August 27, 2014 8:57AM

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.

Ecuadorians love getting paid and saving in American dollars--and the government knows this. So why would de-dollarization be more likely today than seven years ago when Rafael Correa became president? Mainly because public spending has increased to unsustainable levels and will most likely continue its breakneck growth as Correa seeks to stay in power indefinitely or, at least, beyond 2017. Additionally, Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution made the BCE explicitly part of the executive branch (Article No. 303) and retained its power to issue currency of legal tender. Moreover, the new monetary and finance law contains several provisions that are only applicable if the BCE were to issue a national currency again. These include, for example, a whole chapter on the “exchange rate regime,” the ability to perform open market operations, and to use the rediscount window to ensure liquidity within the economy.

Most of the discussion has revolved around the provisions of the new monetary and finance law and how it might be the first step towards a return to a national currency. But laws and constitutions come and go fairly easily in Ecuador and are frequently violated if politics make it convenient to do so.

As F.A. Hayek explained in his book Denationalization of Money, national state monopolies over the issuing of money arose out of the discovery by kings that they could finance their uncontrolled spending by reducing the metallic content of the currency and forcing people to accept the devalued coins. Likewise, the main threat to dollarization is the incessant growth of public spending. More public spending increases the temptation to go back to the days when Ecuadorian politicians could monetize debt via the BCE. Public spending has grown from 24.6 percent of GDP in 2007 to 44.4 percent in 2013. Just so that you get an idea of the incredible growth of spending, this year’s projected fiscal deficit of $9.2 billion is almost equivalent to the total government spending in 2006 ($9.927 billion).

The government is already showing signs of a fiscal squeeze and making adjustments might be a difficult pill to swallow. For instance, expected government spending in the bureaucracy ($8.433 billion) and in subsidies ($6.213 billion) for 2014 would no longer be covered by expected tax revenue ($13.965 billion). These expenditures, like most other budget items, are politically costly to reduce. Public investment, however, is one of the few areas of the budget that could be easily trimmed. But the development model of Correa’s so called “citizen’s revolution” has crowded out so much private investment that the economy has become very dependent on public investment for growth.

If the government continues down this path of fiscal irresponsibility, the temptation to use the printing press at the BCE might become irresistible. The cherry on top of all of this is that the new penal code that went into effect this month makes it a crime—punishable with up to seven years in jail—to “publish, broadcast or spread” economic or financial information that, according to the authorities, is false and might cause economic or financial “panic.”