A decade of elevated oil prices brought prosperity to many developing countries. Incomes rose, poverty shrank, macroeconomic buffers were rebuilt. The fiscal space for investing more in education and infrastructure increased, resulting in better sharing of prosperity. At the same time, higher commodity prices and surging global demand resulted in much more concentrated exports in all developing oil-rich countries. "Diversifying exports" became a priority for policy makers and development economists around the world. Historical experience and evidence to the contrary from successful resource rich countries notwithstanding, many widely believe that a more diversified export structure should be an important national goal and may well be a synonym for development, a goal that government can target and achieve. And a more diversified export structure typically meant a smaller share of commodity exports in total shipments abroad or a reduced concentration – as measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschmann index – of exports.
Notes from Russia and Kazakhstan
Oil prices tumbled dramatically since July when they reached US$115 per barrel to below US$65 per barrel in recent days. Despite the sharp price decline, OPEC signaled no intention to cut production. The oil market remains well-supplied and there is demand-driven pressure on oil prices, following weak economic data from the Euro zone and a number of emerging economies, including Turkey, Brazil, Russia, and China which means that the oil price could fall even further and remain low for longer.
The economic prospects of many resource abundant economies are tied to oil prices. Russia and Kazakhstan are two extreme cases. Such dependency translates into volatility of export receipts and government revenues and, depending on the exchange regime, to a decline in the national currency. For Russia, oil and gas provide about 70 percent of its exports and 50 percent of its federal budget. In Kazakhstan, oil revenues constitute about half of government’s total revenues and 45 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Energy subsidies are common throughout the world. The bulk of subsidies are paid in the Middle East and North Africa where my colleague, Shanta Devarajan, has eloquently blogged about their corrosive impact on economic growth, on employment, on human health and on water conservation. Where I sit, in Central Europe, many countries are in the process of liberalizing their market for energy and bringing subsidies to an end. What lessons does the experience of energy price liberation in this group of countries offer to their neighbors in the south? Based on the work of my colleagues, Nistha Sinha and Caterina Ruggieri, I would draw five lessons.
The recent, precipitous decline in oil prices (35 percent so far this year) has revived the question of how oil-exporting countries should manage their budgets. These countries’ governments rely on oil revenues for 60-90 percent of their spending. In light of the price drop, should governments cut expenditures, including growth-promoting investment expenditures? Or should they dip into the money they saved when oil prices were high, and keep expenditures on an even keel? Since oil prices fluctuate up and down, governments are looking for rules that guide expenditure decisions, rather than leaving it to the politicians in power at the time to decide whenever there is a price shock. The successful experience of Norway and Chile, which used strict fiscal rules to make sure that resource windfalls are saved and not subject to the irresistible temptation to spend, is often contrasted with countries such as Nigeria and Cameroon, which didn’t.
Half the world’s energy subsidies are in the Middle East and North Africa Region. These subsidies have been criticized on grounds that they crowd out public spending on valuable items such as health, education and capital investment. Egypt for instance spends seven times more on fuel subsidies than on health. Furthermore, the allocation of these subsidies is heavily skewed towards the rich, who consume more fuel and energy than the poor. In Yemen, the portion of fuel subsidies going to the richest quintile was 40 percent; the comparable figure in Jordan was 45 percent and in Egypt, 60 percent.
Hardly a week goes by without my hearing the statement, “It’s not the What; it’s the How.” On the reform of energy subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, the discussion is focused not on whether subsidies should be reformed (everyone agrees they should be), but on how the reform should be carried out. Similar points are made about business regulations, education, agriculture, or health. I confess to having written similar things myself. And there is no shortage of such proposals on this blog.
Reforms are needed because there is a policy or institutional arrangement in place that has become counterproductive. But before suggesting how to reform it, we should ask why that policy exists at all, why it has persisted for so long, and why it hasn’t been reformed until now. For these policies didn’t come about by accident. Nor have they remained because somebody forgot to change them. And they are unlikely to be reformed just because a policymaker happens to read a book, article or blog post entitled “How to reform…”
انقضى أسبوع تقريبا دون أن أسمع عبارة "لا يتعلق الأمر بالكيفية بل بالسبب." ففي مجال إصلاح دعم الطاقة في الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، على سبيل المثال، لا يتركز النقاش على ما إذا كان ينبغي إصلاح الدعم (يتفق الجميع على ضرورة ذلك) بل على كيفية إجراء الإصلاح. وتثار نقاط مماثلة بشأن تنظيم ممارسة الأعمال أو التعليم أو الزراعة أو الصحة. واعترف بأني أنا نفسي كتبت أمورا مشابهة. ولا يوجد نقص في مثل هذه المقترحات على هذه المدونة.
فالإصلاحات مطلوبة لأنه توجد سياسات أو ترتيبات مؤسسية قائمة باتت معوقة. لكن قبل أن نقترح كيفية إصلاحها ينبغي أن نسأل لماذا وُجدت هذه السياسة من الأصل، ولماذا استمرت فترة طويلة، ولماذا لم يتم إصلاحها حتى اليوم. فهذه السياسات لم تأت مصادفة. ولم تستمر لأن شخصا ما نسي تغييرها. ولن يتم إصلاحها على الأرجح لمجرد أن أحد صانعي السياسات قرأ كتابا أو مقالا أو مدونة بعنوان "كيف تصلح..."
One of the major issues in the Open Working Group’s outcome report on the shape of the post-2015 agenda is the availability and access to financing to allow the goals to be met. There is a great temptation to simply try and calculate the financing needs for each goal and add them up to get the total financing need. Because this approach seems simple, it is appealing to many. The problem is that it is conceptually wrong.
From time to time, countries experience rapid economic growth without a significant decline in poverty. India’s GDP growth rate accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, but poverty continued to fall at the same pace as before, about one percentage point a year. Despite 6-7 percent GDP growth, Tanzania and Zambia saw only a mild decline in the poverty rate. In the first decade of the 21st century, Egypt’s GDP grew at 5-7 percent a year, but the proportion of people living on $5 a day—and therefore vulnerable to falling into poverty—stagnated at 85 percent.
In light of this evidence, the World Bank has set as its goals the elimination of extreme poverty and promotion of shared prosperity. While the focus on poverty and distribution as targets is appropriate, the public actions required to achieve these goals are not very different from those required to achieve rapid economic growth. This is not trickle-down economics. Nor does it negate the need for redistributive transfers. Rather, it is due to the fact that economic growth is typically constrained by policies and institutions that have been captured by the non-poor (sometimes called the rich), who have greater political power. Public actions that relax these constraints, therefore, will both accelerate growth and transfer rents from the rich to the poor.
Some examples illustrate the point.
As a wave of newly resource-rich countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, looks to the best means of managing resource wealth, one compelling recommendation has come to the fore: to distribute at least some portion of resource revenues to the public through direct dividend payments (DDPs). The case is laid out in papers published at the Center for Global Development by Todd Moss and the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan and Marcelo Giugale. The DDP proposal has several foundations. Payment technology has increased the feasibility of large-scale transfers, as Alan Gelb and Caroline Decker explain. There are already cases of developing countries scaling up identity card systems associated with cash transfers quite quickly. As for rationale, given the poor track record of public expenditure efficiency, especially in resource-rich countries, it seems clear that general welfare could be targeted more effectively through DDPs, and without any of the distortionary effects or distributional flaws of price subsidies. Finally, from a political economy perspective, DDPs coupled with taxation could restore the accountability of a government to its citizens, which is otherwise weakened by its ability to draw on revenues directly from the source.