Topic: International Economics and Development

If You Want Good Fiscal Policy, Forget the Balanced Budget Amendment and Pursue Spending Caps

Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

U.S. Aid Empowering Organized Crime in Mexico

Two weeks ago I had an article in The National Interest where I made the case against the Obama administration’s proposal to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Central American governments to help them fight organized crime, promote security and foster economic development. In my piece, I wrote that “…giving $1 billion to governments with dubious records on transparency and human rights will empower corrupt officials to the detriment of ordinary Central Americans.”

Last week, Jesse Franzblau had a revealing exposé in The Nation that proves how counterproductive this sort of aid can be. In his article, Franzblau publishes unclassified documents that show how U.S. authorities continued to deliver millions of dollars in aid to Mexican security agencies despite knowing that those same forces were infiltrated by drug cartels. This money came under the auspices of the Plan Mérida, a $2.6 billion program aimed at helping Mexico fight drug cartels. In some instances, the documents seem to show efforts by U.S. officials to cover up or downplay serious human rights abuses committed by Mexican security forces so it wouldn’t affect the continuity of Plan Mérida.

As Franzblau points out:

While US laws explicitly prohibit the delivery of aid to foreign individuals and units implicated in systematic human rights violations, internal reporting on the implementation of Mérida programs reveals that institutional connections to organized crime are consistently overlooked, ignored or kept hidden from public scrutiny as counter-drug money continues to flow.

This is serious stuff. Instead of helping the fight against drug cartels, U.S. aid might be empowering them. As I mentioned in my article, there is well-documented evidence about how the security agencies and judicial systems of Central American countries have been infiltrated by powerful criminal organizations, from drug cartels to youth gangs.

Franzblau’s article also shows a well-documented phenomenon regarding aid: once it starts flowing, the bureaucracy in charge of delivering it has an incentive to disregard the evidence of whether it is accomplishing its goals or being counterproductive since discontinuing the aid would compromise the bureaucracy’s own existence. In this particular case, Franzblau mentions that “US officials were well aware of the effect that reports of abuse could have on Mérida assistance.”

There is no reason to believe that the Obama administration’s massive aid plan for Central American governments won’t suffer from the same flaws that Jesse Franzblau exposes in his article.

China: Hot Money In, Now Out

For some years, hot money flowed in, adding massively to China’s foreign reserve stockpile. Speculators borrowed cheaply in U.S. dollars and bought yuan-denominated assets in anticipation of an ever-appreciating yuan. Well, this carry trade has shifted into reverse, with $91 billion in net outflows in the last quarter of 2014. And with that, the ever-appreciating yuan story has come to a close, too. Indeed, the yuan has lost 1.8% against the greenback since the New Year.

A clear picture of the drag that the hot money outflows are putting on China is shown by inspecting the annual growth rate in the People’s Republic of China’s net foreign assets. With the reserve of the carry trade, the slowdown in net foreign assets growth has been pronounced.   

This, in turn, has reduced the foreign asset component of the growth in China’s money supply, putting a squeeze on the economy’s fuel supply. Indeed, China’s money growth rate has fallen well below its trend rate since mid-2012.

In an attempt to reverse the slump in China’s money supply growth, the People’s Bank has just reduced its benchmark interest rates for the second time in three months. A wise move.

Boris Nemtsov, RIP

The murder of Boris Nemtsov in the immediate proximity of the Kremlin seems to be an important milestone in Russia’s descent into darkness. As Deputy Prime Minister in the late 1990s and as an opposition politician during the era of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Nemtsov was a voice for a more liberal, open, and democratic Russia.

Notwithstanding a certain degree of restraint in his criticism of the Russian government, his work as one of the central figures of Russian opposition reflected great personal courage. In spite of a history of frequent arrests, in the past year, he positioned himself as an important domestic critic of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

He was not a stranger to free market ideas or to the work of the Cato Institute, which has been trying to support the transition of Soviet Russia to markets since its landmark 1990 Moscow conference, Transition to Freedom: The New Soviet Challenge.  One decade later, Mr. Nemtsov spoke at a Cato conference on the privatization of pension systems around the world.

The circumstances of Mr. Nemtsov’s death are extremely disconcerting, especially in the light of the track record of Mr. Putin’s regime. Mr. Nemtsov was killed two days before the planned demonstration against Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine. He feared for his life as he was preparing to publish new evidence on the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine. And the ‘investigation’ of his murder started on Friday night, with the police ransacking his apartment and confiscating his documents and hard drives.

Mr. Putin’s facetious promise that he will “personally oversee the investigation” strongly suggests we will never learn the names of Mr. Nemtsov’s murderers. But it is safe to say that a country in which opposition politicians of Mr. Nemtsov’s stature have to fear for their lives is a on a very dismal path.

Casualties of the Drug War

Yesterday, the international aid organization Health Poverty Action released a new study on the effects of the global drug war. The report is entitled, “Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs Is Harming the World’s Poorest.”

From its introduction:

Since the mid-twentieth century, global drug policy has been dominated by strict prohibition, which tries to force people to stop possessing, using and producing drugs by making them illegal.

This approach, which has come to be known as the ‘War on Drugs’, has not only failed to achieve its goals—it is fuelling poverty, undermining health, and failing some of the poorest and most marginalised communities worldwide.

Both in the United States and around the world, the War on Drugs has been a humanitarian catastrophe and a financial money pit. Interdiction often harms indigent farmers who grow the coca and poppy plants for meager financial return while the global drug marketplace continues to meet high demand. Prohibition-fueled violence among rival cartels and gangs invariably spills over to claim innocent lives. For those reasons, it is no exaggeration to say that the $100 billion spent on global drug prohibition annually takes food off the tables of the poor and leaves many more dead from violence.

Well-meaning people can disagree about what is best to spend that $100 billion on—vaccines, food aid, micro-loans, infrastructure, clean water projects, drug treatment, etc.—but a growing number of people would say it would be better spent not fighting the Drug War.

Read the whole report here.

Ukraine Hyperinflates

Since the New Year, Ukraine’s currency – the hryvnia – has collapsed, losing 51 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. To put this rout into perspective, consider that the Russian ruble has only lost 8 percent against the greenback during the same period.

Like night follows day, the hryvnia’s meltdown has resulted in a surge of inflation. The last official Ukrainian year-over-year inflation rate is 28.5 percent. This rate was reported for January and is out of date. That said, the official inflation rate has consistently and massively understated Ukraine’s brutal inflation. At present, Ukraine’s implied annual inflation rate is 272 percent. This is the world’s highest inflation rate, well above Venezuela’s 127 percent rate (see the accompanying chart).

When inflation rates are elevated, standard economic theory and reliable empirical techniques allow us to produce accurate inflation estimates. With free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data), the inflation rate can be calculated. Indeed, the principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate.

To calculate the inflation rate in Ukraine, all that is required is a rather straightforward application of a standard, time-tested economic theory (read: PPP). At present, the black-market UAH/USD exchange rate sits at 33.78. Using this figure and black-market exchange rate data that the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute for Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year, I estimate Ukraine’s current annual inflation rate to be 272 percent – and its monthly inflation rate to be 64.5 percent. This rate exceeds the 50 percent per month threshold required to qualify for hyperinflation. So, if Ukraine sustains its current monthly rate of inflation for several more months, it will enter the record books as the world’s 57th hyperinflation episode. 

Austerity, A New Weaselword

The financial press has become inundated with the word “austerity.” Since Greece’s left-wing Syriza proclaimed an “anti-austerity revolution,” strong adjectives, like “incredibly savage,” precede that overused word.

What was once a good word has become a weaselword. That, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a word that destroys the force of a statement, as a weasel ruins an egg by sucking out its contents.” How could that be?

Well, in the hands of an unscrupulous or uninformed writer, the inversion of a perfectly good word into a weaselword is an easy task. All one has to do is leave the meaning of a word undefined or vague, rendering the word’s meaning so obscure as to make it non-operational. With that, a meaningless weaselword is created.

In its current usage, the word austerity is so obscure as to evoke Fritz Machlup’s paraphrase of Goethe’s line from Faust: To conceal ignorance, Mephistopheles counsels a student to misuse words. Such is the story and fate of austerity.

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