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The taxi medallion bubble

In 1937, New York created taxi medallions as a way of dealing with the sheer volume of unlicensed cabs in the city. About 12,000 were initially sold. They cost $10. And you needed one, fastened to your car, in order to operate a taxi service.

In 2002, the price of a medallion had risen to about $200,000, though its value had been fairly stable since about 1995. Below is a graph from a recent NY Times investigation on taxi medallions. At their peak, in and around 2014, they were worth over $1 million.

The common narrative is that ride sharing services simply killed the value of medallions. They disrupted the taxi business. While it is certainly true that mobile apps have forever changed the way we navigate our cities, the above investigation by the NY Times has revealed something potentially more impactful:

The medallion bubble burst in late 2014. Uber and Lyft may have hastened the crisis, but virtually all of the hundreds of industry veterans interviewed for this article, including many lenders, said inflated prices and risky lending practices would have caused a collapse even if ride-hailing had never been invented.

At the market’s height, medallion buyers were typically earning about $5,000 a month and paying about $4,500 to their loans, according to an analysis by The Times of city data and loan documents. Many owners could make their payments only by refinancing when medallion values increased, which was unsustainable, some loan officers said.

So at the same time that Uber was being vilified in the media for destroying the taxi business, the industry itself was working to manipulate medallion prices and shill unaffordable debt onto new immigrants. An interesting read from the NY Times.

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