Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wuhan Virus - Statistics and the Economy

I've got two topics I wanted to discuss this morning.  The first is statistics.  What I get out of the Johns Hopkins statistics map is pretty useless.  It shows total US cases of the virus and the total number of deaths, and what appears to be a highly inaccurate tracking of recoveries (almost nil).  The number of deaths initially were by county then went to state for several weeks, and now it's back to counties.

You know how many counties there are in the US?  I don't either, but it's a lot.  By county data may be of use to Dr. Birx on the president's task force, but it's not very useful to me.  It does help to tell me how many got sick in my county (three), but I know where maybe 5 counties, by name, are located in the US.

But the real problem I have with the data is it doesn't tell me a thing about the severity of the cases (except for the small number that have died).  I really want to know how many cases are requiring hospitalization and how many of those are requiring ventilators.  Plus, I want them to tell me how many beds and ventilators are available.  That will tell me whether the hospital system is near to getting overtaxed.  Better yet, they should show that data by state and then for Dr. Birx, by county.

I hate all of 'the sky is falling' about hospitals about to be overwhelmed when nobody is giving me any data that supports the claim.  I want to see a curve showing the progressions of the number of hospital patients, and patients on ventilators, over time. 

And then there's the anxiety people have about their personal risk of dying if they get sick.  People will take risks and go about their lives if the risk is equivalent to the flu.  But who knows with this situation? 

They tell me the average age of people dying in Italy is above 80 and that they have 2.7 underlying conditions.  So what?  What does the curve look like?  Especially here in the US where we have a different situation.  Is the age distribution a  tall thin peak in the 80's or is it spread down into the 60's?  How about the distribution by underlying condition?

In my own family, I'm 64 and my wife is under 60 but has an underlying condition.  Where on the distribution curves do we sit?  I don't have a clue.  And apparently either no one is collecting that information or they don't think the public deserves to get it.  My suspicion is the former.  If it's the latter, I would be even more worried.

Now I will turn to our economy.  If you have read my previous posts, you will see that I was pretty alarmed.  Doing state lock downs or shelter-in-place will kill almost every small business in the region.  If they are down for two weeks, those who sell consumables (restaurants and bars) will have to restock.  If they didn't have a big cash reserve, and most small businesses don't, they probably will require loans to start back up.  Nearly EVERY small business will require loans.  Unless of course, as soon as business fell, they let off all of their employees and stopped paying rents, leases, mortgages, utilities and taxes.

The business community, with some good will and understanding, could probably take 2 weeks without help.  4 weeks would bring it all down.

A couple of days ago, it looked like the Senate would pass a bill that would provide funds to unemployed individuals and families.  Do you want them all going to the unemployment insurance office to file in a lock down?  Do you think those offices dispense cash?  Or do they take a week or more to send checks?

The small business, many of which would still be paying off their initial loans for start up and operation through the growth stage won't want to take on any more debt burden.  And I'm not sure giant (or local) banks would want to take the risk they could handle bigger payments.  But the bill in the Senate looked like it would provide grants rather than loans to get small businesses back on their feet.

But then the democrats balked.  The market tanked yet again.  Now there's talk that they may have resolved their differences.  My guess is the republicans caved to the pork and social justice/abortion/climate change giveaways the democrats wanted to add.

I hope not.  It seems to me that there are two options for the future situation.  In one, after the President's 15 day social distancing period, the feds recommend reopening business for the young and low to moderate risks and further isolating the high risk people.  At 15 days, except for the democrat run state holdouts, that will allow the economy to recover on its own.  The other approach requires or recommends another two weeks of lock downs.  This approach requires a Senate/US bill similar to what I've mentioned above, or the chance of societal and economic breakdown becomes high.

I expect one of those two approaches to work out.  And society won't break down.  But there's still going to be state holdouts.  Three states needed lock downs.  NY is the only one that seems to have quickly rising cases, and that's in NY city.  I have a fear that democratic governors (and mayors) see this not just as a crisis to be overcome, but one where they have an opportunity to damage President Trump.

First, they do the shelter-in-place (lock downs) statewide because that protects people, and when people are worried or panicking, that helps their ratings.  It doesn't matter that it's overkill for the 2/3 or more of the state that is rural and has almost no chance of worst case predictions.  But unless they are bigger idiots than they appear (and that's got to be impossible), they know they are causing serious economic damage.  And that will hurt Trump in the election.  Those rural folks probably weren't going to vote democrat, so what's the down side for a democratic governor?

A democratic mayor is in basically the same position, except that they don't have a rural segment of voters and economy.  If the city is big enough, they are going to do a lock down to prevent loss of life.

During this period, there is another factor.  The feds always come to the rescue in a disaster.  They have to expect a rescue bill for any damage done to the economy.

Now consider the situation after a change.  Either the feds recommend starting up the economy because too much damage is being incurred. Or the numbers show the hospitals in a city, region or state won't be overwhelmed.  As I said in the first part of this blog, the statistics aren't there to allow assessing hospital risk.  All you can get is anecdotal information from local reporters talking to a hospital administrator that is trying to prevent economic business as usual.  They know their limits and they fear what will happen if cases surpass those limits.  They are not going to say everything is good and the hospital can handle whatever comes its way.

But my point is, in either case, there is evidence that the city mayor or state governor should back off on their total shelter-in-place orders.  If their citizens/voters agree, they are probably pretty soon going to allow some relief.  Those whose motives lean towards damaging Trump, and that believe the feds will step in with relief funds, will keep their lock down orders in place longer than others.

Of course, there are still likely to be hot spots, like NY city, where you need to keep a lock down in place.  I would guess any city over 500,000 people, ought to be very careful.

So I'm not as pessimistic now as I was a few days ago about a serious depression.  But I still think state autonomy, combined with democratic governors and mayors that want to damage Trump, is going to make this worse than it should be.  Of course, I'm still for state autonomy!

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