Econ 101: covid-19 resource priorities

U.S. cases of covid-19 (those testing positive for the virus that causes it) continue their exponential growth exceeding 333,000 on April 5 with over 9,500 associated deaths. In a few days some hospitals will run out of the protective equipment and ventilators needed by their staff and patients.  How should the existing stock of these items be allocated to the most urgent and/or “worthy” uses and how should the inadequate supply be most effectively augmented?  Should a central authority (the “government”) choose who gets them or should the highest bidder in the market?  Should new supplies be demanded by the government employing the Defense Production Act of 1950, or should producers respond to the profits of higher prices? Should we follow the socialist or the capitalist approach?

In normal times (which these are not) the demand for hospital supplies is met by a competitive market of producers in response to prices offered by hospitals. In a well-functioning economy these prices reflect the cost of producing them and a modest profit sufficient to attract the desired supply. In this way scarce resources (the supply of any resource, starting with labor time, is limited) are allocated to their most valued uses as measured by what people are willing to pay for them. Because of the rapid and dramatic increase in the need for face masks (N95), and other protective gear needed by doctors and nurses the current supply does not satisfy the demand. This includes both emergency stocks and the flow of newly produced supplies.  Unbelievably some hospitals are preventing doctors from wearing appropriate protective gear at the detriment of their own safety and the future supply of doctors. “Doctors-say-hospitals-are-stopping-them-from-wearing-masks”  In Italy the shortage of ventilators is already causing doctors to deny them to those most likely to die in order to make them available to those more likely to live with their assistance (triage).

How should this inadequate stock of equipment be allocated among those demanding it, all of whom cannot be satisfied?  The two broad classes of approaches to allocating the existing supply until it can be increased are for a government body to determine who needs it most according to some politically accepted criteria or for market suppliers to allocate it to the highest bidders. Many books have been written to document why market allocation (capitalism) has dramatically outperformed government allocation (socialism) thus lifting most of the world’s population out of dire poverty (over 90% by 2009). But what about the emergency situation we are now in with the exponential spread of a new virus that is about ten times as deadly as the annual flu?

“The governors of New York, Texas, Illinois and other states have said they are competing with the federal government and other states in a mad scramble for lifesaving supplies such as surgical masks, N95 respirators, isolation gowns and ventilators that are widely drained or out of stock.” .” “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

The oversight of healthcare delivery in the U.S. resides in the states and municipalities rather than the Federal government. However, the Federal government does support medical research and provides health guidance to the states.  Of the approximately 5,100 hospitals in the United States the Federal government owns about 200, primarily for its military and veterans. It also maintains its own emergency stockpile of medical equipment for its hospitals and to backstop shortages in state and private hospitals. In principle the Federal government could set standards for which of these non-Federal hospitals would benefit most from being allocated ventilators and other equipment from the Federal stockpile if their own supplies become inadequate. It might even dictate how private market supply would be allocated in the event of shortages.

Government allocation carries a larger risk of political and personal corruption factors influencing resource allocation than does market allocation. While the private market is not without corrupt players, the bottom line of needing to attract and satisfy customers who have other options in order to make a profit to stay in business disciplines private suppliers and tends to weed out crooks. A company’s reputation for honesty and product quality is a critical part of its staying in business. Poorly performing companies go out of business, while poorly performing and/or corrupt governments rarely do. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s request to President Trump for help with its shortage of ventilators and other medical supplies met with pandemic expert Jared Kushner’s rebuttal that the governor was over estimating New York’s needs and that more ventilators should be allocated elsewhere.  Nothing political here. Move along.

Another and potentially more damaging potential of government allocation concerns the U.S. government’s “competition” with other countries for the scare supplies. “The White House late Thursday ordered Minnesota mask manufacturer 3M to prioritize U.S. orders over foreign demand, using its authority under the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to try to ease critical shortages of N95 masks at U.S. hospitals.

“The Trump administration has asked 3M to stop exporting the masks to Canada and Latin America, and to import more from 3M’s factories in China, the company said Friday…. At the same time, officials in Berlin criticized the United States on Friday over what they said was the diversion of 200,000 masks that were en route from China…. These are things that Americans rely on,” Trudeau said, “and it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce the amount of back-and-forth trade of essential goods and services, including medical goods, across our border.” “White-House-scrambles-scoop-up-medical-supplies-angering-canada-germany”

“Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government has been ‘forcefully’ reminding American counterparts that trade ‘goes both ways across the border.’  Thousands of nurses in Windsor, Ontario, he noted, travel to Detroit each day to work in hospitals there. Several of them have since tested positive for covid-19.” These steps are incredibly short-sighted as is Trump’s trade policy in general. As the biggest and strongest country in the word, the U.S. should be engaging with the rest of the world to lead a cooperative approach to fighting covid-19 rather than throwing its weight around because, at the moment, it still can. These are the sorts of behavior that can lead to war.

Following quickly on the heels of allocating the existing stockpile of equipment, is the closely related question of how to increase and allocate the supply going forward as quickly as possible.  Market allocation of the existing stock prioritizes those willing to pay the most as an indication of the intensity of their need (or who has more money to spend, but the wealthy always have a greater impact on allocation whether through government or the market). Established firms aim to maximize their profit over time and will take into account their long run relationship with regular customers when agreeing on prices for the existing supply. This limits so called “price gouging”, but the prospect of higher prices accelerates the market’s supply response. Many governors instead “pleaded for the White House to invoke the Defense Production Act, the legislation that would compel American companies to make critical supplies.” “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

While history clearly demonstrates that market allocation is superior to government command of the economy, it struggles in current emergency circumstances even if or when government interference is removed (such as the government’s interference with market development and supply of covid-19 test kits).  Knowledge is essential for good decision making.  A virtue of market allocation is that knowledge that is impossible  to properly centralize in socialist economies can be exploited in decentralized individual decision making in response to market generated prices that match supply with demand (See F. A. Hayek’s “The_Fatal_Conceit”).  Markets rely on trust that is built in various ways from experience. The Internet reports reviews of products by users. Uber drivers are rated by riders. Company reputations are carefully built and protected.

In the current sudden surge in demand for certain medical supplies the system is overloaded, and hospitals search beyond their usual suppliers. New marketers emerge to help hospitals find new suppliers. The reliability and quality of the supplied products lack market experience and feedback.  Governments can play a supportive role by requiring transparency about product contents and/or performance but can also get in the way if regulations are more costly than their benefits.  “’The dynamic of the market is very weird at this point,’ said Andrew Stroup, a co-founder of Project N95, a nonprofit clearinghouse working to connect hospitals with suppliers. The group has received more than 2,000 requests from health-care institutions searching for more than 110 million pieces of personal protective equipment.”   “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

In the imperfect world we all live in we would do best to maximize the role of private entrepreneurs and firms to develop and supply the best possible products, limiting the government’s role to protecting private property and contract enforcement, and establishing standards that help promote consumer confidence and trust in suppliers. Private, profit motivated producers maximize their profits by best surviving and satisfying the desires of their customers.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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