Finance vs. Financialization in Health Care

September 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Health Law 

pasquale_frank_lg1I’ve noted the issues raised by financialization in nursing homes, billing & payment systems, and hospital chains before on blogs.  I wanted to present a few paragraphs from a recent book review (of Robert Shiller’s Finance and the Good Society), which explore the problems raised by the finance sector’s interaction with pharma:

A Ph.D. cancer researcher with ten years of experience tends to make about $110,000 to $160,000 annually; a banker specializing in mergers and acquisitions, about $2 million. Top hedge fund managers make billions of dollars annually. The disparity fails to rankle Shiller, since the “scientists are mostly living comfortably doing what they really want to do.”

Unless, of course, they’re among the thousands of drug developers laid off by pharmaceutical firms, which have been pressured by Wall Street to focus on “core competencies” and cut R&D. Last year, investment managers punished Merck for investing in research, while rewarding Pfizer for cutting it dramatically. Investors and analysts also questioned R&D levels at Lilly and Amgen. The constant pressure for quarterly earnings makes each cut to scientific investment seem rational when it occurs, but its consequences are devastating in the long run.

Shiller is eager to praise financiers for funding innovation, but barely mentions the asset-stripping and short-term thinking that have devastated many industries over the past two decades. A study from the New Economics Foundation recently estimated that leading London bankers “destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate.” In the United States, the Kauffman Foundation concluded that an “expanding financial sector” is “depleting [the] pool of potential high growth company founders.” Why go to the trouble of developing a new product or service when you can take on much less risk (and probably net a far bigger return) as a financier deciding which company merits investment? Whatever one thinks of their methods, at least the NEF and Kauffman are asking tough questions about finance’s role vis-à-vis the real economy of goods and services.

Whether we are contemplating drug shortages or lack of innovation in antibiotics, we should always complement critiques of policy failures with critical examination of the financial methods of those at the commanding heights of the economy.  Contemporary financialization is agnostic to human outcomes. We should not be surprised if it generates some troubling ones in health care.

The last thirty years have witnessed an exponential rise in financialization, the reduction of exchanged value in an economy (past or present, tangible or intangible) into financial instruments. Monetary promises that once seemed like fanciful bets were rationalized into derivatives (contracts that derived their value based on other price levels).   As these contracts and other forms of betting interact with advanced computing and telecommunications technology, they can cause volatility, instability, and a short-termist mindset that is inimical to the long-term planning necessary to rational public health and pharmaceutical policy.

On the other hand, there are some aspects of health care reform that will require financial skills.   Consider, for instance, risk adjustment among insurers, which can only be done well given complex modeling. There is a very good brief on the topic now available at Health Affairs.  The brief notes that, “Health insurance plans having costs at least 3 percent more than target projections will receive payments that have been assessed from plans having costs at least 3 percent less than projections.” As they explain,

Insurance market reforms under the Affordable Care Act are designed to . . . shed the current system in which health plans have an incentive to enroll healthier people while avoiding the sick. One of the arrangements that will make the new system workable is risk adjustment—-a process by which health insurance plans will be compensated based on the underlying health status of the people they enroll, and therefore protected against losing money by covering people with highcost conditions.

But implementing risk adjustment could prove challenging. The statistical methods used in risk adjustment are technically complex. There are questions about the ability of the states, which have to carry out the risk adjustment, to collect accurate data and implement methodologies that result in fair payments to plans.

Perhaps redundant Wall Street quants could step into these roles?  As Crotty has noted, the main negative consequences of financialization for some companies in the US are that “1) they cut wages and benefits to workers;  2) they engaged in fraud and deception to increase apparent profits and 3) they moved into financial operations to increase profits.”  Moving finance workers out of financialization, and into the workaday realities of risk adjustment in health, may be a way to direct those with quantitative skills toward more constructive ends. Risk adjustment is one more step toward a utility model for insurers–a welcome change that should be considered throughout the financial sector.

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Of Princes, Paupers, and Physicians

March 6, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Information Technology 

Why is US health care so expensive? We’ve long been told: “it’s the prices, stupid.” There is more confirmation here, as Ezra Klein explains why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France:

[U]nlike in other countries, sellers of health-care services in America have considerable power to set prices, and so they set them quite high. Two of the five most profitable industries in the United States — the pharmaceuticals industry and the medical device industry — sell health care. With margins of almost 20 percent, they beat out even the financial sector for sheer profitability. The players sitting across the table from them — the health insurers — are not so profitable. In 2009, their profit margins were a mere 2.2 percent. That’s a signal that the sellers have the upper hand over the buyers.

I don’t agree that insurers are being bullied as buyers. If we’re going to bring up the financial sector, a better analogy would compare pay differentials between revenue-generating traders (providers) and the back office clerical and IT workers (insurers), rather than assume some common baseline of industrial profitability. The health care providers actually (try to) improve health; the insurers (are supposed to) support that primary effort. But overall, the story Klein tells here is broadly consistent with many other explanations of high prices in US health care.

What will solve that problem? Probably not health care reform, though regulators will struggle mightily to impose some discipline via IPAB and other entities. Followers of Clayton Christensen think pure technological innovation may wildly succeed where an oft-captured regulatory system is failing. Farhad Manjoo provides some empirical support for their hopes:

As computers get better, we’ll need fewer humans across a range of specialties. Look at mammography: One of the main ways radiologists can improve their breast diagnoses is by “double reading.” When two radiologists independently examine a collection of mammograms, the number of cancers detected increases substantially. A study published in 2008, however, found that a radiologist who uses ImageChecker can skip the second reading: A computer and a human are just as good as two humans.

[T]he doctors who are the juiciest targets for automation might not be the ones you’d expect. They’re specialists . . ., the most highly trained, highly paid people in medicine. It’s precisely these factors that make them vulnerable to machines. By definition, specialists focus on narrow slices of medicine. They spend their days worrying over a single region of the body, and the most specialized doctors will dedicate themselves to just one or two types of procedures. Robots, too, are great specialists. They excel at doing one thing repeatedly, and when they focus, they can achieve near perfection. At some point—and probably faster than we expect—they won’t need any human supervision at all.

Robots and automation are already taking on prominent roles in wars, factories, and political campaigns. The type of pattern recognition common to some medial specialties may be natural to them, particularly as electronic medical records and digitization take hold. Of course, an all purpose “physician robot” would be a much harder endeavor. In the context of a discussion of rationing, one health law textbook suggests that a mapping of possible interventions “would require rigorous scientific information on each of the almost 10,000 diagnostic entries in the International Classification of Diseases (9th ed.) (known as ‘‘ICD-9’’) and for each of the 10,000 medical interventions listed in the AMA’s Common Procedural Terminology (known as ‘‘CPT’’ codes).” ICD-10 has about 7 times more codes than ICD-9. But just as chess was once considered a field impenetrable to artificial intelligence, and now has been mastered by some computers, so too might medicine itself become subject to the exponential growth in information processing characteristic of mature digitized industries. It’s becoming clear that “the variety of jobs that computers can do is multiplying as programmers teach them to deal with tone and linguistic ambiguity.”

So will technology save us from ever-increasing health care costs? I’m not optimistic, because politics and economics are a constraint on all these developments. The same patterns of patronage and tribute that make comparative effectiveness research such a hard sell in the US may well restrain technology adoption. Just as specialists dominate the RUC, they can probably find ways to slow the adoption of technological substitutes for their hard-won expertise. As Umair Haque has observed, “In a neofeudal polity, patronage replaces meritocracy. ‘Success’ for an organization, coalition, or person is to become a client of a powerful patron, pledging your services (soft and hard, informal and formal), in perpetual alignment with the patron’s interests.” We’ll see many physicians in coming years invest time and effort in technological innovation, and others devoted to deterring its spread in order to protect current income streams.

At this point, you’re probably expecting me to side decisively with the technologists as heroes. But I can’t do so. I don’t buy an economic model premised on incentivizing innovation by setting off a race among radiologists (or, more realistically, financiers) to be the first to patent the machine that can replace all the other radiologists. Rather, I think the real foundation for radically productive innovation in this and other fields is a baseline of social support and commitment to retraining for professionals who could be displaced by the technology. I’m not saying, “pay radiologists what they make now, forever.” Rather, I’m trying to articulate a variant of a “guaranteed basic income” argument for those who invest heavily in learning about science, technology, and medicine. This baseline of educated users, improvers, and evangelizers of technology is the foundation of any venturesome economy. As Amar Bhide has explained,

[T]he different forms of innovation interact in complicated ways, and it is these interconnected, multilevel advances that create economic value. . . . To state the proposition in the terminology of cyberspace, innovations that sustain modern prosperity have a variety of forms and are developed and used through a massively multiplayer, multilevel, and multiperiod game.

We may well find that in decades to come, machines can do the jobs of radiologists and pathologists much better than people can. But if that transition occurs, it’s important to recognize how much current specialists invested to attain their skills, how hard they presently work to maintain a high level of medical skill in this country, and how future innovations may well dry up if people feel that those on STEM career paths are utterly vulnerable to being “kicked to the curb” once a machine does their job slightly better. Not only is “sole inventorship” a myth; we often fail to appreciate the complex educational and service apparatus necessary for innovation to take place. As Alperovitz and Daly have shown, any system that grants 93% of its gains to 1% of the people is an ongoing instruction in the economic futility of the efforts of the vast majority of its citizens.

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New Profit Opportunities In American Health Care

August 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Health Care Economics 

pasquale_frank_lg11I notice there is a lot of handwringing over the Affordable Care Act’s “government takeover” of the health care system. So let’s take a look at some exciting new markets that are still thriving.

1) At the beginning of the summer, I noted some problematic drug shortages (bottom half of post). The problem keeps getting worse. There is a steady stream of heartrending stories about care being compromised. Reform measures to assure an adequate supply are moving at a snail’s pace, thanks both to truculent manufacturers and the bipartisan drumbeat to “cut health care costs.” But at least some folks are thriving: as the NY Times notes, ‎”Unscrupulous wholesalers have made matters worse by scooping up scarce drugs and offering them to hospitals at markups that often reach 20 times the normal price or more.”

What a great business model! So glad the “free market” is working its magic on health delivery. While we’re at it, let’s allow ER docs to force patients to sign over half their bank accounts before treatment. That will certainly increase the supply of emergency rooms, even if the transition is a little bumpy for some people.

By the way, I’m sure some will argue that, if only Medicare weren’t paying for many of these drugs, we’d be fine. (Or at least the “we” capable of paying for the drugs at a “market price,” whatever that is, would be fine.) Query: Would there have been adequate incentive to create the drugs if a major purchaser like Medicare hadn’t paid what it did while the drug was on patent? No, I didn’t think so. Income and wealth in our society is still equally distributed enough (and coordination problems severe enough) that the top 1% won’t sustain a thriving hospital and drug research system all by themselves, even if they are the critical factors in one’s policy calculus. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to imagine individuals, or even wealthy groups, stockpiling all drugs they might need, particularly the sterile injectables or biotech solutions that are critical to advanced medicine. Even the very wealthy must rely on a steady, more general demand for these products. They can’t just order them up for just-in-time delivery, like a Tiffany watch. Public subvention—ranging from research grants to Medicare and Medicaid funding for the products research generates—provides that demand.

2) Pauline Chen reports on an “insurance maze” for US doctors, based on a new Health Affairs study comparing their practices to those of their neighbors to the north:

Physicians in Canada, where health care is administered mainly by the government, did spend a good deal of time and money communicating with their payers. But American doctors in the study spent far more dealing with multiple health plans: more than $80,000 per year per physician, or roughly four times as much as their northern counterparts. And their offices spent as many as 21 hours per week with payers, nearly 10 times as much as the Canadian offices.

Clearly the US has a comparative advantage in generating insurance-based hassles. Maybe we can keep specializing there, and aim to spend five times as much as the Canadians by 2014. The more choice, the better, whatever the cost, right? Think of all the people employed by this gauntlet of private sector checks and balances:

A young patient complaining of extreme fatigue, for example, might benefit from a $40 blood test that could confirm infectious mononucleosis in 10 minutes. But a doctor cannot order the simple test without first checking with the insurance company to see if it is covered and if there are any constraints on where the patient’s blood can be drawn and the test run.

Tracking down answers often means phone calls with long periods on hold, digging up old patient information and even recruiting office workers to act as specimen couriers to other labs and hospitals in order to expedite results or save frail patients or harried family members the hassle of traveling to an “approved site” for a test or procedure. “If someone comes in with a sick infant who needs a test, we often eat the costs and draw the blood ourselves,” Dr. Star said. “We aren’t going to tell them to put that kid in a car seat, drive a mile to an approved lab, park, register, then wait in line.”

If you’re an insurer (or the insurance industry), you’ve “won” to the extent you’ve foisted these costs and inconveniences onto doctors and patients. You certainly don’t want to abide by new Medical Loss Ratio requirements that limit the extent to which you employ these strategies of cost-shifting, delay, and denial of needed care. The “free market” is your friend, as is anyone who insists that health care delivery can be guided by the same economic principles that govern every other commodity.

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Private Equity & British Care Homes

July 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Elder Issues 

union_jack_johnsons_new_chart_of_national_emblems_1868In earlier posts I have discussed the “care/profit tradeoff in nursing homes,” focusing on the role of private equity firms in reducing costs by limiting the liability of their enterprises. Cutting nursing staff and increasing the risk of elder neglect isn’t so costly for private equity barons when “complex corporate structures . . . obscure who controls their nursing homes.” One firm constructed a particularly notable series of corporate moats between itself and the nursing home which it first controlled, and then rented land to.

Daniel JH Greenwood has called a good deal of private equity activity a form of looting, and I have explored its shortcomings in a review of a book on the topic. Sadly, it appears that the private equity influence in Britain is undermining a key part of its health care system. Having stacked various care homes with debt in order to buy them, many private equity firms have abandoned (or are about to abandon) the homes:

[A new] report, delving into the running and funding of the care industry, reveals that the collapse of Southern Cross may not be a one-off, as a number of other social care companies are also on the brink. Private equity takeovers of public services that use similar high risk business models, could leave taxpayers picking up the bill for more company failures. The in-depth study of privatisation shows that the second largest care provider, Four Season, is also in severe financial difficulties and others may follow. If both Southern Cross and Four Seasons were to collapse, around 1,150 nursing and residential care homes would be at risk of closure, affecting nearly 50,000 vulnerable people and their families and hitting over 60,000 staff.

Another of the top four largest residential care home operators is Barchester Healthcare — a sister company to Castlebeck, the operators of the Bristol care home exposed by a Panorama documentary . . . for patient abuse. The home owners have admitted that serious wrongdoing took place at Bristol. The report shows that Barchester and other operators of care homes, have repeatedly changed ownership, often through private equity firms buying, consolidating and selling companies. The UK’s largest union is warning that the Government must tackle the crisis in the care industry.

However disruptive the private equity takeovers have been, they have fulfilled their main purpose: huge gains for a few entities that bought and sold at the right time:

Southern Cross was floated on the stock market by Blackstone, which obtained a 400% return in two years on its acquisition. Southern Cross is now at risk of collapse. Allianz Capital Partners made a return of 100% by acquiring Four Seasons in 2004 for £775 million, selling it four years later for £1.4bn – the business then collapsed in value.

3i private equity fund brought a 38% stake in Care Principles for £1.5m in 1997, the remaining amount in 2005 and sold to to Three Delta in 2007 for £270m — a return of 390%. Tunstall was acquired by Bridgepoint Capital in 2005 for £225m, merged with Bridgepoint Investment and sold on after three years for £514m.

Here are more details on Southern Cross. This story and other critical commentary suggest that the goal for owners has been rapid profit rather long term investment in more efficient processes. When the “music stopped” in the acquisition game, it was left with mounting debts.

Chris Sagers’ article “The Myth of Privatization” (59 Admin. L. Rev. 37) suggests that there is very little difference between “public” and “private” operationally, except that “one of them lacks even a nominal obligation toward the public interest.” I have seen little evidence to contradict that idea in the eldercare industry. Further research may reveal more support for Daniel JH Greenwood’s diagnosis of the rise of private equity:

The success of private equity firms challenges mainstream corporate governance theory: according to standard agency cost analysis, this should not have happened. Agency problems—the shorthand term for the tendency of fiduciaries in a capitalist system to work for themselves as well as, or instead of, their clients—cannot be solved by adding an additional layer of extremely highly paid agents supported by an ideology that justifies the most extreme forms of self-interestedness. Therefore, private equity is unlikely to be an innovative solution to the age-old agency problem.

Instead, it is better understood as a clever bit of legal arbitrage: by reclassifying agents as principals, it allows former fiduciaries to instead view themselves, and be viewed by others, as entitled to look out only for themselves. And look out for themselves they have: the private equity managers have extracted hitherto unseen sums from our corporations, appropriating for the private benefit of a handful of individuals surplus that otherwise might have gone to other corporate participants, including consumers, ordinary employees, taxpayers and investors in the public securities markets, or might have been devoted to increasing productivity or innovation for the benefit of future generations.

The basic private equity technique, like the basic hedge fund technique, appears to be to borrow money in order to increase potential returns or losses. If the loans were correctly priced, this would not create new value under standard valuation theories, nor would it be a service that could possibly warrant the high fees typically charged in the hedge fund and private equity worlds. The simplest explanation is that either lenders or fund investors are mispricing risk and have done so for several years at a stretch, contrary to the claims of the efficient market theorists.

This explanation suggests, moreover, that private equity is simply the modern equivalent of the pyramid schemes, margin loans and highly leveraged utility holding companies of the 1920s. Like those earlier edifices built on borrowed money, the contemporary schemes are likely to be highly unstable: if the underlying assets decline in value or fail to provide expected income by even small margins, the lenders are likely to take losses out of scale with their potential profits. Once lenders wake up to this possibility—most likely only after losses have begun—they are likely to cut back lending rapidly, which will, in turn, make the underlying assets both less valuable and less saleable still, thus beginning a new round of lender panic. Any minor downturn, in short, runs the risk of starting a self-reinforcing cycle of credit and business contraction. The rise of private equity in its present form, then, appears to be another step towards the pre-New Deal world of inequality and instability.

And don’t forget about the role of private equity in influencing our political process. Blackstone billionaire Pete Peterson helped fuel concerns about government spending, while doing very little to advocate for increased taxes on the wealthy. And now we see that the CLASS Act—an innovative program to promote full funding for future long-term-care in the US–is likely to be on the chopping block. The primary value of both care homes and care plans to P/E firms appears to be their susceptibility to rapid sales and purchases. The P/E firm’s employees can earn massive bonuses if the value of entities goes up, and can’t lose those bonuses even if things eventually fall apart. It is a heads they win, tails they win scenario. The losers include all the other stakeholders in firms which are treated primarily as ATMs for fleeting owners.

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A Hollywood Ending for Pharma?

March 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 

There is an interesting article at Xconomy San Diego on the growing tensions between venture capitalists, biotech startups, and pharmaceutical companies. Many entrepreneurs feel like they’re getting a raw deal from big pharma firms. One source alleges that dealmakers are about to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.

In an earlier post, I worried that big pharma firms were becoming virtual to the point of ghostliness, mere nexuses of certifications, patent and trademark portfolios, tax dodges, and contractual obligations. If these trends continue, what types of controversies are likely to develop?

Gains from Gatekeeping

The just-in-time, ad hoc nature of movie production has led many economists to see in it a model for collaboration in other industries. As Marty Neumaier puts it, “By switching to a network model, the studios . . . avail themselves of the best talent for each project, thereby creating unique products and shedding unnecessary overhead.” But one-off, one-sided contracts can lead to epic conflicts. Consider, for instance, the recent rash of news about Hollywood accounting:

Michael Moore . . . claims $2.7m in unpaid royalties from Fahrenheit 9/11 [from his studio]. . . At the heart of the lawsuit is a dispute about Hollywood accounting practices that have for decades been a source of contention between the studios that release movies and “the talent” . . . Moore alleges the Weinsteins improperly deducted expenses from his share of the film’s profits – including the cost of a private jet to fly Weinstein from the US to Europe.

When an intermediary has access to extraordinary distribution networks, it has enormous leverage vis a vis “the talent.” Studios might respond that it’s a lot more fun to be Michael Moore than it is to be Harvey Weinstein: one gets to express his ideas, the other has to meet a payroll. But the enormous amounts of money generated by the film (between $228 and $500 million, according to Moore’s lawyer), and the frequency of complaints like Moore’s, lead to concerns about transparency and bargaining power in the industry.

Terry Fisher has written compellingly on the economics of Hollywood and pharmaceutical research (with Talha Syed). Intellectual property is key to both industries, and that’s one natural point of connection. Another is the economic role of middlemen, a topic that’s becoming increasingly important as certain dominant companies aim to own the “celestial jukebox,” “master switch,” or “Digital WalMart” of content connectivity.

Consider Apple’s demand for 30% of revenue from publications delivered via the iPad–and its refusal to share key customer data (for example, ads clicked on, time spent per page, etc.) with publishers. Seth Godin does not approve of this move:

The web has been a hotbed of siloed content, of deep dives for small audiences. The large scale stuff, though, has tended to be mostly about gossip and other quick reads that’s cheap to produce. Tablets offer a new chance to create content worth paying for.

[But] Apple has announced that they want to tax each subscription made via the iPad at 30%. Yes, it’s a tax, because what it does is dramatically decrease the incremental revenue from each subscriber.

These debates are very old in the tech world: when the VCR was introduced, Hollywood said its makers should pay for all the copyright infringement it enabled. Sony eventually retorted that the studios should be glad to see all the new customers that electronics would bring them.

Health Care’s Middlemen

Moore, the disgruntled biotech firms, and Godin each in their own way bring up issues that are going to be very big in health care over the next decade. Private insurers were supposed to be the magical mediators between providers and consumers in health care, demanding value and driving down prices. But, as Joseph White has shown, it was far easier for insurers to “stick it to” their customers than to constrain prices of “must-have” providers:

Remembering the pain of the late 1990s, [by 2001] managers of health care providers and insurance companies were determined to keep prices up through “pricing discipline.” “I’ve never seen discipline in the industry from a pricing standpoint like I’ve seen now” (HSChange 2004, p. 2), said one insurance industry consultant, providing part of the answer to why the underwriting cycle had yet to turn back toward lower margins. . . .

One might wonder why consolidation among insurers did not allow them to resist the providers’ demand for increased payments. The simple answer is that there were two concentrated parts of the market and one fragmented part. The insurers had to choose between fighting a full-pitched battle with the providers or exploiting their own market power vis-à-vis the employers. Raising premiums to employers was a lot easier. In theory, employers could have demanded restrictive networks (at lower prices). But since everyone had agreed that employees did not like restrictive networks, and providers (especially hospitals) were not willing to discount much to get into such networks, there were not many available for purchase. Individual employers could not invent such a product; they could only shop around and find the relatively best deal by customizing other contract terms, such as cost sharing.

Just as insurers began to align more with the interests of concentrated providers than with fragmented, disorganized consumers, so too do many Group Purchasing Organizations appear to be failing to fulfill their promise as cost-constraining intermediaries. As one analyst testified before the DOJ and FTC, “the compensation of most GPO management is almost always based on . . . fee income [from suppliers] rather than on the real savings to hospital members.” Again, the ostensible “protector” of one side of the health care equation ends up aiding one side of the deal.

Of course, the masters of all such deals work in finance. As Karen Ho suggested in her excellent ethnography, Liquidated, their values inform all the tough and opportunistic dealmaking mentioned above. As I taught health care finance over the past few years, I continually felt the topic stood in relation to finance proper as chemistry might stand in relation to physics: a discipline in its own right, but ultimately reducible to a more fundamental science. (I’m not saying I endorse this reductionism, just that it is an intuitively plausible model for what’s really driving developments in health care.)

Are there any policy lessons for health care? As Louis Uchitelle has suggested, we might want to question an economic system that delivers risk-free riches to those who invest or market future cures and little but anxiety (with limited or very unlikely upside) to many of those who create them. If we hesitate at awarding Apple a perpetual 30% bite of publisher profits merely for becoming the hippest platform, or question a finance sector that grabs 30% of all corporate profits, we might also want to articulate some decent maximum multiple of dealmakers’ over researchers’ compensation.

Reflecting on his book “The Great Stagnation” a few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen noted that many of the biggest winners in today’s economy are structuring “heads I win, tails you lose” deals. Wall Street has mastered the concentration and privatization of gain and socialization of loss. Will key players in pharma and the rest of the health care sector scramble to follow its lead?

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