Tag: latin america

Will Venezuela Be Next?

Last year, Nicholas Krus and I published a chapter, “World Hyperinflations”, in the Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History. We documented 56 hyperinflations – cases in which monthly inflation rates exceeded 50% per month. Only seven of those hyperinflations have savaged Latin America (see the accompanying table).

At present, the world’s highest inflation resides in Latin America, namely in Venezuela. The Johns Hopkins – Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project, which I direct, estimates that Venezuela’s implied annual inflation rate is 302%. Will Venezuela be the eighth country to join the Latin American Hall of Shame? Maybe. But, it has a long way to go.

The Hanke-Krus Hyperinflation Table
Latin American edition

Country Month With Highest Inflation Rate Highest Monthly Inflation Rate Equivalent Daily Inflation Rate Time Required for Prices to Double
1. Peru Aug. 1990 397% 5.49% 13.1 days
2. Nicaragua Mar. 1991 261% 4.37% 16.4 days
3. Argentina Jul. 1989 197% 3.69% 19.4 days
4. Bolivia Feb. 1985 183% 3.53% 20.3 days
5. Peru Sep. 1988 114% 2.57% 27.7 days
6. Chile Oct. 1973 87.6% 2.12% 33.5 days
7. Brazil Mar. 1990 82.4% 2.02% 35.1 days

Source: Steve H. Hanke and Nicholas Krus (2013), “World Hyperinflations”, in Randall Parker and Robert Whaples (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History, London: Routledge Publishing.

Sovereign Currency Populism versus Dollarized Populism

Venezuela and Ecuador both have left-wing populist governments that have benefited tremendously from record high oil revenues. Both governments used those revenues to significantly increase public spending. However, there is a critical difference between these countries: while Venezuela has its own currency (the so called “strong Bolívar”), Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 2000. That means that, no matter how fiscally irresponsible the Ecuadorean government, it can’t print money to pay for its spending.

The result: Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America whereas Ecuador has one of the lowest rates in the region.

Uruguay’s House of Deputies Votes to Legalize Marijuana

Uruguay’s House of Deputies voted today to allow the production, commercialization, and distribution of cannabis, taking the first step to becoming the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. Even though Uruguay never criminalized personal consumption, this vote, passed 50-46, is a much bolder move.

The bill is a more elaborate piece of legislation than the draft introduced to the Uruguayan congress a year ago, which had only one article giving the state the power to regulate the cannabis market. Initially, the government contemplated creating a state-owned monopoly in the production and sale of the drug. The bill approved today provides for a private but strictly regulated market for cannabis. Uruguayans will be able to grow their own pot (up to six plants) or they can join membership clubs which can also grow their own marijuana (up to 99 plants). All crops require prior government authorization.

Also, Uruguayans will be able to buy marijuana from authorized drug stores (up to 40 grams per month). In order to do so, they will have to join a National Registry of Users. Even though the bill stipulates that the registry will be private and the information there is considered “sensitive,” there are good reasons to believe that not many people will rush to a government agency to register as a marijuana user. People under 18 years of age won’t be able to legally access marijuana and all forms of advertisement of the drug are prohibited.

The bill is now headed to the Senate where it is expected to pass. Once it becomes the law of the land, Uruguay will become the world’s standard-bearer of drug policy reform. Even though the country is small and it’s not beset by the plight of drug-related violence seen in Mexico or Central America, Uruguay’s marijuana legalization constitutes a momentous step in the road to dismantling the international prohibitionist regime that has been in place since the 1960s. Marijuana legalization bills have already been introduced in the legislatures of countries such as Chile and Mexico. And let’s not forget that cannabis was legalized last November (via referendum) in Colorado and Washington State.

The Obama administration faces a choice: it may either obstruct the momentum toward reform, or it may engage Latin American countries in an open debate about how to end a failed policy that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. That would be change we can believe in.

The Balloon Effect in Cocaine Production in the Andes

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy story today [requires subscription] about the booming cocaine business in Peru, where production has skyrocketed in recent years. The report serves a reminder of the balloon effect in U.S.-led efforts to eradicate cocaine production in the Andean region. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, has repeatedly pointed out that production in Colombia dropped by 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But as the graph below illustrates, cocaine manufacturing has just moved back to Peru, which according to some estimates, might already be the world’s largest producer of cocaine:

* Average range of total production in the Andean region.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
 

As we can see, Peru was the world’s largest source of potential cocaine production back in the early 1990s, but production of coca moved to Colombia once the regime of Alberto Fujimori cracked down on drug trafficking. By 2000, Colombia was by far the largest producer. However, due to eradication efforts by then president Álvaro Uribe under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, production came down in that country. But it didn’t go away, it just moved back to Peru. Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.

Mr. Kerlikowske should present the whole picture next time he boasts about declining cocaine production in Colombia.

Fidel Castro, Medicare Beneficiary?

There’s no proof yet, but it looks an awful lot like Medicare might be subsidizing the Castro brothers.

I, for one,  was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that “accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.”

In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That’s practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.

In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:

Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?

I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren’t going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.

Argentina’s Point of No Return

The most important development this week in Latin America is the decision of the Argentine government to seize control of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the country’s largest oil company. On Monday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the expropriation of the controlling stake of YPF that is owned by the Spanish company Repsol. The Spanish government, backed by the European Union, has announced that it will take retaliatory measures against Argentina, noting that “all options are on the table.” The Economist Intelligence Unit has a very good analysis on the case and the implications for Argentina.

The big question after Fernandez’s overwhelming reelection last fall was whether she would deepen the economic model she and her late husband (and predecessor) implemented since arriving to power in 2003—marked by high government spending, tight economic controls on industries, and selective nationalizations of businesses—or instead change course given the growing signs of exhaustion: high inflation, growing fiscal deficit, increasing capital flight, fall in foreign direct investment, the weakening peso, etc.

Any doubt is now gone. With the nationalization of YPF, Argentina firmly joins Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the club of Latin American nations that espouse high-octane economic populism. In the upcoming months, we can expect more protectionist measures, further controls on the economy and, once the government runs out of the money that it seized in the past three years from the private pension funds and the Central Bank’s reserves, we should not be surprised if it moves to take control of the banks.

Things will only get worse for Argentina.

Acting as the Typhoid Mary of the Global Economy, the OECD Urges Higher Taxes in Latin America

Is it April Fool’s Day? Has somebody in Paris hacked the website at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development? Have we been transported to a parallel dimension where up is down and black is white?

Please forgive all these questions. I’m trying to figure out why any organization—even a leftist bureaucracy such as the OECD—would send out a press release entitled, “Rising tax revenues: a key to economic development in Latin American countries.”

Not even Keynesians, after all, think higher taxes are a recipe for growth.

Ah, never mind. I just remembered that the OECD is a hotbed of statism, so the press release makes perfect sense. After all, the U.S.-taxpayer-funded organization has become infamous for reflexively advocating big government.

With this dismal track record, it’s hardly a surprise that the Paris-based bureaucracy is now pushing to undermine prosperity in Latin America. Here’s some of what the OECD said in its release.

Additional tax revenues enable governments to simultaneously improve their competitiveness and promote social cohesion through increased spending on education, infrastructure and innovation. Latin American countries have made great strides over the past two decades in raising tax revenues.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that the Paris-based bureaucrats do not bother to provide even the tiniest shred of proof to support the silly claim that higher taxes improve competitiveness. But that shouldn’t be surprising since even Keynesians don’t believe something that absurd.

And the claim about social cohesion also is a bit of a stretch given the riots, chaos, and social disarray in many European nations.

The only accurate part of the passage is that Latin American nations have increased tax burdens over the past 20 years. To the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD, that is making “great strides.”

Let’s see what else the OECD had to say.

Despite these improvements, significant gaps between Latin America and OECD countries remain. The average tax to GDP ratio in OECD countries is much higher than in Latin American countries (33.8% compared to 19.2% in 2009, respectively). As the countries in the region still find themselves in relatively strong economic conditions, now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.

Wow. The OECD is implying that Latin American nations should mimic OECD nations. In other words, the bureaucrats in Paris apparently think it makes sense to tell nations to copy the failed high-tax, welfare-state model of countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Is that really the lesson they think people should learn from recent fiscal history? Are they really so oblivious and/or blinded by ideology that they issued the release as these European nations are in the middle of a fiscal crisis?

To further demonstrate their bias, the folks at the OECD even acknowledged that the Latin American nations, with their less oppressive tax regimes, are enjoying “relatively strong economic conditions.” Normal people would therefore conclude that the failed high-tax European nation should copy Latin America on fiscal policy, not the other way around. But not the geniuses at the OECD.

Now that we’ve addressed the awful policy advice of the OECD, let’s take a moment to look at the real policy challenges facing Latin America.

The Fraser Institute, in cooperation with dozens of other research organizations around the world, produces every year a comprehensive survey measuring Economic Freedom of the World.

The report ranks 141 nations based on dozens of variables that are used to construct scores for five key measures of economic freedom. Of those five categories, the Latin nations have the highest average ranking on…you guessed it…fiscal policy.

Yet the OECD wants policies that will undermine the competitiveness of the Latin nations, hurting them in the area where they are doing a halfway decent job.

If the bureaucrats actually wanted to boost economic performance in Latin America, they would be pressuring those nations to make reforms in the two areas where the burden of government is most severe—legal structure/property rights and regulation.

But that would make sense, which is contrary to the OECD’s mission of promoting statism.

The only semi-positive thing to say about the OECD is that it is consistent. As this video explains, the Paris-based bureaucrats are advocating bigger government in the United States. And to add insult to injury, they’re using American tax dollars to push that agenda.

What a scam. Politicians from various nations send taxpayer money to Paris. The bureaucrats at the OECD then issue reports and studies saying the politicians in those countries should raise taxes and increase the burden of government. Everybody wins…except for taxpayers and the global economy.

Per dollar spent, OECD subsidies may be the most destructively wasteful part of the federal budget. And that says a lot.

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