Monday, September 24, 2018

Rumination: Why Not a Military War on Trade?

As President Donald Trump's trade war continues to escalate, it's perhaps worth remembering his tweet from back in March:
My focus here is on the notion that if we "don't trade anymore--we win big. It's easy!"

If this statement is true, then it seems to me that the Trump administration is wasting our time with wishy-washy economic diplomatic incentives to reduce imports from other countries, like tariffs and talks over trade rules. If no trade is a big win, then a serious trade policy sounds like this: Let the US announce that trucks or ships or planes carrying exports from other countries to the US will be destroyed by the US military if they approach US borders. We will extend multiple warnings and give those imports a chance to turn back. But if they do not, then carry through on the threat. After all, the goal is slashing imports. It's easy to win! We win big!

One might be concerned, I suppose about retaliation against US exports, or against multinational US companies that are involved in production in other countries. But there is apparently no risk of such retaliation. As Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro stated back in March: "I don't believe that any country in the world is going to retaliate for the simple reason that we are most lucrative and biggest market in the world ..."

However, it stands to reason that if the US economy wins big from not receiving imported products from other countries, then presumably the economies of those other countries would win big from not receiving US exports, either. If imported products hurt the recipient nation, then a literal military war against trade seems certain to be beneficial for all--rather like many countries coordinating in a public health effort to wipe out a disease that crosses national borders.

I suppose the other response is to argue that President Trump and his advisers are only opposed to trade imbalances, and would support balanced trade.  But the argument that "no trade beats trade imbalances" doesn't much affect the case for a physical war against trade. After all, the United States could allow imports as long as US exports exceed imports, but then threaten to destroy all imports above that level. I've tried to explain why this view of trade imbalances is benighted (among other places, here and here), and won't go through it again here. But the lack of recognition of gains from trade is quite remarkable.

Moreover, when someone takes the positions that 1) no trade at all would be a big win; 2) pretty much all imports should be made in the US regardless of cost; and 3) international trade is a scoreboard where exports are points for the home team and imports are the points for the opposition; and 4) the US should ignore all existing trade agreements like the World Trade Organization in favor of bilateral tariffs--well, it requires greater mental plasticity than I can achieve to believe that their ultimate goal is to increase gains from trade by reducing barriers to movement of goods and services across international borders.

In the world of the web, perhaps it is necessary to close by adding that I do not favor a war on trade, either tariff-driven or military. I offer this rumination about a physical war on trade in the hope that it will make the anti-trade agenda look less attractive, rather than more so. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Corporate Debt and Leveraged Loans: Financial Snags Ahead?

It was 10 years ago in September 2008 that the worst of the financial panic crashed through the US economy. Where might the next financial crash be lurking? In a speech last week, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard pointed to some possible candidates. She said:
"The past few times unemployment fell to levels as low as those projected over the next year, signs of overheating showed up in financial-sector imbalances rather than in accelerating inflation. The Federal Reserve's assessment suggests that financial vulnerabilities are building, which might be expected after a long period of economic expansion and very low interest rates. Rising risks are notable in the corporate sector, where low spreads and loosening credit terms are mirrored by rising indebtedness among corporations that could be vulnerable to downgrades in the event of unexpected adverse developments. Leveraged lending is again on the rise; spreads on leveraged loans and the securitized products backed by those loans are low, and the Board's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices suggests that underwriting standards for leveraged loans may be declining to levels not seen since 2005."
A few points are worth emphasizing here. As Brainard is pointing out, the last couple of decades suggest that the primary risk of recession in the US economy is not likely to arise from a jolt of inflation. Instead, the last two recessions were associated with financial market stress: the end of the dot-com boom in 2001, and the end of the housing price boom in 2008-2009.

Since the Great Recession, a number of steps have been taken to assure that banks are safer and more resilient (higher capital requirements, stress testing, and the like). But the US financial system is a lot bigger than just the banks, and financial troubles can come from a number of directions. What about the two risks that Brainard specifically mentions: corporate debt and leveraged loans?

The financial press has a number of recent articles on the risk that a corporate debt bubble is happening: for example, here's a take from Jesse Colombo in Forbes (August 29) or here is  Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post on June 8:
"Now, 12 years later, it’s happening again. This time, however, it’s not households using cheap debt to take cash out of their overvalued homes. Rather, it is giant corporations using cheap debt — and a one-time tax windfall — to take cash from their balance sheets and send it to shareholders in the form of increased dividends and, in particular, stock buybacks. As before, the cash-outs are helping to drive debt — corporate debt — to record levels. As before, they are adding a short-term sugar high to an already booming economy. And once again, they are diverting capital from productive long-term investment to further inflate a financial bubble — this one in corporate stocks and bonds — that, when it bursts, will send the economy into another recession."
A report from the McKinsey Global Institute last July put some of this in global perspective.  Compared to other regions of the world, US corporations are more likely to raise money using bonds:
"[I]f companies in Western Europe and China were to match the appetite of US corporations for bond financing, their markets would double and triple in size, respectively. ...  A shift toward bond financing has been observed in all regions. In the United States, bonds accounted for 19 percent of all corporate debt financing in 2000; by 2016, that share had jumped to 34 percent. ...  Companies in the United States still lead the world in issuance with $860 billion issued in 2017 ..."  
A larger share of US corporate bonds are being issues with lower ratings, and by companies that already have higher levels of debt. These bonds promise to pay high interest rates (to make up for their higher risk of default), and a large volume of such bonds will need to be refinanced in the next few years:
"In the United States, almost 40 percent of all nonfinancial corporate bonds are now rated BBB, just a few steps above noninvestment grade, up from 22 percent in 1990 and 31 percent in 2000, according to Morgan Stanley. Overall, BBB-rated US nonfinancial corporate bonds outstanding total $1.9 trillion—almost twice the size of the high-yield bond market. Issuers are also more heavily indebted than before. The net leverage ratio for BBB issuers rose from 1.7 in 2000 to 2.9 in 2017 ... Noninvestment-grade bonds carry higher default risk, which increases the vulnerability of the corporate bond market.15 In the coming years, a record amount of speculative-grade corporate bonds could need refinancing. In the United States, for instance, the share of maturing bonds that are high yield is expected to grow from 11 percent in 2017 to 27 percent in 2020. The absolute amount—at least $180 billion of high-yield bonds coming due in 2020—will be almost three times the amount in 2017. If current high-yield issuance trends continue, that share will rise even more."
Behind the scenes, what's happening here is that with bank regulation tightening up and interest rates so low, companies have turned to borrowing with bonds, including higher risk bonds that promise higher interest rates. There are dangers here for past investors in these bonds. But perhaps the bigger danger for the economy is that US companies have become accustomed in the last few years to the idea that they can raise large sums in corporate debt markets at relatively low cost. If investors decide that these corporate bonds actually are riskier than they had thought, the amount of capital flowing to the corporate sector could dry up rather quickly. This is a scenario discussed by William Cohan in an interview at the Wharton School on the topic: "How Dangerous is the Corporate Debt Bubble?" (August 20, 2018).  Cohan says:
"One never knows what the catalyst is going to be for the next financial crisis. ... But the truth is nobody rings a bell at the top of the market and says, `That’s it. It’s over. It’s been fun, guys. It’s all downhill from here.' When I was a banker 27 years ago, the management of United Airlines (UAL) was trying to take it private in what was then one of the largest management buyouts of all time. They had got the commitment letter from Citibank to finance that deal. But suddenly Citibank went back to the management and said, we can’t finance this deal, the market is not there for this buyout. This was in 1991, four years after the stock market crash of 1987. It became a huge problem and shut down the credit markets for the next two or three years. The fact that the UAL buyout could not be financed in the market was the signal that the party was over, and that we were now heading into a severe credit crunch. Anything could be a catalyst. Maybe Tesla trying to go private will be a catalyst for this market shutting down. And that is when real trouble happens. Because people who had nothing to do with it, with the excess, can’t get access to capital."
If this kind of scenario emerges, it will be made more difficult by the archaic ways in which corporate bonds are still traded, which makes it more difficult for them to be easily bought and sold in liquid markets. The McKinsey report notes:
"Bond markets need to enter the digital age. Despite being worth $11.7 trillion, the market is surprisingly antiquated, with little transparency or efficiency. While equities can be traded at the click of a button, buying and selling corporate bonds often requires a phone call to a trading desk at an investment bank, and there is little transparency on the price the buyer is quoted. This method of trading still accounts for more than 80 percent of volume in the United States." 

Concerns about leveraged loans have been around for a few years now: for example, here are some comments I made back in 2014. The issues here also relate to corporate debt, but in the loan market, rather than the bond market. In the case of leveraged loans, a group of banks get together and make a loan to a company. The banks then package this loan (or a group of similar loans) into financial securities that are then re-sold to investors across all financial markets. Those who remember the experiences of 2008, when mortgages from subprime housing loans were packaged together and sold to investor and financial institutions around the world, will see some worrisome parallels.

Again, the financial press has a number of recent articles warning about issues with leveraged loans. For example, here's an article from the Credit Union Times (August 21, 2008) citing estimates that leverage loan market is now at $1.4 trillion, bigger than the market for high-yield bonds.  Here's Pearlstein from the Washington Post pointing out the dangers (July 28, 2018).

For variety, I'll describe these issues by quoting a few remarks from Robin Wigglesworth in the Financial Times (August 24, 2018).
"But the leveraged loan boom is storing up some nasty problems. In their desperation to gobble up higher-yielding loans from riskier borrowers, investors have — initially reluctantly so, but recently with reckless abandon — accepted fewer and fewer of the legal protections that typically guard their rights. These `covenants' restrict how much a creditor can pay shareholders in dividends, how much more debt they can take on, or what security lenders can seize in a bankruptcy. But the average covenants are now `distressingly weak', according to Moody’s. Indeed, the rating agency’s index that measures the average quality of legal protections hit its worst-ever level this year. ... 
"Before the financial crisis, about a quarter of the leveraged loan market was termed “covenant-lite”; today it stands at almost 80 per cent, according to Moody’s. Almost two-thirds of the entire market now has a lowly credit rating of B2 or worse, up from 47 per cent in 2006. In other words, an already junky market has deteriorated further. ... Christina Padgett, senior vice-president at Moody’s, warned: “The combination of aggressive financial policies, deteriorating debt cushions, and a greater number of less creditworthy firms accessing the institutional loan market is creating credit risks that foreshadow an extended and meaningful default cycle once the current economic expansion ends.” ... 
"Specialised investment vehicles known as “collateralised loan obligations” are the biggest buyers of leveraged loans. Issuance of CLOs reached $69bn in the first half of the year, leading S&P to lift its full-year forecast to a record $130bn. But there are a multiplying number of mutual funds and ETFs dedicated to leveraged loans. At the start of 2000 there were only 15 such funds. On the eve of the financial crisis there were less than 90. Today, there are 272 different loan mutual funds, and another eight ETFs that buy loans, according to AllianceBernstein. These have sucked in more than $84bn just since 2010. This looks like an accident waiting to happen. While CLOs have locked-up investor money, mutual funds and ETFs promise investors the ability to redeem whenever they like, despite the underlying loans trading rarely. Even the trade settlement process takes weeks. A loan market downturn could therefore escalate into a severe “liquidity mismatch” between the investment vehicles and their underlying assets, which turns a fire-sale into an inferno."
Dealing with financial stresses before they turn into crises is hard to do. But not doing so can have harsh consequences, as I hope we learned 10 years ago in the Great Recession.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Interview with Chad Syverson: Issues in Productivity

Aaron Steelman interviews Chad Syverson in Econ Focus (Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Second Quarter 2018, pp. 22-27). The interview ranges from broader discussion of slower aggregate productivity growth to comments about productivity in specific industries: health care, car production, ready-made concrete, big box and mom-and-pop retail, major auditing firms, investment choices in Mexico's social security system, and others. Here are a few of the many points that caught my eye.

Should we be concerned about artificial intelligence replacing human labor?
"We have always found things for people to do. If you go back to the middle of the 19th century, more than 60 percent of the workforce was employed in farming. Now it's about 2 percent. Well, we figured out something for the rest of us to do. So I don't worry about that very much. That said, if I could invent a machine that made everything we consume now and we didn't have to work an hour, I would take that. That's not a bad thing. It does create a distributional issue. Are you going to give all that output to the person or persons who own the machine? I think we could agree that's not a good outcome. So we would have to figure out how to distribute the produc­tivity gains that would arise. But inherently, we shouldn't think of it as a problem."
 Why are productivity differences rising among firms in the same industry?
"An important fact is that the skewness of everything is increas­ing within industries. Size skewness, or concentration, is going up. Productivity skewness is going up. And earnings skewness is going up. To describe why our earnings are stretching out like this, why there is a bigger gap between the right tail and the median, I think you have to understand the phenome­non of increasing skewness in produc­tivity and size. Is that technological? Is it policy? Is it a little bit of both? I don't think we really know the answer. That said, I think it's less of a mys­tery now than it was when I started working on this many years ago back in graduate school. ...
"The biggest change is the amount of work that has been done on man­agement practice ... and there's no doubt productivity is correlated with certain kinds of management practices. People have also devel­oped more causal evidence. There have actually been some randomized controlled trials where people intervened in management practices and saw productivity effects. Is that all of the story? No, I don't think so. If I had to guess, it's probably 15 to 25 percent of the story. There's a lot more going on. I think part of it has to do with firm structure. I have done work on that. ...
"But I do think the fact that management is often just mistaken is a nontriv­ial factor. ... Also, I think even if you know you have a problem, a lot of firms can't simply say, well, we see this competing company over there has an inventory management track­ing system that seems really useful, so we'll install it on our computers and our problems will be solved. That's not how it works. ...
"An example I talk about in class a lot is when many mainline carriers in the United States tried to copy Southwest and created little carriers offering low-cost service. For instance, United had Ted and Delta had Song. They failed because they copied a few superficial elements of Southwest's operations, but there was a lot of underlying stuff that Southwest did differently that they didn't replicate. I think that presents a more general lesson: You need a lot of pieces working together to get the benefits, and a lot of companies can't manage to do that. It also typically requires you to continue doing what you have been doing while you are changing your capital and people to do things differently. That's hard."
Is vertical ownership more about data and management than about actual goods?
"[W]e found that most vertical ownership structures are not about transferring the physical good along the production chain. Let's say you are a company that owns a tire factory and a car factory. When you look at instances analogous to that, most of the tires that these companies are making are not going to the parent company's own car factory. They are going to other car factories. In fact, when you look at the median pair, there's no transfer of goods at all. So the obvious question becomes: Why do we observe all this vertical ownership when it's not facilitating the movement of physical goods along a production chain? What we speculated, and then offered some evidence for, was that most of what's moving in these ownership links are not tangible products but intangible inputs, such as customer lists, production techniques, or management skills.
"If that story is right, it suggests a reinterpretation of what vertical integration is usually about in a couple of ways. One, physical goods flow upstream to downstream, but it doesn't mean intangibles have to flow in the same direction. Management practices, for instance, could just as easily go from the downstream unit to the upstream unit.
"The second thing is that vertical expansions may not be as unique as we have thought. They may not be partic­ularly different from horizontal expansions. Horizontal expansions tend to involve firms starting operations in a related market, either geographically or in terms of the goods produced. We're saying that also applies to vertical expansion. A firm's input supplier is a related business, and the distributor of its product is a related business. So why couldn't firms take their capital and say, well, we think we could provide the input or distribute the product just as well too? So, conceptually, it's the same thing as horizontal expansion. It's just going in a particular direction we call vertical because it's along a production chain. But it's not about the actual object that's moving down the chain.
"We were able to look at this issue, by the way, because we had Commodity Flow Survey microdata, which were just amazing. It's a random sample of shipments from a random sample of establishments in the goods-producing and goods-conveying sectors of the U.S. economy. So, if you make a physical object and send it somewhere, you're in the scope of the survey. We get to see, shipment by shipment, what it is, how much it's worth, how much it weighs, and where it's going. And then we can combine that with the ownership information in the census to know which are internal and which are external."
For those who want more, here are links to a few examples of Syverson's work published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I labor in the fields as Managing Editor:

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

International Car Production and Ownership: Some Snapshots

Motor vehicle production and ownership is one window for looking at differences and changes in the world economy. Here are some snapshots from the Transportation Energy Data Book, produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy, updated August 2018. (For the record, the book includes many more figures about energy, motor vehicles, and other types of transportation, with a primarily US focus.)

The line in the two panels of this figure shows US motor vehicle ownership per 1,000 people from 1900 to the present. The top panel shows 1927 or so  to the present; the bottom panel shows 1900 to 1927. Along the line, for comparison, are various points showing motor vehicle ownership per 1,000 people at other times and place. For example, the top point on the line shows Canada's level of motor vehicle ownership in 2015. Down around 200 motor vehicles per 1,000 people you can see the point for Brazil in 2015.


The next panel shows what would be in the bottom left corner of the figure above, thus allowing more detail. Again, the line shows US motor vehicle ownership from 1900-1927 or so. You can see on the line where motor vehicle ownership is for the Middle Wast, China, Indonesia, countries of Africa, and India in 2015.

The likely conclusion here is that even if other countries around the world follow an extremely different path of economic development that involves many, many fewer cars--which is not a sure thing--the number of cars in the world is likely to rise dramatically in the next few decades.

Unsurprisingly, the large rise in car ownership in emerging markets around the world is already going hand in hand with large rises in car and truck production in those countries. Here's a figure showing the overall rise in car production n the world since 1983.
And a figure showing the overall rise in truck and bus production in the world. Just to be clear, light trucks, minivans, and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are classified as "trucks."
Here is a comparison car and truck production in different countries between 2000 and 2015. US car production has been dropping and the US now ranks fourth in total car production, well behind the top three of China, Japan, and Germany. However, the US remains strong in truck production--which again includes light trucks, minivans and SUVs.
These patterns and trends seem to me interesting for a number of economic and environmental reasons, but let me focus here on some of the trade issues that are so much in the news.

The US produced about 7% of the world's cars in 2015, and about 22% of the world's trucks. This is not a dominant market position! I'm of course aware that many of those who are most eager for raising tariffs and other trade barriers claim that they are doing so based on their even deeper support for free and open international trade. (I'm dubious about their expressed motives, but time will tell.) There is a real danger that the tactics of higher trade barriers will lead to US firms being less able to participate in the global supply chains for automobile production. Given that the vast majority of future growth in motor vehicle production will be outside the US economy, this is a concerning possibility.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Update on US Health Insurance Coverage

As the US continues to wrestle with the aftermath of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and to contemplate future changes in its health insurance programs, one useful starting poin is the facts about health insurance coverage presented by Edward R. Berchick, Emily Hood, and Jessica C. Barnett of the US Census Bureau in the annual report, Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2017 (Current Population Reports, September 2018, P60-264).

As the Affordable Care Act kicked in, it reduced the share of Americans without health insurance from 14-15% to about 8-9%.
It wasn't a surprise that the uninsured rate remains above 8%. Before the Affordable Care Act was passed, it was not projected to provide universal health insurance. As I've written before, there's no magic here about expanding coverage. The Congressional Budget Office has documented that that the expansion of health insurance coverage is costing the US government about $110 billion annually. Thus, the cost of expanding health insurance coverage to an additional 20 million people works out to about $5500 per person per year. Personally, I'm fine with spending the money for this expansion of health insurance coverage, although I would have preferred to see the money raised by taxing some portion of employer-provided health insurance benefits as income.

In thinking about the issue of the remaining uninsured, it's useful to keep the age dimension of the issue in mind. This figure shows the rate of uninsured by age for 2013, 2016, and 2017. The uninsured rate for children is low (Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program) and the uninsured rate for the elderly is low (Medicare). The real spike in the share of uninsured is for young adults. Thinking about what kind of health insurance makes sense for this relatively healthy group seems potentially productive.

Another issue for the remaining uninsured is the state-level variation. This figure shows changes in health insurance coverage by state. The variations across states are substantial, because states have a lot of power to determined the extent of the health insurance programs for those with low incomes.  I live in Minnesota, and I'm pleased to live in a state where the share of population that lacks health insurance is fairly small. But how you feel about lack of health insurance in the US is in some ways linked to whether you can live with the idea that majorities in other states are making other choices.
Finally, most people get their health insurance through employment-based private plans.
The surveys I've seen over the years also suggest that most people who receive health insurance in this way are reasonably happy. Of course, this is why President Obama repeatedly made statements before and after the passage of the 2010 health care legislation like: "If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” It was widely known even within the Obama administration that the promise was untrue (see here and here). But the need to make such a promise--and the extreme sensitivity on the issue--suggests that proposals to replace private health insurance with some form of Medicare-for-all will have a hard time gaining traction.

Monday, September 17, 2018

More $100s Than $1s

Trivia question for today: What denomination of US currency has the largest number of bills in circulation? Up until 2016, the correct answer was the $1 bill. Now, it's the $100 bill.

Here's the evidence from Tim Sablik in "Is Cash Still King?" written for Econ Focus from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (Second Quarter 2018, pp. 18-21). Back in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s, $1 bills were most common, with $20s in second place. (This ranking accurately represents my  own wallet, for what it's worth!). But $100s have growth steadily and taken over first place.


Indeed, the total value of US currency in circulation has been rising over time, but most of that gain in value is due to the rise in $100 bills.



Clearly, there is a puzzle here. As Sablik points out, evidence from consumer surveys finds that cash is used for about 27% of transactions in the last decade or so, but mostly for small purchases. It seems unlikely that the number of $100 bills in circulation is about typical consumers making typical purchases. In round numbers, the 12 billion $100 bills in circulation divided by a US population of 325 million implies that on average, every person in the US has 37 $100 bills in their possession. The total amount of US cash in circulation works out to about $4,800 for every person in the US. (This does not accurately represent the contents of my wallet.)

The standard explanation is that a considerable amount of US currency is being used outside the US, both as a medium of exchange and as a store of value. Some proportion of that amount--no one really knows how much--is surely helping to facilitate illegal activities. There are ongoing proposals to eliminate large-denomination bills: Sablik points out that the European Union ended production of 500-euro notes in 2016.

For some previous posts on the subject, see:










Friday, September 14, 2018

Some Economics of Hurricanes

As Hurricane Florence slams into the southeastern United States, here are a few posts from the past on the economics of hurricanes and other natural disasters.

"Economics and Natural Disasters" (November 2, 2012)

This blog was written as Hurricane Sandy hit the US in 2012. Among a number of other articles, in this blog I mention how David Stromberg laid out the economic arguments about natural disasters in "Natural Disasters, Economic Development, and Humanitarian Aid," appearing in the Summer 2007 issue of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives. Stromberg described how the basic framework for economic analysis of natural disasters emerged from correspondence between Voltaire and Rousseau in 1755 (footnotes and citations omitted):
"[I]n 1755 an earthquake devastated Lisbon, which was then Europe’s fourth-largest city. At the first quake, fissures five meters wide appeared in the city center. The waves of the subsequent tsunami engulfed the harbor and downtown. Fires raged for days in areas unaffected by the tsunami. An estimated 60,000 people were killed, out of a Lisbon population of 275,000. In a letter to Voltaire dated August 18, 1756, Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes that while the earthquake was an act of nature, previous acts of men, like housing construction and urban residence patterns, set the stage for the high death toll. Rousseau wrote: “Without departing from your subject of Lisbon, admit, for example, that nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories there, and that if the inhabitants of this great city had been more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less and perhaps of no account.”
"Following Rousseau’s line of thought, disaster risk analysts distinguish three factors contributing to a disaster: the triggering natural hazard event (such as the earthquake striking in the Atlantic Ocean outside Portugal); the population exposed to the event (such as the 275,000 citizens of Lisbon); and the vulnerability of that population (higher for the people in seven-story buildings)."
"Natural Disasters: Insurance Costs vs. Deaths" (April 16, 2015)

This blog post looked at the lists of the most destructive natural disasters that are published regularly by Swiss Re.  I discussed why it is that the disasters with the greatest losses to property are  often different than the disasters with the greatest loss of life.  I wrote:
[T]he effects of a given natural disaster on people and property will depend to a substantial extent on what happens before and after the event. Are most of the people living in structures that comply with an appropriate building code? Have civil engineers thought about issues like flood protection? Is there an early warning system so that people have as much advance warning of the disaster as possible? How resilient is the infrastucture for electricity, communications, and transportation in the face of the disaster? Was there an advance plan before the disaster on how support services would be mobilized?
In countries with high levels of per capita income, many of these investments are already in place, and so natural disasters have the highest costs in terms of property, but relatively lower costs in terms of life. In countries with low levels of per capita income, these investments in health and safety are often not in place, and much of the property that is in place is uninsured. Thus, a 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti in 2010, and 225,000 die. A 9.0 earthquake/tsunami combination hits Japan in 2011--and remember, earthquakes are measured on a base-10 exponential scale, so a 9.0 earthquake has 100 times the shaking power of a 7.0 quake--and less than one-tenth as many people die as in Haiti.


For example, in the  the most recent version, see pp. 48-49 in this 2018 report, the most costly natural disaster from 1970-2017 in terms of insured losses was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with $82 billion in losses. But biggest natural disaster over that time in terms of lives lost was 300,000 dead from storms and flooding in Bangladesh in 1970. The 1,836 lives lost in Katrina don't make the top-40 list of most lives lost in a natural disaster from 1970-2017.

"The New Orleans Economy Since Katrina" (October 25, 2013)

In describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, I wrote:

"According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, in the July 2005 the population of the New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner metropolitan area was area at a shade over 1.3 million, essentially unchanged since 2000. By the July 2006 count, dropped to 978,000. The population has rebuilt slowly since then, up to nearly 1.2 million by July 2009, but remains below the pre-storm level. What about the economy of New Orleans? As I'll try to explain, it's a story with twists and turns, but perhaps without any clear policy implication."

One of the sources I mentioned in the blog quotes Michael Hecht, president of the largest economic development agency in the region, to this effect: “New Orleans was like a morbidly obese person who finally had a heart attack that was strong enough to scare them, but not strong enough to kill them ... Katrina laid bare that this was a city and a region that had been in slow, decadent decline, probably since the ’60s ...”

I also mention an insight about natural disasters and housing markets from Jacob Vigdor in "The Economic Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,"which appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. I wrote:
When a city is declining, low-quality housing can become quite inexpensive. The result is that those with low incomes find it hard to leave the city, because although their prospects for earning income aren't good, their cost of housing is low, and moving to some other area with a higher cost of housing seems like a high-risk choice. But Hurricane Katrina blasted the New Orleans housing stock. Vigdor wrote: `The 2000 Census counted just over 215,000 housing units in the city of New Orleans. By 2006, the estimated number of units had declined to 106,000, of which more than 32,000 were vacant. Although these vacant units appeared intact from the exterior, most of them undoubtedly required significant interior rehabilitation prior to occupation. Hurricane Katrina thus rendered two-thirds of the city’s housing stock uninhabitable, at least in the short term.' To be sure, a substantial amount of this housing stock was eventually refurbished. But some of the cycle of low-income people living in low-cost housing was diminished, partly because a number of those low-income people ended up relocated in other cities, and partly because much of the refurbished housing was no longer as inexpensive as it had previously been.