Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Archive for the ‘Trade’ Category

The big misconception about the free market

with one comment

South-African-Airways

There are many who view the free market with skepticism. Some are downright hostile towards it, proclaiming – erroneously so, given the empirical evidence of history – that capitalism hurts labour, the environment, or the poor, and is largely to blame for the evils of this world. Others grudgingly accept that capitalism is a better system than the alternatives, but look down, much like the nobility viewed merchants in Medieval times, on those in the business world as scammers and frauds. After the Steinhoff collapse, many commentators, often those schooled in the humanities, pointed to unethical behaviour of the ‘markets’ or the ‘business community’ or the ‘corporate sector’. In its crudest form, they blamed it all on ‘free market capitalism’ or, that insult of insults, ‘neoliberalism’.

But that interpretation is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘the free market’ actually is. A student pointed me recently to a ten-part television series by one of the leading economists of the twentieth century, Milton Friedman. Recorded in the 1980s but as relevant today as then, Free to Choose spells out Friedman’s belief that the ‘free market’ is preferable to the alternative of government intervention. The series is now freely available on YouTube.

After each episode, Friedman debates with invited guests, many who don’t share his views, about the pros and cons of the market. The moderator at some stage points out that both Friedman’s opponents, one from big business and the other from government, tends to agree that government intervention – say, to increase tariffs – is a good idea. How would he explain this? Friedman responds that it is perfectly rational that the two agree, even if for opposite reasons. ‘The two greatest enemies of free enterprise and freedom in the world, have been on the one hand the industrialists and on the other hand most of my academic colleagues who end up in government, and for opposite reasons.’ His academic colleagues, Friedman argues, want freedom for themselves. ‘They want free speech, they want freedom to write, they want freedom to publish, to do research. But they don’t want freedom for any of those awful businessmen.’

‘The businessmen are very different’, says Friedman. ‘Every businessman wants freedom for somebody else. But he wants special privileges for himself. He wants a tariff from congress.’

Entrepreneurs are in the business of making money. One way to do that is to produce a good or service that is better than the competition through efficiencies or strategy or innovation. So far, so good. Another way to do this is to eliminate the competition altogether. This can be done by getting government to impose a tariff on imports, or to get government to issue special licenses, or to convince government to issue regulation that protect your business from superior competition.

South Africa, of course, has a long history of this type of government intervention. The VOC that set up a refreshment station at the Cape was a company founded on monopoly trading rights. Paul Kruger’s ZAR government was built on a complex network of monopoly licenses with industrialists, and so, too, was the apartheid state. The scale of collusion between government and big business in more recent years ultimately coined a new term: state capture.

This is not free market capitalism. Put differently, it is not the type of capitalism that creates prosperity. Friedman made the same point in the 1980s: ‘It’s not proper to put the issue as industrialists versus government. On the contrary, one of the reasons why I’m in favour of less government, is because if you have more government, industrialists take it over. The two together form a coalition against the ordinary worker and the ordinary consumer. I think business is a wonderful institution, provided it must face competition in the marketplace, and it can’t get away with something except by producing a better product at a lower cost.’

Think of South Africa’s most concentrated sectors – telecommunications, electricity, healthcare, air travel. In each case, the government is either a significant player themselves, or they impose tight regulation. Much of this regulation is founded on good intentions, of course. Licenses often require a minimum safety standard; one wouldn’t want just anyone opening a hospital or flying an airplane. But most often, it is these well-intentioned regulations that strangle competition, creating oligopolistic sectors that favour a few big businesses.

South Africa’s Competition Commission is tasked with investigating and mitigating collusive business practices and other ways firms may abuse their market position. When a large firm acquires another, they need to file an application to the commission for approval. This prevents that one firm dominates a market, pushing up prices and hurting consumers.

But the Competition Commission can only do so much. In many cases brought before it, the South African government is an active player in the market – think SAA – or regulates the industry through other bodies – like the telecom spectrum ICASA controls. We cannot just rely on the Commission to ensure free competition: it requires a widespread acceptance in government that any regulation that impedes competition hurts both workers and consumers. The Minister of Energy signing the power purchase agreements for 27 mostly solar and wind projects – and thus encouraging competition in the market for energy generation – is an excellent step in the right direction. Our failing education or health systems are not so lucky; both suffer as a result of too little competition.

The big misconception about the free market is that ‘the market’ is often equated with ‘big business’. As Friedman notes, they are not the same thing. There is good reason for oligopolistic firms to cozy up to government: it is a great way to get rid of competitors. But over the last decade, South Africans have learnt the painful consequences of what happens when that system becomes entrenched. In contrast, a society that prioritises market competition is most likely to benefit the ordinary worker and the ordinary consumer. This is because competition fosters innovation. And innovation improves productivity, growth and living standards. That is, ultimately, the long road to economic freedom.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 2 August edition of finweek.

Advertisements

Written by Johan Fourie

September 10, 2018 at 08:00

Why vegetarians are from Knysna and meat-eaters from the Karoo

with one comment

Boerewors2

Talking about factor endowments sounds like one of the most boring dinner conversation topics ever. The land/labour ratio of India, Europe or Africa does little to whet the appetite, and might actually be a polite way to signal that the evening is coming to an end. And yet, factor endowments explain far more about ourselves – from what we produce and trade, to how we marry and what we eat – than we would care to admit.

The ratio between a country’s endowment of land and labour – the land/labour ratio – is common to economic theory. One of the central theories of international trade, for example – the Heckscher Ohlin theory – uses factor endowments to explain what countries produce and trade. In its most succinct form, it says that a country will export goods that use its abundant factors intensively, and import goods that use its scarce factors intensively. Basically, if South Africa has a lot of land relative to Bangladesh, then we should produce things that use land intensively (like cattle), and export this to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh should produce things that uses its most abundant factor – in this case labour – most intensively (like clothes), and export this to South Africa. Both countries would win from the trade. This is standard Econ 101 stuff.

But increasingly the land/labour ratio is used to not only explain a country’s comparative advantage in production, but also explain the social and cultural differences between places. How we marry is one example. Take the lobola, the bride price that is traditional to most marriages in southern and eastern Africa. Why do Africans have a lobola, while Indians have a dowry? One answer: factor endowments. See, Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally had a lot of land relative to people. A high land-to-labour ratio meant that people were immensely valued for their ability to perform labour. Women, given their reproductive ability, was therefore of great value, and powerful men would claim multiple wives to ensure not only a long lineage but also a large workforce. That is also why polygamy is still popular amongst many African societies across the continent, and why indigenous slavery (raids on neighbouring tribes to poach their people rather than their land) was a feature of precolonial Africa.

By contrast, labour is abundant in India relative to land. There the institution of bride price never emerged; instead, it would be a dowry system, where the bride or bride’s family would pay (in property or money) for the right to marry the husband. This was to consolidate the most important asset – land, not labour – to ensure a successful lineage. Europeans, incidentally, had the same low land-to-labour ratio, which is why it is typically the wife’s family who pays for the wedding in European custom.

Factor endowments, surprisingly, can also say much about what we eat. In a series of tweets on 12 June, Sarah Taber, agricultural scientist and host of the Farm to Taber podcast, explained just how our eating habits are the result of the environment and endowments (the land/water ratio) around us. She starts by mentioning that many cultures have traditionally had low or no-meat diets. Think of the Ganges valley, the Nile valley, or the Amazon. What do these places have in common? It rains a lot. This matters because in such environments, plants that humans can consume tend to grow, like those with tender stems, leaves and fruit, or those with enlarged seeds or energy storing roots. The rest of the plant is basically useless to us.

On the other hand, many societies, like the Mongols, the Bedouin, the Inuit or the Masai, have evolved to consume almost only meat. This is because they live in places that are dry or very cold, where plants are either very sparse or very tough, and made entirely of things that humans cannot digest. These plants are almost entirely cellulose, having tough stalks, fibrous leaves, and so on. But cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels can consume these scrubs with 3- to 4-chambered stomachs that turn the cellulose into sugars.

Taber goes on to say that we neglect to factor in these differences when we debate vegetarianism, for example: ‘Failure to recognize the role of local environment in diet is a major oversight in the vegetarian community at large. Traditional vegetarian societies are trotted out to showcase that low/no-meat diets are possible. But it’s done without recognition as to why those particular societies did it, and others did not.’ The key, she says, is that we fail to recognize that for dry regions, the bottleneck in productivity is not land. It is water.

She then explains that a farm in a dry area, if used for cultivating vegetables, might produce enough food to feed 10x the number of people than it would if it was to produce meat. But, she shows, it would require a 1000x more water to produce those vegetables. ‘In places where there’s limited land and a surplus of water, it makes a lot of sense to optimize for land. So there, grow and eat crops. And in places where there’s a lot of land and limited water, it makes sense to optimize for water. So there, grow and eat ruminants (meat).’

‘It’s really interesting to me that the conversation around vegetarianism and the environment is so strongly centred on an assumption that every place in the world is on the limited land/surplus plan. You know what region that describes really well? Northwestern Europe. In many ways, viewing low/no-meat diets as the One True Sustainable Way is very much a vestige of colonialism. It found a way of farming that works really well in NW Europe, assumed it must be universal, and tries to apply it to places where it absolutely does not pencil out.’

The next time you run out of dinner conversation, a discussion about factor endowments may not be such a bad option after all.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 7 July edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 18, 2018 at 09:03

The politics of infrastructure

leave a comment »

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.

What explains the rise of populism?

with 2 comments

Donald Trump

Consider the following thought experiment: Sibusiso and Thulani each own a firm that competes with the other. In each of the following scenarios, Sibusiso’s firm outcompetes Thulani’s. Which of the four do you consider unfair competition?

  • Sibusiso works hard, saves and invests his profits, and invents new techniques and products, while Thulani’s products change little and he loses market share.
  • Sibusiso finds a higher quality input supplier in the US, which makes his products better and he therefore takes market share from Thulani.
  • Sibusiso outsources some of his services to Bangladesh, where workers work 12-hour shifts under hazardous conditions, earning very low wages.
  • Sibusiso brings Bangladeshi workers into South Africa under temporary contracts, and puts them to work at lower than minimum wages.

From an economic perspective, each of these scenarios have a similar result: there are winners as well as losers as they expand the economy. But people generally react very differently to them. Most people are happy with scenario 1 and 2: even if someone loses (Thulani and his employees), this comes through what is perceived as fair competition from Sibusiso. It is scenario 3 and 4 that creates problems: when Sibusiso ‘breaks’ local laws (even though it may be perfectly legal in the foreign country), his competitive advantage, and by implication international trade, is viewed as unfair.

In a provocative new NBER Working Paper, Harvard University economist Dani Rodrik use this example to argue that too-rapid globalisation – the increasing use of scenarios 3 and 4, of outsourcing production to the developing world or of employing immigrants – is the underlying cause for the rise of populism across the developed world. The ‘losers’ from globalisation feel that foreigners – abroad or as immigrants in their own countries – have taken unfair advantage of then, stealing their jobs. They have chosen the politics of populism as a way to ‘punish’ this rapidly globalising world.

Economists know that free trade creates both winners and losers, and that the winners almost always gain more than what the losers lose. If the winners could perfectly compensate the losers, everyone would be better off from a free-trading world.

But Rodrik argues that such compensation is not always easy, and rarely happens. Aside from Europe, where an extensive social safety net was institutionalized to support ‘losers’, most countries failed to find a way to sufficiently compensate those that suffered the consequences of open borders. Make no mistake: open borders resulted in massive global gains, notably for the poor of China and India. But in each country, as trade theory predicts, there were losers. In Rodrik’s words: “People thought they were losing ground not because they had taken an unkind draw from the lottery of market competition, but because the rules were unfair and others – financiers, large corporations, foreigners – were taking advantage of a rigged playing field.”

There are many new studies to back up this claim. In a 2016 paper, David Autor and his co-authors show, for example, that the trade shock of China joining the World Trade Organisation aggravated political polarisation in the United States: districts affected by the shock moved further to the right or left politically, depending which way they were leaning in the first place. Analysing the Brexit vote, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig show that regions with larger import penetration from China had a higher Leave vote share. They repeat the study for fifteen European countries, showing that China’s entry into the WTO had similar political consequences across Europe. In a 2017 working paper, Luigi Guiso and his co-authors use European survey data to draw even more precise conclusions: the more individuals are exposed to competition from imports and immigrants (the higher their economic insecurity), the more they vote for populist parties.

To summarise: because there were uncompensated losers from global free trade, argues Rodrik, there were political consequences. Rodrik then constructs a model to explain this populist rise on both the left and the right. According to the model, there are three different groups in society: the elite, the majority, and the minority. Says Rodrik: “The elite are separated from the rest of society by their wealth. The minority is separated by particular identity markers (ethnicity, religion, immigrant status). Hence there are two cleavages: an ethno-national/cultural cleavage and an income/social class cleavage. An important implication of this reasoning is that even when the underlying shock is fundamentally economic the political manifestations can be cultural and nativist. What may look like a racist or xenophobic backlash may have its roots in economic anxieties and dislocations.”

Populists who emphasize the identity cleavage target foreigners or minorities, and this produces right-wing populism. Those who emphasize the income cleavage target the wealthy and large corporations, producing left-wing populism. The large numbers of immigrants into Western Europe has resulted in the rise of right-wing populists, for example, while Latin America, because of large disparities between rich and poor, has seen more left-wing populism. The United States, argues Rodrik, falls somewhere in the middle – with Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.

These findings have important implications for South Africa too. South Africa joined the WTO in 1995 and liberalised our complicated tariff schedule, opening our borders to foreign competition. There were many winners from cheaper imports, notably consumers, but some firms and industries struggled, leading to job losses, often concentrated in certain regions. And although South Africa rolled out an impressively comprehensive social safety net for a middle-income country, they could not compensate all the losers, especially as the global financial crisis hit in 2007 and unemployment began to worsen. It is not entirely coincidental that the first large-scale xenophobic attacks on foreigners happened in 2008 (what Rodrik would call right-wing populism) and that the ANC shifted left with the election of Jacob Zuma as South African president in 2009.

Even if globalisation creates more winners than losers, the losers, like Thulani and his employees, may feel that the system is rigged, and retaliate by voting for more populist parties. As South Africa stumbles into another recession, this may have profound consequences for the ANC’s December elective conference – and the national election in 2019.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 10 August 2017.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 14, 2017 at 16:47

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

with 2 comments

tall-poppy

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 invisible barriers of international trade

with 2 comments

police-road-block-in-zimbabwe

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

High-skilled migrants matter – and we’re not winning

with one comment

elon-musk-is-making-history

One of the baffling things in explaining the Industrial Revolution is that education, that pillar most economists believe to be critical for economic growth, seems to have played a relatively minor role. Universal public education was a consequence rather than a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century England did not first have a skilled population before they had an economic transformation; the uncomfortable truth is that it was the other way round.

This uncomfortable truth does not suggest that formal education was completely unimportant. It suggests, instead, that much of what caused the Industrial Revolution was the scientific knowledge obtained by an elite group of highly skilled artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs. It was not the average level of education of every Brit that mattered. Most of the breakthrough technologies of the era – the Spinning Jenny, the steam engine – came instead from upper-tail tinkerers who had hoped to make a profit from their innovations.

A wonderful new research paper by economists Mara Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirm this. They use the subscriber list to the mid-eighteenth century French magazine Encyclopédie to show that knowledge elites mattered in explaining the first Industrial Revolution: in those French towns and cities where subscriber density to the magazine was high, cities grew much faster in the following century, even when controlling for a variety of other things, like wealth and general levels of literacy. Their explanation? Knowledge elites (engineers, scientists, inventors) raise the productivity at the local level through their piecemeal innovations, with large positive spill-overs for everyone around them.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. High-skilled workers are the stars of today’s knowledge economy. Their innovations and scientific discoveries spur productivity gains and economic growth. Think, for example, of the immense contributions of Sergey Brin’s Google, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, or even Jan Koum’s WhatsApp. It is for this reason that the mobility of such highly talented individuals has become such an important topic – consider that all three individuals mentioned above are immigrants to the United States. There is little doubt that the most prosperous economies of the future will be the ones to attract the most skilled talent.

Which is why understanding the push-and-pull factors of current global talent flows are so important, and the subject of an important new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The four authors begin with the facts.  High-skilled elites are more mobile: between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants with a tertiary degree increased by 130%; those with only primary education increased by only 40%. More of these high-skilled migrants depart from a broader range of countries and head to a narrower range. While OECD countries constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population, they host two-thirds of high-skilled migrants. 70% of these are located in only four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The United States, unsurprisingly, dominates all rankings. Since the 1980s, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, academics associated with American institutions have won over 65%, yet only 46% of this group was born in the United States.

emigration-rate

One fascinating and underappreciated fact of global migrant flows is the role of highly educated women. Between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled women immigrants to OECD countries increased from 5.7 to 14.4 million; in fact, by 2010, the stock of highly skilled women migrants exceeded male migrants! As the authors note, ‘Africa and Asia experienced the largest growth of high-skilled female emigration, indicating the potential role of gender inequalities and labour market challenges in origin countries as push factors.’

And what about South Africa? The authors calculate the emigration rates of high-skilled individuals by country for 2010, and plot these on a graph. South Africa is a clear outlier: emigration of high-skilled individuals is the sixth highest of the countries included, and by far the highest for countries with more than 10 million people. This is worrisome. True, some of this emigration is made up by high-skilled immigrants from our African neighbours, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, who also have high emigration rates. But the fact remains: our economic outlook will remain precarious if we continue to shed high-skilled individuals at these exorbitant rates.

Is there something to do? The authors mention various push and pull factors that affect the decision to migrate, from gatekeepers that pull the best talent by giving citizenship based on a points system to repressive political systems that suppress freedom of speech and scientific discovery and push the best and brightest to emigrate. If South Africa is to prosper, high-skilled individuals should be recruited and retained – not pushed to find opportunities elsewhere. Protests at universities do not help; providing residency to graduates, as the South African government has proposed, will.

In the knowledge economy, knowledge elites are the bedrock of success. If we are to learn from history, cultivating them should be our number one priority.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 3 November.