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How to get good politicians

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South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 March.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

The economic stories we tell

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Economic stories

Story-telling is as old as civilization. Around the fire, in religious texts, and in children’s books, stories give us identity, teach us right from wrong, and inculcate us with the norms and values that help us make sense of the world around us.

Economists are beginning to understand that stories also shape our behaviour, and therefore our economic outcomes. In a new NBER paper, financial economist Robert Shiller, the 2013 Nobel-prize winner, calls for the study of what he calls ‘economic narratives’. He argues that the way we talk about certain events, the stories that were told during the Great Depression (of the 1930s) or the Great Recession (of 2007) or even the stories we tell of Trump’s economic policies today, affected (or will affect) the outcomes of these events. Business cycles, he explains, cannot only be explained by the rationality of numbers. The stories we tell, and how these stories spread, matter too.

Economic stories or narratives are simplified ways to help us understand the world. They can take many forms: from newspaper articles and books, to memes, anecdotes, and even jokes. They often appeal to us not because they account for all facts, but because they explain the world in a way that strengthens our existing biases and beliefs. And their success is unpredictable: consider how difficult it is to identify the next ‘hit’ on YouTube or cultural trend to go ‘viral’.

Shiller uses, well, a story to explain the impact of stories. One evening in 1974, at the Two Continents in Washington DC, economist Arthur Laffer had dinner with White House influentials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield. They discussed tax policy, and Laffer took a napkin and drew an inverted-u graph. On the left side, tax rates were 0%, which means tax income was also zero. On the right side, tax rates were 100%, which meant that no-one would work and tax income would also be zero. The point of the curve was to show that there is an optimal tax rate where tax income cannot increase further, whether you increase or decrease tax rates.

This meeting in 1974 would not have been remembered, was it not for the story-telling powers of Jude Wanniski, who wrote a colourful article in National Affairs about the dinner four years later. The story went viral (see image), and had a massive impact on Ronald Reagan’s election as US president in 1980 and his commitment to cutting taxes. (He argued that cutting taxes could increase tax revenue because America was on the wrong side of the Laffer curve). This story was so powerful that a napkin with a Laffer curve is today displayed in the National Museum of American History.


Shiller is, of course, not the first to argue that stories matter. A few years ago, Barry Eichengreen, professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, explained in his presidential speech to the Economic History Association that, while scientists use deductive or inductive reasoning in their research, policy-makers often rely on analogical reasoning. He knows this from experience: when the severity of the Great Recession became known in 2007, policy-makers realised they had to act fast. Had they followed a deductive approach, they would have had to agree on the theoretical reasons for the crisis. Eichengreen argues that this was almost impossible given the deep divides in the field of macroeconomics. Had they followed an inductive approach, they would have had to rely on statistical evidence, much of which was not available immediately.

So instead they turned to an event that they had studied: the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, who was a student of the Great Depression, used analogical reasoning to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated. Expansionary monetary and fiscal policy followed. The analogy with the Great Depression also made it easier to communicate their policy response to the broader public. Instead of trying to explain theory or statistics, they could construct a narrative that helped people understand why quantitative easing or fiscal stimulus was necessary.

If stories matter in shaping our response to economic events or in persuading us of the validity of some economic policies, what should economists do about it? Shiller suggests that we should incorporate textual analysis into our research: “There should be more serious efforts at collecting further time series data on narratives, going beyond the passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance.” But this is difficult: “The meanings of words depend on context and change through time. The real meaning of a story, which accounts for its virality, may also change through time and is hard to track in the long run.” New techniques in data science may help.

Eichengreen proposes more emphasis on the study of history. Consider the case of a bank failure in South Africa today. What will we use as policy response: theory, statistics, or earlier bank failures, like Saambou and African Bank? Probably the latter. The problem, Eichengreen warns, is that there is not a single version of history. We all have our ideological glasses through which we look at the past. This is especially true when the facts of what had happened during these past failures are not widely known. The recent Bankorp saga comes to mind.

Because ‘historical narratives are contested’, Eichengreen suggests, we should see ‘more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed’. In other words, if we want to improve our understanding of the world and our ability to predict the future, it’s time economists learn how people tell stories, and how these stories persuade us to behave differently.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 23 February.

Will a new John Maynard Keynes please stand up?

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In his 1936 book that would give theoretical support to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote the following: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”

There is little doubt that the ideas of economists – their models or theories or ideologies – have had a profound influence on our daily lives. To give just one example: when South Africa’s Monetary Policy Committee decides whether to lower or raise the interest rate, they do so based on a model that predicts the likely effects of the policy change.

But there is not one universal model. Macroeconomists, depending on their school of thought, have different beliefs about how the real world works. Some, like those that propound Real Business Cycle (RBC) theory, argue that business cycle fluctuations are the result of exogenous changes to an economy, and because wages and prices are flexible, there is little that governments can do through fiscal and monetary policy in a downswing. Others, like New Keynesians, see a greater role for government intervention because of things like sticky wages and prices.

Though these ideological disagreements in macroeconomics are nothing new, one would expect that the competition between these ideas would ultimately lead to a better way to explain what is happening in the world. This is, however, not the case, and one of the main reasons the World Bank’s new chief economist, Paul Romer, formerly professor at Stanford and New York University, recently wrote a stinging critique of macroeconomics. “I have observed more than three decades of intellectual regress”, he begins, explaining that macroeconomics has gone down a wrong path and have now reached a dead-end.

The basic premise is this: macroeconomists’ increasingly sophisticated models have ignored real-world evidence. Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University explains: “If we look at the rise of Real Business Cycle (RBC) research a few decades ago, that was only made possible because economists chose to ignore evidence about the nature of unemployment in recessions.”

Why would scholars willingly choose to ignore real-world evidence? “The obvious explanation is ideological” says Wren-Lewis. “I cannot prove it was ideological, but it is difficult to understand why – in an area which … suffers from a lack of data – you would choose to develop theories that ignore some of the evidence you have.” Ironically, this shift came at a time when the rest of the profession, fields like labour economics, development economics and international trade, shifted the other way: from theory to empirics.

To be fair, RBC models have become less popular, replaced by ‘New Keynesian’ models. These ones make more realistic assumptions of the real world, like adding sticky wages, but still share many of the same concerns. Because these new generation models, known as Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, are ‘built from the ground up’ (in other words, built on microeconomic foundations) they are far more appealing theoretically (and technically more difficult to construct) than the structural models of the previous generation, models which only considered the interlinkages of different macroeconomic variables. But in practice they turned out to be less than satisfactory: DSGE models require the modeller to make many assumptions about how individual agents behave, and it turns out that this behaviour is difficult to measure, making the assumptions rather subjective. The result is that, though theoretically plausible, the outcome is often far removed from the real-world evidence. And, most importantly, forecasts – that thing that most people think is an economist’s only job – are often far less accurate with DSGE models than with multiple-equation structural models. That is why most reserve banks, including our own, still mostly rely on structural models to help predict the future outcomes of their policy decisions.

So why continue with DSGE models? This is a consequence of the way scholarship works. In a blog post in response to Romer, Narayana Kocherlakota of the University of Rochester writes: “We tend to view research as being the process of posing a question and delivering a pretty precise answer to that question. In this process, machines that can be used by many scholars to generate answers to wide ranges of questions are highly prized. The King-Plosser-Rebelo real business cycle model was one such machine.  The New Keynesian three-equation model is another. And people who have the mathematical and computational skills to make machines even more powerful, so that they can answer even more questions, are naturally highly valued.”

Yet if these ‘answers’ increasingly abstract away from reality, we are not much better off than before. Keynes, who developed a new theory when the existing paradigm could not explain the real world anymore, knew this all too well: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

For academic macroeconomics to regain its influence, it needs to be, as Kocherlakota writes, “a lot more flexible in our thinking about models and theory, so that they can be firmly grounded in an improved empirical understanding”. This won’t be easy. As Locherlakota says, it will be “hugely messy work”. Will this generation’s John Maynard Keynes please stand up?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 February.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 26, 2017 at 18:24

The world is not a zero-sum game, but it matters if you think it is

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Question: A farmer in your neighbourhood has had an exceptionally productive 2016. He has managed to double wheat output, and his favourite cow – Daisy – was awarded first prize in the national competition. What is the reason for the farmer’s success? Is it: a) He has worked very hard, b) He was lucky, or c) he put a spell on the rest of the farmers in his village?

This is an example of the type of survey questions a team of Harvard economists have been asking to subsistence farmers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on several visits over the last few years. In contrast to what one might think, the answer to this question is almost always the same: C. Witchcraft and supernatural beliefs are widespread in Africa and throughout the developing world. One aim of the research group is to identify how these cultural traits affect economic decision-making. Clearly, if my answer to this question was that the farmer’s success was due to hard work, I would conclude that the way to excel is to work harder. But if my understanding is that this farmer somehow cheated – that his success was due to a spell he put on the rest of the community, and that his gain was our loss – then my takeaway is that I need to spend more of my surplus not on investing in my farm, but on bribing the local spiritual leader for favours.

The belief that the world is a zero-sum game is widespread. Like these Congolese farmers, many of us believe that the success of one member of our communities must be to the detriment of others. In some cases, this is, of course, true: when one bowler takes 7 wickets in an innings, it leaves only 3 scalps between the remaining bowlers. But, generally, the world is not zero-sum. China’s success is not a consequence of America’s decline, despite what the Trump propaganda machine says. Trade, as economists have known since David Ricardo, can be mutually beneficial, even if it means that the benefits and costs of growth are not shared by everyone equally. My neighbour’s financial success after she designed and marketed a new app is not the result of her ‘stealing’ my success.

But beliefs of a zero-sum world are widespread, and results in what has become known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome. I’ve seen this in action: students that excel sometimes draw the envy of their poorer-performing peers. And it has consequences: the envious ones believe that the good student must have achieved the high marks because of external factors, such as being the teachers’ favourite. They avoid taking responsibility for their own mediocre efforts. The star student, depending on the sanction of the envious ones, also reacts, either by withdrawing from social interaction or, worse, by putting in less effort in the next test to avoid standing out.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is prevalent in all societies, but its density and effects are likely to vary. If TPS is more concentrated in poorer communities, for example, it will hamper social mobility, reinforcing both the poverty and the cultural beliefs itself. Development economists are therefore hoping to not only identify the causes of these beliefs but also how to change them.

This will not be easy: beliefs are difficult to measure accurately, and their origins may be deep in history. Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon’s work several years ago showed how the Atlantic slave trade still affects trust in African societies: people that today live in areas where most slaves were captured are more likely to distrust their neighbours and the government. In a new paper, Oded Galor and Ömer Özak show that people’s belief about time preference – whether you have a long-term horizon or not – were affected by what type of crops their ancestors grew. Both trust and time preferences are necessary ingredients for development. As Adam Smith already pointed out in the eighteenth century, trust is necessary for specialisation and exchange. A long-term horizon allows one to forego future income, invest in the present and earn the higher future returns. It affects our propensity to save, to adopt new technologies, and, as Galor and Özak show, even our likelihood to smoke.

If these cultural beliefs are so deeply rooted and have such a pervasive influence over our behaviour, what can be done to change them? This is difficult to answer and requires the interdisciplinary efforts of psychologists, economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists. The answers they provide may not only contribute to sustainable development and social mobility, but may have applications elsewhere. Marketers may have to design products that appeal to those with a zero-sum worldview, or managers may have to lead teams of people where some ascribe to this view. The incentives that motivate people who have Tall Poppy Syndrome, for example, are likely to be different to those who are less envious of their successful colleagues.

Our beliefs about the world shape our economic decision-making. We are only now beginning to understand how it does, and what to do to change it.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 1 December.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 16, 2017 at 08:16

The future is an unknown unknown

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Humans know how to adapt. We have populated the planet not because we found an agreeable environment everywhere, but because we were able to adapt to the diverse and often hostile environments we moved into. And so it is today. To survive and thrive, we need to adapt to the global forces of our times, from climate change to automation.

Those with the freedom and ability to adapt to these global forces will benefit most. Take automation. Artificial intelligence and robotics now allow most tasks that manual labourers perform to be done without human intervention. One of the most exciting technologies revealed at the end of 2016, from my perspective at least, is an automated washing and ironing machine. Dirty clothes go in on one side and the fully-ironed clothes, folded by tiny robotic hands inside the machine, come out on the other side. Finally those dreary Sunday afternoon ironing exercises will be a thing of the past! Collectively this technology will save millions of productive human hours, particularly for women who in almost every society are still responsible for most home labour.

And yet, this wonderful new technology won’t be welcomed by everyone. South Africans employ more than 1 million domestic workers (or more than 8% of the work force), most of whom are women from poor households. If the cost of this new machine falls considerably in the next decade (and minimum wages continue to rise), we might soon see a significant decline in demand for ironing services. Because poor South Africans do not have the freedom to adapt to these new technologies, unemployment and inequality will likely increase.

There are many other examples. Tesla and other car companies are working on self-driving cars (no need for taxi drivers) and, which is likely to have an even bigger effect, self-driving buses. Truck driving is America’s sixth most common occupation. Or consider McDonald’s most recent innovation: self-ordering counters. No need to employ more expensive and unreliable staff. How long until everything in a McDonald’s restaurant is automated, from food preparation to servicing and cleaning? Amazon has recently revealed its plan to open 2000 automated grocery stores across the US. And then there are the many disruptive digital technologies, which The Economist editor Ryan Avent writes about in his latest book The Wealth of Humans.

The political consequences of these supersonic changes are unknown. As Avent notes, we are the first generation to live through an industrial revolution. There is little in history that tells us how society will react to such rapid changes. He predicts social unrest, unless government or civil society can reform social welfare programs on a massive scale. We have already seen this in South Africa and elsewhere: the democratic process, for many, is too slow and cumbersome. Service delivery protests, the #MustFall-movement and the global shift towards a more nativist conservatism suggest that the voices of those at the bottom of the income distribution will be heard outside the ballot box.

More creative solutions to support those left behind by the benefits of technological innovation and globalisation must be found. One idea is to institute a basic income grant that would give every person in South Africa a monthly stipend. This is no novel idea – Thomas Paine proposed a similar idea in 1797 – but economists are increasingly willing to put the idea in practice: Utrecht, a beautiful Dutch city south of Amsterdam, will next year give several hundred of its inhabitants an annual monthly stipend of 960 euro.

The concern is that people opt out of productive labour if they receive money for free. The consensus, though, is that this is unlikely: the aspirational drive of humans to move up the income ladder will push them to work hard regardless. What a basic income grant does is to make sure the ladder is solidly grounded.

But even a basic income grant won’t do enough. The rapid change will bring about psychological and sociological consequences that are hard to predict. Which social policies to implement, from early-childhood development to adult retraining programmes, in order to combat the technological disruption will be important research questions in the next few years. Creative use of technology, ironically, might be one solution.

Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped that there are known knows (the things we know we know), unknown knows (the things we know we don’t know), and unknown unknowns (the things we don’t know we don’t know). The future used to be mostly unknown knows. With some degree of likelihood, we could analyse the past and make conjectures, following somewhat linear trends, about what the future might hold. Change was incremental; we had time to adapt.

The period of rapid change we have seen since the dawn of the Internet is only likely to accelerate. As a species, we have never been required to adapt this fast, and not everyone in society will have the freedom and ability to do so. This will lead to social conflict. To minimise the consequences of this social conflict, the greatest challenge of the next decade is to enable as many as possible to adapt to the inevitable unknown unknowns of our rapidly-changing world.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 29 December.

**As this is my first post of the year, I would like to wish all readers a productive and memorable 2017. Let’s hope this will be a good one.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 5, 2017 at 07:09

We are still on the way up

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I arrived in the USA a day after Donald Trump was announced as president-elect of the United States. I gave talks at Harvard, Mount Holyoke College and MIT, and met with several faculty and students over the four days of my visit. It was eerie. Some students were still in denial, not helped by the fact that they started drinking as soon as the results became evident. Others were in various stages of grief: angry at the nativism of a large chunk of Americans, bargaining in the hope that Hillary might still win, or depressed at how quickly the America of Obama – to whom many at these prestigious institutions look up to as an inspiring intellectual – has given way to the America of Trump – whom they consider to be a coarse, boastful buffoon.

Trump’s victory seems to have been another nail in the coffin of liberty and progress. In America, walls will replace bridges. Despite what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his tax cuts will likely benefit the wealthy elite. And his views on women, on LGBT rights, on climate change, on health care, on trade openness and on immigration is likely to reverse much of the gains in general freedoms the US has made over the last decade.

These trends are not limited to America. Earlier this year the Brexit result revealed the same nativist fear, an anti-open, anti-globalisation vote. Brexit was a vote for a return to the ‘good old times’, however unlikely that is to materialise. It was a vote against intellectualism; liberal London against the conservative hinterland. And in South Africa, the rise of nativist populism on both the extreme right and left reflect a similar frustration with the progressive Rainbow Nation of yesteryear and its liberal (sell-out!) constitution.

Across the globe, it seems, the extraordinary liberty and progress of the 1990s and 2000s are being rejected for a more insular, protectionist conservatism.

We should not be that surprised. Liberty and progress, as a historian at MIT reminded me on my recent visit, is never a foregone conclusion, never an obvious eventuality.  Liberty and Progress is not an Uber ride, taking the shortest, fastest route to a known destination. It is, as the Beatles knew, a long and winding road. Sometimes there are detours, and sometimes we get lost.

Take, for example, Martin Plaut’s latest book, Promise and Despair, the story of the delegation of black leaders that traveled to London in 1909 to fight for representation in the new Union of South Africa. Remember, since 1853, the Cape Colony had had a non-racial franchise, allowing men of all races who had sufficient income or property to vote. When the unification of South Africa began to be discussed following the Anglo-Boer War, many had assumed that the (Liberal) English government would extend the same franchise to all. In fact, this was the promise Lord Salisbury had made in 1899. But politics trumped morals. To secure the support of whites in South Africa in case of war, the English reneged on their promises and turned down the appeal of the delegation. Liberty and progress had to wait.

But to focus on the newsworthy failures of liberty and progress the last few months misses the much bigger story of the last few decades: the incredible improvement in living standards of most of humanity. Johan Norberg, in a new book simply titled Progress, concurs: ‘Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.’ Life expectancy has risen sharply, poverty and malnutrition have fallen. The risk of death in war or natural disaster is tiny in comparison to our parents or grandparents.



Reasons to be optimistic: Trends for important human welfare measures are all positive in the long run. Source:


But this does not mean we should be complacent. Says Norberg: ‘There is a real risk of a nativist backlash. When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes it seems that we are willing to try our luck with any demagogue who tells us that he or she has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again, whether it be nationalizing the economy, blocking foreign imports or throwing the immigrants out. If we think we don’t have anything to lose in doing so, it’s because we have a bad memory.’

2016 has been a year of setbacks. It reminds us that liberty and progress are never fait accompli, never self-evident. We have to work hard at it, and even then it is not guaranteed. It requires patience and a long-term view. But don’t let 2016 shake your beliefs about humanity’s march forward: we are still on the way up, even if it will take us a little longer to get there.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 15 December.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 30, 2016 at 13:21

The invisible barriers of international trade

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One of the biggest barriers to deeper economic integration in Africa is the excessive trade costs that prevent regional trade. Import tariffs have traditionally been an important source of revenue for poorer countries, and it has taken several spaghetti-like agreements to reduce these. Although an agreement has been signed to create a Free Trade Area from the Cape to Cairo, none of the 26 countries have ratified it. Import duties remain between most African countries.

But tariffs are only of the costs of trade. It takes time to move a container from Johannesburg to Kinshasa, and the journey by land is often filled with tales of unscheduled delays and red tape. I remember traveling through the Victoria Falls border post between Zimbabwe and Zambia a few years ago and asking the truck drivers how long they had to wait to cross into Zambia. Their response: ‘A couple of days, if we are lucky’. This is no way to encourage regional trade.

Poor infrastructure is another significant barrier. The massive distances between major economic centres means that the unit cost of transport is high. A new paper in the Review of Economic Studies by Tufts University economist Adam Storeygard confirms this. Storeygard measures the impact of the oil price increases between 2002 and 2008 on the incomes of African cities. He compares two types of cities: those with a port on the coastline, and those of similar type but 500 kilometers inland. Using satellite imagery over the period, he finds that the oil price shocks increased the size of port cities by 7% more than in cities in the hinterland. The take-away: high transport costs retard growth. And because many African cities are located far from the coast, the high transport costs of poor transport infrastructure explains why African manufacturers find it difficult to compete with manufacturers in Asia and Europe. Just think of the difficulty manufacturers in landlocked countries like Malawi or Zambia face.

But even where better physical infrastructure reduces transport costs, other, ‘softer’ trade barriers often remain. Corruption, for example. Traveling into Malawi on my trip of a few years ago, we were pulled off the road a few kilometres after the border post by an armed man, and then required to return to the border post because we needed ‘additional insurance’. That was a $50 payment that went straight into the friend of the armed man’s pocket.

The effects of these ‘invisible’ trade barriers on trade and consequently economic performance have been hard to quantify, though, until now. In a new American Economic Review paper – ‘Corruption, Trade Costs, and Gains from Tariff Liberalization: Evidence from Southern Africa’ – Sandra Sequeira of the London School of Economics and Political Science finds that a reduction in tariffs between South Africa and Mozambique in 2006 had a very limited effect on trade. This is surprising: one would expect that lower tariffs would lead to higher levels of trade. And yet, the sharp decrease in tariffs had basically no effect (in technical terms, the elasticity of imports to tariff changes was very low).

mozambique-and-malawi-border-postWhat explains this surprising result? Sequeira uses a novel dataset of exporters’ bribe payments between South Africa and Mozambique to show that the decline in tariff rates at the border resulted in a 30% decline in the probability of bribe payments and a 20% decline in the average bribe amount paid. In other words, the lower tariffs did not actually reduce firms’ trade costs, it just shifted paying corrupt border officials to actually paying the tariffs as required by law, boosting government revenue. That is also why the elasticity of imports was so low: because costs did not fall in practice, there was no concomitant increase in trade.

Sequeira’s innovative study shows that high tariffs explain why corruption thrives. Remove the tariffs and the ability to solicit bribes vanishes. But don’t think that trade will suddenly blossom. Bribes keep trade costs lower than what they would be if tariffs were fully paid; lowering tariffs only lower the amount corrupt officials receive.

This has important implications for policy-makers: first, lower tariffs may actually result in an increase in tariff revenue as traders switch from paying bribes to paying the now more reasonable official tariffs. Free trade agreements  (with zero tariffs) may not result in a significant fall in revenue either, because much of the revenue goes into the pockets of corrupt officials in any case, and will likely lead to greater transparency; Sequeira finds, for example, that trade statistics also improve when corruption practices decline.

But don’t expect free trade agreements like the one being discussed at the moment to result in a large increase in regional trade. As long as other barriers, like delays, severe red tape and poor infrastructure, remain, regional trade in Africa is likely to remain too weak to foster the economic development it promises to deliver.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 17 November.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 8, 2016 at 21:17