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political economy

Can Businesses Help Create Political Stability?

Zahid Hussain's picture

 © Simone D. McCourtie/World BankBusinesses generally stand little chance of doing well when politics is not stable. Political stability is a necessary condition for an enabling business environment. What can the business community do to help achieve sustained political stability? Experience shows more often than not they fail to do so. What keeps the private sector divided even when both their collective and personal interests are directly at stake? Such an apparent puzzle can be explained by the soft budget constraint syndrome interacting with cronyism.
 
The term “soft budget constraint” (SBC) was originally conceived by the economist, Janos Kornai. The concept has since been regularly invoked in the literature on economic transition from socialism to capitalism. Now the concept is increasingly acknowledged to be pertinent well beyond the realm of socialist and transition economies. A host of capitalist phenomena, ranging from the collapse of the banking sector of East Asian economies in the 1990s and the business rescue packages seen in the midst of the recent global financial crises can be usefully analyzed in SBC terms.
 
The syndrome is at work only when organizations can expect to be rescued from trouble, and those expectations in turn affect their behavior. The more frequently financial problems elicit support in any part of the economy, the more organizations will count on getting support themselves. The government may from time to time announce they will break with past practice and refrain henceforth from bailouts. But such announcements have little effect unless combined with some institutional change that lends credibility to their claims.
 
SBC syndrome alone cannot explain why business groups do not react collectively to political adversities. The divisive force in this process comes from cronyism.
 
Cronyism normally means some of those close to political authorities receive large economic favors. The most visible ones usually entail ownership of a business or its operation, such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). More frequently, however, economic entitlements are provided through privileged access to governmental favors. The most valuable are the provision of monopoly or quasi-monopoly positions and the extension of domestic credit at highly subsidized terms. Favoritism in awarding government contracts is also important and may be as significant as the others. 

Economic growth and elections in Bangladesh

Zahid Hussain's picture

Bangladesh has turned the political business cycle phenomenon upside down.
 
Political business cycles are cycles in macroeconomic variables – output, unemployment, inflation – induced by the electoral cycle. This type of business cycle results primarily from the manipulation of policy tools by incumbent politicians hoping to stimulate the economy just prior to an election and thereby improve their reelection chances. 
 
Expansionary monetary and fiscal policies have politically palatable consequences in the short run. When pursued to excess, these very policies can also have very unpleasant consequences in the longer term in the form of accelerating inflation, decreasing savings, worsening foreign trade balance, and long-term expansion of government's share of the GDP at the expense of private consumption and investment. So immediately after the election, politicians tend to “bite the bullet” and reverse course by raising taxes, cutting spending, slowing the growth of the money supply, and allowing interest rates to rise. As a result, the regular holding of elections tends to produce a boom-and-bust pattern in the economy because of the on-again-off-again pattern of government stimulus and restraint to induce an artificial boom at every election time.
 
Bangladesh’s experience also shows the existence of a political business cycle in GDP growth, albeit with exactly the opposite pattern of boom and bust. GDP growth has consistently declined in each of the last five election years. It happened in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2007 (an election year without election) and 2009 (Figure 1). From the perspective of Western political business cycle theory these growth tendencies appear suicidal for the incumbent. Instead of expanding the economy faster to gain votes, the incumbents appear to be shooting themselves in the foot by allowing the pace of expansion to slow in the election year!
 
Is this another case of the Bangladesh paradox?