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Weekly Indicators for March 30 – April 3 at Seeking Alpha

by New Deal democrat

Weekly Indicators for March 30 – April 3 at Seeking Alpha

My Weekly Indicators post is up at Seeking Alpha.

This was the week when the bottom finally fell out of almost all the remaining data.

Clicking over and reading will bring you up to the virtual moment on the economy, and reward me a little bit for the effort I put into this endeavor, especially now that I am devoting most of my time to the likely impacts of the coronavirus.

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The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Covid-19 pandemic won’t last forever, and at some point we will have to return to figuring out how to respond to the climate crisis.  (What a depressing opening line.  No, I have no desire to live in a world of permanent crisis.)  Is the answer a Green New Deal?  Challenge has just published my analysis of this; you can find the link here.

Abstract: The Green New Deal, an attractive agenda of increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, is not remotely sufficient to stabilize global warming at a non-catastrophic level. Such a policy needs to be accompanied by direct measures to curtail the use of fossil fuels, although this may complicate the intended messaging.

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Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing Part II

Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing Part II

Now that I sketched out the transfer pricing for Gilead Sciences with respect to their successful HIV and Hep C products (as much as I can say based on publicly available information), it is time to speculate a bit on how Remdesivir may play out. There is a lot we do not know including whether this treatment receives regulatory approval and how it will be priced if it does. Note for example this story:

More than 150 organisations and individuals on Monday urged US biotechnology firm Gilead not to enforce exclusivity over a drug that might be used to treat COVID-19 patients. In an open letter, 145 non-governmental organisations, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Oxfam, and 12 individuals claimed Gilead Sciences held primary patents of remdesivir in more than 70 countries. That meant they could block generic development of the drug until 2031. The open letter to Gilead chief executive Daniel O’Day was circulated by MSF. “We write to request that Gilead take immediate actions to ensure rapid availability, affordability and accessibility of its experimental therapy remdesivir for the treatment of COVID-19, pending the results of the clinical trials demonstrating its efficacy,” it said.

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Credit Spreads: Comparing COVID-19 to the Collapse of Lehman Brothers

Credit Spreads: Comparing COVID-19 to the Collapse of Lehman Brothers

On March 18, Reuters noted something I have been following of late:

Concerns about the impact of the coronavirus on corporate America’s balance sheets has tripled the premium investors are demanding to hold even the highest-rated corporate bonds. The difference between the average yield of investment-grade U.S. bonds over virtually risk-free Treasuries widened to 303 basis points (bps) on Wednesday, according to the ICE/BofA investment grade index. That’s up from 101 bps at the start of the year and the highest since July 2009, For riskier high-yield securities, the average spread over Treasuries on Wednesday was 904 bps, the highest since October 2011, and more than 2-1/2 times the rate at the start of the year, using the ICE/BofA high-yield index … This hit to earnings has come at a time when U.S. corporate debt is near all-time highs, as is the size of the so-called triple-B segment of the market – companies one notch above junk status.

The spread between long-term corporate bond rates with credit rating BBB and long-term government bond rates jumped very quickly to almost 4%, which was not quite as high as the 5% or more spreads observed after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. FRED provides a series entitled ICE BofA BBB US Corporate Index Option-Adjusted Spread that dates back to 1997 when this spread was modest. It hit sort of a tidal wave during the turn of the millennium with the collapse of the internet/computer/telecommunication boom and a host of notorious bankruptcies. What happened after the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a tsunami. I did find some Thomson Reuters discussion entitled the implications of the credit crunch for intercompany loans, which talked about market interest rates as of February 2009:

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The D Word

The D Word

Yes, depression, and not the psychological type, although the economic type leads to the psychological type, whether ot not it is the other  way around (see Keynes’ “animal spirits).

I often make fun of Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post, but in Washington Post today he raised the possibility that we are going into a depression, not just a bad recession.  On TV this evening I heard Austen Goolsby throw it out as well.  I suspect we are going to hear it a lot more.

The problem is not just that we have seen the highest increase in joblessness ever, but the increasing prospect that there will not be a quick recovery once the virus is under control. This is partly due to the global nature of this pandemic and the economic decline that has come with it.

A sign of what may be coming is what is going on in China.  The virus seems to be under control, despite some doubts about their numbers and new cases happening due to people arriving there.  But they have been to get their economy started up again, even in Wuhan. Supposedly 98% of firms have restarted.  But there are problems.  One is that many such places are missing crucial workers still under quarantine somewhere  or other.  Then there is the other side of this, the demand side.  China expects to sell goods through exports, but other countries are not buying.  And also domestic consumers are not buying either out of fear and low income.  Apparently there are factories running machines and using power even though they are not producing anything just to please the government that is making these claims of 98% of firms operating, but this seems to be an exaggeration.

Clearly at least on the demand side getting money to people and businesses through easy credit and a large fiscal stimulus are the obvious things to try to avoud this D outcome.  But Samuelson fears that they may be insufficient to this current situation, with no obvious alternative.  I fear he might be right on this one

Barkley Rosser

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In 2020 A March Of Madness

In 2020 A March Of Madness, Econospeak

Just before the end of February, President Trump declared that there were only 15 Covid-19 cases in the US, and that “they will soon go to zero.”  Deaths from COVID 19 now passed 3,000 (March 30th) and yesterday Trump declared that because we might have had over 2 million dead if nothing had been done, it would show “we did a good job” if deaths kept to “only” 100,000 to 200,000.  To do this “good job” he has extended his “social distancing” policy to the end of April rather than Easter, April 12 (my birthday). Also yesterday Virgina Governor Northam intensified a stay-at-home policy and extended it to June 10, the longest such period of any state.  All this on the next-to-last day of a month with more dramatic changees for the world than any in a long tim, certainly more than any that I can remember in my nearly 72 years.

Probably the closest rival I can remember is Septembrr, 2011, which also changed the world, although that all happened on one day.  This has been day after day, with the US death toll now surpassing that of 9/11.  I think to match this month one has to go back to September 1939 or maybe August 1914, or maybe October 1918 when the Spanish flu epidemic reached its maximum death rate in the US just before WW I ended.  In any case, when I think of the beginning of this month it seems like another era, way more than a year ago.

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Coronavirus dashboard for April 1

Coronavirus dashboard for April 1

by New Deal democrat

Here is the update through yesterday (March 31)

Over 75% of the US population is now under lockdown, and it appears to be lowering the rate of exponential growth of new infections.

Based on South Korea’s experience, a ratio of 15:1 in total tests to results showing infection is the level where there can be some confidence that the infections have been contained. But testing in the past 5 days has plateaued (not good) and is not keeping pace at all with the growth in new infections. We will not be able to transition from the Sledgehammer of lockdowns to the scalpel of aggressive testing and quarantines until this changes.

The above three most important metrics are starred (***) below.

Number and rate of increase of Reported Infections (from Johns Hopkins via arcgis.com)

  • Number: up +25,023 to 189,633 (vs. +21,555 on March 30)
  • ***Rate of increase: day/day: 15% (vs. 34.6% baseline, 19% for the past week, and 15% on March 30)

This looks like confirmation that the exponential rate of growth is beginning to slow.

Also, Ben Engebreth is started tracking coronvirus infection and testing numbers for each state, with graphs, here.

Number and rate of increase in deaths and testing (from COVID Tracking Project)

  • Number of deaths: Total 3946, up +807 day/day
  • Rate: increase of 27% day/day vs. average of 24% in past week
  • Number of infections: 104,117 down -9,386 vs. 113,503 on March 30 day/day
  • Rate: decrease of -8.3% vs. number of tests previous day

Comparison of rates of increase in documented infections vs. testing 

  • Infections +15% vs. Tests -8.3% day/day

Result: The rate of testing has been failing to improve (until today) and remains far, far below what is needed, which is probably now at least 250,000/day. Note this target number is also increasing exponentially as we try to chase the number of exponentially increasing infections.

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Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing

Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing

Gilead Sciences is conducting phase III trials to explore whether this treatment – which did not turn out to be effective against Ebola – might be effective in treating COVID-19. We all hope it will be and if it does pass phase III trials, national income tax authorities will later have to address the transfer pricing implications of any profits Gilead Sciences generates. This blog post is the first of two with this one setting up some basic transfer pricing principles by noting Gilead’s previous wonder treatments – its recent successes in treating Hepatitis C and its HIV treatments introduced a generation ago. My next blog post will discuss Remdesivir. Gilead was first to market with a treatment they called Sovaldi, which was their Hep C treatment based on sofosbuvir developed through phase II clinical trials by Pharmasset in 2011 for $11 billion. While Gilead was hopeful that its phase III efforts would lead to a successful and highly profitable treatment, the market place in 2011 worried that they had overpaid for an unproven treatment, which could also have competition. Matthew Herper noted in 2014 how this product launch did incredibly well after a rather fast process of obtaining regulatory approval in the U.S.:

Gilead’s launch of Sovaldi is looking like the fastest drug launch ever. Hepatitis C afflicts an estimated 3 million Americans. The chart below, from ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum, tracks the number of Sovaldi prescriptions written by doctors according to data tracker IMS Health (this is labeled as TRx) against the launch of Vertex’s Incivek, another hepatitis C drug that was until now the fastest drug launch ever, and against the combination of Incivek and Merck’s competing drug, Victrelis. Schoenebaum also draws in his own forecast of what Sovaldi would have to do to reach $5 billion in sales in its first year on the market. That’s right — I said $5 billion. And Sovaldi (the red line) is way, way ahead of that forecast. In fact, the prescription numbers seem to be going straight up. There are still reasons some investors might question Gilead’s valuation. It may be that there are fewer hepatitis C patients than drug companies and public health officials think. It may be that Gilead gets blowback for the high cost of the drug — $84,000 per course. It may be that other entrants, from AbbVie or Merck, for instance, will prove good enough or inexpensive enough to take market share or even force a price war. It’s possible that insurance companies will push back.But having a product that is selling fast is a good problem to have.

 

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A last look at the 2009 – 2020 expansion

A last look at the 2009 – 2020 expansion by New Deal democrat

All of the most important economic from February has been reported. Since that was the last month before coronavirus derailed everything, I thought I would take a look back and see what shape the economy was in just before the moment of impact.

As usual, the 4 coincident indicators that the NBER usually looks for in determining whether the economy is in expansion or contraction are: industrial production, nonfarm payrolls, real sales, and real personal income minus government transfer receipts. Here’s what they look like through February, with each normed to a level of 100 as of August 2019, first in a longer term view:

And now focused on the past year:

Note that all 4 flattened or rolled over at the outset of the 2008 recession. In 2016, production turned down and income flattened, but both jobs and sales continued to increase. In the latter part of 2019 into early 2020, production and sales turned down, but jobs and income continued to increase.

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The Mankiw CV Plan

The Mankiw CV Plan

Greg Mankiw has posted a suggestion for delivering money to people that targets the benefit to those who need it the most.  The idea is clever:

1. Pay people the benefit B.  (This could be spread over many weeks or months.)  Everyone gets the same B.

2. Next year at tax time, compute the ratio r Y(2020)/Y(2019), the ratio of each filer’s 2020 income, net of B, to their 2019 income and capped at 1.  Impose a surcharge of rB on tax liability.  This way people would pay back a proportion of B based on how much they needed it.  If their 2020 income was greater than or equal to 2019, r = 1 and they would repay B in its entirety.  If their 2020 income was zero, r = 0 and there is no surcharge.  (And no tax at all for that matter.)  Partial income losses would lie in between.

Clever and well-intended, but there are problems.

First, what’s income?  Does it include capital gains and losses?  If so, everyone who has a substantial chunk of financial assets will be able to claim zero income in 2020.  What about business losses?  Clearly, if income is defined expansively, as it should be for tax purposes, those who derive income from capital will come out ahead of those who rely on labor.

Second, how will repayment work?  For low to moderate income people who keep their jobs, tax liability for 2020 may be immense—a large proportion of their annual income.  Yes, if such people save all their B they can just apply it to next year’s payment, but how likely is that?  In practical terms, if the country is facing a wave of enforcement actions and bankruptcies a year from now, the repayment mechanism is likely to be abandoned.

Third, what are the incentives?  Mankiw predictably worries about labor supply, but I think the bigger problem is the immense incentive to work off the books.  Instead of saving only your fractional tax rate when you transact in cash, now you will add the savings on your surcharge.  No one who can escape official scrutiny will report any payments or receipts.  If your goal was to drive as much of the economy underground as quickly as possible, you would have succeeded.

I appreciate Mankiw’s attempt to tie provision of government support to the level of need.  One of the virtues of universal, untargeted social insurance, however, is that it requires a smaller enforcement apparatus and doesn’t turn people who play by the rules into suckers.

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