Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

Argentina: Down The Tubes, Again

President Christina Fernández de Kirchner has turned up her left-wing rhetoric as the economy goes down the tubes. Indeed, GDP has contracted for the past two quarters; inflation is galloping at 56%, not the official 15.01%; and the country has defaulted on its debt, again. Never mind. The President claims Argentina’s financial system is “one of the most solid in the world.” She asserts that Argentina’s woes can be laid squarely at the feet of foreign “vulture funds” and greedy capitalists who have speculated against the peso. Yes, the peso has lost 42.6% of its value against the U.S. dollar on the black market since the first of the year, and for very legitimate reasons.

But, for realists like me, a fact check is always worth a peso. Recently, Bloomberg’s Charlie Devreux and Pablo Gonzales penned some most edifying reportage on one thing that’s booming in Argentina: criminality. Bandits have put cargos of grain headed for the port of Rosario in their crosshairs. And why not – grain is traded in greenbacks, not pesos.

Property’s worst enemy is theft: theft makes property insecure. And unless property is secure, it can’t be accumulated and it is wasted. The increasing incidence of heists on grain, Argentina’s most valuable export, indicates that property rights are becoming more insecure and that the economy only has one way to go: down the tubes.

Indonesia Reform, Please

The Indonesian stock market has just hit a record high on the hope that the incoming President, Joko Widodo, will push through economic reforms. But, what path should he follow? My advice to President Widodo is the same as that I gave President Suharto, when I was his advisor in 1998: follow Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew developed a set of sound principles, which proved to be highly successful. Indeed, their implementation propelled Singapore to the top of the world’s competitiveness rankings. I have dubbed these principles the “Singapore Strategy.” It contains the following five elements:

  • First and foremost, stabilize the currency. Singapore achieved stability with a currency board system – a simple, transparent, rule-driven monetary regime.
  • Second, don’t pass the begging bowl. Singapore refused to accept foreign aid of any kind.
  • Third, foster first-world, competitive, private enterprises. Singapore accomplished this via light taxation, light regulation, and completely open and free trade.
  • Fourth, emphasize personal security, public order, and the protection of private property.
  • The final key to Lee Kuan Yew’s “Singapore Strategy” is the means to accomplish the previous four goals: a small, transparent government that avoids complexity and red tape. And one that is directed by first-class civil servants who are paid first-class wages.

Savings and the Decline of Small Business Entry

A recent paper from the Brookings Institute raises an important observation that businesses are “becoming older,” that is, the age profile of American business is increasingly dominated by older firms.  One reason is that the entry rate of new businesses has been steadily declining for decades. 

While this decline has been witnessed across firm size, it has been most dramatic among small firms.  One potential contributor to the decline in new small businesses is the long run decline in the personal savings rate.  According to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, the number one, by a long shot, source of capital for new businesses is the personal savings of the owner.  For firms with employees, about 72 percent relied upon personal/family savings for start-up capital.  The other dominate sources of capital, credit cards and home equity, were much less frequently used.  Recent legislative changes (2009 Card Act) and a volatile housing market have made those sources less reliable in recent years.

The chart below compares the trend in entry rates for new business establishments with less than five employees with the personal savings rate.  The correlation between the two is 0.62.  While both the decline in business entry and savings are likely driven by common macroeconomic factors, it seems plausible that if households have fewer saving, they are also less likely to be able to start a business.  My preferred response would be to eliminate policies, such as those in the tax code or current monetary policy, which penalize savings.  I suspect others might have different suggestions.

FSOC’s Arbitrary, Ever-Changing Double Standard

In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress, without irony, decided the best way to end “too big to fail” was to have a committee of regulators label certain companies “too big to fail.”  That committee, established under Title I of Dodd-Frank, is called the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and is chaired by the Treasury Secretary. Like so much of Dodd-Frank, FSOC gets to write its own rules. Unfortunately FSOC won’t even write those rules, but instead it has decided that it knows systemic risk when it sees it. This has led to an ad hoc process that almost makes the bailouts of 2008 look systematic.

Compare the process for asset management firms and that for insurance companies. In late 2013, the Treasury released a report on the asset management industry. It was widely viewed as an attempt to make the case for labeling some asset management firms “systemic.”  The report was widely criticized. Such criticism did not stop FSOC from conducting a public conference on the asset management industry in May 2014.  Whether it was the public reaction to the conference or the paper, FSOC has largely abandoned labeling asset managers as “too big to fail.”  That was an appropriate outcome as firms in that industry are not systemic and shouldn’t be lead to expect a federal rescue.

Now don’t get me wrong: A shoddy report and a conference do not constitute a thorough process. As someone who has overseen a rulemaking process, I can say they do not even meet the basics of the Administrative Procedures Act. But just when that process seemed wholly inadequate, along comes the “process” for insurance companies.

Not unexpectedly, AIG went along without a peep. Given its role in the crisis that’s not a surprise. But there’s been no report or even a conference on whether insurance companies pose systemic risk. Completing either one would, of course, require FSOC to define systemic risk and to offer some minimal metrics. Instead, what we have is unelected bureaucrats simply making it up as they go along.

And here I was thinking Dodd-Frank was meant to end the haphazard behavior of regulators in 2008 and lead us towards a predictable rules-based approach to ending systemic risk!

The Future of Dollarization in Ecuador

A new “monetary and finance” law that was approved by Ecuador’s National Assembly in July, is expected to be signed into law any day now. Many suspect that this marks the beginning of the end for dollarization in Ecuador, which began in January of 2000. But the underlying threat to dollarization is the incessant growth of public spending. Losing dollarization would be a sad development, considering it is what has protected Ecuadorians from one of the worst evils of populism: high inflation.

The remarkable contribution dollarization has made to the Ecuadorian economy is worth noting. A 2010 study published by Ecuador’s central bank (BCE) analyzed the first decade of the absence of independent monetary policy and found that average GDP growth increased from -6.3 percent during the 1990s to 4.4 percent during the 2000s; annual inflation decreased from a high of 90 percent in September of 2000 to single digits within a year, and has averaged 3 percent since 2004. Additionally, interest rates went down immediately, thereby reducing the cost of capital. According to the World Bank, the percentage of Ecuadorians living on less than $2 a day (PPP) decreased from 37.7 percent in 2000 to 10.6 percent in 2009.

Of course, there are many problems dollarization cannot solve and the positive outcomes above are not solely due to it. But it probably has been one of the main factors contributing to Ecuadorian growth prior to and during our current “revolutionary” government. In fact, Ecuador owes its superior economic performance today–compared the two most prominent populist nations in the region, Argentina and Venezuela–mostly to dollarization.

Need for Short-Term Loans Is No Joke

I’m a little behind on my comedy watching, as I get a regular dose just living in Washington DC, but last week comedians John Oliver and Sarah Silverman focused an entire segment on payday lending, which are short-term advances against a future paycheck.  Matt Yglesias at Vox has posted the video, as well as making the important point “people end up at payday lenders because stuff happens.”  Yglesias is correct here: there is an undeniable need for short-term credit products. Even Dodd-Frank recognized this need by creating a government subsidized payday loan product (Section 1205 of Dodd-Frank).

The alternative to payday proposed by Oliver and Silverman?  Do anything else but payday. I’m sympathetic to such. A payday loan should never be your first choice. I hope to never have to use a payday lender. But then, I hope my car never breaks down either. Silverman goes as far as suggesting just steal instead. I’d hope she was joking but it seems so many in Washington have already taken that advice to heart.

Yglesias’s alternative is at least a little more thoughtful than stealing: he suggests allowing the postal service to offer short term loans, because apparently he believes the USPS could offer payday “without taking nearly as big a cut”.  Now “big” is subjective but scholars have examined this question. In research reported in 2012 in Regulation, UC-Davis Professor Victor Stango compared the performance of traditional payday loans to those offered by credit unions. Some of his conclusions: “there is little to suggest that credit unions can offer a payday loan with competitive terms. Existing credit union payday loans often have total borrowing costs that are quite close to those on standard payday loans.” Maybe the USPS has a better cost structure than the typical credit union, but that seems unlikely as the USPS isn’t exactly known for its efficiency.

Professor Stango also reports survey evidence that payday borrowers highly value the convenience of payday lender’s hours and locations. Yglesias doesn’t address this, but last time I went to a Post Office, the hours were about as convenient (or less so) than that of a traditional bank. And of course USPS isn’t exactly known for its consumer friendly approach.  In all, it seems highly unlikely that without a major revamp and cultural change that the USPS could be a serious competitor to payday. Perhaps as important, the USPS would likely be viewed as “too big to fail”, so that allowing USPS to make high risk payday loans could easily result in a taxpayer bailout. Getting USPS into payday makes about as much sense as getting Fannie Mae into subprime mortgages.

Oh wait, we did that.