Topic: International Economics and Development

Bulgaria’s Currency Board versus Ukraine’s Chaos

When Communism inevitably and finally collapsed, Bulgaria’s economy was a basket case – behind almost all other communist basket cases, including Ukraine’s. Indeed, Bulgaria defaulted on its debt in 1990. By February 1991, Bulgaria had broken out in a bout of hyperinflation, with the inflation rate at 123% per month. And in February 1997, Bulgaria experienced the agonies of hyperinflation again, with the inflation rate reaching 242% per month. 

As he looked into the abyss, President Petar Stoyanov decided against taking the plunge and appointed me as his advisor in January 1997. I immediately prescribed a currency board system to put an end to Bulgaria’s malady, something I had laid out for Bulgaria back in 1991 (Steve H. Hanke and Kurt Schuler, Teeth for the Bulgarian Lev: A Currency Board Solution. Washington, D.C.: International Freedom Foundation, 1991.).

Bulgaria installed a currency board in July 1997. The lev was backed 100% by German marks and traded freely at a fixed rate of 1000 leva to 1 mark. Inflation and interest rates fell like stones. The economy stabilized, and the Bulgarians learned that, even though stability might not be everything, everything is nothing without stability. Discipline at last.

Yes, the main feature of a currency board is the fiscal and financial discipline that it provides. No more running to the central bank for a fiscal bailout. A currency board ties the hands of those meddlesome monetary authorities. And forget the silly theoretical and obscure arguments made by economists who don’t embrace fixed exchange rates. A currency board regime is all about discipline.

As we watch Ukraine melt down once again, we can see what could have been (and what could be) if Ukraine would have only embraced a system of discipline (read: currency board) – like Bulgaria did in 1997. The following table tells the tale:

Bulgaria versus Ukraine

Country

GDP per Capita (USD)

Fiscal Balances %GDP

Current Account Balances %GDP

General Govt. Gross Debt %GDP

Gross Borrowing Needs %GDP

Import Coverage Ratio (FX Reserves / Imports)

W.B. Ease of Doing Business 2014 Rank

Bulgaria

$7,623

-1.9%

1.5%

16.0%

2.6%

6.7

58

Ukraine

$4,011

-8.7%

-8.9%

42.8%

11.0%

1.9

112

Sources: Bulgarian National Bank, National Bank of Ukraine, J.P. Morgan (Emerging Markets Research), International Monetary Fund (IFS), World Bank (Doing Business). 

Prepared by Prof. Steve H. Hanke, The Johns Hopkins University.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

The Arrest of “Chapo” Guzmán: Did We Just Win the War on Drugs?

The arrest on Saturday of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is no small feat. He was perhaps the world’s most wanted man, and his capture certainly represents a major political victory for Mexico and its president Enrique Peña Nieto. But just like the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993 didn’t end the war on drugs, the downfall of Joaquín Guzmán won’t put an end to drug trafficking in the Americas.

As leader of Mexico’s largest criminal organization, “Chapo” was the central figure in the breakout of drug violence in that country. In 1992, Guzmán decided to invade the turf of the Arellano Félix brothers in Tijuana. Years later he also declared war on the Juárez and Gulf cartels, thus unleashing years of unprecedented bloodshed in northern Mexico. Eventually he would succeed in controlling most of the lucrative routes, and his organization would become responsible for nearly half of all illegal drugs coming into the United States.  

His power relied not solely on plomo (lead) but also plata (money). Some years ago, high-ranking officials at Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office were arrested for receiving bribes from the Sinaloa cartel. The sums were staggering: between $150,000 and $450,000 per month. Guzmán’s organization was also actively engaged in buying the support of policemen. According to the Secretariat of Public Security, every year the cartels spend approximately $1.2 billion dollars bribing 165,000 cops all over Mexico (just as a comparison, the Merida Initiative, Washington’s aid package to Mexico and Central America to fight organized crime, totals $1.6 billion).

Without a doubt, Guzmán’s capture is a huge success for Enrique Peña Nieto. In the last seven months, the leaders of Mexico’s top three drug cartels (Zetas, Gulf and Sinaloa) were arrested without a single shot being fired. So, are we on the verge of wining the war on drugs? That all depends on what the ultimate goal is. Is it taking down drug kingpins or stopping the flow of drugs into the United States? If it’s the latter, the war is far from over. A report from the Office of Intelligence and Operations Coordination of the U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency looked at drug seizure data from January 2009 to January 2010 and matched it with the arrests or deaths of drug operatives (11 druglords in total). It found that “there is no perceptible pattern that correlates either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key DTO [drug trafficking organization] personnel.”

The latest National Drug Threat Assessment report from the Justice Department indicates that while cocaine availability has been declining since 2007, that of marijuana, heroine and methamphetamine is on the rise. In the case of cocaine, the fall in availability hasn’t produced a sharp increase in its street price, as the graph below shows:

We shouldn’t expect a major decline in the flow of drugs into the United States, just as such didn’t occur after Pablo Escobar, then the leader of the powerful Medellín cartel, was killed in December 1993.

The consequences on the dynamics of violence in Mexico are yet to be seen. Sinaloa is the last major drug organization with a semi-pyramidal structure in that country, and it’s also the most professionally run. Two of “Chapo’s” top lieutenants, Juan José “El Azul” Esparragosa and Israel “El Mayo” Zambada remain at large. It’s likely that they already had in place a succession plan in case Guzmán was arrested. Some experts even speculate on a new generation of drug kingpins taking over Sinaloa. So it isn’t sure that the cartel will implode or disintegrate. Nor we should expect an outbreak of violence as other cartels try to move into Sinaloa territory. That didn’t happen when Miguel Ángel Treviño, leader of the Zetas, was arrested last July.

The arrest of “Chapo” Guzmán is being seen as a major triumph in the battle against organized crime in Mexico. But his capture doesn’t bring us any closer to victory in the war on drugs.

Save Elephants by Selling Ivory

For many people free markets seem cold and calculating.  Maybe it’s the best way to sell, say, automobiles and soap.  But we shouldn’t like the process.  And we certainly shouldn’t base our behavior on markets when basic concepts of right and wrong are at stake.

Of course, markets are no substitute for understanding what the good life is all about.  However, markets offer a powerful tool to reinforce underlying moral values.

One of the great tragedies of the modern age is the slaughter of elephants.  Ivory long has been a widely desired decorative material.

Unfortunately, these days most new ivory comes from poachers.  The killing of elephants has sparked a new form of prohibition, with steadily tighter controls over ivory sales. 

As I note in my new Freeman article:

As a result, elephants have turned into modern day bison—simultaneously owned by no one and more valuable dead than alive.  The result has been devastating for elephant populations in many African states, with upwards of 40,000 elephants being killed annually.

In fact, about the only advocates of the giant creatures are Westerners who see the animals in zoos or on carefully controlled safaris.  In contrast, struggling developing nations must manage wildlife reserves and deter poachers while facing what they see as far more pressing human needs. 

Worse is the situation facing villagers and farmers.  Residents of the industrialized West wax eloquent when talking of faraway elephants, but to locals the creatures are giant rats, threatening and destructive. 

Thus, despite much effort, activists and governments have not been able to stop the massacre of elephants.  Yet faced with the failure of prohibition, the usual suspects only propose more of the same. 

They are pushing countries to destroy existing ivory stockpiles, acquired from elephants which died naturally or were culled, as well as seized from poachers.  Groups also are pressing to ban even the sale of antique ivory, as if outlawing ancient objects could bring back long-dead elephants.  Even more improbable have even been proposals that Western nations deploy military

Without a change of tactics, elephants could disappear from some African countries.  Yet some in the West favor morality lectures rather than practical innovations. 

Moral suasion always is worth a try.  But what happens after preaching fails?

Use markets to reinforce the moral message.  Observed the international conference covering endangered species (CITES):  “provided that their full value (i.e. both intrinsic and extrinsic) is fully realized by the landholders involved, not only will elephants be conserved but so will the accompanying range of biodiversity existing on such land.” 

It’s not a jump into the unknown.  Before 1989 Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe allowed legal sales.  The same countries generally enjoyed expanding elephant populations, in contrast to the shrinking herds evident elsewhere in Africa.

Even today, after closure of these ivory markets, some governments sell licenses to hunt elephants when the population exceeds the land’s capacity.  Where the money is shared locally, noted analyst Peter Fitzmaurice, “Damaged land and crop losses are not only being tolerated, but villages are doing their best to guard against poachers.”

More needs to be done.  Observed CITES:  “A legal trade in ivory, elephant hide and meat could change current disincentives to elephant conservation into incentives to landholders and countries to conserve them.” 

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants (speciesism lives!).  But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species, such as vicunas, tigers, and crocodiles.

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead.  Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive. 

If asked, elephants likely would prefer the second policy.  So should we.

Understanding the Protests in Ukraine and Venezuela

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If one believes Tolstoy’s famous dictum, then the protest movements in Ukraine and Venezuela should not have much in common. However, there are several striking parallels between the events unfolding in the two countries—as well as some important differences:

1. It’s the economy, stupid!

Although the popular unrest in Ukraine was triggered by the government’s decision to cancel the agreed free trade agreement with the European Union, the popular discontent has deeper roots. After years of kleptocratic governance, which derailed the country’s transition toward a market economy, ordinary Ukrainians are desperate for change. In 1990, Ukraine’s GDP per capita was $8,200, which was roughly identical to Poland’s. Today, Poland’s GDP is $18,300 and Ukraine’s has gone down to $6,400. Unlike its post-communist neighbors to the West, Ukraine did not pursue deep institutional reforms and its economy was seized by a narrow group of oligarchs, with close connections to political power and to the Kremlin. The son of the President Viktor Yanukovych, Oleksandr, has become one of the richest men in the country during his father’s time in the office, while incomes of most Ukrainians stagnated.

In Venezuela the economic situation has deteriorated sharply since the death of Hugo Chávez last year. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world (officially 56 percent in 2013, although according to Steve Hanke’s Trouble Currency Project, the implied annual inflation rate is actually 305 percent). After years of nationalizations, expropriations, and currency and price controls—all under the name of “21st Century Socialism”—the private sector has been decimated. Hour-long lines in supermarkets are a daily occurrence and shortages of basic food staples and medicines are widespread. And just like in Ukraine, corruption is rampant as the ruling elite rake in the profits from oil revenues. This has resulted in the rise of a new privileged class called the “Boligarchs.” so-named because they’ve prospered tremendously under the so-called Bolivarian revolution. Moreover, Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous nations in the world, with almost 25,000 murders committed last year. A large segment of the population, mostly middle class, is simply fed up as the country quickly becomes unlivable.

Nightmare Scenario Underway in Ukraine

As the Ukrainian security forces are moving to clear Kiev’s ‘Maidan’ protest camp again, after an unsuccessful attempt last night, the events are unfolding quickly and with the characteristically scary dynamics of an autocratic regime acting under pressure:

Ukraine’s state security service said it was launching an “anti-terrorist operation” across the country after the seizure of administrative buildings and arms and ammunition depots by “extremist groups.”

Labeling the opposition as ‘terrorists’ is a common rhetorical device used by authoritarian governments under duress. But we should make no mistake – the current situation is not just an outcome of the divisions existing within Ukrainian society but also a result of Vladimir Putin’s long standing and sinister meddling in Ukraine.

For Mr. Putin, the current situation is both a source of fear and an opportunity. The fear stems from the possibility of Ukraine setting a precedent of a bottom-up, civil society-driven initiative displacing a Moscow-sponsored leadership in a country with strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. The opportunity lies in leveraging the current unrest and the ethnic divisions it has uncovered to strengthen Russia’s influence over the country’s politics. The Russian government already provided Mr. Yanukovych with cash in December 2013; this week, another bond purchase worth $2 billion was announced, conditional on the government successfully tackling the opposition.

The international response is too timid given the magnitude of the problem and its proximity to the European Union’s borders. Targeted EU sanctions, such as the asset freezes and travel bans directed at Ukrainian officials, which are likely to be adopted tomorrow, seem fully justified–although they come very late. Still, care needs to be exercised so that they hurt the regime and not ordinary citizens.

More importantly, European leaders need to clearly articulate the long-term alternative that they are offering to Ukraine lest it remain the Kremlin’s client state. The roadmap to full EU membership ought to have an accelerated timeline, incentivizing Ukrainian policymakers to adopt open political and economic institutions.

The EU’s engagement with the country needs to come with tangible benefits for Ukrainians. Those would include most fundamentally a removal of trade and regulatory barriers, as well as immigration restrictions, making Ukrainians a de facto part of the common European market now rather than at an uncertain point in the future.

Venezuela’s Plunging Petroleum Production

A hallmark of socialism and interventionism is failure. Venezuela is compelling proof of this, having spent the past half century going down the tubes. Indeed, in the 1950’s, it was one of Latin America’s most well off countries. No more. Now it is a basket case – a failed state that’s descending into chaos.

How could this be? After all, Venezuela’s combined reserves of oil and gas are second only to Iran’s. Well, it might have reserves, but thanks to the wrongheaded policies of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is the only major energy producer that has seen its production fall over the past quarter of a century. The following chart tells that dismal tale: