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Archive for the ‘Portugal’ Category

Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable graph comparing the predictions of economists to what actually happened.

Not surprisingly, the two lines don’t exactly overlap, which explains the old joke that economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.

It’s not that economists are totally useless. It’s just that they don’t do a very good job when they venture into the filed of macroeconomics, as Russ Roberts succinctly explained. And they look especially foolish when they try to engage in forecasting.

But at least economists sometimes can be entertaining, though usually in the laughing-at-you rather than laughing-with-you way.

Consider, for instance, the escapades of one of Portugal’s leading economic analysts. Here’s some of what the UK-based Guardian recently reported.

As an ex-presidential consultant, a former adviser to the World Bank, a financial researcher for the United Nations and a professor in the US, Artur Baptista da Silva’s outspoken attacks on Portugal’s austerity cuts made the bespectacled 61-year-old one of the country’s leading media pundits last year.  …Mr Baptista da Silva…claimed to be a social economics professor at Milton College – a private university in Wisconsin, US…and to be masterminding a UN research project into the effects of the recession on southern European countries.

Promoting more government spending

Promoting more government spending

Mr. da Silva was sort of the Paul Krugman of Portugal, working with the left and urging Keynesian policy.

Blessed with such an impressive CV, Mr Baptista’s subsequent criticisms of the Lisbon government’s far-reaching austerity cuts, as well as dire warnings that the UN planned to take action against it, struck a deep chord with its financially beleaguered population. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, his powerfully delivered comments at a debate at the International Club, a prestigious Lisbon cultural and social organisation last month, were greeted with thunderous applause and a part-standing ovation. Then, in a double page interview in the weekly newspaper Expresso in mid-December, Mr Baptista da Silva continued to denounce the government’s policies. That was followed by an interview for the radio station TSF, appearances in high-profile television debates and well-publicised meetings with trade union leaders to advise them on economic policies.

But it turns out that there was a tiny problem with Mr. da Silva’s resume. At least if “tiny” is the right way to describe a total fraud.

The only problem was that Mr Baptista da Silva is none of the above. He turned out to be a convicted forger with fake credentials and, following his spectacular hoodwinking of Portuguese society, he could soon face fraud charges. …in the country’s jails, Mr Baptista da Silva’s sudden appearance among the intellectual elite caused amazement among his former cellmates. …Mr Baptista da Silva’s comeuppance began when the UN confirmed to a Portuguese TV station last month that he did not work for the organisation, not even as a volunteer, as he later alleged. Further media investigations uncovered his prison record and fake university titles… Mr Baptista da Silva has now disappeared completely from public life, and there are reports he is under investigation for fraud charges by the police.

I guess if he was intentionally misrepresenting himself, that perhaps da Silva should go back to jail. Though a lot of real economists and almost all politicians should be in prison as well if that’s the standard.

Let me close by making a serious point. Economists do not hold some magic source of knowledge about public policy. So I’ve never objected when journalists, political scientists, laymen, and others engage in debates about economic policy.

The key to good economic analysis, as Bastiat explained in the 1800s, is looking at the seen and the unseen. And you don’t have to be an economist to recognize that the secondary and tertiary effects of public policy are very important.

Indeed, if Paul Krugman’s any indication, maybe it’s better not to be an economist.

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Back in mid-2010, I wrote that Portugal was going to exacerbate its fiscal problems by raising taxes.

Needless to say, I was right. Not that this required any special insight. After all, no nation has ever taxed its way to prosperity.

We’re now at the end of 2012 and Portugal is still saddled with a weak economy. And the higher taxes haven’t resulted in less red ink. Indeed, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, government debt has jumped from 93 percent of GDP in 2010 to 124 percent of GDP this year.

Why did higher taxes backfire in Portugal? For the same reasons that higher taxes have failed in Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and so many other nations.

  • Higher taxes undermine incentives for productive behavior, thus reducing an economy’s potential for growth. This means less economic output, which also means a smaller tax base. This Laffer Curve effect doesn’t necessarily mean less revenue, but it certainly means that tax increases rarely raise as much money as initially projected.
  • Higher taxes usually are a substitute for the real solution of spending restraint (i.e., Mitchell’s Golden Rule). Politicians oftentimes refuse to reduce the burden of government spending because of an expectation of additional tax revenue. Heck, in many cases, higher taxes trigger an increase in the size and scope of the public sector.

So did Portugal learn any lessons from this failed experiment in Obamanomics?

Hardly. Indeed, the government plans to double down on this approach – even though it’s increasingly apparent that higher tax burdens won’t translate into much – if any – additional tax revenue. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.

Lisbon plans to lift income tax revenue by more than 30 per cent, raising the effective average rate by more than a third from 9.8 to 13.2 per cent. Anyone receiving more than the minimum wage of €485 a month, including pensioners, will also pay an extraordinary tax of 3.5 per cent on their income. …the steep tax increases facing many families have made the outlook for 2013 – the third consecutive year of austerity, recession and rising unemployment – the grimmest yet. Total tax revenue has fallen considerably below target this year, forcing the government to implement additional austerity measures… The coalition will be relying on increased state revenue to account for about 80 per cent of the fiscal adjustment required in 2013 – a reversal of the original bailout plan, in which consolidation was to be achieved mainly through spending cuts.

Amazing. The government imposes huge tax hikes, which don’t generate any positive results. Yet even though “tax revenue has fallen considerably below target,” confirming that there are significant Laffer Curve issues, the government chooses to repeat the snake-oil fiscal therapy of higher taxes.

Anybody want to guess what’s going to happen? The answer, of course, is that this will further dampen incentives to generate income and comply with the government’s fiscal demands.

The latest increases have stretched the tax system to the limit, says Carlos Loureiro, a tax partner at Deloitte. “The current model is exhausted. We need to do something different,” he says. “Any further increase in tax rates is unlikely to result in increased revenue.” Income from value added tax, the government’s biggest source of tax revenue representing about 36 per cent of the total, has been falling since 2008, despite a sharp increase in the rate – the main rate is now 23 per cent. Both the government and the European Commission have acknowledged the risks of depending on increased tax revenue, which is more growth sensitive, to meet fiscal targets and contingency spending cuts amounting to 0.5 per cent of national output have prepared in case of another tax shortfall.

I almost want to laugh at the part of the excerpt which notes that tax revenue “has been falling…despite a sharp increase in the rate.”

Maybe it’s time for these fiscal pyromaniacs to realize that revenues might be falling because rates are higher. In other words, Portugal not only isn’t at the ideal point on the Laffer Curve (collecting the amount of revenue needed to finance legitimate activities of government), it may even be past the revenue-maximizing part of the curve.

To be fair, there are lots of factors that determine economic performance, so higher tax burdens are just one possible explanation for why the tax base is shrinking or stagnant.

The one thing we can state with certainty, though, is that Portugal’s fiscal problem is too much government spending. The failure to address this problem then leads to very unpleasant symptoms, such as lots of red ink and self-destructive class-warfare tax policy.

If all that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a description of what President Obama is proposing for the United States.

Ummm…shouldn’t they be targeting politicians?

P.S. I don’t want to imply that Portugal is a total basket case. True, I’m not optimistic about the country’s future, but at least some lawmakers now acknowledge that Keynesian spending was a big mistake. And there are even signs that Portuguese officials are beginning to realize that lower tax rates should be part of the solution. But good policy may be impossible since so many people now have a moocher mentality.

P.P.S. At the risk of bearing bad news to close the year, research from both the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the United States actually faces a bigger long-run fiscal challenge than Portugal.

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There aren’t many fiscal policy role models in Europe.

Switzerland surely is at the top of the list. The burden of government spending is modest by European standards, in part because of a very good spending cap that prevents politicians from overspending when revenues are buoyant. Tax rates also are reasonable. The central government’s tax system is “progressive,” but the top rate is only 11.5 percent. And tax competition among the cantons ensures that sub-national tax rates don’t get too high. Because of these good policies, Switzerland completely avoided the fiscal crisis plaguing the rest of the continent.

The Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia also deserve some credit. They allowed spending to rise far too rapidly in the middle of last decade – an average of nearly 17 percent per year between 2002 and 2008! But they have since moved in the right direction, with genuine spending cuts (unlikely the fake cuts that characterize fiscal policy in nations like the United States and United Kingdom). Yes, the Baltic countries did raise some taxes, which undermined the positive effects of spending reductions, but at least they focused primarily on spending and preserved their attractive flat tax systems. No wonder growth has rebounded in these nations.

The situation in the rest of Europe is more bleak, particularly for the so-called PIIGS. To varying degrees, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain have lost the ability to borrow, received bailouts, and been mired in recession.

The silver lining is that the fiscal crisis has forced them to finally cut spending. All of those nations implemented real spending cuts in 2011 according to European Commission data, bringing spending below 2010 levels. Final figures for 2012 aren’t available, of course, but the International Monetary Fund estimates that spending will drop in every nation other than Italy (where it will climb by less than 1 percent).

That’s the good news. The public sector finally is being subjected to some long-overdue fiscal discipline.

The bad news is that politicians also imposed very significant tax increases on the private sector. Income tax rates have been increased. Value-added taxes have been hiked, and other taxes have climbed as well. These penalties on productive activity undermine potential growth.

The politicians say that this is a “balanced approach,” but this view is misguided, First, as Veronique de Rugy has shown, it generally means lots of new taxes and very little spending restraint. Second, it is based on the IMF view of “austerity,” which mistakenly focuses on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending.

What Europe really needs is a combination of lower spending and lower tax rates.

Portugal may actually be moving in that direction, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The Portuguese government is seeking to cut its corporate tax rate for new businesses to one of the lowest in Europe as part of a plan to attract investment and revitalize ailing industries, the minister of economy said. The government is in talks with the European Commission’s competition agency in Brussels to get approval to cut the tax on corporate income for new investors to 10% from the current 25%, the minister, Alvaro Santos Pereira, said in an interview. …”We want to make Portugal one of the most attractive countries in Europe for new investment,” Mr. Santos Pereira said. “We believe that by providing very strong fiscal incentives to new investments we will safeguard the budget side and at the same time become a lot more competitive,” he added. …While wealthy euro-zone countries and the IMF are beginning to recognize the need for measures to boost growth in austerity-hit countries, they have been reluctant to endorse tax cuts in countries under bailout programs. If implemented, the proposed tax cut would be a departure from a series of tax increases that countries including Portugal, Greece and Spain were forced to take as part their bailout conditions.

Before getting too excited, it’s important to note that the Portuguese proposal is a bit gimmicky. It’s not a corporate tax rate of 10 percent, it’s a special rate of 10 percent for new investment, however that’s defined.

But at least it might be a small step in the right direction. As the article indicates, it “would be a departure from a series of tax increases.” And Portugal definitely has been guilty in recent years of raping and pillaging the private sector.

To be fair, though, this chart shows that government spending in Portugal did decline last year. And the IMF is projecting that it will fall again this year and next year.

Portugal Fiscal Policy

But the key to good fiscal policy is reducing government spending as a share of economic output. And if tax increases keep the private economy in the dumps, then the actual burden of government spending doesn’t change much even when nominal outlays decline.

A pro-growth policy is needed to boost economic performance. Portugal’s corporate tax rate proposal, by itself, won’t make much of a difference. But if it’s the start of a trend, that could be significant.

By the way, it’s amusing to see that one of the bureaucrats from the European Commission is pouring cold water on the plan, implying that a decision to take less money from a company somehow is akin to government assistance.

“We would want to be sure that anything proposed would help the competitiveness of the economy,” said spokesman Simon O’Connor, “but at the same time it would have to be in line with state aid rules,” referring to EU regulations that limit the assistance governments can give to the private sector. “There really isn’t any scope for them to reduce revenue,” he added.

But I guess that’s not too surprising. Along with their tax-free colleagues at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Commission has been trying to undermine tax competition and make it easier for nations to impose bad tax policy.

Returning to our main topic, what’s next for Portugal?

Your guess is as good as mine, but Portugal’s leaders already have acknowledged that Keynesian fiscal policy is ineffective. Perhaps they’ve gotten to the point where they realize punitive tax systems also are destructive.

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President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Unlike Obama, willing to admit mistakes

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

Amazingly, the Germans, who have a disturbing affinity for powerful government, decided against Keynesianism and that’s paid dividends for their economy.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

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With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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