The stroke of the pen is powerful indeed; it has led to wars, peace, and lots of other things in between, including changes in a country’s business environment. A large part of what defines the environment for doing business in a country is set in legislation. In many countries around the world, business regulations are more difficult than necessary, and some have taken great efforts to remove unneeded impediments with the aim of stimulating entrepreneurship and investment.
In a previous blog we discussed the factors that have pushed issues of corruption to the centre of policy debates about sound economic management. A related question deals with the sources of corruption: where does it come from, what are the factors that have nourished it and turned it into such a powerful impediment to sustainable economic development? Economists seem to agree that an important source of corruption stems from the distributional attributes of the state. For better or for worse, the role of the state in the economy has expanded in a major way over the past century. In 1913 the 13 largest economies in the world, accounting for the bulk of global economic output, had an average expenditure ratio in relation to GDP of around 12%. This ratio had risen to 43% by 1990, with many countries’ ratios well in excess of 50%. This rise was associated with the proliferation of benefits under state control and also in the various ways in which the state imposes costs on society. While a larger state need not necessarily be associated with higher levels of corruption—the Nordic countries illustrate this—it is the case that the larger the number of interactions between officials and private citizens, the larger the number of opportunities in which the latter may wish to illegally pay for benefits to which they are not entitled, or avoid responsibilities or costs for which they bear an obligation.
Suppose that one were to divide the countries included in the latest Doing Business report into two groups. Call the first group (made up of some 44 countries) the “worst quartile”—that is, the countries with the costliest and most complex procedures and the weakest institutions. Call the other group the “best three quartiles.” Then let’s ask ourselves: how many days did it take to establish a business in both groups in 2005? The answer is 113 days in the worst quartile and 29 days in the best three quartile countries, meaning that in 2005 there was a gap of 84 days between the two sets. Now, let’s repeat the exercise for 2013. The worst quartile is down to 49 days and the best three quartiles is down to 16; the gap between the two has narrowed to 33 days, which is still sizable but a lot less than 84. Repeat the same exercise for time to register property and time to export a container. For property registration, the gap in 2005 was 192 days and by 2013 it has narrowed to 63. For time to export, the gap in 2005 was 32 days and in 2013 it was down to 23. (The figures are presented in the charts below. Only a small subset of the indicators has been included here, for illustrative purposes).
One of my first assignments in the World Bank, some 13 years ago, was in a small and complicated country, better known for coups and mercenaries than for statistical capacity. Before I set off to the Comoro Islands, my then manager (now an established World Bank Vice-president) gave me the following priceless advice: “When you get there, make sure to get a lot of data. It may be difficult to get and sometimes even flawed, but data has one great advantage: It cuts through a lot of crap.”
Numbers are indeed beautiful. They can help bring clarity to our lives and save us time as well as resources. But raw data can be messy and you also need a good system for deciding which numbers to use and how to interpret them. Last week’s launch of the 2014 Doing Business rankings reminded me of the advice my then boss had given me. Doing Business started from the premise that companies are the backbone of any economy but that investors often lacked knowledge of the conditions in “frontier economies”. With the benefit of an annual assessment of the business environment in each country, investors could make more informed decisions. As for policy makers, they could more easily attract investors, provided they made a genuine effort in cutting red tape and supporting businesses.