Regime Uncertainty

Kevin Drum doesn't buy the regime uncertainty argument as a partial explanation of the slow recovery.

Here's what's remarkable: Carter, a law professor at Yale, apparently never once bothered to ask this guy just what regulations he's talking about. Is he concerned with general stuff like the healthcare law? Or something highly specific to his industry? Or what?

Regardless, I've heard this kind of blowhard conversation too often to take it seriously. Sure, it's possible this guy manufactures canisters for nuclear waste or something, and there's a big regulatory change for nuclear waste storage that's been in the works for years and has been causing everyone in the industry heartburn for as long as they can remember. But the simple fact is that regulatory uncertainty is no greater today than it's ever been. Financialuncertainty is high, but the Obama adminstration just hasn't been overhauling regs that affect the cost of new workers any more than usual. The only substantial exception is the new healthcare law, and if you oppose it that's fine. But it was passed over a year ago and its effects are pretty easy to project.

First, the costs of the health care law are NOT easy to project, and are made even harder when your company might or might not get waivers from certain provisions.    Second, he seems to forget cap and trade, first by law and then by executive fiat; the NLRB's new veto power over corporate relocations it exercised with Boeing; the absurdly turbulent tax/regulatory/permitting regime in the energy field, and particularly oil and gas.  How about trillion dollar stimulus projects, that until very recently Obama was still talking about replicating (and Krugman begs for to this day).  I could go on and on.  This is spoke just like a person who never had to run a business.

Further, I wrote this in the comments section:

I think you are both right and wrong.  I am sure the discussion about this is to some extent overblown.  But you are thinking about business and hiring much too narrowly.

You seem to have a mental model of business showing up at the door, and someone turning that business down because they don't want to hire an employee to serve it (or out of sheer petulance because Fox News told them to sit on their hands, lol).  You find it unlikely anyone would refuse the business, and so do I.

But I run a small to medium size business, and a lot of hiring decisions don't work that way.    I do have some situations that fit your model - I have a campground that is really busy this year, so we hired more people to serve the volume.   No problem.

But most of my hiring decisions are effectively investments.  I am going to create a new position, pay money to train that person, and pay their wage for a while in advance of demand.  Or I am going to open a new site or department or location and make a lot of investment, and the return on investment may be very sensitive to small changes in labor or regulatory costs.

For our business, with labor costs over 50% of costs, the issue is definitely labor costs.  Our pre-tax margins are in the 6-7% range.  So if labor costs are 60% of revenues, then a 10% change in labor costs might wipe out the margin entirely, and a much smaller change in costs might flip the investment from making sense to not making sense.

We run a seasonal business with part-time workers who are older and on Medicare.  Regulations about exactly how much we will have to pay under Obamacare have not been written, so we have no idea how much our employment costs will go up in 2014, so we sit and wait.  I have cancelled two planned campground construction projects in the last 6 months because we have no freaking idea if they will make money.

If I am having trouble with just this one law figuring out whether to make investments, what are, say, oil companies doing in evaluating investments when they have absolutely no idea what their taxes will be, whether they will be permitted or not to drill, or whether they will be subject to cap and trade?

One other thought, it strikes me that there is a lot of good scholarship that suggests that the Great Depression was extended by just this kind of regime uncertainty.  Now, of course, the proposed structural changes to the economy being proposed at the time were more radical than anything on the table today.  The National Industrial Recovery Act was essentially an experiment in Mussolini-style economic corporatism, until most of it was struck down by the Supreme Court.   Nothing so radical is being proposed (unless you work in health care).

Look, I know the Left has convinced itself that only consumer demand matters in an economy, but business investment has simply got to matter in a recovery.   If the returns on future investments are harder to predict, and therefore riskier, businesses are going to apply a higher hurdle rate to new investments, meaning they don't stop entirely, but do invest less.

One interesting may to confirm this some day would be to look back and see if larger corporations with political access invested more than smaller ones or ones with less access.  Did GE, who clearly can get whatever it wants right now from the government, invest more than a small company or even than Exxon, which is on the political outs?  If so, this in my mind would confirm the regime uncertainty hypothesis, because it means that the companies doing most of the investing were the ones confident that they could shape the mandates coming out of the government in their favor.

Beyond regime uncertainty, if you want to talk about Obama and the recovery, you have to mention that a trillion dollars was diverted from private hands to public hands.  Does anyone believe that taking a trillion dollars out of whatever investments private actors would have used the money for and diverting most of it to help maintain government payrolls is really the way to increase the strength and productivity of the economy?

  • A Friend

    The effects of the healthcare law are not easy to project at all. The costs to comply for many industries (retail and restaurant chains for example) exceed their profit per employee. When a store that makes $2,000 per employee has to pay $2,500 per employee to provide healthcare, please Mr. Drum, tell me what will happen. Retail and restaurants are the largest employers in the US. Do you really think they will all just fold up shop? All raise prices massively? Will they be exempted and the law made to adapt to the reality that profits per employee, not number of employees, is what determines if a business can afford to cover employee health expenses? What will happen? Mr. Drum will be rich if he correctly predicts all this.

  • Rick Caird

    The other comments on the Drum entry were kind of scarey. I rarely descend into the fever swamps of the left because I am appalled at the level of ignorance over basic economic and financial concepts. One guy with a number of comments simply claimed any discussion of uncertainty was nothing more than Koch brothers or Chamber of Commerce scare stories. No one was able to address anything Coyote wrote or even seemed interested.

    I think it says more about Drum and his audience than it does about the real world.

  • stan

    Private investment doesn't "just matter". It is absolutely critical to recovery.

  • Sam L.

    What I found most interesting was the prof's admission that his thoughts were encumbered by the thought process, and totally UNencumbered by the "going out and talking to those who might be affected" process. Drum won't admit that. He claims "those people" are blowhards, and dismisses them.