Category Archives: Property Rights

High-speed rail: is this year different?

Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?

The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.

In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.

Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.

The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.

The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.

Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.

There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.

Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.

The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.

Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.

Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.

Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.

I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:

“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”

For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.

Can historic districts dampen urban renewal?

Struggling cities in the Northeast and Midwest have been trying to revitalize their downtown neighborhoods for years. City officials have used taxpayer money to build stadiums, construct river walks, and lure employers with the hope that such actions will attract affluent, tax -paying residents back to the urban core. Often these strategies fail to deliver but that hasn’t deterred other cities from duplicating or even doubling down on the efforts. But if these policies don’t work, what can cities do?

Part of the answer is to allow more building, especially newer housing. One factor that may be hampering the gentrification efforts of many cities is the age of their housing stock. The theory is straightforward and is explained and tested in this 2009 study. From the abstract:

“This paper identifies a new factor, the age of the housing stock, that affects where high- and low-income neighborhoods are located in U.S. cities. High-income households, driven by a high demand for housing services, will tend to locate in areas of the city where the housing stock is relatively young. Because cities develop and redevelop from the center outward over time, the location of these neighborhoods varies over the city’s history. The model predicts a suburban location for the rich in an initial period, when young dwellings are found only in the suburbs, while predicting eventual gentrification once central redevelopment creates a young downtown housing stock.”

In the empirical section of the paper the authors find that:

… a tract’s economic status tends to fall rather than rise as distance increases holding age fixed, suggesting that high-income households would tend to live near city centers were it not for old central housing stocks.” (My bold)

This makes sense. High income people like relatively nicer, newer housing and will purchase housing in neighborhoods where the housing is relatively nicer and newer. In the latter half of the 20th century this meant buying new suburban homes, but as that housing ages and new housing is built to replace the even older housing in the central city high income people will be drawn back to central city neighborhoods. This has the power to reduce the income disparity between the central city and suburbs seen in many metropolitan areas. As the authors note:

Our results show that, if the influence of spatial variation in dwelling ages were eliminated, central city/suburban disparities in neighborhood economic status would be reduced by up to 50 percent within American cities. In other words, if the housing age distribution were made uniform across space, reducing average dwelling ages in the central city and raising them in the suburbs, then neighborhood economic status would shift in response, rising in the center and falling in the suburbs. (My bold)

To get a sense of the age of the housing stock in northern cities, the figure below depicts the proportion of housing in eight different age categories in Ohio’s six major cities as of 2013 (most recent data available, see table B25034 here).

age of ohio's housing stock

The age categories are: built after 2000, from 1990 and 1999, from 1980-89, from 1970-79, from 1960-69, from 1950-59, from 1940-49, and built prior to 1939. As the figure shows most of the housing stock in Ohio’s major cities is quite old. In every city except for Columbus over 30% of the housing stock was built prior to 1939. In Cleveland, over 50% of the housing stock is over 75 years old! In Columbus, which is the largest and fastest growing city in Ohio, the housing stock is fairly evenly distributed across the age categories. Columbus really stands out in the three youngest categories.

In a free market for housing old housing would be torn down and replaced by new housing once the net benefits of demolition and rebuilding exceed the net benefits of renovation. But anyone who studies the housing market knows that it is hardly free, as city ordinances regulate everything from lot sizes to height requirements. While these regulations restrict new housing, they are a larger problem in cities where demand for housing is already high since they artificially restrict supply and drive up prices.

A potentially bigger problem for declining cities that has to do with the age of the housing stock is historic districts. In historic districts the housing is protected by local rules that limit the types of renovations that can be undertaken. Property owners are required to maintain their home’s historical look and it can be difficult to demolish old houses.

For example, in Dayton, OH there are 20 historic districts in a city of only 142,000 people. Dayton’s Landmark Commission is charged with reviewing and approving major modifications to the buildings in historic districts including their demolition.  Many of the districts are located near the center of the city and contain homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some are also quite large; St. Anne’s Hill contains 315 structures and the South Park historic district covers 24 blocks and contains more than 700 structures. The table below provides a list of Dayton’s historic districts as well as the year they were classified, number of structures, acreage, and whether the district is a locally protected district. Seventy percent of the districts are protected by a local historic designation while 30 percent are only protected by the national designation.

dayton historic districts table

I personally like old houses, but I also recognize that holding on to the past can interfere with revitalization and growth. Older homes, especially those built prior to 1940, are expensive to restore and maintain. They often have old or outdated plumbing systems, electrical systems, and inefficient windows that need to be replaced. They may also contain lead paint or other hazardous materials that were commonly used at the time they were built which may have to be removed. Many people can’t afford these upfront costs and those that can often don’t want to deal with the hassle of a restoration project.

Also, people have different tastes and historic districts make it difficult for some people to live in the house they want in the area they want. As this map shows, many of the Dayton’s historic districts are located near the center of the city in the most walkable, urban neighborhoods. The Oregon district and St. Anne’s Hill are both quite walkable and contain several restaurants, bars, and shops. If a person wants to live in one of these neighborhoods they have to be content with living in an older house. The design restrictions that come standard with historic districts prevent people with certain tastes from locating in these areas.

A 2013 study that examined the Cleveland housing market determined that it is economical to demolish many of the older, vacant homes in declining cities rather than renovate them. This is just as true of older homes that happen to be in historic districts.

Ultimately homeowners should be free to do what they want with their home and the land that it sits on. If a person wants to buy a historic house and renovate it they should be free to do so, but they should also be allowed to build a new structure on the property if they wish. When a city protects large swathes of houses via historic districts they slow down the cycle of housing construction that could draw people back to urban neighborhoods. This is especially true if the historic districts encompass the best areas of the city, such as those closest to downtown amenities and employment opportunities. Living in the city is appealing to many people, but being forced to purchase and live in outdated housing dampens the appeal for some and may be contributing to the inability of cities like Dayton to turn the corner.

Is American Federalism conducive to liberty?

In new Mercatus research, Dr. Richard E. Wagner, Harris professor of Economics at George Mason University tackles a fascinating question: Is the American form of federalism supportive of liberty?

His answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Under certain conditions, American federalism does support liberty, but that very same system can also be modified resulting in the expansion of political power relative to the liberty of citizens. The question of what results from the gradual constitutional transformation of the American federalist system is a salient one for not only students of government but also policymakers.

The important conditions that determine which form of federalism prevails (liberty-supporting or liberty-eroding) are rooted in competition among governments. Today we are experiencing a very different kind of federalism than the one instituted by the Founders. For the better part of a century, the US constitution has often been amended in a way to encourage collusion among the states thus undermining a key feature of a liberty-supporting federalism.

Restoring a liberty-supporting federalism first requires a deeper diagnosis of the American federalist system. Dr. Wagner develops that possibility through a very engaging synthesis of public choice theory, Austrian and new institutional economics.  Student of Dr. Wagner may be familiar with many of these concepts, developed in his public finance books including Deficits, Debt and Democracy (2012, Elgar). Rather than summarize the paper in today’s blog post, for now I encourage you to read the piece in full.

Markets Fail and Governments Do Too

We often hear that markets fail when it comes to preserving the environment, so government regulation is needed to protect natural resources from the ravages of capitalism. But what happens when government regulations themselves get in the way of innovative ideas that move us towards a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable future?

This is exactly what happened in Logan City, Utah when the local government built a small hydropower turbine and ran into a nightmare of regulatory red tape that led to large cost overruns and far more time committed to the project than was originally anticipated. In the end, the project was delayed four years and ended up costing twice as much as planned.

This abstract from a recent working paper from the Mercatus Center describes what happened:

In 2004 Logan, Utah, saw the opportunity to place a turbine within the city’s culinary water system. The turbine would reduce excess water pressure and would generate clean, low-cost electricity for the city’s residents. Federal funding was available, and the city qualified for a grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unfortunately, Logan City found that a complex and costly federal nexus of regulatory requirements must be met before any hydropower project can be licensed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This regulation drove up costs in terms of time and money and, as a result, Logan City is not planning to undertake any similar projects in the future. Other cities have had similar experiences to Logan’s, and we briefly explore these as well. We find that regulation is likely deterring the development of small hydropower potential across the United States, and that reform is warranted.

This wouldn’t be the first time that regulations have led to perverse environmental outcomes. To prevent these problems in the future, agencies need to take better account of the expected costs and benefits of their rules before finalizing them. For example, recent analysis by myself and my colleague Richard Williams shows that agencies only rarely estimate dollar values for both benefits and costs of their regulations.

Another improvement would be for agencies to consider more flexible approaches when regulating. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed a rule to reduce silica exposure for workers. The rule requires businesses to consider gas masks or other personal protection equipment only as a last resort. Other methods of controlling silica dust, like enclosing work areas or using sprays and vacuums, should be considered first. These methods are likely to be more burdensome than asking workers to wear a gas mask. The agency should consider offering more flexibility to businesses and workers if it wants to relieve some unnecessary burden in its proposed rule.

Of course it’s true that markets can fail. But it’s important to remember that governments often fail too. Only an approach that considers both market failure and government failure can illuminate the best course of action when addressing a serious social problem like environmental degradation. Furthermore, until regulators start acting more like the experts we expect them to be, government is likely to fail just as much, if not more often, than markets.

Richmond, Calif., Eminent Domain, and the Problems of Political Privilege

Sign Of The Times - ForeclosureRichmond, California is now moving forward with a proposal to use eminent domain to acquire more than 600 “underwater mortgages” (mortgages with unpaid balances greater their properties’ market value).

Eminent domain has long been used by governments for various public uses, such as highways, roads, and public utilities.  More recently this has been extended to include shopping mallsbusiness parks, and professional sports stadiums. However, while contemplated by other cities, eminent domain has never been used for the purpose of seizing mortgages. Richmond would be the first city to actually carry out such a plan.

On its face, the plan is straightforward. The city has offered to buy these underwater mortgages at discounted rates from the banks and investors currently holding these mortgages. If the offers are rejected, the city will use eminent domain to force the sale of these mortgages to the city. The city will then write down the debt, refinancing the loans for amounts much more in line with current home values.

While the stated objective of this plan is to provide mortgage relief to homeowners hurt by the most recent housing crises, the plan is rife with opportunities for political privilege and favoritism.  Ilya Somin, a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law, has laid out several problems involved with this scheme:

  • Far from benefiting low-income people as intended, the plan will actually harm them. Much of the money to condemn the mortgages and pay litigation expenses will come from taxpayers, including the poor. Most of the poor are renters, not homeowners, so they cannot benefit from this program. But renters do indirectly pay property taxes through the property taxes paid by their landlords, a cost which is built into their rent.
  • The program would also enrich those who took dangerous risks at the expense of the prudent. It isn’t good policy to force more prudent taxpayers to subsidize the behavior of people who took the risk of purchasing high-priced real estate in the midst of a bubble. Doing so will predictably encourage dubious risk-taking in the future.
  • Prudent Richmonders will also lose out from this policy in another way. If lenders believe that the city is likely to condemn mortgages whenever real estate prices fall significantly, they will either be unwilling to lend to future home purchasers in Richmond, or only do so at higher interest rates. That will hurt the local economy and make it more difficult for Richmonders to buy homes.
  • We should also remember that eminent domain that transfers property to private parties is often used to benefit the politically powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. In Kelo v. City New London (2005), a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that government could take private property and transfer it to influential business interests in order to promote “economic development.” As a result, multiple New London residents lost their homes for a “development” project that still hasn’t built anything on their former property eight years later. Property owners lost their rights and the public has yet to see much benefit. The Richmond policy would create another precedent to help legitimate future Kelos.

You can read Somin’s article here.

It should be noted that there is a legal challenge underway as banks and investors argue that the city’s plan is unconstitutional. However, regardless of the plan’s legality, it is clear that it will do little to support economic development, aid the housing market, or support future investment in the local economy. It seems more about using these mortgages to privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Waking Up Warwick, Rhode Island

Last week an article ran in the Warwick Beacon that was based on a chart I produced. I have since updated the chart to reflect the most recent FY 2011 numbers contained in the FY 2013 budget. (The first chart was based on the original FY 2011 budget.)

The chart shows Warwick, Rhode Island’s municipal budget (excluding the school budget) carved up according to current costs for funding the town’s pension benefits, Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), current employee healthcare costs and General Obligation bond payment. The figures come from official budget documents.

My value-added is that I estimate the additional amount needed to fully fund pensions based on the risk-free discount rate. It’s a ballpark estimate backed into based on the plans’ valuation reports. The actuaries, with access to all the plan data, can model the effect of applying the risk-free rate to plan costs more precisely.

It caused quite a stir.

I think the Beacon article shows the myriad problems with how public sector benefits have been valued, accounted for and funded. The piece underscores the misconceptions and cloudy thinking that surround pension finance.

Let’s go through it.

Here’s the question the chart addresses:  If Warwick, Rhode Island were to fully fund employee benefits while paying healthcare costs for current retirees and active employees and make its annual bond payment, how much would be left over to fund everything else in the city budget?

Warwick operates four public pension plans. They are the locally-funded: Firefighters/Police I Pension Plan, Fire II Pension Fund, and Police II Fund. The fourth plan, the Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS) is jointly funded by the state and participating local governments. (correction: the MERS plan is also locally operated and funded and is distinct from the state-run MERS plan).

Using these plans’ assumed 7.5 percent discount rate to value the liability, only one plan appears to be in deep distress. The Police/Fire I plan is 22 percent funded and requires an annual contribution of around $14 million. The remaining plans seem to be relatively well-funded. Together they add a further $12 million in annual contributions. In total, according to the pension valuation reports for the town of Warwick, fully funding these four pension systems requires an annual contribution of $26.4 million from the city.

Now, when valuing these four systems using the risk-free discount rate, the picture changes. The risk-free rate adds a further $29 million to the annual required contribution. Valuing these plans on a market basis doubles the annual contribution to $55.7 million. That’s 48 percent of the town’s municipal budget in FY 2011.

Employees also receive Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) – largely comprised of healthcare – in their retirement. According to the OPEB valuation Warwick spends $7.2 million to pay for current retirees who are now receiving these benefits. (Note, that the budget gives a slightly different total than the OPEB valuation. In the budget,  OPEB ran about $6.68 million in FY 2011)  If the town were to fully fund OPEB benefits for their current workers they would need to contribute a further $14 million. That represents the amortization of OPEB taken from the valuation report.

On top of this Warwick is contributing $12.5  $11.8 million to pay for current employee healthcare benefits in FY 2011 (see, Annual Budget, FY 2013). I added in General Obligation debt (principle and interest payments) of $8.5 million, since I assume this is a non-negotiable expense for the municipality. That leaves Warwick with about 18 percent of its FY 2011 budget remaining.

(Are my numbers wrong? have a look at their reports and let me know if I have made a mistake.)

On the Beacon article, I will underscore three points.

1) The risk-free rate and why it matters. To value and fund a pension plan requires figuring out how much is needed to be set aside today to fund a promised benefit to be paid in future. One must equate the value of a pension to be paid in the future with its value today (the time value of money). That means one must assume a discount rate (i.e., rate of interest) to convert the future value into the present. That enables one to figure out the amount needed to be set aside today to fund tomorrow’s payments.

As most followers of the pension story know, in choosing that discount rate, public sector pension plans look to what rate of return they expect the plan’s assets will return when invested. Most public plans have assumed a rate of return of 8 percent on their assets.

This approach, embedded in GASB 25 and ASOP 27 has been strongly criticized by financial economists as violating several established precepts of economics. Firstly, assets and liabilities should be kept separate for the purpose of valuation, otherwise known as the Modigliani-Miller theorem.

Public pensions represent a secure, government-guaranteed benefit and are not likely to be defaulted upon. Public pensions should be valued like a government bond. The rate to use is the return on Treasury bonds, currently 2.3 percent.

But what policymakers are worked up over is not the economic principles behind discount rate selection. It’s the practical effect that many politicians and plan sponsors protest, as The New York Times story of yesterday highlights.  Lowering the discount rate increases the liability and the amount needed to fund the plan. That has a real impact on the budget, as the Warwick chart shows.

The best and most lucid explanation for market valuation of pensions, I think, can be found in Pension Finance, by M. Barton Waring. (whose intent, I might add, is to save the defined benefit plan.) Other excellent explanations are provided by Douglas Elliot of the Brookings Institute, economists Joshua Rauh and Robert-Novy Marx, Andrew Biggs, and Jeffrey Brown.

David W. Wilcox, the director of research and statistics for the Federal Reserve Board has stated:

 These [public pension benefits] happen to be really simple cash flows to value. They’re free of credit risk. There’s only one conceptually right answer to how you discount those cash flows. You use discount rates that are free of credit risk. This is one of those things where it just really is that simple.*

Now for a few common objections to the risk-free rate. These are perennial and have been very elegantly addressed elsewhere by economists.

2) “But, the private sector uses…”

Private sector defined benefit plans suffer from their own set of accounting and moral hazard problems; and, they use a variety of discount rates for a variety of reasons.

Pension plans governed by the Taft-Hartley Act are collectively bargained-for plans. These plans use the return on assets (7.5%) to value the actuarial liability. According to a March 2012 analysis by Credit Suisse, such discount rate “hocus pocus” means Taft-Hartley plans are now “crawling out of the shadows” with an unfunded liability of about $369 billion when using the corporate bond rate.

Other corporate pension plans are covered by the Pension Protection Act of 2006 and governed by FASB guidance 158. They use a composite return on corporate bonds to value their pensions, currently in the 5 percent range, which is lower than the rate used by public plans. The corporate bond is closer to a low-risk (though not a guaranteed) rate. Public plans carry a stronger guarantee, as they are backed by government, and therefore should be discounted using lower rates than used by the private sector – not a higher one – as is current practice.

 These different guidances explain the plethora of discount rates cited by public plan officials as justification for their current assumptions. And that leads to a great question.

So, why do public and private plans get to value their pension liabilities differently?” (Quick answer: exactly!)

If the Law of One Price is correct (which holds that in an efficient market there must be only one price for similar assets, otherwise opportunities for arbitrage exist) then then salad bar approach to selecting the discount rate is absurd.

The Long Answer:

Actuarial practice has not incorporated the lessons of modern portfolio theory into pension accounting. In the 1960s and into the 1970s the harm was not visible. Pensions were more heavily invested in bonds. The ticking time bomb that ‘high risk’ discount rates  presented to defined benefit plans was not really revealed until the behavior it encouraged began to manifest. These behaviors included the shifting of pension asset portfolios into more risky investments, enhancing benefits, and skipping payments during the 1980s and 1990s. The result was growing funding gaps that accompanied market downturns in the late 1990s, the early 2000’s, and lastly in 2008. Each of these episodes is a demonstration of the problem of valuing liabilities based on risky asset returns.

For some insight into how actuarial science remained largely frozen in time, Jeremy Gold and Lawrence Bader discuss the gap between corporate finance and actuarial practice.

3) “We’ll get the expected 7.5 percent”.

This is another recurring defense of the current public sector accounting. But, an investor doesn’t “get” the expected return. The investor realizes a random and uncertain draw from an increasingly wide distribution of possible realized returns (Waring, 2012).

An oft-expressed rejoinder is,  “…but the market returned an average of 8 percent over the past 20 years.”

This statement alone should be cause for alarm. There is always a chance you will either do better, or worse, than expected. Yet, by virtue of ASOP 27 and GASB 25 the risk of not achieving 8 percent annually, is simply ignored. (Or more accurately it is borne by future taxpayers and younger retirees.) Discounting benefits at a risk-adjusted interest rate captures the cost to taxpayers of having to supplement pensions should projected returns not be realized and the plan’s assets fall short.

The coming years will satisfy a proposition of Waring’s that I think is worth stating again:

Measures of the pension plan based on conventional accounting methods will always follow measures based on economic accounting, even with a lag. The accounting will follow the economics, sooner or later.

The economics on this issue is non-controversial. One can review the work of Nobel-Prize economists Bill Sharpe (one of the developers of the Capital Asset Pricing Model), Robert Merton, (expansion of Black-Schoeles option pricing model), as well as the contributions of finance professors Roger Ibbotson (Yale) and Olivia Mitchell (Wharton, UPenn) for further reading.

The policy message the economics points to is unsettling. Defined benefit plans are in trouble and they will require more funding and difficult budget and policy decisions starting now.

And, who really wants to hear that?

So, the best I can do to drive home the importance of market valuation is to re-state the analogy. You don’t calculate the employer’s annual payment to the pension system based on how the plan’s assets are expected to perform.  Just as you don’t value your home mortgage based on what you think your 401K might do. This video developed by Nobel-Prize winning economist Bill Sharpe makes the case perhaps better than I can do in this blog.


*Wilcox, David. Testimony before the Public Interest Committee Forum sponsored by the American Academy of Actuaries, September 4, 2008. Novy-Marx and Rauh present a similar argument; see Novy-Marx, Robert, and Joshua Rauh, “The Liabilities and Risks of State-Sponsored Pension Plans,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 191–210. In analyzing federal employee pensions, the CBO used a discount rate 1 percentage point above the Treasury rate. However, the CBO explicitly noted that this was because federal pensions lack the legal protections that state pension plans like the WRS are entitled to.

Limiting Eminent Domain Authority for the States

In June 2005, the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. City of New London extended the power of eminent domain by allowing governments to condemn private property and transfer it to others for private economic development. This decision sparked a great deal of controversy and its repercussions and implications have been widely studied (see for example, the work by Ed Lopez and Bruce Benson).

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would limit government’s use of eminent domain. Specifically, the Private Property Rights Protection Act Act (H.R. 1433) would prohibit:

States and localities that receive Federal economic development funds from using eminent domain to take private property for economic development purposes. States and localities that use eminent domain for private economic development are ineligible under the bill to receive Federal economic development funds for 2 fiscal years.

When the bill was first introduced in 2011, the Honorable Trent Franks outlined its importance with the following statement:

We must restore the property rights protections that were erased from the Constitution by the Kelo decision. Fortunately, they are not permanently erased. Let us hope. John Adams wrote over 200 years ago that, ‘‘Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.’’ As long as the specter of condemnation hangs over all property, arbitrary condemnation hanging over all property, our liberty is threatened.

There were many testimonies given throughout the hearing that pointed to the strengths and the weaknesses of H.R. 1433. Much of the economic literature suggests, however, that in general placing strong limits on eminent domain authority has substantial benefits for economic growth development, and prosperity. I think Ed Lopez, Carrie Kerekes and George Johnson (2007) sum up the importance of limiting this authority particularly well, as they write:

High taxes, excessive regulation, and loosely limited eminent domain powers are all tools of central planning and government control of the economy. Under these policies property rights are insecure, which distorts incentives for making good resource use decisions, discourages using assets as collateral for beneficial investments, and forfeits the dynamic benefits that emerge out of capitalism…Taxes, regulation, and takings through eminent domain decrease the security of property rights; therefore, these government infringements should be limited.

Using incentives to save the prairie dogs

Growing up in Western Colorado, I was never aware that prairie dog populations were threatened. Frankly, I always considered them to be about one step up from rats. In fact though, the Utah prairie dog is an endangered species, causing challenges for developers in Iron County.

Until recently, landowners in Utah had to obtain permission to build on land that is considered prairie dog habitat in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. They would have to relocate the animals to a suitable new habitat, after which they would typically be allotted only a 60-day window in which to begin building, resulting in uncertain property rights and incentives to rush development. Now, developers can instead purchase Habitat Credits, or the right to build on current prairie dog habitats, from farmers and ranchers who own land suitable for prairie dogs.

The Associated Press reports:

The program works like a bank, allowing private landowners to sell “credits” if they own prairie dog habitat they’re willing to protect. Buyers who purchase those credits gain permission to develop other habitat areas on their own timeframes.

The number of credits up for purchase and the cost of the credits will vary depending on the population of prairie dogs on the land.

The arrangement would fulfill the Endangered Species Act requirement that bars destruction of a listed species’ habitat without developing new habitat.

Environmentalists are hopeful that this program will boost prairie dog populations enough to get them off of the endangered species list, and the policy change has made life easier for developers. Furthermore, this change is good for residents of Iron County, as reducing obstacles to development will result in an improved built environment.

This seemingly simple policy change illustrates the power of property rights. Assigning them in a way to better align incentives benefits everyone by allowing for improvements in land allocation.

Property Rights and Coffee in El Salvador

In this week’s New Yorker,  Kelefa Sanneh details the work of Aida Batlle, a Salvadoran entrepreneur. (Unfortunately only part of the article is available online, but the entire story is a great read). Batlle is a pioneer in the world of high end coffee, growing beans that eventually go into cups of coffee that retail for up to $7 in Brooklyn. From an economics perspective, her story is interesting because she succeeds as an entrepreneur in the face of very poorly defined property rights.

Batlle grew up in the United States where she worked as a restaurant manager and caterer, developing insight into the demands of American foodies. Upon returning to El Salvador as an adult, she used this perspective to see the potential for a coffee crop that is treated with care typically reserved for heirloom tomatoes. Most coffee farmers send their entire harvest to be roasted and mixed in with other farmers’ yields, but she treated her crop more selectively. She accepts only properly ripened fruit and keeps the beans from all of her farms separate to preserve their unique flavors.

Sanneh explains the tacit knowledge that facilitates Batlle’s entrepreneurial awareness:

Plenty of farmers have great land and great cherry, but almost none of them share Batlle’s keen understanding of what her customers want to drink, what they want to hear, and what they’re willing to pay.

As she travels between her farms, Battle brings along two armed bodyguards at all times. This expense is a waste of resources; in an environment where Rule of Law prevails, spending money to protect against crime is unnecessary. An anecdote about one of Batlle’s farms brings to light the conditions under which entrepreneurs work in El Salvador:

The rising [price of coffee] has also made coffee more valuable to thieves. One day this spring, armed pickers arrived at Finca Kilimanjaro: they held the farm manager at gunpoint while they cleaned out the plants. “Kilimanjaro had the highest yield this year,” Batlle says. “But it turned out to be the lowest, because we had two days of non-stop theft. It was awful!” No doubt her beans were blended and sold as generic high-elevation coffee. To Batlle, the thought of this adulteration is more painful than the theft.

If Batlle and coffee farmers like her could focus their energies into their business rather than loss prevention, high end coffee could perhaps be available to those of us who would never spend $7 on a cup of coffee. While trade is a positive-sum game for everyone involved, this type of plunder is a negative-sum game because it diverts productive resources toward defending against theft.


Property Rights Key to Conservation in Namibia

Today on Morning Edition, Christopher Joyce interviewed Namibian farmers to discuss their innovative conservation policy:

In the arid northwest, farmers and others who lived from the land were allowed to form “communal conservancies.” These are like village councils. They wield control over the wildlife within the conservancy boundaries, which are set by conservancy members and the central government. Conservancies then partner with tourist lodges and safari companies and take a cut of the income from tourists who come to see the giraffes, zebras, lions, rhinoceroses and other exotic animals. They operate campsites, too. And they collect thousands of dollars from trophy hunters who come to shoot lions and cheetahs and antelopes. A single lion can bring in up to $10,000.

This marks a shift from colonial and apartheid policies, where wild animals were essentially property of the ruling elite, and many species reached the brink of distinction extinction. By returning these property rights to the rural farmers who live with the animals, many species’ numbers have rebounded significantly.

The Namibian conservation system is not without challenges, though, with humans living alongside large game. One Joyce explains:

Elephants hunt water. To try to cut down on these human-animal conflicts, the conservancy is building them water wells, away from the farms. Guiseb says that’s good. The wildlife had to adapt to people, he says. Now people must learn to adapt to wildlife.

These results are in line with the Mercatus Center’s Karol Boudreaux’s findings in her field research in Namibia. Incentives matter, so providing a way for people to profit from the long-term health of wildlife rather than the short term benefits of poaching, improves species’ numbers.