Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Reflections on Impending Obamacare
Reform was surely needed to remove distortions imposed on medical care by its financing. The next big questions are what the Affordable Care Act really reforms; and, whether the result will be affordable for the whole nation. Here are some proposals, just in case.

No Plan is Free of Risk; Long Range Planning is Political

In recent years, Congress has taken to producing laws of great complexity, sometimes thousands of pages long. This is particularly notable in the Obama administration but can be viewed as a non-partisan tendency throughout the Twentieth century, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. As part of the phenomenon, the workload of Congress has increased to the point where the Legislative branch is particularly weakened by its traditional procedures. The Executive branch has responded greatly enlarging itself, able to create most of the Law through regulation after the law is passed; and the Legislative branch reacts by creating excessive detail in later laws. This recipe for self-defeat has come to be called "micromanagement" by business theorists, who tend to view "command and control" as a solution. As long as the Constitution stands, that approach will not be allowed to work. It is not the purpose of this book to redesign government, or even to discuss it in detail. However, it is wise to remember that even good proposals are undermined by the change of circumstance. Unwisely freezing details when not truly necessary could defeat the main goal, which is to pay a large share of health costs with compound investment income.

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The main goal is to pay a large share of health costs with compound investment income. {bottom quote}

The main concern is this: our present or future systems of managing the currency may not permit compound interest to compound faster than inflation. That can't be blamed on the Health Care system, but it would certainly injure health care. At the present moment, long-term U.S. Treasury bonds pay 2%, but inflation reduces the value of the bond by more than that, perhaps 3%. Income tax reduces the value by perhaps 0.5%. The graduated income tax already makes it useless for the top quarter of the population to buy Treasury bonds, to say nothing of the top 1% of the population. Whatever the outlook for bonds, insurance companies must keep a large bond portfolio to pay claims. Whatever the outlook for stocks, a large stock portfolio is necessary to stay ahead of inflation. The public must not force its managers to ignore these rules in order to match the investment results of others.

Congress has responded to unrelated pressures by trying to collect the same taxes from a loophole-less tax code, primarily for the purpose of lowering the rates on the top bracket. Whatever the outcome of this struggle, it dramatizes that the usefulness of investing in bonds can readily be destroyed by modifying the tax code, by the stroke of a pen, as it were. You certainly would not want your lifetime health insurance to be risked by that sort of thing happening, sometime in the next eighty years, so you do not want the government to be too tightly in control of your investment portfolio. You may love your government, but its agenda is not necessarily in harmony with that of an insurance company.

Legislative extremes probably won't happen, because of the historic sensitivity of Americans to taxation. But inflation could be equally destructive, and control of that lies in the hands of an un-elected committee at the Federal Reserve. Much of this power was unintended, created by going off the gold standard, and then replacing it with the power of the Federal Reserve to issue (or, not issue) vast amounts of currency in response to "targeting" inflation at 2%. Since a casual observer has trouble seeing much of a match between 2% and the actual amount of currency issued, the Federal Reserve Chairman has been given wide latitude in adjusting interest rates for his own purposes. The outcome for present purposes is that a fifty-year history of this system would have allowed the following statement: "You could withdraw 4% a year from an investment fund, indefinitely, and still have the same amount remaining in the fund." In the past year, however, the following analysis emerged from David C. Patterson, the CEO of a very large investment fund: "A draw of 3% a year at any time since 1926 would only have resulted in a steady purchasing power 60% of the time." Whether this attack on a fundamental investing maxim was caused by inflation, going off the gold standard, or the actions of the Federal Reserve, it is a lesson that interest rates cannot be predicted eighty years in advance, within the boundaries of what experienced financiers considered safe enough to depend on.

The Bottom Line. The life insurance industry faces exactly the same problem, and if the life insurance industry has a solution, it hasn't made it public. What the life insurance industry surely has, is lobbyists. The solution they would devise doesn't necessarily address someone else's problem, but health insurance for the last year of life comes pretty close to what they do for funeral cost protection, so one could be confident they would be allies in any congressional manipulation of income tax upper brackets, to the disadvantage of investment funds. And the same thing could be said of the financial community. And the banking community, so one could be reasonably confident there would be plenty of allies against any overt congressional assault. That does leave the loopholes created in any plan by the unintended consequences of some other plan.

All in all, it seems the best strategy to begin with an investment fund which has already been authorized and given a tax exemption: the Health Savings Account. Put as much as you can in one and let it grow. Spend it for some health expenditure if you must, but anyone who puts in two thousand dollars at the birth of a grandchild is probably going to be glad he did, even though it might be left undeclared just how it would later be spent or disposed of. Walk a couple of blocks and open a debit card for the fund, and walk a few more blocks to a broker who can sell you a high-deductible health policy. Link these three features together when, and only when, some changed circumstances make it useful to link them in a single integrated system. If this direst of dire circumstances never comes about, you are no worse for leaving them independent. But if something bad does come about, you may possibly be motivated to change the basic arrangement, or even dissolve it and take your money out of it. Under really dire circumstances, your own ability to judge what is sensible is probably the best protection you can reserve for what is, at the best, a very dangerous world we live in. For far distant planning, it is necessary to rely on our form of government to produce leadership which can handle the problems.


The Game The Fed Plays With Your Investments Wall Street Journal
The Federal Reserve And Financial Crisis

Originally published: Friday, August 16, 2013; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2019