Overpromise and Under-Deliver: Growth in Mexico

Over the past three decades, and despite great hopes to the contrary, Mexico’s economy has under-performed. In the early 1908s, Mexico introduced aggressive political and economic reforms in an attempt to gain footing among the world’s strongest economies. These reforms embraced global markets and decreased the state’s role in the economy. An independent central bank was introduced along with more developed financial markets, as the country faced a tough macroeconomic stabilization period. Additionally, the country liberalized foreign trade and investment by privatizing nearly 1,000 state-owned enterprises. By 1994, Mexico joined the OECD, a sign that the country was on the right track. Despite these efforts, Mexico has  seen capita income grow by an anemic 1.1%  per annum over the past 25 years. Compared to other countries with similar economies (see below), Mexico’s relative stagnation seems all the more acute..

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 In 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s 57th President, eager to tackle the country’s growth challenge. So far, President Nieto seems to be heading in the right direction promoting an ambitious reform agenda that seeks to not spur economic growth, but also develop and enforce anti-monopoly regulation. The President’s agenda highlights two main reforms: energy and education. His education reforms target the quality of working educators by introducing a series of rigorous tests that may cost teachers their jobs if they fail. The energy reforms aim to reduce the market share of Pemex , which will go along way in strengthening the energy sector through increased competition.

President Peña Nieto intends to have all reforms approved by the end of 2014, but this is just half the battle. The most challenging part of these reforms will be enforcing all the regulations once implemented and winning over the general population.

Early last year, Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful leader of Mexico’s teacher’s union, was arrested on massive charges of embezzlement of over 2 Billion Pesos (159 Million USD). The arrest came the day after President Nieto signed the education reforms into law. Shortly after, thousands of teachers stormed the streets to protest the education reform package. This forceful disapproval of the president’s reform agenda is a much-needed reminder that optimism for growth in Mexico is far from reality, and that Peña Nieto still has much to accomplish.

According to researchers at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, the principal cause of Mexico’s stagnant growth is misguided education reform and dismal worker productivity. Worker productivity in Mexico has failed to increase over the past three decades despite the steady increase in school enrollment over the past five decades (see figure below). Educational facilities in Mexico focus on teaching cognitive skills rather than the technical skills that employers demand. The lack of technical skill-focused education in Mexico has lead to disappointing levels of worker productivity. This will continue unless the government seeks further reform focused on increasing the quality of educators and the type of education, not just the amount of people who receive an education.

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In the past, the government’s answer to dismal growth has been disjointed. The Mexican Government has managed isolated efforts with no comprehensive strategy to patch up the economy. This erratic policymaking has led to many conflicting reforms, hindering growth in an economy that has been dreaming of development for decades. President Peña Nieto’s aggressive reform agenda brings newfound optimism for growth in Mexico. In his four remaining years in office, Peña Nieto is expected to accomplish what many have failed to do. Is it finally Mexico’s time to shine?

 

 

 

Democracy and Development in Pakistan: Where are we headed?

On June 11th, 2014 the Center for International Private Enterprises hosted a panel discussion entitled “Strengthening Democracy through Economic Reform In Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities.” Last May, the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) became the first democratic government to serve out a full term in the country’s 66-year history of independence. This historic accomplishment created a great deal of optimism and speculation about democracy and development in Pakistan. In light of this accomplishment, it may be important to question how successful democracy has been effective in Pakistan and whether or not democracy has promoted development.

The recent terrorist attack at the Karachi Airport, the arrest of Pakistani political leader Altaf Hussain in the UK, and the Karachi Riots in 2010 only highlight a share of the complicated political, economic, and social issues shaking the country’s fragile security. According to the panelists, the outlook for Pakistan is very pessimistic, unless the government recognizes these issues and takes action as soon as possible. According to Dr. Ehtisham Ahmad of the London School of Economics, the Pakistani government must address two core issues: the financing of political parties, and the management of state finances. The PPP and PLMN have both neglected these major issues, hindering institutional and political development.

The lack of a formal mechanism for funding political parties has led to politicians looking for funding from wealthy groups and individuals. As a result, purchasing votes and favors has become a regular occurrence. These factors have created an inefficient and corrupt tax system that does not generate revenue or demographic information. In order for a democratic country to run properly, tax revenue and demographic information is heavily relied upon.  According to panelist Moin Fudda of CIPE Pakistan, the government missed its tax collection target by 77% last year, which indicates a need for major reform. The graph below displays tax revenue for Pakistan and similar countries in South Asia. The data shows the decline of tax revenue in Pakistan over the last sixteen years to one of the lowest tax revenue percentages in South Asia.

Tax Revenue Pakistan

 

The population living below the poverty line has been hit the hardest. The central government has given the provinces the responsibility of providing public services for its citizens, such as healthcare and education, but the inefficient tax system has left them without enough funding. The provinces have no way of providing viable public services unless they do not pay taxes, inevitably leading to a tax war within the government. This inability to provide basic services has also hindered development.

Dr. Ahmad stresses that these issues need to be tackled immediately, but Pakistan has quite shockingly done nothing to find a viable solution. If the Pakistani government won’t act, then what else can be done  to remedy the situation? Dr. Ahmad believes that foreign investors can press for a level playing field in order to incentivize reform. The Pakistani government needs to implement a strong corporate income tax and provide public services for the poor, especially education. Most importantly, these core issues must be taken seriously by the government, and the population must strongly push for reform and public services. Despite these issues, the economy has performed quite well and has seen solid growth in the past four years according to the data below.

 

GDP Growth Rate

 

 

Pakistan GNI

 

At a time when political and economic  unrest is very high, people are wondering whether this growth is due to the development of an informal economy that is quietly keeping the formal economy afloat . This question is of great relevance and will unfold in the near future as the political demographics of the country either stabilize or spin out of control.

 

FIFA World Cup: Brazil’s Development Hopes

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Around the world, Brazil is known as the mecca of soccer. The country is loaded with magnificent soccer talent and has an electrifying atmosphere that makes soccer fanatics feel at home. Not to mention that Brazil has won the FIFA World Cup a record five times, and is the only country to have qualified for the World Cup every year since the tournament’s inception. One could not dream up a more soccer obsessed nation to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup that began this week. However, the current tension in the political, economic, and social atmosphere of Brazil has given the rest of the world an apprehensive feeling about this year’s tournament.

Political tension in Brazil has risen in recent years, as a majority of the county is unhappy with the government due to inflation, corruption, and the massive investment of public funds in World Cup preparations instead of Public Programs for the poor, who are in dire need. The estimated cost of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is currently at $11.5 billion. All this unrest comes at a time when Brazil has one of the most unequal wealth distributions in the world, currently entertaining a Gini Index of 54.7, along with a struggling economy. Some Brazilians hope that the World Cup will promote progress, while others worry that the event will push Brazil’s economy over the edge. It also gives rise to the question of whether the World Cup will only benefit the wealthy and further increase the gap between the rich and poor?

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 61% of Brazilians believe that hosting the World Cup will be detrimental to the economy as it diverts public spending away from public services. 67% also believe that the economy is in bad shape, which increased from 41% last year. Milton Hatoum, a writer from Manaus, asked: “Why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few meters away there’s a neighborhood, Alvorada, without sidewalks and treated sewage?”

The long-term social and economic effects of a mega-event such as the World Cup should be analyzed. To predict the path that Brazil may follow, it is helpful to take a look at the economic performance of similar World Cup host countries after the tournament. Their political, social, and economic atmospheres may vary, but this is the most direct and simple way to present the possible future outcomes for Brazil. The figures below display indicator data from the World Bank, showing the economic growth of  Argentina, Mexico, France, and South Africa since they hosted the tournament:

 

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It’s worth noting that Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa are more similar to Brazil’s economy and social structure compared to France. Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa all show a sudden rise in GDP Growth Rates, GDP, and GNI following their host year. In all four cases, the indicators suggest a short-term rise in GDP growth, followed by a decline. This gives rise to the heavily debated question of whether or not FIFA World Cup host countries see sustained long-term growth or temporary ripple effect growth following the event.

As we look ahead past this year’s FIFA World Cup, it will be interesting to see how Brazil’s economy fares. Our hope is that the result is a positive one, as the country’s economy is in need of repair. Hopefully the World Cup this summer gives the country’s economy a much-needed boost. At this point, the world will just have to wait and see.

 

 

Piketty In A Coal Mine

Flooded Marina (Gas Pumps)" by Richard Misrach
“Flooded Marina (Gas Pumps)” by Richard Misrach

A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty has been causing quite a stir in academic circles over the past year. Now, with the translated publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that fervor is about to spill out of the ivory towers and onto the streets. Piketty’s book ambitiously tackles the topic of economic inequality. His central thesis, in absolute simplest terms, is that the very rich are getting richer and the poor are staying put. Those who rely on wage income for their wealth (the middle class and the poor), Piketty argues, are not likely to see their lot improve in the near future. The very rich, who do not rely on wage income because they have capital in the form of real estate, financial assets, businesses, or patents, will continue to see their wealth skyrocket into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, if capital growth continues to exceed overall economic growth, Piketty worries that this striking imbalance will cause the breakdown of democratic institutions and the social fabric of society.

The Washington Post's "Wonkblog" considered this the graph of the year in 2013.
The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” considered this the graph of the year in 2013.

Whether or not one agrees with his final premise, Piketty has done his fair share of research and is well respected within the economics field. While studying at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and subsequently while teaching at MIT, Piketty began to collect historical data on income and wealth, something that economists at the time neglected to do. Although Capital in the Twenty-First Century was written for a global audience, Piketty has the data to back up his findings, though it has not gone without criticism. Most of Piketty’s harshest critics paint him as Marxist or Communist, when in reality he is merely challenging certain aspects of the current free market system – the part that contributes to a great deal of economic inequality. But any work that deals with inequality is bound to get political. And as Piketty notes in an interview with the New York Times, he is welcoming the debate.

Piketty’s ideas for solving this rising inequality are perhaps the weakest part of his argument. In his book he calls for a global tax on wealth that is at best impossible and at worst extremely out-of-touch with the political realities that frame any worthy discussion of policy prescriptions in developed countries. But we should not shrug off his work because of his ideas on policy. Piketty succeeds in collecting and presenting decades of historical data on an issue that has come to define the early twenty-first century. Working as an economic archaeologist, Piketty has made some fascinating discoveries. He has dug up a set of evidence that captures in a new light the increasing economic inequality today. His work is best read as a challenge to our current paradigm of economic inequality, not as a revolutionary tale of two cities.

Watch the Throne: Nigeria is Now leading Africa in GDP

Photo Courtesy of Zouzou Wizman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zouzouwizman/
Photo Courtesy of Zouzou Wizman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zouzouwizman/

Nigeria has catapulted ahead of South Africa for the title of largest economy on the African continent. On April 6, Nigerian government officials announced that they had revised their 2013 GDP calculation to the tune of $510 billion. But in 2012 the World Bank estimated Nigeria’s GDP at $262 billion. So what can account for this rapid change? The answer lies in how the Nigerian government did the math.

The process is called “rebasing.” To calculate any country’s GDP, economists must first set a base year on which to model the economic growth. Then economists try to paint a picture of the economy in that year by studying different industries like agriculture, energy, and manufacturing. In the years to come, economists look at how these industries have grown. All GDP calculations, sometimes many years later, are based on this initial point of reference. However, this system of measurement does not account for the informal economy. Nor does it account for rapidly developing sectors such as telecommunications and film—industries that have sprung up in Nigeria over the last 20 years.

Nigeria’s model year was 1990. The new base year is 2010. As we will see, much has changed in the Nigerian economy since 1990. New industries have emerged and historically strong industries have fallen. Thus far, the World Bank has supported Nigeria’s recalculation. It is recommended that a country rebase its GDP numbers every five years. Since Nigeria has held off for so long, the change was quite drastic. Nigeria saw the highest gains in the service industry. The agriculture, oil, and gas industries decreased in terms of percentage of GDP. Telecommunications shot up from less than one per cent to 8.7% of GDP. The Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, makes up about 1.2% of GDP.

Sadly, despite these good numbers, the average Nigerian citizen will not see improvements in their quality of life. South Africa, who Nigeria unseated from the throne, has a GDP per capita of $7,336, a long way from Nigeria’s $3,000 (and that is with the new rebased numbers). There is still corruption, terrorism, power outages, and vast inequality in Nigeria. Many have criticized the new calculations, saying that nothing will ultimately change for poor Nigerians. What the new numbers can do, however, is open the door to more Foreign Direct Investment. As Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria has put itself in an advantageous position in the world marketplace by calling positive attention to themselves. As Forbes recently reported, the country is full of potential. They have a growing educated class, energy reserves, and a spirit of entrepreneurship. But as of today it seems that there remains many political and institutional barriers to overcome.

Food for Thought

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its newest findings on global warming, and the general conclusion is unsurprising: pollution is harming our environment in such a way that there will be dire consequences in the future. But the report had an even more interesting finding: the framing around climate change is all wrong. Climate change has become much more than an environmental issue and, as a future determinant of food security, has bled into our understanding of human rights.images

The framing of an issue is critical to policy formation and resource mobilization. If an issue does not have the proper framing, one that appeals to the general public, then gaining public support becomes that much more difficult. Look at issues such as gay marriage. When gay marriage was a religious issue, no progress was made on legalizing it. Only when supporters framed gay marriage as a civil rights issue did legalization begin to occur. The same theory applies to development issues.

The current understanding of climate change is that it is an environmental issue that can affect the occurrence and size of natural disasters. Climate change can lead to massive blizzards, devastating typhoons, and the melting of the polar icecaps. But framing climate change in a natural disaster context does not convey the urgency of the issue. With or without climate change, natural disasters are going to occur. No human intervention can stop it. As a result, the common perception is that there are no immediate benefits to addressing climate change and this understanding promotes apathy in the general public.

Courtesy of IPCC
Courtesy of IPCC

The discussion of climate change, however, might be more productive if the development community transformed it into a food security issue that directly impacts human rights. IPCC findings show that agricultural yields could drastically decrease as soon as 2030, and just a two-degree change in temperature has the ability to kill crops and create food shortages. The IPCC report further shows that not only will there be a food shortage, but the shortage could cause a food price increase anywhere from 3% to 84%. So in addition to there being too little food, food will only be affordable for the wealthy, placing countries with high food insecurity at an elevated risk for civil unrest.

Framing climate change as a food security issue adds more urgency to the problem and could help mobilize the general public to take action, regardless of their history with natural disasters. It transforms the picture of climate change from being a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan to an issue directly on people’s doorstep that could affect them at any moment. Food insecurity directly affects people at an individual level and puts every individual’s human rights at risk. It encourages the “not in my backyard” mentality that Americans in particular are very fond of. Climate change no longer just places the rights of those in developing nations at risk. Even those far removed from natural disasters can feel its effect.

images-1Some argue that the IPCC is overdramatizing the threat to food security. While this is entirely possible, it does not change the fact that a changing the framework of climate change could be key to mobilizing the public to take preventative measures. The same applies to any development issue. The development community must place increasing importance on the framing of its issues as a way to mobilize support. Some issues have already benefited from changing its frame. Female empowerment as an economic necessity is the perfect example of an issue capitalizing on a universally appealing framework. But the development community must do even more to further its other causes. Framing will tell people why they should care about international development. How can private organizations benefit from foreign investment? Why should high-income individuals care about a problem thousands of miles away? If the proper framework is not in place, then development will continue to face an uphill battle against public apathy.

Money For Nothing: Overstating Official Development Assistance

Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.
Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.

Recently a report by The Guardian exposed the troubling reality that some nations overvalue their ODA. By exploiting the antiquated formula for calculating ODA, which calls for interest rates on foreign aid loans to be less than 10% (grants are held to a 25% rate), countries like Germany, France and Japan, are taking credit for more aid than they actually give. Just how much more? David Roodman, the author of the Guardian article, estimated that billions of dollars in ODA is tacked on each year by manipulating one simple calculation. Last April, former chairman of the DAC Richard Manning warned in a letter to the Financial Times that fewer and fewer loans given by OECD countries are “concessional in character.”

The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.
The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.

After the 2008 Financial Crisis, interest rates fell but the 10% discount benchmark rate for ODA loans stayed the same, causing the imbalance that upset the equilibrium of ODA calculations. Roodman writes, “Today, rich nations can borrow at 2% or 3%, lend at 4% or 5%, and make a profit while calling the loan aid.” Further compounding the problem, the profits made on these loans go back into the financial system of the lending country.  These interest repayments, as they are called, are not subtracted from net ODA like capital repayments, skewing the final figures. In the case of Japan, who in 2011 took in $2.6 billion in interest repayments, a nation can actually receive more money from developing countries than it gives to them in ODA.

But which nations are receiving these loans? Manning explains in his letter that “France, Germany and the European Investment Bank” give loans to the middle-incomes countries of Latin America and Asia. These loans count as concessional ODA, but in reality they do not reflect the “real cost of capital” and rake in huge profits for the lending countries. As more countries have discovered this type of loan practice, Manning writes, we have seen a recent surge in ODA to middle-income countries and a slight drop-off in ODA to sub-Saharan Africa. In their defense, some lending countries argue that the rates also must reflect default risk. And to be fair, default risk is always a factor when lending to countries in dire straits.

Thankfully, Roodman reports, nearly all of the DAC countries employ a more effective calculation method in their handling of export credit arrangements. This method uses calculated differentiated discount rates based on currency values and the rate at which each country pays to borrow money. Unlike the 10% benchmark, which has held steady since 1972, differentiated discount rates are updated yearly to reflect current market forces.  In applied, this could be an effected method of calculating rates for ODA as well. But no matter the ultimate solution, the fact remains that our fifty-year-old method of ODA calculation is in desperate need of an update.