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Archive for October 4th, 2019

Last century, I remember reading about the “Washington Consensus,” which was a term that was used to describe the kind of policy advice in those days provided to (or imposed upon) the developing world by the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury.

I never studied the topic since I was focused at the time on domestic issues such as tax reform, Social Security reform, and the economic effect of government spending.

But I recall thinking that the Washington Consensus was pro-market, but nonetheless a bit timid because it did not include a plank to limit the size of government.

Wikipedia helpfully lists the 10 policies that defined this consensus.

  1. Fiscal policy discipline, with avoidance of large fiscal deficits relative to GDP;
  2. Redirection of public spending from subsidies (“especially indiscriminate subsidies”) toward broad-based provision of key pro-growth, pro-poor services like primary education, primary health care and infrastructure investment;
  3. Tax reform, broadening the tax base and adopting moderate marginal tax rates;
  4. Interest rates that are market determined and positive (but moderate) in real terms;
  5. Competitive exchange rates;
  6. Trade liberalization: liberalization of imports, with particular emphasis on elimination of quantitative restrictions (licensing, etc.); any trade protection to be provided by low and relatively uniform tariffs;
  7. Liberalization of inward foreign direct investment;
  8. Privatization of state enterprises;
  9. Deregulation: abolition of regulations that impede market entry or restrict competition, except for those justified on safety, environmental and consumer protection grounds, and prudential oversight of financial institutions;
  10. Legal security for property rights.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now want to praise the Washington Consensus.

Yes, it would be nice if there had been some focus on the size of government, but all of the advice on trade, regulation, monetary policy, and quality of governance was very sound. And those policies account for 80 percent of a nation’s grade according to Economic Freedom of the World.

Moreover, the planks on fiscal policy were good, even if they didn’t go far enough.

Additionally, it was good to have multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank using their leverage to push for pro-market reforms (unlike today, when international bureaucracies often push a statist agenda).

So what was the effect of – to use the terms of opponents – this emphasis on “neoliberalism” or “market fundamentalism”?

Well, it seems to have made a difference. Here the data from the Fraser Institute on economic freedom for all nations. As you can see, economic liberty around the world increased significantly between 1980-2000, the years when the Washington Consensus was most influential.

But did that period of pro-market reform lead to better outcomes?

The answer is a resounding yes, at least in my humble opinion.

Here’s the most persuasive evidence, showing the dramatic decline in extreme poverty.

Let’s also look at some new research from Professor William Easterly, who worked for many years as an economist at the World Bank.

He notes that many people think the Washington Consensus was a failure. So he took a fresh look at the data.

Many authors…have proclaimed the failure of a package of market-oriented reforms proposed in the 1980s and 1990s — variously known as the Washington Consensus, …globalization, or neoliberalism. This paper seeks to update the stylized facts on policies and growth that influenced this verdict. …The earlier stylized facts featured the zero or low per capita growth in the regions that were the focus of reform: Africa and Latin America. …these stylized facts have not been updated in the literature, as much more data have become available with the passage of time. …This paper will report new stylized facts. First, there has been additional and quite remarkable progress on reform outcomes since the late 1990s — this is a principal finding of this paper. Earlier judgments on the reforms often happened before the reform process was complete and/or had enough post-reform growth data to evaluate reforms. …The second stylized fact is that there is a strong correlation between improvements in policy outcomes and changes in growth outcomes. The third stylized fact is that growth has recovered in Africa and Latin America in the new millennium, and the regression of growth on policy outcomes explains a substantial part of the growth recovery. …This paper will extend the method of analyzing extremely bad and moderately bad policy outcomes to other policies, specifically — in addition to inflation — the black market premium on foreign exchange, overvaluation of the domestic currency, negative real interest rates on bank savings deposits, and abnormally low trade shares to GDP. Updating the data on these outcomes is not trivial and constitutes one of the main contributions of this paper.

And what did Prof. Easterly discover?

It turns out that the prevalence of bad outcomes has declined.

Figure 6 shows a summary measure of share of countries with any bad policy. Any bad policy is defined as having any of the moderate or extreme policy dummies set to one, with a minimum of 4 policy observations available for that country-year. The summary measure shows a downward trend in bad policy outcomes worldwide, in Latin America, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. The sharpest break is around the mid-1990s, somewhat after the formulation of the Washington Consensus and the first negative reactions it received.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure 6.

And he also looks at the prevalence of extremely bad poliicy.

Figure 7 shows a similar graph to Figure 6, but now limited to extremely bad policy outcomes. It shows if any of the extremely bad policy dummies is set to one, for the sample with a minimum of at least two out of five policy outcomes available. The decline in the prevalence of any extreme policy is even more dramatic beginning in the early 1990s, going from surprisingly common (above 35 percent of countries up to the early 1990s) to almost non-existent for the world. The same pattern is even more striking for Africa and for Latin America.

Here’s Figure 7.

Most important, these better outcomes also are associated with stronger growth.

This paper showed these changes in policy outcomes – especially away from extreme policies — were accompanied by growth increases. It documented that the policy reforms can explain the growth increases in the regions most emphasized earlier – Africa and Latin America. We have seen that the old data available through 1998 was indeed consistent with the reform pessimism, partly because of weaker results on growth payoffs associated with reform outcomes and partly because less reform had happened.

Prof. Easterly acknowledges that there are still many issues to investigate and that his research is just one slice at a big pie.

But the bottom line is that we now have some good evidence that the Washington Consensus led to better results. Simply stated, capitalism produces more growth and less poverty. Too bad the IMF and other international bureaucracies have forgotten this lesson.

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