Obamacare, Monopsonies, and Inflation – Nice Try!
Recently, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published an Economic Letter in which they described why “Medicare Payment Cuts Continue to Restrain Inflation.” Their summary is:
“A steady downward trend in health-care services price inflation over the past decade has been a major factor holding down core inflation. Much of this downward trend reflects lower payments from public insurance programs. Looking ahead, current legislative guidelines imply considerable restraint on future public insurance payment growth. Therefore, overall health-care services price inflation is unlikely to rebound and appears likely to continue to be a drag on inflation.”
The article is worth reading. But I always have a somewhat uncomfortable reaction to pieces like this. On the one hand, what the authors are discussing is well known: healthcare services held down PCE inflation, and core CPI inflation, due to sequestration. Even Ben Bernanke knew that, and it was one reason that it was so baffling that the Fed was focused on declining core inflation in 2012-2014 when we knew why core was being dragged lower – and it was these temporary effects (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing core and Median CPI).
But okay, perhaps the San Francisco Fed is now supplying the reason: these were not one-off effects, they suggest; instead, “current legislative guidelines” (i.e., the master plan for Obamacare) are going to continue to restrain payments in the future. Ergo, prepare for extended lowflation.
This is where my discomfort comes in. The article combines these well-known things with questionable (at best) assumptions about the future. In this latter category the screaming assumption is the Medicare can affect prices simply by choosing to pay different prices. In a static analysis that’s true, of course. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely in the long run.
It’s a classic monopsonist pricing analysis. Just as “monopoly” is a term to describe a market with just one dominant seller, “monopsony” describes a market with just one dominant buyer. The chart below (By SilverStar at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13863070) illustrates the classic monopsony outcome.
The monopsonist forces an equilibrium based on the marginal revenue product of what it is buying, compared to the marginal cost, at point A. This results in the market being cleared at point M, at a quantity L and a price w, as distinct from the price (w’) and quantity (L’) that would be determined by the competitive-market equilibrium C. So, just as the San Fran Fed economists have it, a monopsonist (like Medicare) forces a lower price and a lower quantity of healthcare consumed (they don’t talk so much about this part but it’s a key to the ‘healthcare cost containment’ assumptions of the ACA neé Obamacare). Straight out of the book!
But that’s true only in a static equilibrium case. I admit that I wasn’t able to find anything relevant in my Varian text, but plain common-sense (and observation of the real world) tells us that over time, the supply of goods and services to the monopsonist responds to the actual price the monopsonist pays. That is, supply decreases because period t+1 supply is related to the reward offered in period t. There is no futures market for medical care services; there is no way for a medical student to hedge future earnings in case they fall. The way the prospective medical student responds to declining wages in the medical profession is to eschew attending medical school. This changes the supply curve in period t+1.
Any other outcome, in fact, would lead to a weird conclusion (at least, I think it’s weird; Bernie Sanders may not): it would suggest that the government should take over the purchase and distribution of all goods, since they could hold prices down by doing so. In other words, full-on socialism. But…we know from experience that pure socialist regimes tend to produce higher rates of inflation (Venezuela, anyone?), and one can hardly help but notice that when the government competes with private industry – for example, in the provision of express mail service – the government tends to lose on price and quality.
In short, I find it very hard to believe that mere “legislative guidelines” can restrain inflation in medical care, in the long run.