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Harvey, Irma and the TBTF implicit subsidy problem

Summary:
On my way in this AM, I heard an interesting interview by the great Bloomberg Surveillance team of Tom Keene and David Gura (and I’m not just saying that because they occasionally invite me on; those guys get good guests and give them the time to answer good questions). They were talking to an insightful guy from the re-insurance industry about the costs to the industry of Harvey and Irma. To be clear, what follows abstracts from the human costs of these disasters, which I take extremely seriously. In fact, both the implicit subsidy point I stress below and the more elaborate argument I make here are intended to link the economics to the too-often tragic human outcomes. Their discussion emphasized the large share of residential and commercial real estate vulnerable to flooding but without

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On my way in this AM, I heard an interesting interview by the great Bloomberg Surveillance team of Tom Keene and David Gura (and I’m not just saying that because they occasionally invite me on; those guys get good guests and give them the time to answer good questions). They were talking to an insightful guy from the re-insurance industry about the costs to the industry of Harvey and Irma. To be clear, what follows abstracts from the human costs of these disasters, which I take extremely seriously. In fact, both the implicit subsidy point I stress below and the more elaborate argument I make here are intended to link the economics to the too-often tragic human outcomes.

Their discussion emphasized the large share of residential and commercial real estate vulnerable to flooding but without flood insurance (I think they put this share at 50% in South FL.). Moreover, as I stressed in the WaPo piece linked above, the federal flood insurance program has long underpriced the risks against which they insure, leading to subsidy #1.

Subsidy #2, though, is the one currently in play in DC, and discussed in the interview: those who build in harm’s way can trust that there’s an implicit subsidy as the gov’t (mostly federal) will pony up serious money for their relief and rebuild efforts. That is as it should be. When Americans are laid low by natural disasters, we pitch in, whether as taxpayers or as revealed by the behavior of many good people in TX. And when we’re talking about “black swans”–very low probability events with very high, unforeseen costs–the federal sector, which can borrow at favorable rates and run deficits long-term, is uniquely positioned to help.

And yet, there are problems with this model. Subsidy #2 is one of those implicit subsidies, not unlike the one tapped by some of the big banks or Fannie and Freddie after the financial crash. The bailouts that saved these firms were of course premised on “too big to fail” (TBTF), in that their collapse would generate nationwide damage. To the extent that this is true, there’s a huge moral hazard problem, which will, and has, led to systemically underpriced risk.

I understand that mapping these observations onto big places like Houston and South Florida is tricky. These are big chunks of America and American commerce and thus they too are legitimately classified as TBTF. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the inherent problems this creates, anymore than we ignored the financial crisis, which I assure you as a former insider was a huge motivator for the Obama administration, leading ultimately to the Dodd-Frank reforms.

Instead, we must work to both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, particularly the intensity of storms and flood surges. We must update our priors around alleged 500-year floods that appear to be showing up a lot more frequently than that. And we must generate more accurate price signals, particularly in the face of implicit TBTF subsidies.

Jared Bernstein
Jared Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow. From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Executive Director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Bernstein was a senior economist and the director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute, and between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of Deputy Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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