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Archive for October 2017

The politics of infrastructure

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Cape Town railway historic

What type of infrastructure would be best for South Africa’s future? The answer, of course, depends on your point of view. If you live and work in Gauteng, your answer might well be to expand the Gautrain network. Or if you reside in Cape Town, you might prefer investments in desalinization plants. Your occupation may also be relevant. If you’re a miner, you are unlikely to support the expansion of renewable energies. A trained software engineer? Well, you’re likely to support large investments in telecommunications infrastructure.

An important – but often underappreciated – role of government is to choose the type of infrastructure that is destined to shape the country’s future development path. This choice is never neutral though: for every decision, there are winners and losers. Choose to build a new coal-fired power plant? That will benefit coal mine owners and workers, while the users of electricity, were the costs of alternative sources to fall rapidly, will pay. Choose to build a high-speed train network across the country (a hyperloop, perhaps!), then users of this network, likely to be high- or middle-income South Africans, will benefit, while long-distance bus services, taxi operators and rental cars will pay. The government’s job, in theory at least, is to choose the projects that will maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.

But things are never that simple. A research paper that will soon appear in the European Review of Economic History, written by Alfonso Herranz-Loncan and myself, investigate the infrastructure in the Cape Colony built during the second half of the nineteenth century. Before the discovery of diamonds in 1867, the few railways that existed (in and around Cape Town) were privately-owned and largely unprofitable. But the discovery of diamonds and the rush to the mines meant the demand for fast, affordable inland transport increased exponentially. The Cape government had to react.

They did. They bought the few existing lines, and then began to the process of connecting Cape Town to Kimberley, finally achieved in 1885. The connection to the booming diamond region brought huge economic benefits: we estimate that the railway may account for 22-25 percent of the increase in income per capita in the Cape during the diamond-mining period (1873-1905). This is a massive share for a single investment and a clear indicator of the transformative power of railways during the first era of globalisation.

But these benefits were not equally shared by everyone. Surprisingly, the government itself earned a meager 3.7% average return on its capital. Had a private firm built the railways, far fewer branch lines would probably have been built. As Stellenbosch PhD student Abel Gwaindepi now shows, the government incurred huge debt to build this infrastructure, and although the government did benefit through customs duties and other tariffs, the main beneficiaries were the owners of the diamond fields. The railway link between Cape Town and Kimberley could now transport the machinery and foodstuffs required to feed the growing Kimberley population. Western Cape wheat farmers, who supplied the mines with food, was another group of beneficiaries. It is not entirely coincidental that it was also these two groups – mine owners and Western Cape farmers – who had formed a political alliance in Cape parliament.

Of course, it was not only mine owners and Cape farmers that benefited. As detailed reports of passengers show, Cape Colony residents from all walks of life used the railways. But, ultimately, it was tax payers who had to foot the debt that were incurred, and often these tax payers were spread across the entire colony (far from the direct benefits of the railways) – and after unification in 1910, the rest of the country. And the location of the railways meant that those with less political influence – like Basotho farmers, who were of course producing wheat much closer to the diamond fields – lost out. Here is one missionary report from 1886, the year after the railway line was completed: ‘Basutoland, we must admit, is a poor country… Last year’s abundant harvest has found no outlet for, since the building of the railway, colonial, and foreign wheat have competed disastrously with the local produce.’

The nineteenth-century Cape railways contributed significantly to economic growth, but it inadvertently also had distributional consequences: some benefited more than others, and some even suffered as a result of its construction.

The lessons for today? Politics shapes the type of infrastructure that’s built. And infrastructure shapes the direction of economic development. So the key question is this: Are we building the type of infrastructure that will put South Africa on a path of broad-based economic development, or is the choice of infrastructure determined by the self-interest of those with decision-making power, much like Cecil John Rhodes and his cronies during the late nineteenth-century?

Put differently, when we choose a new power-generating facility or national air carrier or telecommunications license, do we consider the benefits for society as a whole or the benefits for a specific interest group?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 5 October 2017.


Policy uncertainty is killing investment in what matters

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Much has already been said about South Africa’s inefficient public sector. Not only has the public sector wage bill escalated beyond the realms of the sustainable, but this has come at almost zero public sector productivity growth. In other words, we are paying more for government to do less. Add to that the poor performances of state-owned enterprises like Eskom, the SABC and most notoriously, South African Airways, and it seems that there is little more that the South African government can do to hurt the prospects for economic growth.

But there is. A new NBER working paper, published by Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Ian Wright, uses new data on about 4000 US firms to investigate the sources of uncertainty in the US economy. They first distinguish between short-term and long-term uncertainty, identifying the factors that cause each type of uncertainty. They then ask how each type of uncertainty affect firms’ behaviour.

Short-term uncertainty, they find, is caused by oil price volatility. In contrast, economic variables like the oil price has less of an effect on long-term uncertainty where political risk, like policy uncertainty, has a much larger effect. The important result is that short-term and long-term uncertainty have different consequences for firm behaviour. Short-term uncertainty affects employment; long-term uncertainty affects investment in research and development.

If we assume this is true for South Africa too, how would it play out? Volatility of several macroeconomic variables, like the oil price and exchange rate, cause higher short-term uncertainty. This would likely make firms unwilling to hire new workers, or make managers unwilling to offer higher wages. These are the consequences economic commentators typically cite when referring to an unstable macroeconomic environment.

But employment and wages are not the only variables affected by uncertainty. One of the key indicators of a thriving economy is businesses’ willingness to invest in research and development. Take R&D as a percentage of GDP, shown in the Figure below. There is large variation in the share that countries spend on research and development: Israel and South Korea, for example, spend more than 4% of their GDP on R&D. South Africa spend less than 0.8%. (This figure almost reached 0.9% in the 2006-2008 period, a period not surprisingly correlated with high growth rates.)


There is a strong positive correlation between countries that grow fast and those that invest in research and development. South Africa, unfortunately, significantly lags those countries at the technological frontier. It is important, though, to understand why this is the case. It is not only government that invests in R&D; in fact, more than half of all R&D investment in South Africa comes from the private sector.

So what will encourage businesses to invest more in R&D? Well, according to Barrero, Bloom and Wright, political risk and policy uncertainty is the biggest determinant of private sector investment in R&D. In a political environment with little policy coherence, business are unlikely to make investments where the returns can only be realized in the long-run. Even if the possible returns are substantial, a rational investment response to a murky policy environment would be to sit back and see what happens. Lower investment in R&D means falling further behind international competitors.

There are some in the South African government who realise this. Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, has committed to doubling R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP by 2020. This is commendable, but in the current budgetary environment, unlikely to get the support from the Minister of Finance. Other initiatives to get the private sector investing in R&D, like a refundable tax credit that will benefit small businesses, have not been implemented.

These problems are not unique to South Africa. As the authors argue: ‘Our findings are significant in the wake of recent events like Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s assumption of the US Presidency, which have generated considerable uncertainty over future economic policy around the world. As we have shown, such policy uncertainty is particularly linked with long-run uncertainty and in turn with low rates of investment and R&D that can have significant consequences for the global economic outlook in years to come.’

R&D is the bedrock of future prosperity. Political risk that leads to policy uncertainty hurts not only economic growth and employment creation, but also deters firms from investing in the one thing that can create prosperity for all. If the ruling party is serious about its slogan, it better start by enacting more coherent economic policy.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 21 September 2017.