Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

Better Measurement of State by State Prosperity

I have always been suspicious of metrics showing that people in, say, San Francisco are way richer than everyone else in the country.  Sure, they have a larger number on their paycheck, but they also very likely have a larger number on their mortgage check.  In a paper by Cletus C. Coughlin, Charles S. Gascon, and Kevin L. Kliesen, the authors publish this map of state per capita income, both before and after adjusting for local cost of living (Link via a long chain that started at Maggies Farm).  As usual click to enlarge.

Worker Mobility and Exploitation

The other day I commented on an interview with an author who felt that seniors living in RV's and "work camping" were somehow more vulnerable to exploitation.

Imagine a person in a small town with a home and she works in the local factory, really the only major employer in that small town.  If she thinks she is getting hosed at work, what can she do?  She can certainly quit, but then she likely must sell her house, find a new place to live, move to a new city, etc.  Basically, she has high job switching costs and thus probably would have to put up with more cr*p before she would leave.  Now imagine our work campers.  I once had an employee tell me that I had to treat him well, because he had wheels on his home and could leave any time.  And he was right.   Work campers, being more mobile, have much lower job switching costs.  Economically, this should make them less, rather than more, vulnerable to exploitation.

As a side note, this is one reason (beyond the obvious ones highlighted by the 2008 crash) that I have always thought the government promotion of home ownership was counter-productive.  I call this cargo cult economics -- legislators observe that successful people own homes, so therefore pass legislation on the assumption that having people own a home will make them successful.  But in fact I think for many classes of workers, home ownership is counter-productive because it reduces their mobility and greatly increases their job switching costs.  I personally, between the ages of 24 and 40, had jobs in 7 different cities in pursuit both of opportunity and employment that matched my interests and skills.  Had I locked myself into my first location (Baytown, Texas) I can't imagine I would be as well off today.

Uber Is About To Become A Much Worse Place To Work

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

  • You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk
  • You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).
  • The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

All of this is going to change.  Why?  Due to lawsuits in most countries that seek to redefine Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.  One such suit just succeeded in England:

Is Uber a taxi firm or a technology company, and are its drivers self-employed or mistreated employees? These questions are being asked of Uber the world over, and last year an employment tribunal case in the UK concluded two drivers were, in fact, entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other benefits. The ride-hailing service contested this potentially precedent-setting decision, as you'd expect, but today Uber lost its appeal. In other words, the appeal tribunal upheld the original ruling that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed.

The appeal tribunal agreed that when a driver is logged in and waiting for a job, that's still tantamount to "working time." Working time they aren't getting paid for, of course. Interestingly, the ruling also noted that Uber basically has a monopoly on private hire via an app. Therefore, drivers are beholden to them and can't reasonably engage in other work while also being at Uber's disposal.

GMB, the union for professional drivers that's behind the original case, is calling it "a landmark victory." Naturally, the law firm representing the GMB and Uber drivers feels much the same. No points for guessing who has a slightly different opinion.

Despite Engadget's usual economic ignorance that this must be all good for drivers, in fact this is going to destroy about everything that makes Uber attractive as compared to 9-5 office jobs.  That is, if rulings like this don't kill the company entirely, as I have previously prophesied.

This is going to add a new cost for Uber, forcing them to pay money to drivers for dead time when they are not actually driving a passenger.  Let's make the reasonable assumption that Uber's first response to this is to A) stay in business and B) attempt to keep prices to customers from rising.  The only way they can do this is to minimize dead time.

Want to park at your house in an unpromising neighborhood with little business?  Forget it, Uber can't allow that in the future.  Want to work at an unproductive hour of your choosing?  Forget it.  Uber is going to have to set quotas on certain regions and hours of the day that are less productive and find a way to ban drivers from working those times.   In addition, they are likely to institute some sort of productivity metric for drivers, ie something like revenue minutes as a percent of total, and then they are going to rank all the drivers and start cutting drivers from the bottom of the list.  If Uber survives, it is going to be a very different company to work for, and is going to feel much more like a regular office job with a boss hanging around your cubicle pestering you about TPS reports.

Progressives Hate When You Make Job Choices That They Would Not Make Themselves

I must say I was tremendously surprised when a reader sent me this interview and book review, which is summarized thus:

In her powerful new book, “Nomadland,” award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder reveals the dark, depressing and sometimes physically painful life of a tribe of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are — as the subtitle says — “surviving America in the twenty-first century.” Not quite homeless, they are “houseless,” living in secondhand RVs, trailers and vans and driving from one location to another to pick up seasonal low-wage jobs, if they can get them, with little or no benefits.

The book seems to be mostly focused on Amazon, at least from what I can glean from this interview, and I will say that I am pretty much totally unaware of working conditions at Amazon or how happy their employees are, so I cannot comment on them.  I do know that Amazon seems to be starting to eclipse even Walmart as the new target for progressive teeth-gnashing about working conditions.

However, the author seems to be painting with a pretty broad brush here, and is trying to apply her comments to all "workampers," or folks who have given up a settled lifestyle and live a quasi-nomadic lifestyle in an RV.  I am very familiar with this basic concept, as my company hires about 350 of these folks every year to live and work in the campgrounds and recreation areas we operate (this is how the camp host job works).

The article was surprising because I get about 25,000 applications every year from these workampers for about 50 open job positions.  It seems like something people really want to do.  People call me begging me for a job, which includes both physically easy tasks (e.g. checking in campers) and physically more difficult tasks (e.g. cleaning bathrooms and raking).  Most of our employees love the experience, and articles like this one about our hosts and how much they like the work are not uncommon.

Anyway, I wanted to offer a few random thoughts on this interview:

  1.  It is really common, especially among progressives, for folks to say some sort of employment is objectively bad mainly because they would not want that particular job.  This has been a feature of "sweatshop" criticism for years.  Underlying much of the critique is the feeling that "I could never imagine working for $2 a day" so it must be bad.  Of course you can't imagine it, and neither can I -- as Americans we fortunately have many better choices.  But for someone in Vietname whose family has been subsistence farming for generations for less than a $1 a day in back-breaking work where harvests can fail and the whole family perish from starvation, a $2 a day factory job might seem like a gift from heaven.
  2. It is not clear to me why the employers of these older folks are at fault.  The author asserts that no one else will hire these folks, that this is their only choice -- "Few have chosen this life."  If this is so, why place the blame on the only folks willing to hire these people?  I can understand if Amazon were luring people out of comfortable professional jobs on false pretenses that this would be unethical, but why are they to blame if they hire the otherwise unemployable?  I would think that makes them a hero.
  3. It strikes me that 20 years ago, authors like this one were writing pieces about age discrimination and how terrible it is that no one will hire old people.  Now we learn the opposite, that companies are terrible for hiring them.  Forty years ago the author might have been writing about how stultifying middle American suburbs and corporate life were, but now we learn that folks who choose to be nomadic and try some alternative need to go back to the suburbs.
  4. I honestly have no idea what this even means: "We live in a culture where if your number didn’t come up, you’re a bad person, you’re lazy, you should be ashamed of yourself. It eats away at people. It makes them more exploitable."  Let me tell a story.  I do not hire managers from the outside -- everyone I promote to manager has to have worked for me at least a year as a front-line camp host.   Some of the folks that get promoted were managers in their former careers, but most never were.  In fact, I have many managers who never even considered that they could ever manage people, and suddenly discover at the age of 65 or 70 that they can do it.  Seeing this happen is the greatest joy in my job.  I don't know how to reconcile this with the author's statement.
  5. The author wants to blame this all on the 2008 financial crisis, but I guess that is confusing.  I know it took a long time for folks to get jobs back who lost them, and I don't want to minimize the pain of that, but she implies this is a lot about people losing all their savings.  "I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald’s before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too."  I have no doubt this sort of thing happened, but frequently?  All our investments took a hit in 2008 and 2009 but almost everything is higher now than in 2008.  It would have taken some heroically bad choices (or a lot of leverage) to lose absolutely everything,
  6. The one thing I think the author and I would agree on is that the current retirement system is unsustainable.  However, I think we would come to vastly different conclusions.  She says, "We saw in the 1980s a shift from pensions to 401(k)s; that was a raw deal for workers. These retirement plans were marketed as an instrument of financial freedom, but they were really transferring risk from the shoulder of the employers to the backs of the workers."  This is only partially true.  If one is working at Sears with a traditional pension, one likely has way more risk right now (with Sears teatering on bankrupcy and your savings effectively invested all in one company) than if one had a 401(k) invested in the S&P500.  However, I would argue that what is broken in the retirement system is the assumption that everyone has a right to a 30 year mostly-healthy end-of-life vacation.  When pensions were first started, people did not live much longer than they worked.  Now they do.  Good!  But our retirement system and our expectations for it have not changed.  One only has to look at the State of Illinois to see the end game of these mismatched assumptions.
  7. (added as an update):  To the point about "exploitation".    Imagine a person in a small town with a home and she works in the local factory, really the only major employer in that small town.  If she thinks she is getting hosed at work, what can she do?  She can certainly quit, but then she likely must sell her house, find a new place to live, move to a new city, etc.  Basically, she has high job switching costs and thus probably would have to put up with more cr*p before she would leave.  Now imagine our work campers.  I once had an employee tell me that I had to treat him well, because he had wheels on his home and could leave any time.  And he was right.   Work campers, being more mobile, have much lower job switching costs.  Economically, doesn't this make them less, rather than more, vulnerable to exploitation?
  8. Note, when asked to point to true exploitation (rather than just less-than-ideal jobs) who is the one example she can think of:

You write that sometimes the Nomads are exploited. How? 

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service and learned that some of their workers aren’t getting paid for all their hours. They weren’t allowed to invoice.

A few years ago one branch of the Federal government, the Department of Labor, decided that it was a morally urgent to make sure everyone working in a Federal campground operated by a private company like mine should make at least $10.15 an hour, and imposed this special minimum wage.  And we complied.  But then another branch of the Federal government, the US Forest Service, decided that it could now run the campgrounds cheaper themselves because they could staff it with volunteers and not pay this minimum wage.  Apparently it is not morally urgent for them to pay the minimum wage.  While the USFS sometimes pays hosts a stipend, this stipend, as the author notes above, is well below even state minimum wages and certainly well below the campground concessionaire minimum wage set by the DOL.  I find it not at all surprising the best example of true exploitation comes from the government.  However, how much do you want to bet this author asks that we rely on government to eliminate imagined exploitation in the private world?

Postscript:  It reflects classic middle class snobbery to call these folks "homeless".  I have hired nearly thousands of work campers over the years and have yet to meet one who considers themselves to be homeless.  They would say they have a home -- and it has wheels on it.

Reasonable People Will Disagree -- The Tesla Example

Too often people today in public discourse assume that those who disagree with them are bad people, or have bad motivations.  Or at best, they assume others don't have all the facts and have been influenced by some biased media source.

But perfectly well-motivated people with the exact same data can reach stunningly different conclusions.   A while back I signed up for a (free) investing website called Seeking Alpha.  In doing so, they asked me to list some of the stocks I followed, and they send me email alerts when those stocks have new articles on the site.  One of the securities I put in there was Tesla, so I have been watching the flow of articles on this one company.

It has been an amazing exercise!  Most all the authors are working with the exact same data set, in this case the financial reports and public statements of the company.  And each time new information comes out, there is an absolute flood of articles from different authors.  Many of which have completely opposite reactions to the data -- one says its wildly positive for x and y reasons, another says it is wildly negative for z reasons.  The timeline of articles on Tesla is here.

As a disclosure, I was short Tesla until the other day when I covered at the bottom of their big price drop.  Yay!  I finally made money on a short.  I think Tesla is a mess, and its merger with SolarCity borderline corrupt.  My brother-in-law, a successful entrepreneur in the tech space, thought the merger was brilliant and part of a grand strategy with Musk playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers.

Though It Would Benefit Me Greatly, the Proposed Pass-Through Entity Tax Cut Is A Bad Idea

In the most recent version of a tax "reform" proposal in Congress, there was a provision for a reduced personal income tax rate on income from pass-through entities.  A pass-through entity is usually an S-corporation or an LLC, where the entity fills out a corporate tax form but pays no income taxes -- instead the income passes through to the individuals who own the entity, and taxes are paid on the individual return.  This was a great innovation because it provides an alternative to the double taxation of income that still exists with traditional C-corporations  (ie tax is paid by the corporation on income and again on the same income when it is passed through as capital gains or dividends to the owners).

I own an S-corp and would benefit greatly from a reduced tax rate on S-corp pass through income.  But I oppose it.  The basis of this tax proposal is a familiar one -- there is some type of economic behavior that Congress thinks is either meritorious or counter-productive, and there is a great urge to tweak the tax code to promote or hinder these behaviors.  We get sold on the idea that owning a home is better than renting and thus we have the mortgage interest deduction.  There are thousands of such tweaks in the tax code, and most have little to do with economic reality and more to do with some special interest rent-seeking with Congress.

Someone in Congress thinks it's good that business people own small businesses and they should get a lower tax rate.  That's me, so thanks. But we end up with craziness, exactly as we do every time Congress tries to pick winners and losers.  Here would be effective tax rates (corporate + individual) for income earned in different ways under the new plan:

  • The lowest rate would be for income to a passive investor in a pass-through
  • The next lowest rate would be for income to an active investor in a pass-through -- yes, from a tax point of view it is less meritorious to actually work at the pass-through entity than just collect checks.  The logic is that part of one's pass-through income is for "labor" and thus needs to be taxed at the higher regular income tax rate.  How anyone can separate how much of my profits are from my labor and how much is from -- what?  unicorns? -- I have no idea
  • The next higher rate would be paid on passive income from a C-corporation like ExxonMobil, which would be taxed at the corporate rate and then taxed at the dividend rate (currently 15%) on the individual return but the combination would likely be less than the maximum personal rate.  For people without a lot of other income, this might be the highest taxed activity.
  • The highest rate would be for people simply working and earning income, assuming they are in the upper tax brackets.

All of this makes zero sense, or to the extent it makes sense to anyone is based on economic theories that likely don't hold a lot of water.  It reminds me of the old efforts to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor when giving out relief.  Every person in Congress seems to have a personal vision of deserved and undeserved income.  Just because the current folks have me in the deserving category doesn't mean that the next batch won't put me in the opposite category.

I think the entire corporate tax system needs to be junked.  The amount of effort that goes into compliance, and perhaps more importantly, the number of distortions is creates, make finding an alternative well worth the effort.  My tax plan has always been:

  1. Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code except for a single personal deduction
  2. Eliminate the corporate income tax.
  3. Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.
  4. Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

Corporate income all eventually passes through to individuals as capital gains or dividends, so eventually they do get taxed.  The same is true of inherited assets -- because they would not get written up in value at death, they would still trigger large capital gains once tapped by those who inherit the assets.  As far as rates are concerned, I actually don't see a strong need for a flat tax -- I can live with the progressive rates we have now.

I have heard people of late saying that we can't eliminate the corporate income tax because foreign investors would never get taxed.  First, they would get taxed, just in their home country.  And second, who cares?  There have got to be a lot of things worse than a rush of foreign capital into the US.

The Irony and Internal Contradiction of Passive Investment Management

My relatively snarky post on hedge fund fees and passive management got a lot of response, including a few of challenging emails from friends and acquaintances.  So I wanted to cover a few followups here.

One of the interesting features of passive investment management is that it doesn't work if everyone does it.  I vaguely remember there is some name for this in the game theory world but I can't for the life of me remember.  Anyway, passive investment is based on the theory that the market for financial products is relatively transparent and efficient.  While one stock will certainly perform better than another, it is almost impossible (or at least really expensive) in a mostly-efficient market for a regular investor, or even an average fund manager, to parse this out.  As a  result, high fees or expenses one might incur to find these opportunities generally don't pay for themselves, and it is better to just invest in a broad basket of securities and accept the average market return.

But note that this is predicated on the assumption that someone, somewhere is actively managing.  Someone must be looking for good stocks and bad stocks and buying the former and selling the latter.  Without these folks actively managing, it would not be an efficient market.  [I am reminded at this point of the old joke about a man walking down the street with an economist.  The economist steps right over a $100 bill on the sidewalk without stopping.  The man asks the economist, "why didn't you stop and pick up that money?" and the economist answers, "in an efficient market it can't really be there."]

I remember a while back reading economic research about shopping.  What percentage of customers have to be active price-shoppers to make a market efficient?  I personally don't price shop for the small stuff.  If I need a bunch of cheap bulk stuff, I just run to Wal-Mart or Costco and buy it with confidence I am getting a pretty good price.  But why can I do that?  Because I trust these large corporations to honor their promise for low prices?  Hah!  No way.  What I trust is that there are people who clip coupons and price every dang item to the penny, and it is these folks who keep Costco and Walmart honest.  Government interventionists like to talk about the free rider problem all the time, but most all of us are free riders on these hard core shoppers.

The same is true with us passive investors.   I like to get snarky about the fees certain active investors charge, but I am still dependent on their work.  And I don't particularly doubt that there are hedge funds and private equity firms that make consistently above market returns, but I do think they are a minority.  I would equate it to max-contract players in the NBA.  No one doubts Lebron James merits a max contract -- any of the teams in the NBA would sign that deal in five seconds.  But a max deal for, say, Chandler Parsons?  Joakim Noah?  The problem with hedge funds is that the few of these folks who merit the two and twenty max contract have very likely been closed to new investors for years, in the same way it is impossible to get LeBron James to play for Memphis.  It is frustrating for me to see public and private institutions chasing yield and continuing to pay 2 and 20 to folks with an unproven algorithm and a marketing plan.  If I am going to pay 2 and 20, its more likely to be to someone in private equity or an LBO fund who is doing more than stock picking.  That's because I do think that stocks are generally well-valued on the market based on their current management, investment plans, culture, etc.  But they may contain opportunities for smart people who can come in and, for example, apply different management and culture and strategy to the people and assets.  A box that is half Kale and half candy corns might not sell for a good price because no one wants the combination, so value can be created splitting it up.

A couple of other thoughts that came up in discussions since yesterday:

  • I am willing to believe that passive investing looks so good vis a vis active investing because central banks have inflated assets and compressed volatility.  If all the boats are rising with the tide of state actions that are raising the tide, then one is less likely to be fussy about which boat he is on.  What's the point of value investing when the market treats stocks as commodities?  But I can certainly see that in markets like the late 70's or pre-market-boom early 80's that stock pickers might have had more room to differentiate themselves.
  • I am also willing to concede that passive investing may turn out to be a terrible trend for corporate governance.  If all your shareholders are just holding your stock as part of a basket of 500 stocks, who is going to hold you accountable?  It is very awkward for a Vanguard agitate for changes in a company, even when they might be the largest single shareholder.  Also, ironically, passive investing may be opening the door for single lone wolf activist investors to impose their will on companies, sometimes to the other shareholders' detriment.  If one person with 5% cares a lot and the other 95% are passive, that one person might be able to raise a lot of hell.

As a final note, I am a screaming hypocrite on the whole passive investing thing, since with most of my net worth I am the ultimate in active investors.  I have most of my savings in one company, the one I run.

Confirmation Bias and the Morningstar Story in the WSJ

Like many folks, including Mark Perry, I would tend to agree with the following statements

  • Past performance is not a very good indicator of likely future performance
  • One should generally eschew managed funds in favor of low-cost index funds

However, I think a lot of folks who believe these same things are applying confirmation bias when looking at the data in a recent WSJ story on Morningstar.  Morningstar analyzes mutual funds and rates them based on their past 1/3/5/10-years performance in relation to other funds of the same type.  Funds in the upper quintile of past performance get 5 stars, the next quintile gets 4 stars, etc.

Morningstar is sort of coy about whether the ratings are supposed to have predictive value.  They will say that of course they only measure past performance, but there would be no way to sell these ratings to folks for millions of dollars (as they do) without there being some implication the ratings were at least partially indicative of future performance.

So the WSJ did something interesting -- they went back 10 years and took all the 5 star funds and looked at how they have done since (as measured by Morningstar itself with its star ratings).  So how many 5-star funds ten years ago actually had 5-star performance over the subsequent years, and so on.  And it turns out that a lot of the 5-star funds have not performed very well.  This is a good reminder to us all.

BUT.  Look at their own data:

Yes, the 5-star funds from 10 years ago only average 3 today.   Everything regresses towards the mean, as we random walk folks might expect.

But the 5-star funds did better than the 4, which did better than the 3, which did better than the 2, which did better than the 1.  This actually understates the difference, because many of the lowest performing funds in the lower star categories closed in this 10 year period, so are not in the final metrics, which likely raises the scores of some of the lower buckets because they dropped out (59% of the 1-star funds closed or merged in this period while only 22% of the 5-star funds did so).

This is actually -- to someone who doesn't really buy into the whole stock-picking thing -- a pretty impressive achievement.  I challenge you to take stocks or bonds or mutual funds of roughly the same type and divide them into 5 buckets, rank the buckets by expected performance, and actually have this ranking hold for 10 years.

Keynesian Economic Stimulation, White Collar Edition

Yet Again, Forgetting the Mix

I like reading Zero Hedge, though their laudable cynicism about government and financial markets sometimes edges into conspiracy theory.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight something in a post there today about BLS data.  Various writers at the site have claimed for years that government economic data is being manipulated.  I am not sure I buy it -- I distrust government a lot but am not sure their employees could sustain such a fraud over months and years.  And besides, once you manipulate data one time to juice some metric, you have to keep doing it or the metric just reverses the next month.   Corporations that play special quarter-end inventory games to increase reported sales learn this very quickly.  Where there are apparent errors, I am much more willing to assume incompetence than conspiracy.

The example this week is from the BLS payrolls data, and I will quote from the article and show their chart:

Another way of showing the July to August data:

  • Goods-Producing Weekly Earnings declined -0.8% from $1,118.68 to $1,109.92
  • Private Service-Providing Weekly Earnings declined -0.1% from $868.80 to $868.18
  • And yet, Total Private Hourly Earnings rose 0.2% from $907.82 to %909.19

What the above shows is, in a word, impossible: one can not have the two subcomponents of a sum-total decline, while the total increases. The math does not work.

Certainly this is an interesting catch and if I were producing the data I would take these observations as a reason to check my work.  But the author is wrong to say that this is "impossible".  The reason is that these are not, as he says, two sub-components of a sum. They are two sub-components of a weighted average.  Total private average weekly earnings is going to be the goods producing weekly average times number of goods producing hours plus service producing weekly average times the number of service producing hours all over the total combined hours.

From this I hope you can see that even if the both sub averages go down, the total average can go up if the weights change.  Specifically, the total average can still go up if there is a mix shift from service providing to goods producing hours, since the average weekly wages of the latter are much higher than the former.  I will confess it would have to be a pretty big jump in mix.  The percent goods producing hours would have to rise from 15.6% to almost 17%, which strikes me as a very large jump for one month.  So I am not claiming this is what happened, but people miss the mix changes all the time.  I had to explain it constantly back in my corporate days.   Another example here.

I Think I Am A Macroeconomics Denier

Microeconomics generally provides a powerful set of tools that have proven useful and successful predictors of how things work in the world.  But I am not sure I trust anything at all from macroeconomics.  Sure, I am fine with work about what contributes to or hinders wealth creation over long time periods -- Ricardo and Adam Smith and Julian Simon and Deirdre McCloskey and that sort of work.  But I am not sure macro is capable of any useful predictions on the 5-20 year scale.  Perhaps it is like climate and trying to isolate output effects of changing one input when millions of other variables are changing is simply impossible for us at this time.  Perhaps the stakes of macro, since it drives major public policy and government spending and regulator decisions, are simply too high for objective work.  I don't know, but I don't trust any of it.  Particularly when so many of the current recommendations for increasing near-term prosperity contradict what we know to have driven long-term prosperity.

Engadget Is My Go-To Source For Bad Economic Analysis. Today's Lesson: Apparently Items Are More Valuable If You Can't Resell Them

The following from Endadget may be clearer if you translate the British "touts" to the American "scalpers"

Touts are unnecessary middlemen, inflating ticket prices purely to create a cut for themselves. Gig-goers hate them, artists hate them, and the government isn't too keen either. The use of automated online bots to hoover up tickets (that are later listed on resale sites with a mark-up) is set to become a criminal offence thanks to the Digital Economy Act. The government has also implored venues and resale sites to address the ways they might be enabling touts. Sure, we might be lose the stub souvenir, but can we just make digital-only ticketing mandatory and kill all the birds with one stone already?

This view of scalpers as leeching middlemen with no economic value but rather as rent-seekers who merely mark up tickets and pocket the money is unfortunately common.  But they are in fact a perfectly normal functioning of markets.  They perform at least two economic functions

  1.  Events often are mispriced for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they charge too much, as in the recent McGregor-Mayweather fight, and the arena is half-empty.  The market can't do much to fix this.  But sometimes events are under-priced, and the demand far exceeds the available supply of tickets.  When this happens, some method of rationing must occur.  Back in my day rationing was by who was lucky enough to dial in at the exact right moment or who was willing to camp out all night.  Resale markets, including scalpers, where tickets are resold well above face value are another approach.  Scalpers don't make money taking some sort of middleman fee, they make money buying tickets at face and then taking the risk that they can resell them later at a higher price.  They are not always successful.  I have sold a number of tickets I could no longer use under face to get rid of them, taking a loss.
  2. If you cannot resell a ticket to the person you want for the price you like, you lose some of your property rights in that ticket and it is less valuable to you.  Look at airline tickets, which are all electronic today and cannot be resold or transferred.  Are you better off as a consumer not having a secondary market for airline tickets?  Do you really like tickets that are use-them-or-lose-them propositions?  The contention in this article that consumers are better off if their concert tickets worked more like airline tickets is simply nonsense.  Scalpers increase our consumer sovereignty.

It should be noted that a digital ticket does not automatically mean loss of property rights in that ticket.  I bought Dallas Cowboys playoff tickets and Hamilton tickets on a secondary market and got them transferred to me electronically.  The Ticketmaster electronic app, at least currently, allows you to transfer the ticket to someone else and so digital ticketing platforms don't have to mean scalpers go away -- one could easily imagine two guys in a parking lot can still transact in tickets from their cell phones.  But the danger, of course, is that unlike with paper tickets this right of resale can be taken away any time by simply blocking the transfer function.  The article does not make this clear but I assume they are promoting a platform where once you buy the ticket you can only resell it back via the original seller (if at all), or else the entire article would be complete nonsense (always a possibility on engadget).

Artists and producers are complete hypocrites on this issue.  They are jealous because they would like to charge what the market could bear for their tickets but fear fan backlash if they do.  So they keep prices low so they can claim to be the fan's friend, but with a catch -- they hold back a ton of inventory in the hottest shows and do not offer that to the public at the published low price.  They sell this inventory at high prices to sponsors and other special groups or even sell it themselves at high market rates on the same 3rd party resale sites they publicly criticize.   What these folks really want is for there only to be secondary markets that they control. They don't want competition from third parties, and this lack of competition is only going to be worse for the consumer.  Think of it this way -- what if by law you could only resell your car to the dealer you bought it from.  Would you get as good of a price.  Hah!

 

Price Gouging Laws: Allocating Goods in An Emergency To People Who Have Nothing Much Valuable to Do

During an emergency like a hurricane, many different categories of goods and services experience supply-demand shocks.  The shock may be because of a fall in supply (e.g. oil companies can't get gasoline into the area) or a spike in demand (e.g. for generators or plywood) or a combination of both.  In a free market, prices will rise to help match supply and demand.  Higher prices cause people with less valuable or more frivolous uses of the scarce goods to defer purchase, and can cause suppliers to expend extra effort to get product into the area, even diverting supplies from other areas.

When the government institutes price gouging laws in an emergency, the supply-demand mismatch that leads to the rising prices isn't magically eliminated.   First, without higher price incentives, all the incentives to get more supply into the area are lost.  Supply and demand under these regulations can only be matched by rationing demand, and typically this is through queuing and increasing search costs (e.g. driving around all over the place looking for a station that is open and has gas).  People who gain the limited supplies in this regime are thus those with a lot of time on their hands, where the marginal cost of queuing and driving around does not impose a lot of cost.  Think about a roofer scrambling to repair roofs after the a storm -- do they have time to have their trucks and crews sitting dormant in gas lines?  Thus, price gouging laws tend to ensure that scarce goods in an emergency flow to those with the least use for them.

Shifting Mix is Often Ignored as the Reason Behind A Shifting Mean

I have written about this mix effect many times, eg here.  Imagine a corporate division that sells tables and chairs.  The CEO is reviewing this division's performance, and sees that their revenues are increasing but their profit margin is falling.  He asks his analyst to look into it - is it the tables or the chairs or both that are showing falling margins.  Our poor harassed analyst comes back and says, uh, neither.  The profit margins for both tables and chairs went up last year.  Well, the CEO asks, if revenues are up and all their component margins are going up, how is their total margin falling?  It turns out that tables make a much higher margin than chairs, and over the last year the company has seen a much higher growth in chair sales than table sales.  The mix is shifting towards a lower margin product and is bringing the averages down.  By the way, I can say with authority that this conversation is much harder when the analyst is yours truly and the CEO is famed tough (but talented) boss Chuck Knight of Emerson Electric.

Whether the media mentions this effect or not, it is happening all the time.  Here is an example from the WSJ:

One mystery of this economic expansion is that wage growth has remained slow even as the labor market has finally tightened. One widely cited culprit is historically low productivity growth. But a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco adds a more optimistic, albeit paradoxical, explanation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that median weekly earnings had risen in July by a healthy 4.2% on an annual basis, the fastest growth in a decade. As labor markets tighten, employers typically increase wages. Until this past year, however, median weekly earnings growth had hovered near 2%, which is significantly less than the 3.25% average from 1983 to 2015.

So why haven’t wages risen faster amid an increase in hiring and unfilled jobs? One answer is that wages have actually been growing at a faster clip—around 4% to 5%—at least for full-time workers with steady jobs. But new full-time workers who are generally paid less than the retirees they replace are dragging down the average wage increase.

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed this week updated their 2016 paper that disaggregated the wages of full-time workers with steady employment from recent entrants—that is, new workers or those returning to full-time work. Their earlier analysis showed that average wage growth had slowed less than expected during the recession while staying relatively flat during the recovery.

That’s because workers who lost jobs during the recession were generally lower skilled and lower paid, so average weekly wages didn’t fall significantly. However, many of those workers have since been rehired at below-average wages, which has depressed the aggregate.

In prior expansions, wage growth has been driven mostly by continuously full-time employed workers, and the researchers find that’s still the case. Wage growth for these workers is now close to the pre-recession 2007 peak. But there are now many more workers who have been on the labor-force sidelines who are moving to full-time employment, thus creating a drag on wages.

This is frequently how mix shifts play out in the news.  Notice that there are actually two pieces of good news here:  1.  Wages for full-time workers who have been employed for a while are growing well and 2.  lower-skilled and less experienced workers who left the labor force are now getting jobs and returning to work.  However, when these are combined, the net is portrayed as bad news, ie wage growth in the US is sluggish.  Because the mix was ignored.

Government Stimulus, Illustrated

Regulators Are Almost By Definition Anti-Consumer

Free markets are governed and regulated by consumers.  If suppliers offer something, and consumers like it and like how that particular supplier provides it more than other choices they have, the supplier will likely prosper.  If suppliers attempt to offer consumers something they don't want or need, or already have enough of from acceptable sources, the supplier will likely wither and disappear.  That is how free markets work.  Scratch a Bernie Sanders supporter and you will find someone who does not understand this basic fact of consumer sovereignty.

Regulators generally are operating from a theory that says there is some sort of failure in the market, that consumers are not able to make the right choices or are not offered the choices they really want and only the use of force by regulators can fix this failure.  In practice, regulators have no way of mandating a product or service that producers cannot economically or technically provide (see: exit from Obamacare exchanges) and so all they actually do is limit choice by pruning products or services or individual features the regulators don't think consumers should be offered.   They substitute the judgement of a handful of people for the judgement of thousands, or millions, and ignore that there is not some single Platonic ideal of a product out there, but thousands or millions of ideals based on the varied preferences of millions of people.

A reader sends me a fabulous example of this from the Socialist Republic of Cambridge, Mass.

Month after month, in public meeting after public meeting, a trendy pizza mini-chain based in Washington, D.C., hacked its way through a thicket of bureaucratic crimson tape in the hopes of opening up shop in a vacant Harvard Square storefront. But when the chain, called &pizza, arrived at the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal in April, the thicket turned into a jungle.

Harvard Square already has plenty of pizza, board chairman Constantine Alexander declared, and though a majority of the board signed off on &pizza’s plans, approval required a four-vote supermajority. Citing the existence of five supposedly similar pizza joints in the area, as well as concerns about traffic congestion, a potential “change in established neighborhood character,” and even the color of the restaurant’s proposed signage, Alexander and cochair Brendan Sullivan dissented.

“A pizza is a pizza is a pizza,” Alexander said at one point during the April hearing, sounding suspiciously like someone who doesn’t eat much pizza or give much thought to the eating habits of the 22,000 or so college students who live in the city.

A city ordinance dictates that any new fast-food place should be approved only if it “fulfills a need for such a service in the neighborhood or in the city.” But the notion that an unelected city board should be conducting market research using some sort of inscrutable eye test to decide precisely what kind of cuisine is appropriate for Harvard Square stretches that to the point of absurdity.

Why SJW's Are the Worst Mystery Writers (Spoiler Alert: The Culprit is Always Racism)

A while back I wrote "Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender."

A classic example of this is Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains.  She has apparently detected the great conspiracy behind the modern Right, which according do her is a racist backlash against the civil rights movement.  And the person at the heart of this conspiracy is... economist James Buchanan?

For those who don't know, which is probably most of the folks in this country, Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of public choice theory.  If you are unfamiliar with this body of work, I encourage you to investigate it, but in short it analyzes government officials as self-interested and subject to all the same incentives as ordinary people.   This is in contrast to highly idealized analyses that consider government agents as perfectly serving the public and judges proposed government actions by their stated goals, rather than their likely operations as run by real human beings.  It was developed in part as a reaction to  market critics who would cite real world issues in complex markets and compare them to idealized results of hypothetical government regulations.  It tends to explain things like special interest politics, regulatory capture, cronyism, and rent-seeking much better than traditional, rosier theories of government.  For example

So the Progressive Left tends to hate public choice theory.  They have nearly infinite faith in government action and don't like to hear about its limitations.  So it is not surprising that MacLean would write a thoughtful, scholarly critique of public choice theory, backed by a variety of economic evidence.  HAH!  Just kidding.  This is 2017.  Academics in the social sciences, mostly on the Left, don't operate that way.  The only approach they know to refuting such a theory is to link it with racism.  And so that is what she attempts.  This is part of the summary from Amazon:

“[A] vibrant intellectual history of the radical right . . .” – The Atlantic

“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be” – NPR

“Riveting” – O, The Oprah Magazine (Top 20 Books to Read This Summer)

An explosive exposé of the right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution.

Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us.

Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan’s work in teaching others how to divide America into “makers” and “takers.” And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan’s strategy.

Hah, this is the Progressive Left, so you just knew the Kochs had to be implicated as well.  A couple of thoughts

  • My first response is:  if only.  It would be fabulous if, say, the Republican Party was constructed on top of the work of Buchanan and public choice theory. Alas, it is not
  • The links to racism the books rests on are simply a joke, but typical of the quality of public discourse today.  You see it all the time.  Coyote gave money to the Cato Institute.  Joe Racist and Jane Hatemonger also gave money to Cato.  So Coyote has been "linked" to these bad people, and therefor must believe everything they do.**
  • Yet another in a long line of books about how libertarians are plotting to enslave you by devolving power to the individual and leaving you alone
  • Don Boudreaux has been collecting a lot of links to critiques of the book.  Beyond the silly vast-right-wing-conspiracy level of scholarship, apparently MacLean edited a lot of the key quotes she uses in the book to essentially reverse their meaning.

 

** This is an aspect of Progressive thought today that I think is not discussed enough.  I used to make common cause with folks on the Left and the Right on individual issues.  This is becoming increasingly hard, particularly with the Progressive Left, because they tend to demand conformity with them on issues x, y, z before they will work with you on issue w.  I had to step down from a leadership role in an effort to legalize gay marriage in AZ because I did not agree with groups like HRC on things like climate change.  Progressives then assume everyone else is following this totalitarian principle, so if later I make common cause with the Right, say on school choice, I am branded as being anti-immigration.  That is silly, given what I have written, but to them actual words I have written are irrelevant -- what is important is that I did one thing one time on one issue with someone on the Right, so I am now branded with whatever political baggage the Right might have.

How Scarce Goods Are Allocated In A World Without Prices

I can think of at least two ways goods are allocated when there are no prices

  • By use of force.  In modern societies, use of force is generally limited to the government so in practice this means that goods without prices will tend to flow to those with government power or who are cronies of those in power.  A great example were the special stores in the Soviet Union for party officials, but examples great and small abound today.  Here is one small one.
  • By queuing or time spent searching.  The examples of this are all around us, though they frequently are not strictly of things without prices but of things that have been priced far below their market clearing price.  I think back to my days queuing in physical lines (long before Ticketmaster and the Internet) for concert tickets that were not free but were priced so far below market clearing prices that one had to wait in long lines to get them.  The gasoline lines of the 1970's and the time spent driving around looking for a gas station that had gas is another example.  A more recent example would be long hospital emergency room lines created by people who get care "free" at emergency rooms.

It was in this context that I read this article on finding parking in New York City.  Residential street parking in NYC is an extremely valuable resource for which there is no monetary charge.  So there is a lot more demand than supply.  So people spend scores of hours a year searching and queuing for spaces.

To some extent, this time cost is sort of like a money cost -- when the cost gets too high in relation to the value people assign to having a car, people give up their cars and bring supply and demand in balance.  But while people may vary in the amount they value having a car, one perverse aspect of any queuing system is that it will tend to allocate goods to the people with the lowest marginal value for their time.   The lower the marginal value one assigns to one's time and labor, the more hours one might be willing to queue and search.

This is a large reason why I have always thought price controls during emergencies - e.g. the "no price gouging during hurricanes" sorts of laws - are particularly destructive.  In the aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane there will be those who are mainly just sitting at home waiting things out, wondering how many days they will get off work and school; and there will be those who have a ton to do - roof repairers, tree cutters, etc.  Think about gasoline, where there is often a temporary supply shortfall after a hurricane.  Prices should rise to bring things in balance but laws do not allow this, so queuing results.  Who is most able to afford to sit in these queues - the person who is just sitting around waiting for things to reopen or the person who is totally bombarded with work and needs to be 23 places at once?  Do we really want roof repairers sitting 2 hours in line for gas behind three teenagers** who had nothing else to do so their parents sent them to top of the tank "just in case"?

** Growing up in Houston through several hurricanes, I have been this teenager and assigned exactly this task.

Creating Income Inequality in Seattle

So Seattle made a public policy change that caused lower-skill, lower-wage employment to lag way behind employment of wealthier, higher-skill folks.

One would expect the Progressive Left to freak out in opposition to this policy.  But in fact this policy is their absolutely most cherished, favorite public policy intervention -- the minimum wage.  As reported earlier, the city of Seattle engaged an economic study of the minimum wage change using some of the best data ever made available for such a study.  This was the result (table 3, in which I removed low-wage employment from all employment to get low wage and all other employment)

Seattle Minimum Wage Study

The Seattle city government commissioned a study (pdf) to see what the actual effects were of their increasing the city minimum wage to $13 (bless their hearts, politicians actually tried to evaluate the actual effects of a controversial policy change).  The study authors had access to a uniquely rich data set.  Unlike folks like Card and Kruger, who had to use proxies for low-skill labor employment such as employment in the fast food industry, this study's authors had access to individual wage and hour data by person by location.   The result was one of the highest measured negative net effects of a minimum wage yet calculated:

This paper evaluates the wage, employment, and hours effects of the first and second phase-in of the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance, which raised the minimum wage from $9.47 to $11 per hour in 2015 and to $13 per hour in 2016. Using a variety of methods to analyze employment in all sectors paying below a specified real hourly rate, we conclude that the second wage increase to $13 reduced hours worked in low-wage jobs by around 9 percent, while hourly wages in such jobs increased by around 3 percent. Consequently, total payroll fell for such jobs, implying that the minimum wage ordinance lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month in 2016. Evidence attributes more modest effects to the first wage increase. We estimate an effect of zero when analyzing employment in the restaurant industry at all wage levels, comparable to many prior studies.

Note what this means -- the amount of pay raise some low-skill employees got was less than the pay lost by workers who had their hours reduced or eliminated.  This is against a backdrop of a huge boom in Seattle in total employment, meaning that the minimum wage greatly increased income inequality, reducing income to lower-skill workers at the same time higher-skill workers were making a lot more money.  This is not surprising given the data here, which shows the difference between low-income and middle class to be more than 80% due to hours worked, not wage rates.

To some extent, the severity of these results was influenced by the limited region to which the wage applied (making it easier for customers to run for the border, so to speak, to find lower-priced goods and services).  But it is telling that the study with by far the best data shows the biggest negative effects.  To this end, the authors actually evaluate the Card and Krueger approach of looking narrowly at fast food employment, and actually are able to replicate Card and Krueger's results (of limited employment effect of a minimum wage increase in the fast food industry) in Seattle.  This means that Card and Kruger, with their limited proxy, would have said Seattle had no negative employment effects while better more comprehensive data shows the opposite.

Thus, by using the imprecise proxy of all jobs in a stereotypically low-wage industry, prior literature may have substantially underestimated the impact of minimum wage increases on the target population. Finally, column 5 returns to evaluating effects on total hours, but now for all 34 jobs in NAICS 722. While the estimates continue to be insignificant, they are now more negative, averaging -3.3% in the last three quarters. This result is consistent with Neumark and Wascher’s (2000) critique of Card and Krueger (1994).

AP Writes Over 1300 Words on the Loss Of Summer Jobs for Teens, Never Mentions Minimum Wage

If one is curious why the public is economically illiterate, look no further than our media.  The AP's Paul Wiseman managed to write 1300 words on the loss of teenage summer jobs, and even lists a series of what he considers to be the causes, without ever once mentioning the minimum wage or the substantial restrictions on teen employment in place in many states.  I do not know Paul Wiseman and so I will not guess at his motivations - whether ignorance or intentional obfuscation - but it is impossible to believe that this trend isn't in part due to the minimum wage.  As I wrote in the comments on the AZ Republic:

How is it possible to write over 1300 words on the disapearance of teenage summer jobs without once mentioning the minimum wage?

Two of the most substantial criticisms of the minimum wage are 1. it prices low-skilled workers out of the market (and there is no one more unskilled than an inexperienced teenager) and 2. it put 100% emphasis on pay as the only reward for work, while giving no credit for things like gaining valuable experience and skills. We clearly see both at work here, and it is likely no coincidence that we are seeing this article in the same year minimum wages went up by 25% in AZ, as they have in many other states.

By the way, in addition to the minimum wage, AZ (as has many other states) has established all sorts of laws to "protect" underrage workers by adding all sorts of special work rules and tracking requirements. In our business, which is a summer recreation business, we used to hire a lot of teenagers. Now we have a policy banning the hiring of them -- they are too expensive, they create too much liability, and the rules for their employment are too restrictive.

Without evidence, he treats it entirely as a supply problem, ie that teens are busy and are not looking for work. But the data do not support this.  The teen unemployment rate, defined as employment by teens actively looking for work, is up.  The workforce participation rate for teens is down, but the author has nothing but anecdotal evidence that this is a supply rather than a demand issue.  It could be because teens are busier or buried in their cell phones or whatever or it could be because they have given up looking for work.

Reversing Cause and Effect?

I hate to quibble about a paper that supports my preconceived notions, but I am bothered by this as linked by Tyler Cowen

We quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009.

Isn’t it possible that cause and effect are being reversed here? I accept that zoning in places like SF make it more expensive. I would have concluded that this higher cost of living allows only the most productive to live there — less productive folks can’t afford it. So the high average productivity of these cities might partially be a result of their higher costs, not because the zoning somehow increases productivity, but because the zoning creates a sorting process where only the most productive may enter, which brings up the averages.  So a reduction in zoning and living costs would cause the productivity numbers for the city to average down as lower-productivity earners can move in.

How Governments Break Markets: 1. Restrict Supply 2. Subsidize Demand 3. Declare Market Failure When Prices Soar

Restrict supply, subsidize demand, and then declare a market failure.  That is how the government has jacked prices through the ceiling in higher education, health care, and housing:

Oregon is responding to its housing affordability crisis by doing all the wrong things. The crisis is due to a shortage in supply which in turn is due to urban-growth boundaries.

So the legislature legalized inclusionary zoning ordinances and Portland passed one. Such ordinances require developers to provide a certain percent of the homes they build to low-income people at below-market rates. In response, developers are building fewer homes, exacerbating the supply problem. City officials “hope the slowdown is temporary,” but that hasn’t proven to be the case in other cities that passed inclusionary zoning ordinances.

Now the state legislature is considering a bill to provide $5 million to help first-time home buyers make down payments on homes. This will have the effect of increasing demand, which will only drive up prices even more.

Oops, There Goes A Feminist Talking Point

The gender #paygap myth has certainly been tenacious.  Years ago someone threw out the figure that women earn 77% as much as men, and have since successfully been able to portray this as women not getting equal pay for equal work, despite the fact that the 77% is not at all corrected for equal work (when so corrected, for things like actual hours worked and differences between industries, the gap typically narrows to 5% or less).

The other day, however, the New York Post let a fact slip by that demolishes this whole gender pay gap meme.  The only explanation I can come up with is that it was in an article headlined "Childish men are to blame for women having kids late in life" so I suppose the powers-that-be assumed that the article must be OK if it was bashing men.  But in it we get this:

Women want an equal partner, but there are increasingly fewer candidates to choose from. The census reports that “the average adult woman in the US is more likely to be a college graduate than the average adult man.” Moreover, today’s young, childless female city-dwellers with college degrees are out-earning their male counterparts by 8 cents on the dollar. Their higher incomes may be why they are less likely (29 percent) to be living with their parents than single men (35 percent).

OOPS!  In the eagerness to beat men up for being under-performing, lazy, uneducated slobs still living with mommy, a meme was destroyed.  In fact, serious scholars (ie those who are not activists) have pointed out for years that unmarried childless women have no pay gap with men of similar ages, it is only after marriage and babies and other such events that some women make life and career choices that reduce their pay.

 

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.