The 2008-2009 global financial crisis led to a number of large–scale government interventions across the world. These included massive provisions of liquidity, the takeover of weak financial institutions, the extension of deposit insurance schemes, purchases by the government of troubled assets, bank recapitalization and, of course, packages of fiscal stimulus, sometimes of a scale not seen since World War II. Even the IMF, the world’s traditional guardian of sound public finance, came out strongly in favor of fiscal loosening, arguing through its managing director that “if there has ever been a time in modern economic history when fiscal policy and a fiscal stimulus should be used, it's now” and that it should take place “everywhere where it's possible. Everywhere where you have some room concerning debt sustainability. Everywhere where inflation is low enough not to risk having some kind of return of inflation, this effort has to be made.
Economic development theorists and practitioners are increasingly using the term “middle-income trap” to describe the situation where developing economies’ convergence to the development frontier comes to a halt once their income per capita reaches a middle-income level. The term is ambiguous: is it a halt in convergence or slowdown in growth, and what exactly is the definition of middle-income? Nevertheless, the concept has been successfully used to create a scare that developing countries are more likely to run out of breath or even give up the race in the middle of the track than to continue catching up with the leading economies. Eichengreen et al. and several IMF economists are among those who provide empirical evidence that the “middle-income trap” is real and that developing countries do get stuck at some low-level equilibrium.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Warsaw to attend a conference jointly organized by the Polish and Turkish Central Banks (“Polish and Turkish Transitions: Achievements and Challenges Ahead”) on the occasion of 600 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and Turkey. Six centuries of (predominantly friendly) relations is indeed worthy of commemoration, but for our Polish hosts another anniversary was of even greater importance: 25 years ago, Poland was the first country from the former Communist Block to embark on the transition towards democracy and market economy. For Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries that joined it as new members of the European Union 10 years ago, this transition laid the foundation for a remarkable economic, cultural and political revival as Indermit Gill and I have argued in Golden Growth. Indeed, many in Poland would agree with the Economist that Poland has not had it as good as today ever since it was the preeminent Central European power some 500 years ago.
A competitive export sector is one of the key engines of a successful transition to high income. Turkish policy makers knew this well, and so they put an increase in export competitiveness at the forefront of their ambitious targets to get the country into the top 10 economies worldwide by 2023. What are the chances of success?
To try and answer this question, the World Bank working closely with Turkey’s Ministry of Economy carried out a Trade Competitiveness Diagnostic (“Turkey Country Economic Memorandum: Trading Up to High Income”), which was just launched in Ankara. The team looked at how Turkey did during the past decade, a period of rapid growth in global trade. It turns out that Turkey did pretty well – its exports during the 2000s grew 15.3 percent annually, twice the average growth in the OECD, 6 percentage points above world trade growth and only 4 percentage points slower than in China. Turkey’s global market share grew by 60 percent (from 0.53 to 0.82 percent) between 2002 and 2009 and is getting close to Turkey’s share of the world population (1.06 percent). At the same time, Turkey increased its export sophistication and improved product quality.
A couple of weeks ago, just after International Women’s Day, we had a coffee hour in the World Bank’s Ankara office to watch short videos of five women that have recently started up their own business and transformed their lives and that of their families (stay tuned for the release of these films, currently being edited). Their stories were uplifting, but the discussion quickly turned to the dismal field of statistics. Commentators stressed that female labor force participation in Turkey remains at only half of the OECD level, that Turkey loses around 25 percent of its potential GDP because of this, and lamented that social norms and mixed political messages on the role of women in society were preventing greater progress towards gender equality.
Taxing Labor versus Taxing Consumption?
Europe’s welfare systems face substantial demographic headwinds. Increasing life expectancy and the approaching retirement of “Baby Boomers” will increase public expenditures for years to come. Rightfully, much attention is focused on containing additional spending needs for pensions, health and long term care. But how is all this being paid for?
Currently, the majority of social spending, including most importantly pension benefits, in most countries in Europe and Central Asia is financed through social security contributions, which are essentially taxes on labor. This has two important implications. First, in terms of fiscal sustainability, the growth in spending is only a concern if expenditures grow faster than the corresponding revenues. Since labor taxes are the predominant source of financing for most welfare systems in both EU and transition countries, aging will not only increase spending, but simultaneously exert pressure on revenues. With the exception of countries in Central Asia and Turkey, the labor force, and hence the number of taxpayers that pay labor taxes will decline by about 20 percent on average across the region. Second, already today, labor taxes, including both personal income taxes and social security contributions account on average for about 40 percent of total gross labor costs in Europe and Central Asia (including EU member states), compared to an average of 34 percent in the OECD. This means that for every US$ 1 received in net earnings, employers on average incur a labor cost of US$ 1.67. And out of the 67 cents that are paid in labor taxes, 43 cents (or 65 percent) are directly used to finance social security benefits. By increasing the cost of labor, the high tax burden potentially harms competitiveness, job creation, and growth in countries in the region.
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the results from the most recent assessment of mathematics, reading, and science competencies of 15 year-olds (the Program for international Student Assessment, PISA) last December, it held encouraging news for the European Union’s newest members. Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic scored above the OECD average and ahead of many richer European Union neighbors. Compared to previous assessments, the 2012 scores of most countries in Central Europe and the Baltics were up (as they were in Turkey, as Wiseman et al highlighted in this blog recently). Improvements were particularly marked in Bulgaria and Romania, traditionally the weakest PISA achievers in the EU, as well as well-performing Poland and Estonia. Only Slovakia and Hungary saw declines (see chart with PISA mathematics scores).
Over the last decade, Turkey has achieved relatively high economic growth at just over 5% per year. As was discussed in a recent blog post, this translated into broadly inclusive growth- not only did income grow for all segments of the population, but there were also improvements in a number of non-income indicators of well-being, including in health and education. Last week the OECD launched the latest results from its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international assessment that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. This new data allows us to revisit the question of how Turkey has fared in terms of the performance of its education system in general and with regards to inclusiveness in particular. So what does the data tell us?
The issue of social inclusion in Turkey is a controversial one. In this blog, I want to present some data that suggest Turkey experienced inclusive growth over the past decade or so. My colleagues and I have shared this basic story with a number of audiences in Turkey and often the reaction is disbelief. So what does the data say?
The bottom 40 percent can look up
I use three pieces of evidence to make my case. The first is based on recent work by Joao Pedro Azevedo and Aziz Atamanov of the World Bank on shared prosperity. Joao Pedro and Aziz’s work is ongoing and much richer than what I want to present here. So let me just focus on the following chart, which shows the growth of consumption of the bottom 40 percent in Turkey between 2006-2011 and in a number of other countries during roughly the same period. Turkey looks reasonably good albeit not exceptional. The rate of consumption growth of the bottom 40 percent was just over 5 percent, around 0.2 points below the rate of growth for the average. What this means is that during this period of significant global economic turbulence the average welfare of the bottom 40 percent improved by more than one quarter. This was better than India, Indonesia, or Mexico, albeit worse than Brazil, China and Russia.