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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.


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September 08, 2017


When Health Insurance and Its Financial Cushion Disappear

Personal health care costs can skyrocket with a new diagnosis or accident, often leading to catastrophic financial costs for people. Health insurance plays an important role in protecting individuals from unexpected large financial shocks as a result of adverse health events. Just as homeowner's insurance helps protect you from financial devastation if your house burns down, health insurance helps protects you from burning through your savings because of a heart attack. This 2008 report from the Commonwealth Fund shows that the uninsured are far more likely to have to use their savings and reduce other types of spending to pay medical bills.

Much research has been done on the impact of health insurance on financial and health outcomes. (This paper , for example, summarizes the history and impact of Medicaid.) However, most of the studies look at the case of individuals who are gaining health insurance. In a recent Atlanta Fed working paper and the related podcast episode , we measure the impact of losing public health insurance on measures of financial well-being such as credit scores, delinquent debt eligible to be sent to debt collectors, and bankruptcies. We performed these measurements by studying the case of Tennessee's Medicaid program, known as TennCare, in the mid-2000s. At that time, a large statewide Medicaid expansion that began in the 1990s ran into financial difficulties and was scaled back. As the following chart shows, some 170,000 individuals were removed from TennCare rolls between 2005 and 2006.

Our analysis of this episode, using data from the New York Fed's Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax, revealed some striking findings. Individuals who lost health insurance experienced lower credit scores, more debt eligible to be sent to collections, and a higher incidence of bankruptcy. Those who were already financially vulnerable suffered the worst. In particular, individuals who already had poor credit, as measured by Fannie Mae's lowest creditworthiness categories , and then lost Medicaid see their credit scores fall by close to 40 points on average and are almost 17 percent more likely to have their debt sent to collection agencies. Our analysis also finds that gaining or losing health insurance is not symmetric in its impact—losing insurance has larger negative financial effects than the positive financial impacts of gaining insurance.

Our results provide evidence that losing Medicaid coverage not only removes inexpensive access to health care but also eliminates an important layer of financial protection. A cost-benefit analysis of proposed cuts to Medicaid coverage (see here, here, and here for a discussion of recent legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress) would need to consider the negative financial consequences for individuals of the type that we have identified.

September 8, 2017 in Economic conditions, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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September 07, 2017


What Is the "Right" Policy Rate?

What is the right monetary policy rate? The Cleveland Fed, via Michael Derby in the Wall Street Journal, provides one answer—or rather, one set of answers:

The various flavors of monetary policy rules now out there offer formulas that suggest an ideal setting for policy based on economic variables. The best known of these is the Taylor Rule, named for Stanford University's John Taylor, its author. Economists have produced numerous variations on the Taylor Rule that don't always offer a similar story...

There is no agreement in the research literature on a single "best" rule, and different rules can sometimes generate very different values for the federal funds rate, both for the present and for the future, the Cleveland Fed said. Looking across multiple economic forecasts helps to capture some of the uncertainty surrounding the economic outlook and, by extension, monetary policy prospects.

Agreed, and this is the philosophy behind both the Cleveland Fed's calculations based on Seven Simple Monetary Policy Rules and our own Taylor Rule Utility. These two tools complement one another nicely: Cleveland's version emphasizes forecasts for the federal funds rate over different rules and Atlanta's utility focuses on the current setting of the rate over a (different, but overlapping) set of rules for a variety of the key variables that appear in the Taylor Rule (namely, the resource gap, the inflation gap, and the "neutral" policy rate). We update the Taylor Rule Utility twice a month after Consumer Price Index and Personal Income and Outlays reports and use a variety of survey- and model-based nowcasts to fill in yet-to-be released source data for the latest quarter.

We're introducing an enhancement to our Taylor Rule utility page, a "heatmap" that allows the construction of a color-coded view of Taylor Rule prescriptions (relative to a selected benchmark) for five different measures of the resource gap and five different measures of the neutral policy rate. We find the heatmap is a useful way to quickly compare the actual fed funds rate with current prescriptions for the rate from a relatively large number of rules.

In constructing the heatmap, users have options on measuring the inflation gap and setting the value of the "smoothing parameter" in the policy rule, as well establishing the weight placed on the resource gap and the benchmark against which the policy rule is compared. (The inflation gap is the difference between actual inflation and the Federal Open Market Committee's 2 percent longer-term objective. The smoothing parameter is the degree to which the rule is inertial, meaning that it puts weight on maintaining the fed funds rate at its previous value.)

For example, assume we (a) measure inflation using the four-quarter change in the core personal consumption expenditures price index; (b) put a weight of 1 on the resource gap (that is, specify the rule so that a percentage point change in the resource gap implies a 1 percentage point change in the rule's prescribed rate); and (c) specify that the policy rule is not inertial (that is, it places no weight on last period's policy rate). Below is the heatmap corresponding to this policy rule specification, comparing the rules prescription to the current midpoint of the fed funds rate target range:

We should note that all of the terms in the heatmap are described in detail in the "Overview of Data" and "Detailed Description of Data" tabs on the Taylor Rule Utility page. In short, U-3 (the standard unemployment rate) and U-6 are measures of labor underutilization defined here. We introduced ZPOP, the utilization-to-population ratio, in this macroblog post. "Emp-Pop" is the employment-population ratio. The natural (real) interest rate is denoted by r*. The abbreviations for the last three row labels denote estimates of r* from Kathryn Holston, Thomas Laubach, and John C. Williams, Thomas Laubach and John C. Williams, and Thomas Lubik and Christian Matthes.

The color coding (described on the webpage) should be somewhat intuitive. Shades of red mean the midpoint of the current policy rate range is at least 25 basis points above the rule prescription, shades of green mean that the midpoint is more than 25 basis points below the prescription, and shades of white mean the midpoint is within 25 basis points of the rule.

The heatmap above has "variations on the Taylor Rule that don't always offer a similar story" because the colors range from a shade of red to shades of green. But certain themes do emerge. If, for example, you believe that the neutral real rate of interest is quite low (the Laubach-Williams and Lubik-Mathes estimates in the bottom two rows are −0.22 and −0.06) your belief about the magnitude of the resource gap would be critical to determining whether this particular rule suggests that the policy rate is already too high, has a bit more room to increase, or is just about right. On the other hand, if you are an adherent of the original Taylor Rule and its assumption that a long-run neutral rate of 2 percent (the top row of the chart) is the right way to think about policy, there isn't much ambiguity to the conclusion that the current rate is well below what the rule indicates.

"[D]ifferent rules can sometimes generate very different values for the federal funds rate, both for the present and for the future." Indeed.

September 7, 2017 in Business Cycles, Data Releases, Economics, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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