing field, and holds these giants to account. But the momentum for that reckoning doesn’t seem sustainable at a moment when, to prop up our diminished lives, we are desperately dependent on what they’ve built. And glad that they built it.

While it is still early to draw policy lessons from the outbreak, one thing seems clear: the COVID-19 pandemic provides yet further evidence that tech policymakers should be extremely careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, by promoting regulations that may thwart innovation (or the opposite).