Covid-19 & The Federal Reserve

I remember people talking about Covid-19 in January of 2020. There had been several epidemic scare-claims from major news outlets in the decade prior and those all turned out to be nothing. So, I was not excited about this one. By the end of the month, I saw people making substantiated claims and I started to suspect that my low-information heuristic might not perform well.

People are different. We have different degrees of excitability, different risk tolerances, and different biases. At the start of the pandemic, these differences were on full display between political figures and their parties, and among the state and municipal governments. There were a lot of divergent beliefs about the world. Depending on your news outlet of choice, you probably think that some politicians and bureaucrats acted with either malice or incompetence.

I think that the Federal Reserve did a fine job, however. What follows is an abridged timeline, graph by graph, of how and when the Fed managed monetary policy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

February, 2020: Financial Markets recognize a big problem

The S&P begins its rapid decent on February 20th and would ultimately lose a third of its value by March 23rd.  Financial markets are often easily scared, however. The primary tool that the Fed has is adjusting the number of reserves and the available money supply by purchasing various assets. The Fed didn’t begin buying extra assets of any kind until mid-March. There is a clear response by the 18th, though they may have started making a change by the 11th.  One might argue that they cut the federal funds rate as early as the 4th, but given that there was no change in their balance sheet, this was probably demand driven.

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYVL
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYVy

March, 2020: The Fed Accommodates quickly and substantially.

In the month following March 9th, the Fed increased M2 by 8.3%. By the week of March 21st, consumer sentiment and mobility was down and economic policy uncertainty began to rise substantially – people freaked out. Although the consumer sentiment weekly indicator was back within the range of normal by the end of April, EPU remained elevated through May of 2020. Additionally, although lending was only slightly down, bank reserves increased 71% from February to April. Much of that was due to Fed asset purchases. But there was also a healthy chunk that was due to consumer spending tanking by 20% over the same period.

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYXj
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYYz

In the 18 months prior to 2020, M2 had grown at rate of about 0.5% per month. For the almost 18 months following the sudden 8.3% increase, the new growth rate of M2 almost doubled to about 1% per month. The Fed accommodated quite quickly in March.

April, 2020: People are awash with money

Falling consumption caused bank deposit balances to rise by 5.6% between March 11th and April 8th. The first round of stimulus checks were deposited during the weekend of April 11th. That contributed to bank deposits rising by another 6.7% by May 13th.

By the end of March, three weeks after it began increasing M2, the Fed remembered that it really didn’t want another housing crisis. It didn’t want another round of fire sales, bank failures, disintermediation, collapsed lending, and debt deflation. It went from owning $0 in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) on March 25th to owning nearly $1.5 billion worth by the week of April 1st. Nobody’s talking about it, but the Fed kept buying MBS at a constant growth rate through 2021.

May, 2020 – December, 2021: The Fed Prevents Last-Time’s Crisis

Jerome Powell presided over the shortest US recession ever on record. The Fed helped to successfully avoid a housing collapse, disintermediation, and debt deflation – by 2008 standards. The monthly supply of housing collapsed, but it had bottomed out by the end of the summer. By August of 2021, the supply of housing had entirely recovered. The average price of new house sales never fell. Prices in April of 2020 were typical of the year prior, then rose thereafter. A broader measure of success was that total loans did not fall sharply and are nearly back to their pre-pandemic volumes. After 2008, it took six years to again reach the prior peak. A broader measure still, total spending in the US economy is back to the level predicted by the pre-pandemic trend.

The Fed can’t control long-run output. As I’ve written previously, insofar as aggregate demand management is concerned, we are perfectly on track. The problem in the US economy now is real output. The Fed avoided debt deflation, but it can’t control the real responses in production, supply chains, and labor markets that were disrupted by Covid-19 and the associated policy responses.

What was the cost of the Fed’s apparent success? Some have argued that the Fed has lost some of its political insulation and that it unnecessarily and imprudently over-reached into non-monetary areas. Maybe future Fed responses will depend on who is in office or will depend on which group of favored interests need help. Personally, I’m not so worried about political exposure. But I am quite worried about the Fed’s interventions in particular markets, such as MBS, and how/whether they will divest responsibly.

Of course, another cost of the Fed’s policies has been higher inflation. During the 17 months prior to the pandemic, inflation was 0.125% per month. During the pandemic recession, consumer prices dipped and inflation was moderate through November.  But, in the 16 months since April of 2020, consumer prices have grown at a rate of 0.393% per month – more than three times the previous rate. Some of that is catch-up after the brief fall in prices.

Although people are genuinely worried about inflation, they were also worried about if after the 2008 recession and it never came. This time, inflation is actually elevated. But people were complaining about inflation before it was ever perceptible. The compound annual rate of inflation rose to 7% in March of 2021. But it had been almost zero as recent as November, 2020. That March 2021 number is misleading. The actual change in prices from February to March was 0.567%. Something that was priced at $10 in February was then priced at $10.06 in March. Hardly noticeable, were it not for headlines and news feeds.

If Tyler is talking about a new variant…

For some Americans, this Thanksgiving was the first holiday that felt normal in a long time. Being re-united, without Covid restrictions, is something to celebrate.

On the other hand, a new coronavirus variant was just discovered in South Africa. It’s scary enough that travel bans might be imposed. We have all (just about) learned to live with the original strain from Wuhan, but scientists want time to figure out how dangerous and infectious this new strain is. Maybe at this point people are tired of being lectured about risks. No matter how much or little a person sacrificed for Covid-19, they might feel like that storyline has become too boring to deserve any more of our attention. We cannot stop looking out for new variants that might force us to put cherished traditions on hold again. Coronaviruses kill. My advice is to keep following news from Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and Emily Oster.

Oster has been consistently reasonable about family and health risks. She argued to open schools and essentially said that you can see grandparents if the risk is small enough (even though the risks are never zero). As I said before, another trustworthy source of information throughout the pandemic has been Tyler and Alex, who put up almost all of their material in real time at Marginal Revolution.

I’ll share something a friend wrote to me today:

Although [his wife’s name]’s chemo treatment continues to show good long-term signs, this morning we discovered that [she] tested positive for COVID. That’s bad news, the good news is that [she] is already getting the antibody treatment and some extra fluids at the hospital as I write this.

“The antibody treatment” did not exist when the first Covid-19 waves swept through New York with such devastating consequences.

If the newest strain turns out to be a serious development, then in many ways we are better prepared to deal with it than we were before. We probably will blow through the red tape on at-home rapid tests faster the next time around (I’m such an optimist!). We already have contact tracing apps that protect privacy. Vaccine scheduling software is already in place. Everyone has masks at home.

The biggest difficulty I foresee is not coming up with scientific solutions but agreeing as a society about which tools to use. Some people might (will) not even believe the new strain is real.

EWED was started right at the moment when Marginal Revolution commentary on Covid seemed the most crucial. So, sometimes I will do little more here than keep up the echo. Do tweets, phone calls, letters, blogs, or talk about Covid around the Thanksgiving table. Don’t give up.

It’s now clear, whether or not the news out of South Africa turns out to be serious, that we are living with a new problem that will last a long time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you ever read much of the New Testament, you’ll see a theme in the letters of Paul to cities he has visited. The brand-new churches were doing well, while he was with them in person. Then time goes by and the community or doctrine starts to fray.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Galatia, more than a year after he had visited them:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 

Galatians 6:9
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Alex Madrigal’s Atlantic Article on Testing Positive for COVID, and Pushbacks

A friend just texted me a link to an article by Alex Madrigal that came out yesterday in The Atlantic. Madrigal described how he made a last-minute decision to attend a wedding and associated gatherings in New Orleans. He knew there would be non-zero risk of infection, of course, but he had been fully vaccinated and he had reason to believe that essentially everyone else at the festivities was likewise vaccinated.  Madrigal had helped to assemble and lead a consortium of journalists who gathered and published COVID data in the early months of the pandemic, before officialdom got its act together on reporting good numbers, so he is well-acquainted with the math of this disease.

He had been seeing maskless people laughing and chatting  in restaurants, and he really liked New Orleans, and he wanted to support his friend who was getting married, and he wanted to enjoy some return to good old normal good times. So, he went and he mingled. Liquor flowed and happy chatter filled the air. And then he flew home.

He has a wife and two children, so to be on the safe side, upon his return he took no less than three PCR antigen tests, a day or so apart. All came back negative, even the one four days after the wedding. He did develop some cold symptoms, and upon his wife’s request, did one more swab at home on the fifth day. That was unmistakably positive, as was a follow-up test.

What followed was a nontrivial amount of inconvenience – – he went and  lived in a rental apart from his family for at least ten days, his kids got pulled out of school, and he worried that if he had passed it to them, they in turn would need to quarantine. He is 39 and in top physical condition, and was vaccinated, so his course of illness was just that of a nasty cold, but that was still not fun. For him the most poignant aspect was the reaction of his two children:

My nonbinary 8-year-old was so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95. I’m not sure which reaction was more heartbreaking. It was as if one never wanted to see me again and the other didn’t want to let me out of her sight.

He wrote all this up in “ Getting Back to Normal Is Only Possible Until You Test Positive “. The concluding lines echo the title, “Right now most policies appear designed to make life seem normal. Masks are coming off. Restaurants are dining in. Planes are full. Offices are calling. But don’t be fooled: The world’s normal only until you test positive.”

My reaction, which I’d like to think would be a common reaction to this piece, is sympathy for the hassle that he and his family have been through, and appreciation for this reality check: the newer variants of COVID multiply so fast that you can get sick and spread the disease, even if you have been vaccinated. You probably won’t die, but getting infected could be very uncomfortable and inconvenient. At the macro level, some activities may never get fully back to pre-2020 levels, and on the personal level we should keep all this in mind before entering a room with lots of talking (or singing) unmasked people. In the U.S. there are still a thousand people dying every day from this communicable disease, and Europe is getting hit hard. I guess we all have pandemic fatigue, but a thousand deaths at a pop used to be considered a lot.

That would be a fine observation with which to end this blog post. But I will throw in one other observation: the internet is a pretty harsh place, and Madrigal’s article spawned at least two fairly ascerbic pushback articles.  Claire Carusillo at gawker.com (which I know nothing about), in Alexis Madrigal: I Can’t Believe I, a Really Good Person, Got Covid , takes multiple jabs:

Alexis C. Madrigal, a columnist for The Atlantic and a cofounder of the COVID tracking project, got a mild breakthrough COVID case at a destination wedding in New Orleans. Instead of just going to bed for two weeks like a normal person, he wrote an essay about it wherein the only thing he makes clearer than his dedication to his workout routine is how he believes his story is a horrifying parable for our time.

It isn’t. It’s an unremarkable story from a public health perspective, though Madrigal’s inclusion of specific details make this piece a fascinating study of what it’s like to be an American man with a certain level of privilege who also just so happens to have a huge platform and a deadline to meet. Social distancing, it seems, has inflamed his out-of-touchness with what most people have endured over the course of the last 20 months.

… You may be thinking, spending a few childcare-light days at an Airbnb on your own block with a mild throat “tickle” that does not prevent you from either doing Peloton workouts or writing an essay for The Atlantic does not sound that bad. In fact, you may think it sounds a lot better than the trips I have taken to the Bay Area, particularly the family vacation we took to Alcatraz when I was nine. Either way, how dare you?

Ouch.

Tiana Lowe at the Washington Examiner blames Madrigal’s fear-mongering for his kids’ reactions to his plight, in her article If your nonbinary 8-year-old gets mad at you for getting COVID, tell them to grow up :

Over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal engages in some light sadism, dedicating thousands of words to flagellating himself for the great sin of contracting the coronavirus….. He got a mild breakthrough case of coronavirus. But because the vaccines work well, he made a full recovery shortly thereafter.

….Children these days have dramatically calmed down from the bad behavior of the ’80s. This has brought with it the blessing of far fewer pregnancies and underaged smokers. But helicopter parenting, even before the pandemic, produced a significant cohort of children far, far too cautious and not nearly socialized well enough for adulthood. The share of teenagers who have ever had a job, gotten their driver’s license, or gone on a date, all previously the major milestones of young adulthood, has plummeted, and now we’re adding COVIDiocy to that trend?

An 8-year-old capable of making a parent abide by their preferred gender identity is probably also capable of bullying said parent out of having a normal social life. But the real fault belongs to the parent who would let a child live in such fear and fall so deeply into coronavirus delusions.

A virus for which we now have three vaccines and several new, inexpensive treatments does not provide any reason to stop living life to the fullest. To fail to explain this to children is the kindness of cowardice — or even cruelty masquerading as kindness.

Again, ouch. I think the two pushback articles make some valid points, particularly Lowe’s observations on helicopter parenting in general, and it does seem like the Madrigals’ kids had been given overly inflated fears about their dad’s prospects. That said, we need more in the way of civil discourse. The abrasive tone of these reactionary articles says more about their authors’ attempts to garner clicks than about Madrigal’s original earnest cautionary tale. It is a jungle out there.

Inflation: Not Merely a Monetary Phenomenon

I’m a big fan of Milton Friedman. I’m also a big fan of easy-to-remember phrases that impart great wisdom. It honestly made me wince the first time I said the following:

Inflation is *not* everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon“.

The reasoning is as plain as day. Consider the quantity equation:

MV=PY

For the uninitiated, M is the money supply, V (velocity) is the average number of times dollars transacts during a period, P is the price level, and finally Y is real output during a period. This equation is often called the “equation of exchange” or “the quantity equation”. Strictly speaking, it is an identity. It is a truism that cannot be violated. All economists agree that the equation is true, though they may disagree on its usefulness.

Inflation is simply the percent change in price. We can rearrange the quantity equation, solving for price, in order to see the relationship between the price level and its determinants.

P= MV/Y

What does this mean? It means that more money results in more inflation, all else held constant. It means that higher velocity results in more inflation, all else held constant. It means that less output results in more inflation, all else held constant.

Why would Milton Friedman say that inflation is always caused by changes in the money supply if it is clear that there are two other causes of the price level? When Milton Friedman said his famous quote, output growth was relatively steady. Velocity growth was relatively steady. For his context, Milton Friedman was right. The majority of price and inflation volatility was found in changes in M. See below.

Strictly speaking however, Milton Friedman knew better and he knew that the statement was not strictly correct. Friedman was a public intellectual and he was a great simplifier. He taught many people many true things. At the time, people were blaming inflation on a great variety of things: taxes, fish catches, and unions, to name a few. Arguably, Friedman got them closer to the truth.

Now, there are economists that are pointing to total spending as the driver of inflation. After all, both sides of the equation of exchange describe NGDP (a.k.a. – Aggregate Demand or Aggregate Expenditure). Replacing M and V in the equation with NGDP yields:

P=NGDP/Y

What does this mean? It means that higher NGDP results in more inflation, all else held constant. It means that less output results in more inflation, all else held constant.

But economists dismissing M in lieu of AD are committing the same oversimplification. Y can also change! Maybe economists figure that our recent history is full of relatively stable Y growth and that we ought not pay attention to it. And indeed, unsurprisingly, RGDP growth has been less than NGDP growth.

But what is driving the current bought of inflation?

Pardon the crude image. The pink lines are eye-balled trend lines on natural logged data for AD, Y, and P. Prices are up. Is it because of exceptionally high NGDP? Nope. Total spending is back on pre-2020 trend. Does Y happen to be down? Yep, it sure is.

Right now, assuming the previous trend was anywhere close to potential output, inflation is not being driven by excess aggregate demand. It’s being driven by inadequate real output. The news tells the story. There have been supply-chain bottle-necks, difficulty employing, lockdowns, and fear of covid. Right now we have an output problem and higher prices are a symptom. We do not have an aggregate spending problem.

PS – In fact, it is my belief that the Fed successfully avoided a debt-deflation aggregate demand tumble that would have been catastrophic. Inflation is expected when supplies of goods decline.

Weigh costs, benefits, and evidence quality

Living means making decisions with imperfect information. But Covid provides many examples of how people and institutions are often still bad at this. A few common errors:

  1. Imperfect evidence = perfect evidence. “Studies show Asprin prevents Covid”. OK, were the studies any good? Did any other studies find otherwise?
  2. Imperfect evidence = “no evidence” or “evidence against”. In early 2020, major institutions like the WHO said “masks don’t work” when they meant “there are no large randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of masks”
  3. Imperfect evidence = don’t do it until you’re sure Inaction is a choice, and often a bad one. If the costs of action are low and the potential benefits of action high, you might want to do it anyway. Think masks in 2020 when the evidence for them was mediocre, or perhaps Vitamin D now.
  4. Imperfect evidence = do it, we have to do something Even in a pandemic, it is possible to over-react if the costs are high enough and/or the evidence of benefits bad enough (possibly lockdowns, definitely taking up smoking)

Any intro microeconomics class will explain the importance of weighing both costs and benefits. But how do we know what the costs and benefits are? For many everyday purchases they are usually obvious, but in other situations like medical treatments and public policies they aren’t, particularly the benefits. We have to estimate the benefits using evidence of varying quality. This creates more dimensions of tradeoffs- do you choose something with good evidence for its benefits, but high cost? Or something with worse evidence but lower costs? Graphing this properly should take at least 3 dimensions, but to keep things simple lets assume we know what the costs are, and combine benefits and evidence into a single axis called “good evidence of substantial benefit”. This yields a graph like:

Applied to Covid strategies, this yields a graph something like this:

This is not medical advice- I say this not merely as a legal disclaimer, but because my real point is the idea that we should weigh both evidence quality and costs, NOT that my estimates of the evidence quality or costs of particular strategies are better than yours

Judging the strength of the evidence for various strategies is inherently difficult, and might go beyond simply evaluating the strength of published research. But when evaluating empirical studies on Covid, my general outlook on the evidence is:

Of course, details matter, theory matters, the number of studies and how mixed their results are matters, potential fraud and bias matters, and there’s a lot it makes sense to do without seeing an academic study on it.

Dear reader, perhaps this is all obvious to you, and indeed the idea of adjusting your evidence threshold based on the cost of an intervention goes back at least to the beginnings of modern statistics in deciding how to brew Guinness. But common sense isn’t always so common, and this is my attempt to summarize it in a few pictures.

Suggestions for Comfortable and Effective Face Masks, e.g., Korean KF94’s

With Covid cases and deaths surging despite widespread vaccinations, face masks are back in. Back in the dark days of early-mid 2020, all commercial masks of any kind were allocated to medics/first responders. Back then, the only mask option for the rest of us was to cobble together something made of regular cloth. But studies I looked at show that the protective performance of those cloth masks, and even standard rectangular surgical masks, is really quite poor [1].

A cloth or surgical mask is definitely better than nothing, but is much inferior to other mask options which are now widely available. If you are going to bother with a mask at all, why not use a more effective one? A well-known effective mask is the KN-95. It has a kind of aggressive beak-like profile, as shown below, and typically uses elastic earloops. It gives good protection because it seals to the face (including around the nose, thanks to a malleable metal strip there) and is made of appropriate multi-layer filter materials. It is the standard protective respiratory mask in China, whereas in the U.S. the standard protective mask is an N95, with elastic straps that go around the whole head, not the ears.

Image Source: Amazon

I got a box of ten KF95’s back in June of 2020. I loved them – they were comfortable, worked OK with my glasses, and clearly sealed well to my face. However, I gave some of these away to family members, lost a few, and used the rest so many times so they started to lose their shapes.

There are lots of KN95’s for sale on Amazon, all made in China. Not all of these may be of the same quality. Some but not all of these brands were tested and approved by the FDA for emergency use; this article from March 2021 notes some of these brands that were for sale on Amazon at that time. It seems the approved Powecom masks are still for sale.

A problem with most of these Amazon KN95’s is that the earloops are painfully tight around the ears. I pored over the comments to try to select masks where at least some of the reviewers claimed the masks didn’t hurt. Alas, all my KF95’s are pretty much unbearable for a guy like me with maybe an oversized head. (I compared the length of their earloops with my original comfortable KF95, and indeed the earloops are clearly shorter on all the new ones).

In the course of reading dozens of reviews of KN95 masks, I saw several comments recommending KF94 masks instead. These are made in South Korea. They are standard personal protective equipment in that country, and as such must meet certain standards for fine particle capture. They look a little different than most masks, but seem less beak-like than the KN95s. They have a flattish rectangular middle part which is the main filter, with two triangular sections that cover the nose and the chin:

Image: Amazon

So I got a box of KF94’s, large size, and they are wonderfully comfortable for me. No stress on the ears, and sealing over the whole face. The shape of the mask keeps it from rubbing on your mouth. The “Large” size I got was actually a tiny bit looser than felt optimal, so I tied tiny knots in the lower part of the earloops to shorten them a bit. My wife uses a mask extender strap (e.g., HX AURIZE Mask Extender Strap on Amazon) around the back of her head to pull the KF94 earloops a little tighter, with the added benefit that if she wants to take the mask off temporarily, it can hang around her neck via the extender strap. In sum, the KF94s are a win, and I highly recommend them.

I see on Amazon that small (for e.g. 7-12 year old children) and medium KF94 masks are also available. One caveat on buying is to make sure that you are buying from an actual Korean seller, else you risk getting an inferior Chinese knockoff.

Back to my unusable KN95’s. I know that you can use mask extender straps like the HX Aurize straps linked above, or similar homemade hacks, to go behind your head and take some of the direct pressure off the back of the ears. However, I found using a behind-the-head strap still put pressure on part of my ears, and was just an added complication. I thought, surely there must be some way to make those darned earloops simply longer. What I did for one mask was to cut the earloops close to the bottom of the mask, and tie in a small rubber band into each loop, to make them effectively longer. (I put a dab of glue on the cut ends of the earloops, to keep them from unravelling). That worked out well, so I can recommend this as a “hack”. I also see on Amazon that you can order ¼” wide white elastic ear loop type band material, and I think I will buy some. I can then take more of my tight KN95 masks, cut the existing earloops, and tie in an extra inch or two of this elastic to get the length right for my head size.

ENDNOTE

[1] Some studies on masks:

(A) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32845196/  Kim, et al. 2020. They had seven Covid-inflected patients cough five times with various masks on, and with petri dish sitting in front of them to catch germs. A surgical mask did no better than no mask at all (3 out of 7 patients’ petri dishes got infected in both cases), whereas zero out of 7 patients’ petri dishes got infected for a full N95 respirator made by 3M (not a Chinese KN95) or for a Korean-made KF94 mask.

(B) https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M20-6817   Bundgaard, et al., 2020. Done in Denmark around April-June 2020. From 6000 participants, all of whom initially tested Covid-negative, half were randomly selected to wear standard surgical-type masks while in public and half to not wear masks. (These are the usual rectangular masks that do not seal tightly to the face). Incidence of Covid infection after about a month was assessed for each group. For mask-wearers, the infection rate was about 1.8% versus 2.1% for the non-masked group. According to the standard statistical definitions, this was not enough to show that wearing that type of mask gave significant protection against becoming infected. That said, the difference between the 1.8% and the 2.1% is compatible with a 46% reduction to a 23% increase in infection on 95% confidence intervals. Depending on how you want to slice the numbers, it seems fair to say that there may have been “some” effect of the masks here. Also, it should be noted that this study did not test whether wearing a surgical mask would help keep an infected person from spreading the disease (I suspect the answer to that would be “yes, sort of”).

(C) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33087517/ Ueki, et al., 2020. They used two full size human mannequin heads, and tied masks on their faces. The “Spreader” head was piped to have a stream of covid-aerosol-laden air coming out of its mouth. The “Receiver” head had a pipe that pulled air in through its mouth and through a gelatin membrane filter to collect the covid viruses that made it through the masks. Some of the results are shown below. I am not sure how to summarize them accurately in a few words. Note that these plots are on log scales, so small visual differences in the bars are actually big (see the numbers at the bottom of the bars). It seems clear that the cloth (cotton) and the surgical masks blocked some virus spreading compared to no masks, but a full N95 mask was much more effective (the N95 was tested with its edges naturally resting on the contours of the mannequin face, and also “fit” with the edges sealed against the face with adhesive tape). A KN95 or KF94 mask was not tested here.

POSTSCRIPT

After publishing this POST, I noted Jeremy Horpedahl’s post from last week, suggesting that the costs of wearing masks may be worth it even if they give a 10-15% decrease in viral incidence. Jeremy referenced an article by Bryan Caplan who questions the trade-offs with wearing masks having only marginal effectiveness vs. the discomfort and the dehumanization of having people’s faces obscured. Caplan in turn referenced a survey of research by Jeffrey Anderson (August, 2020) which summarized many real-life randomized controlled trials with populations wearing/not-wearing masks (presumably the surgical kind, not N95/KN95/KF94 better-sealing types) which found generally no benefit to wearing these types of  masks in reducing the incidence of virus transmission. (These studies were mainly pre-Covid, dealing with SARS and other viruses). This overall result is roughly consistent with the Danish study mentioned above, which did not find a significant difference for using those types of masks to protect from viral infections.

Delta: Danger is Rising, but 2021 is not 2020

Covid cases are rising rapidly in the US thanks to the more contagious delta variant.

Based on the experience of 2020, this has many states, cities, and organizations considering a return to mask mandates and shutdowns. But our situation in the US has changed substantially since 2020 as we now have better knowledge, better masks, and above all abundant vaccines.

We can see this difference clearly when looking at countries hit by the Delta wave before us. It first devastated India, where less than 10% of the population was fully vaccinated, officially killing 400,000 people and unofficially perhaps 10 times that. In constrast the UK, where more than half the population was fully vaccinated, saw a major spike in cases that did not translate into a major spike in deaths:

The delta waves seem to come and go quickly, with cases rising more rapidly than previous waves, but also falling rapidly 6-8 weeks after they began to rise in India, the UK, and the Netherlands. Cases began rising in the US at the beginning of July, so if this pattern holds we have about 2-4 more weeks of rising cases before a rapid drop.

My worry is that a spike in cases just before the school year will lead schools to shut down just as the danger begins to recede, and when vaccines mean the danger was never as great as in previous waves. Externality-based arguments for shutdowns and mask mandates are now substantially less valid than in 2020 but I don’t know that policymakers have internalized this. The Biden admin actually does seem to get it, calling this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated“- i.e., if you’re worried, get vaccinated, and if other people don’t, that’s their problem. Even with delta the vaccines reduce covid’s danger to you by ~10x, and so also reduce the protection you gain from controlling others by ~10x.

The situation with masks has also changed. Cloth masks have limited effectiveness in protecting you from others, but decent effectiveness in protecting others from you, which meant there was a strong externality-based case for mask mandates. But now in 2021 high-quality KN-95 and even N-95 masks are easily available, and unlike cloth masks they offer excellent protection FROM others, as well as FOR others. Anyone who is vaccinated and wearing an N-95 really has nothing to worry about anymore, and little reason to force masks onto others.

The main externality-based arguments that could still work are for vaccine mandates and for restrictions in areas where hospitals are overwhelmed by unvaccinated Covid patients in a way that substantially worsens care for non-Covid patients. But outside of areas with low vaccination rates leading to overwhelmed hospitals, I no longer see a good case to impose mask requirements or restrictions on movement or events.

According to one set of projections, by the end of August adult ICUs (though not hospitals overall) will be over capacity in most low-vaccination states:

If you want to wear a mask and avoid crowds, you can, and in fact probably should do at least one of those during the Delta wave of the next month. But the externality-based case for restrictions is mostly gone, and governments would do better to focus on continuing vaccine rollout in the US and ensuring vaccines are available worldwide to help other countries and to prevent more variants from emerging and finding their way here. Personally I’m glad that my employer has a vaccine mandate but, at least currently, no mask mandate. For those who do still want Covid restrictions I ask- what are you waiting for? What event or number would make you say “ok, now we can go back to normal”? When do you expect that to happen? For me, what I was waiting for was vaccines available for everyone and now, at least in the US, we are lucky to have that.

Why is the COVID Delta Variant So Infectious?

The “delta variant” of COVID-19 is far more virulent than the original strains, and is largely responsible for the recent surges in COVID cases in the U.S. and worldwide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky told the Senate on July 15  that the delta variant now makes up 83% of U.S. cases, up from 50% at the beginning of this month. It was first detected in India, then spread to the U.K. and the U.S., and around the world.

What is it that makes the delta variant so infectious? From a molecular point of view, here are the known functional mutations in the DNA that produces the “spike” proteins in the virus which bind to human cells:

Source: Stanford

Four of these mutations in particular are believed to contribute to the virulence of this strain, as discussed here. Among other things, they can cause the spike protein to bind more strongly to our cells, and inhibit our immune response. See here for 3-D model of the virus spike binding to human receptor, showing the locations of those mutated proteins.

As a result of those mutations the delta variant grows faster inside people’s respiratory tracts and reaches much higher levels. Per NPR,

On average, people infected with the delta variant had about 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those infected with the original strain of the coronavirus, the study reported.

In addition, after someone catches the delta variant, the person likely becomes infectious sooner. On average, it took about four days for the delta variant to reach detectable levels inside a person, compared with six days for the original coronavirus variant.

… People who have contracted the delta variant are likely spreading the virus earlier in the course of their infection.

How can we stop it? It is pretty simple:  get vaccinated (or never be in a closed space with other unvaccinated humans). Vaccines don’t totally prevent you from getting COVID initially, so you might still have early symptoms and also be able to spread the virus to others for a few days. However, vaccines are highly effective in helping your immune system to quickly shut down any infection you do get before the symptoms get severe. This is true for all for essentially all strains of COVID, including delta.

Again per NPR,

Preliminary data shows that in some U.S. states, 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the past few months were among people who weren’t vaccinated, said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a White House press conference in early July.

And 97% of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to Walensky.

Just compare the two maps below of which American states have high/low vaccinations and high/low COVID incidence, and draw your own conclusions:

Percent Vaccinations. Image source: ABCnews

COVID Case Density. Image source: ABCnews

When will housing prices fall?

US housing prices shot up during the pandemic. People spending all day at home wanted bigger houses, and the Fed fueled their demand with low interest rates. But home owners didn’t want to sell- the total number of homes on the market is less than half what it was a year ago. This combination of rising demand & falling supply has sent prices way up & cut the time homes spend on the market.

Contrary to popular belief, its actually rare for economists to make market forecasts and most of us aren’t especially well-equipped to do so- but I’m going to try anyway! I think home prices will almost certainly stop growing so quickly, and may actually fall, within two years.

Why? The end of the pandemic, the rise of new construction, and the end of low interest rates.

Continue reading

Covid Pandemic Diary Part 2

I pick up from my previous post in May 2020.

That tweet from early May captures some of the joys and frustrations of working from home with small children. It was hard to get work done. My career suffered. At the same time, in my case, there were happy moments. My kids got more time with me and also with each other. One reason I didn’t go crazy is that we could get outside and the weather was decent throughout “lockdown”.

Something that happened quietly is that two-income parents hired private nannies and never mentioned it on social media. I know there are lots of families who did not do that and had a hellish year trying to parent while working from home. In my case, daycare was back open in June with extra health precautions.

Late Spring was a time when it seemed like the United States might be the worst-performing country. Certain parts of Asia were models of efficiency and cooperation, by comparison.

Late May is when I breathlessly tweeted that I had purchased a box of masks. Finally, the supply caught up with demand. Masks became plentiful and cheap. That helped us find ways to be together without such a high chance of spreading germs.

July 2020 – My public school system (which had gone virtual in the Spring) announced that elementary parents would have a choice of in-person (with masks) or virtual for the Fall. Our schools have been open all year (with masks) and no major outbreaks.

High school and middle school students did more forced remote days than elementary-aged kids. I really appreciated the creativity and flexibility. Remote school is harder on younger kids (and parents of younger kids).

I emailed my city representative to ask for a drive-through testing site in our city. He said he would bring it up at the council meeting that night. Within two weeks, they had done it! This was incredible. I did not expect that because of one request this would suddenly just happen. I suppose there were enough people who wanted it already. It probably helped that city council elections were right around the corner and he could take credit for doing something helpful. Twice in 2020, I used my city hotline to get an appointment for a Covid test.  

In August, my university got ready to bring students back for some in-person classes, while also offering remote options for every class. The campus sprouted one-way walking stickers and masks were required everywhere.

Economists moved conferences online. On September 10, 2020 I stayed up a little late to catch one of my Chinese colleagues presenting at the ESA worldwide virtual conference. My daughter didn’t want to stay in bed, so I let her stare at the Zoom meeting for a bit.

I have said nothing so far about politics in 2020, the year of politics. The televised debate between President Trump and now-President Biden in September of 2020 was a stressful event for me. If we can’t even speak to each other, then no amount of good ideas will help us solve problems. That sad moment in American history made me more determined to maintain this blog as a place to talk about ideas.

The Fall of 2020 was when intellectual soldiers like Alex Tabarrok were alerting us to the fact that we could have vaccines if the government would let us. I was following that news and doing some signal-boosting. Some of my friends on social media announced that they were participating in vaccine trials – thanks!

My university offered rapid tests to employees at the end of the Fall semester. It almost felt like a miracle to be able to just know in 15 minutes if I was carrying Covid or not (yes, I know about the false negatives).

There were moments in peak-wave when local hospitals were full because of Covid. Alabama’s worst month as measured by deaths was January 2021. When Covid was spreading widely in December 2020, I believe a lot of people did not expect that vaccines would be available so soon in the future. On the margin, a few more people might have foregone holiday parties if they had known.

Vaccines became available to medical professionals around January 2021. That was exciting news, since we had all been feeling bad about the doctors and nurses treating infectious Covid patients.

Earlier than I expected, I was able to get the Pfizer vaccine because of my “educator” status in the state of Alabama. It is convenient that I live near UAB hospitals. They had the technology for cold storage and administering the Pfizer vaccine. It was a huge relief to get the vaccine while teaching in-person classes. Since I had been following vaccine news closely, it felt like a huge achievement.

There was a period of time when conversation among my neighbors and colleagues revolved around the vaccine. Water cooler talk was “which one did you get?” or “did you have side effects?”  People told stories about how a friend called to tell them that one place had extra doses at the end of the day. Even when it was technically reserved for old people only, some young people found connections. One of my students told me he wouldn’t be in class because he was going to drive 6 hours to another state to get a vaccine. I don’t want to make the system sound corrupt, because it largely was not. It’s just a fact that some places couldn’t distribute all of their doses to the people who were designated for them. It was better to get the leftovers into arms than waste them.

I treasured that energy, and I miss it. Now, in May 2021, after all the work that went into producing vaccines, Americans are refusing to show up for shots.