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Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

A week ago, I wrote about the turmoil in Hong Kong and pointed out that a crackdown would be bad for China’s already-faltering economy.

I had a chance to again address the issue yesterday.

What made this interview different is that it included a discussion of what Trump should do.

My expertise is economics rather than diplomacy, but I speculated that public warnings and/or threats by Trump might backfire.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on this issue and they want Trump to be aggressive. Here are some excerpts.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the local government backed by China are escalating. The damage could be global if President Xi Jinping orders a bloody crackdown, and President Trump should be warning the Chinese President not to do it. …The protests began in June when the Legislative Council tried to ram through a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to the mainland. Amid overwhelming public opposition, Ms. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but refused to withdraw it. Police have responded to the protests with hundreds of arrests and increasing brutality. Hong Kong’s cause should be the free world’s… An invasion of Hong Kong would violate China’s treaty with Britain and poison U.S.-Chinese relations.

I agree that the Trump Administration should seek to deter intervention, but I think any warnings – at least at this point – should be conveyed behind the scenes.

In my fantasy world, Trump would strike a deal with China, and agree to drop his misguided trade taxes in exchange for China not messing with Hong Kong.

Sadly, my fantasies rarely become reality.

So I’ll close with a practical point. I mentioned in the interview that the people of Hong Kong are much richer than the people of China. Here’s the evidence, based on the Maddison database, as well as the numbers from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

My takeaway from these numbers, as I suggest in the title, is that China should send economists to Hong Kong rather than troops. They could learn important lessons about the benefits of free markets and limited government.

Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send American economists as well. Indeed, since it gets the top score from Economic Freedom of the World, the entire world can learn from Hong Kong’s spectacular success.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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For libertarians, there aren’t many good role models in the world. There are a few small jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands that are worth highlighting because of strong rule of law and good fiscal policy. There are also a few medium-sized nations that are – by modern standards – very market-oriented, such as Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But Hong Kong generally gets top rankings for economic liberty. Which helps to explain why I’m so worried about a potential crackdown by China.

As I noted in the interview, intervention by Chinese security would not be good news for Hong Kong.

But it also would be bad news for China’s economy. Especially since it already is dealing with the adverse consequences of both internal statism and external protectionism.

Indeed, the only reason I’m not totally pessimistic is that the power elite in China doubtlessly would experience a big loss in personal wealth if there is a crackdown.

That being said, I can’t imagine President Xi will allow China’s implicit control over Hong Kong to diminish. So I’m reluctant to make any prediction.

But I very much hope that Hong Kong will emerge unscathed, in part because I don’t want to lose a very good example of the link between economic liberty and national prosperity.

Marian Tupy, writing for CapX, explains that Hong Kong is a great role model.

In 1950, …compared to the advanced countries of the West, Hong Kong was still a relative backwater. …the average resident of the colony earned 35 per cent and 25 per cent compared to British and American citizens respectively. Today, average income in Hong Kong is 37 per cent and 3 per cent higher than that in the United Kingdom and America. …Unlike some British ex-colonies and the United Kingdom itself, Hong Kong never experimented with socialism. Historically, the government played only a minor role in the economy… The territory kept taxes flat and low… The territory followed a policy of unilateral trade liberalisation, which is to say that the colony allowed other countries to export to Hong Kong tariff-free, regardless of whether other countries reciprocated or not. …In 1755, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith…wrote, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice…” Hong Kong prospered because it followed Smith’s recommendations.

Here’s his chart showing how Hong Kong has surpassed both the United Kingdom and United States in terms of per-capita economic output.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jairaj Devadiga explains a key factor in Hong Kong’s success.

Sir John Cowperthwaite was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961-71 and is widely credited for the prosperity Hong Kong enjoys today. An ardent free-marketeer, Cowperthwaite believed that government should not try to manage the economy. One salient feature of Cowperthwaite’s policies: His administration didn’t collect any economic data during his tenure. Not even gross domestic product was calculated. When the American economist Milton Friedman asked why, Cowperthwaite replied that once the data were made available, officials would invariably use them to make the case for government intervention in the economy. …Without data, busybody bureaucrats had no way of justifying interference in the economy. In Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong, the government did only the bare minimum necessary, such as maintaining law and order… The rest was left to the private sector. …When asked what poor countries should do to emulate Hong Kong’s success, he replied, “They should abolish the office of national statistics.”

Amen.

When you give data to politicians and bureaucrats, they generally find something they don’t like and then can’t resist the temptation to intervene.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the factors that enabled Hong Kong’s prosperity, let’s consider what may happen if there’s a crackdown by China.

Professor Tyler Cowen shares a pessimistic assessment in his Bloomberg column.

Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world. …By 1980, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series was on television, portraying Hong Kong as a free economy experiencing huge gains in living standards. The skyline was impressive, and you could get all the necessary permits to start a business in Hong Kong in just a few days. The territory showed how Friedman’s theories worked in the real world. Hong Kong stood as a symbol of a new age of freer markets and growing globalization. …Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But…[n]ot only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time… Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow. …Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the…legitimacy and durability of their political institutions. …Circa 2019, Hong Kong is a study in the creeping power and increasing sophistication of autocracy. While it is possible there could be a Tiananmen-like massacre in the streets of Hong Kong, it is more likely that its mainland overlords will opt for more subtle ways of choking off Hong Kong’s remaining autonomy and freedoms. …right now, I would bet on the Chinese Communist Party over the protesters.

If Cowen is right, one thing that surely will happen is that money will flee.

And that may already be happening. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Private bankers are being flooded with inquiries from investors in Hong Kong…wealthy investors are setting up ways to move their money out of the former British colony more quickly, bankers and wealth managers said. A major Asian wealth manager said it has received a large flow of new money in Singapore from Hong Kong over recent weeks, requesting not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. One Hong Kong private banker said the majority of the new queries he receives aren’t coming from the super-rich, most of whom already have alternative destinations for their money, but from individuals with assets in the $10 million to $20 million range. …The extradition fight reinforced concerns among Hong Kong investors and democracy advocates alike that the Beijing-backed government is eroding the legal wall separating the local judicial system from the mainland’s. …The recent demonstrations are the latest trigger in a long process of Chinese money flowing to Singapore, London, New York and other centers outside Beijing’s reach. …“Hong Kong has shot itself in the foot,” said Chong, a Malaysian who has permanent residency in both Hong Kong and Singapore. “Can you imagine Singapore allowing this?”

And keep in mind that big money is involved. Here’s a chart that accompanied the analysis.

Looking at these numbers, I want to emphasize again that China also will suffer if a crackdown causes money to flee Hong Kong.

Which is President Xi should resist the urge to intervene.

I’ll close with this visual depiction of Hong Kong’s amazing growth.

Let’s hope Beijing doesn’t try to reverse this progress.

P.S. You’ll notice that I didn’t advocate for democracy, either in this column or in the interview. That’s because I’m more concerned with protecting and promoting liberty. Yes, it’s good to have a democratic form of government. If I understand correctly, there’s also an empirical link between political freedom and economic freedom. But sometimes democracy simply means the ability to take other people’s money, using government as the middleman. That’s why the people of not-very-democratic Hong Kong are much better off than the people of democratic Greece.

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Because they directly measure economic liberty, my favorite global rankings are Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

But I also like the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and the Institute of Management Development’s World Competitiveness Rankings, both of which basically measure the degree to which a nation is hospitable to business activity (which is correlated with economic liberty).

The United States dominated the IMD rankings until 2010, and America managed to reclaim the top spot for 2017. But according to new numbers from IMD’s World Competitiveness Center, Singapore and Hong Kong are now at the top.

I’m also not surprised to see Switzerland ranked highly.

And it’s worth noting that the Netherlands, Ireland, and Denmark are top-10 nations, similar to their scores in the Human Freedom Index.

Here’s some additional information from the press release.

Singapore has ranked as the world’s most competitive economy for the first time since 2010, according to the IMD World Competitiveness Rankings, as the United States slipped from the top spot… Singapore’s rise to the top was driven by its advanced technological infrastructure, the availability of skilled labor, favorable immigration laws, and efficient ways to set up new businesses. Hong Kong SAR held on to second place, helped by a benign tax and business policy environment and access to business finance. …The IMD World Competitiveness Rankings, established in 1989, incorporate 235 indicators from each of the 63 ranked economies. The ranking takes into account a wide range of “hard” statistics such as unemployment, GDP and government spending on health and education, as well as “soft” data from an Executive Opinion Survey covering topics such as social cohesion, globalization and corruption. This information feeds into four categories – economic performance, infrastructure, government efficiency and business efficiency – to give a final score for each country. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for competitiveness, but the best performing countries tend to score well across all four categories. Switzerland climbed to fourth place from fifth, helped by economic growth, the stability of the Swiss franc and high-quality infrastructure. …The United Arab Emirates – ranked 15th as recently as 2016 – entered the top five for the first time. …Venezuela remains anchored to the bottom of the ranking, hit by inflation, poor access to credit and a weak economy. The South American economy ranks the lowest for three out of four of the main criteria groups – economic performance, government efficiency and infrastructure.

Venezuela in last place? I’m shocked, shocked.

There are two specific items from the report I want to highlight.

First, notwithstanding the bleating from Trump and others about a supposed crisis of inadequate spending, notice that the United States is in first place for that category.

Also, notice that the jurisdictions with high scores for government efficiency are all places with (by modern standards) small government.

This is very similar to the “public sector efficiency” scores from the European Central Bank.

The moral of the story is that small government is the way to get competent government. It’s almost as if there’s a recipe that generates good outcomes.

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International development experts often write about a “middle-income trap.”

According to this theory, it’s not that challenging for nations to climb out of poverty, but it’s difficult for them to take the next step and become rich countries.

The theory makes sense to many people because it describes much of what we see in the real world.

We even see the trap at higher levels of income. European nations were catching up with the United States after World War II, but then the convergence process stalled.

But I don’t think there’s actually a “middle-income trap.” Instead, nations don’t enjoy full convergence because they are hamstrung by bad policy.

And Hong Kong and Singapore are the best evidence for my hypothesis. These two jurisdictions have routinely ranked #1 and #2 for economic freedom.

And their solid track record of free markets and small government has paid big dividends. Here a chart, for Our World in Data, which shows how they have fully converged with the United States after starting way behind.

The performance of Hong Kong and Singapore is particularly impressive because the United States historically has been a top-10 nation for economic liberty (notwithstanding all my grousing about bad policy in America, we’ve been fairly good compared to the rest of the world).

So it takes extraordinarily good performance to catch up.

But it can happen.

P.S. By the way, one thing I noticed in the above chart is that Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in the past couple of decades. This could just be a statistical blip, though I wonder if this is a result of the transfer of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control. Yes, China has wisely chosen not to interfere with Hong Kong’s domestic policy, but perhaps investors and entrepreneurs don’t fully trust that this economic autonomy will continue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that comparatively rich nations can de-converge if they adopt bad policy.

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What’s the world’s freest nation?

I’ve suggested that Australia as an option if the United States ever suffers a Greek-style collapse, but my answer wasn’t based solely on that country’s level of freedom.

Another option is to look at Economic Freedom of the World, which is an excellent resource, but it only measures the degree to which a nation allows free markets.

If you want to know the world’s freest nation, the best option is to peruse the Human Freedom IndexFirst released in 2013, it combines economic freedom and personal freedom.

The 2018 version has just been published, and, as you can see, New Zealand is the world’s most-libertarian nation, followed by Switzerland and Hong Kong. The United States is tied with Sweden for #17.

If you scan the top-20 list, you’ll notice that North America, Western Europe, and the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) dominate.

And that also is apparent on this map (darker is better). So maybe “western civilization” isn’t so bad after all.

Here is an explanation of the report’s guiding methodology. Simply stated, it’s a ranking of “negative liberty,” which is basically freedom from government coercion.

The Human Freedom Index casts a wide net in an attempt to capture as broad a set of freedoms as could be clearly identified and measured. …Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint. …Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others. Isaiah Berlin best elucidated this notion of freedom, commonly known as negative liberty. In the simplest terms, negative liberty means noninterference by others. …This index is thus an attempt to measure the extent to which the negative rights of individuals are respected in the countries observed. By negative rights, we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise.

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between personal freedom and economic freedom.

Though it’s not a perfect correlation. The Index highlights some of the exceptions.

Some countries ranked consistently high in the human freedom subindexes, including Switzerland and New Zealand, which ranked in the top 10 in both personal and economic freedom. By contrast, some countries that ranked high on personal freedom rank significantly lower in economic freedom. For example, Sweden ranked 3rd in personal freedom but 43rd in economic freedom; Slovenia ranked 23rd in personal freedom but 71st in economic freedom; and Argentina ranked in 42nd place in personal freedom but 160th in economic freedom. Similarly, some countries that ranked high on economic freedom found themselves significantly lower in personal freedom. For example, Singapore ranked in 2nd place in economic freedom while ranking 62nd in personal freedom; the United Arab Emirates ranked 37th in economic freedom but 149th in personal freedom; and Qatar ranked 38th in economic freedom but 134th in personal freedom.

This raises an interesting question. If you had to move, and assuming you couldn’t move to a nation that offered both types of freedom, would you prefer a place like Sweden or a place like Singapore?

As an economist, my bias would be to choose Singapore.

But if you look at the nations in the top-10 for personal freedom, they’re all great place to live (and they tend to be very market-oriented other than their big welfare states). So I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for instead choosing Sweden.

P.S. There are some very attractive micro-states that were not including in the Human Freedom Index, presumably because of inadequate data. I suspect places such as Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands would all get very high scores if they were included.

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Since I’ve been writing a column every day since 2010, you can imagine that there are some days where that’s a challenge.

But not today. The Fraser Institute has released a new edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is like a bible for policy wonks. So just like last year, and the year before, and the year before, and so on (you may sense a pattern), I want to share the findings.

First, here’s what EFW measures.

The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and clearly defined and enforced property rights. …The EFW measure might be thought of as a measure of the degree to which scarce resources are allocated by personal choices coordinated by markets rather than centralized planning directed by the political process. It might also be thought of as an effort to identify how closely the institutions and policies of a country correspond with the ideal of a limited government, where the government protects property rights and arranges for the provision of a limited set of “public goods” such as national defense and access to money of sound value, but little beyond these core functions.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong is at the top of the rankings, followed closely by Singapore. Those jurisdictions have been #1 and #2 in the rankings every year this century.

The rest of the top 5 is the same as last year, featuring New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland.

The good news for Americans is that we’re back in the top 10, ranking #6.

Here’s what the report says about the United States.

…the United States returned to the top 10 in 2016 after an absence of several years. During the 2009–2016 term of President Obama, the US score initially continued to decline as it had under President Bush. From 2013 to 2016, however, the US rating increased from 7.74 to 8.03. This is still well below the high-water mark of 8.62 in 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.

It’s important to understand that the improvement in the U.S. score has nothing to do with Trump. The EFW ranking is based on America’s economic policies as of 2016 (there’s always a lag in getting hard data).

President Trump’s policies may increase America’s score (think taxes and regulation) or they may decrease America’s score (think trade and spending). But we won’t know for sure until we see future editions.

Here’s what’s happened to economic liberty in America between 1970 and 2016.

As you can see from the historical data, the U.S. enjoyed progress through the Reagan and Clinton years, followed by decline during the Bush years and early Obama years. But we’ve trending in the right direction since 2013.

Let’s look at other nations that get decent scores.

Here are the other nations that are in the top quartile.

Canada and Australia were tied for #10, so the rest of the rankings start with the under-appreciated success story of Taiwan at #12.

All the Baltic nations do well, especially Estonia and Lithuania. Chile also remains highly ranked, as is the supposedly socialist nation of Denmark.

Luxembourg, which was ranked #1 as recently as 1985, is now #25.

I also noticed that Rwanda (#40) has eased past Botswana (#44) to become the highest-ranked nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By the way, I’m not going to bother showing the bottom nations, but nobody should be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place.

Though that may simply be because there’s isn’t adequate data to include North Korea and Cuba.

Let’s close by including a chart that hopefully will show why economic liberty is important.

Simply stated, people enjoy much higher living standards in nations with free markets and small government. Conversely, people living under statist regimes suffer from poverty and deprivation.

The bottom line is that Economic Freedom of the World shows the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Sadly, very few nations follow the instructions because economic liberty is not in the interests of politicians.

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