Subsidies can have a perverse effect on activity if they are debated too long. The banking sector bailout is one example; the purchase of hybrid automobiles by Chicago cab drivers is another.
Hybrid automobiles can save gas, especially in urban driving conditions when the automobile is moving slowly or idling, when alternative power sources have a bigger advantage. A problem is that the purchase price of hybrid vehicles is often higher, and many are less spacious than the more ubiquitous sport utility vehicles.
A significant fraction of the taxicab fleet may be well suited for hybrids, because many of the miles driven are in urban conditions, and often the vehicles have only one passenger. Thus I have been surprised to notice so few hybrid taxis in Chicago, where less than 1 percent of cabs are hybrids.
In an admittedly unscientific survey, I watched for Toyota taxis with about 100,000 miles. I assumed that many drivers of Toyotas would be likely to buy a Toyota for their next taxi, and that the Prius — the company’s hybrid model — would get their consideration. I asked the drivers about buying a Prius.
The drivers told me about the Chicago City Council’s debates about transforming the city’s taxi fleet.
The council has debated mandating hybrid purchases. But the rumor among taxi drivers is that in addition, or perhaps instead, the city or other government agency will eventually subsidize the purchase of a hybrid.
Drivers have decided that they should not purchase a Prius or other hybrid until the subsidy arrived. Buying one now would mean over-paying.
Regardless of whether it is realistic to expect Chicago to someday subsidize purchases of hybrid taxis, the fact is that some cab drivers are considering the possibility. If taxi drivers consider future subsidies in their industry, then so must bank executives.
Last fall the public learned that banks were not selling many of their legacy mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, despite the impression that ownership of the assets were hindering the banks’ lending. A variety of theories have been put forward to explain this failure, and to suggest what the government might do to fix it.
But the lack of trade in mortgage-backed securities may have something in common with the lack of trade in hybrid Chicago taxicabs. The secondary market for legacy mortgages may have stagnated largely because of the (ultimately correct) anticipation of a huge government subsidy. As I wrote last week, banks were not “unable” to sell their legacy mortgages; they were prudently unwilling to sell because they expected the government to eventually step in and help push the prices of the assets higher.
There would have been two preferable possibilities: for the government to come forth quickly with its subsidy, or make it clear from the beginning that no subsidy was coming. With both Chicago taxis and the secondary market for mortgages, the government did neither. Instead, it only fueled rumors that subsidies were on the way, and froze the same markets it intended to stimulate.