Explanations for the 2020 Official Step 1 Practice Questions

Another year, another set of explanations. As always, the order here reflects that of the new PDF released in February 2020. The official practice material page subsequently reverted back to the 2019 version, but as you can see the 2020 link remains live.

Last year’s 2019 set is available here, though it was almost entirely a repeat of the 2018 set explained here.

The asterisks (*) signifies a new question, of which there are 36.

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The disappearing USMLE 2020 practice questions

Earlier this year the NBME released updated 2020 practice materials for both Step 1 and Step 2 CK. There are a bunch of new Step 1 questions and the Step 2 set is entirely brand new (the first meaningful change in several years). I was going to continue my annual tradition of explanations but then noticed that the website reverted back to the 2019 sets.

As is their tendency, the NBME isn’t very quick to manage outdated URLs. The PDFs for both new sets are still accessible:

I don’t know if these will simply come back as official sets soon, but it seems they were likely removed because of COVID-19, so it might be a while.

But they are free highest-quality questions and remain worth your time.

The Overtautness of American Healthcare

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies, writing for The New Yorker (emphasis mine):

To what extent did the market-driven, efficiency-obsessed culture of hospital administration contribute to the crisis? Questions about “best practices” in management have become questions about best practices in public health. The numbers in the bean counter’s ledger are now body counts in a morgue.

Deep, deep burn.

We’ve been teaching these finance guys how to squeeze,” Willy Shih, an operations expert at Harvard Business School, told me, emphasizing the word. “Squeeze more efficiency, squeeze cost, squeeze more products out at the same cost, squeeze out storage costs, squeeze out inventory. We really need to educate them about the value of slack.”

Medicine is a business, but it shouldn’t be run as just another business.

Everyone loves analogies with Toyota. There’s even one in this story, though it’s one that doesn’t usually make it into your average managerial or quality training, where people just love their black belts in Six Sigma, Lean, and tossing around those Japanese terms like Kaizen and Kanban. As Mukherjee argues, there’s a wide gulf between actually helping professionals take care of human beings and the complex dance of people and parts that requires and just ordering the fewest and cheapest widgets sourced from a factory in China.

What you really want to measure, model, and establish is the capacity to build something when a crisis arises. And this involves human as well as physical capital. We need to measure talent, versatility, and flexibility. Overtaut strings inevitably break.

Not only have they broken, but they’ve been unraveling for years.

Private Equity and Healthcare, a Marriage in Crisis

Is Private Equity Having Its Minsky Moment?” is another excellent article from Matt Stoller’s BIG newsletter, something that anyone who is interested in PE and corporate finance should be reading (I referenced a couple of his newsletters previously).

You’ve probably been hearing about salary cuts, furloughed employees, and big losses in health systems around the country. I myself am currently experiencing a sizable pay cut. You may have even heard about the possible impending bankruptcy of healthcare megacorp, Envision. Envision is now drowning because they grew to massive size by buying companies using tons of debt. Because of that massive leverage, if those businesses do poorly, they can’t meet their debt obligations. To give you an idea of how Envision operates, they have less than $500 million in deployable cash on hand to cover $7.5 billion on debt.

Stoller gives a nice summary of why these highly-leveraged private equity companies (and other companies using the same toolbox) are ripe for failure when credit markets collapse.

Private equity is undergoing what the great theorist Hyman Minsky pointed out is the Ponzi stage of the credit cycle financial systems. This is the final stage before a blow-up. As Minsky observed, a period of placidity starts with firms borrowing money but being able to cover their borrowing with cash flow. Eventually, there’s more risk-taking until there’s a speculative frenzy, and firms can’t cover their debts with cash flow. They keep rolling over loans, and just hope that their assets keep going up in value so that they can sell assets to cover loans if necessary. To give an analogy, in 2006, when people in Las Vegas were flipping homes with no income, assuming that home values always went up, that was the Ponzi stage.

Now, what happens with Ponzi financing is that at some point, nicknamed a “Minsky Moment,” the bubble pops, and there’s mass distress as asset values fall and credit is withdrawn. Selling assets isn’t enough to pay back loans, because asset prices have collapsed and there’s not enough cash flow to service the debt. Mass bankruptcies or bailouts, which are really both a restructuring of capital structures, are the result.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. PE portfolio companies are heavily indebted, and they aren’t generating enough cash to service debts. The steady increase in asset values since 2009 has enabled funds to make tremendous gains because of the use of borrowed money. But now they are exposed to tremendous losses should there be any sort of disruption. And oh has this ever been a disruption. The coronavirus has exposed the entire sector.

Everyone wants to make the easy money in a bull market. It makes finance professionals seem competent in running multiple businesses across multiple industries even though their performance often has more to do with the amount of money in pot driving valuations up. Rolling up companies in high-growth industries by paying top dollar? Piece of cake. But what do you do when the hard times hit? How can your businesses survive when you’ve saddled them to barely function in the best of times?

The business model of the 1980s has been institutionalized in ways that are hard to conceptualize. Sycamore Partners’ takeover of Staples was a recent legendary leveraged buy-out that shows how PE really works. Sycamore Partners is a private equity firm that specializes in buying retailers. Sycamore bought Staples for roughly $1.6 billion in 2017, immediately had Staples take out $5.4 billion of loans, acquired another company, and then paid itself a $300 million payment and then a $1 billion special dividend. Then, Sycamore had Staples gift its $150 million headquarters in the suburbans of Boston for free, after which Staples signed a $135 million ten year lease with Sycamore to lease back its own building.

Healthcare is different because the biggest cost center of most healthcare practices is personnel. And those providers are also typically the only source of profit. This limits the shenanigans you can pull, limits how you can grow, limits the cost floor, and—because of Medicare and agreements with other insurers—limits your profit ceiling. Taking care of people is not a software company or a tech business that can achieve limitless scale at near-zero marginal cost. And what seemed like an easy positive cash flow business isn’t as simple as selling toner.

Tens of millions of people no longer have income, and even those who do are afraid to go back to their old lifestyles. The Fed can’t ultimately can’t print a functional economy. And at the end of the day, no matter how many games you play with debt loads and capital structures, firms have to have customers, and people can only be customers if they have income.

We’re currently in process of bailing out a lot of companies, and low-interest rates will let some of these folks continue borrowing money trying to bide time until they can raise more capital or potentially grow out of their debt. That may not be feasible for long enough to outlast this downturn, especially if the money spigots shut off.

But the issue with bailouts in situations like these is that in recent history they’ve perpetuated a private-profit public-loss business model where PE firms are rewarded for taking on absurd risk because that risk is really on the shoulders of the American people. And without meaningful regulation, this perpetuates the growth of the industry instead of reining in its excesses.

The actual underlying businesses within these organizations are often still sound once you remove the onerous debt obligations, leasebacks, and other financial machinations. A tiny silver lining of this horrible scenario may be getting some of the rent-seekers out of polluting healthcare.

Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance

Another excellent follow-up from Tomas Pueyo about the need to stop doing half-assed mitigation measures.

On one side, countries can go the mitigation route: create a massive epidemic, overwhelm the healthcare system, drive the death of millions of people, and release new mutations of this virus in the wild.

On the other, countries can fight. They can lock down for a few weeks to buy us time, create an educated action plan, and control this virus until we have a vaccine [ed: or treatment].

Governments around the world today, including some such as the US, the UK or Switzerland have so far chosen the mitigation path.

That means they’re giving up without a fight. They see other countries having successfully fought this, but they say: “We can’t do that!”

We can do better together with decisive action and cohesive government intervention/support.

Humans are a communal species. While we need to be alone, right now, we should act together.